On November 18, Latvians will fly their maroon and white flag with pride to celebrate Independence Day. Now, meet a man who dared to raise the banner during the Soviet occupation, epitomising his people’s unbreakable spirit.

 

Never say die

Subjected to brutal military occupation, terrorised by ruthless secret police and assailed by propaganda and censorship, making a stand against the communist dictatorship imposed on Latvia after the Second World War might have seemed foolhardy or suicidal. But even in the bleakest times, courageous Latvians risked everything to speak their minds.

In the post-war years, Latvian Forest Brothers waged a protracted guerrilla war against the regime. School pupils formed resistance cells which spread patriotic flyers. And despite rules prohibiting merely wearing clothes matching the national colours, flags of the pre-war republic appeared mysteriously atop pine trees and country church steeples.

On a winter’s night in 1963, 23-year-old student Bruno Javoišs took such defiance to a higher level, climbing a 90-metre-tall radio mast in the centre of Riga to unfurl a huge flag. Although he spent years in the gulag for this action, he has no regrets.

Latvian freedom fighter Bruno Javoiss

Photo of Bruno Javoišs from his KGB file. Photo courtesy of Bruno Javoišs

“Someone had to do it,” he says. “The regime judged me guilty, but in the eyes of my people and my country I did the right thing.”

 

Scaling new heights

Bruno was born in Riga in 1941, and several early experiences made him a rebel. He spent part of his childhood in rural Lithuania and remembers watching carts taking people away during the mass deportations of March 1949.

“It was a terrible sight, and your generation is lucky not to have experienced it,” he says.

Then he moved back to Riga, and as the poorest kid at school, he got lots of practice fighting bullies. He admits he became a bit of a loner.

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a bitterly oppressive time, Bruno recalls. Due to a huge influx of immigrants from other parts of the USSR, Latvians found they had to speak Russian in more and more spheres of life, while the newcomers openly showed contempt for the local culture. An attempt by Latvian “national communists” to stop Russification from within the system was crushed by Moscow in 1959.

Bruno and many other Latvians felt their nation was under mortal threat. He got hold of forbidden books from his grandmother and learned about the independent state crushed by the Red Army in 1940. In 1963, as a student of aeronautical engineering, he plotted acts of resistance with some friends. But realising they weren’t ready to go beyond talking, he decided to strike on his own.

He planned to scale a radio mast near the central railway station, one of Riga’s tallest structures at that time. He would do it on the evening of 5 December Soviet Constitution Day and replace the despised flag of the Latvian SSR with his own, which he stitched at home from store-bought fabric. Measuring 3 x 5 metres, it would draw the attention of friend and foe alike.

Latvian freedom fighter Bruno Javoiss

The Riga radio tower. Photo courtesy of Bruno Javoišs

Knowing the job would be no picnic, Bruno trained hard, walking along balcony railings to overcome his fear of heights. Then on the fateful night, he jumped over a chain fence around the object and began climbing the tower. He discovered there were no steps - the Soviet banner must have been emplaced by a professional mountain climber. Undeterred, he clambered up the spars, persisting even as it began to rain and the metal fittings iced over. And suddenly, the symbol of independent Latvia fluttered over its capital city once more.

Unfortunately, the mast was right near the central police station. A reception committee was there to greet him when he got down. He was beaten up and interrogated, spent eight months in Riga’s KGB headquarters (the notorious “Corner House), then was tried and sentenced to seven years in the gulag.

Know one knows exactly how long Bruno’s flag stayed up, but eyewitnesses clearly saw it on the tower the next day. Rumour has it that the mountain climber was too drunk to go up and take it down and that a criminal was offered a reprieve of his death sentence if he did it. Bruno thinks they may have fired incendiary bullets to destroy the flag, as it was never presented as physical evidence at his trial. The radio mast itself was also dismantled later.

The brutality of the labour camp in Mordovia was softened by friendships with fellow prisoners. Bruno grew particularly close to Latvian poet Voldemārs Zariņš, secretly writing down verses and smuggling volumes of his poems out when he was released.

There were spirited debates amongst the political prisoners, and Bruno insists that he not be referred to as a “dissident.” That term describes Russian intellectuals who wanted to reform communism, he explains, whereas he and the other Balts wanted independence and nothing else.

“Whether it was the czar, the Nazis, the Soviets or “democratic” Russia, I would have climbed that tower,” he says. “I was fighting against the occupation of my country, not to change the regime.”

 

The power of forgiveness

After returning to Latvia in 1970, he had a lot of trouble finding work, since his record made him a pariah. He finally got a job as a driver, then sat the entrance exams for the State Art Academy. But despite excellent marks, he was rejected. A kindly administrator took him aside and whispered that a KGB note in his file barred him from higher education for life. She advised him to try and enter Tartu University. To his surprise, he was accepted as an external student of art history. Perhaps the Estonian authorities thought the communist ideology in the curriculum would set him right, Bruno speculates.

He married an Estonia girl and got a job in an arts and crafts workshop enamelling badges. In the 1980s he became a history teacher, and today lives in retirement in Tartu. But he maintains close ties with his homeland, regularly visiting family across the border and keenly following current events. And he has co-authored a book about the anti-Soviet resistance in Latvia.

In Bruno’s lounge room, the pride of place is held by a painting showing Christ against a war-ravaged landscape. It was given to him in the 1970s by his artist friend Kārlis Baltgailis. Asked about his religious views, Bruno says he believes “in a higher power which sorts out things on Earth and people’s destinies.”

Latvian freedom fighter Bruno Javoiss

Photo by Philip Birzulis

The painting’s message of love transcending evil seems to be an important part of his outlook.

Since the restoration of independence in 1991, Estonians and Latvians have come to terms with the Soviet-era immigrants and their children. Bruno believes that although issues of historical responsibility cannot be ducked, treating one another as human beings is paramount.

“I believe that integration is happening in both Latvia and Estonia,” he says. “They are learning Latvian and sending their children to Latvian schools which is very good – they are enriching our nation.”

He also thinks the perception of the Estonian hare outrunning the other Baltic tortoises is a myth. All three countries have similar problems today and a bright future to look forward to.

“Globalisation is inevitable,” he says. “But Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania must go into it with our heads held high – with our own languages and cultures and making our contribution.”

At his home, he flies the flag of each Baltic country on its respective independence day. And so, this 18 November, Bruno Javoišs will once again raise a maroon and white ensign, but thankfully with much less drama than 57 years ago.

Philip Birzulis, 17.11.2020