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Remembering the Players Who Perished

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It was a tale of family loss that turned to tragedy. It began when Maria Laiko journeyed from her native Riga to Tbilisi in 1936 to mourn the death of her daughter Nora, and collect her newly-motherless granddaughter. But instead of returning to her native Latvia with her granddaughter, the writer and successful stage and screen actress made a fateful decision to accept work at the Skatuve Latvian Theatrical Company in Moscow.

Instead of marking a comfortable final act to a 30-year career, Laiko was soon caught up in the violent whirlwind of Stalin's purges. With 30 of her colleagues at Skatuve, she was summarily executed as a spy, a Nazi and a counterrevolutionary within just two years.

Born the daughter of worker parents in 1887 in Riga, Laiko studied drama in Vienna. From there, she moved to Berlin, where her career in both theater and silent movies blossomed.

Although records about this period in Laiko's life are scarce, it is known that she gave birth to a daughter, Nora, sometime after her move to Berlin. In 1930, Laiko's daughter fell in love with a Georgian officer of Russia's diplomatic mission to Germany and was married. Within a few years, her husband was posted back to Tbilisi, where the couple settled to start a family.

But disaster struck when Nora died giving birth to the couple's first child shortly after moving to Tbilisi in 1934. The child lived with her father, who named her after her late mother, for the first two years of her life. In 1936, it was decided that she should be raised by her grandmother in Riga.

But during Laiko and little Nora's journey to Latvia from the Caucasus, Laiko decided to stop in Moscow for a few weeks. There, keen to make friends with members of the city's Latvian diaspora, she came across Skatuve, an all-Latvian theatrical group based in Moscow. Laiko was asked to join the company as its lead actress.

By the mid-1930s, Latvians were a well-established community in Moscow. Even as early as 1926, there were already more than 150,000 Latvians living in the Soviet Union, with more than 90 percent of them in Russia, mostly in Moscow.

Many of these Latvians had arrived in Russia as skilled migrant laborers looking for work in the turbulent days after the World War I, when demand for labor was strong in Russia. According to Vivuds Strauss, chairman of the Historical Association of Latvians in Russia, this was because factories were being closed all over the Baltics and relocated to Russia. Remaining a tightly knit group, the Latvian immigrant community flourished in Russia, managing to retain its cultural traditions while successfully integrating itself into Moscow society.

Skatuve -- which means "stage" in Latvian -- was established in 1919 as an amateur drama company and school with just 18 members. In the company's 18-year history, more than 80 actors graduated from its school before it closed its doors with murderous finality at the end of 1937.

During its short lifetime, Skatuve quickly earned a reputation for producing quality theater, even winning critical acclaim in 1930 amid the pomp and ceremony of the Soviet Union's Festival of People's Theater.

"It was a great event for theater in Russia," said Strauss, who has undertaken substantial research into the fate of Latvians during the purges. "Of 18 participating theater groups, Skatuve was the only non-professional group to perform. Skatuve won third place in the competition. It was an exceptional achievement."

From there, the company went from strength to strength as its impending doom loomed quietly. In 1932, Skatuve turned professional and began operating out of the Moscow Latvian Club at 6 Strastnoi Bulvar. During that year, the company grew to 24 members.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary in 1935, Skatuve won a clutch of awards and recognition from the Soviet government. Three of its actors were honored by the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic for their contributions to the arts, while its lead actor and director, Osvalds Glaznieks, received similar accolades from the Soviet Education Ministry.

Skatuve's members also worked within the Soviet film industry, with one -- playwright and committed Bolshevik Vsevolod Vishnevsky -- penning the script to the highly-acclaimed "We Are From Kronstadt" (1936).

Among Skatuve's other credits include being awarded State Theater of the Soviet Union status in 1936, which meant Skatuve became a government-sponsored and approved organization, a healthy mark of official recognition that might have appeared to ensure its place in the good graces of the authorities.

But such credentials were not enough to save Skatuve from the maelstrom of Stalin's paranoia that engulfed Russia in the late 1930s, when official attitude toward Latvians changed dramatically.

"The country was in massive upheaval and the terror befell everyone with an ethnic background," Strauss said. "Stalin wanted to reinforce the strength of the state, so citizens from other countries were accused of being terrorists, spies and fascists, and forced to admit guilt on pain of death -- and then killed anyway."

The ax fell swiftly on Skatuve: From that first much-feared knock on the door to the execution of the company's final member, relatively little time elapsed. In November, 1937, Stalin signed an order to repress the Latvian diaspora in Russia and the well-oiled machinery of terror quickly took action. That same month, Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, signed arrest orders for every member of Skatuve: 32 people, including 22 actors and actresses, five stage hands, two directors, one stage director, one general director and a secretary.

The arrests came in two waves: The men were first. The company's final chilling performance -- on Dec. 8, 1937 -- was staged with a cast of only three actresses. The actors had already vanished into the shadow world run by Stalin's secret police.

Laiko and her female colleagues were taken a few days later. The judicial process by this point had been reduced to little more than simple rubber stamping, with harsh sentences passed quickly with little or no chance for the accused to prove his or her innocence.

On Jan. 24, 1938, Laiko was convicted of being a counter-revolutionary, a nationalist and a member of a Nazi grouping. She and most of the remaining members of the company were sent to the newly opened Butovo concentration camp outside Moscow and shot along with hundreds of other prisoners on Feb. 3, 1938.

That winter day was the bloodiest day of the period for Latvians in Russia: The 229 Latvians shot at Butovo on Feb. 3 represented a record for Latvians killed in a single day during Stalin's purges, a fact documented by KGB files made public for a brief period in the early 1990s, Strauss said.

Today, little evidence remains of Skatuve or its members who perished that day. At Butovo, there is no memorial to the Latvians killed, although a plaque to the 20,000 other people from more than 70 countries estimated to have died there during the site's 14 months of operation does stand at the site.

Last week, the Moscow Association of Latvian Culture was informed that its request to erect a plaque to commemorate Skatuve's members at the company's former Strastnoi Bulvar address had been turned down by city authorities.

After the repression of Skatuve's members, the building was repossessed by the Soviet government. For several decades, until the late 1980s, it housed government offices. Repeated requests by the Latvian community to return the building to the Latvian club, its owner before the purges, were also denied by the city government. At one point, humorist Mikhail Zvonetsky made a bid to turn the building into a theater, but was turned down. Today, the building is being restored, and is rumored to be destined for commercial office space.

As for Laiko, she was rehabilitated by the Soviet Union on May 12, 1958. But little memory of her remains in the city she chose to make her home so many decades ago.

It is not known what became of Laiko's granddaughter.

Juris Eckstein contributed to this story.

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