Above: Jānis Jahimovičs’ Popular Front of Latvia identification card nr. 34, c. 1990
During the early years of Soviet occupation Latvia had tens of thousands of its citizens killed, arrested, deported, imprisoned, and otherwise repressed for political dissent, opposition, or, more commonly, for belonging to certain social, economic, and professional categories. After Stalin’s death, as most of the real or perceived enemies of the Soviet state were eliminated, mass repression lessened, but a new form of persecution and abuse was introduced: confinement and “treatment” of dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. Jānis Jahimovičs, an educator and collective farm chairman, was such a person; his papers document the harsh realities of his life and struggle for truth and justice under a totalitarian communist regime.
He was born in 1931, near Daugavpils, as Jan Jachimowicz, the tenth child of a Polish forester’s family. The population of this part of southeastern Latvia was made up of a complicated mosaic of Latvian, Polish, Russian, Belarusian, and Jewish communities, each with its own schools as well as religious and cultural institutions. Jan’s world changed drastically when the Soviets occupied the country in 1940, a consequence of the Soviet-Nazi pact partitioning East Central Europe. His Polish school was closed and, as he noted in his autobiography, “if you wanted to study, you had to change your nationality,” and so he did. His remaining education was in Latvian and Russian, his name changed to Ivan Iakhimovich or Jānis Jahimovičs, and Russian became his first language. The family survived the war relatively intact, save for two older brothers, one drafted into the Red Army and killed near Moscow in 1941, and another, mobilized into the Waffen-SS Latvian Legion, whose fate remains unknown.
Thanks to the years of communist indoctrination in government schools Jahimovičs became a politically active true believer in his younger days. During 1951−56 he studied in the historical-philological faculty of the Soviet university in Riga. Soon after, he became a teacher of Russian language and literature and a local school inspector. He joined the Communist Party in 1961. A serious Communist, he tried to work in accord with his convictions in the areas of economics, culture, and “socialist freedom.” The authorities, appreciating his ideological commitment and administrative skills, appointed him chairman of the model collective farm “Jaunā gvarde” (Young Guard). During his years directing the farm Jahimovičs continued to study the classics of Marxism-Leninism, which gradually led him to the realization that the ideals professed by the writers were a far cry from the Soviet reality.
The crucial year in Jānis Jahimovičs’s intellectual development was 1968, the year of the Prague Spring. Inspired by Czechoslovak Communists led by Alexander Dubček and their slogan of “socialism with a human face,” Jahimovičs wrote in January 1968 to Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologue of the Soviet party, condemning the trials of Soviet dissidents as “a great harm. . . to our party and the cause of communism. . .” Two months later he was expelled from the Communist Party; in May he was dismissed as chairman of the collective farm. Jahimovičs grew close to the fraction of human rights activists who were Communists or former Communists whose most prominent member was former Soviet general Pyotr Grigorenko who aimed at the “restoration. . .of Leninist norms of party life.” In July 1968 the group signed an open letter in support of the Czechoslovak reform movement of Alexander Dubček. A few months later, after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslvakia, Jahimovičs and Grigorenko issued an address “To the Citizens of the Soviet Union” that was critical of the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country. This was the final straw for the authorities.
On 24 March 1969, Jahimovičs was arrested and subjected to an “expert judicial-psychiatric evaluation” in Riga and in Moscow, the results of which called for compulsory “treatment.” He became one of the first Soviet dissidents subjected to such measures of “social defense.” His wife, a schoolteacher, was banned from working with children. While in a Riga psychiatric hospital, where he spent more than two years, he became friends with Iļja Ripss (now Eliyahu Rips, a prominent Israeli mathematician and Bible code authority) who was incarcerated for attempted self-immolation in protest over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
After his release in 1971, Jahimovičs was banned from Riga, so he returned to his hometown of Daugavpils. Effectively silenced and isolated, he kept his views to himself, working for many years as a nurseryman in the municipal parks department. He returned to political prominence in the late1980s, during Gorbachev’s perestroika, as a passionate supporter of the Latvian National Front (Latvijas Tautas fronte) and independence. He ran for public office but lacked the necessary single-mindedness and political ruthlessness to get elected. After retiring, Jahimovičs devoted his time to social work among the unemployed of Daugavpils. That brave and honest citizen of free Latvia died in his hometown on August 5, 2014.
The Jahimovičs Papers include personal documents, photographs, diaries, memoirs, poetry, a notebook with materials on the poet and singer Vladimir Vysotskii, legal documents, and numerous samizdat materials. As a source on Latvia in the years of Soviet occupation, it complements the documentation in the Mavriks Vulfsons Papers, the Boris Ravdin Collection (Ravdin was a friend of Jahimovičs), and the recently received selected digitized records of the Latvian SSSR KGB, which will be fully processed and made available to researchers before the end of 2016.
Maciej Siekierski siekierski [at] stanford.edu