Mati sarkanā vējā – autobiographical account of life in occupied Latvia

Review of book by Alfrēds Stinkuls, Mati sarkanā vējā (Hair blowing in the red wind), Lauska, 2020

Thirty years have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but, in certain ways, it seems like a lifetime ago. It is difficult to imagine a world that included things like the Berlin Wall, the Baltic countries under occupation, and the Iron Curtain. However, thirty years in the overall course of history is a very brief period, and things that seemed to be in the rear-view mirror may very well unexpectedly appear again. This is especially true today, when what was recently thought to be unthinkable has become all too real.

That is why Alfrēds Stinkuls’ autobiography, entitled Mati sarkanā vējā, about growing up and living in occupied Latvia is particularly timely. Released in 2020, the book covers his life until his emigration westwards from Soviet occupied Latvia in 1986 and provides a revealing view of what everyday life was like in the 1970s and 80s in Latvia, what ordinary people had to endure and suffer through.

What makes Stinkuls’ story particularly compelling is Stinkuls is a self-described ‘hippie’. He had long hair and a beard, which was highly unusual and frowned upon in the Soviet Union, which had little tolerance for anything that resembled dissent and/or free thinking. This got Stinkuls a lot of unwanted attention through the years, and the book is also a story of perseverance against the soul crushing ideology of the authoritarian government. The book also includes many pictures and fascinating document facsimiles.

Stinkuls also kept meticulous notes on the events in his life (either that or he has an exceptional memory), as the book not only includes many detailed episodes from his life but seems to include notes on every concert he ever went to. Not just concerts in Latvia, but attending concerts in Leningrad, such B. B. King in in 1986 (the book also includes a facsimile of a souvenir postcard from the concert, where Stinkuls wrote down the names of all the musicians in King’s band), as well as the North Texas University Jazz Lab Band.

Though the book covers his run-ins with the Soviet authorities (Stinkuls spent time not only in jail on trumped up charges of ‘hooliganism’, but also in a psychiatric institution, where he ended up after the army commission determined him unfit to join the Soviet army), it also covers the absurd, Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the era. One almost comical incident is when Stinkuls’ Shure record player starts picking up a Soviet propaganda broadcast (a jamming signal), and the author goes to the nearby radio station to complain that he could not listen to records. To their credit, the radio technicians investigated why this was happening and suggested Stinkuls put the record player in an iron box (which helped, but only slightly).

More serious was the discovery of a listening device in his apartment – very well hidden in the ceiling with wiring going through the balcony. The Soviet authorities, of course, discover that their active device has been tampered with, and then approach Stinkuls. However, in an absurd twist to the story, the authorities cannot say that it was a listening device (since they were prohibited), so they accuse Stinkuls of damaging a ‘fire alarm wire’. Thus begins one of the more terrifying sections of the book, as Stinkuls and his girlfriend Inguna Galviņa are routinely harassed and intimidated.

Though many of the episodes described in the book give a bleak impression of life in Latvia, there are still many positive and hopeful moments in the book, some even humorous. Stinkuls and many of his friends found sanctuary in the ‘Mežuplejas’ property (located in the central Latvian region of Vidzeme, near the village of Skujene). Many of the events of the book take place on this property, and it becomes a regular gathering place for Stinkuls and like-minded individuals for the next decade and a half to enjoy a bit of freedom, away from the prying eyes of the Soviet authorities.

In the 1980s, it becomes clear to Stinkuls and Galviņa that the situation has become hopeless and untenable, and they both choose to depart Soviet Latvia in one of the few ways possible, to wed a foreigner in a (presumably fictitious? The author does not clearly specify) marriage and emigrate. Inguna is the first to go, marrying a relative of Stinkuls’, and then Stinkuls himself marries an exiled Latvian woman. The Soviet bureaucracy follows him to the very end, when he is denied departure from his original embarkation point of Tallinn, and he then journeys to Leningrad where he is finally allowed to board a train to Helsinki (along with his 11 bags).

Though the story ends here, the reader is left wanting to know more about what happened to Stinkuls after he left Latvia. Did he ever return? How did he make it to California (where he currently lives)? What happened to Mežuplejas? Perhaps the author will continue the story someday.

Mati sarkanā vējā tells the occasionally ordinary, occasionally extraordinary story of Alfrēds Stinkuls and the experience of living in Soviet Latvia as a long haired, bearded hippie. Full of extensively detailed anecdotes and stories, as well as many pictures, Stinkuls’ memoir provides a stark reminder of an era that, while many decades in the past, still reverberates today. Stinkuls’ stories of being a brave, free-thinking individual in an oppressive system are both inspirational and a cautionary tale – that the past is never truly in the past.

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

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