After cycling around the globe and defying the Soviet authorities for decades, Ingvars Leitis still shuns society’s rules, as Philip Birzulis reports.
For most people, a KGB interrogation at age 13 would be the lesson of a lifetime. So it was for Ingvars Leitis, only rather than instilling fear, it taught him valuable survival skills.
His crime at that tender age was dropping anti-Soviet leaflets in neighbors’ letterboxes in the small Latvian town where he lived. The spooks let the young agitator off lightly but, having listened to Voice of America since he was seven, the boy’s head was already polluted with subversive ideas.
“I really enjoy making trouble,” he said with a grin during a recent interview in Riga.
Go east, young man
Some years later he qualified as a documentary film maker and acquired a history degree via correspondence, which enabled him to avoid the party membership that was usually forced on those engaged in the politically-charged study of the past. He earned his keep as a musician, which paid badly but allowed a certain freedom of movement in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.
He avoided military service by running away to Russia for a year before returning to Latvia and “sorting things out.”
All these traits and skills – historian, film maker, traveler, rebel – were combined in a massive venture undertaken with photographer Uldis Briedis in 1975. Leitis said that reading a samizdat edition of Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” drove him to visit the places where Latvians had suffered most from Stalin’s genocide, so they set off on push bikes – 13,000 kilometers from Riga to Vladivostok.
He scoffed at a question about the physical rigors of the trip.
“Once started it had to be seen through to the finish, whether we lived or died,” he said.
What they actually found was far more surprising than the known but hushed-up labor camps, and probably comes as close to discovering a lost world as is possible in the late 20th century.
When they cycled into the village of Lejas Bulana in the Krasnoyarsk Region, the inhabitants’ “jaws dropped” when told their visitors were Latvians.
Lejas Bulana was settled by freed Latvian convicts in the 1840s but, apart from a few missionary priests in the 1920s, had had virtually no contact with the homeland since Czarist times. Leitis was stunned to discover a living community in the middle of Siberia whose people spoke 19th century Latvian and lived close to the way their farming ancestors had.
“It was like entering a time machine,” he said. “I gradually moved away from studying history to work connected with national questions.”
Life there was not too bad, said Leitis, since it was situated in a fertile micro-climate that even let them grow watermelons; indeed, he felt at the time that its people had a better diet than they would have in a Latvia plagued by Socialist shortages. Its inhabitants were friendly if a little too fond of vodka.
In an ideologically acceptable form, the journey was written up by some Soviet newspapers but was considered too hot for audiences in Latvia – 40,000 copies of the magazine Zvaigzne, which had supported the trip, were pulped, while a film of the Lejas Bulana encounter was pulled just 10 minutes before its first screening.
Nevertheless, over the next three years he made repeated trips back to collect material and even managed to bring six Siberian Latvians to Riga, three of whom stayed for good. But the Cheka had finally had enough. The major cause of their discomfort were questions he was asking in Lejas Bulana, and several other villages he discovered, about survivors of the 1937 mass purges which decimated the Latvian communities in Russia.
“They said, ‘if you go there one more time you won’t be coming back’,” he laughed.
He did return by car again in 1981 but said it took just three hours for somebody to inform on him. He faced the secret police back in Latvia as an old pro. Leitis said that he had armed himself with knowledge of the Soviet legal system since his first teenage run-in and had also learned how to manipulate antipathies between the KGB in Russia and Latvia.
The free world
For the next few years he played music until the late ’80s national awakening brought everything into the open. In typical style, he joined a few independence organizations early on while they were “still revolutionary” but refused to stick around when they got formal and structured.
His life’s work was capped off, however. In 1989, he finally released a film with the materials collected from Lejas Bulana, while his discoveries opened the way for anthropologists, ethnographers, linguists, journalists, teachers, and others from Latvia to visit the Siberian villages.
In 1995, he took part in a more somber expedition in which Latvians erected crosses at the sights of the worst Stalinist labor camps in Russia.
For such a restless man, the lifting of travel restrictions proved hard to resist, and in 1990 he went to America. As ever, this was no tourist trip but an odyssey of body and soul.
“It was hard for a Soviet person to go there with $40 in my pocket and with nobody to help me, having to do it all myself, but eventually I got to know the country,” he said.
He traveled through 30 states on Greyhound buses and then in 1992 cycled from Seattle to New York. Then in 1994, he biked from the Atlantic coast of France to Riga, becoming the first Latvian to circumnavigate the globe on two wheels. In the final kilometers of this last journey, he was joined by Briedis again, and the pair made a triumphant entry into Riga. Leitis said that, compared with Siberia, the trip around the rest of the world was “nothing, just a pleasure cruise.”
The advent of independence has in some ways made things harder for him, since there is now no clear enemy to fight. He is ambivalent about modern day Latvia, and America had a big impact on his thinking.
“My national twinge subsided after America; it really internationalizes a person. I’m stuck in a crappy country between East and West, but I couldn’t live anywhere except for Latvia. America is so big it just swallows you up, I would have to become an American if I lived there.”
He keeps up his historical interests via the Internet and has set up an extensive web site on Soviet-era atrocities called “Crimes against humanity - Latvia site” (vip.latnet.lv/LPRA).
Another interest is the pro-life movement which he has also put on-line (www.iclub.lv/life). This is another strange by-product of an unusual life, since he has fathered six children with several different women. He doesn’t believe in birth control and angrily denounced the five abortions he knows have been committed against his offspring.
“I really have 11 children but five of them have been murdered,” said Leitis.
He is pessimistic about the future of the Latvian communities in Siberia since, like elsewhere in the world, their natural birth rates started dropping in the ’60s and ’70s. He wants to fight abortion using radical, “Greenpeace” methods and expressed admiration for a publicity campaign in one American state that involves huge placards and a mock graveyard.
Leitis said he has little need for money, and this is proven by his tiny flat in a broken down building in the old working class district of Riga. The extremely modest surroundings are off-set a little by the computer equipment he got from various cultural assistance organizations.
He claimed that he kept body and soul together in America and Europe on just a few dollars a day, and is currently looking for help to buy an airline ticket so that he can circumnavigate the southern hemisphere of the planet as well via South Africa, Argentina, Chile and Australia.
He may be helped by an informal organization he has set up called The Union of Free Latvian Vagabonds Worldwide (www.reocities.com/Baja/7444). It has about 15 members who have all traveled off the beaten track, including an expert on Tibet, a guy who spent 18 months hitchhiking around Russia, and a Latvian who lives on a houseboat on the Seine in Paris.
Does he agree that he is a little odd?
“Yes, I am strange, but when I was a musician it was always considered banal to repeat what somebody else had already done,” he said.
There seems little danger of this man succumbing to conformity any time soon.
© The Baltic Times, 1998
© LURSOFT IT, 1998