By Juris Ecksteins
Translated by Andrew Andersen
In the light of that February day, just an instant before Maria Karlovna was killed by a bullet in the back of her head, she saw a huge black trench, half filled with human corpses, some men and women still standing by her side at the edge of the trench, or just falling into it to cover the bodies already inside. And now it was her turn to join those in the trench... She might have thought that she was standing on the proscenium the orchestra pit blackening before her and the stage behind. It was her enter now. It was impossible to play it, but she had already been finally confirmed for that role – the role of a Latvian woman that was to be shot in the light of that February day.
On that day sixty-five years ago 229 Latvians were shot at the firing range of NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) in Butova on February 3, 1938. Actually, many Latvians were shot in big groups also on other days of that year. For example, at least 74 Latvian last names can be found in the lists of the executed in Butova on February 28 of the same year.
"Butova Firing Ground" by Egil Veidemanis
Today we do not know exactly how many humans are buried in the trenches of Butova. According to some estimations that number can exceed seventy thousand. As per the annually updated reports of “List of Martyrs of Butova Firing Ground”, 20,765 representatives of 70 various nations have been annihilated by NKVD’ butchers, or chekists, between August 7, 1937 and October 19, 1938 at that gloomy place in the vicinity of Moscow. Basing on the research made by the authors of the above periodical, out of those 21 000 martyrs 1,142 were murdered just for being Latvians. Latvian was one of every six women put to death by the NKVD troopers in Butova. Additionally, within the same period, more than 300 Latvians were shot at other execution sites of Stalin’s Moscow. At the same time, according to the records of 1933, the number of Latvians then living in Moscow did not exceed half-percent of the total population of the Soviet capital.
Just the fact that the whole troupe of Latvian Skatuve theatre of Moscow was shot in Butova on that day, is enough to label the 3d day on February of the year 1938 as “the Latvians’ day” in the bloody history of Stalin’s terror, and that is the capacity in which that day will remain in history.
The Skatuve theatre was created in 1919 by Osvalds Glaznieks, a student and associate of the legendary Moscow actor and art director Yevgeniy Vachtangov. It was one of the three Latvian theatres that existed in the former USSR in the 20-s and 30-s of the XX century as well as one of the three ethnic theatres of Moscow that existed during the same period. Skatuve (in Latvian the name of the theatre means “the stage”) was quite successful with the Moscow audience. As for the Latvian community of Moscow, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that it just admired the actors of the theatre at Strastnoy Boulevard 6.
The Latvian community of Moscow that had existed for more than 150 years, increased in numbers quite significantly after a few waves of migration in 1915-1916. During the Great War, the government of Russia relocated a number of industrial enterprises from Riga and other industrial Baltic cities to central Russia together with their personnel, and that is how thousands of Latvians became residents of Moscow, Nizhniy Novgorod, Tver, Smolensk and other civic centers of Russia.
Some of those migrants returned to Latvia in the early 20-s. However, quite a few Latvians stayed after having found jobs or getting married in Russia, and plenty of those, especially the artists, writers, architects and actors, stayed in Moscow attracted by the wealth and cultural traditions of the city that claimed to be the capital of vanguard and cosmopolitism. Skatuve whose troupe did not exceed a dozen of members became quite a professional theatre by the beginning of the 30s. The theatre could boast its own studio where the young students of Glaznieks studied scenic arts in the morning before playing in performances later in the evening. The repertoire of the theatre included 88 plays among which the most significant was the play In the Fire by classical Latvian dramatist Rūdolfs Blaumanis. Although Latvian plays were forming the backbone of Skatuve it also offered some plays in Russian. That allowed Glaznieks to invite actors and actresses from other Moscow theaters, such as, for example, Anna Oroczko from Vakhtangov Theatre. By the middle of the 30s, Skatuve was able to "win" the star of European cinema Maria Leiko.