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Around the Foothills

'We're going to test glasnost tonight.'

October 20, 1988|DOUG SMITH

On an out-of-the-way stretch of Riverside Drive, across from the Colony Theatre and not far from the four-lane concourse that rises to Dodger Stadium, the Los Angeles Latvian community has built a church and a large community center on excess highway land.

Latvians converge there on Sundays to worship, mix and renew the ties of political will that have kept their circle together for 40 years, even as its individuals were dispersing to all parts of suburban Southern California.

Their goal has been to lend support to those who stayed in the homeland they fled at the end of World War II as the Soviet Union consolidated its hold on the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Until Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of openness eased the way, their voice remained a feeble one. Travel to their homeland, even letters and telephone calls, were effectively cut off. They were helpless as friends and relatives back home either followed the Communist Party or went to jail for opposing it.

A new optimism was evident, though, as 200 Baltic expatriates gathered Saturday evening to honor one dissident who spent 16 of the last 30 years in Soviet gulags.

The occasion, beginning only a few minutes after the first pitch of the World Series up the road, was the annual awards banquet of the Baltic American Freedom League, an organization of Baltic activists who try to jostle public opinion on the subject of their homeland's subjugation.

As in previous years, the league's Freedom Award would go to someone on the front lines of the independence movement. The winner, Mart Niklus, was an Estonian ornithologist who first went to jail in 1958 for sending censored photographs to the West. He was released in July after his most recent incarceration of eight years.

Even though the winner was already known, there was suspense in the air as a crowd of dour men in dark suits and straight-back hair and women in solidly formal gowns arrived.

"The goose bump factor is going to be very high if everything goes as planned," said Danute Mazeika. "We're going to test glasnost tonight."

The plan was to place a call to Niklus in his home town in Estonia.

In theory, that was possible. Glasnost had opened the telephone lines to the Baltic. But it wasn't a sure thing.

"Sometimes you get right through; sometimes there are technical difficulties," one suspicious Latvian said.

The program consisted of many speeches, including a pitch from Solidarity of California and a hard-line glasnost reading by Avo Piirisild, president of the league.

Piirisild was less than overjoyed that Baltic people can now fly their native flags and speak their native tongues without fear.

"It's a symbol," Piirisild said. "That's not independence."

Eventually, Jaak Treiman, honorary counsel for Estonians in Los Angeles, called for silence.

He turned to a beige phone on the stage and dialed. After a pause, he hung up. The circuits were busy. More speeches were made and other awards given.

Then Treiman tried again. At 9:15, a loudspeaker attached to the phone sounded a ring and a distant "Hello."

"Mart Niklus?" Treiman said. "Jaak Treiman."

The conversation was long and sweet, the voice of Niklus, in English, barely audible over the speaker.

Treiman put on Vladas Shakalys, a friend of Niklus'. Shakalys recalled that they had spoken Russian together in prison.

"Yes," Niklus replied.

"That was enough," Shakalys said. "I learn English a little bit."

He asked about Enn Tarto, a mutual friend from the gulag. "We hear that he will be released in the near future."

The timing was perfect.

"We are just waiting for him," Niklus said with forced cheerfulness. "People have gone to the railway station to meet him."

"Mart, I didn't recognize the picture of you in the New York Times wearing those pajamas," Shakalys said. "You have changed so much since we were in prison together."

"Everybody changes." Niklus said.

Later, Treiman asked about the Estonian Popular Front, whose recent convention Niklus had brazenly attended in his prison pajamas.

Niklus was skeptical about the gains of democracy.

"The government is opposed to the aspiration of the people, and you never know what will happen in the future," he said.

An old friend of Niklus' mother then stood to ask the final question. She wanted to know if the price for freedom had been too high.

"I don't regret anything that I have done," Niklus answered.

After Treiman hung up, two men took the stage to begin the night's entertainment. One played the piano. The other sang an aria from an Italian opera.

It was just then that Kirk Gibson hit a ball over the right field fence at Dodger Stadium. Excited voices in the street relayed the news of that delirious ending.

No one noticed. The intrusion was no more than a rustle of leaves across one man's path halfway to freedom.

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