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ON Brīvības Street (or, Freedom Street) in the center of Riga, Latvia’s capital, stands the Freedom Monument, 138 feet [42 m] high. Unveiled in 1935, it is a symbol of political freedom. A superior kind of freedom, however, has been offered to the people of Latvia ever since the 1920’s​—the freedom that comes from knowing Bible truth. Concerning this spiritual freedom, a report said: “The common people, . . . both men and women, receive the message with tears of joy.” For decades, enemies tried to suppress that precious message, and they had a measure of success. But as this account will show, no force on earth can check the hand of the Almighty or that of his Son, whose dominion transcends all political boundaries.​—Rev. 11:15.

From the time of the Teutonic Knights who founded Riga in 1201 to the era of Soviet Communism, Latvia has been invaded and ruled by a number of political powers, including Germany, Poland, Russia, and Sweden. In 1918, Latvia declared her independence for the first time. However, in 1940 the country became a Soviet republic. In 1991 she regained her independence as the Republic of Latvia.

Political independence, though, does not spell true freedom. Only Jehovah can fully liberate humankind, and his promise of freedom is a brilliant facet of the good news of God’s Kingdom. (Luke 4:18; Heb. 2:15) How did that good news reach Latvia? Our story begins with a prayer of seaman Ans Insberg.

Ans wrote: “One starry night at sea, I poured out my heart to the Lord and asked him to lead me to the people who worshipped him with spirit and truth. (John 4:24) I had seen much hypocrisy among churchgoers in my native Latvia and wanted none of that. Then in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A., I saw the ‘Photo-Drama of Creation,’ a Biblical production of the International Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. My prayer was answered; I had found the truth! I was baptized on January 9, 1916, and took up the preaching work, going back to sea whenever my funds ran low.”

Shortly after World War I, Ans gave the Kingdom message wide circulation in Latvia. At his own expense, he placed notices proclaiming God’s Kingdom in Latvian newspapers. A retired schoolteacher named Krastin̗š learned the truth from those notices and may have been the first Bible Student residing in Latvia to dedicate his life to Jehovah. In 1922, Ans joined the staff at the world headquarters of the Bible Students in Brooklyn, New York. There he regularly visited the docks​—“my fascinating pulpit,” as he described them—​to share Bible truth with other seamen. He finished his earthly course on November 30, 1962.

In 1925, the Northern European Office was opened in Copenhagen, Denmark. It supervised the work in the three Baltic States​—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—​as well as in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. In July 1926, Rees Taylor, from Britain, was assigned to oversee the work in Latvia. He set up an office in Riga and organized a small convention. Of the 20 who attended, 14 shared in the first field service campaign in the country. The brothers then gained permission from the police to hold public meetings, and 975 people heard Bible lectures in Riga, Liepaja, and Jelgava. The talks were delivered in German, the second language of many Latvians. A number asked that further meetings be held.


In September 1927, some 650 delegates from Estonia, Latvia, and Scandinavia gathered in Copenhagen to hear Joseph F. Rutherford from world headquarters deliver the talk “Freedom for the Peoples.” The following year a booklet bearing that title was translated into Latvian, and the colporteurs, or pioneers, took the lead in distributing it.

Those early pioneers included at least ten brothers from Germany who came to Latvia to help with the work. One of these was 22-year-old Johannes Berger. He wrote: “Delivering public talks was the first thing pioneers did when they arrived in their assigned city. The result was that we gave talks in nearly all the cities of Latvia. In the city of Sloka, we rented a cinema, and every Monday in the winter, I gave talks. The people came from far away on their little horses.” Looking back on those times, he added: “My privileges of service were very great, despite my limited education.”

About 40 Kingdom publishers, 15 of whom were baptized, shared in the preaching activity in 1928. In 1929, the year the office was moved to Šarlotes Street, Riga, nine more were baptized, and over 90,000 books and booklets were placed in the field.

Earlier, in 1927, a young man named Ferdinand Fruck and his mother, Emilie, were baptized. Four years later, Ferdinand found his future pioneer partner while witnessing at a bakery in his hometown, Liepaja. The baker dashed next door to his brother’s barber shop. “Heinrich! Come quickly!” he said. “A man in my store is saying things that are hard to believe.” The barber, Heinrich Zech, did not find Bible truth hard to believe and was soon baptized. He teamed up with Ferdinand, and the two bicycled to many towns to spread the Kingdom message.


Even though the brothers were few, their zeal angered the clergy. In fact, a prominent clergyman in Riga threatened to excommunicate anybody who attended meetings of the Bible Students. In Liepaja, the clergy issued pamphlets accusing the brothers of not believing in Jesus Christ and telling the people not to obtain their literature. They also used the leading church newspaper to malign the Bible Students.

In 1929 the government bowed to church pressure and expelled the German colporteurs from Latvia. By 1931 most Bible study aids were banned. Did these attacks stop the brothers? “The opposition of the Devil,” wrote the Latvia office, “only spurs us on to be more faithful. It is a real joy to have a share in the work here . . . , and we are determined to press on.”

In 1931 several brothers from Britain answered the call for pioneers to move to the Baltic countries. Some of these brothers helped to bring spiritual food into Latvia from neighboring Estonia and Lithuania. Edwin Ridgewell, then 18 years old, was assigned to Lithuania. Now in his 90’s, Brother Ridgewell recalls: “My two partners, Andrew Jack and John Sempey, and I received a special assignment​—to take literature into Latvia. We would take the night train to Riga and hide the literature in parcels that were designed to fit into compartments under the seats where bedding was stored during the day. Before disembarking, we put the parcels, along with some clothing, into specially made expandable suitcases. After each nerve-racking delivery, we celebrated. Percy Dunham, who had oversight of the work, would take us out to dinner at a restaurant in Riga.”

Ferdinand Fruck often met brothers at the border of Lithuania. They gave him literature, which he then stored under hay in the loft of his barn. His activities came to the attention of the authorities, however, and thereafter the police regularly raided his property to search for banned publications. During one search, the officer did not want to climb into the loft, so he sent Ferdinand up instead! In order to placate the officer, Ferdinand returned with a few older Watchtowers and handed them over. Satisfied, the officer left.


Scotsman Percy Dunham, mentioned above, was assigned to oversee the Latvian field in 1931. A Bible Student from before 1914, Percy had experience that proved to be invaluable. Late in 1931, the office wrote: “The work is being carried on under difficulties by those who are poor in this world’s goods but who are rich in faith toward God. . . . There is an increasing interest being manifested in our message. . . . Every week inquirers call at the office, asking for books and wishing to know when others will be available.” Then, concerning an extremely important theocratic development, the report added: “At a recent meeting in Riga, we unanimously passed a resolution, joyfully accepting the new name [Jehovah’s Witnesses], which the Lord has given to his people.”

In 1932 the office was moved to Cēsu Street, Riga. During that same year, Margaret (Madge) Brown, a Scottish pioneer serving in Ireland and baptized in 1923, moved to Latvia and married Percy Dunham. Meanwhile, opposition to the work intensified. Madge writes: “On February 9, 1933, a Riga newspaper accused us of being Communists. The next morning when I answered the doorbell, police waving pistols barged in shouting, ‘Hands up!’ For seven hours, they searched for banned books. At lunchtime I offered them a cup of tea, which they accepted.

“The main literature supply for the brothers was hidden in the attic. Earlier, when the officer in charge searched my husband’s pockets, he found some keys. ‘What are these for?’ he asked. ‘The attic,’ said Percy. Yet, the police never went up there. In fact, just before leaving, the officer in charge handed the keys back to Percy! Although they looked through some literature, they said they found no reason to confiscate it.

“Nevertheless, confiscate it they did, along with letters, some money, a duplicating machine, and a typewriter. Police made similar raids on six homes of Latvian Witness families but found no evidence of wrongdoing and pressed no charges.”

There were fewer than 50 Kingdom publishers in the entire country at the time. Still, in order to get some legal footing, the brothers applied for registration. Imagine how thrilled they were when on March 14, 1933, the International Bible Students Association was officially registered! Although they did not receive permission to import Bible literature, the brothers took advantage of their legal status to have some booklets printed locally. Translation into Latvian was done by the acclaimed writer and editor in chief of the Rīts newspaper, Aleksandrs Grīns.


A coup d’état in May 1934 led to the imposition of martial law. Exploiting the political volatility, enemies of the truth accused God’s people of being Communists. On June 30, the minister of the interior closed down the office of the International Bible Students Association and confiscated over 40,000 books and booklets along with a small amount of cash. Clergymen were appointed liquidators! Applications to reregister were rejected.

In 1939, World War II erupted, and in June 1940, the Russian army marched into Latvia. In August, Latvia became the 15th republic of the USSR and was named the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. On October 27, the Dunhams had to leave Latvia and their dear Latvian brothers and sisters. They were reassigned to the Australia branch, where Percy ended his earthly course in 1951 and Madge, in 1998.

The closing down of the office, the deportation of the brothers taking the lead, the trials of war, and the decades of harsh Communist rule that followed had a crushing effect on the work. Indeed, only in the early 1990’s were the cruel shackles of the intolerant past finally removed.


During World War II, the small band of Witnesses in Latvia had no contact with headquarters. Still, they kept their hope alive “through the comfort from the Scriptures.” (Rom. 15:4) After the war, in the late 1940’s, the Germany branch finally got mail through to the few brothers in Jelgava, Kuldīga, Riga, and Ventspils.

In Kuldīga, a town 100 miles [160 km] west of Riga, Ernests Grundmanis, who had been in the truth for 20 years, received several letters from Germany that truly contained spiritual food at the right time. “In all things,” said one letter, “trust in Jehovah God, our good Father. He will support and strengthen you at the right time.” The letter then quoted 2 Chronicles 16:9: “As regards Jehovah, his eyes are roving about through all the earth to show his strength in behalf of those whose heart is complete toward him.” How timely and encouraging such letters were!

The brothers took every opportunity to witness informally. For example, Marta Baldone, a masseuse at a health center in Ventspils, preached to her clients, one of whom was Alexandra Preklonskaya (now Rezevskis). Alexandra recalls: “Marta taught me that God’s name is Jehovah, and I came to love that name dearly.”

Alexandra’s father, Peter, who was born in 1880, also came to a knowledge of Bible truth. His daughter writes: “Father joined the Communist party before the 1917 revolution and lived in St. Petersburg [called Petrograd from 1914 to 1924 and Leningrad from 1924 to 1991]. However, the outcome of the revolution was not what Father had hoped for, so he handed in his party membership card and was forced to leave the city. He came to Latvia, where I introduced him to Marta. An honest, kind man, Father readily accepted the truth. In 1951 he returned to Russia, only this time as a prisoner for his faith. He died in Siberia in 1953.”


In Latvia, as in other Soviet-occupied lands, the new government began to pursue its goal of shaping all cultural and political institutions according to Soviet models. The Communists also collectivized, or combined, privately owned farms and put them in the hands of the State. In conjunction with this campaign, several waves of deportations, climaxing in 1949, resulted in some 100,000 Latvians being deported to northern Russia, including Siberia. Two years later, the Communists focused on Jehovah’s Witnesses, deporting thousands from occupied lands, including at least 20 of the approximately 30 publishers still in Latvia.

Although unbaptized, Valija Lange, from Ventspils, was one of those whom the KGB (Soviet State Security Committee) arrested during raids in September 1950. In a late-night interrogation in Riga, she was asked: “Why do you as a citizen of the Soviet Union operate against the State?” Valija answered calmly and respectfully, “My only motives are to serve Jehovah God, to understand his teachings, and to share them with others.”

Along with those of 19 Witnesses, Valija’s name was on a document dated October 31, 1950. All listed were sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Siberia, and their property was confiscated. Some were allowed to go home only to be charged again. For example, Paulīne Serova was sent back to Siberia for another four years after the authorities discovered that she was receiving Bible literature in the mail.

In the camps, the brothers continued preaching and making disciples, one of the latter being Jānis Garšk̗is. Baptized in 1956 and now living in Ventspils, he says, “I am thankful that God allowed me to be sent to a work camp, otherwise I would not have learned the truth.” What a fine attitude!

Tekla Onckule, a native Latvian, was accused of political agitation and sent to Siberia. In the remote city of Omsk, she heard the truth from exiled Witnesses. “I will never forget my baptism,” says Tekla. “It took place late at night in an ice-cold river. I was shaking all over from the cold, but I was very happy.” In 1954, Tekla married Aleksei Tkach, who was baptized in 1948 in Moldavia (now Moldova) and later deported to Siberia. In 1969, this couple along with a handful of other Witnesses returned to Latvia. Sadly, most of the other Latvian deportees had perished in the camps.


A small number of Witnesses evaded capture. “I avoided deportation by staying on the move, working on various farms, and eluding the KGB. Meanwhile, I continued to preach to all I met. People listened, and some came into the truth,” writes Alexandra Rezevskis. KGB agents worked feverishly to locate the few scattered Witnesses who remained in Latvia, accusing them of being anti-Soviet. The government even circulated a brochure that lyingly denounced the Witnesses as being American spies. Closely watched by Communist informers, the brothers had to preach with caution and conducted their meetings secretly and at different places.

After her marriage to Kārlis Rezevskis, Alexandra and her husband moved into a cottage belonging to Kārlis’ parents. Tucked away in a forest near the town of Tukums, 42 miles [68 km] from Riga, the cottage was ideal for meetings in the winter. Dita Grasberga, then Andrišaka, recalls: “I was a child when our family attended meetings in the Rezevskis’ home. The journey to Tukums by bus and the walk through the forest in the snow was a great adventure. Finally, when we entered the cottage, we were often greeted by the mouthwatering aroma of a delicious soup simmering on the stove.”

Kārlis would hide literature in the forest. On one occasion, he buried two bags filled with books and carefully marked the spot. But that night a terrible storm obliterated the marker. Kārlis tried to find the bags, but to no avail. They lie buried somewhere in those woods to this day.

During the summer, the brothers held the meetings in forests, by lakes, or at the seashore. As in other Soviet lands, they took advantage of weddings and funerals to give Scriptural discourses. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, brothers from Estonia, including Viljard Kaarna, Silver Silliksaar, and Lembit Toom, visited Latvia regularly to give talks, pass on literature, and collect reports from the approximately 25 baptized publishers there. The local brothers were especially pleased to receive The Watchtower in Russian, which Pauls and Valija Bergmanis translated into Latvian, handwriting it in school exercise books.


During the 1970’s and 1980’s, brothers from Estonia obtained The Watchtower on microfilm in Russia and smuggled it into Latvia. Because photography was a popular hobby at the time, the brothers had the means to process the negatives at home, make copies, and distribute them. From time to time, other publications came into the country in the same way, mainly from Lithuania and Ukraine.

“We had just one Watchtower to share,” recalls Vida Sakalauskiene, then about ten years old. “For a time, each group received the magazine on photographic paper developed from negatives and passed it from family to family so that all could read it and make notes. No one could keep the magazine for more than 24 hours. At the meeting, the conductor had the magazine, and we answered the study questions from memory or from our notes.” This spiritual provision helped Vida to stand firm for the truth during her school days. It also helped her brother, Romualdas, to maintain his integrity while imprisoned for his Christian neutrality.


Vera Petrova was actively involved in the Communist party for 27 years. “One of my jobs,” she says, “was to attend church to see how many Communist party members were there and to report back to the local party secretary. Meanwhile, one of my two sisters came into the truth and began to witness to me. My interest aroused, I asked a Russian Orthodox priest for a Bible.

“‘Why do you need a Bible?’ he said.

“‘I want to know if what you teach is in harmony with it,’ I replied. He failed to give me a Bible, so I obtained one from another source and began to read it. I soon discovered that the church’s teachings are not based on the Bible. I continued to make spiritual progress and left the Communist party. I was baptized in 1985.”

Before World War II, Teofīlija Kalvīte, a medical nurse, married the mayor of Daugavpils. Sadly, early in the war, he was declared missing in action. Teofīlija herself experienced many hardships and saw much suffering and death. After the war, she became the president of the Latvian Red Cross and received at least 20 State awards during her 61 years in the medical field. When Teofīlija was about 65 years of age, she met Witness Paulīne Serova, who explained to her from the Bible why God permits wickedness. Teofīlija embraced the truth and thereafter enjoyed the greater privilege of helping people gain spiritual health. Faithful to the end, she died in 1982.


In 1981, 18-year-old Yurii Kaptola was imprisoned for three years for maintaining Christian neutrality. Says Yurii: “I spent two years of my sentence in Siberia, where we lived in tents and worked in the forests, even when the temperature fell to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit [-30°C]! * Jehovah always took care of me spiritually. For instance, on one occasion, Mother sent me a copy of the Greek Scriptures in a food parcel. While a guard was examining the parcel, he spotted the book.

“‘What’s this?’ he asked.

“Before I could answer, a nearby inspector said, ‘Oh, it’s a dictionary,’ and let me keep it.

“I was released in 1984. Instead of settling in Ukraine, my home country, I moved to Riga, where I associated with a small group of Witnesses for about two years. However, because Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union, I was again called up to serve in the army. The result? On August 26, 1986, I was again sentenced to hard labor, this time four years in Latvia. After serving time in Riga, I went to a camp near the city of Valmiera. At a hearing for my release early in 1990, the judge said: ‘Yurii, the decision to imprison you four years ago was illegal. They should not have convicted you.’ All of a sudden, I was free!”

In 1991, Yurii became a member of the only congregation in Latvia and served as one of the two elders there. “The field was really white for harvesting,” he writes.

When Yurii first arrived in Latvia, he spoke to a woman who was tidying up a grave. He recalls: “When I asked her why life seems so short, she took a few steps toward me, and we talked. Minutes later, a large branch broke off a tree and crashed to the ground right where she had been working. Had she stayed there, she would have been crushed. She gave me her address, and I arranged for a sister to visit her. In 1987 the woman, her son, and her daughter-in-law were baptized.”


Many other young ones from different parts of the Soviet Union also moved to Latvia to help with the work. Their life was not easy, but they were willing to make sacrifices. For example, Anna Batnya, now serving as a special pioneer, found work at a sewing factory and accommodations in a hostel. “Conditions were far from ideal,” she relates. “We witnessed informally on trains, at stations, in parks and cemeteries, and near churches.

“On the trains, which were always packed, we would preach by twos from car to car. One of us witnessed; the other kept on the watch. People nearby often joined us in the discussion. As a result, questions sometimes flew at us from all directions. When the train stopped, we would move to another car if necessary. It was a great joy to see Jehovah bless our ministry.”

Angelina Tsvetkova first heard the truth after having prayed at her church. She relates: “In 1984, Aldona Dron̗uka, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, approached me and asked if I had read the Bible. ‘Parts of it,’ I replied. ‘But I don’t understand it, and I have many questions.’ We exchanged addresses and discussed God’s Word regularly. A few months later, Aldona invited me to a wedding in Lithuania, and I accepted. About 300 were there. At the reception, we listened to one Bible talk after another, which puzzled me somewhat.

“It was here that I learned that I had been studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses and that the wedding was also an assembly! Despite these revelations, my heart was touched by the love and unity of these humble people. In 1985, I was baptized, and in 1994, I started pioneering. Now five of my six children are baptized, and the youngest is an unbaptized publisher.”


In the mid-1980’s, conditions in many Communist lands became less restrictive, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to meet more openly. In 1989 about 50 delegates from Latvia attended the “Godly Devotion” District Convention in Poland. “Being together with all those brothers and sisters was a turning point in my spiritual development,” says Marija Andrišaka, who now serves as a special pioneer.

In 1990 more than 50 delegates from Latvia attended the “Pure Language” Convention, also in Poland. One of these, Anna Mančinska, spared no effort to be present. She recalls: “On my way to the train station, I discovered that I had forgotten some documents that I would need at the border crossing. So I took a taxi home, picked up the papers, and returned to the station only to find that the train had gone. I rushed to the next station but arrived too late. In the end, I took the taxi into Lithuania and finally caught up with the train 155 miles [250 km] from Riga. The taxi ride was expensive, but the cost was worth it!” Anna now serves as a member of the Latvia Bethel family.

In 1991 the brothers were finally able to hold conventions openly in places that had formerly been Soviet republics. Several busloads of delegates from Latvia traveled to Tallinn, Estonia, to attend the “Lovers of Godly Freedom” Convention. How appropriate that theme was!

Ruta Barakauska from Vain̗ode persuaded her non-Witness husband, Ādolfs, to accompany her to Tallinn. “I did not intend to go to the convention,” says Ādolfs. “My plan was to buy spare parts for my car. But after I attended the first session, I was so impressed with the talks, the friendliness of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their clean speech, and the love they showed for one another that I stayed for the whole convention. After returning home, I started to study the Bible and worked hard at controlling my temper. In 1992, I joined my wife as a baptized Witness of Jehovah.”

In the early 1990’s, it was not possible to rent suitable venues for district conventions in Latvia, so the brothers went primarily to Estonia and Lithuania. The first convention held in Latvia was the 1998 “God’s Way of Life” Convention held in a large sports hall in Riga. The auditorium was divided into three sections according to language: Latvian, Russian, and Latvian Sign Language. After the final prayer, all clapped, and many shed tears of joy, thankful to Jehovah for this landmark event.


After the Communist era, the work in Latvia moved ahead in great strides. Prior to 1995, however, Our Kingdom Ministry was not available in Latvian, so the brothers’ presentations in the field sometimes lacked a little polish. But the Witnesses made up for this lack with their zeal. Dace Šk̗ipsna describes how she first heard the truth: “At a roadside kiosk in 1991, I bought a book about hell and the afterlife. I had walked only a short distance when I heard a voice from behind say, ‘You’ve bought poison!’

“Those words stopped me in my tracks. Two of Jehovah’s Witnesses​—a man and his wife—​introduced themselves, and we talked about the Bible. In fact, we covered practically everything: Hades, Gehenna, Christmas, the cross and, finally, the last days! I must confess that in my mind some points were a little hazy, but I liked what I heard. We exchanged phone numbers, and over the following weeks, the Witness couple answered many of my Bible questions.”


Jānis Folkmanis was a USSR weight-lifting champion, and in his final competitions in March 1993, he became champion of Latvia. Jānis relates: “In 1992, a workmate, Jānis Cielavs, invited me to sit in on his Bible study. That experience changed my life. Three months after I became weight-lifting champion of Latvia, I became a Kingdom publisher. In August 1993, I was baptized. When I witnessed at the gym, my trainer expressed his displeasure. But I am glad that I did not shrink back. My friends Eduards Eihenbaums and Edgars Brancis will explain why.”

Eduards: “Jānis Folkmanis offered me a free Bible study. ‘If it really is free, we can start right now,’ I said. And we did! What I learned made sense, especially the teaching of the resurrection, which made more sense than the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. My wife too began to study, and we were baptized in 1995.”

Edgars: “Jānis witnessed zealously at the gym. Four times he offered to study the Bible with me, and each time I declined. But I did accept the Watchtower and Awake! magazines and the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. Meanwhile, I kept asking myself, ‘Why would such a famous sportsman be interested in the Bible?’ My curiosity eventually won out, and I began to study. The result? I was baptized in 1995 and now serve as a special pioneer.”

Some had to overcome bad habits in order to please God. For example, Aivars Jackevičs had a drinking problem. “A weekend binge,” he says, “would start with beer for breakfast followed by a bottle of vodka. One evening in January 1992, I was at home with my arm in a sling, depressed and contemplating suicide. I had been robbed while drunk. I heard a knock at the door. It was a neighbor​—the same one who had discussed the Bible with me on several occasions. We talked, he offered me a Bible study, and I accepted.

“On study days, I abstained from alcohol, which helped me to make progress. After I learned the true condition of the dead and that I would not burn in hellfire​—something I had always feared—​I began to study three times a week. In less than four months, I became an unbaptized publisher. The Bible warns us, however, ‘Let him that thinks he is standing beware that he does not fall.’ Foolishly, I spent an evening in bad company, drank to excess, and once again had thoughts of suicide. But Jehovah is merciful and patient, and some loving brothers came to my rescue. What a lesson that experience was! In 1992, I was baptized, and today I am a member of the Latvia Bethel family.”​—1 Cor. 10:12; Ps. 130:3, 4.

Māris Krūmin̗š, who also serves at Bethel, had to make major changes in his life in order to serve Jehovah. “After serving in the military,” explains Māris, “I became disillusioned with life. Later, I was expelled from a university for missing lectures. Aimless, I got involved in crime, and one night after a drunken brawl, I was arrested. Sitting in my cell, I thought about the laws I had broken and concluded that many of them actually stemmed from the laws of God. For the first time in my life, I prayed to God for forgiveness and vowed to search for him.

“After being released from prison, I attended various churches but each time met with disappointment. So I started to read the Bible and other religious books. In 1990, while traveling on a train, I met a former schoolmate and learned that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. During that short journey, Jehovah opened up my heart as I listened to my old friend explain God’s purpose for mankind and the reason for the suffering in the world. I began to study and became a publisher in 1991. In 1992, I was baptized. A year later, I became a member of the Latvia Bethel family, and in 1995, I married Simona, a Finnish pioneer.”

Edgars Endzelis was a law student. “In the early 1990’s,” says Edgars, “political change was in the air. I was at law school in Riga, and many students were discussing the purpose of life. I read books on philosophy and Eastern religions. I also practiced a form of martial arts called aikido. Then my wife, Elita, and I came in contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“At our very first meeting, we were welcomed with open arms by Latvian- and Russian-speaking brothers alike. This genuine love impressed us deeply. About the same time, I was shocked when my martial arts instructor stated that only those who practice Zen Buddhism can become aikido masters. That was the end of aikido for me! Shortly thereafter, I cut my long hair, and in March 1993, Elita and I were baptized. Since then I have had the privilege of using my knowledge of law to help ‘in the defending and legally establishing of the good news’ in Latvia.”​—Phil. 1:7.


In 1993 four music students in Jelgava had their faith tested when their choir was assigned to sing at an Independence Day festival. Though new in the truth, the girls resolved to please God. Hence, they wrote to the choir director, respectfully asking to be excused from that event because of their Christian conscience. How did the director respond? He wrote an ultimatum to the girls’ parents, stating that either the students sing or the school would expel them. Like the three Hebrews, the girls obeyed Jehovah.​—Dan. 3:14, 15, 17; Acts 5:29.

Dace Puncule was one of those girls. She reflects: “Prayer to God and the support of the brothers helped us to stay faithful. We were expelled, but I have never regretted standing firm for the truth. Indeed, Jehovah has taken good care of me. After just a few months, I found work at a law office, and the experience I gained there later helped me at Bethel, where I have served since 2001.”

The blood issue has also tested the integrity of some. On September 6, 1996, Yelena Godlevskaya, a 17-year-old girl who was hit by a car, suffered multiple fractures to the pelvis. Spiritually mature, Yelena had determined in her heart to abstain from blood. (Acts 15:29) Back then, most doctors in Latvia were unfamiliar with nonblood techniques, so the attending doctors refused to perform corrective surgery. Then about a week later, two doctors cruelly forced a blood transfusion on Yelena late one night, and she died.

Marina, Yelena’s mother, was not yet a Witness. Marina says: “It was amazing to see my daughter’s strong faith in Jehovah and in his promises. She did not compromise.” Now baptized, Marina and her family look forward to embracing Yelena in the resurrection.​—Acts 24:15.


The rapid growth in the number of publishers has created the need for spiritually mature men to take the lead. In 1992 the opportunity to serve as missionaries in Latvia was offered to three Latvian-speaking brothers who had grown up in the United States. Along with their wives, they were Valdis and Linda Purin̗š, Alfreds and Doris Elksnis, and Ivars Elksnis, Alfreds’ brother. All five arrived in Riga in July 1992. Their four-room apartment became a missionary home, a literature depot, and a translation center.

A good sense of humor helps when learning another language. “While conducting a study with two young women,” relates Doris Elksnis, “I tried to explain how Satan spoke to Eve through a snake. However, I used a Latvian word that sounds similar to the one for ‘snake.’ The result? I had the Devil talking through a pig!”

In 1994, Peter and Jean Luters arrived from Australia. Peter, baptized in 1954, was born in Latvia but grew up in Australia. Sadly, Jean, whose loving, kind manner had soon won the hearts of all, passed away in 1999. Peter decided to stay in Latvia and now serves on the Branch Committee. “When we arrived,” says Peter, “we found the Latvian brothers to be zealous preachers. However, congregations had not yet been assigned a specific territory, and even parts of Riga were not being worked. Also, only a few congregations scheduled regular public talks. Both matters were quickly addressed.”


The first Gilead-trained missionaries arrived early in 1993. Swedish couples Anders and Agneta Berglund and Torgny and Lena Fridlund were assigned to Jelgava, a city of over 60,000 with 28 publishers. “Upon our arrival,” says Anders, now a member of the Branch Committee, “we joined the brothers in field service, and they kept us busy! On some days, we practically ran with them from one study to the next for seven or eight hours without stopping to eat! Their zeal was inspiring. Many of those students are now in full-time service themselves.”

Torgny Fridlund recalls: “After a three-month language course, we felt ready to converse on our own. We selected territory that had not been worked since World War II but failed to get much of a response. Was our approach wrong? After discussing the matter, we tried another approach​—reading a scripture at each door. Thereafter, we started several studies.”

More Gilead graduates began to arrive in April 1995. They included Basse and Heidi Bergman from Finland, who now serve in the traveling work in a Russian-language circuit. “I asked the local brothers to correct me when I said something wrong in the ministry,” says Basse. “And they responded with gusto, spontaneously correcting me not just in the field but also during meetings! Nowadays, it warms my heart when I hear brothers say, ‘Basse has become one of us.’”

Carsten and Jannie Ejstrup from Denmark served together in Latvia until Jannie, while still in her 30’s, lost her fight with cancer. “The best way I can honor Jehovah,” says Carsten, “is to continue faithfully in my missionary assignment.” What an example such brothers are!


Beginning in 1994, more than 20 Ministerial Training School graduates were assigned to Latvia from Britain, Germany, and Poland. The first to arrive were Michael Udsen and Jess Kjaer Nielsen from Denmark. They were assigned to the industrial city of Daugavpils, Latvia’s second-largest city.

Says Jess: “We left for Daugavpils, which is about 150 miles [240 km] southeast of Riga, on a cold January afternoon. In fact, it was snowing in Riga when we climbed into the vehicle​—an old van packed with literature. The brother who drove spoke no English, and we, no Latvian or Russian. Every 30 miles [50 km] or so, he would stop and tinker with the engine. One thing for sure, he was not fixing the heater; it was as cold inside as outside! We survived the bone-rattling ride, though, and arrived at Daugavpils near midnight. At the time, there were 16 publishers in the city. By the end of the following year, that number had nearly doubled.”


Before 1992, literature was available mainly in Russian, which most Latvians spoke. Many, though, preferred their mother tongue. “Remarkably,” states a report, “among the few hundred new publishers were some with translation skills, and we could see God’s holy spirit direct the work of these willing young brothers and sisters.”

Thanks to the hard work of the translators, The Watchtower in Latvian became available monthly in January 1995 and semimonthly in January 1996. Other publications now available in Latvian include a number of books, brochures, and the Awake! magazine.

Early in 1993 the translation team moved from the cramped quarters at the missionary home in Riga to an apartment on Brīvības Street. Then in August 1994, they moved into newly renovated offices at 40 Miera Street. How did the brothers acquire the new property?


George Hakmanis and his wife, Sigrid, left Latvia as refugees during World War II. The couple learned the truth in London, England, and were baptized in 1951. The following year they immigrated to the United States, and in 1992 they returned to Latvia for five years.

After Latvia withdrew from the Soviet Union in 1991, people could reclaim title to property that had been taken by the State. Sigrid and her sister, also a Witness, had kept their family documents for over 50 years, so they were able to acquire the property at 40 Miera Street. After doing so, they kindly donated it to Jehovah’s organization. The brothers then turned the building into a five-story translation center with accommodations for 20.

Milton G. Henschel of the Governing Body attended the dedication on August 20, 1994. While there, he advised the brothers to purchase the adjoining property at 42 Miera Street, which included a six-story building. The owner, who lived in the United States, agreed to sell. This building too was fully renovated, and the Bethel family grew to 35. Since then, further expansion has provided offices and rooms for a total of 55 Bethelites.


Legal registration of the work continues to be a challenge in Latvia. In 1996, officials used the bad press regarding Yelena Godlevskaya as the basis to deny registration. A member of parliament even hinted that our work might be banned! Still, the brothers continued to meet with officials and to explain our work. Finally, on October 12, 1998, the director of the National Human Rights Office announced the legal registration of two congregations​—Riga Center and Riga Torn̗akalns—​for a trial period of one year. A month later, the congregation in Jelgava was similarly registered.

Latvian law requires that new congregations reregister every year. To obtain permanent registration, a minimum of ten congregations have to register for ten years. Meanwhile, those awaiting registration are able to meet without governmental interference.


Rapid growth during the 1990’s called for larger places to hold meetings. In 1997 a suitable property was put up for public auction in Daugavpils, and the brothers were the only ones to bid. Renovations commenced in December 1998, and eight months later, the more than 140 publishers in that city were thrilled to assemble in their own Kingdom Hall.

The first Kingdom Hall to be built from the ground up was completed in Jūrmala in 1997. One local Bible student was so impressed with the quality of the work that he asked the Witnesses to build him a house! Of course, the brothers declined, explaining the spiritual nature of our work. Meanwhile, the brothers in the Torn̗akalns area of Riga obtained a burned-out cinema for a reduced price. By August 1998 the charred structure had been transformed into a beautiful double Kingdom Hall!


The brothers in Finland have done much to advance the work in Latvia, even overseeing the work there from 1992 to 2004. Finland also prints all the magazines for Latvia and over the years has provided capable brothers to give direction. They include Juha Huttunen and his wife, Taina, who came to Latvia in 1995. Juha now serves on the Branch Committee. Ruben and Ulla Lindh, who together have spent over 80 years in full-time service, were also a great asset to the work. Brother Lindh served on the Latvia Country Committee for four years before returning to Finland.

In addition, over 150 brothers from Finland have helped with various construction projects. Thanks to all such labors of love along with Jehovah’s rich blessing on the ministry of the publishers, pioneers, and missionaries in Latvia, the country became a branch on September 1, 2004.


Most publishers in Latvia live in or around cities and larger towns. Early in 2001, congregations received a letter inviting publishers to use part of their vacation to share in a special preaching campaign in isolated areas. The 93 publishers who volunteered were divided into nine groups and assigned to a number of rural towns and villages.

Vjačeslavs Zaicevs, a Bethel family member, took vacation time so that he could share in the campaign. “It was a wonderful opportunity to get better acquainted with other brothers and sisters,” he says. “After witnessing, we enjoyed a meal, shared experiences, and planned the next day. Then we played soccer and cooled off in a lake. It was a taste of Paradise.”

The brothers spent over 4,200 hours in the ministry​—an average of more than 41 hours per publisher—​placed over 9,800 pieces of literature, made 1,625 return visits, and conducted 227 Bible studies. Similar campaigns have been arranged every year since.


Our story began with Ans Insberg, a Latvian who poured his heart out to God one starry night at sea. Ans wanted to find the people who worship God “with spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) Jehovah heard that sincere request. Since then, over 2,400 other honesthearted people in Latvia have come to a knowledge of spiritual truth, and almost as many are studying the Bible. Yes, there is still much work to do!​—Matt. 9:37, 38.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Latvia are eager to help all those yearning for true freedom, not by pointing them to that which is symbolized by the Freedom Monument on Brīvības Street, but by directing them to God’s Kingdom. Soon those who yearn for that Kingdom and who worship Jehovah “with spirit and truth” will be set free from every form of pain and suffering. Yes, they will taste the very perfection of freedom​—“the glorious freedom of the children of God.”​—Rom. 8:21.


^ par. 53 Yurii Kaptola’s life story was published in The Watchtower, September 1, 2005.

[Blurb on page 190]

“I will never forget my baptism. It took place late at night in an ice-cold river. I was shaking all over from the cold, but I was very happy.”

[Blurb on page 203]

“I heard a voice from behind say, ‘You’ve bought poison!’”

[Box/​Maps on page 184, 185]



Latvia measures about 280 miles [450 km] from east to west and 130 miles [210 km] from north to south. Forests cover about 45 percent of the land. Animals include beavers, deer, elks, lynx, otters, seals, wild boars, and wolves. The many bird species include black storks, herons, nightingales, and woodpeckers.


Over a third of the 2.3 million inhabitants live in Riga, the capital. The main religions are Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Russian Orthodox. Most Latvians, however, consider themselves nonreligious.


The main languages are Latvian, spoken by about 60 percent of the people, and Russian, spoken by over 30 percent. Many speak more than one language.


Nearly 60 percent of the population work in service industries, while the balance work in factories and agriculture.


Agricultural products include barley, potatoes, sugar beets, and various other vegetables and cereals. Livestock includes cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep. Poultry is also popular.


Humidity is high, and skies are usually cloudy. Summers are relatively cool, and winters are not extremely cold.


(For fully formatted text, see publication)

















Gulf of Riga



[Box/​Map on page 186]

The Four Regions of Latvia

Latvia is generally divided into four geographic and cultural regions, each with its own character and beauty. Bordering on the Gulf of Riga, Vidzeme, the largest region, is home to the historically rich castle towns of Sigulda and Cēsis as well as Latvia’s capital, Riga. To the east are the lowlands and the blue lakes of Latgale and the country’s second-largest city, Daugavpils. Dubbed the breadbasket of Latvia, Zemgale lies south of the Western Daugava River, which flows from Belarus through Latvia to the Gulf of Riga. The region boasts two magnificent baroque palaces designed by Italian architect Rastrelli, who also designed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. Dotted with farms, forests, and beaches, the fourth region, Kurzeme, takes in the Baltic Coast, the cities of Ventspils and Liepaja, and many fishing villages.


(For fully formatted text, see publication)





[Box/​Pictures on page 192, 193]

Witnessing to a Clergyman Changed His Life and Mine


BORN 1958


PROFILE Raised in a Christian home in Ukraine, she has helped more than 30 to baptism and now serves as a special pioneer.

HEARING about the need for publishers in Latvia, I moved there in 1986. We were unable to preach openly, so I hid my Bible in a bag of groceries and approached people in parks and other public areas. We focused on the Kingdom hope and used our Bibles only when we had a positive response from someone. Fearing relatives or neighbors, people rarely invited us to their homes, so we usually studied with interested ones in the places where we met them.

Literature was extremely scarce. In fact, for a couple of years, our congregation had just one Russian copy of the Bible study aid The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. We made good use of this book in the field, but it did not leave the congregation!

While witnessing near a church, my companion and I met Pyotr Batnya, a clergyman. In order to strike up a conversation, we asked him where we could buy a Bible. “I too am interested in the Bible,” he replied. We then had a very enjoyable discussion. On the following day, we met Pyotr in a nearby park, showed him the table of contents in the Truth book, and asked him what he would like to discuss. He chose “Popular Customs That Displease God.” It proved to be a fruitful discussion and led to a regular Bible study, which was conducted by a brother.

Armed with accurate knowledge of the Bible, Pyotr began asking fellow clergymen questions and found that they could not explain even basic Bible teachings! Soon thereafter, Pyotr resigned from the church and dedicated his life to Jehovah.

In 1991, Pyotr and I were married and began pioneering together. Tragically, he died in an accident just a few years later. How have I coped? In no small part by keeping fully absorbed in the ministry, helping others get to know “the God of all comfort.” (2 Cor. 1:3, 4) Indeed, in 1997, I was privileged to be appointed a special pioneer.



[Box/​Pictures on page 200, 201]

I Yearned for a Just Government


BORN 1966


PROFILE A former Communist, she began pioneering in 1990 and has helped more than 30 people to baptism.

WHILE growing up, I believed neither in God nor in the Bible. Nevertheless, I always tried to stand up for what is right and could never understand why humans consistently failed to establish good and fair government.

When I first met Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was amazed at what they showed me from the Bible. Their words made sense! What I learned about the Kingdom government and the justice that Jesus espoused touched my heart. In 1989, I was baptized in a lake, and six months later, I began to serve as a regular pioneer. At the time, my husband and I had one child. Later, we had twins. My husband, Ivan, is also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and with his loving support, I have been able to continue in full-time service.

When the children were small, I often witnessed informally on the streets and in parks. In fact, the twins were a help because they aroused curiosity and made people more relaxed and inclined to converse with me.

While witnessing in a park in Riga, I met a lady named Anna. Sitting on a bench, she was waiting for a concert to begin and had already purchased a ticket. However, she was so eager to learn more about the Bible hope for mankind that she skipped the concert. We read scriptures together and arranged to meet again in the park. Six months later, Anna (right) became our sister, and she now serves on the translation team at the branch. Yes, my heart overflows with joy when I reflect on Jehovah’s blessing on my ministry.


With my family

[Box/​Picture on page 204, 205]

They Must Have Read My Mind


BORN 1963


PROFILE Shown with his wife, Yelena, serves as a pioneer, a substitute circuit overseer, and a city overseer.

ON A train to Riga in January 1990, two women asked me if I had ever read the Bible. They must have read my mind, for I had long wanted to read the Bible but could not obtain one. I gave the women, one of whom was Indra Reitupe, my address and phone number. (See the box on pages 200-201.) A few days later, they arrived at my door to find me eagerly awaiting their visit. I was impressed by the way they skillfully used the Bible to answer my questions. Soon thereafter, Pyotr Batnya, a full-time minister who had once been a clergyman, began to study with me.​—See the box on pages 192-3.

Four months later, I attended my first meeting. Once a month during the summer, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., meetings were held in the forest. The brothers discussed selected parts from the Theocratic Ministry School and Service Meeting schedules, and usually someone was baptized, which meant that we had a baptism talk before the noon break.

My newfound knowledge and the brotherly love I felt at the meetings filled me with joy. I wanted to get baptized as soon as possible. That opportunity came at the end of August the same year, and I was immersed in a lake.

In the early 1990’s, I studied the Bible with a number of people in my art studio. Some became my spiritual brothers. In 1992, Jehovah added greatly to my joy​—my dear wife, Yelena, became my spiritual sister.

[Box/​Pictures on page 208, 209]

Home Again After 50 Years


BORN 1926


PROFILE A native Latvian, she lived in a number of countries before returning to Latvia to serve where the need was greater.

DURING World War II, Father decided that our family would pack up and leave Latvia. I eventually married, and my husband and I ended up in Venezuela. There I met Jehovah’s Witnesses for the first time and accepted a home Bible study with a missionary sister. We studied in German. When I started to attend meetings, I learned Spanish, the official language of Venezuela.

In 1958 our family moved to the United States, and two months later I was baptized. After the death of my husband, my daughter and I moved to Spain, where I pioneered. General Franco was dictator at the time, and humble, God-fearing people were thirsting for the truth. During my 16 years in Spain, I had the privilege of helping some 30 people to baptism.

Following the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1991, I visited Latvia and saw that there was a great need for Kingdom proclaimers. My dream of returning to my homeland to pioneer became a reality in 1994​—exactly 50 years after I left.

The Latvian field was indeed ripe for the harvest. For example, I witnessed to a man who asked for one of our books. His daughter, he said, was interested in spiritual matters, and he wanted to give the book to her. I obtained her address, started a Bible study, and within a year she was baptized. I thank Jehovah for giving me the privilege and the strength to pioneer in my homeland after such a long time away.


When I was 20 years old

[Chart/​Graph on page 216, 217]


1916 Seaman Ans Insberg is baptized. After World War I, he places notices proclaiming God’s Kingdom in Latvian newspapers.


1926 An office is set up in Riga.

1928 The booklet Freedom for the Peoples is released, the first publication in Latvian. Colporteurs arrive from Germany.

1931 Percy Dunham is made office manager.

1933 International Bible Students Association (IBSA) is registered.

1934 Government closes IBSA office.

No reports were obtained from 1939 to 1992.


1940 Latvia becomes a part of the Soviet Union; the Dunhams have to leave.

1951 Witnesses are deported to Siberia.



1991 Latvia reclaims its political independence.

1993 First Gilead-trained missionaries arrive.

1995 The Watchtower is published monthly in Latvian.

1996 A Country Committee is established in Riga.

1997 First completely new Kingdom Hall is built, in Jūrmala.

1998 Two congregations in Riga are legally registered.


2001 The first special preaching campaign is organized.

2004 Latvia becomes a branch on September 1.

2006 Branch extensions are completed; over 2,400 publishers are active in Latvia.


(See publication)

Total Publishers

Total Pioneers



1920 1940 1960 1980 2000

[Full-page picture on page 176]

[Picture on page 178]

This building housed the Bible Students’ first office in Riga, 1926

[Picture on page 178]

“Freedom for the Peoples” in Latvian brought a message of joy, 1928

[Picture on page 178]

Rees Taylor

[Picture on page 180]

Ferdinand Fruck, baptized in 1927

[Picture on page 180]

Heinrich Zech and his wife, Elsa, in front of their shop in Liepaja

[Pictures on page 183]

Edwin Ridgewell (left) and Andrew Jack secretly took literature into Latvia

[Picture on page 183]

Percy and Madge Dunham

[Picture on page 183]

Office staff and other Witnesses, 1930’s

[Picture on page 191]

KGB list of Witnesses arrested in 1950. Many were sent to Siberia

[Picture on page 191]

Siberia, early 1950’s

[Picture on page 194]

At larger gatherings, such as this funeral, brothers heard spiritual discourses

[Picture on page 194]

Pauls and Valija Bergmanis translated “The Watchtower” into Latvian, handwriting it in school exercise books

[Picture on page 194]

Using microfilm (actual size shown), the brothers developed, copied, and distributed “The Watchtower”

[Pictures on page 197]

Paulīne Serova introduced the truth to Teofīlija Kalvīte, a nurse

[Picture on page 199]

Yurii Kaptola, 1981

[Picture on page 199]

Today, in front of the prison where he was confined

[Pictures on page 202]

1998 “God’s Way of Life” Convention, the first held in Latvia, included a sign-language section

[Pictures on page 207]

Three months after Jānis Folkmanis became the weight-lifting champion of Latvia, he became a Kingdom publisher

[Pictures on page 207]

When in prison, Māris Krūmin̗š prayed to God for the first time

[Picture on page 210]

Dace Puncule was expelled from school for refusing to sing nationalistic songs

[Picture on page 210]

Yelena Godlevskaya died after a blood transfusion was forced on her

[Picture on page 210]

Traveling overseers and their wives build up the congregations

[Picture on page 215]

The Latvia Bethel family

[Pictures on page 215]

Branch Committee, 2006

Peter Luters

Anders Berglund

Hannu Kankaanpää

Juha Huttunen

[Picture on page 215]

The three branch buildings on Miera Street, Riga

[Pictures on page 218]

Jehovah’s people in Latvia can now preach openly

[Pictures on page 218]

This burned-out cinema (left) became two Kingdom Halls (below)