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Kathryn Finegan Clark: By the Way

By the Way: A Latvian American’s view of Ukraine


A Haycock Township executive who worked on corporate business ventures in Moscow in the 1980s and 1990s has special insight into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He both knows and understands the Russians and the Ukrainians.
Ralf Augstroze expressed his admiration and faith in the Ukrainian people even as the Russian war machine was advancing on the capital city of Kyiv.
“The Ukrainians are a very determined people,” said Ralf, a Latvian American, who retains close ties with his ancestral homeland.
“Latvians certainly have spirit, but the Ukrainian spirit is unique. There’s something about Ukrainian culture that raises that to another level,” he said. “It’s one thing to conquer a country, another to hold it.”
Latvia, now a member of NATO, was once a part of the Soviet Union, and as such could be among Vladimir Putin’s future targets as he seeks to rebuild his empire.
During an interview March 2 in Haycock, Ralf pointed to the Russian convoy creeping toward Kyiv, the capital city. “Seven days into the war, and Russia does not control any of the major cities,” he said.
He suggested part of the reason could be low morale among the military. “These are young people in that long convoy moving toward Kyiv. They were told they were going to military exercises and now taking part in aggression against their Slavic brothers.
“I understand they’re sabotaging their own trucks, punching holes in the gas tanks, deliberately driving off road into the mud and getting their vehicles stuck.”
Ralf is the first member of his family born in America. His mother was a teenager when she fled Latvia with her parents during the post-World War II Soviet insurgency into the Baltics “with only the clothes on their backs and what they could fit in a suitcase.” He said, “She vividly remembers the horrors of Soviet terror and occupation.”
The family eventually settled in Haycock where Ralf’s grandfather became pastor at the Bucks County Latvian Baptist Church in Applebachsville, where Ralf is now superintendent and church council chairman. The little white church with its jewel-toned stained glass windows was founded 109 years ago. The Latvian language is still spoken there.

Haycock’s Latvian community arrived in three waves, Ralf said, around the early 1900s, after World War I1 and after World War II. The little congregation had its roots in Philadelphia but the members found comfort in Haycock because “the countryside here is so similar to that of Latvia,” he said.
Ralf may be the only Bucks Countian to have attended former President Boris Yeltsin’s inauguration in July 1991. At the time he worked for a financial company based in Princeton and just happened to be in Moscow seeking business opportunities.
The high-level Russian official he was working with, who had become a friend, invited him to the inauguration in the Kremlin Palace. He was so excited. “Are you kidding?” he asked.
“It was great to be a part of history. We had seats in the first balcony.” He later met and talked with Yeltsin, who was Gorbachev’s successor. He seemed open to business ventures and seemed to lean toward democratic values, he said. Yeltsin “hand-picked” Putin as prime minister and his eventual successor as Russia’s president. Most Putin observers say the former KGB man, a rising star at the time, has changed over the years.
“Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Poland, could be next in line,” Ralf said. He and his wife, Sylvia, communicate virtually nearly every day with their daughter, Leah (Lija), who lives with her husband and two daughters in Liepja, Latvia’s third largest city, where she is a violinist with the symphony orchestra there. She grew up here and graduated from the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Arts before earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Europe.
After being grounded by the pandemic’s travel restrictions Ralf and his wife, vaccinated, tested and masked, last visited Latvia in April. He said the Baltic nation today remains calm but the residents are wary and watching. Latvia is only about 500 miles from Kyiv.
“Latvia has the only non-freezing ports on the Baltic Sea and Putin would surely love to get his hands on them,” Ralf said. “We would love to see an American military base there.”

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