Herta Hanzena, forgotten and unassessed: Who were the second-generation Latvian female communists?

In 1957, the Museum of the History of Medicine was founded, based on the collection left by Pauls Stradiņš. The state allocated the building that still houses the museum. However, it took four years to mount the permanent exhibition and unveil the museum. Herta Hanzena was the third person taking the director’s post over a short time, and yet it was she who managed to make sure that the first visitors could view the new Riga museum on 20 July 1961.

Keywords: Herta Hanzena, Soviet occupation of Latvia, Khrushchev’s Thaw, Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine, museum holdings, display mounting

We would probably be hard pressed to find someone in Riga who has never set foot in Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine during their school years. The legendary medieval city diorama alone has hardly left anyone indifferent. In any case, several generations have grown up with indelible memories from visits to the museum. It was the surgeon and oncologist Pauls Stradiņš who started to build the collection that forms the core of the museum; his collection was formally awarded the status of a public museum on 1 October 1957. The museum was officially unveiled four years later, on 21 July 1961, after the passing away of its founder Pauls Stradiņš. From 9 February 1961 until her death on 17 August 1972, the post of the director was held by Herta Hanzena (1909‒1972); long-forgotten today, this communist official was quite notorious and unpopular at her time.

“What is gone and what has become of the new times that we were looking forward to? [..] The pure socialist ideals brought forth by a whole new generation has now in the hands of people turned into a plague killing the nation. [..] And there are human destinies that haunt us like horrible and shocking mysteries. Like these rifle-women!” ‒ this was the poet and social activist Kārlis Skalbe’s way of describing the first communist era generation of women who were born in the late 1800s. I did not succeed in finding an equally apt quote regarding the second ‒ Stalinist ‒ generation of Soviet female officials. There was no shortage of these women in the corridors of power, and it was often they who decided the fate of our grandparents and parents. One of them Pauls Stradiņš dubbed “the green-eyed lady” immediately after the Second World War, warning others to beware of her, the Stalin-era communist Hanzena. Interestingly, she was referred to as a lady instead of comrade by another Latvian surgeon, Arveds Alksnis, even before Stradiņš: “Considering her dressing style and her skilful ways of displaying her legs, which were indeed very shapely and clad in silk stockings, it was hard to call her a comrade. She was a lady!” So what was the museum’s director, “the green-eyed lady” Herta Hanzena like?

Life has a penchant for paradoxes. The visual image and manners of a lady hid a dyed-in-the-wool 30-ies-style dogmatic communist. The paradox is even more enhanced by the fact that it was a staunch conservative like Herta Hanzena who volunteered to take charge of a museum born during one of the weakest moments in the history of the regime and rooted in the “freedom and ideals” of Khrushchev’s Thaw. But perhaps it is just another small testament to the triumph of reaction in Soviet Latvia following the ascension to power of Arvīds Pelše.

Herta Hanzena was born on 29 September 1909 to the family of Bolshevik revolutionary Augusts Hanzens. The First World War forced the family to evacuate to Russia in 1915. The Hanzens family first found themselves in Kharkiv (at the time known as Kharkov and part of Russia); as the German forces approached, they moved farther east to Omsk. When the war ended, the family went back to Kharkiv by way of Vitebsk. At the age of 16, Herta joined Komsomol, the communist youth organization, and in 1939 ‒ the ranks of the All-Union Communist (Bolshevik) Party.

Herta with parents Auguste and Augusts in late 1920s ‒ early 1930s. MHM Holdings, 31056.

In 1932, Herta Hanzena graduated from Kharkiv Institute of Hygiene and Social Medicine qualifying as a physician. After her graduation, she turned to scientific work as an assistant at the Special Laboratory of the Institute of Nutrition; the findings of her scientific practical studies were published in a number of classified compilations. Between 1936 and 1939, Herta Hanzena pursued postgraduate studies at the Department of Pharmacology of the Ukraine Institute of Experimental Medicine, choosing toxicology and pharmacology as her subject and working on her Candidate of Sciences thesis on “Pathology and Therapy of Cyanide Intoxication”. She continued her work on the dissertation in the following years, including 1940 in Riga, but the paper was misplaced as Hanzena evacuated from Riga in June 1941. Alongside her postgraduate studies, Hanzena taught a course in toxicology to medical students. She also wrote two scientific articles during this time: one of them was classified, the other ‒ “Cardiac Sensitivity to Glycosides in Experimental Myocarditis” ‒ is dated from 1941. Hanzena did not neglect her ideological education, either: 1940 saw her graduate from the evening studies University of Marxism-Leninism. A radical development followed, completely transforming the young scientist’s life: obeying instructions from the Party, she had to give up her career in science and take a post of a Soviet apparatchik. In 1940, as the USSR occupied Latvia, the young Latvian communist was transferred from the remote Kharkiv to a job in Moscow and later in the year ‒ to Riga.

An urgent summons to a post in Moscow received by Herta Hanzena on 29 October 1940. MHM Holdings, R 10522.

It was in Moscow that the Head of the Latvian People’s Government, microbiologist Augusts Kirhenšteins (1872‒1963) met her during an official trip to the Soviet capital (most likely, in late July ‒ early August 1940). He would later tell Jānis Stradiņš that “[..] he met Hanzena in Moscow as an Inturist guide even before Soviet power was established in Latvia. At the time, she had been ‘attached’ to the Latvian delegation; she had not spoken ‒ or pretended not to speak ‒ Latvian at the time. Kirhenšteins had therefore been astonished to meet [Hanzena] later back in Latvia as a government advisor with a perfect command of the Latvian language.”

In 1940, Herta Hanzena was assigned to work in Soviet Latvia. Initially she held the post of Head of the Personnel Department of the People’s Commissariat for Health, transforming the Latvian healthcare system in keeping with the Soviet-style principles of organisation. As the Second World War hostilities started in the Latvian territory, Hanzena evacuated to the Soviet Union, where she resumed educational and scientific work at the Ukrainian Institute for Social Medical and Chemical Research. In December 1942, she was appointed to a post of a functionary at the Soviet Health Ministry. As the Soviet power returned to Latvia in 1944, so did Herta Hanzena. She was made the Head of the Sanitary Service and in late 1945 ‒ Director of the freshly-founded Latvian Centre for Sanitary Education. Under her tenure, it was transformed into the Centre for Organisation and Methodology of Sanitary Education. In 1948, Hanzena set up and headed the Laboratory for Sanitary and Chemical Research.

Herta Hanzena as Head of the Laboratory for Sanitary and Chemical Research. 1950. MHM Holdings, 31058-2.

In 1950, marking the 10th Anniversary of Soviet Latvia, Herta Hanzena was awarded the honorific title of Merited Physician of the Latvian SSR for outstanding contribution to the national healthcare; 1951 saw her transferred to the post of the chief expert and head of the healthcare and social security workgroup at the Council of Ministers of the Latvian SSR, where she worked until taking the post of the director of the museum. 

On 9 February 1961, expert for the LSSR Council of Ministers Herta Hanzena was appointed the director of Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine. The medical circles were taken aback by this development; rumours and hypotheses abounded. The medical historian Kārlis Ēriks Arons, a long-time deputy of Hanzena at the museum, thought that “Herta Hanzena was a typical arbitrary head of a soviet institution. [..] Hanzena was not in the slightest concerned about her lack of expertise in the history of medicine: a proper numenklatura functionary was able to be in charge of any soviet establishment.”

Aija Dirbe (1932‒2014), a long-time employee of the museum, recalled that the director’s post was taken by a madam ‒ Herta Hanzena ‒ shipped off from the Council of Ministers where they had wanted to get rid of her. Although a fluent Latvian speaker, she had mostly communicated in Russian, preferring, like her successor in the post of the museum’s director Maria Lebedkova, to hire people who only spoke Russian. 

Recalling his first years at the museum, the medical historian Arnis Vīksna has also shared his opinion on the director: “The atmosphere at the museum was quite oppressive. Director Hanzena was a failed soviet apparatchik on her way down the nomenklatura ladder, and the museum was her last stop. She maintained a strict work discipline, which was not a bad thing at all, and an even stricter ideological supervision, because there was no way the museum could exist without due mistrust and vigilance. Loyal personnel were required for that, and they were recruited among party veterans who came to the museum to enjoy well-deserved rest after their revolutionary and military efforts.”

Perhaps this overview of opinions about Hanzena as the director of the museum is best concluded with a comment by the academician Jānis Stradiņš. While he considered the new director a dogmatically minded lady, Stradiņš also conceded that it would have been hard to open the museum without Hanzena, who implemented harsh discipline: “[..] the decision of appointing Hanzena the director of the museum was non-negotiable; it was made by the Central Committee. However, she was a capable administrator ‒ at least she did not permit any misappropriation of the museum holdings.”

At a presentation in mid-1960s. MHM Holdings, 31060-2.

The new director’s main task was preparing the exhibits for transportation to the new premises at 1 Leona Paegles Street and setting up a permanent exhibition, which had not been achieved either in 1958 or in 1959. 

The permanent exhibition was designed based on the chronological principle developed by Pauls Stradiņš. It opened with a display exploring the so-called “medicine in the primaeval community” (ethnomedicine), to which a panel dedicated to the People’s Republic of China was added; Ancient Egypt came next, represented with papyrus replicas and reconstructions of surgical instruments. It was chronologically followed by the medical science of Ancient Greece and Rome, then the age of feudalism with the medieval city diorama demonstrating the techniques of the time. Next came an overview of medical developments in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; the greatest treasure among these exhibits was a 1555 copy of Vesalius’ anatomical atlas “De Corpora Humanis Fabrica”. The contemporary perception of the human body was showcased by a glass man made in the German Democratic Republic. A display devoted to the Soviet healthcare system followed, tracing its development from the first years of the Soviet state and highlighting the part of the Second World War known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War with a separate section. A section of the exhibition also dealt with medicine in the Baltic republics with an extensive part of it dedicated to then popular health resorts of Soviet Latvia.

The greatest difficulty was presented by the display exploring Soviet medicine: obviously, it had to reflect and justify the assumption that it was in the Soviet Union that medical science had reached the apex of its development. Thanks to Pauls Stradiņš’ contacts with prominent Soviet physicians, the collection featured a number of artefacts related to Soviet healthcare, however this part of the museum holdings was properly and purposefully developed under the tenure of the new director.

There was also no consensus in museum’s scientific advisory council ‒ headed for a short time after Stradiņš’ death by Prof. A. Bieziņš (1897‒1975), then by academician P. Gerke (1904‒1985) ‒ regarding the thematic and chronological framework of the various parts of the permanent exhibition, and yet the main problem was finding the best way of showcasing Soviet medical science and healthcare, an aspect on which the official inauguration of the museum hinged. 

Many years later, K. Ē. Arons, the director of the museum between 1989 and 2005, recalled that, due to delays in opening the door of Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine to visitors, the Ministry of Health delegated him to work as a researcher at the museum, later assigning him to the post of deputy director for science: “When I first saw the museum, the layout had already been planned by Professor [Stradiņš] for each floor, bet there was no room for the so-called Soviet Department. It was created later, under directors Vladimirs Šmits and Herta Hanzena, and repeatedly redesigned afterwards.”

“I came to work here with pleasure [..] but failed to form a harmonious relationship with the director. I had to argue un persuade to get a permission to show physician’s diplomas awarded by various universities; even mentioning physicians who worked during the independence of Latvia was out of the question [..]. The permanent exhibition had to be approved by [the censorship agency] Glavlit,” K. Ē. Arons says.  

Herta Hanzena’s management style was undeniably dictatorial, and yet, at the same time, she was also a lady of grand scope, as indicated by her approach to making additions to the museum’s holdings. She did not shy away from ordering and purchasing large batches of medical materials, commissioning replicas of medical instruments and worked with various institutions to expand the collections of the museum. 

The Soviet medicine collection did not excel at presenting a huge variety of materials. It mostly comprised photographs of Soviet physicians, which constituted almost 30 percent of the new exhibits. Hastily sourced, they were frequently of poor quality. Then the Soviet-educated director embarked on an extensive correspondence with her former university mates and Soviet healthcare institutions. In just a few years, the Soviet medicine collection grew multiple times its size, now comprising up to 44 % of the museum holdings. From its beginnings, Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine was the largest museum of this speciality in the Soviet Union, and eventually it became a matter of honour for prominent physicians to bequeath part of their personal archives and belongings to the Riga Medicine Museum.

The future director of the museum, at the time ‒ a just-hired senior-year medical student Maria Lebedkova later recalled her first impression of the forthcoming museum in 1960: “[..] I saw five wonderful exhibition rooms with nothing but portraits of Soviet physicians adorning their walls; there was no structure of an actual museum, nor a concept for the Soviet collection, which was eventually developed thanks to the contribution by K. Arons, V. Oga and Merited Physician H. Hanzena.”

During the Hanzena years, the museum built a grass-roots support group of 130 physicians, pharmacists and historians. The museum evolved into  a methodical centre for the history of medicine and student training base. It established contacts with other countries ‒ Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic and even the USA. 

One of Herta Hanzena’s fortes was also communication and public relations, although it was mostly limited to informing about the latest developments in the museum’s life. She knew how to involve the media in reporting the most significant occasions. The director was keen to speak and write about the museum; she promoted the museum’s work, gave interviews and appeared at various events. On the day before the opening of the museum, on 19 July 1961, the Rīgas Balss daily newspaper published an article by Herta Hanzena, entitled “A New Museum Opens Tomorrow”, where the director reviewed everything that had been accomplished and revealed some plans for the future. Some of the original objects, like the plague scene in a medieval city, can still be viewed at the museum. On 20 July, when the museum was officially unveiled, the director gave a talk about the museum’s prospects of further development. The museum’s opening was followed by enthusiastic coverage in many national periodical publications.

Unveiling of the permanent exhibition of Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine on 20 July 1961. Cutting the inaugural ribbon ‒ Deputy Chair of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of LSSR E. Ameriks, behind him on the right ‒ Deputy Chair of the Council of Ministers of LSSR V. Rubenis. MHM holdings.

The museum in Riga attracted huge interest, and the director frequently met with prominent Soviet physicians and international delegations. The opening in 1961 was soon followed by a visit from President of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor Nikolai Blokhin (1912‒1993), who left an entry in the visitors’ book that “the museum [was] an enormous contribution to the development of medical science”. In 1964, the museum was visited by Vice President of the Cuban Academy of Sciences José López-Sánchez (1911‒2004), whose comment in the visitors’ book said that the museum was “a global gem”. In 1966, the 20th Congress of the International Society for the History of Medicine was held in West Berlin. The collection of theses published two years after the congress featured an article by Herta Hanzena on the museum’s current work and future plans. 

Hanzena knew how to create an impression of an erudite and knowledgeable person about herself, convince the public that it is she who really is the protector of Pauls Stradiņš’ legacy and his successor, setting up a Stradiņš’ memorial room in the museum. The museum continued to grow. Next year, in 1962, it ran an exhibition of medical equipment demonstrating the great achievements of Soviet medicine in cardiac surgery, showing the visitors, among other things, the so-called “artificial heart”. In 1963, a display exploring Chinese traditional medicine was opened. The following years saw several exhibitions dedicated to the development of Soviet medicine and the Communist Party’s regard for the nation’s health. The highlight of Herta Hanzena’s career as the museum’s director was the first show of cosmic medicine in the Soviet Union in 1971.

At a museum meeting in 1970. From the left: museum’s artist Jānis Vaļūns, researcher Aija Dirbe, director Herta Hanzena (standing) and researcher Arnis Vīksna. MHM Holdings, 25208-1.

During the twelve years of Hanzena’s tenure, the Museum of the History of Medicine mounted 19 exhibitions dedicated to the healthcare establishments of the Soviet Union and Latvian SSR and more than 30 portable displays; a department for innovative experience and methods was set up. The museum’s holdings grew from the original 38 900 items on 1 July 1961 to 67 300 items in 1966. Its profile and standing grew both within the Latvian museum system and among Soviet medical professionals. Taking an objective appraisal of the museum’s twelve years under Herta Hanzena’s directorship, the political and ideological bias of its development cannot be denied; a complete rejection of any medical achievements in the interwar Latvia is also obvious. And yet the most important work was completed; thanks to the effort of the museum’s staff, valuable relics were received from the families of prominent Latvian physicians and preserved: the collection of gynaecologist Professor Ernests Putniņš (1867‒1962); a vast range of psychiatric materials compiled by Dr Arnolds Laksbergs (1901‒1983); the personal effects of dentist and medical activist Professor Kārlis Barons (1965‒1944). It was during Hanzena’s tenure that the foundation was laid for the museum’s extensive Soviet medicine collection that features, alongside relics of ordinary medical professionals, some medical rarities: Demikhov’s two-headed dog (1966), the personal belongings of surgeon Sergei Yudin, chair of the surgical department of the famous Sklifosovskiy Institute (1891‒1954, accused of being a British spy in 1948), (1965), belongings and paintings of ophthalmologist Vladimir Filatov (1875‒1956), (1968).

With daughter Hermīne in second half of 1940s. MHM Holdings, 31061-4.

The assessment of Herta Hanzena’s tenure at Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine is still mostly defined by subjective memories and Soviet-era publications, making it complicated to form a scientifically backed portrait of her legacy. The now launched study of the Medicine Museum’s documents conjures an image of a Soviet functionary of considerable scope and ambition who has left a permanent imprint on the history of the museum.

Published: November, 2021

Dr. hist. Rita Grāvere

Dr. hist. Rita Grāvere



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