As a tour guide and the founder of the Latvian sightseeing website celveži.lv, Paulis Stars makes a living by taking other people on exciting trips. But for the otherwise fit and active 45-year-old, a more difficult journey began in August 2021 when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
On 4 February of this year, Paulis arrived in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro for a course of experimental cancer treatment, which it is claimed has helped hundreds of other people. He had just completed the first round of the procedure when the outbreak of hostilities compelled Paulis and his wife Tetiana to get out of the country fast.
What followed would have been exhausting even for someone in top condition. The couple travelled 800 kilometres from Dnipro to Lviv in a train so overcrowded there were people sleeping on the luggage racks. In Lviv, they boarded a bus arranged by the Latvian embassy. At the Ukrainian-Polish border, there were expected delays of up to three days to cross, so the driver made a detour to the Hungarian frontier, where they sat and waited for 14 hours.
They eventually made it to Riga, and Paulis has now started chemotherapy. His recovery will be aided by having a crystal-clear objective.
“My intention is to live to 83, and to enjoy a healthy life,” he says. “Like an athlete, I’m setting myself goals and working toward them.”
This was far from Paulis’ first trip to Ukraine. In fact, he had a Ukrainian father and he was born in Dnipro, before moving to Latvia in 1991 with his mother at the age of 14.
Today, Paulis speaks perfect Latvian. But like most of the population of Dnipro, he grew up speaking Russian. He recalls there were only a few hours of Ukrainian lessons a week at school, and anyone taking too much interest in Ukrainian cultural heritage was likely to have a visit from the KGB.
But despite this, Paulis has no doubts about where local loyalties lie.
“All the people of Ukraine, including the Russian speakers, want independence,” he says. “And if there were any doubts, they disappeared when Putin began dropping bombs on our heads.”
Tetiana is also from Ukraine, and they were married there in 2015 before settling down in Rīga. Both she and Paulis still have close family members in Ukraine. Paulis is an advocate of strong sanctions against Russia, arguing that the West made a big mistake by not punishing the aggressor harder in 2014. In his opinion, Vladimir Putin could well attack the Baltic States or use nuclear weapons.
“The monster needs to be stopped,” he says. “And the only real solution is to topple Putin.”
Because of the downturn in tourism due to Covid, Paulis has had less business as a guide than usual over the last two years. And he doesn’t have the energy now to work regularly. Tetiana supports them with a job and she will be working as a nurse soon after getting her Ukrainian nursing degree recognised.
Because of their lowered income and rising utility bills, they are currently moving to a smaller apartment in Rīga. But Paulis accepts these economic challenges with the same serenity as his health issues.
“Latvians have a much better standard of living than we did 20 years ago, let alone in Soviet times,” he says. “So, if there are a few bumps along the way, that’s just the way it is.”
(We are sad to report that unfortunately Paulis passed away from cancer in Rīga on 4 April 2022. According to his family he was optimistic and undaunted to the end. LSM extends its condolences to his friends and family.)