Muslims in Latvia

Latvian translation of the Quran.

The refugee crisis in Europe has also affected Latvian society. Latvia as EU country is taking part in handling the crisis and has agreed to accept to host at least 776 refugees from Syria, Libya and other countries. Meanwhile the country is already holding a large number of refugees who managed to cross the Latvian border. They are from various Muslim countries including Afghanistan. In following years Latvia might experience an influx of Muslim immigrants in form of refugees or work seekers. Although by no means Latvia is one of the most desired places for Middle Eastern refugees, on the contrary Latvia with its economic issues and rough climate is one of the lest desired. Also the knowledge and contact between Latvia and Middle Eastern Muslim countries have been limited. But, that does not mean that this will be first time in Latvian history when a new ethno-religious community will emerge. Muslims in small numbers have lived in Latvia since 19th century and their presence has increased in last two decades. This is a story about first Muslim communities in Latvia and how they evolved in the restored independent country. The therm Muslim is used here as for followers of Islam. The Islam is transnational religion, and various national groups practicing Islam who had lived and lives in Latvia are described here. Lastly the phenomena of last twenty years is the growing numbers of Latvian converters who will be mentioned here in the end.

Before Crusades at 8th to 11th century trough Viking traders the Arabian silver Dirhams reached Latvian territory bringing first artifacts of the emerging Muslim civilization in Baltic pagan lands. First direct contacts with Muslims in Latvian territory goes back to 13th century when the Tatars of the Golden Horde took part in raids against Livonia hosted by Russian Duchies. During the Livonian War (1558-1583)  it said that around 40 000 Tatar and Russian soldiers under the command of the Han Shahghali and later Simeon Bekbulatovich took part in the Muscovite invasion. Many centuries later during Russian-Turkish war on 1877, hundred Turkish prisoners of war were brought to Cēsis and Līvāni district. The land where they were settled became known as the Turki parish. 26 Turks died of illnesses and bad weather, but others survived and settled in the city of Cēsis. There they opened Turkish Bakery.   The Turkish cemetery was opened in Cēsis and has been preserved and restored by the help of the Turkish consulate. Turkish cemeteries have been built elsewhere in Latvia, where mostly Turkish war prisoners were taken.

Tatar community in Latvian territory emerged at the last half of the 19th century, mostly from immigrants who came to industrialized cities like Riga, Jelgava and Daugavpils. On 1890 the local Tatar leaders mullah Muhamet Shakir Abdul Arapov, Abdulla Myazhitov and Kurma Hamet Ishniyezov pleaded to establish Muslim cemetery next to Catholic cemetery in Pletenberg street (now Aizsaules street). On 1902 first Muslim congregation was established. The local imam  was Ibragim Davidov, who soon opened the first house of prayer. According to the 1897 all Russia census there were 1 541 Tatars living in Latvian parts of the Russian empire. 920 of them served in the Russian army. There were also small amount Bashkirs and Kyrgyzs who also served in the army. 3/4 of the local Muslims were illiterates and mostly were peasants. The Muslim soldiers after the end of duty headed back to home. Some few tens of Muslim civilians lived here permanently who mostly were small time traders. 564 Tatars lived in Daugavpils that had major Russian war fortification’s. On 1913 510 Muslims mostly soldiers  lived in Riga and close areas. Most of them lived in Moscow District in Riga and mainly spoke in Tatar or Turkish. According to their reports on 1914 their congregation had 1000 members. However, if excluding the temporary soldiers the Muslim community in Riga and elsewhere was much smaller.

The First World war made most members of the Muslim community to leave Latvia. The imam Ibragim Davidov who was promoted  mullah left Riga on 1917 after Germans captured Riga. Because Russia entered war against Ottoman Empire, there were repressions against few of the Turks. Turkish Bakeries were closed in Rīga and one Turkish house owner was arrested. During the War for Independence some Tatars previously fighting for the Red Army were conscripted into Latvian Armed forces. Around 25 Tatars served in the Latvian army up to 1920. Some of the Muslims came back to Latvia after the end of the war. The Latvian army even issued order for few of the Muslim soldiers to give holidays during Kurban Bayrami (Eid al-Adha)  celebrations. On April 1920 Tatar Hassan Haretdinov-Konikov  came to Riga from Finland and tried to acquire the objects belonging to Riga House of Prayer. He insisted all the Muslims of Riga have relocated to Finland. The 24 consecrated carpets and Quran  was not given to him by Latvian authorities because the Riga congregation was not legally closed and its members might come back. Then Hassan Haretdinov-Konikov unsuccessfully pleaded to the Ministry of Justice to build Mosque in Riga.

On July 1920 the Riga Muslim Council elected Turkish cafeteria-bakery owner  Shakir Husnetdinov as deputy imam. On 1928 he was officially appointed by Latvian Spiritual affairs council as permanent imam of Riga. The prayers and ceremonies were held in the imams apartment at the Marijas street 48. Although Hustedinov was not allowed to register marriages despite many pleas to the Latvian authorities. On 1920 there were 115 Tatars and 19 Turks. There were 130 registered Muslim men (2 of them Latvians) and 32 woman. On 1925 census 9 Poles were registered as Muslims. On 1935 just 66 Muslims were counted in the last national census before world war. The Riga congregation had only 42 members left. 39 Tatars, 28 Turks, 17 Persians, and 1 Syrian were counted in the census. Comparing to other minorities such as Jews who were 4% of the state population the Muslim minority in Latvia was overly marginal.

On 1940 Soviets occupied Latvia. Some of the Muslims were repressed. Tatar Abdula Husnetdin disappeared. One Tatar of noble ancestry was arrested in hotel “Roma” cafeteria and tried to poison himself to avoid arrest. The Nazi occupation did not make remaining Muslims flee. on 1943 40 Tatars and 35 Turks were registered  by Nazi authorities. Some of them were prisoners of war from the Red Army. Germans also brought some Tatars to Latvia for work.  Mullah Shakir Husnetdinov continued to serve as leader of the community. As the soviets came back most members of the interwar community left Latvia including  Shakir Husnetdinov. Trader Alimzhan Husnetdin with his Latvian wife spent first post war years in Latvian refugee camp in West Germany. Almost all original interwar Latvian Muslim community was lost, only few remained.

The new wave of Muslim immigrants emerged during Soviet occupation and was part of the overall influx of the immigrants from the Soviet Union. First who came after the war were retired Soviet soldiers and officers with their family. Few of the Crimean Tatars who were deported on 1944 after being rehabilitated moved to their army relatives in Latvia. On 1959 census there were 1 811 Tatars, also people from soviet Central Asian republics and Caucasus came.   The number of the Tatars grew steadily: on 1970 2 671, on 1979 3 764, on 1989- 3 168. New Azeri and Chechen communities emerged along with those of Central Asia. One part of them were Russianized, spoke Russian and had abandoned the Muslim traditions.   Others still kept their identity and traditions. Crimean Tatar Refat Chubarov was a long time director of the Latvian State Archive. Currently he is a Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and lives in exile after Russian occupation of Crimea.

The religious practice in many cases were kept unofficially as the soviet authorities regarding  religious organizations issued restrictive measures. There were now official house of prayers, rituals were carried out in private apartments.  On 1958 the mother of Riga Muslim Congregational council chairman Rufiya Sheviryova who was member of the Jēkabpils district soviet managed to establish a Muslim Cemetery in the Jēkabpils next to Jewish cemetery. Before that the Muslims were laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery causing protests.

After the regain of independence many Muslims left Latvia for their ethnic homelands. The size of Tatars dropped from 3 168 in 1989 to 2 164 in 2011. 2765 Azeris lived in Latvia on 1989 but dropped to more a half four years later. Large numbers of Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea. Remaining Tatars and Azeris have established cultural societies. The “Ideļ” for Tatars and “Azeri” for Azeris.  The Chechen Diaspora became active because of Chechen War of Independence. Their representatives tried to convince Latvian authorities to recognize the Republic of Chechnya and open its embassy albeit unsuccessfully. The “Chechen Mafia” scare has been present in Latvia, as some Chechen businessman have been accused of criminal actions. They also been attributed to have political influence on some of the Latvian political parties. However, none of the Caucasian Muslim communities have ever posed serious threat to Latvian state and society.

 As Latvia became member of EU, some sparked fear of the influx of economical immigrants from Turkey and other Muslim lands. That did not happen, most representatives of the Middle East  states are foreign exchange students and small number of permanent settlers. In recent years illegal immigrants who  crossed Latvian-Russian or Latvian-Belarusian border from various countries as Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Syria and others have been living in detention centers. Small numbers of them have asked for permanent stay in Latvia, as they view Latvia as transit point to other EU countries.  They have general problems learning Latvian and find work. If the state is considering to settle immigrants currently displaced in other EU countries, serious considerations needs to be taken of how to integrate them, teach Latvian language and involve them in to jobs. Permanent living in migrant center and constant living on small state benefits will cause long therm problems.

The presence of Islam as religion in Latvia has been so far mostly invisible. The only House of prayers are located in  Rīga, Brīvības street 104.   First Muslim congregation in Riga was Ideļ established on 1993.  Muslim congregations were established also in Jēkabpils and Daugavpils. The Riga Imam since 1997 is Tatar Midhat Satdanov. There is 15 Muslim congregations in Latvia with no united umbrella organization. On 2005 the Lebanese Christian Arab doctor Hosam Abu Meri established Latvian Arab Center who unites the members of the Latvian Arabs, who are around 120 people currently in Latvia as claimed by the center webpage.  On 2011 The Latvian Islamic Center was established with Zufars Zainullin as the chairman. On 2013 he was replaced by Imran Oleg Petrov. 2015 he was replaced by Hamza Jānis Līciņs. The members and visitors of this center is mostly foreign students and Latvian convertees. The number of ethnic Latvians converted to Islam is small, but some of these members consider them more religious then their native Muslim counterparts.

The influence of the Muslim culture on Latvian  nation has increased in last two decades. The Kebab shops are common sight in Riga, Middle Eastern motives can be seen in Latvian music and art. There is fairly common interest in Islamic culture. The University of Latvia has opened Asian Study Chamber with the leading expert on Islamic culture professor Leons Taivāns.  The Holy book of Quran has been translated twice in Latvian. Egypt and Turkey are common tourist routes for Latvians. Generally Latvians are no stranger to Islamic culture. There also been many cases of mixed marriages and international contacts. However, the ongoing war on terrorism and recent refugee crisis has sparked the rise of islamophobia within Latvian society.  Fear that terrorist acts that took place in Europe may take place in Latvia, fear from more immigrants of unknown culture have divided the Latvian society. The division is also boosted by far right nationalistic party who is in the government.

Latvia has always been a multicultural country. The history shows that Muslims were rather marginal and silent part of the diverse nations in Latvia. It could stay like this or is about to change. The historic Muslims in Latvia where Turks and Tatars and Caucasians. The tides of history may bring numbers of newcomers from Middle East a region that Latvia yet has very low connection. Latvian society has been tolerant and accepting and xenophobic at the same time. Muslims in Western Europe went trough decades to integrate and its apparent that full integration has not yet taken place. For Latvia it will take tens of more years. Currently Latvian society is not ready for new influx of newcomers from Muslim world. So if Latvia do face such new of migration it will be one of the grandest challenges of our times. Lets us remind however, that looking back at Latvian-non-Latvian relations; the relations where not without issues and misunderstandings, but always common ground was reached between the two sides. Latvians must accept Muslims, but Muslims despite our cultural distances must accept Latvians and their way of life. This is the life long challenge for all of us.

Selected Sources:

Valters Ščerbinskis. Ienācēji no tālienes: Austrumu un dienvidu tautu pārstāvju Latvijā no 19. gadsimta beigām līdz mūsdienām.

Inga Reča. Islāms Latvijā.

Valters Ščerbinskis. Islāma vēsture Latvijā.

Islāmticīgie Latvijā – kas un kādi viņi ir?

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International Radio Broadcasting from Baltic States. Broadcasting the Voice of Independence

Lithuanian Shortwave Transmitter site at Sitkunai

Lithuanian Shortwave Transmitter site at Sitkunai

During the Cold War various international radio stations made daily broadcasts in Baltic States languages mainly aimed for people in the soviet occupied countries. Stations like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America Baltic services provided the local listeners with information outside the Iron Curtain and encouraged the resistance against the soviet regime. From 1987 when independence restoration movements took power in Baltic states it was now time for Baltic radio stations to start international broadcasts in English, German ect to broadcast the voice of independence and gather the support across the world. Historical records show that these international broadcasts gathered significant attention from the shortwave listeners and raised awareness over the goal of restoring the Baltic States independence.   Although these broadcasts were short-lived and forgotten they were one of the first Baltic attempts of international representation before the era of internet and satellite TV.

From Monitoring times November 1988

From Monitoring times November 1988

Radio Riga International/Radio Latvia International

Radio Latvia begun its broadcasts on 1925. It had no foreign language service, yet its shortwave transmitters were powerful enough to make radio receivable in Japan. Shortwave signal can travel great distances across the world and is the best form for international radio broadcasting. Long Wave and Medium Wave signals becomes stronger during the nights when they can be received in vast areas around the transmitting country. Meanwhile FM radio signal is almost impossible to receive in wide areas and is unsuitable for international broadcasting.

Radio Latvia continued to work during the soviet occupation and served the official soviet point of view. Despite the presence of the soviet propaganda the Latvian Radio was well enjoyed and culturally significant. It had foreign language service in Russian and later in Swedish on 1960. While the primary soviet international broadcast station was Radio Moscow, the capitals of the soviet republics had their own sister stations. For stations like Radio Riga their goal was to show Latvia as proud and integral part of the Soviet Union contrary to the official Western policy that did not recognize the occupation of the Baltic states. On 1986 the Radio Riga was reported to use 5935 kHz daily in various languages to different target areas. However, this frequency was also used by Kenga radio from Bhutan that made interference to some listeners. One of the problems of the shortwave radio is that not all stations have common agreement on the use of frequencies and sometimes they are used by two stations at once or nearby station signal is stronger. The shortwave signal targeting, transmitter power output and signal targeting often decides which station is received and which is not. This was not the first time when Riga Radio experienced problems from other shortwave stations.

Before the rise of the national movements the stations of the soviet republics were mostly viewed as exotic catch for shortwave listeners, but nothing more as the stations kept the official line with the Radio Moscow. That begun to change as early as 1989 when the shortwave radio magazines like Monitoring Times begun to list the Radio Riga as the station from Latvia.  The major reforms introduced by soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed more media freedom and Radio Latvia started to broadcast more freely. Also since the shortwave jamming was canceled since 1986 the western radio stations affected the editors of the local stations. They also felt obliged to report the news about the independence movement that was taking power in the country.  On 1989 the Radio Riga was broadcasting in  Latvian at 0830 -0925 and 2100 -2200 Sundays, 2020 -2050 and 2130 -2200 Wednesdays. In Swedish on Tuesday /Thursday from 2020 -2050 and 0800 -0830 Sunday and Russian 1500 -1600, all on 5935 kHz. Various Soviet radio services air on this channel at other times between 0300 -2000 (all times in UTC) Radio Riga transmitter was also used by Radio Moscow that sent broadcasts in Hausa language  intended to South Africa on  15140 kHz while also providing Russian service on 11920 kHz.

On March 1991 the Radio Riga extended the English broadcast 30 minutes on 1830, Sundays at 0700 on 5935 kHz. Radio Riga also got an English newscast on Radiostantsiya Atlantika, normally Russian only seamen service from Leningrad, Sunday at 1305-1315 on 15330 kHz.  From July 1991 Radio Riga renamed itself to Radio Latvia. Since May 4 1990 Latvia had started the process of restoring full independence from USSR and the events like 1991 January barricade movement was reported by the Latvians on the radio waves. The Radio Latvia building was surrounded with barricades and all the most important speeches and announcements were issued from there.  The Medium Wave broadcasts were temporarily cut.   On August 1991 during the Moscow coup attempt the Latvian Radio building was stormed by Soviet special forces and turned off the transmitter. However, the Radio Latvia managed to restore work using reserve transmitter in Salaspils city.   On November 1991 the journalist of the popular Monitoring Times magazine Charles Brian Goslow  toured all three Baltic states and met the workers of the Radio Latvia. There he met young radio journalist Uldis Cērps. Cērps and Mārtiņš Grāvitas hosted the weekly English program focusing on political issues, culture and Latvian music. Daily news were read by Inese Eglīte. The news material was assembled from Radio Latvia content, the Latvian Telegraph Agency LETA and Baltic News Service BNS. While the station was well received in in Europe in United States its reception was only best during winter times. There was plan to establish transmission point in US using the help of the Latvian American Association. It was also planed to establish a satellite network with other Baltic states to make the radio stations receivable in US and other countries using satellite TV. Both the Radio Latvia and Radio Vilnius exchanged news material

At that time the fate of the Latvian independence was decided to Latvian favor and Russia had recognized its independence. The station had filed an appeal with the United Nations for acquiring anew frequency. Its present 5935 kHz position is not very usable, however the Moscow had secured most of the best frequencies for themselves.  However, new frequency was not gained and new trouble was caused by World Wide Christian Radio that started to broadcast on 5935 kHz blocking the English program in US. Radio Latvia continued to use this frequency for many years until the closure of the foreign service on 2001.  Broadcasts also took place in Russian on evening times at the same frequency. The Russian language broadcasts were also aired on Medium Wave on 1071, 1485. 1539 kHz as the MW broadcasts could reach Russia during evenings and nights. There was also plan for Radio Riga station as joint venture between Baltic News Service and Germany that was short-lived project.

Radio Latvia continued its   shortwave radio broadcasts until it was decided that do the lack of state funding these broadcasts are no longer feasible. On 2000 the shortwave and medium wave broadcasts were turned off leaving the Radio Latvia on FM and on internet. The shortwave transmitter tower  in Ulbroka was rented by some foreign stations until it became abandoned and demolished on 2014. Recent years with new information war with Russia has shown that Radio Latvia lacks Medium Wave broadcasts to properly reach the border areas, where Russian and Belarusian radios are received in more better quality. Also Medium Wave broadcast in Russian directed towards Russia is cheaper and effective solution than   fruitless discussions about new Latvian TV service for Russian audience.

From Monitoring Times 1990 July issue

From Monitoring Times 1990 July issue

Radio Vilnius 

Lithuania started its radio service on 1926 from Kaunas which was than a national capital. After the soviet occupation when Vilnius became part of Lithuania the radio center moved there. Radio Vilnius on 1986 had no shortwave transmitter near Vilnius. Instead it used transmitters in Kaunas and two relays in Russia. Therefore their broadcasts were better received then their counterparts in Latvia and Estonia. Radio Vilnius used 7400 and 9710 kHz and was part of the Radio Moscow network.

Radio Vilnius started to broadcast in English as early as 1988 when they English broadcasts were scheduled on 13645 kHz on 22:00. Radio Vilnius English broadcasts were easy to receive in North America because it was using powerful Radio Moscow transmitters aimed at US. 2200  On 1989 it broadcast on -2230 (2300 -2330 in winter months) on 9765, 9860,15240, 15455, and 17665. The most rarely reported home service was on 9710 at 0300-2200. Judging by the reception reports on Monitoring Times magazine the Radio Vilnius was the most received and listened of all three Baltic international stations. The English program was hosted by Andrius Uzkalnis and Izolda Malyte. The radio hosted its own listeners club that was aired at the final Sunday of the every month. Membership was gained by sending 1o reception reports. In return for letters, the radio sent QSO cards (special radio postcard sent as a replay to the reception report), souvenirs and pennants.

From Monitoring Times 1990 July issue

From Monitoring Times 1990 July issue

Onward’s from 1990 when Lithuania declared full restoration of independence the Radio Vilnius received great attention from foreign listeners.  Station broadcast news about its independence declaration and national history and soon got in conflict with the Radio Moscow which provided resurgent station with powerful transmitters. On mid March 1990 for two days the Radio Vilnius transmissions were replaced by the Radio Moscow programs a move made by Soviet Ministry of Communications. Not only Moscow could cut off all the Radio Vilnius transmissions it also tried to jam them by transmitting strong Radio Minsk broadcast near the Radio Vilnius frequency. Unfortunately Radio Liberty also interfered by transmitting on of the Radio Vilnius frequencies.  Moscow official explained the two-day takeover
of Vilnius frequencies as a switching error due to converting schedules to summer time (BBC Monitoring) Trouble is, it happened a week before DST. The disruption continued as high power transmitters were cut off and replaced by weak defective transmitters that were used before as jammers. The reception was poor affected by load noise indicating deliberate disruption. The Lithuanian parliament voted to take control over radio and TV however, that did not seem to affect the radio disruption. On November 1990 the Voice of America looked up the possibility to find source of transmissions outside Soviet Union. Such step although noble was could also mean serious shift in US diplomacy that was generally supportive towards independence, but restrained to take active part hoping the issue would be decided by Lithuanians and Soviets themselves.

Soviets saw Lithuanian radio and TV as serious threat and therefore it was no wonder that on January 13 1991 the Soviet special Alfa forces stormed the radio and TV center in Vilnius with tanks. The assault and civilian resistance caused bloodshed taking the lives of 15 people. During the events of January foreign listeners heard the calls for armed resistance. January 13 was major turning point in the fight for independence that also caused Barricade uprising in Latvia.  Until August 1991 Soviets withdraw from further attempts to suppress the independence. However, the State and Radio building was still under soviet control till late August. The radio and TV had to relocate to new location within the city, a building that belonged to the Lithuanian Society for the Blind. In June the building was raided by Soviet Black Berets, but studio staff received warning of the incoming assault and loaded all the necessary equipment in the car and moved to the apartment building nearby.

The night after the attack on the radio station the soviet relay frequencies played only fill music. Two weeks later the Radio Vilnius was heard again with very critical report the events of January 13. Broadcasts continued from Kaunas transmitter. On March after exchanging for broadcast rights in Lithuania for two Moscow TV programs the Radio Vilnius gained its Soviet relays back. Meanwhile the Radio Vilnius got is competitor – Radio Centras – one of the first independent private radio stations in Soviet Union. From May 1991 it started its own shortwave broadcasts in English for DXers (hobby receivers of faraway signals) on 9170 kHz on morning times. 9170 kHz was also used by Radio Vilnius. Later the Radio Centras also made broadcast in Esperanto.

From Monitoring Times 1991 November issue

From Monitoring Times 1991 November issue

On August 1991 during the Moscow coup attempt Radio Vilnius was off for two days. The temporary studio building was seized, but after the end of the failed coup radio got its main building back. The radio and TV building was ransacked by soviet troops during the months of occupation and had to be placed back to order. Full independence was gained, however that meant that Vilnius may lose the transmitter relays in Russia that provided it with great worldwide reception. Also the transmission costs to rent these relays increased by six folds. The Radio Vilnius had used transmitters in Khabarovsk, Petrapovlosk-Kamchatky, in Moldova and in Krasnodar. Another transmitter was given up in Ukraine. On September, the transmitter in Khabarovsk was out-of-order.

QSL card from Radio Vilnius from 1997

QSL card from Radio Vilnius from 1997

Radio Vilnius raised popularity pretty quickly, but soon after the independence experienced fast demise. Station openly admitted that   its existence it at stake because of the funding shortages on 1993. All three Baltic States experienced major financial problems for many services caused by the collapse of the  soviet market. Many favorite radio shows disappeared without proper explanation , demoralizing the staff. After much talk the Radio Vilnius secured the English service for another year. Later on 1997 Radio Vilnius used transmitter in Germany. On 1999 a new transmitter site was unveiled  at Sitkunai, near Kaunas that was the main state transmitter site. New antenna towers were made by German company. Radio Vilnius broadcast on  three frequencies 9710, 9875, and 7325 kHz. The new modern transmission center supported by state parliament allowed Radio Vilnius to work for many years until 2009 the shortwave broadcasts were completely shutdown. The financial crisis that struck the country finally put end to the most famous of the all Baltic shortwave stations. The Sitkunia transmitter still uses Medium Wave for Radio Lithuania domestic service. Sitkunai is also used for Medium Wave transmissions of the Radio Baltic Waves International on 1386 Khz, the same frequency is also used by Radio Liberty Belarusian service, and Japanese NHK World Belarusian service. The close proximity to the Belarus allows Sitkunia transmitter to be good source of transmissions aired towards the authoritarian country.

From Monitoring Times August 1992

From Monitoring Times August 1992

Radio Tallinn/Radio Estonia

Estonia was the first Baltic country to start domestic radio service on 1924. It had one of the strongest transmitters in all inter war Europe. The broadcasts were aired for 15 hours a day, it had its own orchestra and joint broadcasts with Finland. On 1938 an experimental stereo broadcasts were made by the Tallinn radio.  Estonia started external service on 194o. Later however, comparing to Latvia and Lithuania its radio lesser known. Also comparing to Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia had very small almost unnoticed radio industry, while Latvia and Lithuania was one of the top radio producers in Soviet Union. Radio Tallinn on 1986 used 5925 kHz, however on certain period of day the frequency was also used by station in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The station featured a five -minute Esperanto broadcast at 0925 UTC on two Sundays of the month, and at 2225 UTC on two Thursdays of the month – a whole twenty minutes of shortwave per month. Such ‘economical’ schedule showed that shortwave is a low priority to the Estonians. On 1989 the political situation in the country made the station to start broadcasting in English once a week. Station also broadcast in Swedish and Finnish.  The 50 kW transmitter was one of the weakest in all three Baltic states therefore was a challenge to receive.  Lack of qualified English speakers kept the station from transmitting more often. News material and support was provided by Radio Finland. Since Estonia always considered it as Scandinavian country the Swedish and Finnish service was considered more important and signal in these languages were well received in the target country. Estonia also enjoyed quality reception of the Finnish TV and radio thanks to its close proximity to Finland. Soviet jammers were unable to properly silence the Finnish transmissions because only a narrow strait of Finland separated both countries.

Estonia started transition to independence on 1990. Similar as Latvia it had sizable Russian speaking population, many of them against independence. So in Estonia a station called Radio Nadezhda (Radio Hope) appeared on  Medium Wave frequency 747 kHz that was voicing the support for Moscow and stood against the Estonian independence. The station worked for many months until August 1991. Despite the opposition the events in Estonia were most peaceful comparing to Latvia and Lithuania. Estonia was mostly unaffected by  January events on 1991. Partly this because of the soviet Major-General Dhzokhar Dudayev who was in charge of the armed forces in Estonia and ignored the orders to attack Estonian parliament and television. Dudayev sympathetic to the Estonian national movement later became the leader of the Chechen struggle for independence.

Radio Tallinn added new shortwave frequency 9650 kHz and improved its English broadcasts. The August coup attempt on 1991 was met with Estonian resistance and barricades were built in the streets of Tallinn. On August 1992 the station was featured in the Monitoring Times magazine. Estonian radio had four domestic channels and external service in Swedish, Finn, Esperanto and English. The English service had only one staff member Ethel Halliste, who complained that low radio salaries did motivate other Estonian English speakers to acquire the job. The low funding and the weak shortwave transmitter made low prospects for the Estonian international radio broadcasting. On October 1993 Estonia was first to cancel all the foreign language broadcasts. On 1994 the shortwave broadcasts were again restored for a short time. Estonia did not live up to the shortwave broadcasting. In later years the country took different step by becoming one of the most innovative internet countries creating such mass communications tools as Skype and becoming one of the most Westernized of the three Baltic countries.

Shortwave radio broadcasting is now a thing of a past in the Baltic States. Latvia is a country of a rich history of radio production, its shortwave service however, was less known because its transmitter on 5935 kHz was not strong enough comparing to ones in Lithuania. The relative success of the Radio Vilnius can be explained by its use of multiple transmitters across the Soviet Union and high enthusiasm of its radio staff. Also the country provided great support to the state radio by building new major transmitter site in Sitkunai that is still used today. Estonian and Latvian governments did not gave much support to the shortwave broadcasting. The Radio Latvia board started to carefully study the Latvian Radio and Television law and found that shortwave radio transmissions can only took place if supported by state. Since state gave no money, the Latvians canceled the broadcasts. However, the work of these short-lived stations were not in wain. Western countries received important information about the events in the Baltic countries and generated support towards the independence movement. The shortwave radio journals show that foreign listeners were interested and sympathetic towards the Baltic radio stations. The radio stations helped the Baltic States to be found again on the world map. Today all the main news information from the Baltic states is available solely on internet. There is no Baltic news 24 hour satellite channel. The local state funded internet English news services have various quality. Good quality broadcasting and news content on English, German, Russian is vital in these times when new information war has taken pace. It’s doubtful that Baltic States will again broadcast in shortwave. However, the transmitter in Sitkunai, can be used for such purposes if the need arises.

Selected Sources:

Monitoring Times  issues from 1986 to 1999.

Jerome S. Berg. Broadcasting on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today.McFarland. 2008.

How Lithuania Boosted its Voice on the Shortwave

Cancled transmissions from Lithuania

Jāizlemj par īsviļņu raidītāja izmantošanu Latvijas tēla veidošanai

The Classic and not so classic shortwave broadcast and utility and broadcast band (MW & LW) QSL home page
Shortwave Radio Recordings: Radio Vilnius 1990-1991

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International Shortwave Radio Broadcasting in Latvian Language

During the Cold War shortwave radio broadcasting was essential tool of propaganda used by both sides. United States spent large sums of money to host two major shortwave services – the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE). The goal of these stations was to broadcast the American point of view to the people of the Eastern bloc trapped behind the Iron Curtain.  The stations had many language services that broadcasted to the targeted nations in their own native language. The workers of these stations were exiles, who wished to fight for freedom on the airwaves.  VOA and RFE broadcasted in Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech and many other languages. Eventually both stations started the Latvian service to reach out to the people of the occupied country. Broadcasts in Latvian were hosted also by Radio Vatican, National Radio of Spain and Radio Free Russia. All these broadcasts made great impact on anti-soviet movement and played important role in process of restoration of independence. Today the shortwave radio is almost forgotten so it’s worth to remember once again. Also, within the context of present day war of information between West and Russia this serves as reminder. Article describes the history of these Latvian western radio stations in detail.

USA VOA sticker

Voice of America (Amerikas Balss)

Voice of America was the first US shortwave radio station funded and controlled by the state. It was established on 1942 dictated by the need for state propaganda during the World War II. The Office of War Information hosted the station and it was mainly for Germany and Japan.  On 1945 it was transferred to the Department of the State. The political situation rapidly changed into confrontation between two former allies US and USSR so on 1947 the VOA started broadcasting in Russian. It was done to counter the soviet propaganda and spread the US view of democracy to the soviet people. Eventually VOA sought the need for broadcasts for the people in the occupied Baltic States. US never recognized the occupation of Latvia, the Latvian embassy in Washington worked in exile and US hosted large number of Latvian refugees. So work begun on organizing the VOA Latvian service.

The preparations were made on autumn of 1950. The Latvian ambassador in exile Jūlijs Feldmanis came to Latvian exile newspaper Laiks (Times) in Brooklyn New York to gather staff for the new service. The volunteers had to fill Security Clearance inquires of the State Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The questions mainly focused on person’s biography, workplace, organizations and relatives to test the applicant’s political loyalty to US. Also the inquiry needed three witnesses to confirm the fairness of the given information.

The first who applied were Orests Berlings, Ēvalds Freivalds, Irēne Karule, Arvīds Klāvsons and Aleksandrs Liepa and the well-known actor and stage director Osvalds Uršrteins.  Berlings had experience working in pre-war Latvian newspaper Brīvā Zeme (The Free Land) and the newspaper of the displaced people in Germany Die Post un Im Ausland (Post in Foreign Land) Freivalds also worked in Brīvā Zeme, later in the Latvian State Radio, in exile was editor of the Austrijas Latviešu Balss (Voice of Latvians in Austria).  Karule as student worked in Latvian State Radio for a short time in 1940. Klāvsons was chief editor of the pre war newspaper Rīts (Morning) He took part in the anti-Nazi resistance group during the Nazi occupation.  In Germany he edited the Latvijas Ziņas (Latvian News) in the Latvian refugee camp in Esslingen. Liepa also worked in Rīts and in Germany was one of the founders of the Latvian Press Workers cooperation assembly and edited the newspaper Latvija (Latvia).

Shortly after New Year’s Eve on 1951 the volunteers were invited to interviews to the VOA office in New York. The interviewer was Robert Bauer chief of European section. All except Klāvsons were admitted to the service. The heads of the Latvian Service was Benno Ābers who edited the Latvian Encyclopedia before the war,  Vilis Masēns from the Latvian diplomatic staff and director of the service Harijs Lielnors the only one with US passport, resident since 1923.

Lithuanians were first to broadcast on February 16 1951 the Lithuanian Independence day. Latvians and Estonians first broadcast on June 3 1951. The radio programs were produced by Osvalds Uršteins whose professionalism soon lead him to produce programs for other language services. Meanwhile FBI excluded Aleksandrs Liepa for “bad political background”, while Vilis Masēns left the service to work for the Committee for a Free Europe, Inc. The service hired more workers including Alfrēds Bērziņš the Minister of Social Affairs during Kārlis Ulmanis dictatorship and was active in the Latvian exile and author of many books.

First broadcast started with words of former actor Milda Zīlava with words in English: “This is the Voice of America. The following broadcast is in Latvian”, and then the same in Latvian. After statement that the broadcast will take place every day, the announcer Masēns introduced Latvian ambassador in exile Jūlijs Feldmanis and one now forgotten member of the US congress. Masēns then read the statement of the US State Secretary Edward W. Barrett that US never accepted and recognized the occupation of Latvia. After 15 minute broadcast Masēns, named the times and frequencies and in the ending statement read the VOA standard phrase “We broadcast truthful news, no matter good or bad, but always true!”, and with that Zīlava said farewell words “To hear us again, dear listeners!”.

First broadcast was met with excitement by the staff by the fact that it was received in Latvia. Many exiles were inspired by the War in Korea hoping that it will lead to ultimate collapse of communism and liberation. On November 18, Latvian Independence day, special broadcast by Irēne Karule touched the issues of the Latvian history. The history or wars, resistance, independence and occupation and hope for brighter future were written in poetry. The peculiar programming style different from VOA standard was impressing and Irēne Karule was rewarded. Later however, the VOA standards were applied to Latvians too.

Osvalds Uršteins (producer) and Irēne Karule (both behind) interviews a refugee from Soviet Union Žanis Nice on 1953

Osvalds Uršteins (producer) and Irēne Karule (both behind) interviews a refugee from Soviet Union Žanis Nice on 1953

Latvian VOA service survived many presidential administrations from Harry S Truman to George W Bush. It had to confirm with the changing foreign policy of every president, to not made aversions and create unfilled hopes within listeners. Bravura and empty promises done more harm than good so were forbidden. The staff was forbidden to express their personal views that in many cases were difficult task because Latvian exiles mostly opposed the US attempts of appeasing the Soviet Union.  The broadcasts were supervised, nongovernmental views were only allowed in the press reviews. The core of every program was official news from Washington, accustomed to Europe and Latvia. The station broadcasted news about worker uprising in East Berlin on 1953, the Hungarian uprising on 1956 when VOA added eight special daily broadcasts. VOA also reported on the Cuban missile crisis, actions of the Latvian exiles and Latvian anti-soviet resistance movement. Briefly from 1956 to 1958  reacting to the events in Hungary VOA set up a station in Europe in Munich and Latvian service moved there involving local exiles. However, two years later VOA cut funds to Europe station and Latvians moved back to US. Onwards from 1987 the VOA Latvian service covered all the news of the restoration movement. On 1987 when first mass protests took place in Latvia, VOA and Radio Free Europe was one of the first to announce the dates and places of the protests. It helped to gather large masses to the events and boosted the campaign for full independence from USSR.

The VOA Latvian service was in brief trouble after the election of Richard Nixon. VOA intended to shorten the broadcast times for Baltic service stations. The reason stated was the soviet jamming stations that required new frequencies and longer broadcast times for Russian service. The real reason was Nixon detente policy to ease relations with Soviet Union that also meant easing the stance on Baltic States occupation. The act was met with many protests from the Baltic exiles who complained to the Unites States Information Agency (USIA) After Nixon resignation, the new president Jimmy Carter renamed to International Communications Agency. His doctrine for defending the civil rights and weak position to USSR was not enjoyed by Baltic exiles either. More favorable was Ronald Reagan with his “crusade against communism” that was enjoyed by the Latvian VOA staff.

The reaction from Latvian audience in homeland was mixed. At first it was met with excitement; however after 1949 mass deportations many Latvians found VOA promises of coming liberation empty and unsettling. The reaction from soviet authorities was the establishment of the powerful jamming stations. Despite that the VOA broadcasts were still heard. The Latvian radio factories VEF and Radiotehnika produced the radios in masses. The authorities tried to limit the frequency range for domestic models. KGB persecuted people caught listening to VOA. Despite all of this the facts shows that VOA affected the Latvian listeners. On first year of broadcast Irēne Karule interviewed student in exile who received state grant.  The broadcast was heard by her father who was just released from soviet prison camp and found out his daughter is alive and well in America. He sent the letter from Denmark to VOA editorial in New York. The post address was written in Latvian; surprisingly the Danish post office managed to translate the address and sent it to New York. The daughter who was unaware of his father’s fate was also exited. Five Latvian fishermen who demanded political asylum in Newfoundland claimed they heard VOA in their ocean trawler and back home in Latvia. The editorial received letters from Latvia, praising and criticizing the broadcasts. Broadcasts were also listened by the Latvian exiles in Europe.

After the restoration of independence, VOA Latvia service worked until 2004 when it was closed by the decision of Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The service was no longer sustainable due to the financial situation and changes in the US foreign policy. The Latvian exiles were getting old and the number of listeners in Latvia significantly dropped. VOA used FM frequencies hosted by Latvian State Radio and other radios. Shortwave radios became use less and less. The service was closed with its staff expressing hope that after 30 years of work the VOA Latvian service had reached its goal. Latvia was independent and member of NATO with open connections to the western world.

VOA Latvian service interval signal (2002)

RFE Sticker

Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (Radio Brīvā Eiropa) (Radio Brīvība)

The communist takeover of Eastern Europe and soviet anti-western propaganda sought US counter action. The National Security Council issued NSC-4-A order to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to “initiate and conduct covert psychological operations to counterattack soviet and soviet inspired activities which constitutes a threat to the world peace”. One of these operations was to create “surrogate radio stations” that would broadcast anti-soviet information to the soviet occupied countries, and yet they must not be officially connected to the US government.  Former US ambassador in Moscow George F. Kennan lead the creation of the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty who made the guidelines for these covert CIA propaganda stations. Frank Wisner later CIA director was in charge of the Office of Special Projects set the practical stage for these stations to work. Radio Liberty or Radio Svoboda was primary for Soviet Union in Russian language that started to work on 1949. Radio Free Europe was made for Eastern European communist controlled countries and begun work on 1950 in Czech language, eventually broadcasting in Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, ect. RFE was known for its propaganda campaign “Crusade for Freedom”. RFE is often mentioned as one of the prominent stir ups of the Hungarian revolution on 1956 when it actively supported the resistance against the soviet invasion. Perhaps a bit too actively, for the Western support never came and revolution was crushed and soviets blamed RFE for provoking the nation into fight. On 1967 leftist magazine Rampant disclosed the RFE and RL connection with CIA. Scandal erupted the White House.  At one point disappointed Richard Nixon who wanted completely re-organize the CIA thought about closing the stations.  However, on 1973 the decision was taken to turn RFE/RL into new hybrid organization both funded privately and by the United States congress.  The RFE/RL works this way until this day.

Baltic services came to RFE bit later than VOA. The CIA front organization The National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE) that directed RFE rejected first calls from Lithuanian exiles to include Baltic nations in their program. NCFE indented to use RFE to organize anti-communist exiles in US to serve as surrogates for the lack of democratic institutions in homeland.  American policy makers were thought that such committees might duplicate or worse make the exiled Baltic diplomats representing their republics irrelevant with broader exiled communities globally. NCFE also determined the Baltic service as too costly in comparison to already existing language services. After VOA started its Baltic services, the NCFE saw that as prime excuse not to make their own broadcasts.

The Baltic exiles became more organized and cooperative and eventually gained more support from NCFE. NCFE supported the Baltic Freedom Rally on 1952 in New York that took place again many years ahead. Over the decade more new generation exiles started to take active part in the community and lobbied the NCFE. After 1967 CIA cover up and changes into US foreign policy towards detente, state the policy towards RFE changed. On 1971 the campaigns in US congress started to fully detach RFE and RL from CIA and on 1973 as mentioned above the stations were now funded by US congress. This decision was actually favorable for Baltic exiles because now they could more openly influence the congress and RFE to include them into broadcasts. After joint lobby attempts by the Baltic exile organizations, the proposal for adding Baltic language broadcasts was added to 1974 Fiscal Budget plan. The proposal again sought opposition because of financial expenses. Representative of the exiles Ilgvars J. Spilners head of American Latvian Alliance  (ALA) made testimony to the congress explaining the importance of these broadcasts. Spilners described to the congress of the dangers of Russification in the Baltic States and determined that more broadcasts in native language would help the Baltic nations to survive the assimilation. Spilners also noted that RFE Baltic surrogate stations would also broadcast more news from the Baltic States then allowed by official VOA. Spilners convinced many congress men including Robert H. Steele to push for Baltic service within RL Eventually thanks to his efforts on 1975 all three Baltic language services started broadcasting. In February Lithuanian started first on July Latvian and Estonian followed. Baltic services were included within Radio Liberty because it was intended mainly for nations in Soviet Union.

The chief editor of the Latvian service was Valdemārs Kriecbergs who worked in pre war Latvian Foreign ministry and on 1956-1958 worked in VOA European station in Munich. The broadcasts were 30 minutes long were irregular at the beginning, then from September the broadcasts were daily, discussing political, social and economic issues. The very first members of the staff were Valdemārs Kriecbergs, Vilis Skutāns, poet Margarita Ausale and Dagmāra Vallena. The studio was in RL headquarters in Munich. The transmissions took place from 100 KW transmitter  in Lampenheim, West Germany. The staff workers used aliases due to the omnipresent surveillance from KGB. On 1982 the new chief editor was Vilis Skultāns (alias Pēteris Vijums). Valdemārs Kriecbergs only came to his duty after his employers re-assured that RL Russian editorial would not influence the Latvian service. The 24 hour Russia service tried to affect colleague services. However it was baffled itself in the conflict between old generation WWI/WWII exiles and new generation exiles many of them with Jewish origin.

One of the five most known RL Latvian service staff journalists were Margarita Ausala, philologist and poet, and was active in the academic circles. Egīls Švarcs was well received musician in Soviet Union where he lead the Riga Music Hall orchestra later emigrated to Germany and took up the radio microphone. Born in US from exiled family in West Germany Juris Kaža was one of the youngest members of the service. He was working there for three years, and then started long carrier in many foreign media including Associated Press, Radio Sweden. Kaža now works and lives in Latvia, an active journalist and blogger. Doctor in philology Dzintra Bungs made many studies and reports about the issues in the Baltic States that were used by many RL/RFE services for their broadcast programs. Rolfs Ekmanis started working on 1975 as Māris Rauda, commented on social and national issues within the Soviet Union. On 1986 he became the senior editor; on 1990 he became the chief of the RFE Latvian service. On 1993 he left the radio to work in Arizona State University.

Rolfs Ekmanis in his Latvian editorial office in Munich

Rolfs Ekmanis in his Latvian editorial office in Munich

The program started with brief musical interval signal, the program announcement, daily news, on Sundays- weekly review of events. The news are followed by detailed commentary about world events, including those in occupied Baltic countries, materials from the Baltic press in exile, interviews and brief excepts from books and printed works. Latvians were first in RL to extend program time from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. Despite soviet jammers the station was receivable and listener reports and letters concluded that station receives significant attention. Most Latvians liked to listen to Latvian language stations and found RL best alternative to soviet stations. It was reported that families and friends gathered to listen to scheduled RL broadcasts with no objections. Sometimes in Latvian journals the soviets published texts condemning or ridiculing the RL broadcasts showing how disturbed were the authorities by these broadcasts.

Satirical soviet magazine Dadzis on Radio Free Europe

Satirical soviet magazine Dadzis on Radio Free Europe

On 1984 the Latvian service was moved to Radio Free Europe. RFE involved broad spectrum of Latvian exiles all across the world. On 1986 the new soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev fully stopped the shortwave jamming allowing the RFE and VOA to freely broadcast in the Latvian radio waves. RFE journalists freely entered Latvia, and featured the leading forces for independent Latvia. Same as VOA or even more it aided the restoration movement. After Latvia became independent again,  RFE was featured on Latvian FM frequencies. Some of its staff members moved to Latvia and took part in local social and political activities. Radio Free Europe ceased its Latvian broadcasts for the same reasons as VOA on 2003. Radio Liberty still broadcasts on Russian and Belarusian to counter resurgent anti-democratic regimes in Russia and Belarus.

Radio Free Europe Latvian service interval signal 1999


Radio Vatican   (Radio Vatikāns)

Historically the Latvian service on Radio Vatican was the oldest broadcasting already on 1948. Radio Vatican (Radio Vaticana in Latin) was founded on 1931 as the voice of the catholic people across the world. First, broadcast took place on October 2 1948 for 15 minutes once a week. From 1966 Programma Lettone started to broadcast four times in a week, from 1975 six times in a week and extended to 20 minutes. First broadcasts were mainly religious, preaching’s, prayers and papal news. Later the program included news about Catholics in Latvia, life of other confessions and lives in exile. The station recommended believers not engage into political resistance or subversion; however the soviet power regarded the Catholic Church as dangerous anti-soviet element.  As first foreign broadcast in Latvian it gathered large audience and interest. The radio called to gather in the churches to pray for free Latvia, for God to open road to free Latvia more quickly. After radio mentioned Kārlis Ulmanis and Stalin as man with no honor the broadcasts were targeted by jammers. The jamming stopped in the sixties making the station better receivable than the other ones.

The Vatican radio host can only be clergy man, his assistant must so too. Other staff members can be laity. At first programs was lead by Jesuit father Pāvils Beičs. For long years chief editor was father Staņislavs Kučinskis who after finishing Catholic Studies in Latvia, in thirties went to Rome, then to Krakow to study theology. After that he worked as priest in various places across Italy. He also proved himself as historian writing researches about Catholic history. On 1968 the editorial was joined by Monsignor Ārvaldis Andrejs Brumanis. Brumanis was conscripted into Latvian Waffen SS Legion, wounded in Pomerania, taken captive in Belgium where he finished the Latvian Catholic Seminary.  He also finished Louvain University Faculty of History and doctor in theology. On 1996 Pope John Paul II consecrated him to the Bishop of Liepāja, in Latvia.

One of the prominent laity staff members were Dr. Marta Rasupe who came to Rome after winning in international Romanic language competition and became doctor in philology in Rome University where she headed the Latvian section for long decades. She worked as reporter for the radio using her great translation and academic skills, made rich programs of culture.

Starting from seventies, the radio talked more about the difficult relations between the Church and the soviet power. Radio also called Latvians to keep their national traditions. The Lithuanian Catholic underground magazine Lietuvos kataliku bažnyčios kronika was featured by the radio exposing the persecution of the Catholic priests and believers across the Soviet Union. The Vatican Latvian service continued broadcasting until 2012 when major service cut by the Radio Vatican was made. It was the oldest and longest Latvian language service.

Radio Vatican Interval signal 1982


National Radio of Spain/Voice of Free Latvians Radio (Radio Nacional de Espańa/ Brīvā Latviešu Balss)

National Radio of Spain (NRS) came in to light in 1937 during the Civil War controlled by the Francisco Franco regime. Franco’s Spain was one of the countries in the West who did not recognize the occupation of the Baltic States and hosted their embassies in exile. As anti-communist regime it allowed NRS broadcast in 16 languages of the nations within Soviet Union. The Latvian program was called Brīvā Latviešu Balss – the Voice of Free Latvians (VFL) the people who created the service was Latvian diplomatic envoy in Spain Roberts Kampus and daughter of famous Latvian writer Pāvils Rozītis Dzidra Rozīte.

Roberts Kampus was Independence war veteran, studied in Latvian University and Sorbonne University in thirties worked in embassies in Moscow, Stockholm, Rome and London. From 1953 he was the Latvian envoy in exile in Madrid. The service started broadcasting on 1955 and was directed by Kārlis Videnieks until 1961. Every day program was aired twice in 24 hours made almost by Videnieks alone. He was replaced by Teodors Strautmanis, who worked in the newspaper Rīts (Morning), during Nazi occupation was editor of the foreign section of the newspaper Tēvija (Fatherland). He escaped soviets by crossing the Baltic Sea and arrived in Sweden where edited newspaper Latvju Avīze (Latvian Newspaper). Before taking job in Madrid, he worked at the VOA section in Munich.

From 1964 to 1965 the service was directed by Vilis Skultāns who worked in the Latvian Telegraph Agency before the war. He was the one who first informed Latvian foreign minister Vilhelms Munters about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. During Nazi occupation he worked in Tēvija (Fatherland), and then was conscripted in to Waffen SS where he worked in front line newspaper Daugavas Vanagi (Hawks of Daugava). He spent two years in refugee camps. After that, he took part in the exile social activities published in many newspapers.

The work in RNS was difficult do to the primitive technical recourses. The twenty-minute program was made by only two people, sometimes just one. If one of the workers fell sick, he could not be replaced. The RNS did not pay full salary to the two staff workers and the exile organizations were not generous either. With some funding the exiles gave information materials often in novice level. One of the top contributors of information was closed society Apvienība Tēvzemei (Alliance for Fatherland). The less known organization in undated report stated that NRS VFL broadcasted AF materials were sovereign and independent broadcasts for free and democratic Latvia. The AT refuses to support the official views of Washington and condemns the non-political, pro-American agenda of the American Latvian Alliance. AT opposed the Truman Doctrine for it only wowed to prevent the communist expansion outside its borders, but allowed to exist within.

As other stations the RNS VFL was jammed by soviets, except the times when jammers were turned off so the soviet agents could listen to VFL. RNS did not have the funds for broadcasting at many frequencies at once from various places and repeat them. Despite technical issues and jammers the radio was heard in Latvia, and through covert ways the listener letters were received. Some listeners praised the station for its sharp “poisonous” tone when criticizing the soviet power. Others praised for playing the national anthem on the morning of the November 18th. As the radio aired on mornings some described them as the happiest time of the day. Meanwhile soviet newspapers condemned the “fascist pirates” on the radio waves.

Skultāns wrote memorandum on the future of the Latvian broadcast and presented it at the 1st Latvian Culture congress in Chicago and Madrid radio committee to improve the station was formed. The radio station program consisted of every day news, cultural events and reviews.  Once a week a special program was aired to counter claims of the soviet propaganda. Twice a week the radio talked about Russification and some economical issue. Skultāns made strong anti-communist comments more sharper than all other Latvian language services.  Radio also told stories of the brave Latvian Waffen SS legion fighting the soviets and countered the soviet accusations towards them.

On May 31 1965 for unknown reasons the RNS VFL was suddenly taken off air. At first the shutdown was temporally, and then it held for 52 months.  Officially the reason was technical issues, but as it was rumored it was due to change of Spanish foreign policy. After months of unsuccessful talks Skultāns abandoned Madrid and went to Frankfurt. There the Voice of Free Latvians made second coming as part of Radio Free Russia.

On 1969 the RNS unexpectedly restored the Latvian service. Skultāns returned to Madrid. On September 20 1969 narrator Ivonna Muktāne announced on the radio waves: “This is broadcast for our Latvian fatherland and freedom from the main Spanish National radio in Madrid. We broadcast every day from 21:15 to 21:30 on Latvian time on 32,04 meter shortwave with two repeats on 15:45 to 16:00 in the evening on 30,7 meter shortwave. Please tell your trustful friends and relatives, so they can also listen to our programs! Skultāns meanwhile was cautious about longevity of the Latvian program in Spain due to the coming changes in the Spanish government. He warned member Silvestrs Lambergs of ALA that criticized by many the VFL on Radio Free Russia might live longer than VFL on Spanish radio. ALA planned to take over the VFL broadcast and made Lambergs as supervisor. Lambergs had received special education in radio programming and later did half-hour Latvian radio programs in Latvian in Boston.

Skultāns had issue gathering staff members and financial support. Many offered support, but later declined. The religious programming was troubled because preacher Vilis Vārsbergs was always late in submitting program materials and was out of contact. ALA Information Bureau paid its reporters no more than 8$ for every text. Eventually the Madrid editorial came into conflict with ALA because it started to ignore ALA directives and sent program texts. Skultāns originally promised to work in Madrid for three months so ALA tried searching for a new chief editor. The search failed for the candidates the editor of newspaper Latvija (Latvija) Austra Liepiņa was seen as unfit for radio, while flamenco guitarist Andris Kārkliņš who know Spanish very well was seen as too young for such job. So Skultāns was left as chief and even tasked to write three programs in a week.

From 1955 to 1965 VFL featured programs in Latgalian – a distinct form of Latvian language in Latvian eastern part of Latgale. The programs were hosted by Vladislavs Lōcis. When Latgalians tried to apply for new radio show promising no financial need for Latgalian exiles have enough support on their own, the ALA rejected because it would not have any control over this broadcast. Also, the issue was raised over Latgalian language that was not knowledgeable to all Latvians and ALA demanded not to allow Lōcis to appear every week on the radio, and send their broadcast text to ALA in middle-Latgalian dialect that is more knowledgeable to the common Latvian. Meanwhile the Spanish radio management on 1970, 1971 and 1972 issued orders to Latvians to use only Spanish official sources. In each situation the order was quickly canceled and Spanish bureaucracy apologized for misunderstanding. The management was unaware of the Spanish non-recognition policy and did not coordinate their decisions with the governmental officials.

The issues between ALA and VFL grew stronger. ALA paid ridiculously low salaries to two assistants of Skultāns Ivonna Muktāne and Elza Grigāne De Miguel – 100$ in a month. While Skultāns asked to increase the salary, ALA ordered to fire one of the workers. Ignoring Skultāns ALA ceased payments to both workers, who for patriotic reasons decided to stay at the station. ALA then came to decision to end all financial support to Madrid station. Estonians and Lithuanians who continued to support the broadcasts were puzzled by this action, while Spilners started campign to support the radio station. ALA only agreed to finance VFL in case if Spanish radio increases the transmitter power. While such promises were made,  they were not fulfilled and funding problem continued. On June 14 1972 Ivonna Muktāne went to Venezuela to give birth to a child and become a citizen of the country. Elza Grigāne asked for replacement, but it never came. While Lithuanian and Estonian service went on full swing, the Latvian service of the National Radio of Spain was closed forever.

National Radio of Spain interval signal 1965

The Radio Free Russia transmitters used by the Voice of Free Latvians

The Radio Free Russia transmitters used by the Voice of Free Latvians

Свободная Россия/Brīvā Latviešu Balss (Radio Free Russia/Voice of Free Latvians)

The National Alliance of Russian Solidarists (Национально Трудовой Союз) NTS was formed on 1930 by the group of Russian anti-communist exiles. Their aim was topple the Bolshevik regime in Russia. By 1932 they tried to infiltrate their members in the Soviet Union, spread anti-communist propaganda using balloons. Their members were arrested in Soviet Union and persecuted by the Nazis. From today’s perspective a peculiar thing was their symbol – the Ukrainian trident along the Russian tricolor.  NTS survived the war and continued to establish contacts with Russian compatriots. KGB tried to silence the organization by sending Captain Nicolay Hohlov to assassinate the NTS leader Gregory Okolovich. Instead Hohlov asked for political asylum in West Germany and joined the NTS. Later Hohlov to KGB shame even became professor in American university. In late forties NTS acquired transmitter from the US army and started its clandestine broadcasts on 1950. The station was called Свободная Россия – Radio Free Russia. The transmitter was mounted on cargo truck moving along the border of the soviet controlled Germany. Antenna was simply thrown on the trees of the high-points. The Western German and US intelligence kept closed eyes on this operation, only in some cases asked to move truck to another hilltop. Eventually RFR moved to two stationary transmitters and without any license broadcasted daily for 13 hours for years. On 1958 KGB bombed the NTS transmitter in Sprendlingen. Despite the all the odds NTS survived the Cold War and ceased its activities after the fall of Soviet Union.

After National Radio of Spain closed the Latvian service Vilis Skultāns was looking for new radio station to host his Latvian service. American Latvian Alliance asked Skultāns to consider hold talks with West German radio Deutsche Welle broadcasting in nine languages, create independent station or hold talks with NTS in Frankfurt. Also, the Radio Vatican was asked to allow more room for political content. Deutsche Welle rejected the offer and Radio Vatican also refused. Meanwhile NTS was more approaching to allow Latvians to join their radio. Using NTS contact person Ojars Gobiņš who was in good relations with Ukrainian and Russian anti-communists he established friendly contacts with the movement.

On 1966 Skultāns issued manifesto all exile organizations explaining the goals of the Voice of Free Latvians. The station was set to fight russification, keep Latvians in hope for liberation day, strengthen the national self-conscience and resist the repression and injustice. The station was supported by Alliance for Fatherland AF who sent tape recordings of program Freedom for Fatherland. Station was also supported by Russians from Latvia such as Lev Rahr, who was Latvian citizen and served in the Latvian army. He helped Latvians to reach common agreement with NTS leadership. The agreement was made on commercial basis, NTS did not censor the station and the station kept its Madrid radio name – The Voice of Free Latvians. One of the Latvians dean Miķelis Lizdiks asked can Latvians speak freely against the russification in Latvia and against the Russian chauvinism as whole. The answer was yes – from all republics Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have full rights for independence. Only demand was not to associate whole Russian people with communism. However, the heads of the leading Latvian exile organizations did not believe the Russian promises for support for independence. Month later NTS sent letter in German where he again re-assured that Latvia that was annexed by Soviet Union has full rights of restoring independence, also adding many citations from NTS conferences supporting this view.

On October 15 1966 the Voice of Free Latvians was back on the airwaves. The broadcast started with NTS hosts in Russian saying “let’s give the microphone to our Latvian common thinkers”, afterwards the voice in Latvian issued: This is VFL, the broadcasts take place every day from 9:00 in the evening to 9:10 with two repeats right after that. Our wavelength is   26 and 46,9 meters. Long live free Latvia!” Followed by nationalist slogans and reading of the poem by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš Remember Latvia! the first issue of the program was “Communist party troubles in Western world”. The station aired from 21:00 to 21:30, containing 10 minute original program, repeated two times, to avoid the soviet jammers. The location of the station was kept secret to avoid KGB sabotage.

NTS demanded 1 000 Deutschmarks in a month, later slightly increasing it. However, because of financial shortages, Latvians could not always pay in time. They were forced to send apply to increase the debt period that NTS accepted. NTS cut monthly pay to 700 DM. On 1968 Latvians owned 4 200 DM to NTS. With all the NTS cuts the supporting organizations from Chicago and AF still could not assemble enough funds to pay of NTS. Latvians had to decrease the broadcast times while both supporting sides conflicted with each other. The station workers had no pay; often had use their own funds to buy tapes, writing materials and sometimes even half of program time. Such situation went on until 1969. The main Latvian exile organizations not only denied support for the VFL but also condemned the only politically free Latvian radio station that had no funds to sustain itself.

While NTS demanded only to cover financial issues and did not mind nationalistic rhetoric voiced by VFL, other Latvians in exile raised suspicion that VFL is hosted by Russians and condemned the VFL association with Russian chauvinists. VFL tried to show voice of reason that not all Russians are communists and many Russians are anti-communists and Latvian allies and more danger comes from Latvian communists.

Other critics raised arguments that the station was not receivable in Latvia. While an argument that station cannot be received in the UK was ridiculous because station was aimed at Riga, many claimed that there is no one from Latvia who had listened to the “NTS Latvian Broadcast”. VFL countered the arguments that they have received letters from listeners in Latvia and their broadcasts are interesting to Latvian listeners then the Latvian VOA report on US Foreign  Secretary daughter’s wedding with Afro-American.  On 1968 Latvian National Fund made secret survey in Riga and Ogre where 25 people stated they mostly listen BBC World Service in Russian, VOA in Latvian and the VFL despite, the fact it’s jammed more than others. One NTS agent in USSR was tasked to drive from Leningrad to Tbilisi and measure the reception of the NTS radio. His report concluded that VFL is receivable very well in Latvia outside large towns. And, with that the best source was soviet newspapers that complained about Radio Free Russia and mentioned Latvians. Despite the KGB efforts VFL received letters praising the station. VFL broadcasted wide spectrum of political and historical issues. They were not affected by other state guidelines were more nationalistic and anti-communistic.

On 1969 National Radio of Spain suddenly renewed broadcasting in Latvian. Most of the VFL staff moved to Madrid. Meanwhile for three years VFL continued broadcasting on Radio Free Russia. Dean Miķelis Lizdiks worked alone in the Frankfurt transmitter. Loaded with work and lack of funds Lizdiks eventually gave up on 1971. On 1972 NTS received letter in Russian, that claimed that in deep regret the VFL have failed to attain its goal and was never received by anyone in Latvia and disappointed financers have cut all funding. While the statement was false and self inflicting, the VLF was received in Latvia, the true reason was lack of support from exile committee, NTS accepted the closure and sent their best regards.

Radio Free Russia interval signal 1972

This is the long story short about the international broadcasting in the Latvian language. While VOA and RFE/RL was supported by the US government and managed to reach enough quality, the Voice of Free Latvians was troubled by the lack of the support amidst Latvian exiles. The story of the Voice of Free Latvians is unique one because for one period of time it operated as unlicensed clandestine service hosted by Russian exile nationalist movement. Until the appearance of RFE/RL Latvian service the VFL was only alternative to the VOA and Radio Vatican. Both VOA and RFE/RL can be praised for their work transmitting the western point of view to Latvians kept behind the Iron Curtain. The stations inspired Latvian anti-soviet resistance and kept the ordinary Latvians hesitant to the sovietization and russification. While Latvia is multiconfesional country with Catholic Church only playing main role in some regions, the Radio Vatican service did great work exposing the soviet repressions against Christians and kept the spirit of religion among the Latvian believers. During the soviet rule Catholics were the most resistant to the soviet policy of atheism, while Lutherans and Orthodox were more willing to give up their faith.  Voice of Free Latvians meanwhile broadcasted alternative point of view not affected even by their hosts the Spanish Franco government and NTS the Russian exile movement.

Today the situation again resembles the days of the Cold War where information and propaganda is used as essential part of hybrid warfare. The propaganda wars now mostly takes place on television on the internet as shortwave broadcasting has been used by only few countries in the world. But, the methods are often the same, and Latvia and the West as whole again needs a lot of recourses to counter propaganda coming from Russia and various terrorist organizations. Latvia now is independent country with the Western support, so the need for defending its point of view relies heavily on us. The lesson from Latvian exile bickering over the Voice of Free Latvians shows how good projects can be doomed by people who are interested in it in the first place. Today Latvian information services are unable to form a TV program in Russian language and the attempts on foreign language service on internet often give poor results. The defeat in the information war can once again lead to situation where exiles and refugees are forced to seek means of broadcasting information to the homeland controlled by hostile forces. Because of this all past lessons are meant to be taken into account. The propaganda and information is one of the essential weapons of the national security.

Selected Sources:

Johatan H. L’Hommedieu. Baltic Language Broadcasting: Emigre Politics and American Cold War Radios.    Latvian History Institute Journal.  2014. Nr. 2

Richard H. Cummings. (2009) Cold War Radio. The Dangerous History of the American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950-1989. New York. Mc. Farland& Company Inc.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē.

Rolfs Ekmanis.  Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Radio brīvā eiropa / Radio brīvība (rfe/rl) – v

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Radio brīvība (rl) paspārnē 1975-1984– i

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Radio brīvība (rl) paspārnē 1975-1984 – ii

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Radio Vatikāns.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Madrides brīvā latviešu balss 1955-1965

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Brīvā latviešu balss frankfurtē 1965–1972 – i daļa.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Brīvā latviešu balss frankfurtē 1965-1972 – ii daļa.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Brīvā latviešu balss frankfurtē 1965-1972 – ii daļa. Brīvā latviešu balss frankfurtē 1965-1972 – iii daļa.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Latviešu balsis atkal madridē 1969-1972

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Roma Genocide in Latvia 1941-1944

Èigânu masu apbedîjumi Valguma meþâ. Anatolijs Berezovskis un Lûcija Ignis

The mass killing site at Valguma lake near Tukums

One of the less discussed events of the Latvian history is Roma Genocide that took place in Latvia during Nazi occupation. Called Porajmos in Romani language the Roma genocide was part of the Holocaust directed against Jews, mentally ill, homosexuals and Roma’s who lived in significant populations across the Eastern Europe. The death toll of Nazi killed Roma’s  estimated  220,000 to 1,500,000 people. Genocide against Roma took place also in Latvia, where they been living for centuries.

The Roma people have been originated from ancient India and appeared in Europe in Middle Ages as early of 12th century. By practicing nomadic lifestyle they appeared all over Europe including Britain on 16th century. The largest concentrations of them were in Eastern Europe, Poland-Lithuania, Moravia and Wallachia. Roma’s managed to keep their eastern traditions and independent lifestyle often defying the laws of the ruling society. Some Roma communities started continuous settlements. Their differences in looks and culture often sparked hatred and prejudices.

The Nazi movement combined all the prejudices in united policy of hate and persecution. However, Nazis had difficulties labeling all Roma’s as subhuman (Untermenchen) because of their “Aryan origin” that Nazis considered the prime race. Also it was inconvenient that most consequent nomadic Roma’s were those of “most purest Aryan”. To “solve” the problem the racial specialist Dr. Robert Ritter lead research team to determine the racial status of Roma people. By examining 2000 people they came to conclusion that 90% of Roma are mixed with other Europeans and therefore sent to “mischlinge” (crossbreeds) category. They were labeled as anti-social and dangerous to the Nazi regime.  This conclusion now made 90% of Roma’s in danger of persecution. The 1935 Nuremberg racial laws were also applicable to  Roma’s. First group of German Roma’s were sent to Dachau camp  on 1936. The Dr. Ritter’s “research group” considered Roma’s to be sterilized and excluded from the society; that also applied to the “racial pure” Roma. On 1937 all Roma were ordered to move to special containment camps (Zwangswohnlager) and on 1938-1939 even more Roma’s were “preventively arrested” and sent to concentration camps. The start of the World War II opened the extermination phase as Roma’s were deported to the occupied Poland where their extermination begun. On December 16 1942 Heinrich Himmler ordered to send all Roma’s and mixed ones to Auschwitz death camp. Before that on 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Union the extermination of the local Roma have already begun.

It’s not known when Roma’s settled in Latvian territory. Possibly after 1561 when former Livonian Confederation became part of Poland-Lithuania. The Romani language in Latvia has four dialects, in Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemgale) most common is so called “Latvian romani” (lotfitka roma), in Latgale the “Northern Russian romani” (xaladitka roma) and Belarusian and Polish language affected Romani. The last Latvian  national census in 1935 counted 3839 Romas. 234 lived in Riga. Large concentrations of them were in Jelgava, Daugavpils, Talsi, Ventspils, Rēzekne, Valmiera, and Tukums. Large numbers of them lived in regular homes. While encountering usual prejudice; labeling as “horse thieves”, “vagrants” and “tax and army service evaders” no serous acts of violence against Roma were ever recorded in Latvia. Latvians called Roma Čigāni (the gypsies) and this therm was used in press and official documents.

Its possible the Roma population in Latvia was larger then according to the 1935 census data. On June 1941 there could have been about 12 000 Roma people living in Latvia.  The first killings were made by the German Einsatzgruppen and assisting Latvian collaborator units. One of the first killing sites were Baltinava township in Eastern Latvia were 10 Roma families – 43 people were murdered in August 1941.  The Roma genocide really started on December 1941 when Nazis had finished the genocide of the Latvian Jews.  90 people were killed in Kalvene parish near town of Aizpute in Western Latvia. In Liepāja the full list of murdered Roma’s were found, only one such in Latvia. 100 Roma’s are mentioned in Nazi report to be shot in the Ciecere parish. The 1935 data had 176 Roma’s living in Liepāja. Tukums a city located between Kurzeme (Courland) and Zemgale region had large population of Roma. Inconclusive reports from interrogated Nazi suspects states that about 200-300 Roma’s were killed. Tukums had 233 Roma’s on 1935. The town of Bauska near Lithuania border had fairly large Roma population. It’s known that 250 people of all ages were killed in Jaunsaule parish. The people from nearby township of Skaistkalne were also murdered there. Fourth largest city Jelgava had 401 Roma’s 200 of them were destroyed although the data is inconclusive. 200 Roma’s were possibly killed in Ludza district in Latgale region. The heart town of Latgale Rēzekne had 130 Roma’s arrested on January 5 1942 and possibly concentrated in former synagogue or empty shop space nearby and then murdered at Garbari forest near Zvirgzdene township. During the Audriņi massacre on January 2,4 1942 when Germans murdered 215 local villagers for hiding the soviet partisans, several Roma’s were killed who lived nearby. 50 Roma’s were shot near the Valmiera concentration camp. There is very fewer details about the Roma genocide in Riga. It’s possible that Romas were shot in Jugla, Strazumuiža, Biķernieki Forest, Strazdumuiža railway station and other parts of Riga. Similarly fewer details are about the fate of Roma’s in Daugavpils where is known that 5 Romas were shot in the Daugavpils prison. Similar obscure details are about Ventspils.

Current research estimates conclude that about 2000 Latvian Romas were killed during the Nazi occupation. Half of the Roma 3839 population of 1935. As mentioned the real size of the Roma population on 1941 could be more larger than official data meaning the number of victims could be larger than 2000 people.

Kārlis Krūminš the savior of the 200 Roma at Talsi district

Kārlis Krūminš the savior of the 200 Roma at Talsi district

The Nazi policy towards Roma people changed on 1943 when the guidelines now separated Romas in nomadic and non-nomadic Romas. The regular living ones were considered as rural citizens, while nomads were equaled with Jews. That halted the active killing and saved lives of many. However, in some parts of Latvia the killings were avoided because of the involvement of the local populace. The chief of the Talsi district Kārlis Krūmiņš resisted the German order to exterminate all Roma’s for they are required for workforce and bear no danger to the district. Some days after this decision Lutheran Archbishop Teodors Grīnbers gathered all Roma’s to a mass and told they must be thankful to Krūmiņš for rescuing their lives. He pledged them to work hard for the German army. About 200 Roma’s in Talsi district were kept alive this way. Krūmiņš was later arrested by the Soviets where he gave testimonies of how he saved the Roma from the murder. Nevertheless, he was sent to Gulag as traitor. Another Roma savior was Mārtiņš Bērziņš the head of the Sabile city in Kurzeme. According to some reports the Roma’s were gathered at the killing site when Bērziņš in the nick of time rushed with a bicycle and stood in front of the shooters and declared: “If you shoot them; then shoot me too!” Local shooters were unable to do so and about 300 Roma’s were spared. Bērziņš was saved from the 1949 deportations by his Roma supporters and died in Dundaga on 1968. Bērziņš also warned local Jews of coming execution. Later a memorial plate in Sabile was unveiled to commemorate his heroic act. Both Krūmiņš and Bērziņš can be compared to Žanis Lipke the most famous Jewish savior from Latvia.

The facts about the Roma genocide in Latvia is found in the Soviet Emergency Investigation Commission documents. The commission persecuted all the captured Nazi collaborators and disclosed their crimes towards Jewish and Roma people. So far the most detailed research have been made by Aigars Urtāns about Bauska district while general research is still lacking. Jewish historian Marģers Vestermanis first opened the subject on 1993 with his publication about the Roma genocide in Latvia. On 2015 the senior chief Commissar of the International Roma Alliance made publication based on archive documents. More detailed publications are expected in the future. So far there have been no memorial plates and monuments dedicated to the victims of the Roma genocide in Latvia. Despite active calls from Roma community the process of research and remembrance have been very slow by comparing to the amount of work contributed to Jewish holocaust. Its one of the sad parts of the Latvian history that must be researched further and included in our memory of the past.

Selected Sources:

Rudēvičs, Normunds. (2015) Romu Holokausts Latvijā. Konferenču un semināru materiāli 2009-2014. Shamir. Rīga, 2015

Vestermanis, Marģers. Čigānu genocīds vācu okupētajā Latvijā (1941.-1945). Latvijas Vēsture 1993/4 (11)

Urtāns, Aigars (2003), “Bauskas pilsētas un apriņķa čigānu iznīcināšana 1942. gada vasarā”, in: Dzintars Ērglis (ed.), Holokausta izpētes jautājumi Latvijā: Staptautiskā semināra referāti 2001. gada 29. novembris, Rīgā, un 2001.–2002. gada pētījumi par holokaustu Latvijā / The Issues of the Holocaust Research in Latvia: Reports of an International Seminar 29 November 2001, Riga and the Holocaust Studies in Latvia in 2001–2002.

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Jews in Soviet Latvia. Assimilation, resistance and revival.

Jews in the Riga train station on the way to Israel

Jews in the Riga train station on the way to Israel

On May 14 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence. It was the realization of hopes and dreams of many of the Holocaust survivors. Large masses moved to the new country, others watched it from their homes at the Diaspora.  In Soviet Union it was pretty much different. Despite initially supporting the Israeli independence, Soviet Union maintained hostile policy towards Israel for next five decades. Despite Soviet Union having one of the largest numbers of Holocaust victims and survivors, its policy was anti-Semitic and unfriendly towards the Jews in Soviet Union. The Soviet Anti-Semitism was not genocidal as the Nazi was. It was more oriented towards full assimilation, oppressive atheism and anti-Zionism. Soviet ideology was generally against practicing Judaism and embracing the Jewish national identity. In such climate the Jews around the Soviet Union had to choose between assimilation into Russian speaking “Soviet nation” devoid of religion and national values or resist. The resistance was not always active and open. The resistance was trying to preserve and maintain their religious values, commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and protesting to gain rights to immigrate to Israel. The post-war Latvia was one of the active parts of this resistance. The survivors and the newcomers all had to through the same choices that others had in the Soviet Union. At the end on late eighties the Latvian Jewish community was again on path to revival and restoration of the independent Jewish community.

 The Holocaust in Latvia killed about 75 thousand Latvian Jews. Only 15 thousand people managed to escape Latvia to the depths of the Soviet Union. A large number of Latvian Jews were deported by the Soviets on June 14 1941 mass deportations. Those who survived the camps later returned to Latvia. Not all returned, but those who did, found their pre-war life’s completely destroyed. There were no synagogues, no Jewish organizations; most of the old Jewish community was destroyed. On 1959 in Soviet Latvia there were 36 600 Jewish nationals 1,75% of the population, 80% of them living in Riga. Only 100 000 of them were born in pre war Latvia as large numbers of soviet Jews moved to live and work in soviet Latvia. Just 48% of them had Yiddish as their native tongue, 50% of them spoke Russian. In next decades the newcomers from Russia and other places overcome the native Latvian Jews. However in many cases they were united in their struggles against the Soviet assimilation policies.

The Jewish struggle against assimilation can be divided in two major parts. First: the preservation of religion, maintaining the religious values in defiance of the official atheist policy. Judaism is the most important aspect of the Jewish identity so it was crucial to keep and maintain it. Officially the Soviet constitution allowed religious practice that is separated from the state and schools. However, the Soviet authorities always tried to interfere in the affairs of the countries many churches and cults. The main authority concerning religious groups was the Council for the Affairs of the Religious Cults. At first the CARC was unable to control the Jewish congregations because of their small size and lack of unified spiritual center. Also because of transport problems, the religious live in rural towns was left beyond observation. The CARC representative Voldemārs Šeškens had very scarce knowledge about the Jewish religion and how to control it. He did not even know if the Soviet Union has any chief rabbi.

Despite that he began registering the Jewish congregations across Latvia. To register a congregation at least 20 people were needed, who then had to found a place for prayer and submit registration papers to local executive committee. It also had to be approved by the KGB.  If all sides approved then: the registry application had to be sent to Moscow where the People’s Commissar Council (later the Council of the Soviet Ministers) approved in the last instance. On 1949 seven congregations with 6 “cult servicemen” were registered across Latvia. Two in Riga, one in Tukums, Ludza, Krāslava, Rēzekne and Daugavpils.  However, there were also unregistered congregations with people unofficially or approved only by local authorities like in Jēkabpils, Liepāja, Ventspils ect. Most of the synagogues in Latvia were destroyed or damaged during the Holocaust, so it was difficult or impossible for the 20 people congregations to restore them. The only fully working synagogue in Latvia was the Pietav street synagogue in Old Riga that was left completely unscarred. Many synagogues were turned into libraries, restaurants and even sport halls like in Tukums.

The state policy became more hostile on 1948 trying to exclude and limit the Jewish religion. Sanctions were made against the young people who attended synagogue; many new regulations prevented Jews from maintaining their traditions. The anti-religious campaign was boosted by official state hostility towards the new State of Israel and the anti-cosmopolite campaign. Many of the religious activists were arrested and accused for the national treason. On 1953 the anti-Jewish campaign reached climax when the so-called “Doctors Trial” in Moscow boosted great fear of massive repressions towards the Jews. When the Riga Jews asked the Pietav Synagogue chief why there was no matzo bought this year, he replied “How can I ask for matzo if the head of the state himself (Stalin) writes anti-Semitic sounding article in the newspaper? One of the dearest rumors was that Stalin is preparing a mass Jewish deportation to Siberia. So far, no compelling documentary evidence have been found, but as Russian archives remain closed for the most part, it’s possible that such deportation was planned. After Stalin’s death the repressions against the Jews were ceased.

State policy became more liberal towards religion excluding the arrests and repressions. However, the anti-religious propaganda was omnipresent and often ignited hate and misunderstanding from the locals. On sixties as the Jewish national movement became strong worldwide the restriction and suspicion against the Jewish congregations became more severe. The new CARC rules removed the juridical status of the congregations and became fully controlled by CARC representatives. Taxing was increased to maximum; the local authorities could close down the congregation without higher approval as in Tukums in 1961 when the congregation was closed down.

Maintaining religion to preserve national identity proved not was the only working answer to assimilation. Not only because of the state restriction, but also because religion was not favored by all the Jews as their mean of the self identity. On 20th century two new self identity factors appeared among Jews: Holocaust commemoration and the State of Israel. Both of these factors became a challenge as the Soviets viewed them with even more hostility.

Both in Europe and Soviet Union the Holocaust commemoration begun in full-scale in the beginning of the sixties, when the Eichmann trial and Israeli victories made to talk openly about the Jewish Genocide and ask retribution. In Soviet Union the Jewish genocide was overly not mentioned in state media and history books. Only right after the war until 1948 the state newspapers mentioned the Jewish victims killed by the Nazis. Some novels like the Vētra (The Storm) written by Vilis Lācis famous writer and soviet statesmen described the Jewish killings in Latvia. The KGB made Extraordinary Investigation Commission and punished most of culprits who took part in the killings. However, later the Jews killed in Soviet Union were just part of “soviet citizens killed by the fascists”. It was done to avoid mentioning one nation not to boost the much feared Jewish nationalism.

The Star of David made from barbed wire at Rumbula mass murder site removed by the soviets

The Star of David made from barbed wire at Rumbula mass murder site removed by the soviets

The Soviet approved Rumbula memorial sign with hammer and sickle

The Soviet approved Rumbula memorial sign with hammer and sickle

In answer to that on sixties the first commemorative events started to take place in Rumbula, the mass killing site where 25,000 Jews were killed on November 30 , and December 8 1941. On 1961 first Jewish youth’s came to the site and started to mark the killing sites. The soviets were quick to issue warnings not to gather there. On 1962 first commemorative wooden plate was placed there. On 1963 at least every week people gathered to build memorial site. Artist J Kuzkovskis placed a large poster of Jew with squeezed fist rising from the grave in protest to what’s have bee done to him and his family. It was placed roadside alarming the soviets who removed the poster. After much friction between the state and the activists on 1964 a memorial stone was placed, with hammer and sickle and writing in three languages “For the victims of fascism 1941-1944”. Similar sites were made elsewhere, but not mentioning word “Jew”. Also if one dared to place the Star of David on the monument, he would be punished and the star removed. Soviets considered gatherings and seminars at the killing sites as the Zionist anti-soviet activity. Most of them were illegal, but were not dispersed, because sometimes more than 200 people came to them especially at Rumbula.

Soviet Union was hostile towards Zionism as it was Jewish Nationalism, and communism is primary against any kind of nationalism. However, on 1948 Stalin hoped that Israel would be ruled by leftist forces that would join the Soviet Block. Instead as in result of Arab-Israeli war the main force in the Israeli politics turned out to be right-wing Zionists; many of them having roots in Russia, Ukraine and Latvia. Soviet Union invested great sums to arm and train the Israeli enemy states Egypt, Jordan and Syria. During the times of Khrushchev, Soviet Union was the champion of the anti-Zionist ideology. It became even more active after the Six Days War on 1967 and Yom Kipur war on 1973 when Israeli military disgraced the Soviet Union by defeating the Arab states armed to teeth with the best Soviet weapons. The Israeli advances became known for many across the Soviet Union and movement begun to immigrate to Israel. However, the Soviets were against this and the resistance movement started across the union to gain rights to leave.

Anti-Israeli cartoon in the Soviet Latvian satiric journal Dadzis. The Gamblers of Tel Aviv by Normunds Zvirbulis

Anti-Israeli cartoon in the Soviet Latvian satiric journal Dadzis. The Gamblers of Tel Aviv by Normunds Zvirbulis

Jews in Latvia were active in this movement writing petitions to the Soviet government and international organizations. During the seventies more than 40% such letters came from Riga. The petitioners were called “otkazniks” (in Russian refused). 24 Riga “otkaznik’s” wrote open letter to UN. Grigorijs Mincs member of the prominent pre war family even approached the British MP Piter Archer and the UK embassy to grant him rights to leave. Protests and sit-ins were made by the “otkazniks” at the soviet authorities like on 1970 in Riga at the Latvian Soviet Supreme Council. On 1971 March 56 Jews from Riga arrived at Soviet Supreme Council at Moscow and gave a signed petition to allow them to leave and also free arrested activists. Along with them, people from Lviv, Vilnius, Kaunas and other cities. After being rejected, new letter signed by 165 people was addressed starting hunger strike that lasted for 26 hours that in first time in USSR history took place in state rooms. When they were threatened by militsyia (soviet police) they left the building only to return to Ministry of Interior next day. The marching Jews confused the people on the streets of Moscow and brought western media attention. The action took place in the same time as the 24th congress of the Communist party. Embarrassed soviets finally gave in and granted all previously rejected appeals to immigrate to Israel.  Hunger strikes became frequent among many Latvian Jews who in such way protested to the denial of emigration or the arrest of their relatives.

One of the most radical methods to leave the Union was a plane hijack attempt by the Jews from Riga on 1970. A group of 16 people planned to hijack AN-26 passenger plane in Leningrad but, were arrested before doing so. Their trial caused protests both in Union and the west. Later four Jews were arrested in Riga for supporting the hijackers. One of the evidence for their guilt was illegal Jewish newspaper “Iton”. The Jewish illegal publishing was called “Samizdat” (Self Publishing). “Samizdat” was journals and books about the Jewish history and culture and religion. Soviets targeted this as anti-Soviet propaganda and often arrested the publisher. Getting in goods from Israel and making things with Jewish symbols also alarmed the soviets. Jews also organized private educative lectures, theatrical plays called “Purimshpīl” displaying stories from the Jewish cultural life. The Judaica lectures gathered people from all over the Union and abroad. Eventually rather large numbers of Jews managed to move to Israel. Not all stayed there however, and used legal rights to travel further to US or Western Europe to settle there.

Not all Jews choose to resist assimilation.  For many it was easier to adopt Russian name to hide their Jewish identity and live the lives of the ordinary soviet citizen. Some of them became too assimilated and became Russian nationalists after the fall of the Union. Some only after the fall of the Union re-discovered their Jewish identity. In early 90ies Israel became overflowed with Jewish immigrants from all over the Soviet Union. About 1.6 million Jews from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States settled in Israel making rapid changes in the society.  Even the Arab tradesmen in the Old city of Jerusalem started to learn Russian.

Star of David along the Latvian flag at the Baltic independence protest

Star of David along the Latvian flag at the Baltic independence protest

Meanwhile those who stayed in Latvia at the late 80ies were on path on making legal Jewish organization as the state reforms finally allowed to create national minority organizations. The Jewish community was divided in two fractions. The “culture” fraction did not insist on leaving, but on maintaining the Jewish culture at home. The “political” fraction meanwhile maintained that in current circumstances the national revival is only possible in Israel. On 1988 the Latvian Jewish Cultural Society was founded in Skolas Street 6th the former Jewish theater later turned in to Communist party congress building. When the new Congress building was made, the Jews regained the old Jewish theater. The main stage was full of people witnessing the grand event the revival of the Latvian Jewish community.

Skolas Street 6th became the center of the modern day Jewish community in Latvia. On 1996 the unified Council of the Latvian Jewish communities and congregations becoming the main representative of the Jews in Latvia. The rather small minority of six thousand people are one of the most active national minorities in Latvia. On 1992 Latvia established diplomatic relations with Israel. The contacts between Latvian and Israeli Jews are dense and helping the local Jewish community. The Holocaust has finally received its place in Latvian history. It has been studied in depth. New monuments have been built across Latvia to commemorate the events. The Jewish nation has survived many attempts of assimilation and extermination. Their successful struggle against soviet assimilation is another proof of how the strong is the Jewish nation.

Selected Sources:

Barkane, Karīna. Valsts varas attieksme pret ebreju reliģiskajām draudzēm Latvijas PSR (1944-1964). Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie laiki. 2013. 3 (91)

Aļeksejeva, Olga. Ebreju pretošanās formas PSRS pastāvošajam režīmam (Latvijas PSR ebreju nacionālās kustības kontekstā) Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie Laiki. 2014. 1/2 (92/93)

Алексеева, Ольга. Радикальные формы сопротивления советскому режиму в среде евреев Латвии в начале 1970-х гг.: призма Ленинградского и Рижского процессов. Евреи в меняюшемшя мире VII. Рига 2015.  Латвийский университет

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Zionist movement in Latvia 1918-1940

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

On 18-19th century the nationalist movement became popular among many nations among Europe. Nationalist idea presented the unity by ethnic and cultural means and formation of a national state. For each nation the nationalism manifested in different ways. For French and British nationalism evolved into imperialism. For nations under foreign rule like Latvians the nationalism evolved into struggle for self determination. For the Jewish people their unique position in Europe made them create a specific type of nationalism – Zionism. For the nation left without homeland living in Diaspora among many places of the world the Zionism meant many things. First the rejection of assimilation and conversion to Christianity instead openly display their Jewish identity and demand equal rights in countries they lived. Second the ultimate goal – the creation of a Jewish state in their historical homeland in Middle East. Zionist movement appeared in late 19th century and reached Latvia that had significant Jewish population. At first it was rather weak, but after the foundation of the Republic of Latvia it became prominent even among other Jewish movements among Europe. This article is about these Zionist movements in Latvia, who were they and what they meant for Latvians and the Jews.

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The term Zionism was first used by Nathan Birnbum on 1982 in Vienna. The roots of the idea were at least 20 years older and expressed by thinkers including Rabbi from Bauska Mordechai Eliasberg who said people is only possible in their homeland. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who was born the Grīva present day Latvia on 1865. He is regarded as one of the most prominent religious thinkers who developed these ideas further. Ultimately this Latvia born scholar became the first Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jews in British Mandate of Palestine. But, the Zionist idea on the political level was raised by Jewish physician from Odessa Leo Pinsker. His book Auto-Emancipation published in Berlin on 1882 outlined the idea of the political Zionism. In his pamphlet he urged his fellow Jewish people to strive for independence and self-determination and reject assimilation and conversion that will not entirely remove anti-semitism. A state governed by Jews in the place of their own was further elaborated by Theodor Herzl in his Judenstaat – The Jewish State on 1896 and made the zionist idea widespread. There was a reason why one of the first proponents of Jewish national idea came from Russian Empire like Rabbi Cook and Leo Pinsker – the Jewish rights were in backwards state comparing to Western Europe. Thats why the ideas of Leo Pinsker where not generally accepted in Germany but praised in Russia.

The first Zionist organization in Russia was BILU society on 1882. On 1884 it was replaced by Hovevei Zion society. They established branches in Liepāja, Daugavpils, Krustpils, Bauska and other cities within present day Latvia. They did not manage to start colonization of Palestine owned by the Ottoman Empire. The boost was given by more practical ideas of Theodor Herzl and formed in the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland on 1897. Russia’s Jews faced pogroms as early as from 1880ies causing them to look for common political ideology of defiance. Herzl works were known in Latvia and evolved in different movements. Some called them Palestiophiles, among them V Kaplan, L Shalit,  Z Berman J Tron and others. They split up in political and spiritual Zionists. The third movement was Socialist Zionism organized in movement Poaley Zion and Ceire Zion who worked in Riga, Daugavpils, Ludza, Tukums and many other places. They were outscored by the Bund who were Jewish Marxists who played major role in the 1905 revolution and enjoyed greater popularity. As Marxists they rejected national and religious ideas instead focused on social issues and rights of the Jewish workers.

The First World War disrupted the lives of Jews in Latvia. Many were deported from combat areas in false accusations of spying, many took refuge by themselves. Large portion of them ended up in Russia. Together with Latvians, the Jews had the most organized refugee support societies. After the fall of the Russian monarchy on 1917 the Jewish movement split up in many ways. Many joined the Bolsheviks, others stayed true to the social-democracy regarded as Mensheviks. The Bund in Latvia rejected the communist party. Others in the light of the events in Palestine saw chance in revival of Zionism. The 1917 Balfour Declaration promising “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” however failed to match the Zionist expectations. The Zionist Leader Chaim Weizmann made agreement with Arab leader Emir Faisal for Jewish-Arab cooperation that would give Palestine to Jews, while Faisal receives a united Arab kingdom within Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Faisal’s logic was that Jews were wise and rich enough to turn Palestinian desert into garden while Arabs have the great kingdom in Baghdad and Damascus. However, the Allied powers failed his expectations by creating the Palestinian Mandate governed by British, giving Syria to France and Iraq to UK.  Such betrayal to the both to Arabs and Jews created a decades of war and hate still not solved until this day.

Meanwhile for Jews in Latvia there were three choices: support the Bolshevik Latvian Soviet Republic that was hostile to religion and national self-determination.  Support the Germanic Baltic Duchy that may give some rights to the Jewish minority or support the Republic of Latvia that promised equal rights for all nationalities in Latvia. At first the third choice did not seem obvious- the Latvian Provisional Government was weak and seemed short lived. However, some Jewish representatives joined the Latvian Peoples Council from the start. After the victories over Bolsheviks and Germans on the summer of 1919 the third choice was now the primary one. More than 1000 Jews took part in the ranks of the Latvian army. Some were decorated. After the independence was won it was time for Jews in Latvia to make out what is best for themselves.

The Republic of Latvia was a champion of the minority rights in the post war Europe. Jews finally had chance for their own schools supported by state, cultural movements and political parties to elect in parliament and local municipalities. The 93 479 Jews in Latvia (according to 1935 census) were different kind of people. Some of them were traders, shopkeepers, craftsmen, doctors, teachers, workers and poor. And different was their political and even religious views. In 20 years of independence the Jews in Latvia failed to create united organization to represent the entire Jewish community. The zionists were not united among themselves. The socialists and orthodox opposed them and each other. So the Jewish political climate in Latvia was diverse.

Zionism in Latvia had many wings. The Histadrut Chazionist party founded on 1919 represented the general right wing bourgeoisie Jews. They had sections in all Latvia, their idea was to create a national zionist center in Palestine and improve the lives of Jews within Diaspora. Other aspect of their ideology was to increase the Jewish involvement in the agricultural and industrial sector. Party was influential at first but failed to get elected in parliament only in some municipalities. Only the Constitutional Assembly from 1920  to 1922 had one elect Zh Thorn. The party contributed to the creation of the Palestine Bureau that was a center of communications between Zionists in Latvia and the settlers in Palestine. Also it organized the emigration from Latvia to Palestine. Party made many youth organizations Chatio (Hope), Bney Zion (the sons of Zion), and Herzlia. The youth organizations worked in cultural, sports and social fields.

An alternative Zionist movement was the religious Zionism movement Mizrachi. Judaism was the main force uniting Jews around the world. However, Judaism was not primary nationalistic and rejected political solution to the Jewish problems. As mentioned before the two Rabbis from Latvia Mordechai Eliasberg and Abraham Isaac Kook were the ones who promoted the middle way between secular and religious solution. The idea of combining both truths for the common good of the Jewish people created the religious Zionism that accepted secular state as part of the messianic way. The religious values can be kept in the Jewish state, thus for the religious Jew moving back to their ethnic homeland is a obligation and the Zionism is the will of G-d. Not all orthodox   Jews agreed on that, however the Mizrachi party in Latvia was quite influential.


Mordechai Nurock (left) speaks to the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis (right)

 Mizrachi (the Religious Center) party was run by rabbi Mordechai Nurock was born in Tukums on November 7 1879. He served as rabbi in Jelgava, on 1903 he took part in the Zionist Congress. He moved to Russia during the war and played key role in refugee organizations. He also joined the All-Russian Jewish Committee and established a religious Jewish group known as “Tradition and Freedom”. On 1921 he returned to Latvia and was elected in the parliament. He was consequently elected in next three elections until 1934. Nurock was active man, both in Latvia and abroad. He cooperated with many organizations and contributed to their work. He was well recognized among the Latvian politicians, his main allies however were the Social-Democrats who were mostly in the oppositions. The anti-semitic Latvian press always pointed to Nurock as the main patron of the two short lived leftist coalitions. But, Nurock was just and tolerant towards his opponents and supported democracy. The coup by Kārlis Ulmanis on May 15 1934 came to his disappointment and created opposition. In result his movement was rejected by the regime. On 1940 the Soviets exiled him to Turkmenistan. His wife and two children were killed in the Holocaust, while he was freed on 1947 and moved to Palestine. After the creation of the State of Israel he was elected in the Israeli Knesset on 1952 he was elected as minister of Postal service, he was also a candidate for the President of Israel. He served in the Knesset until his death on 1962 November 8 becoming the most successful Zionist from Latvia who actually took part in creation of Israel.

However, there were people who rejected the both general secular way and the religious way.  They were the left wing Zionists or Socialist Zionists. Already mentioned  the Poalie Zion (The Workers of Zion) and Ceirei Zion were already known before WWI. In socially unequal Latvia the left wing Zionism was apparently popular. Their leader Max Laserson was elected in many elections and stood united with social democrat organization. One of his main ideas was the Jewish Political and Cultural autonomy in Latvia greatly extending the Jewish rights. Also Baltic Germans and Russians pushed for the same making the Latvian legislators fear the creation of “state within state”. His proposals were not entirely rejected but politely “delayed” in parliamentary commissions. His socialism was not radical but more moderate achieving unity and progress in both national and social means. The left wing Zionists opposed the idea employed by the right wing and religious Zionists that Hebrew language used only in Torah and religious rituals should be brought to life.  Instead they insisted on keeping Yiddish the mix of Hebrew and German that was main language for Jews in the Eastern Europe. Not all Jews in Latvia used Yiddish as primary language. In Courland and Riga some preferred German; in Latgale some spoke only Russian. The both parties argued over the teaching of Hebrew in schools and the common ground was not achieved; some schools taught only in Hebrew, some in Yiddish. But, Hebrew was never used in the daily lives of the Latvian Jews.

On 1931 the Ceirei Zion united with their counterpart Zionist-Socialist party and created the United Party of Zionists-Socialists of Latvia”. But, the new force never made it to elections on 1934 after the coup they were banned by the anti-left wing Ulmanis regime. Max Laserson survived the Holocaust and made it to Israel and was elected in Knesset.


Zeev Jabotinsky

The Zionist movement was not complete without its far right wing. And Latvia played significant part in it. After the Zionist hopes to achieve statehood with the help of the Balfour declaration failed there was common sense of disappointment. The parties mentioned above continued to work on diplomatic solution and start colonization of Palestine. However, the hostility between Arabs and the new settlers resulted in violence. Palestine was not entirely devoid of Jews before the start of Zionist movement. The small Jewish population living there for centuries were generally tolerated by the Muslims who came there on 6th century. However, now the influx of the new settlers raised hostility boosted by the British inability to control situation in their mandate. This made some to come to conclusion that the only way to achieve Zionist goals is using radical force, by using self defense and armed response both to British and Arabs. This was a radical thinking for Jews in those times, as Jews living in other countries had no real militaristic tradition since the fall of Kingdom of Israel. The main leader of these people was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Born in Odessa 1880 October 18 Jabotinsky started as moderate Zionist. He came to militarism during WWI when he pushed for the Jewish Legion within the British Army to fight the Ottomans. In 1915, together with Joseph Trumpeldor, a one-armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, he created the Zion Mule Corps, he saw action in Palestine as Lieutenant within the 38th Royal Fusiliers. After demobilized he started to train Jewish Self Defense corps. After his unit was repressed by the British he became even more radical. In 1920, Jabotinsky was elected to the first Assembly of Representatives in Palestine. The following year he was elected to the executive council of the Zionist Organization. He was also a founder of the newly registered Keren Hayesod and served as its director of propaganda But after having major disagreements with moderate leading Zionists he left the Zionist Organization.

Jabotinsky considered that his political carrier is over. Then he was invited to Latvia and Lithuania to hold lectures. On 1923 he arrived in Riga to speak in  front of student organization Hatiho. As he preached his radical views he was told that he has no rights to preach them if he is not intending to create a political movement. That made Jabotinsky think over his intention the local students of Riga inspired him to start a new political movement called Zionist Revisionism. It was to revise the Zionist policy that failed to achieve its goals on 1917.

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

As Riga was the cradle of the revisionist movement the first of its organization was established in Latvia. The Latvian Union of Zionists-Revisionists came to being on 1925. The main Jabotinsky organization Betar is claimed to be founded in Riga. Betar soon spread all around the Europe and made its way in US and even Australia. In Palestine the Betar was often viewed by the British as terrorist organization. Some more radical offspring’s as the so called Stern Gang  or Lehi and Irgun were responsible for terrorist acts against the British like the King David Hotel bombing and the murder of the UN negotiator Folk Bernadotte on 1948. But, Jabotinsky movement major achievement was the contribution of making strong Jewish military to defend the new state of Israel. The Israeli Defense Force was created from these Jewish self defense units. Also major political parties like Likud and Kadima are followers of the Zionist-Revisionist movement. Without the Zionist-Revisionists the creation of Israel would not be possible and the fact that Riga was the starting point of this movement puts Riga as important place in the history of Israel.

The other wing of Zionist Revisonism active also in Latvia was Joseph Trupeldor movement. Joseph Trupeldor was a charismatic war hero that became famous in the Battle of Tel Hai on March 1 1920 where died in battle. Already famous war leader he was recognized as the national hero. To his honor a youth organization “Brit Josef Trumpeldor” (The Union of Josef Trupeldor) was created and was active in Latvia. The organization employed a militaristic lifestyle, marched in uniforms and often were called the “Jewish Fascists” because of their brownish uniforms. The brown color was to resemble the Palestinian desert and brown British uniform Trumpeldor wore. The organization made major contribution to youth sport and education.

There were two major opponents of Zionists among Jews in Latvia. The Bund that was the oldest socialist party in Russian Empire was still true to their pre-1918 views and rejected nationalism. They also opposed the teaching of Hebrew. Other major opponent was Agudat Isroel lead by Rabbi Mordechai Dubin. Influential politician and businessman was a Orthodox Jew who opposed moving to Palestine and create a new state before the arrival of the Messiah. Instead he pushed for staying in Latvia and maintain the religious traditions. He supported the teaching of Hebrew but only for religious means. Dubin who once even visited the US president Herbert Hover, had great influence on the Latvian politicians even Kārlis Ulmanis. Dubin however broke his principals when he made major effort to save thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany stranded in Latvia. One part of them was sent by him to Palestine because for Dubin the main prinicipal was to save help his common people regardless of his views.

Kārlis Ulmanis banned all the Zionist parties after his takeover. But, he banned every party regardless their nationality even his own Lavian Farmers Union. But, Ulmanis was not against Zionism in general as he saw nothing wrong of Jews moving away from Latvia and leaving more space for Latvians. Zionists except left wingers worked and non-political movements. The marching Trumpeldor’s were tolerated by Ulmanis. Then came the 1940 when the Soviet occupation closed all the Jewish societies and took over their property. Many of the Zionist leaders were arrested, sent to Siberia or shot. A year later Nazis destroyed the entire Jewish population in Latvia.

But the story of the Zionist movement in Latvia does not end with that. While the surviving Zionists worked in Israel, the Zionist movement, the Jewish national movement in Latvia appeared again in 1960ies as response to the anti-semitic Soviet policy. But that is another story to be told in future.

Selected Sources:

Волкович, Б. (2012) Сионистское движение в Латвии (1918-1940) 2-е изд., доп. Daugavpils

Sinkēviča, Eva (2014) Reliģiskā cionisma kustība Latvijā: vēsture,organizācija, ietekme. Promocijas darbs. Latvijas Universitātes Teoloģijas fakultāte.

Walter, Laquer (2003) A History of Zionism. From the French Revolution to establishment of the Sate of  Israel. Shocken Books. New York.

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Jews and Latvians in the 1905 Revolution

The Bloody Sunday on the January 22 (9 according to Julian calendar still used in Russian Empire) was a wakeup call for many nations across the Russian Empire. For Russians it was a fight for more political and social rights. For Latvians it was fight also for greater national rights. This was shared also by the Jewish people living across the Russian Empire. Their main strive was to defend themselves from the violent anti-Semitism and abolish all restrictions towards them. Together with Latvian revolutionaries they were united under one common goal – to bring down the oppressive absolute tsar Nicholas II monarchy. The revolution of 1905 was one of the interesting moments in history where despite cultural and ethnic differences the Latvian and Jewish revolutionaries fought together and even averted the anti-Jewish pogrom attempt in Riga.

Russia was stranger to Jews until the first partition of Poland on 1772 . After the final land grab on 1795 Russia gained enormous territories of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  For centuries Poland had large Jewish population. They were in large numbers in present day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. The 1897 First All-Russia national census counted 142 315 Jews within modern borders of Latvia 7,4% of the population. To keep Jews from moving to Moscow or Petersburg Russia introduced the Pale of Settlement (Черта́ осе́длости) a territory for permanent Jewish settlement and it was forbidden to live outside it. Originally only the eastern Latvian part of Latgale was within the Pale of Settlement as it was part of the Province of Vitebsk. But, a sizable Jewish population already lived in Courland. Despite many restrictions Jews managed to settle or work in Riga. Northern Latvian part of Vidzeme renamed almost unreachable to Jews with very small population. Jewish youth faced hard conscription rules for 12 years to serve in army, taxes were higher for them.

During the reign of the liberal Tsar Alexander II the Jewish relations with the state eased but after his assassination the relations gotten again to worsen level. Reactionary forces blamed Jews in the murder first pogroms took place. Pogrom – a large scale violence soon became a synonym for major violent attacks directed towards Jews. A violence that led to a political response from the Jewish nation. One part of them joined the Zionist movement that called for unification of the Jewish people under national means. They rejected assimilation and conversion to Christianity as it would not completely erase anti-Semitism. As Jews will always be regarded as strangers no matter how emancipated in the society they are. There were Zionist movements in Latvia, but their part in the revolution of 1905 was insignificant. And it’s another story to be told in future. The main force of the 1905 revolution was the far left social democrats and within them the Jewish Bund.

The Bund represented the masses of the Jewish workers or the so called Proletariat. Although Jews were always stereotyped as wealthy traders, large masses of Jews worked for 14 hours in a day with low wages and lived in poor unsanitary conditions.  Plus the nationally based restrictions made then to unite under the Red Banner that promised equal rights for all nations. The Bund was founded in Vilnius on 1897 as the Universal Jewish Labor Union in Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Later it was commonly known as the Bund (alliance).Bund was the first major Jewish party in Russia and also the first social democratic party. As the Russian Social Democratic Workers party (RSDWP) was founded a year later. Bund joined them and took active part in the strikes and demonstrations. The Russian authorities persecuted them and arrested their leaders. Later because of the national differences on 1903 Bund left the RSDWP, but cooperated with them during the revolution. While the Bund rejected the nationalistic Zionist ideas, they agreed in need of having Jewish schools and keeping the national traditions. However, they were strongly against the role of the religion and insisted on secularity.

The industrialized Riga and other parts of the Baltic province was no stranger to the workers movement. Some Jews  like Jankel Epstein from Daugavpils were first to direct the movement. Bund was popular among the Jewish students within the Riga Polititechnical Institute some of them were ejected from it. Daugavpils with major Jewish population –  most of them workers was the main headquarters for the Bund. They took part in all strikes and protests including the major First May demonstration that took place in many cities of Russia. Because the demonstration in Vilnius caused rough government response by publicly whipping the organizers, that in response caused attack on the general governor, in Riga local Bund members created a armed resistance group. The external Bund bureau however asked to resort from violence.

The Russian defeat in the war with Japan led towards economical downfall. On January 9  (22) 1905 in Petersburg the large peaceful crowd marching towards the Tsars main palace asking him to listen to their petition was fired upon by the Tsars guard causing bloodbath known as the Bloody Sunday. The largest country in the world with modernizing society, but with decadent absolute monarchy went into rage. Nicholas II witnessed the murder of the Alexander II  who was killed by anarchists despite abolishing serfdom and intending to write a constitution. Because of this, Nicholas II was slow and reactionary to reforms. But, the people across the Russia had enough of this. So as the Latvian people.

The leading force of the Latvian revolutionaries was the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, united with Bund on January 13 it hosted a demonstration march in Riga for the fallen comrades in Petersburg. The large demonstration of 10 000 people lead by LSDWP leader Ansis Bušēvičs marched from Moscow Street to the city center. Despite Buševičs calling to end the demonstration and lower the red flags , large parts of crowds did not listen and moved towards the armed cavalry of Cossacks.Police and Cossacks responded with fire killing more than 70 people. Many tried to cross the frozen river Daugava to escape the shooting and drowned. Among the killed were five Jews and 9 wounded. The fallen were young men 22 year old Eliass Epstein, Michael David Abramovich of the same age, 17 year old Izrail Jaschikov, Chaim Jankel Sperling 18 years old and 22 years old Michail Ucca. Two among them were from the Bund.

Revolution sparked out in Latvia. Bund started major activities. On 1905 and 1907 two general strikes were held in Daugavpils. An odd form of strike was held in Riga on 1905 May and June a strike of the producers and traders of the kosher meat that left the kosher eating Jews of Riga without kosher food for almost a month. It’s not known how significant was the kosher only population that suffered from this as not all Jews applied to the religious rules. On summer of 1905 the rural workers in Kurzeme (Courland) issued a general strike and Tsarist government issued a state of war within the Courland province. On September 16 the Jewish-Latvian students of the Riga Politechnical institute issued protest in support of the striking field workers.

When the protests resorted to arms Jews joined Latvians in armed assault against the Riga Central Prison to free their imprisoned comrades. In the night of September 6 to 7 47 Latvian and five Jewish fighters raided the prison and freed two main revolutionaries J Lācis and J  Šļesers. Also the famous LSDWP commando who became an anarchist Jānis Žāklis later known as the Peter the Painter whose mother was a Lutheran Jew. He took part in most of the armed actions against the Tsarist authorities. However, later he became too violent and was rejected by his social democrat comrades.

The use of violence was a great issue for the Latvian revolutionaries. At the end of the 1905 the revolution was close to failure. On December 9 armed uprising begun in Moscow. Some Latvian, Russian and the Bund called for armed uprising in Riga too. They even insisted on storming the Fortress of Daugavgrīva where the main Riga garrison was stationed. The majority of LSDWP was against such bloodshed, however the Bund did not back down and joined the radical Russian social democrats who wanted the uprising. In long frantic talks from December 11 to December 16 the LSDWP convinced the Bund not to start uprising and general strike. On December 18 the interim Baltic general governor general-lieutenant V Sologob arrived in Riga and started the punishment expeditions.

In one cause the Bund and LSDWP was united without question. Do not allow any pogroms in Riga and elsewhere around Latvia. LSDWP as marxist party was against anti-Semitism and called for general human rights regardless of nationality. Even the future Latvian nationalist leader Arveds Bergs called for full cooperation between Latvians and Jews and asked to give them full rights. On the other side the Latvian monarchist Fricis Veinbergs published anti-Semitic slogans supporting the pogroms.

The 1905 revolution again ignited the pogroms in Russian Empire. The last major pogrom took place in Kishinev modern day Moldova. While Tsar openly condemned this, in private he expressed support for anti-Semitism that could unite nation in support for his regime. The major radical supporters of the Tsar Nicholas II were the far right radicals often with ultra-orthodox views. These people were called the “Black Hundred” (Чёрная сотня). The ideals of the Black Hundred were mix of Russian imperialism, chauvinist nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. Together with violent anti-Semitism the Black Hundred was the first early fascists. Sadly this form of Russian far right is gaining prominence again in the modern day Russia.

It was not just Black Hundred that was responsible for waves of pogroms in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. On October 18-20 in Odessa 400 people were killed. The Tsarist police although condemning the attacks and trying to arrest the perpetrators, often did nothing on purpose as they believed the majority of the revolutionaries were Jews. Tsar and the Church condemned the attacks, but they also thought that they help them to quell the revolution. Such pogroms could take place in Latvia also but were stopped by the joint Latvian and the Jewish efforts.

First violent attacks against the Jews took place in city of Ludza. But, they were small scale attacks on shops and were stopped by locals. Daugavpils was filled with rumors about coming pogroms in April but did not happen. On August the Riga port workers turned violent and wanted to attack the Jews. This time the police and Cossacks stopped them. On October 17 Tsar was forced to issue his manifesto that gave some of his powers away. The reactionaries blamed the Jews and on October 18 a pogrom started in Kyiv. Then in Riga the local Russian workers who supported the Tsar became violent. They mostly lived in the Moscow district where many Jews lived too and were angry that they liked the new freedoms granted by the weakened Tsar. Riots started on October 22-23. However, these riots only were a attempt to start a pogrom.

On October 22 first clashes between the Russians, Jews and Latvians took place on Lielā Kalna Street near the Orthodox Church. The angry Russians were from the Kuznetsov porcelain factory who assaulted both Latvians and Jews. The fight was stopped only by the arrival of the Cossacks. After learning the news both the LSDWP and Bund decided to form the self defense groups to defend both Latvian and Jewish supporters.

On October 23 the workers of the Kuznetsov factory gathered for a patriotic march a small crowd of 100-150 men. Despite having support for the Black Hundred, there was no such working Black Hundred organization within Latvia at that time. The marchers holding the pictures of Tsar and holding icons marched along the streets of  the Moscow district. The marchers started to attack everyone who they disagreed with along the way even Russians. Bloodshed erupted between the marchers, Cossacks and the LSDWP and Bund armed units. Among them the future foreign minister Fēliks Ceilēns. Angry mob joined by homeless and scoundrels attacked the Jewish shops reached the Yaroslavl street 44/43 (now Ludza street) where the Jewish Social home was located and was ready to attack it.

Fortunately the Jewish defenders along with Latvian comrades had already taken the defensive positions. Attackers were held back by the fire, and the Cossacks rushed to the scene to stop both of them. The major pogrom attempt was stopped although later in separate incident one Jew named Jankel Poplak was killed. Also Jew Zalman Gurevich was killed before him. 4 Latvian self defenders were killed in the clashes. 2 Latvians were killed by the angry mob. 3 Russians died along. A total of 47 people were killed or hurt. Majority of them were Latvians. Meaning this was not just pogrom attack against Jews but also against Latvians. As the Russian monarchists regarded Latvian revolutionaries as enemies too.

On October 24 the governor of Vidzeme Nicholas Zvegincev banned all patriotic demonstrations with the pictures of the emperor and the Russian anthem. With Tsar still in place this was clearly attempt of preventing pogrom. Similar clashes on the same time took place in Daugavpils resulting the death of the Jewish combatant Aron Feldman.

The major pogrom was avoided in Riga, because there was no major support for it among Latvian population. Also the Riga Tsarist police and the Cossacks were on the active side of the law. And of course the Latvian-Jewish joint defense groups fought off the Russian radicals. This is a rare event when pogrom was prevented in the major city of the Russian Empire. Other cities were not so fortunate.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution both the LSDWP and Bund worked underground. The outbreak of the First World War caused many Latvians and Jews to take refuge in Russia. The Pale of Settlement was broken. The Revolution of 1917 again took Latvian and Jewish leftists on the streets. Some joined the Bolsheviks. Other sided with democratic Republic of Latvia. During the period of 1918-1934 both LSDWP and Bund took part in the Latvian politics and worked together.

Selected Sources:

Stranga, Aivars (2006) 1905-1906. gada revolūcijas lappuses. Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Nr.2.

Stranga,Aivars. (2008) Ebreji Baltijā no ienākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam 14. gadsimts-1945. gads. Rīga. LU Akadēmiskais Apgāds.

Mendels, Bobe (2006) Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga. Šamir.


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