Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Times of the Barricades in 1991

Dome square at the times of the barricades

20 years have passed since the center of Riga was surrounded by barricades. They were made from any possible obstacles, blocks, tractors and woodcuts.  The purpose of them was to protect Riga from Soviet repression on the fight for Latvian independence. It was the critical period in Latvia. Since May 4 1990, Latvia had started a path to full independence from the Soviet Union.  Soviet officials in Moscow and their supporters in Latvia attempted to cancel Latvian fight for independence, by setting bloody provocations so the direct rule from Moscow would cancel Latvian path to freedom.

The movement for independence started in 1987 when Nationalist organization Helsinki 86 first appeared in public to commemorate the deportations of  June 14 1941. They placed flowers to the monument of Freedom and waved national Latvian flags. They also showed a large poster with slogan “Down with the occupation!”. It was the signal for whole Latvia and Moscow that Latvians are willing for freedom from the USSR. Although Helsinki- 86 was soon suppressed and their leaders exiled new  national organizations   started to form up. In 1988 Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK) was formed and demanded the separation from the Soviet Union. At the end of the same year Peoples Front of Latvia was formed and became the main force behind national movement.

The demonstration of the enemies of the independence

This all happened because of the Soviet policy of perestroika that allowed more political freedom in the USSR. However, Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev did not expect the rise of nationalism in the result of his reforms. To counter nationalism Latvian communists mainly Russians formed Interfront a counter force to Peoples Front. On 199o things begun to turn to nationalist way as in the first truly free elections since 1931. Peoples Front won a majority of seats in the Supreme Council of Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic. Now Peoples Front started the consequent move to make Latvia a sovereign republic once again. Latvian Communist party and Interfront failed to stop their intentions. Peoples front also had representatives in USSR Peoples Congress.

Nationalists succeeded by restoring national Latvian flag as an official state symbol. Many other changes were enacted until  May 4 1900 everything was ready to vote for a declaration of restoration of Latvian independence. The constitution of 1922, was restored and Latvia has now officially been a Republic. From that date an interim period was set until the elections of parliament takes place.

The Soviet government in Moscow was angry of such move. They had enough military power to completely stop independence movement as they did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. However, the climate of Soviet government had changed and Soviet leaders feared to use direct action. The eyes of the world watched closely the events in the Soviet Union. So in order to stop the separation of the Baltic States, Moscow planned to use local supporters in Baltic states so they trigger provocations, that would allow to set the presidential government in Baltic states. It would mean full control of Moscow and halt to any separatist activities.

The Soviet supporters in Latvia were members of the Soviet army, orthodox communists and Russian population. On May 15 1900 a large crowd of war school cadets attempted to storm the Supreme Council building.  They were pushed back by OMON- the special forces of the USSR. Situation begun to chill as more and more military transporters drove through the streets of Riga to warn Latvians of repressions.

The Latvian government cancelled to give supplies to a local Soviet army. Another threat was local KBG, Soviet prosecution and OMON. Latvians failed to take over them and in the result they were two Interior Ministries in Latvia- Latvian and the Soviet one. OMON refused to subdue to Latvian government and listened only to Soviet ministry. In the result OMON started numerous provocations and sabotages with the use of firearms against Latvian government. They razed down Latvian border stations and stormed the Press Building .

The Latvian communist party took organizational steps to attempt to overthrow Latvian national government. The enemies of independence united in USSR and Latvian SSR constitution and citizen protection comity. The communist party was led by Alfēdrs Rubiks. At the end of 1900 communist party changed the above named committee  in two All Latvia society rescue committee (VSGK). Its goal was to  seize back the power for communists. They hoped for direct presidential rule from Moscow.  In January 1991 Communists with armed force seized the Press Building to monopolize the press for their interests.

Peoples Front aware of the danger in  December 11 1900, issued a statement to all supporters of independence to be ready for “X- Hour” the time when direct rule from Moscow will be issued. People must resist the direct rule by any means possible.

Barricades in Riga, January 1991

On the night of 12-13  January in Vilnius, Lithuania Soviet army attacked the main television tower. It was a first attempt to seize power back from nationalists. However, the stiff resistance from Lithuanians ended in a bloodbath and resulted 14 deaths. The Soviet attack failed to reach their goal.  In response of this Latvian Communist leader Alfrēds Rubiks called for an armed uprising against Latvian government.

But Latvian government and the people acted quickly as well. Fearing an attack from Soviet tanks, barricades were built all around Old City. All governmental buildings were blockaded. Thousands of people gathered to protect national government. Such unity with the people and the government was never seen before. Soviet tanks would have no problem to crush the barricades but such action would result in even bigger bloodbath than in Vilnius. Despite United States and Western world was busy with the Gulf war Riga was filled with western journalists and the world media watched the events in Latvia closely.

VSGK in  January 15 issued a takeover of the Latvian institutions. To do this they used OMON to do attacks that will provoke a direct rule from Moscow.

In the night from 14 to 15 January OMON attacked the office of Minsk Supreme militia school in Riga , beat up the cadets and stole ammunition. Between 14 to 16 January OMON attacked the bridge guards. They beat them up, burned the cars. At the bridge of Vecmīlgrāvis OMON killed a car driver Roberts Mūrnieks.

In January 20 final attempt by VSGK was done. On 21:06 OMON approached the ministry of Interior and opened fire. They hoped for stiff resistance.  However, the ministry building was taken with ease. One ministry officer was shot dead.  The only serious response was from militiaman who opened fire.  This resulted wild shooting in the parks that caused deaths of two camera man Gvido Zvaigzne and Andris Slapiņs. Both cameraman filmed their own deaths as bullets hit them. Two militia officers died and schoolmate E. Riekstinš was shot dead. OMON suffered no damage. However, there is a video that shows how OMON car takes  away a dead body in fast speed. There is a theory of so called “third force” that also took part in shootings. They were man wearing camouflage and masks and took part in the shootings.

Bloody shootings strengthened the condemnations for the enemies of independence. International community condemned the attacks. The attempts for direct rule ended in failure as the Gorbachev opposition in Moscow halted this.

Soon after this much of the barricades were removed. The times barricades were legendary as the sign of never seen before unity of the Latvian people.   People from all ages spend cold nights in the Old City to protect their leaders.  People were ready to face tanks with empty hands. They however, had prepared for military activity. Some had hunting rifles and WWII weapons ready for just in case situations. Soviet government was unable to face such crowd with tanks that will result in bloodbath larger than in Vilnius. This was a clear sign that Latvians have the courage to fight for their freedom at the most important time.

The enemies of independence rise up once again in August when coup attempt in Moscow tried to save the Soviet Union from her collapse. This time there were no barricades protecting national government. Soviet armed vehicles approached the Supreme Council, but were forced to fall back as the coup in Moscow failed.

The years of struggle for independence were harsh and unstable. But the will of Latvian people was the main force that helped to regain the Latvian independence.

The commemoration badge for defenders of the barricades

Selected Sources:

Blūzma, Valdis, Celle, Ojars, Jundis, Tālavs, Lēbers, Dītrihs, Anderjs, Levits, Egils, Zīle, Ļubova. (1998) Latvijas valsts atjaunošana: 1986-1993. Riga: Latvijas Universitātes “Latvijas vēsture fonds”.

Ēlerte, Sarmīte (Ed.) (1998) Latvijas Tautas fronte : 1988-1991 : veltījums Trešajai Atmodai un Latvijas Tautas frontes dibināšanas desmitgadei. Riga: Jāņa Sēta.


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