Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Soviet Occupation of Latvia 1939-1940

Soviet tanks enter Riga on July 17 1940

June 17 is  another sand anniversary of the start of Soviet occupation of Latvia. It was the time that was deepest scar in the heart of Latvian nation, a scar that has not been vanished ever since. This article will describe how it happened and what consequences it made.

The ultimate fate of Latvia was settled on August 1939 23 in Moscow. Germany and Soviet Union signed a non aggression pact. The Germans needed this to have a one front war against Poland, the Soviets needed the agreement to regain lost territories of the Russian Empire and draw Europe into war where Soviet Union can join in when it’s ready. The prize of this agreement was a secret protocol that divided Poland in German and Soviet sphere of interest and gave Estonia and Latvia to Soviet side. Finland was also in Soviet sphere as much as a Romanian province of Besarabia. Originally Germans wanted its part of the Latvia- mainly Courland and Semigallia, but with the pressure of Stalin they gave up the claim. Later a new agreement was made that gave Lithuania to Soviet sphere. Stalin’s will was clear- Soviet Union must regain the lost path to Europe.

Soviet plan to occupy Baltic states was set in three parts. First sign a “mutual support agreement” that will force Baltic states to allow to establish a Soviet army garrison in their land, then force them to allow full entry of Soviet troops and after that stage a “peaceful socialist revolution” to take over the administration and annex the three states. Agreement was first signed with Estonia. The Red army mobilized across the Estonian border and was ready to attack if Estonians would refuse to sign an agreement. 25 000 Red Army troops were stationed in Estonia. In October 2 Soviets started the talks with Latvia. Latvian delegation was led by Foreign Minister Wilhelm Munter who was confronted by Soviet Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov and Stalin. Stalin’s tone was rude and straight- “If you do not sign this agreement we could occupy you!”, also Molotov gave straight warning to Munters- “You will not leave Moscow until you will sign this agreement!” In such circumstances Munters was forced to sign it and 25 000 Soviet soldiers may build their bases in Courland. After that the same was done with Lithuania.

Germany was aware of radical changes in Latvia so ordered an expatriation of German nationals from Baltic states. From 1939 to 1940 49 885 Germans were moved from Latvia to German annexed territories of Poland. Along with them many Latvians sensing the danger left Latvia. Latvian president Kārlis Ulmanis condemned them, but it was a clear indication of coming danger.

It has been discussed was there any chance to resist Soviet aggression?   Latvian army was well equipped with good discipline and morale. However they lacked the modern armor weapons, air weapons and artillery. Their 100 light tanks and airplanes were an insufficient to counter large masses of Soviet armor and infantry.  Already in 1939 the Red Army was completed with the best weapons, tanks and airplanes. Latvian militarily stuff had no real plans for defense against Soviet attack. If mobilization would occur Latvian army could gather 180 00 men, but practically only 130-135 000 men could be conscripted because of lack weapons and ammunition. At the same time the Red army had 170 000 men and 756 tanks across the Latvian border. They had 437 235 men and 3 635 tanks gathered across the borders of all three Baltic states. It seemed hopeless to withstand such horde.

Even if the Soviets had their troops in Latvia, it was still independent with a sovereign government. However Latvian leader Karlis Ulmanis was under high influence from Soviet leadership. Sadly the leadership showed cowardice and constantly crawled to Soviet leaders. Ulmanis made speeches assuring that Latvian and Soviet relations are at their best and praised Soviet leaders. If that was not enough Ulmanis send a beautiful book of Latvian  folk songs as a gift to Stalin. Ulmanis kept quiet about real situation and Latvian press only showed to positive side of the events. It tried to show that nothing bad is going on and life in Latvia continues. In fear from Soviets the Latvian government did such shameful acts as the removal of Latvian consulate from Poland hours after the start of the war. Also when Finland was attacked Latvia and Estonia allowed the Soviet fleet and air force to take action against Finland.

Stalin had decided that the Baltic states are needed to be occupied in April 1940.  To do this he ordered to make a provocation on Latvian border. In the night from 14 to 15 June the NKVD (Cheka) special forces raided the border point of Maslenki. In uneven brutal fight Soviets killed all the border guards and their wife’s and children. Also they’re captured and held captive some of them. In their old fashionable way Soviet propaganda declared that Latvian “fascists” had attacked the Soviet Union. Before Latvia, Lithuania first received an ultimatum that ordered to make changes in their government and allow entry of Red army so that mutual assistance pact can be fully fulfilled.   Lithuanian president Antanas Smetona wanted to resist the Soviets so that the world will see what happened to them. However he was not supported by the majority of the government. The Red army entered Lithuania and headed to the Latvian border. Smetona was the only Baltic states president who evacuated from Lithuania to Germany.

In  June 16 the same demands were issued in Latvia. Latvia was accused of breaking the mutual assistance pact and conspiring against the Soviet Union. All these accusations were false. Latvia subdued to Soviet demands and in June 17 Red Army entered Latvia. Main Soviet vanguard came from Lithuania, Soviets speedy took over all strategic points of Latvia.

Soviet propaganda showing Red army as the friends of the Latvian people

In 13: 00 Red army reached Riga. Red Army tanks entered the Riga Railroad station square. A large crowd of supporters in a size of 1500-200 came to great Soviet tanks. They were poor citizens that mainly came from Moscow district- a poorer district in Riga. The majority of them were Russians and Jews. In their ranks were provocateurs who heated up the crowd that started to attack Latvian horse mounted policeman. 2 rioters were killed, 80 were arrested and 60 policemen were wounded along with their horses. In all Latvia the main supporters of the occupation were lower class people from all nationalities. A large portions of Russians were generally poor and saw the rescue in the Soviet Union. The lower class Jews had illusions in the Soviet Union that it will treat them better than Latvian state. Also along with Latvians were many people who saw advantages in the occupation. The majority that disliked this event was either middle class people from all nationalities or nationalists.

The actions of Latvian government were cowardly and futile. There was no outspoken protest against the events that would reach the western governments and media. Only thing what Ulmanis did was rather shameful speech where he asked people to remain calm and not to resist the Red army. In the end he said infamous words “I will remain in my place, you remain in yours!”. Ulmanis did not step down from his presidential seat and did not resist any Soviet actions. So he helped the Soviets to take over Latvia without any problem or unneeded attention.  In this same days world was watching the fall of France and occupation of the Baltic states was beyond their attention. There was some reaction mainly in American media. In official only country that expressed strong condemnation was US. Great Britain at the same time kept quiet because they wanted to remain cool with the Soviet Union in hopes of future alliance.

Caricature from New York times 1940

Soviets send special foreign emissaries to the Baltic states to lead takeover. In Latvia things were controlled by Andrey Vyshinsky, famous for his lead trials against Stalin’s enemies during the purges. His task was to form the new government. He choose the professor of microbiology Aleksanders Kirhensteins. He was a man with a weak character and bad appearance but with big ambitions. Because of his throat operation his voice was high- pitched not suitable for public speeches.  For Interim Minister a famous writer   Vilis Lacis was chosen. He was beloved for his novels and movies that were made from them. These people were recruited by the Soviet secret service a long ago. The new government ministers were all Latvians and only two of them communists. The real rulers were behind the scenes.

Next step was to form a “Peoples Parliament”. Elections were to happen in 14-15 July. A special party “Working people’s bloc” was formed to run for elections. The government attempted to prevent other parties from running  by giving only 6 days to make a new party list. However an ex diplomat and ex minister of justice Atis Ķenins, court senators Voldemars Zamuels and Mintauts Čakste, lawyer Peteris Bergis and proffer Konstantin Čakste managed to form a list called “Democratic Block” with slogan “For free, independent, democratic Latvia”. Communists were aware of  their low popularity in Latvia and feared victory of the Democratic Block.  They did everything to prevent DB from to print their political platform. However DB managed to do that and printed 100 000 copies of their goals. Soviets reacted swiftly and arrested Atis Ķenins and sent him to Kazakhstan. Five years later he returned to Riga.

In so there was only one runner for elections. In communist controlled press   warnings were given to those who did not want to participate in elections.  On election day a special checkup was done on all vote ballots before they were dropped into the ballot box. They checked if the ballot has no crossed out names only then allowed to cast them. Official result was 97% votes for Working Peoples Block. However Soviets did a mistake by declaring the election result to English press when the elections were still underway. That means that election result was defined in Moscow even before the counting begun.

In July 21 “Peoples parliament” gathered in National Theater and declared the takeover of the Soviet power. A Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. On the same day Karlis Ulmanis was arrested and deported to Russia. Before he was promised to be allowed to leave Latvia when the takeover would end. Ulmanis was sent to Stavropol and to Turkmenistan where he died and was buried in an unknown place in the city of Turkmenebashy (Krasnovodsk) in 1942.

On August 5 a delegation of “Peoples government and parliament” went to Moscow to officially “ask” LSSR to join the Soviet Union. With Stalin himself present Aleksander Kirhenstein gave a speech in the Kremlin. Stalin decided to “grant” the Latvian request and Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union.

Soviet propaganda machine did its best to show that the events that were happening in Latvia were in fact a “socialist revolution”. A large parades were held along with manifestations. No doubt there were persons who enjoyed to take part in these activities. Others were involved with force.

The occupation of Latvia is a proven fact. There are many documents that prove that and accounts by witnesses of that time. The Russian denial of this fact is based on fears to take responsibility for the actions of their past leader. It also can change the status of soviet immigrants that live in Latvia. No matter what Russia and their supporters abroad will say the time could not hide what happened in Latvia during 1939 -1940. Lets hope that something like this will never happen again.

Communist supporter demonstration 1940

Selected Sources:

Nollendorfs, Valters (Ed)(2005) The three Occupations of Latvia, 1940-1991 : soviet and nazi take-overs and their consequences. Riga : Occupation Museum Foundation

Dītrihs, Andrejs, Lēbers (Ed.) (1995) Latvijas okupācija un aneksija, 1939-1940 : dokumenti un materiāli.Riga.

Bleiere, Daina, Feldmanis, Inesis, Butulis, Ilgvars, Zunda, Antonijs. (2008) Latvija Otrajā pasaules karā : (1939-1945). Riga: Jumava.

Lācis, Visvaldis (2001) Latviešu zemes un tautas vēsture. Rīga : ASF Saules koks : Vieda. Vol.2.


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