Latvians in the Great Purge 1937-1938

Cathedral at the Butuvo polygon where about 200 Latvians were killed

Every first Sunday of December its official commemoration day for Latvians who died in the Great Purges in 1937 -1938.  Latvians along with other non-Russian communists were targets of Joseph Stalin repressions. Before the purges many Latvians were involved in the Soviet government, many took high rank posts. Nearly all them became victims of Stalinist repressions. Along them many low rank Latvian activists and intellectuals were killed only because of their nationality. However, not all Latvians living in the Soviet Union were exterminated, but they are part of overall Stalin Genocide that took place during 1929 to 1939 that was aimed on social and ethnic groups.

The reason so many Latvians lived in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign was the events of First Wold War and Russian Civil War. The German invasion in the Latvian territory in 1915  sparked a mass exodus to inner parts of Russia. About half million Latvian and Jewish refugees entered Russia and settled in major Russian cities. Also in Latvia, a Latvian Rifleman division were formed to fight against the Germans in Baltic front. After the February Revolution, political divisions affected the rifleman and Latvian refugees and many choose to follow the Bolshevik path. Majority of Latvian rifleman after the Bolshevik coup in November joined the ranks of the Red Army. The Latvian Red Rifleman was one of the most important units that helped the Bolsheviks to gain victory. Over the end of civil war, not all Latvians head back to Latvia. Many of then were true believers of communist ideas and were willing to contribute the Soviet government. And the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin was friendly to non-Russians in the government. He believed in internationalist ideas and so he allowed Jews, Latvians, Caucasians to share the power.

There have been a wide discussion on why Stalin, who himself was a Georgian decided to remove non-Russians from the posts in the party and the army. Commonly described reason was the Stalin’s belief of coming war with the western powers that made him to look at foreign nationals as the members of the “fifth column”. All ethnic groups who had independent countries outside  Soviet Union fell victim of ethnic cleansing. For instance there was no action taken against the Jews, because they had no country at that time. But, Latvians, Poles, Germans and others were considered as foreign spies.

However, it’s a question whether the Stalin’s fears of spies and conspirators were real or just a disguise. Stalin’s policy was to eliminate all his competitors and people who may question his orders. He had a certain dislike for people who took a direct part in October revolution and the Civil war. As we know Stalin’s role in these events was marginal. So Stalin eliminated all government and army members who he considered not loyal.  He certainly had aggressive plans and he prepared not to defend his country, but took active part in the future world war.

The start of ethnic cleansing was July 25 1937 when the chief of Soviet NKVD (the secret police) Nikolai Yezhov issued the order nr. oo49 to arrest in five days all German citizens and political emigrants who mainly worked in the military and transportation system.  Next on May 11, repressions were started against the Poles. All who emigrated to the Soviet Union to find a better place to live in now were thrown in prison and shot.

By this time many Latvians were arrested as the members “fascist conspiracy”, “Trotsky supporters”, “spies of Latvia” and members of “counterrevolutionary organizations”. Already on January 21, Yezhov reported to Stalin that he had discovered and eliminated a “Latvian counter-revolutionary organization” formed by party members and emigrants. The idea of “Latvian Action” was brought by the chief of the western sector of the People’s Commissariat of Interior comrade Nasedkin.  He arrived in Moscow on November 1937, to report to Yezhov and inform him about the so-called “Latvian National Center”. It was described as a wide network of Latvians working in a Latvian section of the Comintern and Latvian society “Prometejs” and other Latvian circles. Nasedkin reported that 500 people are suspects in what Yezhov replied “Nonsense! Arrest no less than 1500 people!” Two days later Nasedkin received order from Yezhov that everything is set for the “Latvian Action” and the members of Belorussia Interior Commissariat, the Latvian Club, Latvian National Theater and Latvian rifleman sections should be first to be arrested.

Soviet operatives did this with ease. If they found a Latvian national within any governmental office, they automatically  added him to “Latvian conspirator list”. Next on November 23, Yezhov issued an order to gather information about all Latvian societies and organizations in every region and town.

On 30 November deputy of Peoples Commissar of the Interior Frinovsky sent a coded telegram to all commissars within the Soviet Union claiming that Latvian counter-revolutionary nationalists and saboteurs have been discovered and must be eliminated. The order allowed to arrest everyone with Latvian nationality in the passport. The arrests of all Latvian suspects within all Soviet Union begun on December 3.  To gather enough information about Latvian nationals top members of the communist party were arrested and tortured. Basically after hours of torture these people were willing to not only admit their “guilt”, but also report other Latvians, friends and relatives.

The death sentences were issued in masses by the so-called “trios” (troikas) or “duos” (dvoika) the two or three top NKVD officials who could issue death warrants for more than 1000 people within a day. On February 3, 1938 in Butovo 258 people were killed along with then 229 Latvians

The Soviet “style” of death sentencing was not only to sentence the prime suspects, but his wives, children and relatives. Whole families were killed along the way. According to Russian historians N. Okhotin and A. Roginsky from December 1937 to September 1938, 172, 830 people were sentenced to death. Along with then 22, 360 people were sentenced because of their Latvian nationality. 16, 573 were shot. Others were deported to Siberia and concentration camps of the Gulag.

The precise number of the Latvian victims of the Great Purge is yet to be fully discovered. It must be kept in mind that the “Latvian action” along with actions against Poles and Germans was a prime initiative of the Communist Party Central Committee Politburo and its chief Joseph Stalin.

Selected Sources:

Riekstiņš, Jānis (2012) PSRS Iekšlietu tautas komisariāta “Latviešu operācija”, (1937-1938). Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

Riekstiņš, Jānis (Ed) (2009) Represijas pret latviešiem PSRS, 1937-1938 : dokumenti. Rīga : Latvijas Valsts arhīvs


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