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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One response to “Latvians in the Great Purge 1937-1938

  1. When the, Illegal, Criminal Un Justifiable, humiliating provocations actions and attacks by the Soviet Terrorists and thugs occurred in 1939/40 which resulted in the capitulation/destruction a brutal occupation that brought terror and genocide to the Baltic Nations. The Baltic nations should have resisted from Diplomatic to Military Means., Stalin and Molotov were Thugs,Gangsters, Terrorists. The Estonian Foreign Minister, Mr. Selter and Latvia’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Munters both were threatened. Sadly It is a Shame that they did not do anything even if that meant sacrificing themselves, they should have reminded Stalin that as Diplomats they have Diplomatic Immunity and any such Threats are a provocation, Crime and act of war. At the very worst out come,they one of them should have Killed Stalin or Molotov, what a shame this did not happen as it would have saved not just the Baltic Nations but the World from Millions being murdered. The Leadership of The Baltic Nations, apart from Lithuanian President Smetona, was extremely Naive, and Cowardly not fit for their positions. The correct response would have been for all Baltic Presidents; Ulmanis, Pats and Smetona to make a secret pact to represent one another, in the event of assignation or capture by the Soviets or Nazis, secondly all three should have gone, traveled together to the League of Nations, British Parliament, United States. Congress ,(Joint Session of Congress) there, they should have spoken up, out against the Criminal Threats and Actions of the Soviet Union, They should have stated that Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuanian are independent and free nations, that Do Not Want to Join the Soviet Union Or Nazi Germany that we have the right to remain free and independent nations and will defend our sovereignty and independence against the Soviet Thugs by all means necessary including Military Force. At the same time All three Presidents should have given the order for their Armed Forces to Mobilize and Repel and resist any Soviet Invasion. They should also have asked for Military assistance, Manpower and Weapons, Ammunition and equipment from every possible source. This would have been the correct legal and honorable response to the Anti Christ known as Stalin.

    Sadly, The Baltic Nations Did Not Learn from the terrible Historic Tragedy, and Genocide and Brutal Soviet Occupation committed against their people and nations for 50 Plus years. Just as The Pre Inner War Baltic Nation Leadership, made horrible, cowardly and treasonous decisions and actions so has the modern Leaders of the new modern Baltic Nations of today, they are just as fault,in assisting the destruction and hindrance of properly equipping the Baltic Nations Defense Forces, thus going against the ability to defend these countries. Some fairly recent accurate modern time frame examples are; The Armed Forces Of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are still light Infantry. Just like the Pre inner War Baltic Militaries; the modern Baltic Defense Forces lack Heavy Crew served Weaponry, Like Tanks, Fighter Planes, Bombers,Attack Helicopters etc. The perfect opportunity was missed. When the former East German Army collapsed and was absorbed into the new United Germany The Defense Forces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could and should have received most East German, Tanks, Helicopters, Jets Bombers etc. This would have been a good start for us. In one aspect for the Baltic Nations, Israel is a good example as how to defend oneself and to take no Crap and have the proper means to fight. Corruption has and is high. It needs to be rooted out at all levels in Civilian and Military leadership. Another Foolish, Cowardly,Treasonous Mistake and tragedy happened several years ago; (No Different Than What Happened At Narva on ,17 June, 1940 ( The Infamous Narva Capitulation Agreement) In 2006, the Estonian Government, signed and later ratified the United Nations Small Arms Trafficking Treaty, thus for the future, greatly hindering Estonian Citizens from purchasing and owning Firearms for individual and National Defense. In addition another outrage happened in the same year (2006) to coincide with the signing of the Small Arms Trafficking Treaty, when the Estonian government Destroyed thousands of Handguns in Defense Force circulations and War Reserve. These Defensive weapons were given to Estonia from Poland, U.S. and other nations,(after much hard negotiation and work to obtain them)the destruction of the defense arms was done publicly for political reasons this was after signing an agreement with the German company of Heckler and Koch to obtain new pistols for the Defense Forces. It would have been correct and proper for those destroyed weapons should have been given to the Defense League or sold to law abiding Arms owners and collectors in Estonia or America etc. Days before the Soviet Full Occupation Of Estonia, The Commander In Chief of Estonian Defense Forces gave in to Soviet Demands at Narva, to Disarm Estonian Defense League members and law abiding Civilian Gun Owners and Collectors, thus effectively destroying most resistance possibilities to the Soviet Criminal Occupiers allowing their Thugery, Terrorism and Genocide to have a green light. To Fulfill NATO Membership Requirements and obligations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also need the proper weaponry,(Tools) , according to which, NATO Members States are required to not only be able to defend one’s own nation but come to the assistance of another member state in the event of attack, do do this we need , Tanks, Fighter Jest, Bombers, Helicopters Missiles etc. Wake Up Estonia, latvia and Lithuania, Lean from the Big Past Mistakes of the 1930’s especially 1939 and 1940. The United States Of America’s real First President, General George Washington, stated so correctly;”
    “A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.” George Washington”.

    1939/1940 Never Again!