Monthly Archives: March 2013

Napoleonic wars in Latvia 1812

Alexander triumphal arch

Alexander triumphal arch dedicated to the victory over the French in 1812


While the French “Grande Armee” led by Napoleon I itself headed on route to Moscow in 1812 to meet its ultimate defeat and destruction, other French and allied Prussian armies entered the territory of Latvia. The Napoleonic warfare in Latvia has been poorly researched and mostly forgotten. However, there are many interesting and tragic events like the burn down of the Riga suburbs and many battles that took part on the frontlines. Therefore the story of Napoleonic wars in Latvia is worthily to be told.

The French Revolution (1789-1794) and the rise of the Corsican officer Napoleon set the whole Europe on fire. There were few countries that Napoleon had not yet invaded; even Egypt was on his hit list. Those few countries that enjoyed relative peace and freedom from France were Russia, Great Britain and Sweden. Russia started to prepare for war with France already in 1797 when by Czar Paul I ordered to get conscripts in the Baltic provinces. The period of duty in Russian army was for 25 years and many tried to escape it by deserting or bribing. Only nobles, clergyman, scholars and landowners were free from the draft. When in 1805 Russia joined the war against France the size of the drafted man increased. The territory of Latvia was entered by French secret agents who tried to make Latvian peasants to start uprisings. Most notable French inspired uprising took place in Kauguri on 1802 where only guns and cannons could stop the peasants. On 1806 at many places in Courland revolts erupted because of the close presence of French troops. Napoleon had captured Warsaw and many waited for a liberator to set them free from hated German landlords and Russians.

However, in 1807 Napoleon and Czar Alexander I signed a peace treaty that made both allies. Russia joined the French imposed naval blockade of Great Britain and got free hand on Finland and Balkans. We can compare the Tilsit peace treaty with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In both cases, Russia guaranteed its counterpart relative security and assistance and also gained free hand to annex nearby countries. And in both cases Russia was unwilling to fulfill its obligations and provoked its ally to attack her. Russians arrested British ships and confiscated their products. In return British sent naval expeditions near the Russian coastline. Russians made their own patrol ships accompanied by Cossack patrols on beaches. The main naval defense base was the fortress of Daugavgrīva at the mouth of Daugava near Riga. On 1808 Russia started war against Sweden. Now for the first time the coast of Courland was used by Russian border guards.  There were small skirmishes with the British fleet. After the defeat of Sweden and annexation of Finland the border guard of Courland was disbanded.

The Russian-French relations worsened. Russia was unwilling to fulfill the blockade of the Great Britain that hurt the Russian economy. Also Napoleon and Alexander I had disagreements over Constantinople, Poland and Scandinavia. The last straw for Napoleon was the new customs tariffs that broke the treaty of Tilsit. Napoleon realized that war is inevitable and started to prepare for attack against Russia, before it attacks on him.

Russia was aware of the danger. The Russian War minister Barclay de Tolly convinced the Czar to prepare for war. Army was reorganized; the size of the field army was increased. Russians relayed on the fortresses of Riga, Daugavpils (Dinaburg) and Kaunas. Riga still had stone walls, while much of 31 000 population lived outside them. That sparked danger and descent of the Baltic Germans Barclay de Tolly in 1811 visited Riga and ordered to improve the fortifications. Many new military objects were built. On May 1812 the new commander of the Baltic provinces was Magnuss Juhan Gustav von Esen a Baltic German from Estonia. He was also the General Governor of Riga. Russian forces were small: 30 infantry battalions, 4 cavalry squads, 7 artillery batteries and some Cossack units. About 12-13 thousand poorly trained men. Riga was also guarded by the fortress of Daugavgrīva with some 3000 soldiers, 40-50 ships and 2-8 cannons and 50-70 sailors on each ship. The fortress of Daugavpils was defended by 3300 men by the command of the general Hamen. In June rumors spread about the arrival of Napoleon in Konigsberg. Many landlords from Courland fled fearing the peasant revolt. From 21 to 24 June all stock of crops from country was moved to Riga. The church of St. Peter and Dome Cathedral was turned into barn. The streets were covered with straws to prevent the explosions of the French cannon balls. Even cattle and horses were ordered to be sent to Riga, but that order was not fulfilled.

On the night of June 24 without the declaration of the war Napoleon’s army invaded Russia. At the first day the fortress of Kauna was taken. The Grand Army consisted 650 000 men, 182 000 horses and 1100 cannons. Only 350 000 of the whole army were French about 20 nations were forced to take part. After four days Vilnius was taken and the interim government of Lithuania was established. After that French head to Vitebsk. Napoleon’s original intention was to meet and defeat the Russian army in open battle near the border. After that he would dictate the peace terms.  However, the Russian army retreated inland and as more Napoleon pursued them the more his army went further away from the French supply points. That was the Russian trap.

To assist the main invading force, the allied Prussian army had to secure the Napoleon’s army background. The commander in charge was Alexander Macdonald with his 10th corpus (302 00 men). Prussians entered Courland with 20 infantry battalions, 24 squadrons, 3 horseman and infantry batteries with 8 cannons in each, 3 field engineers, 5 artillery and 2 pontoon units. Together – 22 officers and 17 180 soldiers. Prussia was promised that in case of victory it would gain the Baltic provinces. The main Prussian tasks was to defend the Neuma river and the main supply line, restrict the Riga garrison from offensive actions, be ready to cross river Daugava to endanger the Russian right flank, capture Daugavpils, siege and capture Riga and take over Courland to gain the resources.

On 26 June drunk Russian cavalry officer Apushkin warned the general governor of Courland Fridrich von Ziver that he had spotted fast approaching enemy along the road to Dobele heading for Jelgava. Ziver reported this to Riga sparking great panic. In the end it turned out that Apushkin had mistook the dust clouds made by cattle herd that was lead by Russians themselves, for enemy army. Apushkin was arrested and demoted to the simple soldier.

On 16 July the corpus split near the city of Panavezys. The army divided in three wings one heading to Jelgava (Mittau), other to Jaunjelgava (Friedrichstadt) and Jēkabpils (Jacobstadt), other went to Leipāja (Libau) and Ventspils (Windau) to take over the ports.  The Russian 1st Army led by Barclay de Tolli crossed river Daugava and retreated to town of Drisa and later to Smolensk. Only Russian forces remaining were the 1 Corpus lead by Peter Ludvig Adolf Vitgenstein.

Liepaja was taken without a fight in 19 July and Prussians moved further into Courland. On 18 July Prussians captured the town of Bauska and Skaistkalne. Russians organized a counter attack to recapture Bauska. Russians moved forward with 8 infantry battalions, 4 cavalry squadrons and 2 batteries. Near Bauska at Kārļa Muiža Prussians met Cossacks and pushed them back only to be ambushed by more hiding Cossacks. Exited Cossacks started to chase and became attacked by two Prussian dragoon squads.  Cossacks were forced to draw back. Prussians learned from captured Cossacks, that Russians had established near Iecava and decided to wait for the arrival of the main troops. At midday Prussians head towards Iecava. Prussians defeated the Russian majority and Russians retreated to Riga. On 20 July Russians evacuated Jelgava. Latvian peasants were hoping that they will receive the same rights as the peasants in France. However, the Prussian administration issued a statement that serfdom will not be abolished for now. Instead more taxes were collected to support the invading army.

After Jelgava was taken next target was Riga. The worrying part for Russian administration was the vast suburbs of Riga outside the walls of Riga. Since the living space within thr walls was too small, people built houses outside them. But, that lead to their destruction incase of war. From 1559 to 1812 these suburbs were burned down for seven times. On 29 June the state of siege was declared in Riga. Craftsmen were forbidden to leave. All explosive and flammable mixtures were taken away. A food reserves for four months were placed even in churches. The House of Blackheads was turned into war hospital but the Great Guild into war supply storage. British gunboat squadron entered river Daugava. After the battle near Iecava on 19 July, general Essen ordered to burn down the Jelgava suburb of Riga- today’s district of Torņkalns and Āgenskalns. After the capture of Jelgava on 21 July more suburbs named after Moscow and Petersburg were ordered to be burned down. However, the protests by the civilians made Esen halt his intentions. But, soon he learned about the coming of the Prussian troops and in 23 to 24 July ordered to burn down remaining suburbs. Prussians approached Ķengarags and Katlakalns. Hesen was worried about Prussians being so close and ordered to burn down everything outside the walls. Russians wanted a free field for fire. In result 5 churches, 702 living houses, 35 state estates and 36 storages perished. According to data gathered in 1813 the damage done to civilians was 16 821 rubles. 6882 people were left homeless. In following years Russian royal family made donations and Alexander I gave credits to Riga to cover the losses.

The burning of the Riga suburbs 1812

The burning of the Riga suburbs 1812

Many thought that Esen made a hasty decision by burning down the suburbs and in the result he was fired. He was replaced by Italian marquise Paulucci. A year after he went to rehab at Baldone and ended his life in suicide.  Prussian forces actually did not want to attack Riga at that moment.

From 24 to 29 July a frontline was established from Sloka to Daugavpils that without serious changes held intact until 20 December when Prussians abandoned Courland. Prussian staff was located at Olaine and Pētermuiža. Fortifications were made to prevent Russian counter attacks.

However, few battles took place. At 4 August Russians made attack on Sloka. Together with gun boats and artillery fire they hoped to seize the Prussian forts. On 7 August it was achieved, however small firefights took place around Sloka until October. On 22 August Russians attacked the Prussian controlled town of Ķekava. The Prussians were taken by the surprise and town was captured. Later at 24 August Prussians managed to gain back many lost positions.

In September Prussians were planning to start attack on Riga. However, Napoleon halted this. After the battle at Borodino he wanted to propose peace negotiations. Also in August Russians made a daring raid on Danzig (Gdansk) forcing French to move forces to that location. That made the Prussian attack force much weaker. On 22 September new commander in chief Fabian Gothard Schteinheil with his 25 000 soldiers entered Riga. He led a successful campaign against Sweden and conquered Finland. On 26 August Russians advanced to Rundāle and Jelgava. At Rundāle where past dukes of Courland had built a magnificent baroque castle Prussians had placed large cannons for desired siege of Riga. Russians wanted to capture them. After many days of fighting slowed down by autumn rain, Russians retreated on 30 September. The attack was a failure and both commanding officers Hesen and Schteinheil were fired.

On Latvian eastern region Selonia also small battles were fought. Jēkabpils the main center in the region was taken without any resistance on 22 July. The main commander Macdonald was leading the capture and stayed there until 13 August. Russians indented to recapture the city. Jēkabpils is located on the shores of river Daugava and on the other side the town called Krustpils (Kreuzburg) was located. Prussians built a bridge connecting both cities, but after close up of the Russian forces the bridge was removed. Krustpils had large Medieval fortress that became the main point of action. It was captured by Russians at night of 12 -13 November. Also the Jaunjelgava was more important strong point. The fights for this town were so harsh that it was retaken by both sides many times. Only on November it was finally taken by Russians.   On 15 November Russians crossed the ice and captured Jēkabpils.

Bitter battle was fought for the fortress of Daugavpils on 13-16 July. The fortress was important defense position on route to Petersburg. Commanded by Peter Vitgenstein the fortress was meant to be taken by the Italian duke Nikola Charles Udino. In daring raids across the river Daugava, French failed to capture the fortress. Some Portuguese soldiers also took part in this battle. At 16 July Udino was ordered to move to Orsha to join the main force. Russians learned about this and surprised the French near the village of Ezerosi. Russians gained victory inflicting heavy causalities on French. After the victory over Napoleon, Russian military took great attention on rebuilding and upgrading the Daugavpils fortress.

Despite the numerous requests by Napoleon for Macdonald to cross the river Daugava, he never did that. With his force he could do that and join other French armies. Riga and Daugavpils would be left behind enemy lines. On 11 December Macdonald received sad news about Napoleon retreating from Moscow. The full evacuation of Courland begun. About 30% of the corpus force was lost since June. The remaining men were ill and hungry. Polish and Bavarian soldiers were atrocious and burned and looted many homes. On 18 December the retreat begun. On 21 December Jelgava was taken by Russian troops. At 27 December Russians took Klaipeda (Memel). At the night of 30-31 December Prussian general York signed a capitulation to Russia.

Despite the initial orders not to destroy Courland, at the end it was ravaged by the invaders. Places were Prussians established their bases were damaged, like the Rundāle palace that was turn into war hospital. Many churches were damaged and looted.

In the end Russian army marched all the way to Paris. Stalin was always envious on Alexander I because Stalin’s army “only” reached Berlin. Many monuments commemorating the victory of 1812 were built-in Riga. On 15 September 1817 a Victory Column was built at the Riga Castle square. 7,15 meter tall column with the sculpture of the goddess of Victory Nike stood for many years until First World war when it was evacuated. However the barge carrying the sculpture capsized and it was lost forever. The column stood until 1938, when it was removed by Kārlis Ulmanis government. On 1987 it was indented to restore the monument and place at Jēkabs square. But, the protests from society halted this. Now the parts of the monument lay at Riga city depot at Varoņu Street 3.

Another monument was the Alexander Triumphal Arch built-in 1817 at the end of the Alexander Street (now Brīvības Street). On 28 August 1818 Alexander I himself came trough the arch on his way from Paris.  On 1904 the Arch was moved to Šmerlis because it stood in the way of the first Riga viaduct. On 1936 the arch was moved to Viesturdārzs park where it now serves as an entrance.

Last monument dedicated to war of 1812 was monument to Barclay de Tolly since he originally came from Riga. The monument was placed on 1913 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the war. On 1915 it was evacuated and was lost. During the Stalin’s rule, the site of the monument was actually indented for the Stalin statue. However, his death prevented this. On 2002 businessman Evgeny Gromberg managed to restore the monument on its old pedestal.

Such was the Napoleonic invasion in the territory of Latvia at 1812. The greatest battles were not fought here, however they played important role in Latvian history. The wave of French liberal reforms eventually came to Russia and forced to abolish the serfdom. The leadership of Riga learned from the mistakes of the 1812 and demolished all the stone walls. Riga became modernized city with industrial capabilities and grew larger. The Russian victory in 1812 made Russia closer to the Western world. The modernization that begun after the defeat of Napoleon benefited the whole Europe.


The Victory Column of 1812



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Soviet Mass Deportations of March 25 1949

The bags have backed, goodby dear fathers house, pain breaks her heart, she must leave the homeland!

The bags have been packed, goodbye dear father’s house, pain breaks her heart, she must leave her homeland.

Mass deportations to remote faraway places in Siberia, was one of the most used tools, by the Soviet leaders to take complete control over the society and strengthen their power. Deportations to Siberia, was already practiced by the Czarist government, but on much lower scale. Joseph Stalin was sent to Siberia many times, but could leave his captivity without getting caught. However, the Soviet deportations were on a much larger scale; whole families were deported to tightly guarded camps in places with horrid weather, with no chance to escape.

Latvia faced the first deportation in June 14 1941, when 15 424 people were sent to GULAG. Most of them were members of the national elite, statesman, scientists, artists and businessman. The goal of this deportation was to remove all potential anti-Soviet elements from Latvia. On 5-6 February 1945 the so-called “German operation” took place, where German nationals from Riga and the countryside were sent to the Komi Autonomous Socialist Republic.

The next and largest deportation of the Latvian people took place in the winter and spring 1949. The target of this deportation was former wealthy farmers or “kulaks” as the Soviets called them. The goal was to prepare Latvia for complete agricultural collectivization and also get rid of the national resistance.

Agricultural collectivization was carried out first in the Soviet Union in the early thirties, causing famine and large decrease of the agricultural production. However, this kind of Stalinist model managed to survive and now at the end of the forties such model was enforced in Latvia. One of the elements of this model was the elimination of kulaks as a class that got nothing to with the deeds of the single person.

Stalin himself explained the importance of the fight against the “kulaks”. “But what to do with the kulak expropriation policy – should we in regions with full collectivization allow the kulak expropriation? Many sides are asking that. Funny question. The kulak expropriation was impossible, as long as we kept restricting the kulak exploiting tendencies, as long as we were unable to make a decisive strike on them, as long as we were unable replace the kulak farms with the kolkhozes. Then the policy that forbids any kulak expropriation was rightful and needed. But now? Now it’s different. Now we have the chance to begin the decisive attack against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their farms with kolkhozes. Now the kulak expropriation is no longer a simple administrative step. Now the kulak expropriation is part of the founding and developing the kolkhozes. No less funny is the second question: should we allow kulak in kolkhoz? Of course, he must not be allowed into kolkhoz. Cannot because he is the deadliest enemy of the kolkhoz movement” Stalin said this in thirties and his vision in Russia and Ukraine were realized causing great destruction. Now it was the Latvian turn for this.

In the spring of 1947 The Central Committee of All Russia Communist party made the decision to begin the collectivization in the three Baltic States. Until March 25 1949 1443 kolkhozes were established. That was far too small for the Soviet needs, because Latvian farmers resisted the entry into collective farms. Latvians had centuries of private farming traditions and the Soviet collectivization been rouge for them. Kolkhozes could only suit the needs of the countrymen who had no land of their own or paid servants in the private farms who wanted to take away the property from their masters.

On  August 27 1947 the LSSR Council of Ministers imposed heavy taxes on the kulak farms. 10 432 such farms were put on the pressure. The reason for this was to make the private farmers bankrupt and force them to join the kolkhozes. Until  February 1 1949 713 kulaks were jailed for not paying taxes. On 1948 444 horses, 6282 cows  were taken away by the state.

But, that was not enough as more horrid plans were set to deport kulaks to Siberia. Until  September 15 1948 10 127 kulak families were counted and so-called 5000 legalized bandits (members of the national resistance movement), but overall 14 206 people with anti-Soviet past were found in the countryside. On September 21 1948 the LSSR attorney Mishutin suggested to the first secretary of the Latvian Communist party Jānis Kalbērziņš to make preparations for deporting the anti-Soviet elements. On January 17 1949 the First Secretary of the Estonian Communist party Nikolai Karotamm reported to Stalin that at the time of spring sowing the kulaks should be deported from all three Baltic States. In January 18 Kalnbērziņš along with his Lithuanian colleague were called to meet Stalin in private. On January 29 USSR Council of Ministers made a top-secret decision nr. 390-138 to make mass deportations at the end of the March 1949. The responsibility was given to the Soviet Ministry of Interior. The intended number of deported people was more than 29 000 families from all three Baltic States.

In Latvia the list was prepared according to agricultural census in 1939 and the war tribunal verdicts for the nationalists. The list was approved by the LSSR State Security Minster Alfons Noviks and LSSR attorney Mishutin. In  March 17 the top secret order was given to deport the kulaks from Latvia. Later the nationalists were included. Their property was meant to be confiscated and chosen place of captivity was the regions of Amur, Omsk and Tomsk.

On the night of 24-25 March at Riga and provincial centers the last instructions were given to local officials. Operative groups were assembled and spread out in every region.

Red wagons, hatches in stings. In some just men, others just woman, drift together like bacon for pigs, their faces looms in obscurity with bloody wrinkles.

Red wagons, hatches in stings. In some just men, others just women, drift together like bacon for pigs, their faces looms in obscurity with bloody wrinkles.

On  March 25 the deportation was carried out in all Latvia. Whole families were taken away from their homes and loaded in the cargo and cattle trains. According to the Latvian State Archive data 29 252 kulaks and 12 832 nationalists were deported in a single day. By that more that 42 thousand people with many of them children were taken to Siberia. The deported people were told that they will be placed at the new location eternally. Their new homes were kolkhozes at faraway poor lands at Siberia.

After the death of Stalin in 1953 slowly the GULAG system was abolished. Deported people could return in the middle of the fifties, some were allowed to return much later. Not all returned and there are still some Latvian villages in Siberia. Those who returned could not gain back their lost lands, as they were taken by kolkhozes.

The mass deportation of  March 25 was intended to speed up the collectivization and suppress the national resistance. And it proved to be successful as those who stayed were too frightened to resist the collectivization and joined the kolkhozes. By deporting all the successful farmers a massive strain was inflicted to the Latvian agriculture. The collectivization was against the historic and natural way of Latvian farm economy. The extremely flawed concept of the kolkhozes ruined the Latvian countryside for generations to come.

By such the deportation of March 25 1949 is one of the most devious Soviet crimes done in Latvia and should be commemorated.

Selected Sources:

Bleiere, Daina (Ed.) Aizvestie : 1949. gada 25. marts. (2007).Rīga : Latvijas Valsts arhīvs : Nordik.

Bleiere, Daina, Reikstiņš, Jānis. (2008) The second mass deportation of the inhabitants, March 25, 1949. Riga : Latvian State Archive.

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Shortwave radio jamming in Soviet Latvia

The American made SCR-399 transmitter was used by Soviets to jam US and Western broadcasts

The American made SCR-399 transmitter was used by Soviets to jam US and Western broadcasts

Radio is one of the most effective ways of communication. The information that travels around the airwaves can reach even the most remote places. In late 20 century twenties it was discovered that by transmitting in High Frequency band (1,6 Mhz-30 Mhz) or so-called shortwave the signal can reach every radio receiver in faraway countries. In so the shortwave radio became effective way for government propaganda. And regimes that disliked that their citizens can listen to foreign broadcasts searched for ways how stop this.

During the first Soviet occupation in 1941, the Soviets started the registration of the radio owners. They wanted to know how many and what kind of people could listen to foreign broadcasts, and impose license fees for radio using and in case of need take them away from the owner. During the Nazi Germany occupation a list of suppressed radio stations was made.

In 1945 the Soviet occupation returned. Everywhere in Latvia people gathered at their radio receivers and waited for the news of coming American and British liberation, however soon the frequencies of the foreign stations became filled with load roaring noise. The era of the Soviet radio jamming had begun.

On 1946 USSR Communications ministry issued an order to register the radio receiver in whole country. On the streets of the cities and main squares loudspeakers were placed to transmit the propaganda from radio stations from Riga and Moscow. It was nearly impossible to purchase the radio receiver after the war, so the radio transmission points were placed in the apartments. It had strategic goal because now the government could inform the people about its decisions and orders.

As the Cold War became more intense the Western countries begun to transmit broadcasts to Soviet Union in various languages including Latvian.  The main broadcasters were the Voice of America, BBC Word Service, Deutche Welle and Radio Free Europe. Radio Free Europe was actually a creation of the US Central Intelligence Agency. CIA secretly financed the RFE for many years until it was discovered by the leftist journalists in 1967 and since 1972 the RFE is financed by the US Congress. USSR also had its own shortwave propaganda station Radio Moscow. However, in Western countries listening to the Soviet propaganda was not considered as a serious crime. In Soviet Union listening to Western stations could cause a real jail sentence.

For instance in 1951 Elfida Jansone was put on LSSR High Court for listening to the Voice of America. For this crime she was sentenced for eight years in labor camp. In 1948 the Latvian Communist party Riga city committee bureau issued a decree “For urgent actions for jamming of the anti-soviet broadcasts”. The decree ordered every institution that had a shortwave transmitter to jam the foreign radio stations. Jamming was done by Latvian Energy, Sea Fleet and Soviet Army. Army constructed 10 transmitters that jammed the foreign voices 24 hours in day. However, the power of these transmitters was too weak to completely silence the foreign broadcasts. Because of this in all three occupied Baltic States a special jamming stations were built.

On May 5 1951 the chairman of the LSSR Council of Ministers Vilis Lācis wrote a note to Vyacheslav Molotov that in accordance to USSR Council of Ministers decree on 4 December 1950, a high voltage radio center was to be built in Riga; however the Ministry of Communications had planned to build it only in 1953. The head of the LSSR asked the Soviet Ministry of Communications to start building this object already in 1951 and finish it in 1952. However, the slow Soviet bureaucracy only in 1953 ordered to build jamming systems in the Baltic States. A jammer was built in Liepaja, Daugavpils and Riga.

The order by the Soviet Council of Ministers to build shortwave radio jammers in Latvia

The order by the Soviet Council of Ministers to build shortwave radio jammers in Latvia

All of these special objects were under control of the Latvia republican radio center. American made shortwave transmitter SCR-399 that was delivered by the US in war-time was now used to jam the US broadcasts. The power of these transmitters was not high – only 400 watts however it operated in the 1,5- 1,8 Mhz frequency range that used by the most foreign stations. The object in Liepaja has 12 transmitters and one Russian “Extra” type Medium Wave transmitter (Medium Wave is 526-1600 kHz). In the Riga object at the Dome Square basement had 18 SCR-399 transmitters but at other Riga site 15 Soviet KV-5 transmitters with power of 5 kilowatts were placed.  The transmitters were modified with GMD generator that was the most secret part in the objects. This device made various tone sound signal that was nicknamed “saw” by the listeners. It was impossible to filter this noise because its frequency was the same as the broadcasting foreign station. It even made interference in frequencies free from broadcasts. It was a hard time for people living near the jamming stations because the strong signal made inference for allowed radio and TV broadcasts. Before the start of every broadcast one or even two transmitters were allocated to the broadcast frequency and after the command was given the jammer were turned on. Sometimes the in the time of broadcast the stations slightly changed the frequency, leaving the jammer in behind, forcing to retune it. The radio propagation issues also sometimes did not allow silencing the broadcasts completely.

The Medium Wave broadcasts were completely jammed by stations from Lithuania and Estonia. Sometimes the foreign broadcasters appeared at previously unannounced frequencies and the jammer power was not so high so the ordinary Soviet citizen could listen to them.

Despite the warnings and repressions, people listened to foreign broadcasters. Some were tired of the Soviet propaganda, some were just curious. Some understood that they lived behind the Iron Curtain and had enough of censorship and lies. The Latvian radio receiver producers VEF and Radiotehnika were forced to make receivers without the frequency ranges where the foreign broadcasters appeared. The listeners of these stations were reported by the work colleges, neighbors even relatives. While nobody was thrown in the prison since the death of Stalin, being caught of listening to “hateful anti-soviet propaganda” could mean job loss and further sanctions.

Not every foreign broadcaster was considered anti-soviet, as there were many broadcasters from Soviet-friendly countries. The main condemned broadcasts came from Western Europe and US.

The Soviet spy agency KGB tracked the radio listening. It had many radio control points over all country. In 1982 the KGB was even ordered to track the Ultra High Frequency ranges at 30 km zones around the cities. The main ones who were tracked in this range were radio amateurs. In Soviet times every radio amateur was under the KGB watch. The Soviet Military intelligence service GRU installed a mobile tracking and surveillance base in Riga that could listen and record the telephone conversations. After the fall of the Soviet Union the GRU offered to sell these devices to Latvian government.

The shortwave radio jamming in Soviet Union ended when the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered to stop the “useless spending of money”. Shortwave radio jamming is still practiced by many countries like China, North Korea, Iran and Vietnam. As long there will be a need for political information the shortwave radios and its jammers will not disappear.

Selected Sources:

Upmalis, Ilgonis, Tiglass, Ēriks, Stankēvičs, Ēriks. (2011) Latvija padomju militāristu varā : 1939-1999.Rīga: Latvijas okupācijas izpētes biedrība.

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Banned Soviet Movie about Latvian Waffen SS Legion

Movie poster for the "Rocks and Splinters""I Remember Everything Richard"

Movie poster for the “Rocks and Splinters”
“I Remember Everything Richard”

Again the 16th March approaches heating up the discussions between historians, politicians and other members of the society. The Latvian Waffen SS Legion day will be commemorated again. The story about this celebration and the Legion itself has been already told here. This article is about interesting attempt to make a full feature film about the Latvian Legion during the Soviet times in Latvia. A film that was made for 10 years, had changed its title many times and finally made on the cinema screens for only 24 days, after it was banned by local Latvian communist authorities. Ironically outside Latvia, in Russia the movie was praised and no opposition from authorities in Moscow against the movie ever followed. It was a cowardice of the local Latvian censorship and officials that canceled this interesting war drama about the Latvian Waffen SS Legion. The movie was called “Rocks and Splinters” or “I Remember Everything Richard”.

After the death of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the relative liberalization in culture allowed to talk about questions that were suppressed before. During the so-called thaw times, the Soviet film directors dared to make a new kind of war films. In movies such as “The Cranes are flying” (1957) by M Kalatozov, “A Soldiers Ballad” (1959) by G Cuhray, “A Mans Fate” (1959) by S Bondarchuck, and “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962) by S Tarkovsky the emotional side of the war was shown for the first time. The Stalinist movie characters were shown as manful, brave and mature fighters, while the new kind of war heroes were allowed to have fallbacks, weakness and fear.

The movie “Rocks and Splinters” or “I Remember Everything Richard!” featured this kind a characters. The movie tells a story about three friends – Jānis, Zigis and Ričards who were conscripted in to the Latvian Legion. Their fate turns differently – Ričards to save his friend executes the Soviet war prisoner and gains respect from the commanding officers. Zigis tries to defect to the Soviet side, but gets killed during the attempt. At the end of the war the disillusioned Janis deserts. Twenty years later in Riga the Jānis and Ričards meets again. Jānis lives in Soviet Latvia and works as a stonecutter and keeps friendly relations with Ričards youth time bride Antra. Ričards and Jānis both remember their war days and find out that their point of views differ. In the finale Ričards turns out as the spy from the West and in his deadlock stabs Jānis to death.

Two main movie characters-Jānis (Harijs Liepiņš) and Ričards (Eduards Pāvuls)

Two main movie characters-Jānis (Harijs Liepiņš) and Ričards (Eduards Pāvuls)

The movie is about whole generation, its worries, the feel of guilt and need to be understood by the society. The active participants of the World War II were born from 1920 to 1928. This was the movie about them.

The idea of this movie was first brought up by the Viktors Lorencs who wrote the script called “Fatherland forgive me!” (Dzimtene Piedod!) Viktors Lorecs was the son of the prominent Latvian Socialdemocat politician Klāvs Lorencs before the war, who was supportive of the Soviet occupation, but later in 1951 was arrested. Viktors Lorencs himself in the age of 17 in 1944 was mobilized by the German army and sent to Air Force Assistant Squad. It was his goal to defend the mobilized men in Latvian Legion against the accusations from the regime. He later remarked: “We were aware that we are no fascists. Furthermore, none of us believed in the German victory. The tragedy lays in there. After that, together with older man, myself seventeen we had to go trough filtration camp”. He wrote the script in 1957 and published in the students almanac „Творчество молодых” (The Youth Art). In same year the in the Riga Movie Studio the works for the movie begun and Varis Krūmiņš was chosen as a director. Lorencs submitted all needed materials for the script, but in 23 December 1957 he suddenly received note from the chief of the Riga Movie Script department O Kublanov that the work for the movie “Fatherland forgive me!” has been canceled. Lorencs received no explanation for this, however the archive documents show that script was declined for its ideologically artistic qualities. More notable was the note made by unknown author on the script that said: “Was there before Soviet power in Latvia? If it was then the movie is useless!”

Things changed only in 1964 when the members of the Riga Movie Studio script editorial staff were invited to visit the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee. The first secretary of the Central Committee Arvīds Pelše, the first man in the Soviet Latvia wanted to make a good historical movie to celebrate the 25 years of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. Lorencs again submitted upgraded version of the script that was criticized, but was encouraged to be continued and edited. In 10 November 1964 the Council of the Arts discussed the edited script and approved it. It was then sent to Moscow for approval. Rolands Kalniņš was chosen as the director. Rolands Kalniņš was mobilized in the Legion, but did not believe that it could restore the Latvian independence and managed avoid the war. However, he also felt the strong need to make this movie to show the tragedy of his generation.

In 6 March 1965 after many months of discussing the script the movie was allowed to be filmed. In 26 May the first day of shooting begun and first scenes were taken. But, then they were suddenly interrupted by deputy of the film director Gunārs Sops who announced that movie shooting must be canceled. Not Sops or anybody else knew what was going on. It turned out that the script was discussed in the party Central Committee and some members pointed out that this movie could cause scandal for its politically wrong.

However, the Movie Studio decided to continue to make the film. 13 November 1965 the movie title was changed to “Rocks and Splinters” and allowed to be put on screens. In 19 November the LSSR Cinematography committee decided not to put the movie on-screen. In 23 November the making of the movie was finished. In 3 November the main USSR Cinematography committee praised the movie and allowed it to be shown everywhere in the Union.

In 24 December 1965 the social discussion about the movie was made. The participants were LSSR War Commissar I Chasha, Rector of the Latvian State University V Šteinbergs, the LSSR Minister of Education A Elvih, former partisans V Samsons,  H Bendiks,  the Minister of Culture V Kaupužs, the Secretary of the Youth Communist League J Barkāns, the circus director A Mlokit. The war commissar I Chasha who was apparently little drunk shouted: “What are they doing? Drinking in the army is bad, but in the movie the soldiers are drinking in the party!” Understanding his failure he then continued: “Anti-Soviet movie, for it forgives the legion! The Brothers war cemetery is shown in pre-war style.” The red partisan leader and historian V Samsons noted that people must speak about this tragedy and defended the movie. Minister of Culture V Kaupužs was against the movie and accused of attempts of dividing the society. The Minister of Education declared that this movie suits the interests of the Latvian emigrants and stated that the Legion is no longer important for Latvians. The rector of the University said this movie is politically detrimental. Other party officials called the movie as a danger to youth. It was decided not to show the movie on screens.

In 10 January 1966 the LSSR Cinematography committee orders to rename the movie to “I Remember Everything Richard”. The main script redactor J Lūsis was fired and replaced with A Grigulis.

In 6 May after many script and scene reconsiderations the movie production was canceled. 245 300 rubles spent on production were called as losses. The original copy of the movie was however, ordered to be preserved in the cinematic archive.

18 August the movie was officially finished and allowed to be shown in movie theaters.

From April 3 to 26 1967 the movie was shown in theaters, banning it from being mentioned in the press. After that the Soviet bureaucratic carousel ended. The movie disappeared completely for decades. In 10 January 1992 the movie was restored and shown again. In 1999 it was distributed in VHS format, but in 2009 included in DVD collection of Rolands Kalniņš banned films.

Why was the movie banned in Soviet Latvia while it was praised by the critics and officials in Moscow? Apparent reason was the fear of the local communist officials from the “big” masters in Moscow. The leadership of the Latvian Socialist Republic was mostly Latvian communists from Russia, who survived the Stalin’s purges and was franticly afraid to do anything that could be seen as hostile to Moscow. The movie “I Remember Everything Richard” in no way praised the legionaries as heroes. Instead they were shown as tragic victims of the Nazi policy, forced to fight useless war bound to fail. The main character Jānis shows no sympathy to the Legion, while Ričards who is nationalistic minded turns out to be Western spy. Also the commanding officers were shown as hypocrites and involved in Holocaust. Therefore now such movie may not be liked by people who admire the Legionnaires and calls them heroes. However, the communist elite still saw this movie as politically incorrect and danger to them. The reason, why despite numerous orders to not to show the movie, it did appear for the short time on screens, was because Moscow had accepted it.

With that the local Soviet leaders showed the usual weakness against the high power, a weakness that persisted until late eighties. We can see that this weakness in issues about the Latvian Legion has not gone until this day. Latvian political elite constantly juggles with the Latvian Legion. First it allows to officially celebrating it, even makes a parliamentary declaration defending the Legion. After protests from Russia and its supporters in Latvia and the West the government removes the 16th March from the official calendar. But still as many celebrates it, and its supporters are now coalition the Latvia continues to ridicule itself more and more. The Russia and West enjoys this Latvian inability to take a concrete stance on this important matter and continue the diplomatic harassment of our country.


Music video shows scenes from the movie

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The Irbene Radio Telescopes

The main RT-32 antenna in the forest of Irbene

The main RT-32 antenna in the forest of Irbene

Hidden in the dense coastal forests of Slītere a mysterious ex-Soviet spy center lays now used for science. Almost everyone including me who entered the site of the two large radio telescopes called Irbene, are amazed by the surrealistic atmosphere made by the abandoned ghost town and two large radio dishes in the middle of nowhere. This article will tell more about this site.

As the Cold War between US and USSR entered above Space, the need for Space espionage made Soviets to design ways to track and decode signals from US satellites.   The project begun in 1967 when the remote areas of the Ventspils district was allocated to secret buildup of object codenamed “Starlet”. The location was chosen because of dense low populated forest areas of Slītere that also was part of the Soviet border zone – so that no stranger could not ever discover this object.

The Close up the RT-32 dish

The Close up the RT-32 dish

The main object for space intelligence was a  32-metre, fully steerable parabolic, centimetre-wave range antenna (RT-32) and a 16-metre diameter antenna (RT-16).  The bigger one is the largest radio telescope in northern Europe and the world’s eighth largest.  Both objects are connected with an underground tunnel. In Soviet times there were more than two such antennas, even six that were later dissembled by the Soviets. Around the antennas a secret town was built for working stuff and guards. A 9 story apartment blocks, barracks, kindergarten and even school was built there. The working stuff could not leave the town without special permissions and the army made sure no one ever made close to the site.

The Second RT-16 antenna

The Second RT-16 antenna

It’s still not widely known what the KGB was doing there. The radio telescopes were probably used to spy on NATO Space communications, satellites,  space craft and also aircraft. It is said that the antennas were so sensitive that they could track a mobile phone signal if it was sent from one of the Saturn’s moons  and follow the aircraft that flies near the Horizon. The great importance that Soviet secret service gave to this object was clearly shown after the fall of Soviet Union. As in case of Skrunda Radar station the Russian government wanted to keep this object in their possession for unlimited time. However, Latvian government demanded to leave all Soviet objects at once. The object was only revealed to the public in 1993. When Latvian members of the Office for controlling the withdrawal of the Russian army entered the site, for their astonishment they found the members of the Russian secret service the FSB rushing to disable the object.

The tunnel connecting both radio telescopes

The tunnel connecting both radio telescopes

The FSB removed all the smaller antennas, and left only two bigger ones. But, they made them unusable, by cutting all the cables, hammering nails in the wires and spilled acid in to equipment. Worse, than that some leading figures of the Latvian delegation for the talks of the withdrawal suggested to destroy two remaining antennas in the same matter as the Skrunda Radar Station. The historian and diplomat Mārtiņš Virsis was one of them who nearly convinced the Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs to do this. However, the object was rescued by the pressure from Latvian scientists who recognized the importance of this object for their studies.

However, it was a heavy start, as the Russians had damaged both objects and left no blueprints and information about how this object works. In 1994 the site was taken under control by the Latvian Academy of Sciences. The antenna renewal work started and in December the power was restored. In 1995 the damage made by the Russians was slowly taken away- the nails were removed and acid torn equipment was repaired. In September 19, the  Latvian Academy of Sciences decides to found “Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre” (VIRAC) as a working unit inside the Academy.  In 1996 the first space signals were tracked – the Moon and Sun and radio emission at 12. 2 GHz during the partial solar eclipse was monitored.  In 1997 the receiver completion was made for 10.5 to 11,5 GHz. In 1999 the revival of second RT-16 antenna begun.

In last decades the VIRAC become connected to the Venstpils University. The work continued and today both antennas are fully operational, but more work still needs to be done to comply them with the international standards. Latest news about the actions of the VIRAC was the tracking of near to Earth flying asteroid DA14 in 16 February 2013. This proves that the VIRAC can now took part in important space research projects.  VIRAC works together with other space centers in EU and Russia. VIRAC shows example of how with limited funds and knowledge the seemingly unusable ex-Soviet object can be restored and used for civil matters. The same could have been done with the Skrunda Radar Station.

The abandoned town of Starlet

The abandoned town of Starlet

The ghost town “Starlet” however is another story. After all working personnel abandoned it became dilapidated. Building became empty all windows were broken and everything from the buildings has been taken away. The Starlet became a sort of “mini Chernobyl”. Its only inhabitants were homeless people or scavengers looking for metal parts or other valuable pieces. In 2012 the town was set to be demolished. However, the works were soon canceled as the main supervisor of the town was brutally murdered by the locals. Because of that the town is closed to visitors.

On 2014 the main antenna dish of the RT-32 radiotelescope was removed for restoration. The antenna had suffered age deformations and needed to be restored and adjusted for further science work. On June 10 2015 antenna was restored and placed back on the telescope mast. Telescope is set to fully work again and pick up wide signals from space and serve the VIRAC in its science endeavors.

Irbene antenna on 2001

Irbene antenna on 2001

Restoration of the Irbene RT-32 radio telescope antenna June 10 2015

Restoration of the Irbene RT-32 radio telescope antenna June 10 2015

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Skrunda Soviet Radar Station

The Destroyed Skrunda Radar building

The Destroyed Skrunda Radar building

Ever since the birth of radio, the military quickly recognized its importance for their operations.  Soviet Army had extensively used radio technologies for their purposes and today we can find many large radio based installations in Russia and ex-Soviet states. One of the most mysterious and forgotten Soviet military objects was the Skrunda Radar station in Latvia. A top-secret project a part of collective Soviet anti-rocket protection system and spying. The station was left unfinished after the fall of the Soviet Union and destroyed by incompetent Latvian government. This article tells the story about the rise and demise of the Skrunda Radar station.

As the nuclear rocket technologies became more advanced a early warning radar system was needed. A construction of net of radar stations were built all around the Soviet Union. In Latvia a small town called Skrunda was chosen as site for such radar. The site for construction was valley filled with forests 7 km from Skrunda. The information about this object was so top-secret, that even military builders had no idea what was to be placed in that building. They received extra pay for working in this object called as “Skrunda 1”, the bus stop near the site was simply called “Complex”. The official name was RLS “Dnepr”that was top-secret.

The Site of the Skrunda Radar station

The Site of the Skrunda Radar station

On the oddly shaped building 250 meter tall “wings” a transmitter antennas and receiver antennas were placed. Two power lines with power of 110 KV were added to power the radar. The object was started in 1955 and finished in 1967. The secrecy of the object was so successful that only few knew what was going on that valley.

However, the secrecy was soon blown  because of the interference for local radio and TV receivers caused by the high energy that was transmitted from the radar. Radio stations became jammed by blasting screeching noise and TV viewing became interrupted by lines on the TV screens. In other  places in Latvia where radar stations were placed similar things happened. That made many to think that there is a high power radar station near Skrunda.

In 1971 second Dnepr type radar station was placed causing even more interference. However, because of the enormous time wasted on such complex building it turned out that it is already outdated. So in 1985 the construction of a new type “Darjal – UM” begun. It was supposed to be finished in 1994.

In 1992 the Soviet Union had collapsed. Latvian government begun talks of withdrawing all Soviet forces from Latvia. Russians insisted on keeping the Skrunda radar station for their use for unlimited time. However, Latvians did not back down and demanded to leave all the Soviet military objects. In 1992 the representatives of the Office for controlling the withdrawal of the Russian forces, accompanied by journalists visited the radar site. Now it was officially known that two early warning radars are working in the site known as “complex”. They are required for monitoring the space communications and works as part of the early warning system. Radars together with  satellites informs the Soviet government  and military command about the NATO rocket launch and measures its flight and fall path.

Skrunda RLS was a so-called “Dnepr” type station. It was composed of two separate sectors (i.e. stations), each consisting of two “wings” (i.e. radars). Each radar wing consisted of a pair of long (250m x 17m) antennas. Antennas were fixed and the operational control was electronic (frequency scanning mode).

Officially, the power of the station was held to be 1,25 – 1,8 MW, but it could be increased up to 3 MW and more. The mean power of each transmitter (all together 16 radars) – 50 kW. Frequency range 156-162 Mhz (which was TV frequency in 70ties/80ties); peak duration – 0.8 ms. The distance of surveillance was >6000 km, altitude up to 3000 km. Radars viewed a 186° angle sector in the north-west direction.

The powerful radar of Skrunda RLS alongside with its ‘regular’ transmissions (on frequency range 156-162 Mhz) was transmitting a specific impulse type signal due to which Skrunda radar – as well as other similar Soviet stations build around USSR borders – was known by the international military as a “henhouse” radar. Is it the same as “woodpecker” signal, detected in the West by radioamateurs on short-waves? Both signals made a little pecking noise about ten times per second. It is extremely low frequency. Signals of this nature are ‘blamed’ for affecting the way the people behave – they can effect the ability to be calm, the ability to rationalize. After having interviewed Skrunda researchers, it became clear, that Soviets (at least in Skrunda case) were more interested in developing ‘cold war’ weapons and espionage tools, and not in mind-controling experiments.So, this could be most likely the solution.

The signal pulse carried a sophisticated code in order to detect approaching object with extremely high accuracy. Thus it resulted into the over-the-horizon-radar system, which could see incoming objects many times further and more precisely than any ordinary radar of the same power at the same distance (even if they are totally out of line or sight). In order to be able to observe space over long distance (that is to have the signal bouncing off ionosphere) – and to stop all TV and radio broadcasting in the world for about 7 minutes, a radar needs to be extremely powerful. So was Skrunda RLS – when working at maximum of the power. And although it couldn’t destroy ‘cosmic objects’ (i.e. ballistic missiles flying in Earth orbit), it could damage radio facilities of the satellites – which was confirmed by the Skrunda main designer himself.

Map from newspaper "Pravda" showing the radar sites of the Soviet Early warning radar system

Map from newspaper “Pravda” showing the radar sites of the Soviet Early warning radar system

The unfinished “Darjal – UM” radar in 1992 was already 18 story high. Similar stations were placed in Murmansk, Pechora, Irkutsk, Balhash and Mingenchaur. The very goal was to protect Soviet Union from the possible NATO missile launch.  Soviets used a large amount power to many for standard radar causing enormous flow of electromagnetic radiance. In 1988 the Latvian Soviet Council of Ministers send a notice to Soviet Ministry of Defense to inspect the amount of radio radiance around radar stations in Latvia. In 1989 it turned out that in Vaiņode radar the amount of allowable radiance was exceeded 23 times. Soviet authorities promised to fix this, but nothing was done.

After the fall of the USSR the hysteria about adverse health effects caused by the Skrunda radar station begun. Rumors about cow infertility, low birthrate, birth disorders and sickness around the radar stations were widespread. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was not so long ago and fear of the Soviet military installations was growing. However, the scientific inspections were made around the radar site that concluded the intensity of the radiance made by the working radar was not above international level. Also no clear signs of adverse effects caused by radar waves on humans and animals were not found. Until today no clear proof of health damage caused by radio frequencies have not been found. Its more a psychological fear from radio antennas, also the low living standard around the Soviet secret objects that caused the sicknesses. Only real evidence of damage caused by the radar was the drop of amount wood increase in nearby territories.   But, Latvian scientists had no proper methods or equipment to measure the possible damage made by the radar. Even now when ever the Latvian army or NATO attempts to place a radar or radio antenna the locals rise up against them, by the fear of the health damage caused by the radio waves. In reality nobody can really see the radio waves nor fully comprehend the effects made by them. As scientists are always uncertain and cannot give concrete conclusions, people talking that they have even seen the radar rays will keep on spreading the ignorance about the radio communications.

In 1992 the talks between Latvian and Russian delegations were all about the withdrawal of the Russian troops. Russians wanted to keep the Skrunda Radar, The Space Espionage center in Irbene, the Liepāja War Port. Latvian delegation did not back down and Russians accepted to leave Skrunda if Latvians would dissemble the radar themselves. Latvian government agreed to destroy the unfinished Darjal -UM radar, for the cost of 8 million dollars. For the luck of the Latvian government some friends from US and Europe decided to help.

The abandoned secret town of the Skrunda radar station

The abandoned secret town of the Skrunda radar station

In 4 May 1995 an unneeded expensive show was set up at the Skrunda. The US company “Controlled Demolitions  Inc” for a contract of 8 million dollars destroyed the “Darjal – UM” radar building. With the presence of Latvian government and even with some pagan ritual the building was turn up in most expensive debris. The prime minister Valdis Birkavs ignored all proposals of using the radar for civil means and put its destruction as a political question.

The older working radar stations were still operational until 4 September 1998, when last Russian operatives left the scene leaving abandoned buildings. All working personnel lived in secret closed town. Now the city resembles the city of Pripyat  – completely abandoned and looted. Local government could not find a proper way of how to maintain the city and in 2010 the town  was auctioned Russian firm Alekseevskoye-Serviss for 1.55 million (2.2 million Euro). However, nothing was done by the winners and in the town was reauctioned in June 2010 for only 170,000 Lats. On January 2015 after series of  unsuccessful auctions the town was bought by the Skrunda municipality. As the private investors showed no initiative in maintaining the town, the municipality will have to do it by their own resources.  It’s still stands abandoned as we speak.

The Latvian government was wrong about destroying and leaving the Skrunda radar stations. Even if after complete withdrawal of the Russian army, the site could have been used either for tourist of scientific purposes. The Alūksne nuclear base is good tourist attraction and the Space Espionage Base at Irbene is an important science base for students and scientists. Even if the Russians removed all the valuable equipment the example of the Irbene Radio Telescopes show that even with limited funds the abandoned object could have a new life. Next time we will follow the story of no less mysterious radio station at Irbene, that still works and can be visited.

Selected Sources:

Upmalis, Ilgonis.(2012) Latvia – USSR military base : 1939-1998: materials and documents on the Soviet army’s presence in and withdrawal from Latvia. Riga : Zelta Grauds.

Upmalis, Ilgonis, Tiglass, Ēriks, Stankēvičs, Ēriks. (2011) Latvija padomjumilitāristu varā : 1939-1999.Rīga: Latvijas okupācijas izpētes biedrība

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Latvia – Soviet War Base 1944-1994

The map showing locations of the Soviet war bases in Latvia at late eighties

The map showing locations of the Soviet war bases in Latvia at late eighties

Latvia  first became home to  Soviet forces in 1939 when first 24 thousand men established a garrison in Courland region. After complete occupation of Latvia in 1940 the actions of the Soviet armed forces became unrestricted. In 1944 the Soviet Army returned to Latvia. After the end of the war following the path to absolute militarization and arms race, Latvia was now under full Soviet military grip. Army bases, naval ports, radio bases and even nuclear rocket launch pads were all around Latvia. The large concentration of the Soviet military industrial complex did a significant damage to Latvian economy and demographics after the regain of independence.

The outcome of the World War II did not satisfy the needs of the leaders of the Soviet Union, as the World Socialist revolution was still not achieved. Soviet Union had taken over Eastern Europe, gained influence over the Middle East and China and South Asia. However, when an American diplomat who remarked to Stalin of how grateful for him is to see the Soviets troops in Berlin the Stalin replayed: “Tsar Alexander reached Paris.” That showed that Stalin aspired for something more and the very quest for world dominance was not still abandoned. But, now Soviet Union met a strong opponent the United States of America, armed with nuclear weapons and great resources. Soviets issued a statement that they wont be the first to start the World War III, and started the complete militarization of the country to prepare for this war.

Since Soviet Union was able to extend their field of action far from its borders, by forming the Warsaw Pact and adding Soviet bases in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the Baltic States were added to second role in the theater of war. In case of the Soviet victory the Baltic States would suit as the main base for weapons maintenance and supply reserves. In case of defeat the Baltic States would be the retreat route. Because of that in the Baltic States there were no factories that produced the military vehicles and aircraft.

In the first years of the Cold war the Allies sent a covert missions to Latvia to support the local resistance movement. Latvian National partisans fought the uneven battle with the Soviet forces until 1956. Soviets last 20 thousand man in the process, but the Latvian national resistance was crushed. To prevent any breach of the Soviet border, the whole coast of the Baltic Sea was turned into “border area” including the city of Liepaja and Ventspils. People were deported from the close to sea areas, ending the century long fisherman village traditions. Airfields were placed at Ezere, Vaiņode, Liepāja, Medze and Ventspils.

In 29 August 1949 the Soviets did first successful nuclear weapons test. Only in 1992 the Soviet scientist Yulii Khariton, one of the main developers of the Soviet nuclear bomb admitted that the first soviet nuke was made according to stolen American blueprints. Soviets needed special carriers to deliver nukes to their targets – airplanes and rockets. The range of the first rockets was small, and they were placed along the borders of the Warsaw pact. The coast of the Baltic sea was defended with “land to air” anti-aircraft rockets.

The hangar of the Zeltini nuclear rocket base near Alūksne

The hangar of the Zeltini nuclear rocket base near Alūksne

Six years after first Soviet nuke test in 1955 at Alūksne, Bārta, Vaiņode first nuclear rockets were placed. On 1957 in Mārciena near the hill of Gaiziņkalns – the highest point in Latvia, a buildup for nuclear base started. A concrete supply road was built because the first rockets were heavy and needed either railroad or special concrete roads. However, it was discovered that in 1961 Soviet colonel Oleg Penkovsky had delivered the secret locations of the Soviet long distance rocket bases to UK and USA. As the secrecy was blown, the rockets were moved away to another places and Mārciena was abandoned. Luckily for Latvia since it was densely populated no nuclear tests were never made here.

In 1960 the US espionage high altitude plane U-2 was shot down over the skies of the Soviet Union. Before that it was the only way how to spy on the Soviet bases. Now when the Soviets were capable of intercepting and destroying then space race begun. Both countries started to make spy satellites, that could find and monitor the secret nuclear bases with ease.

Because of that a radio location system was needed. In 1960 the town of Skrunda in Courland region was allocated for secret radio station “Dnepr”. Also in the forest of Irbene near the Baltic Sea the Signals Intelligence Base was built to track and decode the Allied Satellite signals.

Latvia was also home to the Soviet Baltic War Fleet. Liepāja War Port that was already used in Czarist times, became home to Soviet war ships, rocket ships and submarines. In 1988 the Soviet War Fleet command made gigantic mistake, by detonating 440 WWII era aviation bombs filled with phosphorus. Such bombs can only be dissembled and the phosphorus must be either melted or burned. Instead the bombs were detonated in the Baltic sea cape zone spreading large areas of the Baltic Sea with parts of phosphorus.  When entering water the phosphorous takes form similar to amber. When locals or tourists while looking for real amber picks up the phosphorus and places it in their pockets, the phosphorus heats up leaving deep wounds. The Soviet Authorities took no responsibility for this mess.

The Soviet Submarines at Liepāja War Port

The Soviet Submarines at Liepāja War Port

Latvia was home to numerous factories with goal to maintain and fix the Soviet war equipment, vehicles and aircraft. Even the Latvian civil factories were subjected to assist the Soviet industrial military complex, large part of their production were allocated to military needs. Cekule, Garkalne, Inčukalns, Mangaļsala were Soviet arms depots filled with mines, reactive weapons and ordinary equipment just in case of war. Airfields were many locations: Liepāja, Tukums, Vaiņode, Jelgava, Lielvārde, Jēkabpils and other places. Strategical rockets were placed in many places notably Zeltiņi near Alūksne. With such large concentration of the Soviet forces in case of the nuclear strike Latvia would be wiped from the face of the earth.

Soviets took away large plots of land from the local farmers to build their bases. Many spaces were polluted. The infamous Zvārde firing ground was for years used for the Soviet aviation tests. Even today the areas around Zvārde are dangerous because of the blind shells hidden in the ground. At the Tukums Airfield nuclear weapons were placed and kept until the fall of the Soviet Union. Also the pollution from the chemical weapons are present at some places.

After the fall of the Soviet Union the Soviet Army now Armed forces of the Russian Federation slowly unwillingly left Latvia. The process of talks between Latvia and Russia about the withdrawal of the ex-Soviet armed forces lasted until 1994 when Latvia became completely free from the grip of Russian military. However, the army bases they left became abandoned, looted and forgotten. Few of them are to use now. Latvian government made a gigantic mistake by destroying the unfinished Skrunda Radio Locator Antenna Tower, for it could be used for numerous purposes including science. Thankfully the two large parabolic radio telescopic antennas stationed at Irbene escaped the same fate, as the head of the Latvian-Russian talks historian and diplomat Mārtiņš Virsis recommended to destroy them also. Because of the protests by the scientists the radio telescopes were spared and now serves as space science center. Some deserted Soviet airfields in Tukums and Jēkabpils are now used for civil means. The nuclear rocket base in Zeltiņi are used as a tourist attraction. The fortress in Daugavpils are used for museums.

The abandoned building in Mārciena rocket base

The abandoned building in Mārciena rocket base

One part of the Soviet military heritage that still dwells in Latvia are families of the old demobilized Soviet officers. After the end of the military service they choose to stay in Latvia, bringing their families. After the fall of the Soviet Union the Latvian state could not find legal means to deport them back to Russia, as Russia itself refused to allow so. Russia has not repaid the losses done by the Soviet military during the occupation. The losses include pollution, effects on human health, the collapse of Latvian civil industry and the demographic changes. These losses will probably never be repaid by Russia, at least not by current government, and Latvia needs to move on and repair these losses by themselves.

Selected Sources:

Upmalis, Ilgonis.(2012) Latvia – USSR military base : 1939-1998: materials and documents on the Soviet army’s presence in and withdrawal from Latvia. Riga : Zelta Grauds.

Upmalis, Ilgonis, Tiglass, Ēriks, Stankēvičs, Ēriks. (2011) Latvija padomju militāristu varā : 1939-1999.Rīga: Latvijas okupācijas izpētes biedrība.

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