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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