Latvia under the Soviet Union. Politics and economy 1945-1987

The Monument of Lenin in the Riga City Center

The Monument of Lenin in the Riga City Center

The Soviet Union defined itself as a Socialist country that is on her way to communism. The official name – The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics was actually “four words, four lies” as Cornelius Castoriadis called it. The Soviets were not democratically elected, it was not a Socialist, and union for in reality it was Unitarian state not union. The main points for the Soviet order was 1) communist party monopoly, 2) Democratic Centralism, 3) Complete state control over resources and production, 4) Communism as the desired goal of the government, 5) Strive for international victory of the communist order. The word “soviet” or сове́т (council) was intended as democratically elected workers and peasants governing body. However, when in 1922 the official USSR name was declared all power in the hands in the Communist party and the Soviets were under its direct control. This means that whole ideology and politics of the Soviet Union were based on double thinking, lies and imitation. The USSR was just a totalitarian single state centralized dictatorship. The double faced absurd system that actually survived for more than 80 years is still a mystery for many.

Latvia was included in the Soviet system as a full time socialist republic. The Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic had limited rights of her own: constitution, own laws, own borders and administrative system. However, it was only on the paper as the Soviet Union was a federal country with the main orders coming from Moscow. However, it was still better because as a full time Socialist Republic Latvia could break away from Moscow more easier. For Autonomous Socialist republics like Chechnya or Tatarstan this proved to be impossible.  The LSSR constitution approved on August 25 1940 was a duplicate of the USSR 1936 constitution. Despite the constitution had promised that the republics may break away from the USSR, there was no mechanism defined how to do that. And even mentioning such possibility in private may cause the repressions from the KGB. There was LSSR passport that was given to all who lived in its territory. But, it had no legal effect , because one could legally live in Kazakh SSR with LSSR passport and with KSSR passport in Latvia. But, if someone wanted to travel outside the USSR, he received the USSR passport.

The Coat of Arms of the LSSR

The Coat of Arms of the LSSR

The Soviet Order was based on the single Communist party. LSSR has its own Latvian Communist Party (LCP) that was subordinated to the Soviet Union Communist Party (SUCP). The main governing bodies were the LCP Central Committee (LCP CC) and LSSR Soviet Council. The Supreme Council of the LSSR sessions was only called in case of  LCP CC appointment. Usually most political decisions were made in informal meetings and later officially issued. LCP CC was responsible for every sector of the republic. But, it was completely loyal to the SUCP CC in Moscow.

The party had committees in every village, city, factory that controlled everything under the guidance of the Central Committee. The Soviet Army had its own system of committees. Slowly the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus grew in enormous sizes, with numerous institutions and various rank officials making the bureaucratic chaos. The most prominent officials were the CC Secretaries who formed the Politburo. The Politburo was the main body above all.Moscow had her own bureaus summoned by Moscow and representatives sent from  Moscow. Local communists often had quarrels and disagreements that ended in the repressions. Moscow sent inspections to Latvia.   Moscow leaders were reluctant to meet directly with the local leaders. Stalin did this only once in 1949 to inform about the deportations, and Khrushchev and Brezhnev were also very distant.

The Latvian membership in the LCP was always quite mediocre comparing to the Lithuania. Lithuanian membership in 1953 in their party was only 37% but in 1965 it was 63,7%. This helped the Lithuanians to have more sovereign say in their local matters. Meanwhile in Latvia in 1959 there were 59% Latvians and in 1989 59% Latvians. The reasons for such low support was the high influx of immigrants from the Soviet Union that was more eager to join LCP. Latvians meanwhile viewed LCP as a rouge Russian party  that they could not join. The main motivation for joining the party was the advancement in carrier and more social privileges. But, the high Russian influence in the party meant that Latvians suffered greater pressure from Moscow and was unable to make nationally beneficial decisions like Lithuania and Estonia did. Estonians and Lithuanians took active part in the system to keep the foreigners away, but Latvians either refrained to work with the foreigners  or submitted to them. Also most Latvian communist leaders like J Kalbērziņs, A Peļše and A Voss where the survivors of Stalinist purges and obeyed every order from Moscow in the result.

The Latvian Communist Party XXI Congress

The Latvian Communist Party XXI Congress

Despite the official slogan for USSR as a completely socially equal country it was divided into complex social castes.  Above all were the nomenclature. It was a party apparatus of the party, administrative, financial and interior security workers. They enjoyed greater social guarantees than simple soviet citizens, better homes and better supply of food and household goods. They enjoyed special secret shops and supply system. The nomenclature was the Soviet bureaucratic elite that was more equal than other equal soviet citizens. While others stood in long lines for a slice of bread and toilet paper the elite communists had the first hand for everything. This was the root of the widespread corruption that slowly teared the USSR apart. After 1965 also WW2 veterans became a socially privileged class.

The Soviet propaganda always pointed the poverty, oppression and low economic advancements in the pre war Latvian Republic. The superiority of the Soviet centralized economy over Latvian trade economy was justified by the enormous Soviet industry. Also Moscow even now says that it invested enormous sums in Latvia.  In reality income gathered from Latvia from 1945-1950 was enough to cover the costs of maintaining the Soviet Army bases in Latvia. From 1945 to 1950 six billion rubles were transferred from Latvia to Moscow. From 1950 to 1959 LSSR gave more income to the USSR than USSR gave back. Money from Latvia was invested in Central Asian Republics and Siberian development. Since Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union this also can be seen as enormous looting of the Latvian resources in a long period of time.

Latvian industry was also advanced before the WW2. After the war much had been looted and destroyed. However, the Soviets managed to achieve great industrial breakthroughs by immigration. From 1945 to 1959 large numbers of people from Russia, Belorussia and Ukraine moved to Latvia. Their original living places were torn apart by the war and Stalinist terror. In 1940 there were 355 200 people living in Riga, but in 1958 489 100. To accommodate these people factories and living blocks had to be built in masses. On 1989 the citizen count in Riga nearly reached million people. Without such immigration Latvia would be unable to achieve such full scale industrialization. The Moscow did little to halt this immigration, because the moving the nations around the Soviet Union and the russifacation was one of the political principles.

The large residental blocks were the symbols of the Soviet immigration policy

The large residental blocks were the symbols of the Soviet immigration policy

The Soviet agricultural system was disastrous for Latvian country side. For centuries Latvians had developed a system of private farming. During the period of freedom from 1920-1940 Latvian agriculture was booming. However, Soviets nationalized all agricultural lands and repressed the rich land owners. The deportation of 1949 finally forced everyone to give up their land and join the collective farms- kolkhozs. The state took most production away from the collective farms, making farmers poor. Eventually to find a way out of this people were allowed to keep strictly normed “nearby gardens”. People could grow their own vegetables and potatoes that were taken away. Strict norms on keeping private cattle made people to device ways to hide their cows and pigs. Soviets changed the usual countryside, by making city like villages and filled them with residential blocks.  People were kept together as possible. Before the war people usually lived in their private households away from each other.

The standard of living in the first years till the death of Joseph Stalin was quite low. Despite the availability of jobs, the pay was low. The countryside was depopulated, people moved to the cities. Riga lacked apartments, in old nationalized apartment buildings built by Baltic German nobles, Soviets made collective flats or communal flats.  Many families shared one living space. In mid fifties new residential blocks were built and building of the new suburban residential areas continued until the end of the USSR. Many were concerned that the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe have a greater standard of living.

After the death of Stalin, his successors understood the danger of the unproductive Soviet system. The Soviet leaders slowly gave up the Stalinist means of repression, but were unable to give up centralized state economy. Khrushchev was a pioneer of many new social and economic policies, but he was unable to change all thing. Khrushchev firmly believed that the modern technology and progressive welfare policies will bring country closer to communism. The pension and payment system was improved, possibility of getting a flat or car was made more greater. People were motivated to work to get advancements. Slowly such things as TV, Radio and the washing machine entered every household. People finally could live more comfortably and enjoy some luxuries. However, Khrushchev also pushed for heavy arms race with US. The Soviet advancements in space and nuclear rocket technology made USSR more prominent. However, the quality and real count of the Soviet super weapons was far lower than the US ones. The US was scared of the Khrushchev threats and weapons therefore greatly overestimated the Soviet military power. That opened doors for mass production of weapons in the US and the reckless Soviet attempts to beat it. US had better chances to survive the arms race because the weapons were made by private industry, while Soviet made more and more weapons at the cost of everything else.

When Brezhnev came to power the Soviet economy faced regression. But, the Soviet politicians were “saved” from making new economic reforms. The Middle Eastern conflict caused the rise of the oil prices. Soviets years before had begun the building of gas and oil pipes, that exported the vast Soviet reserves to the Western world. Stalin had declared that the selling out the nation’s resources is a national treason. Now however, the rising oil prices that were comparatively high until the mid eighties kept the Soviet economy stable.

A collection of the Soviet everyday items.

A collection of the Soviet everyday items.

Some authors claim that on 1975 Latvia reached the highest standard of living than ever before. However, comparing to Italy, Canada or even Poland it was still lower. Soviets tried to prevent Latvians to go abroad. However, those who saw world outside the Iron Curtain or even within it was shocked by the great difference. Consumer goods were still under deficit, having a car was regarded as the sign of personal wealth. The deficit of food, consumer goods and all kinds of products became eminent for years to come. The statewide Black Market emerged. It was called blat (блат) – the informal agreement between people to gain access to deficit goods. It was a system based on social status and profession. People exchanged goods for favors. The pseudo private trade market became so eminent that in many cases it was legalized. Legal trade like vegetables and flower selling emerged. Soviet leadership officially condemned the grey zone market or black market, but in reality did nothing much to stop it. Police fought illegal trade of currency and jewels.  Also book selling, audio copying of vinyl or cassette records was limited. Also antique collectors had to watch out.

The positive side of the Soviet occupation was the culture. Soviets understood that boosting culture and entertainment can keep them loyal an satisfied. The traditional Song and Dance Festival that had already begun on 19th century was kept by the Soviet ideology. Despite including some propaganda songs, the overall folk tradition was kept. However, there was a certain hostility towards Līgo celebrations. No holidays were set there and people were encouraged not to celebrate them. But, people still celebrated them.  In every five years Song and Dance festivals made Latvians again feel like national Latvians. In the sixties and fifties Latvian popular stage music boomed, composers like Raimonds Pauls and Imants Kalniņs were considered as pop icons. As the western records and video tapes entered Latvia, rock, disco and electronic music groups became popular. Despite some restrictions the Latvian music became more western. The Latvian Cinema was making high quality movies every year and artists also enjoyed relative freedom. There was a certain code of “do nots” for the artists, movie directors and the actors, but they received greater state support.

A negative side in the culture was the suppression of the national themes. Nationally driven writers were persecuted by the KGB. Soviets banned any kind of national minority movement. For instance Jews had double feelings about the Soviet power. From one side Soviets rescued them from the Holocaust, from other side any kinds national and cultural movement were suppressed.  Zionist activity was banned, all Jewish cultural life was based around few legal religious congregations. Because of this many Jews emigrated from Soviet Latvia making a bad image on the USSR. Other national minorities suffered from this too.

Education was sufficient, however students had to go through months of boring lectures about Marxist theory. In humanitarian sciences there was a high pressure of the Soviet propaganda and double speak. Books were widely available in Latvian and Russian. Western authors were translated. The youth spent their time in the pioneer movement, all kinds of sport activities were available.  Latvian sportsman brought golden medals from almost every Olympic games.

Meanwhile all that, the corrupt, infective and absurd soviet system was heading for collapse.  Brezhnev decided to do nothing about it since he knew the danger of reforming the totalitarian system. Gorbachev wanted reforms when it was too late. While Brezhnev was slowly sinking in a pool of the marsh, Gorbachev wanted to get out of it fast – in result he was sinking even faster.  And that brought a great chance for Latvia to finally break loose and restore independence.

Selected Sources:

Bleiere, Daina. (2012)Eiropa ārpus Eiropas : dzīve Latvijas PSR. Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

Grava-Kreituse, Ilga. (2009) Pagājušo gadu Latvija 1945-1990 : kā dzīvojām, no kā iztikām, ko apsmējām, par ko priecājāmies.Rīga : Zvaigzne ABC.

Prikulis, Juris. (Ed) (2012) Starptautiskā konference “Padomju Savienības nodarītie zaudējumi Baltijā”. Padomju Savienības nodarītie zaudējumi Baltijā : Rīgā, 2011. gada 17.-18. jūnijs : starptautiskās konferences materiāli.Rīga : Latvijas Okupācijas izpētes biedrība.

Pavlovičs, Juris. (2012) Padomju Latvijas ikdiena : mūsu vienīgā vakardiena.Rīga : Jumava.

Суворов, Виктор. (2011)  Кузькина мать : хроника великого десятилетия : к 50-летию Карибского кризиса, новое историческое расследование от автора супербестселлеров “Аквариум” и “Ледокол”. Москва : Добрая книга.

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