Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Soviet Victory Monument in Riga


Many who visits Riga surely will notice the large National Library building still under construction, at the opposite bank of river Daugava. A large scenic glass building resembling the Hill of Glass from the famous play by Rainis The Golden Horse. But, they might notice a tall phallic spire just behind the National Library building. This large spire monument that for some resembles the Citadel complex from the game Half Life 2. Who knows since many say that Half Life 2 game environment was inspired by the city of Riga, this large spire might be a prime inspiration for the Citadel complex.

The Similarities between the Victory monument and Half Live 2 citadel

The Similarities between the Victory monument and Half Live 2 citadel

But, what the spire stands for? The answer is the Soviet Victory in the WW2 and the “liberation of Riga”. Last 20 years this monument with its park called Victory park, has become the object of political controversy, the symbol of national collisions between the Latvian society. For some see this a symbol of the soviet occupation, when others considers it as sacred site for their relatives who fought in WW2 and symbol of “good soviet times”. There have been attempts to blow up this monument, many important statesmen including the Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks have suggested to remove this monument. Recently a petition calling for removal of this monument has gathered 11471 sign ups within the social initiative platform enough to send it to Latvian parliament Saeima. The supporters of this monument who gather near it every May 9, including major of Riga Nil Ushakov has reacted angrily expressing insults like “the initiators of this petitions belongs to the zoo”. Radical Russian nationalists have even threatened with  blood if anyone dares to harm the “Russian monument”. Meanwhile the Latvian Foreign Ministry is worried that treaty made with Russia in 1994 actually prevents the demolition of this monument. However, the historical background of this monument and its park is long and complicated and will be explained here.

The territory where the park and monument now stands before WWI was simply a wide empty space. It was called the Peter Park and was not within no plans of construction. After the Riga became the capital of Latvia, some suggested to turn it into building space. However, clear plan was not set and for many years this territory remained as a space for private gardening. However, after 1934 when Kārlis Ulmanis took power by coup the Peter Park was destined for grand transformations. Kārlis Ulmanis was inspired by grandioze buildings in Nazi Germany and Soviet Union as it was common trend to build gigantic buildings that represents the regime.

The Grand project of the Victory park

The Grand project of the Victory park

On 1936 Kārlis Ulmanis issued a law about the building of the Victory Square. The victory for those days were considered the Latvian and allied forces victory over the Army of Bermnont-Avalov on 1919. On 1938 a project competition  was issued. The guidelines suggested a set of gigantic buildings that would oversize the Berlin Olympic stadium of 1936. The celebration square fit for 200 000 visitors, stadium with 25 000 seats, sports fields, velodrom, swimming pool, shooting range, port in the bay of Āgenskalns, the Assembly Hall  with 10 000 seats and central memorial sign.  Such ambitious project as mentioned were nothing uncommon in those days. Hitler and Stalin both had plans for their own fantasy buildings. While Ulmanis was neither a Nazi or a Communist, the monumentalism was imperative in his propaganda. He also wanted to build a new town hall in the opposite site with a large tower that would be tallest building in Riga in those days.

The Song and Dance Festival in the new Victory Square

The Song and Dance Festival in the new Victory Square

Few weeks after the project competition was issued in the territory of the new Victory Square the IX Annual Song and Dance festival was held with portable arena with seats and infrastructure. 44 projects were sent to competition. The prize for three first awards were 4000 Lats, while three secondary awards were 3000 Lats each. The winners were three  collectives of G Dauge, F Skujiņš, J Leimanis,  student E Krūmiņš, V Paegle. The further realization of the project was given to F Skujiņs who already was known for his Court Palace building. Skujiņš and Dauge visioned a Victory Alley that would continue the Ponton Bridge (now the Stone Bridge). From the main Victory Alley all main traffic routes around the Victory Square would alling. In case of mass festivities tram lines would circulate around it. The Square would contain flower gardens and water pools with fountains. At the end of the victory alley a 60 meter tall Victory tower would be built. Underneath it a Commemorative Shrine for the heroes of the Latvian nation. At the top of the tower an eternal flame would rise. A symbolic Torch Rally would end there. On the left side of the Valley a large walled representative parade square was to placed. At the right side large Song and Festival arena was intended.

The intended shrine for the Victory Square

The intended shrine for the Victory Square

  Also a Sports Palace, sports field, gardens, and swimming pools. And to add the least the bay of Āgenskals would be turned in to yachtclub. If this plan would ever be realized it would make one part of left bank of Riga into grandioze complex. No doubt the Victory Square project was intended as the main center of the Kārlis Ulmanis cult of personality. The preparations for project were underway. Massive “voluntary fund-raising” was underway. Every school including very small and poorly funded Jewish School in Viesīte gave their share of donations to the Victory monument project. If the WW2 had never occurred this project would be realized in complete or in smaller scale. For instance the foundations for Riga Town Hall tower were erected on 1940.

However, after occupation of Latvia on 1940, the Soviets cancelled these plans. The Square was left empty during both Soviet and Nazi Occupation. On 1944 Soviets kept the Victory Square name, but now it was no longer 1919 victory over Bermont-Avalov it was victory over Nazi Germany. On February 3 1946 in front of some 4000 spectators the Nazi war criminal SS Obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln along with four others were hanged in the Victory Square. It was last public execution in Riga. Jeckeln was responsible for Babi-Jar massacre in Ukraine and Rumbula massacre in Latvia.

The execution of Friedrich Jeckeln on 1946

The execution of Friedrich Jeckeln on 1946

After the end of the war nobody rushed to create a new victory square since the ideology of the Great Soviet Victory was not fully designed. Neither Stalin or Khrushchev regarded May 9 as festivity. Instead architect V Shnitikov suggested to build massive Song and Dance festival arena. However, the communist party decided to build the arena in Mežaparks instead. On 1961 during the Khrushchev Thaw the park was renamed to Soviet Socialist Communist Party XXII congress park. XXII congress was important for the ruling elite as it set the new plans for future Soviet policy. It was designed as a park with lots of green areas, playing fields, assembly hall with cafeterias. The project was partly realized, as the ideas for buildings and pavilions were abandoned.

After Khrushchev’s demise the new Brezhnev ideology centered around the Great Victory. May 9 became public holiday and monuments commemorating the Soviet soldiers were built-in every major town in USSR. On 1976 new project was set for the Victory monument. The monument was designed by Lev Bukovsky who ironically served the Latvian Waffen SS Legion during the WW2. Even more ironically the 79 meter tall spire was placed at the approximate place where Jeckeln  was hanged. The monument was finished on  1985 during the anniversary of the Great Victory. And once again it was renamed as the Victory park since on 1985 at the height of the stagnation the ideas of XXII congress were no longer realizable. The 1985 was the last mass event of victory celebration as in next year the Gorbachev’s reforms diverted the peoples attention from the Great Victory cult.

A large 79 obelisk a spire as I call it with two stars, two sculptures and a swimming pool was not the center of attention during the National revival. Maybe because of this nobody bordered to remove it after the regaining of independence. People were more concerned with the removal of Lenin’s statue. It may be that if the monument would be removed at the same night as the Lenin’s statue, nobody would not protest.

However, the situation changed during the nighties. People with Soviet nostalgia and resentment about the new Latvian state, started to gather there either at May 9 or October 13 (1944 Soviet “liberation” of Riga). This happened simply these people had no other symbol to identify themselves as all the Lenin monuments were removed. Also the Citizenship law on 1995 boosted the rift in Latvian society. However, these were a small groups of people. The fire was directly set alight by national radical organization “Pērkonkrusts” a revival movement of pre war nationalist movement. On 1997 at the night of June 5 they placed explosives near the spire to blow it up. However, the explosives malfunctioned and killed two plotters on the spot. The spire was damaged, but was still standing. This sparked a massive condemnation from the mainly Russian speaking part of society. The monument started to gain his lost never deserved attention.

Some people suggested to keep the monument, but modify it according to present needs. However, strongest voices called to remove it completely and restore the Ulmanis Victory Square project. Meanwhile the other side of the society became influenced by the revival of the Great Victory cult made by Putin’s regime. The local Russian speaking parties picked this up and used the monument for their festivities. The Harmony Center took the largest share of this and ever since early 2008 used the May 9 celebration as a massive voters boost. Assisted by funds from Russian organizations and using administrative resources the Harmony Center has taken over the May 9 celebrations for their own gain. On every May 9 the Victory Square turns into mass festivity with people celebrating the Great Victory. Portable arena with songs, food and drinks turned the Victory day into Victory Fiesta.

Since then, the monument has been became the symbol of all evil for nationalist Latvians. Since the city of Riga has been ruled for last four years by the Harmony Center the Victory Monument has been the point of rivalry. The 2007 Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn was a warning sign that similar thing may happen in Riga if someone might try to remove the monument. Bearing the fact that the Bronze Soldier riots were largely inspired by Russia. However, the cross ethnic rivalry in Estonia has not significantly worsened after this event.

Today a petition to remove the Victory monument and realize the original Ulmanis idea has entered the governmental level. The very idea that the Authoritarian style project may be realized in 21st century society sounds schizophrenic just as idea of the Great Soviet Victory. The history was shown that the Victory Square has served as ideological tool for every ruling regime. The best idea is the complete de-ideologization of this memorial complex. How it should be made its for architects and artists. For now the remarks by some people, that the removal of the “Russian monument” might spill blood its ridiculous, as the monument was designed for Soviet soldiers of all nationalities including Latvians. Threats that such move might even cause civil war and Russian interventions adds to the ideological ridicule around this monument.  On the other hand the 2008 signed agreement with Russia about the mutual preservation of the soldiers grave sites that according to Latvian Foreign Ministry also does not do justice. The point 1 of this agreement clearly defines the “Russian burial sites” as sites with graves with soviet soldiers and civilians and the memorial sites built within  these grave sites. As we know already  there are no graves in the Victory Square and its surrounding park territory. So this agreement should not serve as valid argument not to remove the monument. Victory Square is not a grave site therefore does not go within this document if understood properly.

The Victory Square was intended as  cult site for the Kārlis Ulmanis regime and ended up as cult site for the Soviet Victory. Whatever the events bring the best way is to remove all false ideologies from this site and make it apolitical park friendly for all people.

Selected Sources:

Lejnieks, Jānis. (1998) Rīga, kuras nav. Rīga. Zinātne.

Hanovs, Deniss, Tēraudkalns, Valdis. (2012) Laiks, Telpa, Vadonis: autoritārisma kultūra Latvijā 1934-1940. Rīga. Zinātne.

Zeļča, Vita, Muižnieks, Nils. (Ed) (2011) Karojošā piemiņa. 16. marts un 9. maijs. Rīga. Zinātne.



Comments Off on The Soviet Victory Monument in Riga

Filed under Historical Articles

Gunārs Astra The Latvian Anti-Soviet Dissident


During the long years of Soviet occupation few dared to resist the enormous oppressive system. After the armed struggle made by national partisans were crushed, the resistance to the Soviet regime was more passive and intellectual. But, even to non-violent ways of resistance the Soviet response was punitive. One of these men who opposed the system and to end of his life gone through the soviet persecution. His name was Gunārs Astra. Because of strong character and powerful last words at the court before the final sentence he became the symbol of the Latvian anti-Soviet resistance.

Gunārs Astra was born in October 23 1931. He lived in Riga and was in the age of 9 when Latvia was occupied by the Soviets. From 1940 to 1947 he attended the Riga City 48th Elementary school. After graduating he joined the Riga Electromechanic School. He went to work at VEF factory. On 1952 he graduated and became the VEF engineer technologian. On 1954 he was conscripted into Soviet Army. After the end of service on 1956 he went back to VEF and became the Radio Workshop master. On 1957 he became the chief of this workshop. He there first witnessed of what he called “the cooking room of the administrative and ideological directing”. He meant that every leading official in every state enterprise had to submit to soviet ideological brainwashing and obey every order from above. On 1958 he left the VEF and joined the Riga Pedagogical Institute to learn foreign languages. He wanted to learn foreign languages to get more wider view on things.

Gunārs Astra from the very childhood was a philosophically minded person. He practiced in dialogue skills , challenged people to express their opinion and then openly pointed their mistakes. He was directly critical of loudmouths and gossipers and therefore gained many enemies. In his workplace at Latvian State University at the Light and Sound testing laboratory unimpressed colleges started to report him to KGB. Because his desire to learn English and contact Westerners were considered suspicious he was under the KGB monitoring.

Astra read pre-war literature and listened the Western shortwave broadcasts and gained strong belief that Latvia was occupied and annexed and Latvia is under the dictate of the Communist party. He was deeply passionate about the sad state of the Latvian language, because it was pushed out of the official and social space. And he did not hide his beliefs, instead he contacted the western people and expressed his views.

On February 26 1961 he was arrested by KGB. He was accused of “seeking contacts with the US intelligence, gathering military type  information to weaken the Soviet power”. On October 26 he was sentenced for “state treason” to 15 years in prison camp in Mordovia. The same place where now one of the menbers of band Pussy Riot Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is imprisoned.  He was 30 years old at that time. During the years in prison he sent many letters to his relatives that were checked and censured by the KGB. Despite restrictions he made friends with other jailed dissidents from various parts of the Soviet Union. He took place in many protests and made hunger-strikes. He turned down any calls for compromise to ease his sentence.

After serving his 15 years he returned to Latvia. He was not broken down by the imprisonment instead he became even more confident to spread out his political beliefs. And nothing stopped him. KGB tried to isolate him from his work colleagues at the factory “Straume”. KGB tried to influence his brothers and asked to cooperate. After the proposal was turned down his brother Leons Astra lost his academic carrier.  KGB even infringed his marriage with his wife Herta Līvija Vagale.

Astra found joy and profit in to flower breeding and selling. Selling flowers were one of the few legal ways of private enterprise. He lived in Lucasvala island in Riga and made his own small Latvia in his property. KGB sent men posing as fisherman  to watch him. Despite meeting common minded people he declined any group activity.

On January 6 1983 KGB came back and made search in his home. KGB confiscated many photos, sound tapes, foreign literature and sound and photo equipment. From 15 to 19 December he was put on show trial in the Higher Court. He was sentenced for 7 years in prison for “anti-soviet agitation”.

Gunārs Astra in prison

Gunārs Astra in prison

His last words were secretly recorded with illegally brought in tape recorder. The speech made its way to Western media and Latvian exiles. If no tape recorders would be taken by his supporters, then these last words would never seen the light of day. Instead just official court report with edited text of last words would show up.

His last words included: “I was born in time when childhood was difficult, but filled with decisive events. In those times I grew up, learned to analyse, compare and confront and make my conclusions. I have been born early enough to witness these events and late enough to personally feel these events that make many frozen forever, by their fear. I came to work at early age. Already at the age of 25 I was chief deputy of the workshop with 2000 people working there. My social background can be clearly verified by my persecutor who stated that have “positive social basis” I had “socially right” background so I was put forward, trusted and thats why I experienced the cooking room of the administrative and ideological directing”. I was asked to join the Communist party openly explaining to make further carrier “I first must politically establish myself”. I had to take part in cabinet meetings, where they spoke openly, calling things as they are, and previously choosing people for positions and then placing them on “elections”. Our workshop was awarded on the anniversary 40 anniversary of the Bolshevik coup. We were awarded in the opera theater, but the 50 anniversary I spent in Mordovia in the KGB dungeons.

As my lawyer pointed out I am a Latvian man. I would dare to call myself Latvian. And not just citizen of Riga, as the central radio and press tries to call us lately – “рижанин Балдерис” and so on (Haralds Balderis a famous hockey player from Latvia). Its not a coincidence and its not unimportant that our beautiful and rich language is being pushed out of meetings, cabinets, offices and slogans and is being depleted and crippled.  I am saddened that behind the large facades of our factories “Straume”, “VEF” and “Radiotehnika”, everything is just in Russian, all orders, manuals, documents in Russian. Its painful for me that the Latvian language has to enclose in reservoirs in ethnographic museum, theater plays and in mass information. And even there the great Russian language breaks in.

Its painful and humiliating when large part of Latvia born Russian students don’t learn and does not want to learn Latvian. Latvian language has became the point of laughter and no examiner asks it from the student, when then Russian is compulsory everywhere.

   Its sad for me that Latvian kindergartens don’t teach the golden fund of Latvian folklore. The Latvian street names have been renamed in the names of Mayakovsky, Gorky, Sverdlow and so on. The various street names of Riga resemble the submissive history of the Latvian nation. Alexander street, Freedom Street (Brīvības iela), Adolf Hitler street, Lenin street. Its sad and angering when the name of Latvia has been became decorative name for brands like soup “Latvia”.

Deeply insulted I feel when in shop, office, public transport or other public place almost daily I encounter chauvinistic attitude towards my language.   In the best case I would hear: Чего? Чего? По-русски! (What? What? Speak Russian!). We have been encouraged by media that is natural to speak, think and write Russian. Everything is Russian according to media.

I have been brought here by my love and respect for my nation and also the oppressive ways to dismay and deplete my nation.  I believe these times will pass away like a bad nightmare. It gives me strength to breathe and carry on. Our nation has suffered enough and had learned to survive this hard time. “

After the beginning of the Gorbachev reforms and the national awakening the movement to release him became more stronger.  On the summer of 1987 a thousands of protesters organized a commision to release him. At the winter of 1987 large crowd gathered at the Supreme Soviet building demanding his release. On February 1 1988 he was released according to new amnesty law. He was met as hero by the people; many were deeply touched by his powerful last words at his court. But, his only son was gravely ill and his health was deteriorated by the long years in prison.

On March 1 1988 Gunārs Astra drove to Leningrad to sell his freshly grown set of flowers. He collapsed and  after many relocations he ended up in KGB war academy hospital. It soon became known to outside world and many offered assistance, but locals for various reasons turned down. After many misdiagnoses he was put on hearth surgery from which he did not recover and died on April 6. There was a suspicion that KGB directed medics may speeded up his death.

His funeral on April 19 1988 turned into mass event. His coffin was covered with Latvian national flag and the Latvian national anthem was sung. He was a inspiration for Latvian national leaders who realized his dream to restore the Latvian national independence.  On November 18 1993 memorial plate was placed at the Higher Court building with the excerpt of his famous last words: “I believe these times will pass away like a bad nightmare”. Gunārs Astra was a national fighter a non-conformist in a time when most choose to conform. His message of mistreatment of the Latvian language was a powerful message for those times. If the Latvia would not regain its independence its language would continue to fall astray, like many other languages of nations that still are captive under the yoke of more stronger nations.

Comments Off on Gunārs Astra The Latvian Anti-Soviet Dissident

Filed under Historical Articles

Radiotehnika – The Latvian Radio Flagman

Radiotehnika vimpel

Radiotehnika vimpel

On October 20 1907 Aleksandrs Apsītis was born in workers family. At the age of 16 he came to work in Riga Telephone Office and practiced as telephone repairman. With his skill he then made his first radio receiver. From 1923 to 1930 he studied at Riga Craftsman School and evening technical school. At the same time on 1926 Abrāms Leibovics gained production rights for his designed radio receivers. His company was called Abrams Leibovics photo radio central. On 1928 Apsītis received request from the Ministry of Interior to construct 200 three lamp battery-powered receivers. Together with E Krasovskis he made a company called “Jauda” (Power). The 200 radio receivers were made, but because of swindlery made by Krasovskis the company was closed.

Rīgafons the first radio designed by Aleksandrs Apsītis in Abrams Leibovics radio company

Rīgafons the first radio designed by Aleksandrs Apsītis in Abrams Leibovics radio company

Then Apsītis came to work at Leibovics company to organize the production of radio receivers. He first made two lamp plugged radio receiver “RīgaFons”. It was a 1 AM circuit(s), with Magnetic loudspeaker (reed) of high quality (4 magnet poles). The model was a success and Leibovics company gained profit 10 000 Lats. Two more models were made. On 1932 Apsītis however, had disagreements with Leibovics, and he was fired.

Apsītis restarted his radio business on 1933 when he founded his radio production company “A. Apsītis un F. Žukovskis”. With help from Siemens company that gave rights for use of Telefunken made radio lamps and Siemens schematics Apsītis again produced new radio receivers. His first was Toņmiestars – the Tone Master. MW and LW radio was a success. He produced 2500-3000 receivers in a year. On 1935 he produced T420 Concert Super. It included also Shortwave. It was radio with 4-AM circuits and with superb audio quality for those days.

Concert Super radio made by Apsītis company

Concert Super radio made by Apsītis company

On 1940 there were 70 people employed in the factory. There were many other private radio companies. Not just in Riga, but also in Liepāja. On 1938 there were 29 such companies. Meanwhile the main state-owned company VEF also made series of top quality radios. However, after Latvia was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union, everything was nationalized including Apsītis company. The company was renamed as “Radiotechnika” (Radio Technics). Leibovics company was renamed to Radio Pionieris (Radio Pioneer). Soviets trusted Apsītis and made him as the executive director of the Radiotehnika company. After German invasion on 1941 Radiotehnika was united with Radio Pionieris and called “Telefunken Geratewerk Riga”.  It was run by Baltic German Blauberg. Apsītis took the technical operator office. Company only fulfilled the orders of the German military and made no new radio receivers for civilians.

On 1944 as the Soviets were approaching Germans issued order to evacuate all the equipment. Apsītis and his co-workers fooled the Germans by placing rocks and metal stuff into packs, while digging the equipment in the basement rooms. With this the work of the factory was soon restarted.

Riga T689 the first Radiotehnika produced receiver

Riga T689 the first Radiotehnika produced receiver

Soviets took over the German unified Apsītis-Leibovics company and called it Radiotehnika. Leibovics was deported by the Soviets to Siberia and died there. Apsītis was placed as the director of the new company. As 1945 it was ready to produce first radios. First radio receiver produced was Riga T-689 with LW, MW and 3 Shortwave bands. Its followup T-755 was impressive success. It was 25% cheaper than other radios and had only three bolts to hold the construction. LW, MW and SW continuous reception from 4 kHz to 12.5 kHz.   Riga B912 was first battery-powered receiver, for MW and LW bands. Riga -10 made in 1952 and Festivals on 1958 were famous tabletop receivers outside Soviet Union.

Radiotehnika Festival

Radiotehnika Festival

On 1948 Apsītis received the title of Honorable Science and Technical worker of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic that meant higher salary and other extras. However, as the company became more famous, the ruling Stalinist regime turned against him. On 1951 the company was named after Alexander S Popov the famous Russian radio builder. Apsītis was blamed for deliberate mismanagement by producing defective models. In the atmosphere of repressions against pre-war intellectuals and scientists, the local communist leaders including Vilis Lācis decided to fire him from his directors office. Soon he was arrested. He spent four months in prison and after the death of Joseph Stalin was released.

However, the four months in jail was psychologically devastating for Apsītis. He came to work as Gomprotorg factory as radio and TV repair worker. Later he went to Academy of Sciences in the Institute of Physics as the chief of sector. On 1956 he was asked to work in governmental Science and Technical committee. By his own words he made “nothing worthly” as he could not fit into new workplace. On 1958 his health made him to leave for pension. As 2th category disabled person he moved to Rauna where he built his own house. He helped the local collective farm (kolhozs) in technical repairs and made his own garden of rare trees and plants. Despite all the hardships he was not forgotten and when during the Radiotehnika anniversary celebration the chief engineer Vladimirs Martinsons called him the “father of Radiotehnika” everyone stood up and applauded. He died on September 1 1988.

The Radiotehnika company still continued to work as Riga Radio Factory named after A S Popov. On 1971 it was unified with Riga Electro Mechanical company, Kandava Radio Factory and radio constructors office Orbīta (Orbit) and named Radiotehnika. A 54,61 meter tall building was built for the factory.

Many new radio receivers were built Sakta first class lamp radio. Rigonda 102 stereo system, Simfonija Hi-Fi system, just to name the few. Surely the free market companies in the West made better quality receivers, but the production of Radiotehnika had high standard quality.  Special car radios were made also.

Hi-Fi Stereo system Melodija -101

Hi-Fi Stereo system Melodija -101

As the trend of so called transistor radios  that were a lot better than lamp radios, the Radiotehnika made the first tabletop transistor radio Ausma on 1962. Then more lighter LW and MW portable Gauja radio was made. On 1964 the Orbīta portable included SW band. But, the most known Radiotehnika portable was Selga. They were released in many variations, many of them came in special leather cases. Selga-309 was revolutionary model for it could fit in pocket and was no bigger than modern Mp3 player. Kandava factory office made Salena series radios with FM reception.

Selga-405 in black leather  case

Selga-405 in black leather case

Closer to eighties first superb receivers with cassette players were released. Special gadgets as voice recorders, walkie-talky radios. Large part of production was secretly allocated to the Soviet military needs. Most Soviet civilian factories were forced to carry out secret requests from the Soviet army. During the Soviet era the Radiotehnika was not the only one Latvian top radio producer. VEF was the largest electric products company and is well known for its VEF Spīdola transistors the first portable shortwave radio in USSR.

Riga 110 cassette player radio

Riga 110 cassette player radio

However, then great changes occurred on 1991-1992. Latvia regained its independence and the prize for this was the collapse of the Latvian radio industry. Radiotehnika and VEF descended into various privately owned companies. As the Soviet market was destroyed and there was no more requests from the Soviet army. However, Radiotehnika was not lost completely. Right now its known as VEF Radiotehnika RRR.  Its current production is acoustic systems and rated positively by experts.

Latvia was a top radio producer even before WW2 and would be so for many years if there would be no war. The Soviet technical quality was not so good comparing to western companies, but these radios were part of everyday Latvian life. With them they could hear music from the west, listen to Radio Free Europe while battling with radio jammers. Culture life despite many soviet prejudices culture in Soviet Latvia was on high level. And in a time with no internet and ipads these radios were top technical gadgets in every home. And the fact that many of them still work today says much about their quality and legacy.

Selected Sources:

Comments Off on Radiotehnika – The Latvian Radio Flagman

Filed under Historical Articles

The Battle For Riga September-October 1944

Soviet propaganda poster celebrating the "liberation of the Baltic States"

Soviet propaganda poster celebrating the “liberation of the Baltic States”

On October 13 1944 another “liberation” of Riga took place. Similar to July 1 1941 when German army marched in, the “liberators” were greeted with flowers while others were fleeing. Only now there was no sign of Red and White flag or Latvian anthem. Instead the Soviet Red flag and anthem was everywhere. Riga was occupied by the Soviets for the second time. Soviets made no secret they are here to restore Soviet power and made no false illusions as Germans did on 1941. However, in contrast to first battle for Riga on July 1941, the city escaped massive damage and was taken without bitter fight. However, the Soviet political and military leadership wanted to make Riga a – “another Stalingrad”. Luckily thanks to the wise German military leadership Riga escaped this fate. And it was achieved not without the help of Latvian Waffen SS Legion men who gave their lives to help Germans evacuate the city.

On August 1944 the German army on the Eastern front was in grave danger. From July 30 Soviets had managed cut off German north group from the main group by reaching Jelgava and Tukums. The main command in Moscow made numerous calls to make attack on Riga from Madona and South Estonia. Soviets had also successfully defeated Germans in Belarus and Lithuania and headed for German East Prussia. Germans were also involved in relentless fighting with Allied forces in Northern France. So Germans had to give everything they had left. At Klaipēda (Memel) the 3th German tank army was restored. From Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad) a infantry division was send by air to South Estonia. The Riga was cut off from the land roads so small units were sent by sea route and then sent to Madona.

Soviet advance in the Baltic region 1944

Soviet advance in the Baltic region 1944

The Soviet attack group was called the Third Baltic Front. Soviets were confused by the German decision to leave Rēzekne and Daugavpils line. The Soviets overestimated their breakthrough to Šiauliai Lithuania as complete defeat for the German forces. On July 24 Moscow ordered to capture Viru Estonia, Valka and Valmiera in Latvia. However, the German stable line of defense cooled down the attackers. Cesvaine-Alūksne-Alūksne was in German hands till August 19, Cesvaine till September 12. Three soviet corps had a tough time fighting few German divisions and only on August 21 they were beaten.

Soviet 54th Army moved on Latvian soil to Alūksne and threatened to encircle it from the north. On August 17 three divisions from 1sth Shock Army moved to bypass Alūksne on route to Ape. Soviets gathered large forces of tanks and artillery and managed to breakthrough. However, for they faced organized German resistance and failed to encircle the city. Germans themselves left the city on August 19. With heavy casualties Soviets moved forward by August 27 . Soviets lost 4594 men, Germans 945 men according to Latvian Soviet War Commissariat reports. Such heavy casualties were  caused by vague tactics and officer incompetence. Many battalions were destroyed in frontal attacks right in the rear of the enemy positions.

Latvian Waffen SS Legion was fighting at Cesvaine and Nesaule. Soviets failed to bypass them from behind and were halted. After heavy battles at Ērgļi and the breakthrough of the 42th army to Jumurda lake the front in Vidzeme region stabilized. Latvian civilians constructed a defensive position from Lielezere to Lejasciems.

Meanwhile after Soviet victory in Belarus and raid to Tukums on July 30 situation was more dramatic. Germans still controlled Klaipēda and Tilzit (Sovetska) and gathered forces to relieve the Soviet breakthrough.  The Army group North was cut off from the main German forces in Courland. They now were under command of army group Center that operated in long line from the Cape of Kolka to Carpathian mountains. Adolf Hitler wanted to make a last grand tank offensive in the Eastern Front – with two tank corps from the Eastern Prussia, with 39th corps to Jelgava and 40th  corps to Šiauliai. The task was to recapture Tukums and relieve the line of communications from Riga to East Prussia.

But, Germans lacked forces to do this. There were just two Latvian and German battalions with few flak cannons, and very small SS tank brigade with some 10 tanks. But, Soviets had no proper fores on their own since the capture of Tukums was a great venture that succeed because there were no proper German forces to defend it. But, Soviets lacked fuel to move their tanks further. Now Germans formed two tank groups – Liepaja and Tauraģe tank group. To Taurage a 40th tank corps staff was moved from Romania. The operation was lead by talented general Heinz Guderian. Hitler took a close eye on this operation and sent the best Pz V type tanks. Latvian Artillery Division also joined.

On August 16 the attack started. Heavy battles took place involving heavy German Panther tanks. 39 Soviet tanks including 17 heavy tanks were destroyed. Germans however, failed to reach Jelgava. Meanwhile the forces heading to Sloka and Ķemeri to bypass Tukums managed to encircle the two soviet divisions. In so the gap between Riga and Courland was eliminated. That lead to the beginning of the Battle of Riga.

Soviets now planned to start a massive operation to capture Riga First Baltic Front with five armies and 44 divisions, Second Baltic Front with 33 divisions and Third Baltic Front and 29 divisions.Germans had army group North with two armies without proper reserves. On the morning of September 14 Soviet started operation to capture Riga.

The initial success was rather light. The Third Baltic front became stuck in South Estonia. The Second Baltic Front charged in Vidzeme. Along with them the Latvian 43th Guard Division made the most of the battle. However, as usual their Soviet comrade divisions were less successful and limited the offensive. From Iecava to Ķekava in route to Pārdaugava 43th army with 4th Shock army with 476 tanks was stopped at the very first day.

Soviet troops moving towards Riga

Soviet troops moving towards Riga

On September 15 the Latvian 2th Borderguard regiment was sent to halt the Soviets. On the night of September 16 with the help of German cannonade Latvia borderguards made a counter attack and took the defensive position  at the Riga-Ķekava highway. Soviets reached Baldone and made the Baldone-Ķekava route as the main position. Large forces were gathered here. Germans knew about this and planned to avoid casualties and evacuate.

On September 15 German army group North commander in charge Ferdinand Shorner made personal report to General Guderian and asked to start evacuation. His plan was to retreat from whole Northern Baltic region, from Narva to Cēsis. On September 16 Shorner visited the German general Staff. Hitler was very found of Shorner as fanatic Nazi and allowed him to carry out this operation. On September 19 Operation Aster was called to start.

On September 17 the Lenningrad Front opened offensive to capture Tallinn. Germans moved away from Narva to the port of Tallinn. Soviets were caught by surprise and was not even ready to chase the retreating Germans. Germans started to move to Sigulda and beat off the chasing soviets. Soviet commanders did not dare to inform Stalin about this evacuation and instead made tales of “massive attack operation”.   Germans retreated orderly by destroying all bridges and railroad lines. Many places were mined. Despite Jelgava being controlled by Soviets, Germans managed to build railroad from Riga to Liepaja.

From Northern Vidzeme Germans started to move on September 19. Soviets moved fastly but failed to break up the evacuation. On September 23 Germans left Parnu Estonia and Streņči in Latvia. Soviets faced heavy defeat near Ērģeme on September 20. Soviets also lost many men in unsecsuff raid to Valmiera. On September 25 Germans reached defensive position at Sigulda.

Latvian 19th Waffen SS Legion also retreated with the rest of the Germans. Many of these men hoped to fight for free Latvia. As the front was breaking, the goal seemed hopeless. Still without dissent they carried out their task and on September 24 -25 at night reached Sigulda defense position. They stationed near More school house blocking the Nītaure-Sigulda highway. And that was the main attack route for three heavy armed soviet regiments. Latvians had 44th, 42th and 43th regiment against large Soviet forces.

Soviet forces approached on September 26 and made fast attack with tanks. Soviets attacked directly at More were Latvians resisted fiercely. Soviets sent never ending attacks with artillery support and tanks. But, Latvians stopped every attack. All reserves of 44th regiment were depleted, the second echelon of the 43 regiment were sent to fight. Latvian artillery were out of ammunition. At September 28 Latvians were still holding their positions. Soviets made a small success by changing the attack route and trough the swamp and forest invaded Kartūži. However, they were beaten off. Small attacks continued until September 30. But, they all were stopped.

  The operation Aster was successful. But it was at the expense of the Latvian casualties at More.  The leading officers Rudolfs Kociņš and Nikolajs Galdiņš were awarded.  Soviets lost 2736 men, Latvians 186 men. The Battle of More was the most heaviest experience for the Latvian Waffen SS Legion. These men were not ready to give up any inch of their land.

The Commemorative event for the fallen in the Battle of More

The Commemorative event for the fallen in the Battle of More

Soviets came to conclusion that the German forces had successfully left the encirclement. Still in hopes for the “Second Stalingrad” Soviet attacked Klaipēda . Germans in response initiated operation Donnner to move German armies from Riga to Courland. This was one of the most successful military evacuation operation in the military history. 29 divisions, 2 brigades, 28 artillery units, 190 Anti-air units, 68 engineer battalions, all the civil authorities and 100 000 civil refugees were evacuated.

Germans also forcibly moved 20 000 Latvians from Riga to Germany for “work service”. Meanwhile the 19th Latvian Waffen SS Division on October 6-7 moved from Sigulda and head to Džūkste region in Courland. Last to leave Riga was the 227th infantry division. On 1:144 October 13 the bridges over Daugava were blown up. 87th division had to maneuver through the land strait  between lake Ķīšezers to Daugavgrīva. By the help special ferries they moved 5000 men and 160 armed trucks 20 cannons to other side of river Daugava.

Soviets entered Riga when nearly all Germans had left the scene on October 13. At 23:00 in Moscow 24 cannons fired to celebrate the “liberation of Riga”. There were gunfights in Pārdaugava for three days until all Germans left the left bank of the river Daugava completely. So officially the Riga was captured completely on September 15. However, Joseph Stalin had insisted that celebrations must begin allready on October 13.

Soviet Soldiers near the Monument of Freedom

Soviet Soldiers near the Monument of Freedom

Latvians were fighting on Soviet side as well and were just as good as the Latvian Waffen SS men. However, while it was technically possible and ideologically necessary the Latvian Soviet Soldiers were not the ones to first parade in Riga. Instead the 130th Latvian Rifleman corps were directed away from Riga to the swamps of Oilaine. Only after it became clear that the German evacuation had succeeded the Latvian Soviet soldiers were called to parade in Riga on October 16.

Soviets were heavily disappointed about the way the Riga was captured. Soviets commanders wanted to impress Stalin with complete destruction of the German forces and great street battles in Riga. Soviets wanted to encircle Germans in Riga. Soviets had intended to use heavy artillery and air fire that would result complete destruction of the Riga historical center. If such event would happen Riga would be just like Koenigsberg or Kaliningrad today.

Despite that Soviet propaganda made tales of “grandioze landing platoon operation over the lake of Ķīšezers” and the “battle for every house and street corner”. Those who were wise enough knew that there was no German troops from the early morning of October 13 that Soviets could fight with. Large painting showing Soviet soldiers fighting on streets of Riga was displayed. There was even plea to make Riga a “Hero Town” just like Stalingrad. In the end a large phallic monument was build to commemorate the “liberation of Latvia”. A move called “Spear and Rose” tried to convince that Germans had planned to blow up Riga in their way of retreat.

The real battle for Riga was fought on the roads Northern Vidzeme, More, Ķekava and Baldone. Outnumbered German and Latvian forces managed to stop Soviet forces and allowed others to escape. Soviets had enormous forces and resources. But, they level of military tactical knowledge was still 1939 level. German army despite many defeats all the way to 1945 suffered less losses than the victorious soviets.  And well motivated and disciplined Latvian Waffen SS 19th division was also one of the reasons why Riga was saved from being “second Stalingrad”. Their fight in More should be remembered and set as example for Latvian military bravery.

Selected Sources:

Pētersons, Aivars. (2007) Krustugunīs. Rīga.

Feldmanis, Inesis, Butulis, Ilgvars,Bleiere,Daina,Zunda, Antonijs. (2008)  Latvija Otrā Pasaules karā (1939-1945) Rīga. Jumava.

Viesturs Sprūde, Latvijas Avīze 1944. gadā Rīgai bija iespēja kļūt par lielu ”staļingradu”

Comments Off on The Battle For Riga September-October 1944

Filed under Historical Articles

Soviet Psychiatry of Punishment. Latvian Example

The Riga Psychiatric Hospital was made to help and cure. But, for some it became a new kind of Gulag prison camp.

The Riga Psychiatric Hospital was made to help and cure. But, for some it became a new kind of Gulag prison camp.

After the death of Joseph Stalin the Gulag was closed down and the numbers of the arrested people dropped significantly over the years. However, the Soviet repressive state apparatus still continued to exists and searched for more refined ways to punish and isolate those who did not agree with the Soviet state. And the psychiatry originally a medical science to help mentally ill persons, now was used to punish completely sane persons for being anti-soviet dissidents. The disbelief for the soviet propaganda or making anti-governmental acts was viewed as a sign of mental illness. Instead of sending to prisons where legal appeals were possible, people were declared mentally unfit and confined in mental wards. In long run this turned out to be even more effective way of punishment. After release from the mental ward, people were unable to get job in many professions because of the official documents that gave them discouraging diagnose. The illegitimate diagnose served as a tool of isolation from the society. Even after twenty years since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Latvian lawmakers only now has made a law that will rehabilitate the victims of the Psychiatry of punishment.

Soviet secret police had taken interest in field of psychiatry before the WW2. On 1939 NKVD the Soviet secret service took control over the psychiatric hospital in Kazan. It became one of the first Psychiatric Prison Hospitals in Soviet Union nicknamed Psikushka’s. After the end of WW2 on 1948 Andrey Vyshinsky first ordered to use psychiatry as a tool for punishment. Russian psychiatrist Pyotr Gannushkin also believed that in a class society, especially during the most severe class struggle, psychiatry was incapable of not being repressive. In so the Punishment Psychiatry was discovered during the Stalinist rule. But, it became prominent after the death of Stalin and denouncement of his repressions. Soviets were unable to maintain open repressions of the political dissenters because of the relative liberalization so they used more sinister methods.  On 1959 Nikita Khrushchev the heir of Stalin declared that persons that resist  the Soviet power are mentally ill. And Latvia as occupied part of the Soviet Union was no stranger to this methods.

Pēteris Lazda was PHD student in the Faculty of Law in the Latvian State University. In his dissertation he discussed the possibility of Latvian breakaway from the Soviet Union as it was granted by its constitution. It was no secret that these rights exists only on paper and the Moscow will never grant such right to any soviet republic by its own will. However, Lazda stressed that statewide poll might help to decide this question  and received the KGB attention. He was removed from the PHD studies or aspirantura as it was called then. Lazda decided not to quit and spread out the leaflets asking the deputies of the Latvian communist government to make decision of breakaway from the Soviet Union until June 1 1974.What he proposed was according to constitutions.

Consequently he was arrested by KGB. His case was made in 33 volumes, however the prosecutors wanted a mental expertise for the suspect could be too sick to face the court. There was n0 other way for in case of open trial Lazda might say the same things  as in leaflets and his dissertation. Asking to fulfill the constitution in trial would be very disadvantageous for the Soviet regime. So instead he was kept in prison camera, while the trial went without his presence. The Law Psychiatrist Ērika Rāta stood as witness and concluded that Lazda is mentally ill and needs to be sent to special mental institutions to be forcibly medicated.

As result Lazda was sent to Gulag of his own. Moved from one clinic to another, together with mentally ill people of all kinds in anti-sanitary environment. Patients were subjected to beating and forced medication. Lazda was forced to swallow capsules containing dubious substances and was checked with a big spoon to see if he had swallowed them. In case of resistance he received injections of Amizonum  a powerful drug that paralyzes the human movement and his senses.  Many of the patients could not withstand the destructive side effects of these medications and became even sicker than before entering the hospital. That was the very point of the forced medication- making sane man insane with use of powerful mind altering drugs.

Lazda was rescued by the alarmed human right groups in the west and Latvian exiles. To escape public international protests Lazda was released and granted asylum. In West  Germany a group of Medicine doctors and one professor made an independent expertise and concluded that his diagnose was made for political reasons.

Jānis Apse was born in Siberia since his parents were deported in March 25 1949. He graduated Polytechnic Institute in Tomsk. However, his anti-soviet views were the reason for diagnosing him with paranoid schizophrenia. For three months he was forcibly medicated with drugs who directly affected his central nervous system. His profession was heating system engineer. With such diagnosis it was almost impossible to work in this field.

Ivans Jahmivočs and Sandris Riga made an underground Christian movement. On 1969 they were arrested and from the prison ended up in various mental wards. The Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher stood up for their release. These are just few of the many hundred such stories. People subjected to such repressions tend to hide their unjust diagnosis because of humiliation and negative view from society.

Today there are many professions that require mental checkups. And if a person for ever what reason was diagnosed as mentally unfit during the Soviet occupation, he cannot work in this profession. And the same applies for people who were diagnosed for political reasons. For many years Latvian lawmakers were unable to design laws to rehabilitate them. To appeal the diagnosis person had to gather documents in archive and go the mental institution. And since many of the Soviet time medical personnel are still working there such task seems unpleasant to say the least.

Many of the doctors who issued these fake diagnoses were forced by the KGB. However, that does not prevent them from defending their actions. Some of them say that mentally fit persons perfectly understood how the soviet system worked and behaved accordingly. In so those who opposed or criticized the soviet occupation were not diagnosed without reason. That does not go far from the Nikita Khrushchev rhetoric. Others say that schizophrenic people often share political views. And that KGB was smart enough to recognize if their suspect is mentally unfit.

On January 2013  amendment for the law concerning the rehabilitation of politically repressed was made by Juris Judins from the Unity party. His amendment was however turned down by the Juridical commission of parliament. A alternate law was made by National Alliance lead by Human rights and Society commission and on June 20 2013 it was approved by parliament. The law still includes expertise report from Riga Psychiatry and Narkology center as its impossible to legally bypass this institution. We shall see how this law will work and how many people will be able to restore their justice.

The biased use of psychiatry during the Soviet occupation has made very negative effect on mental treatment today. People are afraid of mental diagnosis and especially the  mental hospitals. Because of the inhuman conditions in Soviet psychiatric hospitals that in some cases still persists today, they still rather viewed as prison camps than hospitals. Worst part that this psychiatry of punishment is still widely used in modern Russia. There have been many cases of political activists of all kinds ending up in mental wards. The danger still persists in Latvia itself. The freelance journalist Leonīds Jākobsons leaked private email conversations of Major of Riga Nil Ushakov that proved his ties with Moscow authorities. In result Jākabsons was pursued by police investigation and placed into mental ward to check if he is mentally fit. After the expertise failed to prove he has mental problems he was released. Later he was attacked by unknown assailants on the stairway of his house.  This proves that these Soviet traditions of punishment is far from over and may return in full-scale if we are not too careful.

Comments Off on Soviet Psychiatry of Punishment. Latvian Example

Filed under Historical Articles

Popular Front of Latvia

The entry card for the first LTF congress on 1988

The entry card for the first LTF congress on 1988

On October 8 25 years will pass when the Popular Front of Latvia (Latvijas Tautas Fronte – LTF) the leading force for restoration of independence was founded. LTF was a mass movement one of the last of its kind in Latvian history. Its main objective was to restore the Latvian independence which was fulfilled on August 21 1991. After that the LTF faded away and was replaced by many rivaling political parties. However, the achievement of this political movement cannot be underestimated, for without it Latvia would not be same as today.

On April 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as the General secretary of the Soviet Socialist Communist Party Central Committee. Since the times of Stalin this position was for  the man in charge of the whole Soviet Empire. However, the Soviet Union had changed a lot since then. Weakened by the economical and political stagnation caused by dysfunctional economic system and unneeded arms race the Soviet Union was slowly heading for demise. Mikhail Gorbachev was opting to bring new wave of reforms to solve the impeding economical problems. The perestroika or “rebuilding” He wanted to reduce the importance of the state planing, allow the factories to set its own plan of production and boost private sector in trade and agriculture. More freedom was given to collective farms. These reforms was progressive, but since the main foundations of the economic system – centralized planed state enterprise were not harmed.

Gorbachev went even further with the policies of glastnotj – openness allowing more rooms for freedom of expression, social political criticism and social activity. Such possibilities soon allowed people to express their criticism of the national demographic situation, the arbitrariness of the Soviet Army and the rotten state of the Latvian language and culture. In result the movement such as Helsinki -86 and Environment Protection Club appeared. Helsinki-86 illegally issued journal Auseklis (Morning Star) where they expressed protests against the downsizing of the Latvian majority and restrictions on the Latvian language. They submitted many protest letters to the Soviet leadership and the UN Authorities calling to allow Latvia to peacefully separate from USSR as granted by its constitution.    They achieved widespread attention by publicly commemorating the deportations of June 14 in 1987. Their second attempt of commemorating the Hitler – Stalin pact on August 23 was met with militia hostility and ended in clashes and arrests. Meanwhile the Environment Protection Club  managed to cancel grandiose plans for Riga subway and Daugavpils Hydro Electric dam. On 1987 the Helsinki-86 formulated a common goals for years to come- restore historical justice to the victims of the Soviet crimes, protect the rights of Latvian language and culture and in the end break away from the Soviet Union. On 1987 these goals seemed very utopian.

However on 1988 things moved on fast pace. The  violent oppression of the 23 August demonstration and suppressed celebration of the November 18 the Latvian independence day lay a bad image for the soviet reform policies. It was clear that the Soviet government wanted to direct reforms from above and was not ready for such activity from the people. Even the massive KGB secret police was caught off guard by the Helsinki-86 and other movements. So soviets to appease the masses. The commemoration of March 25 deportations of 1949 were sanctioned and joined by thousands. Meanwhile the  Helsinki-86 members who were gathering outside the sanctioned areas were arrested. A large crowds gathered at the funeral of the anti-soviet dissident Gunārs Astra.

On June 1 1988 the annual Writers Union plenary was held. For decades the Latvian writers, poets and artists were the pillars of the Soviet society. Despite being constantly watched by the Soviet government they often expressed their protest against the repressive regime in artistic hidden ways. The Latvia intelligentsia was widely respected among the Latvian society. Now was their their turn to express their views openly. In Estonia the writers union had already expressed  the need  for the Popular Front. They also angered the communist government with their nationalistic demands. In Latvia the head of the writers union Jānis Peters choose a alternate method – he invited the leadership of the Communist party to the plenary. In their presence the soviet regime faced a stiff criticism and calls for more national freedoms. However, when the professor of the Arts Mavriks Vulfsons publicly declared that Latvia was not voluntary joined by the Soviet Union in 1940, and there was no soviet revolution the plenary reached climax. The shocked and stiff General Secretary of the Latvian Communist Party Boriss Pugo said only one phase to Vulfsons – “You just murdered the Soviet Latvia!”.

As the myth of the peaceful annexation was finally unmasked, more people rallied for the national cause. The June 14 1988 was officially sanctioned and joined by masses. The member of the Helsinki-86 movement Konstantīns Pupurs took the flag of the Republic of Latvia and lead a large cr0wd towards the Brothers Cemetery. Crowds held posters of slogans of national liberation. As the Communist Party expressed great doubts about the events, the Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK) was founded and strive for full independence. On September the communist government was forced to allow use of the Latvian national symbols.

Meanwhile in Estonia the Popular Front was already founded.  First calls for such front in Latvia was also issued on June 1 during the writers plenary. On June 27 1988 first meetings were held within Latvia to form its own Popular Front. The organization works were lead by Jānis Peters and Jānis Škapars. The supportive groups were created in whole Latvia and connections with Helsinki-86 and LNNK were established. Meanwhile the troubled Soviet authorities were looking for a way to control this emerging movement. They wanted to overflow the movement with loyal agents who would keep the movement loyal to the regime. Similar schemes were made in Eastern European satellite countries. Communist party had plans of how to direct and use the popular front to keep in line with the official Moscow guidelines. However, the core leadership of the Popular Front was well aware of this and managed to prevent these plans.

The Popular Front organization meeting under suspicious look of Lenin

The Popular Front organization meeting under suspicious look of Lenin

The core leaders of the Popular Front was Dainis Īvāns a well known journalist, who opposed the building of the Hydro Electric dam in Daugavpils. Sandra Kalniete the academic and literate who also were deported to Siberia on June 14 1941 was one of the leading figures in scorching out the soviet agents from the movement. Jānis Škapars, Jānis Peters a well known writers   Jānis Dinēvičš along with Sarmīte Ēlerte were also important leaders. On Autumn 1988 the Popular Front achieved support of 100 000 people from all nationalities. Before the opening congress on October 7 a great manifestation was held in the main Mežaparks Music hall. The new head of the Latvian Supreme Soviet Presidium Anatolijs Gorbunovs showed his support for the movement.

On October 8 1987 at the Congress Hall the First Congress of the Popular Front of Latvia took place. With inspiring speech by actor Ēvalds Valters the congress started work. The first goals of the Popular Front were still pragmatic. Instead of calls for full breakaway a calls for democratization of the system, more autonomy from Moscow and the extension of the national rights were called. Since the prospects for full independence seemed unreal Popular Front at first pushed for sovereign Latvia within Federal Soviet Union.The new elected General Secretary was Dainis Īvāns after Jānis Peters rejected this position for himself.

The year 1988 came to an end with mass manifestations of November 11 and November 18. Flag of Latvia was raised on the top of Castle of Riga. The Communist leadership soon discovered that the Popular Front had quickly evolved into  massive political movement that could possibly turn into political party and remove the communists from office. Even worse large parts of their own members turned into passionate supporters of the Popular Front.

Their fears were materialized by the decision by the Gorbachev to change the constitution and allow free elections of USSR Peoples Congress. During the 1989 the political reforms moved towards the removal of the monopoly of the Communist party. Gorbachev however still thought that his party is strong enough to secure victory and power despite the rivals. However, on March 26 1989 Popular Front managed achieve majority among the Latvian representatives in Peoples Congress of the USSR.   Popular Front soon faced many rivals. Helsinki-86 and LNNK were quite skeptical about the pragmatic policies and cooperation with the progressive  communists. Meanwhile the orthodox communists formed an Interfront movement in direct opposition to Popular Front. The Interfront was inspired both by KGB and Communist party and was a crowd of aggressive mostly Russian speaking workers, army men and stalinsts. The situation became polarizing between the Latvian society. The LNNK started a campaign to register all Latvian citizens to form Peoples Committees.  Such form of act was still seen as unconstitutional. In such outcome they hoped to restore the Republic of Latvia.

The rivalry between LNNK, Helsinki-86 and other national radicals with the Popular Front forced them to take actions. LNNK and their allies pursued a more aggressive non compromise agenda that did no go well with the real situation. In opposite the parliamentary way of the Popular Front seemed a way too slow and even cowardly. However, the national radicals ignored the fact that Latvia was still full with Soviet troops and KGB that could suppress then if they go too far.

The actions of LNNK made the Popular Front issue a “a call of May 31”. Popular Front abandoned the goal of sovereignty within Soviet Union and turned to joining the fight for full political and economic independence.

On October 7 1989 a second congress of the Popular Front was called. However, there was grave danger of the movement split as the radical wing of the movement wanted to ally with LNNK.  The split was averted and Popular Front issued a main objective to secure victory in the Supreme Soviet elections. A new emerging leader from this congress was Ivars Godmanis who became deputy to Dainis Īvāns.

LNNK managed to elect its own Citizen Congress as alternative parliament, however it was not recognized by nobody and had no real executive power. Meanwhile the Latvian Communist Party had a split of its own with members who were supportive to Popular Front and orthodox communists. The party was weakened and their subordinate guardians – the army and KGB was in confusion. On April 6 1989 Latvian Communist Party held its last congress and had a split. 200 members left the congress to form the Latvian Independent communistic party. In turn the remaining loyal members joined under the command of Alfrēds Rubiks a aggressive orthodox communist looking to end national movement with force.

The Popular Front election campaign on 1990

The Popular Front election campaign on 1990

Popular Front won a jackpot by organizing the Baltic Way on August 23 1989. A great support was achieved. Also a global attention was received. On March 18 1990 Popular Front secured victory in the elections of the Supreme Soviet. Dainis Īvāns as the leader of Popular Front could take the position as the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, however he declined and Anatolijs Gorbunovs took the leading position. Gorbunovs now had completely joined the cause for full independence and was pragmatic and wise leader. Īvāns took the role as his deputy. Two fractions came in effect in the Supreme Soviet – the Popular Front with 138 and Equality with 57 communist and Interfront members.

The juridical work for the Declaration of Independence was already underway. The declaration was passed on May 4 1990. In contrast to Lithuania it was however not a full breakaway for it set an transitional period. Knowing the heavy presence of the Soviet army and KGB, the Popular Front wanted to make talks with Moscow and Western Allies. Ivars Godmanis became the head of the Latvian government.

As the Gorbachev declined any talks with the Latvian government and threatened with the Presidential Order that would remove them from office. In so whole year from May 4 to January 13, soviet radical forces attempted to make provocations to install presidential order. A series of explosions, an attempt by Soviet soldiers and police cadets in civilian uniforms to storm the Supreme Soviet building. On October 7 1990 3 Popular Front congress was made. As Dainis Īvāns was too much involved in the Supreme Soviet, Romualds Ražuks was elected as the new party leader. In fact the most elected members were replaced with outer parliamentary members. It later turned as a crucial mistake. The Popular Front also moved towards nationalism as it became friendlier with LNNK and acknowledged it Citizen Congress  as legal representatives of the peoples interests. The symbol of Popular Front also was replaced from Black and White to more nationalistic symbol of Jumis.

The Popular Front symbol of 1990

The Popular Front symbol of 1990

The January 13 was a great test for the Popular Front.  In reaction to bloody events in Vilnius, Dainis Īvāns came out with strong speech on radio and called people to build barricades to protect the important governmental buildings. The reaction was overwhelming instead of soviet tanks, large masses of tractors and trucks arrived in Riga from all country side. Popular Front united the majority of Latvians to defend the Riga from the soviet reaction. Soviets made a mistake by making the first strike in Vilnius, rather than Riga that was the center of the Soviet military command. Caught again by surprise Soviet army and special forces were unable to fire at such great masses of people. On January 20 special OMON forces however, made a firefight by attacking the Ministry of Interior killing five people. But, Soviets failed to get armed response in return so the plot to install the presidential order from Moscow failed. The Barricades were a strategical victory by the leaders of the Popular Front.

On March 3 1990 another victory was achieved by the Popular Front. A popular poll asking “Do you support the democratic and independent Latvia?”. Of all 87,6% registered voters 73% voted yes. That was a strong proof for Moscow and the rest of the world for Latvian will for independence. The poll results even showed that large numbers of non-Latvians support the cause for independence. However, the Soviet radicals were far from giving up. On August 19 Soviet radicals made a coup attempt in Moscow. They managed to keep their plot a secret till the last minute and the Latvian leaders were caught off guard. There was no time for new Barricades, as the OMON and the army forces captured TV, Radio and every other building they could get. However, despite entering the city square with armed transports the OMON was unable to seize the Supreme Soviet building. Either they waited for the order that never came or they were stopped by cement wall barricade that protected the Supreme Soviet building.

As the coup supporters Alfrēds Rubiks, KGB and Soviet Army was unable to arrest the Popular Front leaders on August 21 the full Latvian independence was declared. In fact the LNNK fraction was the first to insist it, after the news from Moscow became more positive the full independence was declared by the supreme soviet. Soon the news came that coup had completely failed. The mission to restore the Latvian independence was completed.

After Latvia became fully sovereign the Popular Front faded. It was a mass movement of more than 200 thousand members. However, since till the last minute the goal for the restoration of independence seemed nearly impossible. Latvian patriots knew very well that Latvia was full with Soviet troops and Soviet radical loyalists. So no plans what to do after the restoration were not set. New political parties appeared, background players showed up and became new leaders. Popular Front split in many factions. Ones joined the Club 21 that transformed into Latvian Way party. Others like Jānis Dinēvičš tried to restore Latvian Social Democratic Party. Likewise the Latvian Farmers Union was bought up from the Soviet past. The LNNK kept intact and for many years played important role in Latvian politics. The former Interfront members continued their fight within legal means and formed new parties.

The fortunes of the Popular Front members were different. Dainis Īvāns left politics and returned briefly to work as elected deputy in the Riga Town council. He joined the Social Democrats and after their demise left the politics completely. Sandra Kalniete became well known in the foreign scene as the Foreign affairs minister and the member of EU parliament. Ivars Godmanis took the Prime Minister seat two times and currently works in EU parliament. Jānis Peters along with Jānis Škapars returned to arts and literature. Sarmīte Ēlerte for many years lead the newspaper Diena. Later she rejoined politics as the Minister of Culture and currently works in Riga Town Council. Alfrēds Rubiks was imprisoned, but came back as the leader of the Latvian Socialist party. He is currently representing Latvia at the EU parliament along with his past enemies.

Popular Front made a grandiose work and achieved its mission. There is no such mass movement today that could unite the masses. Despite the fact that the independence did not fulfilled the wishes of many, the very fact that Latvia managed to regain its independence and create a democratic country where everyone can fulfill his individual true will its worth to remember every way along.

Comments Off on Popular Front of Latvia

Filed under Historical Articles