One of the most definite Latvian national symbols is the Monument of Freedom at the very center of Riga at the Brīvības Bulvāris (The Boulevard of Freedom). Also called Freedom Monument (Brīvības Piemineklis in Latvian) this great memorial complex has become a landmark for Riga. All the main national celebrations takes place within it. At every November 11 the military parade is being held to celebrate the Day of Lāčplēsis. The guard of honor is placed within the monument and all visiting state leaders place their flowers at the monument during their official state visits.
After Latvia gained independence there were calls for building monument to commemorate the heroes killed in action during the War for Freedom. On July 27 1922 the Prime Minister of Latvia Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics issued an order to make rules for contest for the “Memorial Column”. The winner of this scheme was Eižens Laube who proposed a 27 meter high obelisk, that would be placed within the Alexander Boulevard, Raiņa Boulevard and the pedestal of the former statue of Tzar Peter I. Laube called his obelisk as “The monument of the fallen soldiers and Victory”. It was a classical approach, with similar designs across Europe. Also it was somewhat similar to Washington Monument in US. However, the idea was widely rejected within the society and called “artistically inferior”. On April 1923 a protest letter of 57 artists reached government calling to cancel this project. The government was forced to cancel the Laube project and issued a new project on October 9 1923. Here for the first time the name “Monument of Freedom” was used. A deadline for the contest was May 15 1924.
Latvian society was weary about how the monument should look like. Only now Latvians had real chance to decide what kind of monuments can be placed in Riga. During the Tzarist times, the main monuments were devoted to the Tzarist regime. The Victory Column in Riga palace square, the Statue of Peter I in the Alexander Boulevard. The Statue of Peter I was built on 1910 commemorating the capture of Riga on 1710. The Statue was unveiled with Tzar Nicholas II himself present. Peter I on his horse did not stand long, as on 1915 because of approaching German invaders the statue was evacuated and placed on ship “Serebino”. It was however, sunk by German U-Boat. All what was left was the foundations of the Peter I statue. Now this very place was chosen as the place for the new Monument of Freedom. Understandably it had to be something more grander than the statue of Peter I.
The Monument should in honorable, clear way express the idea of Latvian liberation with sculptures and architectural setting. 25 contestants with them Kārlis Zāle and Mārta Liepiņa Skulme. Kārlis Zāle proposed a large two massive blocks as the “Gates of Freedom”. Marta Liepiņa Skulme proposed a simple setting of Lāčplēsis – Latvian hero warrior standing in front of obelisk. The contest jury could not decide between the two different proposals as well as 23 other proposals. So the contest ended only with awards, but no clear winner.
On March 18 1925 a new contest was made. In contrary to previous contest this contest was closed to avoid proposal hoarding. Kārlis Zāle, Marta Liepiņa Skulme, Emīls Melderis, Eižens Laube and Teodors Zalkalns were invited. This time Kārlis Zāle proposed a completely new project with a large obelisk with the Mother Latvia armed with sword looking at Old Riga direction. However, he then replaced Mother Latvia with Lāčplēsis the hero warrior. Teodors Zaļkalns also made similar proposal with a multi-level architectonic composition with horseman on top. He also wanted to make a shrine within monument. However, because of quarrels and rivalry between artists the contest again ended with no results. Many were envious of Kārlis Zāle and his successes in Monument Freedom and Brothers War cemetery contests. For some years no new contests were not made. Many monuments were placed within the battle sites of WWI and War for Freedom.
On 1929 October 15 new contest was issued. Kārlis Zāle returned once again with more original and monumental project. He may have been inspired by the Soviet monuments that featured a Mother figure on the top of large obelisk. Others have noted that his new project was inspired by the Monument of Bismark in Hamburg. Indeed the architectonic setting of the Monument of Bismark by Johann Emil Schaudt had similar architectonic setting. Not only the large sculpture on the obelisk, but the oval architectonic setting was somewhat similar to the Monument of Freedom.
At the end of 1929 his project was ready. A large vertical spire in three levels decorated with many symbols of the Latvian past ends in concluding Statue of Liberty or Mother Latvia holding three stars – Courland, Vidzeme and Latgalia. The three main Latvian regions (in this case Semigallia is connected with Courland according to pre-WWI regional setting). His project won the first prize, Teodors Zaļkalns came second, Kārlis Baumanis came third. On 1930 Kārlis Zāle teamed up with architect Ernests Štālbergs who helped to improve the monument with architectonic part and area around the monument. On November 18 1931 the construction begun.
A large sums for the monument were acquired by the state-wide public charity. Because of massive support from the society the monument construction went steadfast. On November 18 1935 it was unveiled to the cheering public. By this time the Kārlis Ulmanis had taken power by coup and dissolved the parliament. So the Monument had even more importance within Ulmanis nationalist ideology. The unveiling celebrations begun on 9:00 large crows gathered to the new Monument square. On 10:00 the Ulmanis and the formal president Alberts Kviesis along with other leaders of the regime arrived in limos. The president Alberts Kviesis made the last public appearance and gave the opening speech. As the sheet from the monument was taken down the cannon fire marked the opening. 12 war planes crossed over and large military parade took place. The Monument was praised by the society and became strong national symbol.
The Monument stood strong during the WW2. Both occupational regimes disregarded it, but were unable to tear it down. It was situated on the very center of the city making unable for silent removal. Most prewar monuments in country side were taken away during the night. This monument was too large to simply take it away. However, on 1949 Council of People’s Commissars of the Latvian SSR proposed to restore the statue of Peter I. While they did not openly called to remove the Monument of Freedom, there was no other way to restore the Peter I statue on its historical spot. However, at end of the debate the idea was rejected. According some unproven sources the Russian Artist Vera Mukhnia the author of the Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman who was present at the meeting convinced others to keep the monument since it was of very high artistic value and that its demolition might hurt the most sacred feelings of the Latvian people. Instead the Soviet propagandists tried to re-interpret the meaning of the monument. It was now explained that the Woman Statue is not Mother Latvia, but the Mother Russia that holds three Baltic Soviet republics. Also they tried to convince that the monument was erected after WWII.
However, the blunt lies could not wash away the truth. For many decades soviet KGB recorded dozens of attempts of people placing flowers to commemorate the independent Latvia. On 1963 idea to demolish the monument was sounded again, but rejected because of fears of negative response from the Latvian society. Soviets placed a trolleybus depot around the monument to prevent people from accessing it. However, when on June 14 1987 the Helsinki -86 movement came to monument to commemorate the deportations of 1941, not even improvised bicyclist celebrations could not stop them. The Monument once again became the center of political activity and regained its prewar legacy.
As the independence was regained the Monument of Freedom received its guard of honor back. Multiple restorations have taken place. Some restoration and preservation attempts have taken place even during the Soviet times. The Monument of Freedom is of high artistic quality. It was made in the time when monumentalism was very popular across Europe. It’s known that Kārlis Zālis was a modernist during his early carrier, but then changed to more publicly appealing traditionalism and monumentalism. Some say that Marta Liepiņa Skulme who modernist artist did a much better proposal, however its a matter of taste. The importance of the Monument of Freedom, have not been lost during the decades and will not lose in the future.