The Lost Latvian Land – Abrene

The District of Jaunlatgale. The highlighted areas were annexed by Russia

The District of Jaunlatgale. The highlighted areas were annexed by Russia

On March 1 2014  Russia invaded the sovereign Ukrainian territory – Crimea. A “referendum” was held and after the “plea from the Crimean people” the Crimean province was annexed by Russia. A 19th century style act that shocked the modern world. Russia stated that Crimea was originally a Russian territory that was vainly transferred to Ukrainian SSR on 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev. However, Russia has forgotten similar events on 1944-1945 when Russia illegitimately annexed part of Latvian and Estonian border territories.  Same technique was used- both countries were occupied, there were “requests from locals” a “plebiscite”  and after that the lands were added to Russian Federal Soviet Socialist Republic. What seemed as simple administrative action for Stalinist government as the soviet republics were sovereign only on paper, turned out as tragedy as these lands stayed within the Russian Federation. With no real hope to return them back and if returned it would cost millions to invest in these lands ravaged by the soviet power.

The lost land Latvian land today is known as Abrene district although before World War 2 it was called Jaunnlatgale (New Latgale) district that also included large areas of modern-day Balvi district. During 9-12th centuries these territories were inhabited by Latgalian tribes who lived as far of west from the river Velikaya, Mudava in Latvian. On 13th century during the Baltic crusades  Duke of Pskov Mstislav Rostislavich and local Latgalian rulers fought wars for this border area. On 1224 the Abrene castle district was taken over by Bishop Albert of Riga and later added to Riga Archbishopric, part of the Livonian Confederation.  On 1431 Pskov Duchy started to wage wars to gain this land. A well fortified fortress of Vyshgorodok was built within occupied parishes of Kacēni and Augšpils. On 1461-1464 while Livonia was caught up in internal rivalry the whole Abrene region was taken over by Pskov and forced locals to give up their catholic faith. On 1481 the Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan III also claimed this land. On 1581 during the Livonian war the fortress of Vyshgorodok was captured by Polish-Lithuanian troops. After  the end of the Livonian war the easter part of Abrene region was gained back by Russia.

Until 1772 the much of the Abrene district was part of Poland-Lithuania. After the first partition of Poland the territory was added to the province of Pskov. Later on 1802 it was added to the province of Vitebsk that included Latgale and was part of Ludza district a distinctive Latvian town. Philologists August Johann Gottfried Bielenstein and Kārlis Mīlenbahs, conducting linguistic field research in the area in the late 19th and early 20th century, found that many people, called “Russian Latvians” by the local Russians, still spoke the High Latvian dialect. So these territories although  borderlands had not lost its connection with Latvians and Latgale region that on On 1917 December 14 the districts of Dinaburg (Daugavpils), Ludsen (Ludza), Rositten (Rēzekne) was added to province of Vidzeme.

When the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed its claimed territories were the provinces of Courland and Semigallia  and province of Vidzeme including Latgale. During the War for Freedom on December 1918 Latvia was invaded by the Bolsheviks and the local Latvian soviet government was installed. However, on spring- summer 1919 Bolsheviks were chased away from Riga and controlled only Latgale. After Latvian armed forces defeated the Army of Bermont on November 1919, it was essential to liberate Latgale as Estonia had already signed  peace treaty with the Soviet Russia. On December 1919 both Latvian and Polish armies in joint offensive attacked the Bolsheviks. Most part of Latgale was liberated and the Latvian army headed towards far eastern parts of Latgale. On January 14 1920 the city of Pytalovo was captured by Latgalian Partisan corps. Town first appeared in 18th century and gain its importance after it became the railway station to a railway branch on route to Daugavpils. All parts of Latgale were liberated. On February  1 1920 Latvia and Soviet Russia signed ceasefire.

Some fighting at  Vyshgorodok or Augšpils still went on after the ceasefire. The village was taken by Latvian army. Krasnoye, Glushkova and Pokrovskoye were also taken but were given back to Russia. The whole spring were spent on talks on peace agreement. Soviets were reluctant to give up Pytalova the important railroad route both for trade and army means. However, Latvians were stubborn to return it and in memorandum to the Paris Peace conference on June 10 where it was stated that Latvian inhabited borders stretches to rail station of Pytalova. Soviets were caught up in war with Poland and decided to give up their claims on it. However, Soviets managed to regain another Latvian captured rural center Drysa (Verkhnyadzvinsk) a Belarussian town with Latvian minority of 400 people. On August 11 1920 the Peace Agreement with Soviet Russia was finally signed. The northern part of Ludza district and western part of Ostrova together with Pytalova was added to Latvia. Soviet Russia recognized Latvian sovereignty and promised to not threaten its   independence for “eternal times”. Ott0 von Bismark said that any agreement with Russia its not worth the paper it is written. Bismark talked about treacherous Russian Imperial diplomacy as it turned out nothing has much changed since then.

School in Abrene

School in Abrene

On June 1924 12 northern parishes of Ludza district were separated and included into new Jaunlatgale district. Pytalovo was renamed as Jaunlatgale (New Latgale). On 1933 Jaunnlatgale received citizenship rights. The city had district administration, state land inspection, school inspection, doctor and border area chairman office. Latvian and Russian schools. According to the national census of 1935 the six later lost Latvian parishes, had small percent of Latvians. Augšpils had 4,31%, Gauri 4,36%, Kacēni 16,91%, Linava 4,63%, Purvmala 32% and the city of Jaunlatgle 38%. Majority were Russians or Great Russians as they were called then, Belarusians,  and Jews. Some Latvians settled there to gain new farming lands, some were families of the border guards. Despite the high Russian majority no tense ethnic conflict never occurred, Russians had their own school and gymnasium.  On 1938 the city of Jaunlatgale was renamed to Abrene.

The coat of arms of Abrene

The coat of arms of Abrene

On June 15 1940 Soviet NKVD special forces attacked the Latvian border station Maslenki within Abrene region. 3 border guards and  2 civilians were killed and may taken hostage. The raid was used as pretext for the Soviet Union to force the Latvian government to allow the entry of the soviet troops. On June 17 1940 Latvia was occupied and later annexed. Abrene remained within the Latvian SSR. On Summer 1941 Nazi German army took over the town. Local Jews were murdered.  Abene was included in special German Ostland province within Latvia part of it. On June 1944 the city and surrounding areas were taken by the Soviet Army.

With much part of Latvia including Riga still in German hands, the Latvian soviet government was moved from Moscow to Daugavpils. And after “proposal” from the Soviet government, on August 22 the Presidium of the Supreme Council of LSSR “asked” the   Soviet government to separate known areas with Russian majority. The areas were the parishes of Purvmala, Linava, Kacēni, Upmale, Gauri un Augšpils. On October 5-6 1944 the LSSR SC Presidium approved “the will of the people” within these areas. There however, where no sources that proves there was at least an opinion poll held within these war-torn areas about joining Russian Federal Soviet Socialist Republic.  Instead right after Latvian SSR government moved to  Riga, two delegations of  the local Russian representatives asked the Latvian government to keep local population within the Latvian borders. This was not approved. Most of the Abrene administration was replaced with Russian and Belarusian partisans and functionaries. Soon the old Russian and Latvian inhabitants either moved away to Latvian part or were deported. Population was replaced with immigrants from Russia and other areas. As for 2002 census

 This act is violation of even Soviet law (the 1936 constitution then in force required that changes in internal borders be confirmed by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, not the Presidium). Though the official documents transfer 1075.31 square kilometers, 1293.6 square kilometers were actually transferred. According to census of 2002 690 people calling themselves Latvians resides in Pskov district.

According to the Latvian Constitution the borders of Latvia are according to Peace Treaty of 1920. On the Declaration of  the Restoration of independence on May 4 1990 that restored the power of the Latvian constitution intended to follow the terms of the peace treaty. However, in January 1991 in bilateral relations agreement with Russian Federation (with USSR still in existence), Russian side rejected the reference to 1920 peace treaty. As Russia do not recognize that Latvia was illegally occupied and annexed on 1940 and sees no continuation between 1918-1940 Latvia and present day Latvia, the question became frozen.  On 2005 when Latvia negotiated with Russia on the border agreement, the president of Russia Vladimir Putin called the Latvian claims on Abrene as the ” against the spirit of Europe.”  And also remarked that instead of Abrene Latvia will receive the ears of a dead donkey. However on July 2008 Russia transfered 174 km² area of land to China.

On April 29, 2005, Latvia announced that it would sign an interpretative declaration in conjunction with the proposed border agreement with Russia, noting that the border agreement would in no way affect “the legal rights of the Latvian state and its citizens” under the 1920 treaty. As a consequence, Russia scrapped the border agreement, as it saw this as attempt to prolong debate on Abrene. Despite the heated protests from far right movements on 2007 the border agreement was signed making no open references to the 1920 treaty. It was moral and legal failure for Latvia.

Estonia is in similar situation as Latvia. On the same time as Abrene, Soviet Union took 2.500 km² large area of Veru and Pesteri districts from Estonia. The areas it gave it up the same way as to Latvia with a border agreement. Estonia lost Ivanogord the suburb of city of Narva and the city of Petseri (Pechori). Russia canceled the border treaty with Estonia on 2005 because of references to the soviet occupation. On February 2014 Estonia signed the border agreement similarly to Latvia giving up its claims on occupation and lost lands.

Can we ever gain these lands back and is its worth it? First such thing seems to impossible with the present land grabbing Russian government who shows no respect to international laws or treaties proving the Otto von Bismark statement that its pointless to  believe that Russia will fulfill its signed treaties. If situation in Russia changes, with modern government and if the locals within these districts wishes to join Latvia with a referendum then its possible. But the recourses and the burden will be great, as these areas needs to be adjusted to Latvian and EU laws and structures. And the large Russian majority in these regions will increase the overall Russian speaking minority. They cannot get Latvian citizenship automatically according to laws and their social situation may force them to move to Riga to look for better job. With this all the rejoining Abrene with Latvia seems more a fantasy. But its a another of thousand reminders that Russia cannot be trusted in international affairs. Its interprets the treaties and laws according to their own, they feel no hesitation to break the treaties they signed, but accuses others of “breaking” them. And if Russia is caught right-handed of breaking laws and treaties it will always say – you did it first!   From a country unable to abide even to its own Constitution  we cannot expect nothing more. Abrene or Jaunlagale or Pytalova is a clear example of the century long injustice within Russian external politics.



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