During the 1918-1920 War for Freedom, Latvia had three alternatives- the Republic of Latvia, Baltic German Duchy and Latvia as the Soviet Republic. From the end of 1918 to early 1920 in the various parts of Latvia a communist regime called Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic existed. Despite being dependent on communist government in Moscow and part of the Soviet plan for the Worldwide socialist revolution, it was formed by local Latvian Bolsheviks or lielinieki as Latvians called them. It was a harsh totalitarian regime that could serve as prototype for future totalitarian regimes. In its short time of existence the regime attempted to make a Stalinist style collectivization and organize its own army. This article will attempt to explain this seldom researched topic in detail.
The roots of Latvian Marxism begun in late 19th century during rapid modernization and industrialization. Socialism became very popular among the working class Latvians and middle class educated circles. On 1904 the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDWP) was founded gathering around a wide spectrum of socialists, from anarchists to radical Marxists. The revolution of 1905 was crucial for LSDWP as it took the main role in local activities and lead the uprising against the tsarist regime. However, the failure of the revolution weakened and split the party. Many active leaders were exiled or sent to Siberia. One small faction by the lead of Peter the Painter took the anarchist route, others moved towards Russian Socialists lead by Vladimir Lenin. The democratic and national minded politicians fell out and were called mensheviks or mazinieki in Latvian and lost the in the power struggle. On 1906 LSDWP joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) becoming an autonomous territorial entity called Latvian Social Democracy (LSD). LSD became more and more Bolshevik and formed the most part of the RSWDWP.
The First World war was calamity for Latvia. The German invasion on 1915 caused a large masses of refugees to go to Russia. The evacuation of industrial objects lead to the rise of poverty. And Latvian lands were divided in German -Russian front line for two years. The right-wing politicians used to war to raise patriotic feelings among Latvians and convinced Tsar Nicholas II to form a Latvian Rifleman Regiments within the Russian army to defend Riga. Tsar had his doubts about it, he remembered the 1905. Meanwhile LSD took the anti-war position that proved successful. Latvian Rifleman were torn in bloody battles Christmas battles on 1917 January and were angered by the lack of support from Russian army formation and the incompetence of the Russian leadership.
After the February revolution the Bolsheviks managed to take over the Latvian Rifleman. The LSD despite made legal was weakened by the repressions and the fact that many were forced to emigrate to Russia and Europe. In Russian controled Vidzeme and Riga, Bolsheviks started to organize various soviets that were beyond the Russian Provisional government control. Riga City Workers Soviet and Landless Peasant Soviet were the main Bolshevik ruling organs. On April 29 – May 1 1917 in Valmiera Landless Peasant Congress elected Bolshevik lead Vidzeme Landless Peasant Soviet and were formed in every parish in the region. Soviets issued order to confiscate the lands of church and estates. Since Latvian peasants owned a small portion of land compared to noble estates and church the move was supported.
Similar soviets were organized within the Latvian Rifleman. The Russian Provisional Government was unable to step out of the war. That many Latvian soldiers to protest, however, most still wanted to defend their homeland. Slowly the LSD took over Latvian Executive Rifleman Committee (Iskolatstrel) and gained the rifleman support. LSD promised to end war, gain back lost lands of Courland and Semigalia and give land to everyone. Right wing politician realistic goal to continue war had no real political gains and could not favor the masses. However, it was a political delusion that was impossible to achieve. Despite being a totalitarian party LSD took part in four democratic elections, town council, Vidzeme Land Council, regional council, and in the Constituent Assembly. LSD won in all of them achieving a landslide victories. However, the voter activity was only above 30% showing that most people did not understand the point of these elections.
Germans started a grand offensive on September 1917 and captured Riga. Latvian Rifleman in the Battles of Jugla took the most hit, while cowardly and disorganized Russian army units retreated. Germans were unable to move swiftly to take over all Vidzeme. So after the communist coup in November 7 (October) Vidzeme were taken over by Bolsheviks. On November 21-22 in Valka the Soviet power was issued. The Executive Committee (Iskolat) was led by Fricis Roziņš. Iskolat fired all governing bodies – the land councils and town councils. Many democratic newspapers were banned. Revolutionary Tribunals were formed and Red Guard was organized. The Iskolat in Vizdeme and Latgale managed to rule only few months until February 1918. However, the Iskolat was ready to nationalize all rural and industrial property.
Germans resumed their offensive and on February 1918 captured all Vidzeme and Latgale. On they way of retreat the Red Guards took hostages many of them did not survive. LSD was shaken by the events and split in two parts. Fricis Menders and Pauls Kalniņš formed Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party. Others were either deported to Russia by Germans or escaped themselves. The LSD now was directed from Moscow. Iskolat was a prelude to future Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.
As discussed in other articles Latvians took significant posts in Soviet government, army and secret police. Latvian Rifleman despite weakened by the loss of their homeland were still ready to fight and helped to form the Red Army. Despite the peace agreement with Germany that gave Baltic provinces, Belarus and Ukraine away, Bolsheviks waited for Germany to lose against the Western Allies and prepared for war. Latvia was to be taken back. On November 18 1918 the time struck when revolution in Germany brought down the Imperial government and forced Germany to end war. Soviets were convinced that socialist takeover in Germany is imminent and canceled the Brest-Litiosvk peace agreement. However, the German communists were too weak to take over alone. The Red Army had to lead the Red Crusade towards Berlin.
For this Bolsheviks needed first to re-conquer Latvia and form a national soviet republic dependent on Moscow. However, the LSD only wanted to restore Iskolat style government – an autonomous Latvia within Soviet Russia. They wanted to form a “United Latvian Commune”, that would include Courland, Vidzeme,Latgale and Riga Commune. The man leading this idea was Pēteris Stučka. He did not want an independent Latvia, nor a formally sovereign soviet republic. Moscow meanwhile pushed for national soviet republic that would fit the popular self-determination doctrine issued by US president Woodrow Wilson. Of course such national soviet republic would be completely dependent on Moscow and annexed in to World Socialist State.
One of the pushers for Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic was Joseph Stalin, he condemned the LSD intentions and November 23 demanded to form revolutionary Latvian provisional government, declare its foundation on of the close border posts like Toroshina. He did this on behalf of Lenin, the national question was also Stalin’s prime responsibility. LSD was forced to submit to Stalin’s commands and made a list government members and committee to form manifest.
On December 4 the Latvian Provisional Soviet Government was formed. Red Army had already crossed Latvian borders on November 22-23, on November 29 Rēzekne was captured by the soviet troops. Meanwhile the Estonian Soviet Government was declared already after taking of Narva on November 29. Despite Stalin orders to form the government on spot, Latvian communists delayed and tried to avoid the forming the Soviet Latvia. LSD members in Latvia were surprised by this move as the order to proclaim the republic came from Moscow and was against LSD ideology that denied national sovereignty.
On December 17 1918 the Soviet Power was declared in Latvia. There is common misconception that declaration power in Valka, although it was captured day later. The Soviet government entered Valka only on December 22. In reality the declaration was issued in press and radio and many received these news many days later. This was done reluctantly while Estonian communists showed great enthusiasm.
Invasion towards west begun on November 15 1918. On November 18 in Riga the Latvian Republic was proclaimed. Supported by right-wing parties like Latvian Farmers Union it was also supported by LSDWP who however, declared Latvian Republic as temporary solution for their goals. Remaining German army and authorities also saw Latvian Provisional Government this way and formed a temporary alliance with them against Bolsheviks. Their goal of forming the Baltic Duchy failed and now on behalf of UK and France they had to cooperate with Latvians to defend their possessions.
Latvian Red Riflemen took part in invasion despite Moscow being reluctant to move them to Western Front. Most Latvian units were scattered all across Civil War front and were vital in struggle against White Guards. However, Red Army clearly lacked enough forces to lead a wide offensive towards Baltic region, Belarus and Poland. On December 18 Valka was captured. Then it was ordered to pursue attack towards Riga. However, the Latvian red regiments should instead attack Parnu and then Tallinn, while other Soviet forces lead the attack from Ogre and Pļaviņas from Latgale side. That was a crucial mistake, since the Red Army was unable to defeat the Estonian National Forces that later turned crucial for the Soviet Latvia.
Latvian communist ambitions took over strategic considerations as they rushed towards Riga. On December 30 crucial victory was held at Inčukalns. Red Rifleman defeated the German formed Landeswerh (Land Guard), Latvian Company loyal to Latvian Provisional government refused to take part in the battle. On January 2 1919 Latvian Provisional Government left Rīga and head to Liepāja. Next day Landeswerh and German Iron Brigade along with few remaining Latvian units evacuated from Riga. On January 3 Riga was taken by Soviets. Massive arrests started and Riga Soviet Militia was formed to keep order.
With German and Latvian units in retreat the Soviet power was established in Latgale, Vidzeme, Rīga and Zemgale. Soviets sent Latvians back to Latvia to take part in the new soviet state. Russian Bolsheviks were reluctant against massive Latvian will to head towards their homeland in risk of loosing valuable workforce. On January 13 1919 the United Latvia workers, rifleman and landless peasant congress took place. Congress continued until January 15 and made the constitution and many resolutions. With Lev Kamenev and Yakov Sverdlov as special guests the LSSR Constitution was proclaimed. Since Pēteris Stučka the leader of the Soviet government had helped to write the Constitution of Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic the LSSR constitution was very similar. The United Latvian Workers Soviet Congress became the highest governing body. It elected Latvian Central Executive Committee that served as legislative body. LCEC elected the 11 member Soviet Government.
Similar to Russia all main sectors were guided by commissariats and corresponding departments. LSSR had no Foreign Commissariat, only Foreign Secretariat showing that Latvian communists had no interest in diplomacy. All power was in LSD and republic was in fact a single party dictatorship. In resolution about relations with Russia it was proposed that after war Latvian proletariat should unite with their Russian brothers and live in brotherly union. It was according to original reluctance of forming soviet republic. The flag, coat of arms and even the name of the republic was formed in the same way as RSFSR.
Latvian communists were convinced in their quest for worldwide socialist revolution and saw Latvia as flaming torch against the revolutionary enemy powder tower. Pēteris Stučka declared a steadfast move to socialism. To start this a Red Terror was initiated. At first it was chaotic, made towards former governmental workers and keeping the order. Special local investigative commissions were formed and first revolutionary tribunal in Vecgulbene on December 18. After realizing all these institutions were working independently beyond government control the LSSR Commissariat of Justice begun to take direct control over them. Revolutionary Tribunals were made in every district. The goal was the struggle and extermination of bourgeoisie.
The class war started with the removal of political rights for everyone except workers. Next step was struggle against private property. To assist front line confiscations of personal belongings were issued by force. After that the people considered bourgeoisie started were forced to take part in social work. Nobles, land and real estate owners, tradesman, businessman and intellectuals were sent to work on streets and heavy works. Those who resisted were threatened with revolutionary tribunal and concentration camp.
As the front line reports became more threatening, the enslavement was no longer enough. On the frontline communist groups took hostages and cleared the prisons on retreat. On March 14 first mass execution in Riga took place. 57 prisoners were shot. Next day in Riga Female Prison 30 people were killed. At the end of March 200 people were shot in Riga main prions. Executions took place in country side and in Daugavpils far from frontlines. 98 people were shot there on March 26-27. If that was not enough an order was issued to forcibly move people from Riga Central Districts to remote places such as Zaķusala, Kundziņslala and Sarkandaugava.Hundreds of thousand people were moved, the exact number is unknown. People were sent to ghetto like envoriments
One of the main sufferers of the terror were Baltic Germans. As front came closer soviets begun to take hostages 91% of imprisoned hostages were Germans. More than thousand people were taken hostage. Nationalistic hate towards Germans was clearly present in soviet Latvian ideology and was seen as revenge for the events of 1905 and beyond.
The main terror institutions were Interior affairs commissariat and commissariat of Justice. In contrary to Russia, own Latvian Emergency Commission the Latvian version of Cheka was not made. As Cheka in Russia was autonomous from other state institutions causing problems, Latvian soviets made secret police within Interior Affairs commissariat called Political Department. The “trials” were made by revolutionary tribunals. Soviets managed to build concentration camps in various parts of Latvia. Largest one was in city of Pļaviņas.
The amount of victims by the Red Terror is not precisely known. One account names 3632 of them 1549 murdered in Riga. Pēteris Stučka later himself claimed to have killed 1000 people during his rule. Various documents deny us to make precise calculations. The Latvian Soviet government had genocidal character as it was clear attempt to exterminate completely various social and ethnic groups. The terror was disproportional to actual resistance and increased because of front line problems. The terror only boosted the resistance against the regime.
The reason for this was also radical economic reforms. Steps were taken to completely destroy the private property. First drastic emergency tax was instituted against bourgeoisie and confiscation of the capital. Then in February banks were nationalized. Then on March 1 1919 major step was done to begin nationalization of all rural lands. Land owners became renters and had to sign contract to use the land further. It was done according to teachings of Karl Marx that expropriation and land rent would ensure state income. However, Stučka was planning to create soviet collective farms. This was the move that made people against the soviet power. Instead of giving land to landless peasants everything was taken by the state and gathered in collective farms. On March 8 last decree was made to confiscate all industrial, trade and agricultural enterprises in value of 10 0000 ruble. Only thing that soviets were unable to ban was money, but they hoped to ban it sometime later.
To defend this “paradise” from foreign threat on January 4 a Soviet Latvian Army was founded. While strategically such formation was not needed as it would be made from Red Army units it was a political display to “prove” the sovereignty of the LSSR. First commander was Jukums Vācietis also the Commander in Charge of the Red Army. Formed mainly from Latvian Riflemen it was controlled by the Latvian soviets. More than 7000 people joined voluntarily. Then the mobilization was issued. It took place on many occasions when front line was in danger. Despite large influx of soldiers contributed by mobilization the army soon break apart following military collapse of the Soviet Latvia.
This long story was ultimately ended by the Estonian army and after that by the Latvian – German forces. While soviets were holding congress in Riga on January, the Estonian army effectively resisted the Red forces. South Estonia was lost and Estonian army headed towards Valka. On January 31 Estonians captured Valka and moved into Latvian Northern Vidzeme. Then Soviet Latvian Army faced troubles in Courland. Soviets captured Jelgava and moved towards river Venta. Despite German – Latvian forces weakened and divided, the offensive stopped as soviets moved forces to Vidzeme against Estonians. On January 29 1919 battles erupted at Skrunda along river Venta. On February German Iron Division and Landeswerh captured Kuldīga and Vetspils. On March 3 anti-soviet forces begun offensive towards Jelgava. On March 18 Landeswerh captured Jelgava.
The taking of Riga was imminent, few defeated and in rush formed units defended city for a week. Large masses of soviet soldiers, deserters, officials begun to leave the city. Prison populations were executed. Soviets held Riga all April while trying to push away Estonians facing miserable defeat against smaller enemy force. As in May German and Polish forces chased away soviets from Latvia. Then on May 12 Estonian forces and White Guards marched towards Petrograd. On May 26 Pskov was captured. Soviet Latvia was effectively in siege from two sides. Soviet High command demanded to leave Riga, however Latvian communists resisted for loosing Riga would mean the breakup of the regime. The Soviet Latvian Army was deserting, the partisan activity on the rise. Because of harsh economic policies the soviets lost their support.
On May 22 at early morning anti-soviet forces begun offensive towards Riga. Latvia 1st Special Brigade, Landeswerh, Iron Divison broke trough the LRA lines and rolled in Riga. Soviet government escaped towards Latgale. As German forces entered Riga a new wave of terror – the White Terror was made against remaining soviet supporters. Germans took their revenge once again. LRA was broken and retreated to Latgale. 60-70% soldiers deserted the soviet ranks. On July 7 it was disbanded and renamed to 15th Army. LSD now known as Latvian Communist Party was in disarray and the question was raised of liquidation of the LSSR. Officially the LSSR still formally existed until January 1920 when Polish – Latvian forces liberated Latgale. Until then the LSSR was under Moscow dictate and its government was powerless. After Latvia was liberated and signed peace agreement, LCP worked in Latvia in underground while old LSSR leaders worked in Latvia and were erased by Stalin’s purges.
The Soviet Latvia on 1918-1920 was a totalitarian regime, that tried to realize the Marxist ideals at full-scale. Its terror and actions were mostly dictated by ideological beliefs rather than strategical considerations. In its short time of existence this regime managed to realize a limited genocide against middle and high-class members and local German population. If such regime managed to survive and be victorious against its rivals, Latvia would suffer major social and ethnic changes and today would be comparable to Belarus. The Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic is also comparable to present day “Donetsk Peoples Republic” and “Peoples Republic of Luhansk” both a fake puppet terror states conducting genocidal policy on behalf of Moscow.
Šilinš, Jānis. (2013) Padomju Latvija 1918-1920. Rīga. Vēstures Izpētes un popularizēšanas biedrība.
Popoff, George (1932). The City of the Red Plague: Soviet Rule in a Baltic Town. London; New York: George Allen & Unwin; E.P. Dutton & Co
Pētersone, Inga. (Ed) (1999) Latvijas Brīvības cīņas, 1918-1920 : enciklopēdija. Riga: Preses Nams.
Bērziņš, Valdis. (2000) 20. gadsimta Latvijas vēsture. I, Latvija no gadsimta sākuma līdz neatkarības pasludināšanai, 1900-1918. Riga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.