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Latvian Orthodox Church 1917-1940



The Nativity of Christ Cathedral in central Riga


Latvia historically has become a crosspoint between three main confessions of the Christianity. Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodox Church share almost equal ground in Latvian society. While Western Christianity had greater influence in Latvia and the Baltic States as the whole, it was the Orthodox church that had it first official converts in Latvian territory. However, it became prominent only in the 19th century when Tsarist authorities started the policy of spreading Orthodoxy among Latvians and supporting of building churches and monasteries. When talking about Orthodox the common stereotype is that Orthodox church is commonly for Slavic nations like Russians, Ukrainians, and others. However, since the first converts in the 11-12th century, the Orthodoxy was also popular among Latvians. After the fall of Russian Empire and Bolshevik takeover the leader of the Orthodox church was Latvian national Archbishop Jānis Pommers (Иоанн (Поммер) – Архиепископ Иоа́нн (Священномученик Иоанн Рижский). He was the Archbishop and leader of the Latvian Orthodox Church from 1920 to his tragic death in 1934. During his reign, the church was independent both from Moscow and Constantinople Patriarchate and took a very antagonistic stance towards Bolshevism, Social Democracy. He was also elected as a deputy in Latvian parliament and lead the Russian Orthodox conservative forces. Pommers was met with controversy. Leftist forces despised him as he despised them. Latvian nationalists accused him of being a Tsarist and Russian nationalist. Russian liberals, leftists and the Old Believer faction opposed him. Struggling with opposition a staunch and fanatical Pommers met a horrible fate on October 11, 1934, when unknown assassins killed him in his summer cottage. His death was a major tragedy for Orthodox church and prompted to cut all ties with Church in Moscow and establish itself under Constantinople patriarchate. Jānis Pommers in 1981 was first declared a Saint a hieromartyr (sanctus martyr, cвященному́ченик, svētmoceklis) by Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. In 2001 the Russian Orthodox Church and its now subordinate Latvian Orthodox Church canonized Archbishop Jānis. He is the only Latvian who had entered Sainthood.

First Orthodox missionary in Latvian lands was Scandinavian Torvald Kondarnson who was appointed by Byzantine Empire as envoy for rulers of Rus. The closest Rus duchy to early Baltic tribes was Polotsk ruled by Duke Ragvald whose daughter Raghilda or Gorislava entered monastery that was built in present-day Krāslava. No archeological evidence back this legend. However, because Latvian territory was on the path between varyags (Vikings), Rus and Byzantines it was crossed by missionaries from both sides. In 12th century the Latgalian rulers of Jersika and Tālava became Orthodox and built first Orthodox churches. In the city of Jersika ruled by Orthodox Visvaldis the gospel was translated to Old East Slavic language in 1270.The Orthodox clergyman introduced words baznīca (church), gavēnis (fast), krusts (cross), svēts (saint) grāmata (book) klanīties (kneal) svētki (celebrations) and nedēļa (week) from Old Slavic that became used in the future unified Latvian language.

Some Russian historians have speculated that if Rus would not be invaded by Mongols, the Rus duchies would eventually overcome and conquer pagan Baltic lands. Kievan Rus had already been weakened and divided in smaller duchies years before Mongol invasion. The duchies of Novgorod, Pskov, and Polotsk had placed the Latgalian rulers under tribute payment in return for nonaggression. However, the Rus rulers had no will and power to conquer and forcibly baptize the Baltic tribes. During this time the Catholic crusaders from the West took the upper hand and established Crusader states in the present day Latvia and Estonia. Jersika was sacked and Orthodox churches were destroyed. Crusader advance to the east was halted in 1242. Lithuanian Grand Duchy a union between Lithuanian and Slavic duchies who later became Belarus, converted to Catholicism. The spread of Orthodoxy was halted for centuries.


St. Peter and St. Paul Church – the oldest Orthodox church in Riga


At last, Orthodoxy returned in the 17th century when Russia made major church reforms and those who opposed it often was forced to seek refuge and came to Inflanty of Latgale and Duchy of Courland. Old Believers established continuous minority in Latvia. In the 19th century, Russian Empire took over all lands of present-day Latvia. In first decades the Tsarist authorities tolerated mainly Lutheran Baltic German nobility and the Catholic church in Latgale. The absolute majority of Latvians were either Lutheran or Catholic. However, Tsarist and Baltic German relations worsened and in the 19th century, 30’s the Orthodox church was used as a countermeasure to weaken Baltic German influence. While there were reports of a small church of St. Nicholas in Riga mainly for merchants and diplomats, the first major church in Riga was St. Peter and St. Paul Church was built in 1785 for Russian garrison. In 1836 the first church authority was created in Riga. The Riga Vicariate of the Pskov eparchy and its head was bishop Iriniach who started to build churches in the countryside. Doing so he ignited the will among Latvian peasants who despite abolishment of serfdom still felt oppressed, to convert to Orthodoxy and gain rights to leave the Baltic German nobles to whom they paid high rents for their small land plots and were still forced to do corvees for the nobles. In 1841 after draught the conversion became massive and peasants came to bishop Iriniach to ask for help. Baltic German General Governor of Baltic province von Palen tried to suppress the “Movement of Warm Lands” and arrested the main leaders. Armed clashes followed. This movement was also partially caused by the fact that Tsar Nicholas I had made manifest for the establishment of Jewish agricultural colony in Kherson region in Ukraine. More than 2 thousand Jews from Courland moved there and Latvian peasants also wanted to move to “Warm lands” away from Baltic Germans.

In 1841 Filaret became Bishop of Riga and further contributed to the mass conversion to Orthodoxy. In Vidzeme governorate, the amount of Orthodox reached 12%. In 1896 Russian Empire made census and  33,6% or 56 003 were Latvians. As in this time, Riga and Eastern Latvia became colonized by migrants from Russia and Belarus creating Slavic majority among Orthodox in Latvia. 236 churches and 488 church schools were in Latvian territory before the war. As state church, the Orthodox church enjoyed privileged level. However, almost none of Latvian converts could move to new lands to Russia and Ukraine. Most lost their lands. Their children moved away from Orthodoxy, while some who were registered as Orthodox still lived as Lutherans. Only small portion of Latvians became true Orthodox followers.



Jānis Pommers


One of them Jānis Pommers who was born in Prauliena parish near Madonna city in 1876. He studied in Riga Orthodox School and graduated Riga Orthodox Spiritual Seminary in 1897. From 1900 to 1904 he studied in Kyiv Theological Academy and in 1901 entered monastic rank. After gaining a degree in theology he worked in  Chernihiv Spiritual Seminary, then in Vologda, then as rector of Vilnius Lithuania Spiritual seminary. In 1912 he was appointed as Bishop of Slutsk. He was also present in Mensk, Taganrog, and Ekaterinoslav (Dnipro). In 1917 he met the Russian Revolution in Tver.

Jānis or Ioan in Slavic languages, he was popular among worshipers. He was loyal to the Tsarist government and was strictly against Bolshevik revolution. In so he was seen as a danger by the Bolsheviks. In 1918 he was prevented from going to Odessa and was moved to Penza. According to Orthodox church biography during his time in Penza, the Bolshevik Cheka made an assassination attempt on him and also shelled monastery where he lived. In the end, he was arrested and moved to Moscow. In 1921 after Latvia gained independence Pommers moved to Riga.



Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow 1917-1925


The Orthodox Church in Soviet Russia was in a precarious state. It existed while faced repressions, arrests, and executions of the clergy and destruction of churches. The Church survived mainly because of Patriarch Tikhon who on November 4, 1917, restored the Patriarchy that was broken since February revolution. At the start, he condemned the murder of the Tsar family and opposed the Bolsheviks, by open means. However, as he saw that Bolsheviks had won the war he started what was known as Tikhon’s affair to gain common ground with the new power. Doing so created schismatic movements within Russian Orthodox Church often inspired by Cheka. New sectarian movements like True Orthodox Church or Catacomb church and the Living Church emerged that declared resistance against “Tikhon heresy”. Tikhon died in 1925 and Soviets prevented from appointing new Patriarch. New Patriarch of Russia was only allowed in 1944 when Stalin wanted to clear out the clergy who supported Nazi occupation. Jānis Pommers meanwhile was positive towards Tikhon and wrote long speech marking his death and acknowledged his effort in keeping the Church together and facing the Soviet oppression.


Anti-Orthodox caricature suggesting removal of the Orthodox cathedral and replace with  Monument of Freedom. From Svari 1930

In new independent Latvia, the situation for Latvian Orthodox was not as negative as in Russia but it was still problematic. Among the Latvian national political elite, many despised the “Tsar church”’. In 1922 the St. Alexius church and monastery in Old Riga was give back to Catholics. The main center of Latvian Orthodox the Nativity of Christ Cathedral was also considered for demolition. What was demolished was the chapell near Riga Train Station that was built to celebrate the miraculous Tsar family survival of the Borki train disaster in 1888. Church also lost the St. Peter and St. Paul Church that was taken over by Lutherans. The Spiritual Seminary building became Anatomicum for University of Latvia.



Archbishop Jānis with nuns of the Riga Orthodox Female Monastery


The Latvian Orthodox Church had to prove its loyalty to the Republic of Latvia, while it still in their hearts and minds griefed the fall of the Tsar. Only in 1926 the Latvian lawmakers issued regulations for the Orthodox church and gave it equal rights as all other churches, Moscow Patriarch Tikhon had issued order Nr. 1026 that allowed the independence of the Latvian Orthodox Church while keeping canonical ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Theological Faculty of the University of Latvia included the Orthodox chamber and seminary was opened to educate young clergy. During the independence, the Latvian Orthodox observed the main Christian holidays at the same time as Catholics and Lutherans. Before the war, the Russian Orthodox Church observed and still observes all Christian celebrations according to old Julian calendar. Jānis Pommers defended the celebration by the new style as he argued that Orthodox people cannot celebrate while being at work and the Orthodox fate must survive in new Latvia. He also based his decision on both Moscow and Constantinople patriarch who also accepted celebration according to the new calendar. In 1930 there was 169 000 Orthodox.


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Archbishop Jānis basement chamber in the Riga Orthodox Cathedral


Jānis Pommers an authoritative person, fanatical and good speech giver was an obvious candidate for the leader of the Church. Patriarch Tikhon gave him his blessings and relieved him of duty in Penza. He returned to Riga in 1921 July 22 and started the first service in Riga Cathedral since 1917. Because of his efforts, the church was recognized by the state, but to secure the rights of the Orthodox he also chose to run for parliamentary elections.



Deputy Pommers fighting Social Democrats. From Vecais Sikspārnis 1931


Latvian Russian politics had no unity. There was strong Russian social democratic fraction. There was also a faction in Saeima for Old Believers and various liberal nationalists. Then there was White Guard emigrants and open monarchists. Latvian Secret Police fought Monarchists and suspected Pommers of being such. The main Latvian Russian newspaper Сегодня (Today) belonged to Jewish investors and pursued liberal social democratic agenda. The Russian conservatives had less money and reader base to raise their voice. For a few years, Pommers used newspaper Слово (The Word) to pursue his political agenda.  During his political career, he was a staunch enemy of the Social Democratic party in the parliament and also stood against Latvian nationalism. His enemies accused him of being Tsarist, he was attacked on the streets. In his speeches and writings, he raised great concerns over the state of the Orthodox church in the Soviet Union. He stood against Latvian-Soviet trade agreement in 1927 as it became known that Moscow had asked Latvian government to limit anti-Soviet publications in Latvian and Russian press. In his writings and speeches, he warned about the danger of Marxism, Soviet agents. He was an uncomfortable enemy to rivals in Latvia and also to Soviet government as he always stood against every Latvian-Soviet agreement. While keeping his faith and admiration to fallen Russian Empire and his authoritative church, he was patriotic anti-communist and kept his church within these lines. As a monk he chose to live in the basement chamber of the Riga Cathedral, however, he also had a small cottage in Riga, Šmerlis suburb, that belonged to the Church.



Archbishop Jānis funeral


His political career ended on May 15, 1934, when Kārlis Ulmanis dissolved the parliament and established his Authoritarian dictatorship. Saddened by the loss of political say, he asked the Church Synod to call the new council to determine the state of the Church and arrange rules for choosing new church leader. This was prophetic. On October 11, 1934, he was visited by Russian opera singer who seems to had also opened doors to the murderers. The investigation concluded that the Archbishop was dragged downstairs and the brought back up and dosed with petroleum and then set alight, He was still alive when was set on fire and died a martyr’s death. The opera singer was also found dead. The investigation failed to find the perpetrator. The Church and Russian minority in Latvia and exile placed blame on Soviet Secret Service. Others blamed the relatives Maria Viola Beatere who had accused Pommers of rape, however she failed to prove it and Pommers was proven not guilty. Others blamed members of the Latvian Orthodox Student organization who conflicted with him. It was not proven. The theory that it was done by Kārlis Ulmanis government also seemed unbelievable and unproven. While Ulmanis removed Pommers from politics they both were allied against left-wing forces. Pommer’s death was a grand tragedy and his funeral was attended by many of the politicians including Jānis Balodis the second man in power after Ulmanis. Pommers was laid to rest in Pokrov cemetery in Riga, special chapel was built from the materials of the demolished chapel that was built to celebrate the Tsar survival in the 1888 train disaster.



Gravesite of the Archbishop Jānis


The successor to Pommers was  Augustīns Pētersons who in 1936 made the transition from Moscow Patriarchate to Constantinople. That was done because of fears from Moscow after Pommer’s murder and also to fix practical issues in church rule due to the lack of bishops.

In 1940 Latvia was occupied and annexed by Soviet Union. Soviets removed Augustīns Pētersons and sent in Sergy Voskresinsky from Russia. Pētersons after “confessing his sins” was sent to pension. He tried to restore authority during Nazi occupation, however only few congregations followed him. When Soviets came back he escaped to Germany and spent his last years helping the Orthodox refugees. The new head Jānis Garklāvs fully restored the Latvian Orthodox church dependence with Russian Orthodox Church.

During the Soviet occupation church suffered. The main cathedral in Riga was closed and turned into planetarium, many churches were either closed or even demolished like in Daugavpils. Church as other religious movements in Soviet Union survived in strict observation by the authorities.

In 1990 Aleksandrs Kudrjašovs  became Metropolite of Riga and All Latvia. He saw the regain of the independence and in 1992 made decision to preserve Latvian Orthodox church autonomy within Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. The main cathedral in Riga was given back to the Church. Many churches were restored thanks to the donations from Russia and support from Latvian state. In 2001 Jānis Pommers was made  hieromartyr – a Saint. In 2006 church issued special Order and Medal of the Saint Martyr of Ioan the Archbishop of Riga.


Icon of Saint Martyr Ioan the Archbishop of Riga


According to official data there are 350 thousand Orthodox in Latvia with 117 congregations. The scholars meanwhile note that if regarding the size of active church goers this size is much smaller. The Church observes the celebrations according to the old Julian calendar. There have been many attempts in Latvia to get official Christmas holidays for Orthodox. Latvian politicians have argued this as unpractical and harmful to economy and reminds that before the war the Church observed new calendar. Since the worsening of the relations between Latvia and Russia, the expected visit by Patriarch of Russian Orthodox church Kirill was canceled. Church receives support from Russian politicians in Latvia, but its influence in Latvian politics has been limited. Some of the most radical Russian and Latvian Christian politicians in Latvia are connected to New Evangelical movement rather than Orthodox church. During the screening of the movie “Matilda” a small peaceful protest activity of the people against the movie was observed also in Latvia. Various foundations from Russia publishes and exports faith books in Latvia and even translate books in Latvian. Latvian percentage in Orthodox church has however downsized during the Soviet occupation. Orthodox church possibly the oldest Christian confession in Latvia continues its existence and commemorates the legacy of the Archbishop Jānis.   



Rīgas un visas Latvijas Arhibīskaps Jānis (Pommers) II. Svētrunas, raksti, uztāšanās. Rīga. Labvēsts. 1993.


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“Belarusian” issue in Latvia. Belarusian struggle for recognition as sovereign national minority


Logo of the Latvian Belarusian newspaper “The Voice of Belarusian”

The events in former Russian empire between from 1918 to 1920 were significant and dramatic. Many new nations formed such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland regained independence. However, a very large nation by population and territory failed to gain national independence and was divided between its captive homeland and three above mentioned new states. Belarusians had large diaspora in Poland and Lithuania, and the eastern part of Latvia had significant Belarusian population.  Among the Belarusians in Latvia a national movement emerged to open and maintain schools for Belarusian children to teach Belarusian language and culture. However, this initiative met resistance from rival national and political groups. Polish minority in Latvia, Russian nationalists and Latvian Latgalian nationalists questioned the sovereignty of the Belarusian minority in Latvia and speculated that large part of the so-called Belarusians in Latvia are in fact Latvians, Russians or Poles to each of their own. This political campaign caused a imposed trial against Belarusian school authority in 1924, closure of the Belarusian schools and significant drop of people calling themselves Belarusians. This was part of the very deep cross-national issues between Latvians and national minorities.

During the free press period of 1918-1934 the newspaper media discussed the national issues very openly. A notable feature when reading Latvian newspapers about Belarusian minority issues is that often term Belarusian is placed in inverted commas marking it as artificial nation that does not really exists. Various writers, politicians and even scholars questioned the existence of the Belarusian minority in Latvia, but not the existence of Belarusians as whole, since there were Belarusians in Belarus itself and a large part in Lithuania and Poland. That was not questioned, however very specific ethnic issues of we will speak ahead existed in Eastern Latvia that allowed these people to question the existence of the Belarusian minority. The bottom point of this “Belarusian” discourse was the reasoning behind state financing for the Belarusian schools. If there were no real Belarusians or their size was insignificant it meant these schools should have been be closed.

To understand the issue, we must observe the demographical data. In 1920 the first national census was held and 75 630 people registered themselves as Belarusians. In 1925 38 010 people called themselves Belarusians. In 1930 36 029 and the final census was held in 1935 and there was 26 867 Belarusians left in Latvia. We see a significant drop in the number of Belarusian minority in Latvia. What happened? One local pro-Russian historian made outrageous claim that Belarusians were deported from Latvia to Soviet Belarus. None of this happened also there was no significant emigration, nor there was high mortality. The core of the issue is seen in next two statistical figures. In 1930 62% of Belarusians were Catholics, 25% were Orthodox and 11% were Old Believers. 64,7% of Belarusians were literates (62,8% among Russians). The issue here was that Belarusians mostly lived in Eastern Latvia known as Latgale. They lived in joint communities with Russians, Poles and Latgale Latvians also not to mention Jews. Latgale Latvians were mostly Catholics just as Poles. The high illiteracy among Belarusians created problem that they could have been easily persuaded into registering themselves as Pole or Russian or even Latvian. This was the issue of the so called “tuteishi” the commoner. It was a person with insignificant or no national identity. His identity was the village or city he lived in and church he belonged to. Catholic churches were often multilingual giving prayers in Latvian or Polish.  If Belarusian nation can be divided in regional branches, then Belarusians in Latvia were part of Western Belarusians who were mostly Catholic with strong ties with Poles. However, as Latgale had high number of Russians they influenced Belarusians quite much. In result, a struggle for the hearts and minds of the tuteishi was fought in Latvia, between national activists among Belarusian, Russian, Polish and Latgalian factions. It was important as the person with low national self-identity could be convinced to join other national groups. Joining one of the groups meant sending children to an appropriate school, being part of the appropriate national society and voting for the appropriate national minority party. In 1920-1934 Latvia, the school financing was a grand issue. Latvia had allowed to host a system of national minority schools in early 1919. Russians, Jews, Germans, Poles and Belarusians had rights for their state supported schools and had their own school authority within the Ministry of Education, formed by people elected by the minority. More people meant more and better funded schools, lesser meant schools were poorly maintained and even closed down.

Historians like Aivars Stranga argue that Belarusians did not need their own schools as there were too many schools for other minorities and Belarusian schools were purely a caprice of a poet and social democrat leader Rainis who was very friendly with Belarusians, and to appease him, the right-wing parties approved at least one of his active demands. However, Belarusians were a large sized minority in 1920, their language was independent from Russian and Polish, however it was under a great pressure. In early 1920s Belarus there was an upsurge of the national Belarusian culture and language, however Stalinist policies became oriented towards Russian culture and inclusion, so over the years the usage of the Belarusian language within Belarus was severely weakened. In Lithuania and Poland, the national insecurity was on a larger scale and growing feud between Poles and Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities created grand issues for Belarusian education. Latvia as country with less territorial issues with Belarus and more liberal education laws could have been a haven for Belarusian national education as Belarusian activists and Rainis hoped. However, this proved to be a futile,  because the issue of how to determine who is Belarusian proved to be a complexity.

The Latvian Statistical authority was aware of that but they refrained to make tuteishi a statistical entity. The authority also knew about claims that Belarusians are not a sovereign nationality, although it refrained from such speculations and indicated that Eastern Slavs in Latvia must be divided between Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, while admitting it’s a great challenge  to draw a clear line between Russians and Belarusians because of tuteishi presence. In so the mistakes were made or sometimes intentional ones. Statistical authority complained that it had sent low grade students to eastern parts that were unable to precisely determine the nationality of the people they interviewed. There was also presence of actions from local national organizations who issued leaflets like the one saying: “Who speaks Polish very badly, but prays in Polish is a Pole! Tell them you are Pole”. In other events, the persons who collected data on local tuteishi themselves talked in them into associating with one of the nationalities.

To illustrate this situation we take a look on small parish of Istra near Belarusian border. In 1925 there were 3 411 Belarusians, 1 475 Russians, 1 260 Latvians and 114 Poles. In 1930 a grand shift happened there were now 6 179 Russians and 296 Poles. Belarusian majority dropped 258 people and Latvians were 924 people. In 1925 the general population was 6 320 and in 1930 7 759 people. But, that was not result of major Belarusian emigration from the parish. 746 of the counted Russians were Catholics. Some had prayer books in Latvian and Polish. So, what had happened that Belarusian majority became Russian and Polish and small part of Latvians also gave up their nationality.


The nationality shift in Istra parish

To look more generally the size of the Russian and Polish minority from 1920 to 1930 generally increased not by natural means. In 1920 there was 124 746 Russians, in 1930 201 778 Russians. In 1920 there was 54 567 Poles and in 1930 59 374 Poles. While fertility rate played its part it, when comparing the downsizing of the Belarusians it was clear that these two minorities boosted their size on expense of Belarusian weak national identity.


Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians in Latvia according to census


Poles in Latvia from 1897 to 1930

The main implication here is that this weak national identity was effectively hindered on purpose by prominent politicians and factions. Among the critics of the Belarusian school autonomy was Polish national leader, deputy in Saeima (parliament) Jan Wierzbicky, the right wing Latgalian nationalist Francis Kemps and his counterpart, Jezups Trasuns. Latgalian nationalists strived for national cultural autonomy of the Latgale region, some even political. Often they were in conflict with Poles and Russians over many issues including schools. They viewed Belarusian schools as another attempt of degrading Latgalians. They also truly claimed that one part of Belarusians are just Polonizied or Russificated Latvians. Similar assertions were made by certain elements of Russian minority, however Russians had no joint political opinion as they were divided in multiple rival factions, some more liberal, and others nationalistic. Latvian nationalists primarily based in Riga and nationalist elements in various state authorities including the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Interior viewed Latgale as danger zone of threats from ongoing Polonization and Russification and Latgalian separatism. In their view, they had sacred mission to educate and illuminate the “dark Latgale” to became more Latvian. In so they viewed Belarusian schools as a threat to Latvian Latgale and result of Polonization and Russification of the Latvian people. They highlighted the poor standards in the Belarusian schools, poor Latvian language and indicated that Belarusian language itself is poorly taught and is more Russian than Belarusian. This claim had two sides – it was low funding and low education of the Belarusian teachers, then again, the question is how qualified were these critics to determine linguistic differences between Belarusian language, its dialects and Russian language.

The discontent against Belarusian schools grew steadily in 1922 and in 1923 during budget proceedings turned into open attack. Polish deputy Jan Wierzbicky made a statement that after the war, by his surprise, some people he knew before have turned into Belarusians. According to him, some people from Polish intelligentsia, and former Russian tsarist officials and army officers who had no occupation and didn’t know the state language are creating an artificial nation called Belarusians in Latvia. Francis Kemps proceeded and claimed that Belarusians even physically look like a “pure Latgalian tribe” and called for closure of the Belarusian school authority and remove 395 661 Ls support for Belarusian schools and leave just 18 000 Ls support. He made claims that only 5% of the so called Belarusians know the  Belarusian language other 95% speak in Russian or Latgalian. He called to close 11 Belarusian schools since by his words only 2-5 Belarusians are studying there. While Rainis of the Social Democratic party went on tough defense for the Belarusian schools, the Russian fraction was against the closure of the schools as whole, but offered to make precise statistical survey of Belarusians in Latvia to determine how many schools and money they really need. Kemp proposal was turned down. The Russian political view was divided. The main Russian newspaper in Latvia “Сегодня” that was liberal and social democrat leaning and owned by Jewish businessmen was more neutral towards this issue. While more nationalistic Russian newspaper funded by Polish businessmen “Рижский курьер” raised issue that while Russian schools are poorly funded, for some reason the state wastes money on Belarusian schools, while Latgalians have proven that Belarusian population in Latvia is insignificant. Francis Kemps already in 1922 made first firm claims and demands against Belarusian schools in Saeima.

The heated debates raised hostility in Latvian press and echoed the words of these politicians. Francis Kemps published headline article in the main newspaper “Jaunākās Ziņas” on February 4 1924 where he explained his views, but also accused the leader of the Belarusian society Kanstantin Ezavitau of being communist. Konstantin Ezavitau was a member of the government of the Belarusian Peoples Republic in 1918-1920 that opposed the Soviet Russia. Ezavitau filed a lawsuit against Kemps and Kemps was sentenced for 2 weeks in prison.

The view of the Belarusians themselves was expressed by Ezavitau himself in the monthly journal of the Ministry of Education that sparked Kemp’s anger. Ezavitau gave throughout scientific explanation why Belarusian nation and language are real and gave large number of sources including Russian sources. Ezavitau claimed that denying Belarusians is within the Polish and Russian interests who have placed claims and occupied the Belarusian lands. The Polish and Russian nationalists in Latvia are raging campaign against Belarusians to hinder the opening and maintaining their schools. Ezavitau also revealed the core issue – because of rising number of Belarusians – Polish and Russian schools close and becomes Belarusian. Because, of this the Poles and Russians seek to get these schools back. And they do this by influencing the dark uneducated Belarusians to force them to give up their nationality.

The campaign against Belarusians has reached its climax in 1924. In one Belarusian school in Kapiņu parish, the school inspector found a map called “The map of Belarus”. In the map, the eastern border areas of Latvia were included in the Belarus raising suspicions of separatism. Years before, in Poland and Lithuania, Belarusian activists were placed on trial because of accusations of separatism. The map was sent from Polish Vilnius. What followed were multiple arrests of the Belarusian teachers and activists also some ethnic Ukrainians who wanted to work with Belarusians. The Belarusian school authority was temporary closed down. The Belarusian gymnasium in Ludza was closed. Some official newspapers like Police Herald enthusiastically claimed since there were arrests then its means there is crime and will be proven in court. However, the prosecution failed to prove the intent of separatism. The map was simply a mistake as it was meant to be called “The Map of the Ethnographic borders of the Belarusian nation”. The case was dropped and all accused were released. But, the damage was inversible.


The extent of the Belarusian ethnic borders that in 1918-1920 was claimed by Belarusian Peoples Republic. Number 2 is Ilūkste district of Latvia also claimed by Poland

In 1925 the national census was held. The drop of people calling themselves Belarusians significantly dropped and dropped even more in following years. Belarusian newspapers like “Голас Беларуса” called for national mobilization among Belarusian and remove the pro-Russian and pro-Polish elements. Meanwhile the schools continued to close down. In 1925 there was 35 Belarusian schools, in 1934 16 schools and in 1936 just one school.

The press’ tone towards Belarusians softened after 1924. Some authors condemned the trial and campaign against Belarusian national movement. Others because raising national hostility with Poles in 1930-1931 openly called Belarusians a victim of the Polish nationalism. Authors like Dr. phil. Ernests Blese who before was critical towards Belarusian schools now called to help and improve them in struggle against Polonization.

However, the decline of the Belarusian minority seemed irreversible and the Kārlis Ulmanis’ authoritarian regime in 1934 liquidated all minority school authorities. The dream of Belarusian national revival in Latvian diaspora reached a solemn end. In following decades of the Soviet occupation, Belarusians became the second largest minority in Latvia. But these people were immigrants from Soviet Belarus. The Soviet Belarus went through harsh Russification that was more effective in Belarus than Ukraine. The result being present day Latvian Belarusian minority speaking Russian and only a very small number of them use Belarusian as their home language. This happened because there weren’t any Belarusian schools in the Soviet Latvia and most Belarusians went to Russian language schools. Also as the Belarusian language lost its prominence in Belarus itself, the people in Latvia saw no reason to learn it. In 1994 in Riga Belarusian school, named after the national poet Yanka Kupala, opened its doors and works till this day. The Belarusian society in Belarus is divided in two conflicting national identities. The majority has a post-soviet identity that associates itself with its soviet past and sees Moscow as their primary ally. They speak Russian while still associate them as Russians. The current regime of Alexander Lukashenko represents this majority.  The other minor part, a large part of them are young people and people with higher education and better skills in Belarusian language associate themselves with more older past of Grand Lithuania Duchy that joint Lithuanian-Belarusian state, they also associate with Belarusian Peoples Republic and their symbols. Their orientation is Warsaw, Kyiv, Vilnius and Western Europe. This divide has made grave difficulty for outside observers to understand Belarusians, their culture and language. The problem is seen in plain sight when people argue if Belarusians are Byelorussians, Belarus is Belorussia, as well as should we call the capital city Minsk or Mensk as in proper Belarusian. And this is a very an issue within Belarusians themselves.

That being said Belarusians were and are the one of the most complicated nations in Europe with a fluid and divided national identity. Being at the crossroads between Europe and Russia has created such issues. In 1920-1940 Belarusian nation was also at the crosspoint between conflicting political and ethnic factions and evidently lost the struggle. While they were recognized as sovereign nation they lost the battle for schools and minds of the uneducated people and significantly lost their prominence. It needed a grand effort in education to turn large masses of tutieshi to Belarusian identity and keep this identity solid. Belarusians lacked resources and state support to do that. The issue of Belarusian identity and campaign against the Belarusian schools is one of the less known parts of the Latvian and Belarusian history.

Selected Sources:

  • Голдманис M. «Белорусский» дискурс в латышской прессе (1920−1934): эволюция представления о белорусах как о самостоятельном национальном меньшинстве. Латыши и белорусы: вместе сквозь века: сб. науч. ст. Вып. 5 / редкол. С.П. Кулик [и др.]. – Минск: РИВШ, 2016.



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Latvia and Ukrainian People’s Republic


1920 map of claimed lands by Ukrainian People’s Republic. Note: Eastern Ukraine – Galicia and Lviv has been already to Poland.

Ukrainian People’s Republic (Українська Народна Республіка УНР or UNR) was first modern Ukrainian national statehood that existed between 1917 and 1921. Similarly to Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) it did not survive the tides of war, however contrary to BNR, UNR received greater support and recognition from Latvia. Latvian officers also took part in UNR national forces and both sides had high hopes towards each other. On 1920 as Ukraine was divided between Soviet Russia and Poland in pursue for peace with Soviets, Latvia had to abandon its support for UNR. Article highlights Latvian – Ukrainian diplomatic relations and Latvian participation in UNR armed forces.

On March 17 1917 after the collapse of Russian Empire Central Council of Ukraine (Українська Центральна Рада UCR) was established in Kyiv. One of its main demands was national autonomy that was not supported by Russian Provisional Government in Petrograd. In response Ukrainian national forces under the command of General Pavlo Skoropadskyi started to assemble to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. On October 25 (November 7) Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd and their supporters took over some areas in Ukraine. UCR managed to control much of Ukraine and on November 7 (November 20) the Ukrainian People’s Republic was proclaimed. Meanwhile in Kharkiv on December 11-12 1917 Ukrainian Soviet Republic was founded. Bolsheviks advanced and gained control over much of Ukraine and on February 8 captured Kyiv. Chief Otaman Symon Petliura who commanded UCR armed forces faced gruesome defeat at the battle of Kruty where Ukrainian 1st Student company and Cadet Corps suffered great casualties. On January 9 (22) UNR again proclaimed full independence and severed all ties with Russia. On February 9 in Brestlitovsk UNR signed peace treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary gaining their military support in return for food provisions. German forces entered Ukraine and on March 1 captured Kyiv. On March 3 Soviet Russia ceded Ukraine to Germany in peace agreement in Brestlitovsk. UNR forces of 15 000 men entered Kyiv and Crimea. UNR was recognized by Germany, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Great Britain.

Ukraine was taken over by Germans and Austrians who came in early conflict with UCR who protested against German military courts. German authorities formally dissolved UCR. In response UCR proclaimed new leftist leaning UNR constitution. Ukrainian right-wing rushed to prevent Ukrainian-German confrontation and rise of left-wing on April 29 seized power. General Pavlo Skoropadskyi became dictator under the title of Hetman of Ukraine. UNR faced resistance from Bolsheviks and peasants lead by anarchist Nestor Makhno. More countries however recognized UNR such as Finland, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway and Persia. As of November 11 1918 when Germany and Austria-Hungary collapsed situation changed in Ukraine. UNR elites supporting Allied powers created Directory lead by Symon Petliura, who in December 14 deposed hetman Skoropadskyi and proclaimed second Ukrainian People’s Republic (during hetman’s dictatorship UNR was called “Ukrainian State”). Meanwhile in Western Part of Ukraine a Western Ukrainian People’s Republic on October 19 1918 was proclaimed in attempts to split from Austria- Hungary who controlled Lviv (Lemberg). On January 1919 it united with UNR. The Western Ukraine with Lviv in center was claimed by Poland and both sides engaged each other in battles until June 1919.

Soviet Russia immediately after German surrender to Allies canceled Brestlitovsk peace agreement and UNR had to declare war on them on January 16 1919. On February 5 Bolsheviks again captured Kyiv and reached Zbruch River west of Ukraine and entered Crimea. Ukrainian peasants and anarchist groups resisted Bolsheviks while un summer of 1919 the monarchist White Guard South Russian Volunteer army lead by general Anton Denikin attacked Bolsheviks and captured Kharkiv on the way to Moscow and on August 31 entered Kyiv. As his forces were defeated and chased away Bolsheviks again took over much of Ukraine in March 1920.

Situation demanded an alliance with Poland that was reached by Symon Petliura. On April 26 1920 Polish-Ukrainian forces attacked Bolsheviks on May 7 captured Kyiv. Polish forces reached river Dnipro. Bolsheviks ignited counter offensive and On June 12 Poles abandoned Kyiv, on July 4 Bolsheviks started attack in Belarus and reached Warsaw. On August 12-17 the Bolshevik offensive was finally stopped at the gates of Warsaw. On March 18 1920 in Riga Poland and Soviet Russia signed peace agreement dividing Ukraine in two. Central, South and East Ukraine was granted to Soviets while Western Part of Ukraine including Lviv (Lwov in Polish) was ceded to Poland. Recognized also by Ukrainian delegation the Riga peace agreement was death sentence to UNR. Symon Petliura dismissed Directory and withdraw his forces to Poland where he was interned. Rumania and Czechoslovakia also gained Ukrainian ethnic lands. Symon Petliura lead the UNR in exile until he was assassinated by Soviet agent on 1926. UNR continued to work in exile in Poland until 1939 and the moved to France where it ceased to exist after Nazi occupation. After the war in western exile Ukrainian National Council (Українська Національна Рада) that existed until 1991 when it recognized new Republic of Ukraine that formed in result of collapse of the Soviet Union.

During dramatic and fast changing events in Ukraine during Soviet-Ukrainian war many Latvians were involved army in state matters. Firs before the First World War and during the war some Latvians traveled to live and work in Ukrainian provinces of the Russian empire and secondly the Latvian officers who served the Russian army were sent on duty there. Large numbers of Latvians ended up in Ukraine as refugees during 1915-1916.  Also campaigners for Latvian independence were interested in Ukrainian independence movement and were seeking for cooperation. On September 8-15 (21-28) in Kyiv the UCR organized “congress of the minor nations” where 80 representatives took part along with 10 from Latvia. Latvians were represented by Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics from Vidzeme land council Kristaps Bahmanis from Kurzeme Land council and Staņislavs Kambala from Latgale land council. Z. A. Meierovics gave speech describing the history of Latvian history and present situation and voiced call for Latvian self-determination. Meierovics, Kambala, Bahmanis and lecturer at Kyiv University M Bruninieks were elected in All-Russia Council of Nations. On November 18 1917 in Valka the newly founded Latvian National Council (LNC) also discussed Ukraine and judged that Ukrainian politicians are generally friendly towards Latvians like rest of the small nations. On December the Council received telegram from UNR about their declaration of independence and replied back with warm greetings towards Ukraine and voiced support for Ukrainian freedom and federation of nations.

On January 1918 LNC decided to send representatives to Ukraine to gain support promised by UCR. At first Latvians wanted to travel to Brestlitovsk to take part in Ukrainian-German peace talks to gain things to their favor, however the idea was dropped and Latvian representative K Bahmanis went to Kyiv on February. There he contributed to the creation of Kyiv Latvian Central Committee and spread information about the work of LNC. Because of war activities he could not contact Latvia and his report about his activities was only reviewed in June. Bahmanis became the representative of the Latvian Provisional Government in Kyiv and since 1919 visited new governments in Georgia, Armenia, White Guard Armies in Crimea, Don and Kuban. He returned to Latvia in September 1920.


Latvian General Pēteris Radziņš who served in UNR amy

Many Latvians who were at Ukraine decided to join Ukrainian national armed forces lead by General Pavlo Skoropadskyi. Latvian officers also served in Symon Petliura Directory army. Most known was colonel Pēteris Radziņš who was chief of organizational and training department of the General Staff. After hetman was deposed he served as deputy to the chief of General Staff Mykola Yunakiv. On September 1919 escaping UNR defeats against White Guards and Bolsheviks he got himself in Poland and then returned to Latvia. There he was appointed for the Chief of the Commander-in-Chief Staff of the Latvian army. From 1924 to 1928 he was commander-in-chief of the Latvian Army. He also was author of many military history books and died in age of 50 in 1930. Lieutenant Colonel Jānis Ceplītis served Skoropadsyi and then under Petliura was chief of the Operational department of the General Staff and returned to Latvia on December 1919. Captain Pēteris Miķelsons on 1918 voluntarily joined the hetman’s army in the Chief Artillery headquarters and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In Petliura army he served as chief of Inspectional department of Chief Artillery headquarters. On January 1920 he was retired, but as Ukrainians started attack with Poles he was mobilized again. On 1921 he was promoted colonel and was retired few months later. Collegium  assessor  Vilhelms Klotiņš  joined the hetman’s army on June 1918 and served in Petliura army as administrative colonel the chief of the board of main intendancy money and payments. He returned to Latvia on Summer 1919. Aviator captain Nikolajs Jeske on December 1918 joined Petliura’s army as deputy for the chief 5th aviation division later chief of Proskuriv (now Khmelnytskyi) aviation school and commander of 1st aviation detachment. On 1920-1921 he was the head of UNR aircraft purchase commission.  Staff captain Hermanis Klīve on December 1918 served in hetmans army but after coup he was sent to court as hetmans officer but was found not guilty. He then served Poltava regiment until March 1920. Podporuchik Kārlis Drengeris served in UNR army 3th detached engineer battalion until September 1920. Podporuchik Arnolds Drukēvičs from December 18 to May 1919 served in UNR 7th artillery brigade and was captured by Poles. Adrejs Lejasslauss on 1918 took important posts in hetmans Provisions ministry and after coup served Provisions ministry in Galicia and Bukovina later in Ministry of Economics as vice-director Leather industry department and later director. Kārlis Brože served in most effective UNR unit the 1 Cavalry Regiment of Black Zaporizhians as commanders deputy, later in Latvia he served in police and municipalities.

As of diplomatic relations the first contacts between Latvia and UNR  emerged on spring 1919 in Paris Peace Conference. UNR as most politically unstable country of the time was mainly interested in gaining support from Latvia. The Latvian foreign minister Z. A Meierovics considered Ukraine as ally and wanted to include Belarus and Ukraine into Baltic entente that compromised Baltic Sates, Finland and Poland. Belarusian and Ukrainian delegations took part in Dorpat (Tartu) Baltic states conference as observers. In meetings with them it was agreed to create a common military alliance. On September 1 1919 UNR consul Nikifor Bederovsky arrived in Riga. The UNR consulate managed to get some Ukrainians in Latvian army to retire and join the UNR army. Along with new UNR citizens some were Germans as consul deputy Erich Fleisher who asked Latvian General staff to command him to Jelgava for “consulate affairs” on November 28 1919 (Jelgava was just liberated from Bermont-Avalov army) and was granted. His goal was to search for UNR citizen local German Heinnrich Brade who voluntary joined Baltic Landguard on July 14 during his duty in Riga Latvian soldiers confiscate his bicycle that became point of active communications between consulate and Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fleisher himself was local German.

Latvia and UNR consulate sometimes entered situations of conflict during siege of Riga on October-November 1919. On October 24 UNR consulate filed a request to give back horse that was confiscated to consulate coachman Mykola Jukatch however was denied. In result UNR together with Belarus, Lithuania and Estonia filed nota to Foreign ministry where it protested against search-ins in one of the consular buildings and car confiscation by Latvian army and expulsions and mobilizations of their citizens.  The nota demanded to make assertive steps until 8 December 12:00 or else the consulates will inform the representatives of Etente and make similar steps towards Latvian citizens in their territory. UNR was concerned by significant flow of refugees of Ukrainian nationals from Russia into Latvia. Latvian Foreign Ministry mostly supported the consulate and even gave it a credit for refugee transit and organization of the courier service.

Latvia and UNR also had numerous contacts in other countries. In London, Great Britain Latvian representative Georgs Bisenieks and UNR counterpart Yaroslavl Olesnitsky made regular meetings informing each other of the military events in both countries. In Warsaw, Poland the Latvian representative Atis Ķeniņš considered an establishment with UNR a top priority. He reported to Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis that Ukrainians eagerly wants to make friends with Latvia from whom they want to receive support such as military instructors and aides for economic recovery. Ukrainians also hoped that after liberation of Daugavpils, Ukraine could receive a transit of clothing, shoes and ammunition for its army of 200 000 men. Atis Ķeniņš in talks with Ukrainian side suggested that Latvian Provisional government needs to send emissary to Kyiv. On December 10 1919 the head of UNR directory Symon Petliura with UNR foreign minter A.Lvicky gave nota to Keniņš in Poland where they recognized Latvian independence and their Provisional Government.

On January 2 1920 Volodomir Kedrosky arrived in Riga to establish UNR diplomatic mission. The diplomatic mission was located at Antonija iela 6 (presently within the territory of the Russian embassy). In spring a UNR press bureau was established that informed Latvian press about military and political events in UNR. UNR expected that Latvia will recognize their independence in return without delay. However, Latvian priority was to gain acceptance from Poland first as both countries shared important military ties and shared common border. Only after Latvian –Polish relations suffered brief deadlock after failed talks in Warsaw in March 1920 on March 25 Z. A. Meierovics sent nota to Symon Petliura where he recognized UNR independence. Polish emissary Bronislav Boufal expressed disappointment and call it a result of change in relations between Poland and Latvia. A. Meierovics explained his policy in People’s council on March 10 where he rejected Polish demand to restore the Polish borders of 1776 that would include Belarus and Ukraine. He instead accented the need for sovereign countries in Belarus and Ukraine and reviewed the UNR situation as difficult regarding its relations with Soviet Russia who is not looking for peace with UNR and instead has created a rival Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Polish society was generally against Ukrainian and Belarusian independence while Polish government including General Jozef Pilsudsky was cautiously supportive. Meanwhile UNR military representative in Poland colonel general Viktor Zelinsky asked Latvian military representative Mārtins Hartmanis to support the transfer of Ukrainian soldiers within former units of Yudenich White Guard army stationed in Alūksne to Ukraine including Belarusian general S. Bulak-Balahovich of whose 884 men 24% were Ukrainians. While Latvian side expressed support the UNR mission in Riga was not interested and did not make any contacts with Latvian General Staff. As joint Polish and Ukrainian offensive started Latvian side asked to find out if within soviet prisoners of war there are Ukrainians who could be sent to UNR and found 11 men. However, UNR diplomatic mission did not respond.

On June 2 1920 in Vinnytsia UNR governmental declaration stated that it’s in most importance to have good neighboring relations with Romania and gain most positive agreement with solidary Baltic States. For that reason on June 2 all Latvian citizens serving in UNR army were relieved of duty as both countries have recognized each other. In return Latvia promised to work on refugee re evacuation to Ukraine. Latvian government sent the representative of Refugee re-evacuation society to Ukraine Stulmanis who on June 1 arrived in Kovel and June 3 in Zhytomyr  to make talks with Polish military who was widely responsive and then planned to go to Kyiv, but as situation in front quickly changed he was forced to head back to Latvia.

In August 6 1920 in Bulduri the Baltic States conference was opened to discuss foreign affairs between Baltic countries. UNR tried to gain direct entry into conference. Ukrainian and Belarusian people’s republics sent applications and sent a delegation of journalist Alexander Sadikovsky, V, Kedrovsky, A, Shlugin, economist Mykola Dobrilovsky, businessman S, Frankfurt and L, Zadorzhnij. The head of Lithuanian delegation Jons Šaulis on August 19 issued declaration where he expressed concerns over Ukrainian participation as it would cause protest from Soviet Russia and also doubted the need of Ukrainian participation in the Baltic States conference. Lithuanians however, would still participate even if Ukrainians were admitted. On August 20 it was decided that Belarus cannot take part while UNR can take part as full-time member of the conference. UNR issued memorandum about their state history and current demands and interests. On August 31 UNR representatives signed the project for political convention where member states committed for joint de iure recognition and settle their quarrels in a peaceful way. Few days later a military council was made to create a joint military convention (Lithuania stepped out of it for political reasons) UNR representative colonel Danilchuk and lieutenant colonel Didkovsky. The project for military convention was concluded on October 18-30 that had to be approved by all five member states. Both these conventions were never realized.

Month later in September 21 1920 in Riga Poland and Soviet Union came to discuss peace agreement. Also Soviet Ukraine delegation took part. On October 5 a ceasefire was signed after which UNR senator present in Riga V. Sheluhin and chief of the diplomatic mission V. Kedrovsky gave nota to head of the Polish delegation Jan Dabski where they protested that UNR and Polish diplomatic relations were not taken into concern and UNR had to take part in peace talks. Same nota was also given to Latvian side. Meanwhile Latvia was concerned over the fate of thousands of Latvian refugees in Soviet controlled Ukraine and decided to start talks with Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic causing UNR protest that reminded of joint independence recognition and that Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic is just puppet regime by Soviet occupants. On February 19 1921 Latvia replied that it always supports the Ukrainian strive for freedom, but the real situation demands to hold talks with power presently in Ukraine. On February 21 1921 UNR diplomatic mission left Latvia and closed the consulate. On May 1921 both Latvian and Ukrainian Socialist Soviet representatives met and both recognized each other’s sovereignty. Thus the Latvian and UNR relations were completely canceled even if year later the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic ceased to exist as sovereign state and was included into Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics.

Latvian and Ukrainian relations during 1917-1921 was based on mutual sympathy even more than between Latvia and Belarus. Contrary to Belarussian People’s Republic the UNR had more chances to establish independent nation and therefore received more international support. However, similar to Belarus it could not survive the wars with Soviets, Poles and anarchist warlords. Plus it was disturbed by its own inner power struggle. Had the events for UNR inside Ukraine would be more fortunate the relations between Latvia and UNR would continue in positive environment as contrary to Belarus both countries had no territorial or ethno-political issues. However, Latvian foreign policy was based on realpolitik – after the Polish-Soviet peace agreement ­it was clear that UNR has no more possibility to exist and Latvia moved on to start talks with Soviet Ukraine. As Latvian top priority was to gain peace agreement with Soviets and settle the refugee question. Today Ukraine is top priority to Latvia foreign policy. Latvian policy is to support Ukraine in its struggle against Russia and it does not recognize Russian occupation of Crimea. Both sides supports each other in various way. However, one must always beware from times when fates of many are dictated by realpolitik and survival.

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons Ēriks. Latvijas attiecības ar Ukrainas Tautas Republiku (1919-1921) Latvijas Vēsture  Jaunie un Jaunākie laiki 2003 4(52)

Miņins, Aldis (2015) Cīņa par varu Krievijas postimpērijas Rietumu perifērijā. 1917-1920

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US Presidential Elections: Importance for Latvia and Eastern Europe


Just one week left before the most important political event in United States of America and arguably the rest of the world. An average American voter may think it only matters their own country and interior policy, but US still has responsibility towards many parts of the world especially Baltic States and rest of Eastern Europe. That is why this statement will be more about the election outcome influence on foreign policy and our security. The interior policy and economic issues in these elections is something more important to US citizens themselves then your foreign policy to us which importance inside US is often neglected.

During Cold War years when US policy was always to assure that it will never recognize Soviet occupation of the Baltic States and support anti-soviet resistance; the US presidential candidates often met with Baltic exiles. They also tried to apply to exiles of the Eastern Block and captive nations of the Soviet Union like Ukrainians. Now 25 years after the “end” of Cold War such meetings and reach outs never happen. During presidential debates the question of Ukrainian conflict was never raised and only the question of US support for NATO was mentioned briefly. The current adversary for Baltic States – Russia was only mentioned as in form of Syria and DNC email hacks. Now why Russia is keyword in these elections?

Back in past both US ruling parties have made their ups and downs with Russia/Soviet Union. Franklin Delano Roosevelt conceded Baltic States to Soviet Union, while his successor Harry Truman ignited confrontation to deter further soviet expansion. Republican Dwight Eisenhower warned of the rise of the military industrial complex in result of arms race. Democrat John F. Kennedy did his best to neutralize the Soviet missile threat in Cuba and reached upper hand in arms race. Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Jimmy Carter attempted to create a détente with Soviet Union which only lead to breakdown after Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush used Soviet weakness to win the first Cold War and witnessed the fall of the Soviet Block.

Since then the following US presidential candidates have failed to understand the Soviet successor state – Russian Federation. Bill Clinton hoped for democratic change in Russia and even hoped for partnership. What western powers failed to understand that despite the communist removal from power, the soviet ruling elite or nomenklatura remained in power, but most importantly the Praetorian guard of the Soviet Union – the KGB and Army elite kept their position. They were determined prevent desovietization, prevent the transition to liberal democracy and revenge on US for the breakdown of the Soviet Union. In the end they succeeded to install their member Vladimir Putin an ex KGB Lieutenant colonel, who in his 17 years of rule have returned the so-called “siloviki” to their past prominence. Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is based on deception, forgery, sabotage and use of outright force when it’s needed.

 Republican George W Bush at first as many did not decode Putin and his government, but later started more assertive approach. During Bush administration despite Russian resistance whole Eastern Europe and Baltic States was admitted to NATO, however Bush did not rush to create constant NATO military presence in the Baltic States. A major Bush and other NATO leaders mistake was not to reach common ground on admitting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Germany and France resisted to assign a road map for these countries while Putin openly threatened that Ukraine will only enter NATO without its Eastern and Southern part. To prevent Georgia from joining NATO and EU Russia invaded Georgia, and witnessed impotence from US and EU countries who could not defend Georgia. Some say that US fleet presence in Black Sea was the factor to stop full occupation of Georgia, while other say that French president Nicola Sarkozy managed to make a deal on dividing Georgia and leave Russian occupied territories as unrecognized republics to Russians for the common good. Russian leadership understood that it can be done again in future. As Russia provoked Georgia into attacking first, Georgia was scapegoated and no western sanctions followed. Russia did it first strike, but that was not a wakeup call.

Democrat Barack Obama first 4 years were catastrophic in relations with Russia. At first Obama failed to understand that de iure president Dmitri Medvedev was not de facto and any direct talks with him excluding then Prime Minister Putin would result in nothing. But, the greatest blunder was the so-called “reset” button that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought to Moscow. In attempt to normalize relations since Georgian war Clinton gifted the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavror a with a red button with the English word “reset” and the Roman alphabet transliteration of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet word “peregruzka”. Only the word “peregruzka” in Russian means overload. And that is what this attempt of new détente lead to. Obama administration abandoned important plans for rocket defense bases in Poland, Baltic States and Eastern Europe was placed on second plan while Obama sought unrealistic goals for nuclear disarming a thing Russia could not possibly agree. When US and NATO countries entered the civil war in Libya, then prime minister Putin witnessed Gaddafi’s horrible death as direct threat to him and ignited his will to return to Presidential post. As from 2012 scared by unexpected opposition towards his third presidency Putin started a consolidation of power and confrontation with the west, who he blamed for trying to topple his regime and his puppet regimes in Belarus, Ukraine and Central Asia.

 Obama one last mistake towards Russia was the “red line in the sand” – failed promise to make military action against Syrian regime in case of use of chemical weapons. Obama who made this promise unwillingly for himself instead fell for Putin’s intimidation and agreed for deal with Russia and Assad that kept him in power. By doing so he aided popularity for so-called Islamic State (Daesh) radicals and created environment where Russia can directly intervene in Syrian war. Thus Putin no longer recognized Obama as competitive rival. What happened in 2014 in Ukraine we all know. Obama seemingly have learned for their past mistakes. Sanctions are in place and finally what had to be done many years before – a constant NATO military presence is being enforced in Baltic States. In last few months the relations between US and Russia has deteriorated so much that Russia is openly preparing for possible nuclear war and has moved nuclear capable rockets to Baltic region. And that is where the US elections comes in.

Republican party has been taken over by arrogant millionaire who believes he can become a president without any political experience and who leads a fight against so-called establishment. Donald Trump is alarming for Baltic States and Eastern Europe for dozens of things. He suggests that he may only help those countries that pays them enough, practically its gang ransom diplomacy and is against the principles of NATO. Baltic States desperately are trying to balance their national budgets to increase spending for defense, but its obvious that they can’t do it alone. Latvia right now has created a good defense assurance relations with Canada, but if US drops its leading position in NATO it’s a signal towards Russia that it could possibly avoid major war if it decides to tamper with Baltic States. Trump has many times stated sympathies for Putin and his regime and using Russian propaganda slogans in his campaign. He even uses conspiracy theories that first appears in sites like Russia Today and to add he is even endorsed by pro-Russian conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He has stated that Crimea is “Europes problem” and is better off with Russia, he has removed past Republican promise to send weapons for Ukraine. He states that Russia only fights Daesh and has no problem it with massacring the people in Aleppo with their bombings. Most importantly he pretends that he is not sure if Russia is behind DNC email hack and Russian connection to Wikileaks. He says that CIA and FBI can’t be trusted, however he praises FBI for his new probe into Hillary Clintons emails. Trump himself might not be Russian agent, but his many campaign aids and supporters are and Russia is directly interested in person who may disrupt things on global scale. Russian strategy of divide and conquer is to use western democracy to install Russia friendly regimes in Europe. They have succeeded in Hungary, partly in Slovakia and Greece. Russia supported Brexit in UK and supports right-wing and leftist radicals in Germany, Italy and France. Now Trump is Putin’s greatest gamble that might turn things into his favor. Trump is most unpredictable and dangerous candidate since Barry Goldwater.

Now Hillary Clinton is full of uncertainties too. It’s beyond prediction how her email saga will end, it could end with acquittal or it could end with impeachment. Clinton who pushed the ‘overload’ button now feels the bitter taste of fruits of her failed foreign policy. Russian secret service tries to undermine her election campaign, her intentions of imposing no fly zone in Syria is met with threats of world war. Clinton uses strong words calling Putin the adversary, accusing of Trump of being his puppet and warns of Putin’s intention. We can only hope that if she is elected she will keep up to this and not forgive Russian attack on her campaign. Last thing we need is another “reset” button. But for this reason Clinton cannot be fully trusted.

No matter who will be elected, both of them and all US citizens will have to stand ready for even greater trouble from Russia. First Russia has already ramped up its military presence in Kaliningrad and around Baltic eastern borders. One day it will break up the ceasefire in Ukraine completely when it feels the conditions are perfect for that. Russia is increasing its presence in Syria and provoking NATO into confrontation. If Russia sees that Baltic States are not defended well enough and US lacks leadership to help them it may mount an invasion here.

If Donald Trump will be elected he must certainly feel some gratitude for Putin for contributing for his campaign. Trump will probably again try to make a new détente with Russia, giving her free hand in Syria and limit US presence in Eastern Europe and Baltic States. History teaches that every deal with Russia is not the worth the paper it’s written. Once Trump will witness that Russia endangers his own country a new confrontation will begin. Question – will it not be too late for Baltic States?

If Hillary Clinton is elected and that’s what Russia fears from, the confrontation will continue. If Clinton stays committed to be prime time member of NATO and support Baltic States with military presence it will result in even higher Russian military increase to intimidate her. Question how long Russian economy can hold such arms race­­ – that was one of the reasons why Nazi Germany moved to war in 1939. If Clinton will impose no fly zone in Syria and indict Russia with war crimes then Russia might instigate a crisis situation even involving US casualties. Nerves of steel will be needed to avoid a direct confrontation. Clinton following Obama’s footsteps probably will not arm Ukraine, but keep sanctions. That will not make Ukrainian situation any easier. Lastly Baltic States if ever gets victims of war – then it could happen as consequence of US – Russian conflict in Syria or a last final gamble for Putin’s regime to keep its power prestige and save economy by “short victorious war”.

In both ways the world can expect many dangers after November 8. A dangers that may even went to nuclear war. Russian leadership has nothing to lose. If the regime falls they will lose all their looted millions, mansions and even their lives. They would rather end their existence in war that future Russian generations will blame on foreign powers rather their own leaders and themselves. Russian openly shows its people and the world that is ready even for nuclear war. US and Europe should also tell its citizens its ready for a war with Russia or China if such occurs. We cannot pretend that such threat does not involves us and this 70 year-long peace that was only possible thanks to strong acts of deterrence. In last 25 years the deterrence was naively removed and has caused a greatest global security threat since 1961.

It’s up to US voters to determine the fate of their nation and many other nations. And remember in democratic countries the elections are determined by those who did not vote. …Or Russian hackers. For all US citizens, friends of Latvia, people who study Baltic affairs let this be a warning to make your decision with full responsibility as you will be making history and future for all of us.

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International Shortwave Radio Broadcasting in Latvian Language

During the Cold War shortwave radio broadcasting was essential tool of propaganda used by both sides. United States spent large sums of money to host two major shortwave services – the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE). The goal of these stations was to broadcast the American point of view to the people of the Eastern bloc trapped behind the Iron Curtain.  The stations had many language services that broadcasted to the targeted nations in their own native language. The workers of these stations were exiles, who wished to fight for freedom on the airwaves.  VOA and RFE broadcasted in Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech and many other languages. Eventually both stations started the Latvian service to reach out to the people of the occupied country. Broadcasts in Latvian were hosted also by Radio Vatican, National Radio of Spain and Radio Free Russia. All these broadcasts made great impact on anti-soviet movement and played important role in process of restoration of independence. Today the shortwave radio is almost forgotten so it’s worth to remember once again. Also, within the context of present day war of information between West and Russia this serves as reminder. Article describes the history of these Latvian western radio stations in detail.

USA VOA sticker

Voice of America (Amerikas Balss)

Voice of America was the first US shortwave radio station funded and controlled by the state. It was established on 1942 dictated by the need for state propaganda during the World War II. The Office of War Information hosted the station and it was mainly for Germany and Japan.  On 1945 it was transferred to the Department of the State. The political situation rapidly changed into confrontation between two former allies US and USSR so on 1947 the VOA started broadcasting in Russian. It was done to counter the soviet propaganda and spread the US view of democracy to the soviet people. Eventually VOA sought the need for broadcasts for the people in the occupied Baltic States. US never recognized the occupation of Latvia, the Latvian embassy in Washington worked in exile and US hosted large number of Latvian refugees. So work begun on organizing the VOA Latvian service.

The preparations were made on autumn of 1950. The Latvian ambassador in exile Jūlijs Feldmanis came to Latvian exile newspaper Laiks (Times) in Brooklyn New York to gather staff for the new service. The volunteers had to fill Security Clearance inquires of the State Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The questions mainly focused on person’s biography, workplace, organizations and relatives to test the applicant’s political loyalty to US. Also the inquiry needed three witnesses to confirm the fairness of the given information.

The first who applied were Orests Berlings, Ēvalds Freivalds, Irēne Karule, Arvīds Klāvsons and Aleksandrs Liepa and the well-known actor and stage director Osvalds Uršrteins.  Berlings had experience working in pre-war Latvian newspaper Brīvā Zeme (The Free Land) and the newspaper of the displaced people in Germany Die Post un Im Ausland (Post in Foreign Land) Freivalds also worked in Brīvā Zeme, later in the Latvian State Radio, in exile was editor of the Austrijas Latviešu Balss (Voice of Latvians in Austria).  Karule as student worked in Latvian State Radio for a short time in 1940. Klāvsons was chief editor of the pre war newspaper Rīts (Morning) He took part in the anti-Nazi resistance group during the Nazi occupation.  In Germany he edited the Latvijas Ziņas (Latvian News) in the Latvian refugee camp in Esslingen. Liepa also worked in Rīts and in Germany was one of the founders of the Latvian Press Workers cooperation assembly and edited the newspaper Latvija (Latvia).

Shortly after New Year’s Eve on 1951 the volunteers were invited to interviews to the VOA office in New York. The interviewer was Robert Bauer chief of European section. All except Klāvsons were admitted to the service. The heads of the Latvian Service was Benno Ābers who edited the Latvian Encyclopedia before the war,  Vilis Masēns from the Latvian diplomatic staff and director of the service Harijs Lielnors the only one with US passport, resident since 1923.

Lithuanians were first to broadcast on February 16 1951 the Lithuanian Independence day. Latvians and Estonians first broadcast on June 3 1951. The radio programs were produced by Osvalds Uršteins whose professionalism soon lead him to produce programs for other language services. Meanwhile FBI excluded Aleksandrs Liepa for “bad political background”, while Vilis Masēns left the service to work for the Committee for a Free Europe, Inc. The service hired more workers including Alfrēds Bērziņš the Minister of Social Affairs during Kārlis Ulmanis dictatorship and was active in the Latvian exile and author of many books.

First broadcast started with words of former actor Milda Zīlava with words in English: “This is the Voice of America. The following broadcast is in Latvian”, and then the same in Latvian. After statement that the broadcast will take place every day, the announcer Masēns introduced Latvian ambassador in exile Jūlijs Feldmanis and one now forgotten member of the US congress. Masēns then read the statement of the US State Secretary Edward W. Barrett that US never accepted and recognized the occupation of Latvia. After 15 minute broadcast Masēns, named the times and frequencies and in the ending statement read the VOA standard phrase “We broadcast truthful news, no matter good or bad, but always true!”, and with that Zīlava said farewell words “To hear us again, dear listeners!”.

First broadcast was met with excitement by the staff by the fact that it was received in Latvia. Many exiles were inspired by the War in Korea hoping that it will lead to ultimate collapse of communism and liberation. On November 18, Latvian Independence day, special broadcast by Irēne Karule touched the issues of the Latvian history. The history or wars, resistance, independence and occupation and hope for brighter future were written in poetry. The peculiar programming style different from VOA standard was impressing and Irēne Karule was rewarded. Later however, the VOA standards were applied to Latvians too.

Osvalds Uršteins (producer) and Irēne Karule (both behind) interviews a refugee from Soviet Union Žanis Nice on 1953

Osvalds Uršteins (producer) and Irēne Karule (both behind) interviews a refugee from Soviet Union Žanis Nice on 1953

Latvian VOA service survived many presidential administrations from Harry S Truman to George W Bush. It had to confirm with the changing foreign policy of every president, to not made aversions and create unfilled hopes within listeners. Bravura and empty promises done more harm than good so were forbidden. The staff was forbidden to express their personal views that in many cases were difficult task because Latvian exiles mostly opposed the US attempts of appeasing the Soviet Union.  The broadcasts were supervised, nongovernmental views were only allowed in the press reviews. The core of every program was official news from Washington, accustomed to Europe and Latvia. The station broadcasted news about worker uprising in East Berlin on 1953, the Hungarian uprising on 1956 when VOA added eight special daily broadcasts. VOA also reported on the Cuban missile crisis, actions of the Latvian exiles and Latvian anti-soviet resistance movement. Briefly from 1956 to 1958  reacting to the events in Hungary VOA set up a station in Europe in Munich and Latvian service moved there involving local exiles. However, two years later VOA cut funds to Europe station and Latvians moved back to US. Onwards from 1987 the VOA Latvian service covered all the news of the restoration movement. On 1987 when first mass protests took place in Latvia, VOA and Radio Free Europe was one of the first to announce the dates and places of the protests. It helped to gather large masses to the events and boosted the campaign for full independence from USSR.

The VOA Latvian service was in brief trouble after the election of Richard Nixon. VOA intended to shorten the broadcast times for Baltic service stations. The reason stated was the soviet jamming stations that required new frequencies and longer broadcast times for Russian service. The real reason was Nixon detente policy to ease relations with Soviet Union that also meant easing the stance on Baltic States occupation. The act was met with many protests from the Baltic exiles who complained to the Unites States Information Agency (USIA) After Nixon resignation, the new president Jimmy Carter renamed to International Communications Agency. His doctrine for defending the civil rights and weak position to USSR was not enjoyed by Baltic exiles either. More favorable was Ronald Reagan with his “crusade against communism” that was enjoyed by the Latvian VOA staff.

The reaction from Latvian audience in homeland was mixed. At first it was met with excitement; however after 1949 mass deportations many Latvians found VOA promises of coming liberation empty and unsettling. The reaction from soviet authorities was the establishment of the powerful jamming stations. Despite that the VOA broadcasts were still heard. The Latvian radio factories VEF and Radiotehnika produced the radios in masses. The authorities tried to limit the frequency range for domestic models. KGB persecuted people caught listening to VOA. Despite all of this the facts shows that VOA affected the Latvian listeners. On first year of broadcast Irēne Karule interviewed student in exile who received state grant.  The broadcast was heard by her father who was just released from soviet prison camp and found out his daughter is alive and well in America. He sent the letter from Denmark to VOA editorial in New York. The post address was written in Latvian; surprisingly the Danish post office managed to translate the address and sent it to New York. The daughter who was unaware of his father’s fate was also exited. Five Latvian fishermen who demanded political asylum in Newfoundland claimed they heard VOA in their ocean trawler and back home in Latvia. The editorial received letters from Latvia, praising and criticizing the broadcasts. Broadcasts were also listened by the Latvian exiles in Europe.

After the restoration of independence, VOA Latvia service worked until 2004 when it was closed by the decision of Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The service was no longer sustainable due to the financial situation and changes in the US foreign policy. The Latvian exiles were getting old and the number of listeners in Latvia significantly dropped. VOA used FM frequencies hosted by Latvian State Radio and other radios. Shortwave radios became use less and less. The service was closed with its staff expressing hope that after 30 years of work the VOA Latvian service had reached its goal. Latvia was independent and member of NATO with open connections to the western world.

VOA Latvian service interval signal (2002)

RFE Sticker

Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (Radio Brīvā Eiropa) (Radio Brīvība)

The communist takeover of Eastern Europe and soviet anti-western propaganda sought US counter action. The National Security Council issued NSC-4-A order to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to “initiate and conduct covert psychological operations to counterattack soviet and soviet inspired activities which constitutes a threat to the world peace”. One of these operations was to create “surrogate radio stations” that would broadcast anti-soviet information to the soviet occupied countries, and yet they must not be officially connected to the US government.  Former US ambassador in Moscow George F. Kennan lead the creation of the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty who made the guidelines for these covert CIA propaganda stations. Frank Wisner later CIA director was in charge of the Office of Special Projects set the practical stage for these stations to work. Radio Liberty or Radio Svoboda was primary for Soviet Union in Russian language that started to work on 1949. Radio Free Europe was made for Eastern European communist controlled countries and begun work on 1950 in Czech language, eventually broadcasting in Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, ect. RFE was known for its propaganda campaign “Crusade for Freedom”. RFE is often mentioned as one of the prominent stir ups of the Hungarian revolution on 1956 when it actively supported the resistance against the soviet invasion. Perhaps a bit too actively, for the Western support never came and revolution was crushed and soviets blamed RFE for provoking the nation into fight. On 1967 leftist magazine Rampant disclosed the RFE and RL connection with CIA. Scandal erupted the White House.  At one point disappointed Richard Nixon who wanted completely re-organize the CIA thought about closing the stations.  However, on 1973 the decision was taken to turn RFE/RL into new hybrid organization both funded privately and by the United States congress.  The RFE/RL works this way until this day.

Baltic services came to RFE bit later than VOA. The CIA front organization The National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE) that directed RFE rejected first calls from Lithuanian exiles to include Baltic nations in their program. NCFE indented to use RFE to organize anti-communist exiles in US to serve as surrogates for the lack of democratic institutions in homeland.  American policy makers were thought that such committees might duplicate or worse make the exiled Baltic diplomats representing their republics irrelevant with broader exiled communities globally. NCFE also determined the Baltic service as too costly in comparison to already existing language services. After VOA started its Baltic services, the NCFE saw that as prime excuse not to make their own broadcasts.

The Baltic exiles became more organized and cooperative and eventually gained more support from NCFE. NCFE supported the Baltic Freedom Rally on 1952 in New York that took place again many years ahead. Over the decade more new generation exiles started to take active part in the community and lobbied the NCFE. After 1967 CIA cover up and changes into US foreign policy towards detente, state the policy towards RFE changed. On 1971 the campaigns in US congress started to fully detach RFE and RL from CIA and on 1973 as mentioned above the stations were now funded by US congress. This decision was actually favorable for Baltic exiles because now they could more openly influence the congress and RFE to include them into broadcasts. After joint lobby attempts by the Baltic exile organizations, the proposal for adding Baltic language broadcasts was added to 1974 Fiscal Budget plan. The proposal again sought opposition because of financial expenses. Representative of the exiles Ilgvars J. Spilners head of American Latvian Alliance  (ALA) made testimony to the congress explaining the importance of these broadcasts. Spilners described to the congress of the dangers of Russification in the Baltic States and determined that more broadcasts in native language would help the Baltic nations to survive the assimilation. Spilners also noted that RFE Baltic surrogate stations would also broadcast more news from the Baltic States then allowed by official VOA. Spilners convinced many congress men including Robert H. Steele to push for Baltic service within RL Eventually thanks to his efforts on 1975 all three Baltic language services started broadcasting. In February Lithuanian started first on July Latvian and Estonian followed. Baltic services were included within Radio Liberty because it was intended mainly for nations in Soviet Union.

The chief editor of the Latvian service was Valdemārs Kriecbergs who worked in pre war Latvian Foreign ministry and on 1956-1958 worked in VOA European station in Munich. The broadcasts were 30 minutes long were irregular at the beginning, then from September the broadcasts were daily, discussing political, social and economic issues. The very first members of the staff were Valdemārs Kriecbergs, Vilis Skutāns, poet Margarita Ausale and Dagmāra Vallena. The studio was in RL headquarters in Munich. The transmissions took place from 100 KW transmitter  in Lampenheim, West Germany. The staff workers used aliases due to the omnipresent surveillance from KGB. On 1982 the new chief editor was Vilis Skultāns (alias Pēteris Vijums). Valdemārs Kriecbergs only came to his duty after his employers re-assured that RL Russian editorial would not influence the Latvian service. The 24 hour Russia service tried to affect colleague services. However it was baffled itself in the conflict between old generation WWI/WWII exiles and new generation exiles many of them with Jewish origin.

One of the five most known RL Latvian service staff journalists were Margarita Ausala, philologist and poet, and was active in the academic circles. Egīls Švarcs was well received musician in Soviet Union where he lead the Riga Music Hall orchestra later emigrated to Germany and took up the radio microphone. Born in US from exiled family in West Germany Juris Kaža was one of the youngest members of the service. He was working there for three years, and then started long carrier in many foreign media including Associated Press, Radio Sweden. Kaža now works and lives in Latvia, an active journalist and blogger. Doctor in philology Dzintra Bungs made many studies and reports about the issues in the Baltic States that were used by many RL/RFE services for their broadcast programs. Rolfs Ekmanis started working on 1975 as Māris Rauda, commented on social and national issues within the Soviet Union. On 1986 he became the senior editor; on 1990 he became the chief of the RFE Latvian service. On 1993 he left the radio to work in Arizona State University.

Rolfs Ekmanis in his Latvian editorial office in Munich

Rolfs Ekmanis in his Latvian editorial office in Munich

The program started with brief musical interval signal, the program announcement, daily news, on Sundays- weekly review of events. The news are followed by detailed commentary about world events, including those in occupied Baltic countries, materials from the Baltic press in exile, interviews and brief excepts from books and printed works. Latvians were first in RL to extend program time from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. Despite soviet jammers the station was receivable and listener reports and letters concluded that station receives significant attention. Most Latvians liked to listen to Latvian language stations and found RL best alternative to soviet stations. It was reported that families and friends gathered to listen to scheduled RL broadcasts with no objections. Sometimes in Latvian journals the soviets published texts condemning or ridiculing the RL broadcasts showing how disturbed were the authorities by these broadcasts.

Satirical soviet magazine Dadzis on Radio Free Europe

Satirical soviet magazine Dadzis on Radio Free Europe

On 1984 the Latvian service was moved to Radio Free Europe. RFE involved broad spectrum of Latvian exiles all across the world. On 1986 the new soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev fully stopped the shortwave jamming allowing the RFE and VOA to freely broadcast in the Latvian radio waves. RFE journalists freely entered Latvia, and featured the leading forces for independent Latvia. Same as VOA or even more it aided the restoration movement. After Latvia became independent again,  RFE was featured on Latvian FM frequencies. Some of its staff members moved to Latvia and took part in local social and political activities. Radio Free Europe ceased its Latvian broadcasts for the same reasons as VOA on 2003. Radio Liberty still broadcasts on Russian and Belarusian to counter resurgent anti-democratic regimes in Russia and Belarus.

Radio Free Europe Latvian service interval signal 1999


Radio Vatican   (Radio Vatikāns)

Historically the Latvian service on Radio Vatican was the oldest broadcasting already on 1948. Radio Vatican (Radio Vaticana in Latin) was founded on 1931 as the voice of the catholic people across the world. First, broadcast took place on October 2 1948 for 15 minutes once a week. From 1966 Programma Lettone started to broadcast four times in a week, from 1975 six times in a week and extended to 20 minutes. First broadcasts were mainly religious, preaching’s, prayers and papal news. Later the program included news about Catholics in Latvia, life of other confessions and lives in exile. The station recommended believers not engage into political resistance or subversion; however the soviet power regarded the Catholic Church as dangerous anti-soviet element.  As first foreign broadcast in Latvian it gathered large audience and interest. The radio called to gather in the churches to pray for free Latvia, for God to open road to free Latvia more quickly. After radio mentioned Kārlis Ulmanis and Stalin as man with no honor the broadcasts were targeted by jammers. The jamming stopped in the sixties making the station better receivable than the other ones.

The Vatican radio host can only be clergy man, his assistant must so too. Other staff members can be laity. At first programs was lead by Jesuit father Pāvils Beičs. For long years chief editor was father Staņislavs Kučinskis who after finishing Catholic Studies in Latvia, in thirties went to Rome, then to Krakow to study theology. After that he worked as priest in various places across Italy. He also proved himself as historian writing researches about Catholic history. On 1968 the editorial was joined by Monsignor Ārvaldis Andrejs Brumanis. Brumanis was conscripted into Latvian Waffen SS Legion, wounded in Pomerania, taken captive in Belgium where he finished the Latvian Catholic Seminary.  He also finished Louvain University Faculty of History and doctor in theology. On 1996 Pope John Paul II consecrated him to the Bishop of Liepāja, in Latvia.

One of the prominent laity staff members were Dr. Marta Rasupe who came to Rome after winning in international Romanic language competition and became doctor in philology in Rome University where she headed the Latvian section for long decades. She worked as reporter for the radio using her great translation and academic skills, made rich programs of culture.

Starting from seventies, the radio talked more about the difficult relations between the Church and the soviet power. Radio also called Latvians to keep their national traditions. The Lithuanian Catholic underground magazine Lietuvos kataliku bažnyčios kronika was featured by the radio exposing the persecution of the Catholic priests and believers across the Soviet Union. The Vatican Latvian service continued broadcasting until 2012 when major service cut by the Radio Vatican was made. It was the oldest and longest Latvian language service.

Radio Vatican Interval signal 1982


National Radio of Spain/Voice of Free Latvians Radio (Radio Nacional de Espańa/ Brīvā Latviešu Balss)

National Radio of Spain (NRS) came in to light in 1937 during the Civil War controlled by the Francisco Franco regime. Franco’s Spain was one of the countries in the West who did not recognize the occupation of the Baltic States and hosted their embassies in exile. As anti-communist regime it allowed NRS broadcast in 16 languages of the nations within Soviet Union. The Latvian program was called Brīvā Latviešu Balss – the Voice of Free Latvians (VFL) the people who created the service was Latvian diplomatic envoy in Spain Roberts Kampus and daughter of famous Latvian writer Pāvils Rozītis Dzidra Rozīte.

Roberts Kampus was Independence war veteran, studied in Latvian University and Sorbonne University in thirties worked in embassies in Moscow, Stockholm, Rome and London. From 1953 he was the Latvian envoy in exile in Madrid. The service started broadcasting on 1955 and was directed by Kārlis Videnieks until 1961. Every day program was aired twice in 24 hours made almost by Videnieks alone. He was replaced by Teodors Strautmanis, who worked in the newspaper Rīts (Morning), during Nazi occupation was editor of the foreign section of the newspaper Tēvija (Fatherland). He escaped soviets by crossing the Baltic Sea and arrived in Sweden where edited newspaper Latvju Avīze (Latvian Newspaper). Before taking job in Madrid, he worked at the VOA section in Munich.

From 1964 to 1965 the service was directed by Vilis Skultāns who worked in the Latvian Telegraph Agency before the war. He was the one who first informed Latvian foreign minister Vilhelms Munters about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. During Nazi occupation he worked in Tēvija (Fatherland), and then was conscripted in to Waffen SS where he worked in front line newspaper Daugavas Vanagi (Hawks of Daugava). He spent two years in refugee camps. After that, he took part in the exile social activities published in many newspapers.

The work in RNS was difficult do to the primitive technical recourses. The twenty-minute program was made by only two people, sometimes just one. If one of the workers fell sick, he could not be replaced. The RNS did not pay full salary to the two staff workers and the exile organizations were not generous either. With some funding the exiles gave information materials often in novice level. One of the top contributors of information was closed society Apvienība Tēvzemei (Alliance for Fatherland). The less known organization in undated report stated that NRS VFL broadcasted AF materials were sovereign and independent broadcasts for free and democratic Latvia. The AT refuses to support the official views of Washington and condemns the non-political, pro-American agenda of the American Latvian Alliance. AT opposed the Truman Doctrine for it only wowed to prevent the communist expansion outside its borders, but allowed to exist within.

As other stations the RNS VFL was jammed by soviets, except the times when jammers were turned off so the soviet agents could listen to VFL. RNS did not have the funds for broadcasting at many frequencies at once from various places and repeat them. Despite technical issues and jammers the radio was heard in Latvia, and through covert ways the listener letters were received. Some listeners praised the station for its sharp “poisonous” tone when criticizing the soviet power. Others praised for playing the national anthem on the morning of the November 18th. As the radio aired on mornings some described them as the happiest time of the day. Meanwhile soviet newspapers condemned the “fascist pirates” on the radio waves.

Skultāns wrote memorandum on the future of the Latvian broadcast and presented it at the 1st Latvian Culture congress in Chicago and Madrid radio committee to improve the station was formed. The radio station program consisted of every day news, cultural events and reviews.  Once a week a special program was aired to counter claims of the soviet propaganda. Twice a week the radio talked about Russification and some economical issue. Skultāns made strong anti-communist comments more sharper than all other Latvian language services.  Radio also told stories of the brave Latvian Waffen SS legion fighting the soviets and countered the soviet accusations towards them.

On May 31 1965 for unknown reasons the RNS VFL was suddenly taken off air. At first the shutdown was temporally, and then it held for 52 months.  Officially the reason was technical issues, but as it was rumored it was due to change of Spanish foreign policy. After months of unsuccessful talks Skultāns abandoned Madrid and went to Frankfurt. There the Voice of Free Latvians made second coming as part of Radio Free Russia.

On 1969 the RNS unexpectedly restored the Latvian service. Skultāns returned to Madrid. On September 20 1969 narrator Ivonna Muktāne announced on the radio waves: “This is broadcast for our Latvian fatherland and freedom from the main Spanish National radio in Madrid. We broadcast every day from 21:15 to 21:30 on Latvian time on 32,04 meter shortwave with two repeats on 15:45 to 16:00 in the evening on 30,7 meter shortwave. Please tell your trustful friends and relatives, so they can also listen to our programs! Skultāns meanwhile was cautious about longevity of the Latvian program in Spain due to the coming changes in the Spanish government. He warned member Silvestrs Lambergs of ALA that criticized by many the VFL on Radio Free Russia might live longer than VFL on Spanish radio. ALA planned to take over the VFL broadcast and made Lambergs as supervisor. Lambergs had received special education in radio programming and later did half-hour Latvian radio programs in Latvian in Boston.

Skultāns had issue gathering staff members and financial support. Many offered support, but later declined. The religious programming was troubled because preacher Vilis Vārsbergs was always late in submitting program materials and was out of contact. ALA Information Bureau paid its reporters no more than 8$ for every text. Eventually the Madrid editorial came into conflict with ALA because it started to ignore ALA directives and sent program texts. Skultāns originally promised to work in Madrid for three months so ALA tried searching for a new chief editor. The search failed for the candidates the editor of newspaper Latvija (Latvija) Austra Liepiņa was seen as unfit for radio, while flamenco guitarist Andris Kārkliņš who know Spanish very well was seen as too young for such job. So Skultāns was left as chief and even tasked to write three programs in a week.

From 1955 to 1965 VFL featured programs in Latgalian – a distinct form of Latvian language in Latvian eastern part of Latgale. The programs were hosted by Vladislavs Lōcis. When Latgalians tried to apply for new radio show promising no financial need for Latgalian exiles have enough support on their own, the ALA rejected because it would not have any control over this broadcast. Also, the issue was raised over Latgalian language that was not knowledgeable to all Latvians and ALA demanded not to allow Lōcis to appear every week on the radio, and send their broadcast text to ALA in middle-Latgalian dialect that is more knowledgeable to the common Latvian. Meanwhile the Spanish radio management on 1970, 1971 and 1972 issued orders to Latvians to use only Spanish official sources. In each situation the order was quickly canceled and Spanish bureaucracy apologized for misunderstanding. The management was unaware of the Spanish non-recognition policy and did not coordinate their decisions with the governmental officials.

The issues between ALA and VFL grew stronger. ALA paid ridiculously low salaries to two assistants of Skultāns Ivonna Muktāne and Elza Grigāne De Miguel – 100$ in a month. While Skultāns asked to increase the salary, ALA ordered to fire one of the workers. Ignoring Skultāns ALA ceased payments to both workers, who for patriotic reasons decided to stay at the station. ALA then came to decision to end all financial support to Madrid station. Estonians and Lithuanians who continued to support the broadcasts were puzzled by this action, while Spilners started campign to support the radio station. ALA only agreed to finance VFL in case if Spanish radio increases the transmitter power. While such promises were made,  they were not fulfilled and funding problem continued. On June 14 1972 Ivonna Muktāne went to Venezuela to give birth to a child and become a citizen of the country. Elza Grigāne asked for replacement, but it never came. While Lithuanian and Estonian service went on full swing, the Latvian service of the National Radio of Spain was closed forever.

National Radio of Spain interval signal 1965

The Radio Free Russia transmitters used by the Voice of Free Latvians

The Radio Free Russia transmitters used by the Voice of Free Latvians

Свободная Россия/Brīvā Latviešu Balss (Radio Free Russia/Voice of Free Latvians)

The National Alliance of Russian Solidarists (Национально Трудовой Союз) NTS was formed on 1930 by the group of Russian anti-communist exiles. Their aim was topple the Bolshevik regime in Russia. By 1932 they tried to infiltrate their members in the Soviet Union, spread anti-communist propaganda using balloons. Their members were arrested in Soviet Union and persecuted by the Nazis. From today’s perspective a peculiar thing was their symbol – the Ukrainian trident along the Russian tricolor.  NTS survived the war and continued to establish contacts with Russian compatriots. KGB tried to silence the organization by sending Captain Nicolay Hohlov to assassinate the NTS leader Gregory Okolovich. Instead Hohlov asked for political asylum in West Germany and joined the NTS. Later Hohlov to KGB shame even became professor in American university. In late forties NTS acquired transmitter from the US army and started its clandestine broadcasts on 1950. The station was called Свободная Россия – Radio Free Russia. The transmitter was mounted on cargo truck moving along the border of the soviet controlled Germany. Antenna was simply thrown on the trees of the high-points. The Western German and US intelligence kept closed eyes on this operation, only in some cases asked to move truck to another hilltop. Eventually RFR moved to two stationary transmitters and without any license broadcasted daily for 13 hours for years. On 1958 KGB bombed the NTS transmitter in Sprendlingen. Despite the all the odds NTS survived the Cold War and ceased its activities after the fall of Soviet Union.

After National Radio of Spain closed the Latvian service Vilis Skultāns was looking for new radio station to host his Latvian service. American Latvian Alliance asked Skultāns to consider hold talks with West German radio Deutsche Welle broadcasting in nine languages, create independent station or hold talks with NTS in Frankfurt. Also, the Radio Vatican was asked to allow more room for political content. Deutsche Welle rejected the offer and Radio Vatican also refused. Meanwhile NTS was more approaching to allow Latvians to join their radio. Using NTS contact person Ojars Gobiņš who was in good relations with Ukrainian and Russian anti-communists he established friendly contacts with the movement.

On 1966 Skultāns issued manifesto all exile organizations explaining the goals of the Voice of Free Latvians. The station was set to fight russification, keep Latvians in hope for liberation day, strengthen the national self-conscience and resist the repression and injustice. The station was supported by Alliance for Fatherland AF who sent tape recordings of program Freedom for Fatherland. Station was also supported by Russians from Latvia such as Lev Rahr, who was Latvian citizen and served in the Latvian army. He helped Latvians to reach common agreement with NTS leadership. The agreement was made on commercial basis, NTS did not censor the station and the station kept its Madrid radio name – The Voice of Free Latvians. One of the Latvians dean Miķelis Lizdiks asked can Latvians speak freely against the russification in Latvia and against the Russian chauvinism as whole. The answer was yes – from all republics Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have full rights for independence. Only demand was not to associate whole Russian people with communism. However, the heads of the leading Latvian exile organizations did not believe the Russian promises for support for independence. Month later NTS sent letter in German where he again re-assured that Latvia that was annexed by Soviet Union has full rights of restoring independence, also adding many citations from NTS conferences supporting this view.

On October 15 1966 the Voice of Free Latvians was back on the airwaves. The broadcast started with NTS hosts in Russian saying “let’s give the microphone to our Latvian common thinkers”, afterwards the voice in Latvian issued: This is VFL, the broadcasts take place every day from 9:00 in the evening to 9:10 with two repeats right after that. Our wavelength is   26 and 46,9 meters. Long live free Latvia!” Followed by nationalist slogans and reading of the poem by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš Remember Latvia! the first issue of the program was “Communist party troubles in Western world”. The station aired from 21:00 to 21:30, containing 10 minute original program, repeated two times, to avoid the soviet jammers. The location of the station was kept secret to avoid KGB sabotage.

NTS demanded 1 000 Deutschmarks in a month, later slightly increasing it. However, because of financial shortages, Latvians could not always pay in time. They were forced to send apply to increase the debt period that NTS accepted. NTS cut monthly pay to 700 DM. On 1968 Latvians owned 4 200 DM to NTS. With all the NTS cuts the supporting organizations from Chicago and AF still could not assemble enough funds to pay of NTS. Latvians had to decrease the broadcast times while both supporting sides conflicted with each other. The station workers had no pay; often had use their own funds to buy tapes, writing materials and sometimes even half of program time. Such situation went on until 1969. The main Latvian exile organizations not only denied support for the VFL but also condemned the only politically free Latvian radio station that had no funds to sustain itself.

While NTS demanded only to cover financial issues and did not mind nationalistic rhetoric voiced by VFL, other Latvians in exile raised suspicion that VFL is hosted by Russians and condemned the VFL association with Russian chauvinists. VFL tried to show voice of reason that not all Russians are communists and many Russians are anti-communists and Latvian allies and more danger comes from Latvian communists.

Other critics raised arguments that the station was not receivable in Latvia. While an argument that station cannot be received in the UK was ridiculous because station was aimed at Riga, many claimed that there is no one from Latvia who had listened to the “NTS Latvian Broadcast”. VFL countered the arguments that they have received letters from listeners in Latvia and their broadcasts are interesting to Latvian listeners then the Latvian VOA report on US Foreign  Secretary daughter’s wedding with Afro-American.  On 1968 Latvian National Fund made secret survey in Riga and Ogre where 25 people stated they mostly listen BBC World Service in Russian, VOA in Latvian and the VFL despite, the fact it’s jammed more than others. One NTS agent in USSR was tasked to drive from Leningrad to Tbilisi and measure the reception of the NTS radio. His report concluded that VFL is receivable very well in Latvia outside large towns. And, with that the best source was soviet newspapers that complained about Radio Free Russia and mentioned Latvians. Despite the KGB efforts VFL received letters praising the station. VFL broadcasted wide spectrum of political and historical issues. They were not affected by other state guidelines were more nationalistic and anti-communistic.

On 1969 National Radio of Spain suddenly renewed broadcasting in Latvian. Most of the VFL staff moved to Madrid. Meanwhile for three years VFL continued broadcasting on Radio Free Russia. Dean Miķelis Lizdiks worked alone in the Frankfurt transmitter. Loaded with work and lack of funds Lizdiks eventually gave up on 1971. On 1972 NTS received letter in Russian, that claimed that in deep regret the VFL have failed to attain its goal and was never received by anyone in Latvia and disappointed financers have cut all funding. While the statement was false and self inflicting, the VLF was received in Latvia, the true reason was lack of support from exile committee, NTS accepted the closure and sent their best regards.

Radio Free Russia interval signal 1972

This is the long story short about the international broadcasting in the Latvian language. While VOA and RFE/RL was supported by the US government and managed to reach enough quality, the Voice of Free Latvians was troubled by the lack of the support amidst Latvian exiles. The story of the Voice of Free Latvians is unique one because for one period of time it operated as unlicensed clandestine service hosted by Russian exile nationalist movement. Until the appearance of RFE/RL Latvian service the VFL was only alternative to the VOA and Radio Vatican. Both VOA and RFE/RL can be praised for their work transmitting the western point of view to Latvians kept behind the Iron Curtain. The stations inspired Latvian anti-soviet resistance and kept the ordinary Latvians hesitant to the sovietization and russification. While Latvia is multiconfesional country with Catholic Church only playing main role in some regions, the Radio Vatican service did great work exposing the soviet repressions against Christians and kept the spirit of religion among the Latvian believers. During the soviet rule Catholics were the most resistant to the soviet policy of atheism, while Lutherans and Orthodox were more willing to give up their faith.  Voice of Free Latvians meanwhile broadcasted alternative point of view not affected even by their hosts the Spanish Franco government and NTS the Russian exile movement.

Today the situation again resembles the days of the Cold War where information and propaganda is used as essential part of hybrid warfare. The propaganda wars now mostly takes place on television on the internet as shortwave broadcasting has been used by only few countries in the world. But, the methods are often the same, and Latvia and the West as whole again needs a lot of recourses to counter propaganda coming from Russia and various terrorist organizations. Latvia now is independent country with the Western support, so the need for defending its point of view relies heavily on us. The lesson from Latvian exile bickering over the Voice of Free Latvians shows how good projects can be doomed by people who are interested in it in the first place. Today Latvian information services are unable to form a TV program in Russian language and the attempts on foreign language service on internet often give poor results. The defeat in the information war can once again lead to situation where exiles and refugees are forced to seek means of broadcasting information to the homeland controlled by hostile forces. Because of this all past lessons are meant to be taken into account. The propaganda and information is one of the essential weapons of the national security.

Selected Sources:

Johatan H. L’Hommedieu. Baltic Language Broadcasting: Emigre Politics and American Cold War Radios.    Latvian History Institute Journal.  2014. Nr. 2

Richard H. Cummings. (2009) Cold War Radio. The Dangerous History of the American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950-1989. New York. Mc. Farland& Company Inc.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē.

Rolfs Ekmanis.  Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Radio brīvā eiropa / Radio brīvība (rfe/rl) – v

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Radio brīvība (rl) paspārnē 1975-1984– i

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Radio brīvība (rl) paspārnē 1975-1984 – ii

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Radio Vatikāns.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Madrides brīvā latviešu balss 1955-1965

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Brīvā latviešu balss frankfurtē 1965–1972 – i daļa.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Brīvā latviešu balss frankfurtē 1965-1972 – ii daļa.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Brīvā latviešu balss frankfurtē 1965-1972 – ii daļa. Brīvā latviešu balss frankfurtē 1965-1972 – iii daļa.

Rolfs Ekmanis. Starptautiskie raidījumi latviešu valodā 20. Gs. Otrā pusē. Latviešu balsis atkal madridē 1969-1972

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Roma Genocide in Latvia 1941-1944

Èigânu masu apbedîjumi Valguma meþâ. Anatolijs Berezovskis un Lûcija Ignis

The mass killing site at Valguma lake near Tukums

One of the less discussed events of the Latvian history is Roma Genocide that took place in Latvia during Nazi occupation. Called Porajmos in Romani language the Roma genocide was part of the Holocaust directed against Jews, mentally ill, homosexuals and Roma’s who lived in significant populations across the Eastern Europe. The death toll of Nazi killed Roma’s  estimated  220,000 to 1,500,000 people. Genocide against Roma took place also in Latvia, where they been living for centuries.

The Roma people have been originated from ancient India and appeared in Europe in Middle Ages as early of 12th century. By practicing nomadic lifestyle they appeared all over Europe including Britain on 16th century. The largest concentrations of them were in Eastern Europe, Poland-Lithuania, Moravia and Wallachia. Roma’s managed to keep their eastern traditions and independent lifestyle often defying the laws of the ruling society. Some Roma communities started continuous settlements. Their differences in looks and culture often sparked hatred and prejudices.

The Nazi movement combined all the prejudices in united policy of hate and persecution. However, Nazis had difficulties labeling all Roma’s as subhuman (Untermenchen) because of their “Aryan origin” that Nazis considered the prime race. Also it was inconvenient that most consequent nomadic Roma’s were those of “most purest Aryan”. To “solve” the problem the racial specialist Dr. Robert Ritter lead research team to determine the racial status of Roma people. By examining 2000 people they came to conclusion that 90% of Roma are mixed with other Europeans and therefore sent to “mischlinge” (crossbreeds) category. They were labeled as anti-social and dangerous to the Nazi regime.  This conclusion now made 90% of Roma’s in danger of persecution. The 1935 Nuremberg racial laws were also applicable to  Roma’s. First group of German Roma’s were sent to Dachau camp  on 1936. The Dr. Ritter’s “research group” considered Roma’s to be sterilized and excluded from the society; that also applied to the “racial pure” Roma. On 1937 all Roma were ordered to move to special containment camps (Zwangswohnlager) and on 1938-1939 even more Roma’s were “preventively arrested” and sent to concentration camps. The start of the World War II opened the extermination phase as Roma’s were deported to the occupied Poland where their extermination begun. On December 16 1942 Heinrich Himmler ordered to send all Roma’s and mixed ones to Auschwitz death camp. Before that on 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Union the extermination of the local Roma have already begun.

It’s not known when Roma’s settled in Latvian territory. Possibly after 1561 when former Livonian Confederation became part of Poland-Lithuania. The Romani language in Latvia has four dialects, in Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemgale) most common is so called “Latvian romani” (lotfitka roma), in Latgale the “Northern Russian romani” (xaladitka roma) and Belarusian and Polish language affected Romani. The last Latvian  national census in 1935 counted 3839 Romas. 234 lived in Riga. Large concentrations of them were in Jelgava, Daugavpils, Talsi, Ventspils, Rēzekne, Valmiera, and Tukums. Large numbers of them lived in regular homes. While encountering usual prejudice; labeling as “horse thieves”, “vagrants” and “tax and army service evaders” no serous acts of violence against Roma were ever recorded in Latvia. Latvians called Roma Čigāni (the gypsies) and this therm was used in press and official documents.

Its possible the Roma population in Latvia was larger then according to the 1935 census data. On June 1941 there could have been about 12 000 Roma people living in Latvia.  The first killings were made by the German Einsatzgruppen and assisting Latvian collaborator units. One of the first killing sites were Baltinava township in Eastern Latvia were 10 Roma families – 43 people were murdered in August 1941.  The Roma genocide really started on December 1941 when Nazis had finished the genocide of the Latvian Jews.  90 people were killed in Kalvene parish near town of Aizpute in Western Latvia. In Liepāja the full list of murdered Roma’s were found, only one such in Latvia. 100 Roma’s are mentioned in Nazi report to be shot in the Ciecere parish. The 1935 data had 176 Roma’s living in Liepāja. Tukums a city located between Kurzeme (Courland) and Zemgale region had large population of Roma. Inconclusive reports from interrogated Nazi suspects states that about 200-300 Roma’s were killed. Tukums had 233 Roma’s on 1935. The town of Bauska near Lithuania border had fairly large Roma population. It’s known that 250 people of all ages were killed in Jaunsaule parish. The people from nearby township of Skaistkalne were also murdered there. Fourth largest city Jelgava had 401 Roma’s 200 of them were destroyed although the data is inconclusive. 200 Roma’s were possibly killed in Ludza district in Latgale region. The heart town of Latgale Rēzekne had 130 Roma’s arrested on January 5 1942 and possibly concentrated in former synagogue or empty shop space nearby and then murdered at Garbari forest near Zvirgzdene township. During the Audriņi massacre on January 2,4 1942 when Germans murdered 215 local villagers for hiding the soviet partisans, several Roma’s were killed who lived nearby. 50 Roma’s were shot near the Valmiera concentration camp. There is very fewer details about the Roma genocide in Riga. It’s possible that Romas were shot in Jugla, Strazumuiža, Biķernieki Forest, Strazdumuiža railway station and other parts of Riga. Similarly fewer details are about the fate of Roma’s in Daugavpils where is known that 5 Romas were shot in the Daugavpils prison. Similar obscure details are about Ventspils.

Current research estimates conclude that about 2000 Latvian Romas were killed during the Nazi occupation. Half of the Roma 3839 population of 1935. As mentioned the real size of the Roma population on 1941 could be more larger than official data meaning the number of victims could be larger than 2000 people.

Kārlis Krūminš the savior of the 200 Roma at Talsi district

Kārlis Krūminš the savior of the 200 Roma at Talsi district

The Nazi policy towards Roma people changed on 1943 when the guidelines now separated Romas in nomadic and non-nomadic Romas. The regular living ones were considered as rural citizens, while nomads were equaled with Jews. That halted the active killing and saved lives of many. However, in some parts of Latvia the killings were avoided because of the involvement of the local populace. The chief of the Talsi district Kārlis Krūmiņš resisted the German order to exterminate all Roma’s for they are required for workforce and bear no danger to the district. Some days after this decision Lutheran Archbishop Teodors Grīnbers gathered all Roma’s to a mass and told they must be thankful to Krūmiņš for rescuing their lives. He pledged them to work hard for the German army. About 200 Roma’s in Talsi district were kept alive this way. Krūmiņš was later arrested by the Soviets where he gave testimonies of how he saved the Roma from the murder. Nevertheless, he was sent to Gulag as traitor. Another Roma savior was Mārtiņš Bērziņš the head of the Sabile city in Kurzeme. According to some reports the Roma’s were gathered at the killing site when Bērziņš in the nick of time rushed with a bicycle and stood in front of the shooters and declared: “If you shoot them; then shoot me too!” Local shooters were unable to do so and about 300 Roma’s were spared. Bērziņš was saved from the 1949 deportations by his Roma supporters and died in Dundaga on 1968. Bērziņš also warned local Jews of coming execution. Later a memorial plate in Sabile was unveiled to commemorate his heroic act. Both Krūmiņš and Bērziņš can be compared to Žanis Lipke the most famous Jewish savior from Latvia.

The facts about the Roma genocide in Latvia is found in the Soviet Emergency Investigation Commission documents. The commission persecuted all the captured Nazi collaborators and disclosed their crimes towards Jewish and Roma people. So far the most detailed research have been made by Aigars Urtāns about Bauska district while general research is still lacking. Jewish historian Marģers Vestermanis first opened the subject on 1993 with his publication about the Roma genocide in Latvia. On 2015 the senior chief Commissar of the International Roma Alliance made publication based on archive documents. More detailed publications are expected in the future. So far there have been no memorial plates and monuments dedicated to the victims of the Roma genocide in Latvia. Despite active calls from Roma community the process of research and remembrance have been very slow by comparing to the amount of work contributed to Jewish holocaust. Its one of the sad parts of the Latvian history that must be researched further and included in our memory of the past.

Selected Sources:

Rudēvičs, Normunds. (2015) Romu Holokausts Latvijā. Konferenču un semināru materiāli 2009-2014. Shamir. Rīga, 2015

Vestermanis, Marģers. Čigānu genocīds vācu okupētajā Latvijā (1941.-1945). Latvijas Vēsture 1993/4 (11)

Urtāns, Aigars (2003), “Bauskas pilsētas un apriņķa čigānu iznīcināšana 1942. gada vasarā”, in: Dzintars Ērglis (ed.), Holokausta izpētes jautājumi Latvijā: Staptautiskā semināra referāti 2001. gada 29. novembris, Rīgā, un 2001.–2002. gada pētījumi par holokaustu Latvijā / The Issues of the Holocaust Research in Latvia: Reports of an International Seminar 29 November 2001, Riga and the Holocaust Studies in Latvia in 2001–2002.

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The Secret War Against Latvia: Latvian Communist Party in Underground 1920-1940

Latvian Leftist Trade Union program with Soviet Symbols showing its allegiance to  underground Latvian Communist Party

Latvian Leftist Trade Union program with Soviet Symbols showing its allegiance to underground Latvian Communist Party

On August 11 1920 the war between Latvia and the Soviet Russia had officially ended. The short-lived Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic was dissolved. However, the Latvian Communists were far from giving up. With the main leadership in Moscow, under the direction of the Comintern the Latvian Communist party fought secret war against the Republic of Latvia. In 20 years of underground struggle the party however failed to achieve its goals and was almost destroyed from the inside and outside when on 1940 Soviets tanks marched in Riga.

Latvian Communist Party (LCP) was successor of the Latvian Social democracy  (LSD) – originally a Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party from 1905, that was taken over by the Bolsheviks. On March 1-6 1919 during IV LSD congress the party was renamed to Latvian Communist Party.It was a height of the Soviet power in Latvia and communist minded LSD no longer needed to disguise as social democrats. The three main leaders were Pēteris Stučka, Fricis Roziņš and Kārlis Daniševskis. By their leadership the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic realized a genocidal destructive policy and was defeated and chased away from Riga. Fearing official peace talks between Latvia and Soviet Russia, LCP tried to provoke armed uprising in Valmiera that would be supported by uprising in Riga. Uprising meant to took place on January 11 1920 never took place and could not happen in the first place. On the same time Latvian – Polish united forces liberated Latgale and forced LCP to move to  Velikie Luki in Russia. On January 17 the reluctant LCP was forced to dissolve the soviet government and hand over the authority to LCP Central Committee (CC) On January 25 LCP CC made decision to leave Russian Communist (Bolshevik) party and joined the Communist International. Also called Comintern the Communist Party became the part of the soviet foreign intelligence in their quest to initiate the Socialist revolutions all over the world.

LCP created the CC Russian Bureau and Foreign Bureau. It was lead by Pēteris Stučka and J Lencmanis. After II Comintern congress a Latvian Section was created within the Communist Party Executive Committee it was the only foreign representative of the LCP. LCP gathered its funds from the stolen money and goods during the war. Special party enterprises “Products” and “Prometejs” was made to boost the party treasury. In Pskov district LCP owned two Soviet farms “Beryoki” and “Stretmutka”. “Stretmuka” was later ravaged by the fire. As the LCP started to run out of stolen resources the LCP moved away from Pskov and had over the farms to Commissariat of Agriculture. As stolen goods depleted LCP became dependent on soviet secret service funding and therefore became directed by it.

Until 1922 the LCP was mostly directed by  LCP CC Secret Task department was lead by Jānis Zukovskis who died on January 27 1920, and was replaced by Kārlis Kauliņš. The task of the Secret Task department was to ensure contacts with illegal party organizations and lead the partisan warfare and military espionage in enemy countries. What they were actually doing was to illegally cross the border to distribute communist literature, and escort spies. Also important way of achieving worldwide socialist revolution was to spread out the counterfeited money. LCP agents made trips to Latvia and exchanged the faked Latvian Rubles. It was way to gain more illegal funds. On 1922 the Latvian Section received 2 million faked Latvian rubles and gained back 1 023 000 genuine rubles. Many agents were caught so Latvian security services were aware of these actions.

At first LCP was still enthusiastic about restarting war against Latvia, however after  the end of the Russian Civil War, the LCP started to adapt to reality that worldwide socialist revolution is on the long delay that however will come sometime. Until then LCP had to reorganize and change its tactics. On 1921 Latvian government issued death sentences to communist agents Jānis Šlīfs, Augusts Bērce and Mārtiņš Čuče. They were replaced by Rūdolfs Salna and Jānis Krūmiņš. LCP also had cell in Berlin lead by Jānis Bērziņš whose main task in Berlin was to sell out the stolen goods, he was arrested on 1927 and was released on 1934 and died in Soviet Union shortly after. He as commissar of agriculture during the Soviet rule in Latvia. His college from those times Edgars Zanderfelds operated a secret typography and storage in Krāslava with many secret passages that operated till 1929 and was not discovered until 1940.

LCP sent a myriad of agents in Latvia. Some of them managed to infiltrate in the Latvian state offices and even army and police. Roberts Kalniņš first was arrested in 1921 on suspicion of LCP affiliation. He was found in possession with communist literature and being member of  LCP Cēsis section. On 1923 he took the job as secretary of Sigulda 7th infantry battalion and was accused of LCP connection and arrested. During arrest he confessed of being convinced communist and was sentenced for four years in prison. On 1929 he came back as secretary of the Tukums Healthcare Fund while being member of the LCP Tukums section. On 1930 he revealed himself by publishing brochure “In the prison of the humanitarian regime”. The brochure was banned. On 1930 he returned to Cēsis and was accused again of LCP affiliation. On 1932 he was arrested and then released and was caught of taking part in Valmiera communist circle “Moscow”. It was not enough and on 1933 he made trouble again by issuing satirical magazine that was banned for insulting the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis. This is just a example of a convinced communist recidivist agent that worked for LCP.

LCP operated the exchange of information and agents, couriers operated on Latvian railways and transported sums of money to European communist counterparts. On 1926 two Lithuanian Poles attacked two official Soviet Diplomatic couriers, one of them was Latvian Teodors Nette who died in the event. Since both attackers also died in the event it was impossible to found out if they were simple bandits or secret agents to halt the soviet attempts of bringing counterfeit money to Europe. Possibly it was done by British Secret service.  

The Red Rifleman - the newspaper of the Liepāja Communist party War section 1920

The Red Rifleman – the newspaper of the Liepāja Communist party War section 1920

LCP also tried to use legal cover to affect Latvian politics. However, the elected members of the LCP legal cover parties were only instructed to work in open opposition as LCP feared that too open cooperation would mean LCP recognition of the Republic of Latvia. One of the leaders of the legal cover was Leons Paegle and Linards Laicens – two novelists and poets, also nationalists at start. Laicēns was one of the first to publicly present the idea of the national state, however fell out with Latvian Republic soon after its foundation. LCP created illegal “Legal work center” to coordinate the legal cover. LCP managed to split the Latvian Trade Union in two making loyal trade union bureaus in Riga and Courland. Leftist trade union members were used for elections in municipal elections and for legal press.

On 1928 Saeima (Parliament) elections two LCP affiliated movements entered parliament The Leftist Workers list and the Independent Socialist Party. On 1931 Workers and Peasant Fraction gained 6 seats. The real harm to Latvian government made by these legal communist party list was minimal. Elected deputies disrupted the parliament job by proposing unreasonable laws and singing Internationale that was official soviet anthem during parliament sections. On 1930 during the long and complicated presidential election process communists used humor to complicate the elections even more. As Alberts Kviesis was the leading candidate, communists proposed their own candidate Miezis. Because Kviesis in Latvian means wheat and Miezis means barley. Kviesis was elected but eventually Latvian Secret Police managed to uncover the Workers and Peasants fraction as LCP front organization and removed elected deputies from the parliament.

The election poster of the legal LCP election list Leftist Workers List

The election poster of the legal LCP election list Leftist Workers List

However, this also happened because LCP was unsatisfied with the fraction and their members who they saw too disloyal and weak. Linards Laicēns as election locomotive was disillusioned about his political mandate and wanted to depart. LCP itself begun to get rid of the fraction by alienating their members and forcing them to give up their mandates. Miezis was called to Moscow which he entered illegally and was commanded to give up his mandate, since he was in Moscow illegally he could not announce it. As he went back to Latvia he was arrested and sentenced in six years in correctional facility. However, that saved Miezis life as all other fraction members who emigrated to USSR perished in purges. Other members being afraid of moving to USSR wanted to live in Europe. LCP CC did everything to get them back. Laicēns accused of insubordination and bourgeois influence in the end was forced to move Soviet Union. On December 14 1938 he shot. Only emigrating fraction member who survived was Emīls Sudmalis.    

During 1928-1929 LCP for some reason was issuing strategy in case of Soviet invasion in Latvia  Talks about combat groups, taking over Daugavpils, sabotaging the Latvian army and cooperating with soviet secret service. On 1930 LCP tried to infiltrate group of communists within Latvian army garrison in Daugavpils. However, the plot failed because the majority of Daugavpils young communists were Jews, who spoke Russian and could not freely communicate with the Latvian soldiers.

Comintern  wanted to install radio transmitter in Riga to ease communication with Latvian based LCP. After long search for proper radio operator Arvīds Sviķis was selected. He graduated the Moscow Energetic Institute, and practiced at Leningrad Radio and learned to transmit in Morse code. As Czechoslovakian citizen Oldrich Adamek on July 1935 he entered Latvia. The code was made by two books – the 1st volume of the collected writings of Andrejs Upītis and Latvian-German dictionary. He was sent to create radio station in apartment in one of the relatives of the chief of the operation Lencmanis. This same person also worked in Soviet Trade Fleet office. LCP could not find better cover for radio building, however Latvian Police missed this too. With salary of 170 Lats and 60 lats for rent and 900 lats to buy radio parts a transmitter was built in October. However, its power was too low for signal to reach Moscow and they had to build a new transmitter. After seeing the real life in Riga, Sviķis on December 1 1935 went to Latvian Secret Police and confessed in everything. The apartment was raided and transmitter was found, all six members of the group was arrested. LCP was unaware that Sviķis was the one who turned in the group until 1939. After 1940 Soviet occupation Sviķis was sentenced for state treason and shot.

As Stalinist regime gained its power the inner struggle within LCP grew stronger. Stučka was old and ill, the new professional top members were looking to replace the old 1919 guard. Strautiņš or Citrons (Lemon) fought against old timer Jānis Lencmanis. Citrons who represented the party in Comintern Executive committee was in high position. Citrons and his supporters lost the power gamble after Stučka’s death on 1932. Then came the 1934 Coup of Kārlis Ulmanis. It was unexpected surprise to LCP. Party begun to search for scapegoats and excluded those who were unable to recognize their mistakes.  

The Comintern was discontent with the LCP work. Alarming criticism about 1919 Soviet Republic in press and books was wake up call. On 1936 Comintern was looking to punish the Foreign Bureau and get rid of unsatisfactory members.   In the end on June 21 1936 Comintern commanded to dissolve Central Committee and elect a new one and dissolve the Foreign Bureau. Also because of disagreement with the Riga Committee that was fired, the contacts with Latvia were disrupted. LCP was in crisis and considered useless to Comintern.

Jānis Kalnbērziņš convinced Stalinist was sent to Latvia to restore the party. After Hitlers raise to power the LCP European cell was moved to Copenhagen. Meanwhile in Latvia Kalnbērziņs conducted party member checkup. In Soviet Union all so called politemigrants – communists emigrating or exiled to Soviet Union was also under survey. Rūdolfs Salna a important LCP functionary who was tasked to sent report about them were too negative calling most of them unreliable and recommended to deport them from USSR. It was excuse for Stalin to call Latvian section full of spies or traitors. As the repressions against Latvians started large numbers of LCP members were arrested and shot. Salna himself, Citrons, Krūmiņš, Krastiņš were “revealed” as enemies. Meanwhile in Latvia most of the LCP members were arrested or placed in deep underground.

After 1937 surviving LCP lost contacts with Moscow and was unsure if they still are part of the Comintern as  Fricis Deklavs recalled in 1956. Party was weak and asked for support that Moscow declined. On 1939 on the eve of the WW2 it was punitive small organization no longer resembling party. Because of this on 1940 when Soviet Union occupied Latvia the Soviet puppet government contained non LCP members like Augusts Kirhenšteins and Vilis Lācis, famous biologist and famous writer, Bruno Kalniņš social democrat, possibly Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vilhelms Munters were recruited by soviet secret service and were the front men in soviet puppet government (except for Munters who was deported to light imprisonment in Russia). The Soviet occupiers had to make new LCP from the scratch using agents from Russia and local new recruits. The party was now completely connected to central soviet system and after WW2 became ruling local power adjacent to Moscow.

The history of LCP resembles the events today. Russia uses myriad or parties and non governmental movements with hidden allegiance to Moscow.  They either directed by locals or Russia sent agents. Sometimes their pro-Moscow stance is obvious, however the democratic laws and regulations allows them to operate further. The effect of such politics is clearly visible in Ukraine and also in Latvia. The main question is how to fight such covert war- with democratic laws or using their own preferred way – by force. The main goal of this covert war is loosing balance and  that is the most danger in defending our freedom and independence.

Selected Sources:

Niedra,Ojārs. Daugmalis, Viktors. (1999) Slepenais Karš Pret Latviju. Komunistiskās Partijas darbība 1920-1940. Arhīvi apsūdz. Rīga. Totalitārisma Seku dokumentēšanu centrs.

Kaņepe, Vija (Ed) (2001) Latvijas Izlūkdienests 1919-1940. 664 likteņi.


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