On August 11 1920 Latvia and Soviet Russia signed a historic landmark peace agreement. For Latvia it was a guarantee for the independence and sovereignty for years to come. For Soviet Russia, later Soviet Union it was only a temporally setback and 20 years later Latvians learned the deceitful nature of the Soviet diplomacy. How this peace agreement took place and whats the story behind it – it will be discussed in this article.
On late 1918 the Bolshevik hopes for Worldwide Socialist Revolution were in upswing. Bolsheviks broke the Brestlitovsk peace agreement with Germany they signed themselves and now gathered troops to regain control over Baltic States and Poland. The ultimate goal was Berlin and beyond. Soviet offensive on January 1919 was successful at first – Riga and much of the Lithuania was captured and soviet republics were established there. However, their fight against Estonians and Poles were unsuccessful – on February 1919 Estonians already chased out Bolsheviks from their territory and moved in Northern Latvia. Polish forces pushed into Lithuania and Belarus. Therefore Bolsheviks were forced to ask for peace negotiations to Estonia first. On March 22 Soviet Russia trough the Hungarian Soviet Government Foreign Minister Bela Kun sent first peace proposal. The short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic was used for contacts with the western countries and Hungarians as Estonian ethnic brothers were specially used for such matter. However, when Estonians received the peace proposal on April, it was turned down because of British interference. The Great Britain placed hopes on White Russian forces and therefore wanted Baltic states to support them by continuing war against soviets. Later on August 1919 Estonians again received peace proposals, but turned down because of further British resentment and being unsure about Latvia and Lithuania who did not receive any peace proposals yet.
On March 1919 the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic still controlled large parts of Latvian territory. The Latvian Soviet government tried to realize fanatic communist ideas in even more radical way then their counterparts in Russia. As the regime begun to disintegrate the genocidal policies of the LSSR begun to affect the diplomatic scene. Soviets took hostages on retreat mainly Baltic Germans and German and Danish citizens. Danes and Germans were unable to contact the LSSR government so the question was undertaken by the soviet foreign commissar Georgy Chicherin. Danish Red Cross sent delegation to Petrograd to negotiate the hostage release. Doctor from Riga L T Lukyanov was sent by Latvian Provisional Government to find ways how to start peace negotiations with the soviets. He was instructed by foreign minister Zigfrīds Anna Meireovics and colonel Jānis Balodis. In Moscow he met the top member of the Soviet Foreign Peoples Commissariat Maxim Litvinov, showing that it was important for soviets to seek negotiations with Latvia.
Only on August 1919 three Baltic States and Finland received peace proposals. Soviets were endangered by the White Russian armies and wanted to stop the Baltic States supporting them. And Soviets were concerned about Poland of who they were afraid of gaining more power over Baltic States and attempting to organize a joint offensive against Moscow. None of this were correct, as Poland failed to establish full power over Lithuania and the attempt by the British General F G Marsh to organize joint Polish, White guard and Baltic offensive were not approved by the British government. However, Vladimir Lenin took this seriously and wanted to isolate Baltic States from Poland by singing peace agreements.
On August 31 1919 Estonia received proposal for negotiations, then on September 11 Finland and Latvia. Lithuania was asked on the same day, but because the proposals were sent using juzogramm( a special type of telegram) it reached them on September 15. While Estonia received promises to fully recognize their national borders which they were in control off, Latvia and Lithuania only received note that soviets are ready for talks. Latgale was still under the Soviet control and in Zemgale Pro-German forces were preparing for assault on Riga. Lithuanian borders were still in question. Estonia that fully controlled its territory and was pathway to Petrograd was in better position for full peace talks.
Soviets wanted to negotiate alone with every Baltic State to disallow united position. They wanted to negotiate with Estonia first as General Yudenich White forces approached Petrograd. Estonia rejected and asked to make negotiations with Soviet Russia and all three Baltic States together. A conference in Tallinn on September 14-15 was called to discuss this. Latvia was not sure about this as Latgale was still under Soviet control and Pro-German forces were preparing for attack. As excuse to turn down such negotiations were the reaction of the UK and France that would dislike such talks. However, British cabinet was moving towards allowing Baltic States to allow peace negotiations with the Soviets. However, all sides were convinced on signing only ceasefire as peace with Soviets seemed unreal at that time.
As Latvia was unable to gain guarantees on Latgale from other states and Finland suggested not to rush, but wait for UK and French acceptance the united stance on negotiations with Soviets was not reached. On September 24-25 UK changed its policy and allowed Baltic States to organize negations with Soviets. Estonians who already foresaw this change of policy were impressed, while Latvia and Finland for their own reasons were still careful to start peace talks. On October 6 Latvian Peoples Council first discussed the peace negotiation possibility with the soviets. Foreign Minister Z A Meierovics was insisting on discussing peace only with democratic Russia, gaining wide neutral zone and compensations from Russia. Such way was impossible and was proposed to delay talks. Social Democrats proposed to start negotiations immediately, but on note that Latgale should be abandoned by the soviets and LSSR disbanded. In following days the discussions were halted by the pro-German offensive on the Latvian forces. So called West Russian Volunteer Army commanded by General “count” Pavel Bermondt-Avalov and Rüdiger von der Goltz was formed from local Germans and ex imperial army German soldiers together with Russian army POWS. For two months Latvian government was caught up in fight with Bermontd army until ultimate victory on November.
On November 11-19 in Tartu all three Baltic States representatives including Poland and Finland met together and again discussed negotiations with the Soviets. Estonia now was ready to sign peace deal separately as Yudenich army was broken and Estonian army was tired. Latvia was still fighting Bermondt and Soviets in Latgale. Lithuania was rather concerned with war with Poland and even Latvia. Poland was unable to have any negotiations with Soviets at all. Finland was not in a hurry and disregarded the Baltic positions. The unity was broken, nor it was possible.
On November 6 Latvian delegation to Moscow including nationalist Arveds Bergs, social democrat Fricis Menders and others were instructed to note soviets that only united talks with all Baltic states are possible with support from UK and France. This a principal yet unrealistic stance by Meireovics or an attempt to delay talks until Latgale is gained back my military means. On November 17 Litvinov insisted on signing peace agreement on spot and promised to leave Latgale. Despite Menders and Litvinov being old revolutionary comrades from 1905 revolutions talks went nowhere because of official Latvian stance. And also Arveds Bergs despite recognizing Litvinov as “skillful and clever Jew” distrusted his intentions on leaving Latgale. Only thing reached by all Baltic States was the hostage exchange with the Soviet Russia.
On December 5 Estonians started separate talks with Soviets. Lenin and Chicherin were positive on peace agreement while communist hotheads Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev insisted on second invasion that was rejected by Lenin. Latvia sent their representatives to observe the talks and try to initiate talks with soviets. Estonians were hostile to Latvian delegation and tried to isolate them as much as possible. Menders again used his revolutionary past to approach his old Menshevik comrade Yoffe and gained soviet confidence on starting secret peace negotiations with Latvia. Using him Meierovics sent a secret letter to Moscow issuing demands for negotiations – Latgale must be abandoned and LSSR disbanded, and talks must be secret under the guise of Latvian Red Cross delegation. On December 19 Latvian envoy in secret meeting in Tallinn coffee stand gave the letter secretly to Yoffe. The Estonian Secret Police rushed in and arrested them. But message reached Moscow and on December 24 Moscow replied that they accept the Latvian therms.
Despite Soviet promise to leave Latgale, the leader of the Latvian Provisional government Kārlis Ulmanis was sure to regain Latgale by military means. On December 13 last units of the defeated Bermontd army left the Lithuanian territory. Latvia had to ask either Lithuanian or Polish support for the military campaign in Latgale. Both new countries had ambitions to restore their past empires, that would include significant Latvian parts or Latvia as whole. Lithuanian demands were arrogant and unrealistic, they demanded Ilūkste district and even Daugavpils. Poland despite ambition to restore the borders of 1772 where more forthcoming because of coming military offensive towards the east. They needed Latgale secure from Soviets to aid their attack. On December 29 a Latvian-Polish military cooperation agreement was signed for the Latgale campaign. Some days later on December 31 Estonia and Soviet Russia signed ceasefire. Soviets recognized their independence and borders.
On January 2 1920 Latvia sent the Red Cross Delegation to Moscow and on January 3 Latvian – Polish armies started their assault on Latgale. Fricis Menders and Augusts Frīdenbergs reached Moscow despite going trough front lines and nearly getting killed on January 6. Chicherin was angry about the Latvian-Polish offensive and turned down his old Menshevik comrade. On January 11 Soviets gave unreasonable demands to neutralize Latgale and give it self-determination rights. On January 14 Soviets no longer demanded the Latgale autonomy, but demanded to give a month to leave Latgale and asked Latvians to leave Pytalovo that was taken by Latvian army. They also refused to disband the Latvian Red Riflemen. Meanwhile on January 15-16 another joint conference by the new states in Helsinki took place bringing no results. Unity was impossible as Lithuania wanted war with Poland and Latvia, they already seized some Latvian border lands they refused to leave. Meirovics were afraid of the Baltic balkanization – driving region to ethnic border wars and proposed a wide alliance. Finland and Estonia were not interested and talks went nowhere.
On January 30 at 3:00 in the night the ceasefire between Latvia and Russia was reached. Latvian army had taken over all Latgale. Parts of the ceasefire regarding the disbanding the Latvian Communist Party in Moscow and halting anti-Latvian propaganda were never realized. Ceasefire should had started on February 1, however Poland insisted to capture the city of Drisa (Verkhnyadzvinsk) for strategic purposes. That was done and new ceasefire on February 1 was signed making new demarcation line. The ceasefire took effect on 12:00 at February 1.
On February 2 Estonia signed peace agreement with Soviet Russia first of the three Baltic States to do so. Estonians in return for recognizing independence agreed on not demanding financial compensations and allowed full rights for Soviet transit in Estonia. Estonia received 15 millions of gold as reward for being the first to allow such transit privileges. Estonia also received the territories of Eastern Narva and Pechori (Petseri). Same as later Pytalova they were mainly Russian inhabited regions.
Latvia was reluctant to give such privileges for the soviets and wanted compensations from Russia. Large numbers of factories and equipment were moved to Russia from Riga on 1915 and Latvia wanted it back. And still Meierovics hoped on joint Latvian, Polish and Lithuanian talks despite being completely impossible. Poland insisted on delaying the talks, Finland too. Meanwhile UK was now moving towards reconciliation with Soviet Russia and was hostile towards Polish will to fight further. Britain insisted Latvia to stop siding with Poles for it will do no good. Latvians hoped for conference in Riga as follow up for Helsinki conference but it never took place. Poland started marching towards Belarus and Ukraine.
Because of these reasons the talks on peace agreement started two months later. Latvia was issuing high demands on compensations 37,5 million golden rubles were demanded and 72 million rubles for injured soldier families. Latvians were also skeptical on soviet transit rights. Also commissions in Riga demanded to give 40 year concession for Volga -Daugava canal. Such canal has never been built until this day. Such fantastic demands made by commissions in Riga were made in disregard of the real situation in Russia. Soviets were either unable or unwilling to fulfill such demands. Also as the first election took place the peace talks now became part of the party battle. Latvian Green Farmers combated Social Democrats. Menders was removed from leading the talks, A Zēbergs the deputy of the foreign minister was appointed as the head of the negotiations.
On April 10 the delegation finally traveled to Moscow. 34 people delegation in Sebezh, met the first group of Latvian hostages including social democrat V Bastjānis and doctor V Mintz who treated Lenin’s assassination attempt injuries. As all demanded hostages were gathered the exchange took place on April 16. On this day the delegation reached Moscow and was “greeted” by angry Latvian communists who protested against the peace agreement. Despite all attempts to preserve the LSSR in Latgale and convince Lenin to keep fighting, the LSSR was disbanded. LCP despite being still active part of Commnintern was lost and confused. Zēbergs was unsuitable for leading the talks the Yoffe got better of him and rejected all kinds of demands for compensations. Soviets also wanted Drisa and Pytalovo back. Zēbergs who wanted fast talks was angry about this and demanded Meireovics to come to Moscow himself which Meirovics rejected. He was caught up in forming the new government and did not feel no need to head to Moscow.
Then talks went to halt as Poland started major offensive towards Kyiv. While Latvians believed this will make Soviets to sign peace agreement with Latvia faster, soviets regarded Latvians and Polish allies and made aggressive statements. As soviets pushed Poles back they hoped to capture Warsaw and make a difference in Baltic-Soviet relations. Soviets however gave up Pytalova and surrounding areas, but did not want to give up Drisa. In the end Verkhnyadzvinsk a mostly a Belarusian city was given up to Soviet Russia. Pytalova was gave up by Soviets because of war of Poland and Latvian reluctance to give it back. On May 22 Zēbergs unsatisfied with his work left Moscow and later resigned from delegation. He was replaced by Jānis Veismanis.
Talks again were brought to halt after Meierovics was cited in Latvian Russian newspaper about plans about Baltic state military convention against Soviet Russia. Such convention was in plans on this time, but made Soviets halt the talks. On June 17 Soviets rejected Latvian demands on compensating or returning the lost pre WWI industrial equipment. On July 9 the sick and exhausted Latvian delegation asked to head back to Riga and resume talks there. Reluctant soviets worried by the strain on propaganda agreed, but noted that the final agreement must be signed in Moscow. On July 12 after peace agreement with Lithuania soviet delegation arrived in Riga and were met with hostility from the press.
As soviets pushed offensive towards Warsaw that would lead to ultimate capture of Berlin, the soviets openly rejected any economical demands from Latvia. Lithuania meanwhile signed dubious peace agreement with Soviets, where Lithuania acquired Vilnius, Belarusian Hrodna, Polish Augstowa and Suvalki and in secret protocol allowed to use its territory for soviets against their war on Poland. However, as soon a soviets captured Vilnius instead of giving it to Lithuania they installed a soviet government there. It took month for Lithuanians to convince Russians to evict from Vilnius. During the final faze on Soviet war against Poland the Soviet delegation became even more reluctant and hostile towards Latvian counterparts. Meireovics included multi-party representatives including social democrats that soviets disliked. Social Democrats rejected to take part in the first Commitern congress. Soviets were running out of patience – battle for Warsaw was close. Latvians also had enough. Soviets at least returned a half amount of locomotives and train wagons taken away during WWI. On August 7 Soviet representative Ivans Lorencs sent message to Moscow that Latvian demands are unbearable and that we need to organize a local invasion, dress up Red Army men as “green partisans”, kill some nobles, kulaks and priests. That was not necessary on August 9 the agreement was reached, Soviets finally agreed to compensate 4 million golden rubles in two months. Latvia gave up Drisa but kept Pytalova later called Abrene.
On August 11 12:40 the peace agreement took place. It was signed in Riga not Moscow as originally intended. On August 12-15 the Polish army sealed this agreement by defeating the Soviets near Warsaw and chasing them away. The peace agreement between Poland and Soviet Russia was signed in Riga on March 18. Without Polish victory the Baltic States would be in danger. Soviets stated in the agreement that “for eternal times to come they will respect and will not endanger the Latvian independence”. The first article stated that “The state of war existing between the Parties shall be ended as of the effective date of this Peace Treaty.”Article 2 declared the independence and sovereignty of Latvia and Article 3 set the borders of the State of Latvia, while also creating deadlines by which foreign troops should leave. Articles 4-6 dealt with military affairs and war damage, Article 7 with provisions for the return of prisoners of war, should they desire to return. Articles 8 through 9 concerned citizenship, repatriation of refugees, and property claims. Adults aged 18 or older were free to choose either Latvian or Russian citizenship, the default being that individuals were citizens of the state in which they resided at the time the treaty was signed. Articles 11 through 16 dealt with reparations Russia was to make to the Latvian state and its citizens. Articles 17 and 18 dealt with commercial, transit, postal and navigation arrangements and Article 19 with diplomatic relations. Article 20 address nationality issues and Article 21 established a commission to handle issues of mutual interest. Articles 22 and 23 deal with treaty technicalities such as language and ratification. August 11 was celebrated as Victory day.
Latvia could not gain its lost infrastructure, that was however technically belonged to Russian Empire on 1915, but was on Latvian soil. For next 20 years the agreement was guarantee for Latvian independence and sovereignty. German statesman Otto von Bismark stated many years before that its pointless to believe that Russia will fulfill its signed treaties. For next 20 years Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin plotted the next world war. When the chance finally came on 1939 Stalin had no problem breaking the peace treaty of 1920. The “eternal times” lasted only 20 years after Latvia was occupied and annexed. On 1944 Soviet Union took away Abrene and joined back to Russia. Russia only fulfills agreements as long as its up to its imperial interests. The Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine on 1994 was advantageous for Russia as its removed nuclear weapons from Ukraine and also guaranteed its borders. On 2014 the borders of Ukraine and its sovereignty was no longer advantageous for Russia, it was advantageous now to violate it. The Latvian – Soviet Russia peace agreement with Russia shows that only agreement Russia accepts is made by blood and iron not by paper. Diplomacy is weakness for Russia, the only diplomacy Russia understands is force.
Stranga, Aivars. (2000) Latvijas – Padomju Krievijas Miera līgums. 1920. gada 11. augusts. Rīga. Fonds “Latvijas Vēsture”