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The Castle of Riga

Latvian postage stamp of the Castle of Riga 1938

Latvian postage stamp of the Castle of Riga 1938

On the night of June 20 to 21 2013 Latvia caught the word spotlight. And that light came from the blaze of the burning castle in Riga. The Medieval landmark of Riga, the Presidential residence, home to Museum of the Latvian National history, Museum of Arts and the Museum of Literature went ablaze from the burning roof. In this hot summer whole Latvia including me followed the events on radio, TV and twitter. The biggest worry for historians was the fate of the Latvian National History museum collection. In the end it was the “lesser evil” as the collection suffered not from the fire, but from the water. The reasons for the fire is still unknown and we are still far to fix all the damage. This post is not only about this fire, but the history of this castle and its future.

Riga was founded in 1201 by German Crusaders who sought to Christianize local pagans. The first crusader castles were built in Ikšķile and Salaspils on 1185 and 1186. They belonged to German Bishops Meinard and Berthold who first lead the crusade. After Berthold’s death in the battlefield his new successor Bishop Albert moved to Riga to establish his new capitol. The very first castle in Riga was the Bishops Court in old city between Jāņa Sēta, Skāŗņu, Kalēju and Kaļķu street. The Bishops Residence was first mentioned on 1207 by Chronicler Henry in the Livonian Chronicle. The small residence was damaged by fire on 1215. On 1234 the Bishop Nicholas gave his stone caste and its surroundings to Dominican Order. Dominicans built a Church of St John (Jānis) on the remains of the castle and the church still stands today.

After giving his castle to Dominicans, Bishop Nicholas moved to his new residence on the right coast of the river Daugava north of the Dome Cathedral. The residence survived until 17th century when it was turned into barn as the Bishop of Livonia was no longer in office since 1563.

The Livonian Order was the branch of the Teutonic Order and wanted to take biggest share of the Riga. Livonia was a confederacy ruled by many Bishoprics and the State of the Livonian Order. Riga was shared by the Archbishop of Riga, the Livonian Order and the Riga Town council. The complicated feudal relations caused a lot of stir even civil war. The first Riga castle for the crusader knights were mentioned on 1225.  The castle survived the fire of 1215, however on 1297 when the conflict between the knights and the city of Riga erupted into full-scale war the castle was burned down. The remains of this old castle is seen today as part of the Church of the St George.

The Second castle of the Livonian Order

The Second castle of the Livonian Order

The crusader knights however won the upper hand. Riga was forced to give the city walls, the Smiļšu (Sand) tower, and the tower of Saint Spirit with the gates to the order. Also the stables were given to greedy knights. The act of capitulation signed on 1330 stated that Riga must give space around the Tower of the Saint Spirit to Order for its new castle. First part of the castle was finished on 1340. Until 147o it was used as the residence of the Master of the Order. The people of Riga disliked the castle and tried to remove it many times. On 1454 rebels attacked the Out tower and managed to burn it down. However, the knights forced them to give up. However, on 1481 a war started again and the castle was surrounded and sealed off for 10 years. On 1484 after most of the defenders died from famine and plagues the castle surrendered.

Victorious council of Riga ordered to blow up the castle. Holes were dug in the walls, doors broken and filled with firewood and explosives. The castle was sent on fire and the walls and towers were destroyed all together.  The Livonian Order was far from giving up. On 1491 the legendary master of the Livonian Order Walter von Pletenberg defeated the Riga auxiliary army near Bukulti. Riga was forced to give up and again recognize the treaty of 1452 that made the Order and the archbishop as the dual rulers of the city.

The third Livonian order castle in 1515 according to Johan Broce

The third Livonian order castle in 1515 according to Johan Broce

The new castle had to built on the same spot. And that is the castle we know today. Sources show first signs of the castle building on 1497. According to tradition castle was finished on 1515. It was built for 20 years because city lacked resources and was forced to ask the help from Tallinn. Also local Russian merchants came to help. The master of the Order Water von Plettenberg himself visited castle only once and resided in the Castle of Cēsis. Cēsis was the main base of operation for the order.

On 1558 The Tzar Ivan IV The Terrible invaded Livonia. The last Master of the Order Gothard Ketler was in the castle with 50 man. The Order lost its newly built castle. On 1525 the Teutonic Order to whom Livonian Order were vassals had ceased to exist and transformed into Kingdom of Prussia. On August 2 1560 the Livonian Order was completely defeated in the Battle of Ērģeme. The Polish-Lithuanian allies took the lands of the order for their own. On March 3 1562 the Master Gothard Ketler released Riga from its obligation to the order. On August 5 the representative of king of Poland and Lithuania Sigismund II  Nicolai Radzivill was invited to castle. The order ceremonially submitted to the king of Poland and Lithuania for it was the only way how to save Livonia from Russia. The Order ceased to exist and became the property of Polish – Lithuanian commonwealth.

The people of Riga once again rose to fight against the new Polish rulers. However, after many years Riga was taken over. The Castle was used for local Polish administration and visited by king Stephan Batory himself. On 1617 when war with Swedes attempted to capture Riga, the castle was not much of a help. Castle was in rotten state and citizens of Riga had to support it themselves to keep it from capture. Many parts of the castle were ruined. The siege failed, but on 1621 the Swedish king Gustav Adolphus II again attacked Riga it was guarded only by 25 men. Only by promising great reward two additional companies were added to the defenders. Castle was taken by Swedes and then recaptured until 1622 Swedes finally took over it.

Swedes choose the castle as the general governor residence for the conquered Vidzeme province. On 1656 Russians invaded Vidzeme and bombed Riga with cannons.  The General Governor Magnus Gabriel Delagadi was hurt by the exploding barrel while standing on castle bastion. During the Great Northern War on 1700-1710 Riga was under heavy siege. While the castle itself a little, a nearby Swedish stronghold suffered a heavy explosion. On 1710 Riga surrendered to Russians.

Swedes had made a lot of improvements and modern fortifications around the castle. Riga along the castle lost its medieval feel. On 1713 when the new Russian rulers established the province of Riga, the castle again became the residence of the governor. The castle church was turned from Lutheran to Orthodox. Castle was shared both by army and the civil authorities. Russians added many outbuildings to the castle. During the 18th century castle was restored many times. The clock tower was replaced because the old one was too unstable. Because of the administrative reforms by Empress Katrina II the bureaucracy needed more space and the castle experienced many changes in its interior. The outside looks also changed adding more modern look.

Riga Castle during the Tzarist times

Riga Castle during the Tzarist times

The Napoleonic invasion on 1812 and the unfortunate burning of the Riga suburbs, forced local authorities to modernize Riga even more. Castle was again renovated. On 1817 in front of the castle the Victory column was established. The General Governor marquise Filip Pauluchi took great care to improve the castle. His successor Karl Magnuss von der Palen continued to remake his residence. Many other General Governors were involved in constant repair and modernization works.  After all old walls and fortifications were completely removed  castle was no longer military important.  For many years the castle was the center of the General Province which had special status. Then on 1879 the special status for the Baltic province was removed. Castle became a property of the Riga town council. It was still used by the Governor of Vidzeme province. On 1910 Tzar Nicolai II was the last Russian Emperor to visit the castle. When the First Word war came to Latvia, the castle was still used by the last governor of Vidzeme who fled the city on August 1917. After that the German army staff occupied the castle.

The Castle of Riga during the Battle for Riga in November 1919

The Castle of Riga during the Battle for Riga in November 1919

On November 18 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed. German army was still residing in the castle. Soon they were changed by the Bolsheviks, however on May 1919 German Landeswerh took the city back. After the German defeat on June, the Latvian national provisional government returned to Riga. The flag of Latvia was raised on the main tower. On November 1919 when Riga was besieged by the Army of Bermont, the castle suffered artillery damage. After they were defeated, the castle was used by State office and the Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis. On August 6 1920 the leaders of the Baltic States held first meeting.

From August 6 1922 the castle became the residence of the first president of Latvia Jānis Čakste. He lived there until his death on 1927. Castle became the symbol of the Latvian presidency. His two successors Gustavs Zemgals and Alberts Kviesis moved their working office to other room and left the old Jānis Čakste office untouched. On 1929 the Swedish king Gustav V paid visit to Latvia and resided in the castle during his visit. The guard of honor was placed at the castle gates.

The Presidential Castle during 1920ies

The Presidential Castle during 1920ies

On 1936 Kārlis Ulmanis who had taken over the country by coup on 1934, installed himself as president. However, Kārlis Ulmanis only worked in the castle and lived in his mansion. He only lived there during his last months of rule. Castle was also used by Presidential Secretariat, official state newspaper “The Governmental Herald” and the Museum of Arts, Museum of History and the State Archive. State Archive later moved to Slokas street. Castle was in rotten state after the war. New repair works begun to make castle as the first building of the state. The Tzarist attributes were removed and replaced with national symbols. When Kārlis Ulmanis came to power his ambition was to build more Latvian Riga. On 1938 a new symbolic tower called “The Tower of Three Stars” was built to celebrate the 20 years of independence. Castle became more Latvian folk styled and there is no telling how far Ulmanis would go in his desire to scourge out the foreign past from Riga.

On 1940 Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. Kārlis Ulmanis stayed in his castle until July. He was then deported and never returned. The new invaders looted the castle riches and vandalized the national symbols. Soviet occupiers stayed in the castle until February 1941. After that it was turned into Palace of the Soviet Pioneers. During the German occupation it was used by German reichcommisariat. When Soviets returned it was again turned into Pioneer palace.

The Soviet Youth Pioneer organization was the Soviet version of the Hitlerjugend. Soviet symbolism was added and rooms revised for youth purposes. However, many of the nationalistic themed paintings were not removed and destroyed. In empty places soviets did added “ideologically correct” paintings. On 1956 Soviets installed central heating. Meanwhile the State History museum also came back to castle. The Museum of Arts moved to Valdemars street. A new addition was the Museum of Foreign arts and the Museum of the writer Jānis Rainis. On 1962 in the castle square a statue of Pēteris Stučka the Latvian Bolshevik leader on 1918-1920 was placed.

On November 11 1988 a great event took place. A flag of the Republic of Latvia was raised on tower of Saint Spirit. This marked the beginning of the great change. After Soviets finally left Latvia, the castle of Pioneers was renamed as the Castle of Riga students. Then on June 7 1993 it was decided that castle must once again became the residence for the president of Latvia. The Castle was visited by president of Poland Lech Valensa and  Bil Clinton from US on 1994. On November 1994 the Presidential office came back. On June 12 1995 the Presidential banner was raised.

Museum of the National History of Latvia and Museum of Foreign Arts remained. The Museum of Rainis was renamed to museum of the Latvian literature. The Soviet years had left the castle in rotten state. The restoration of the castle was one of the main issue for years. National symbols were returned and attempts on  restoring the old look were made. However, the castle still needed major restoration. There were rooms with visible cracks, falling plastering and failing electric installations. Castle was divided into “safe zones” and “unsafe zones”.

The restored Presidential Palace in modern days

The restored Presidential Palace in modern days

However, three presidents Guntis Ulmanis, Vaira Vīķe Freiberga and Valdis Zatlers worked there and welcomed foreign guests. Then on 2012 finally a major restoration works begun. Presidential office with president Andris Bērziņš moved to the House of Blackheads in Old City center. All the museums including the Museum of History still remained in their place and planned to move on 2014. Also since the Museum of the National Arts on the Valdemar street was also under reconstruction it was temporary placed inside the castle.

The Riga Castle on Fire July 20-21 2013

The Riga Castle on Fire July 20-21 2013

On June 20 2013 at 18:45 the restoration workers finished their work and left the castle. The Military Police was responsible for the castle security. Then on 22:21 first calls for firefighters about the burning castle roof were made. It was made not by castle security, but by simple bystander. A huge crowd gathered to see terrific blaze. The castle roof  was burning with a open flame. Firefighters sent large amount of resources. However, the Soviet built water pump failed and broke down. Firefighters had hardships approaching the castle because of the complicated position of the castle. They were also unable to get water from river Daugava because a private yacht blocked the place. Helicopters were intended to be sent, but never came. One firefighter was hospitalized. At 1:00 the open flames were finally brought down. A dramatic pictures of the flag of Latvia amidst the flames terrified everyone. Army Corporal Alvis Brūveris went up the tower and rescued the flag. Next day another Private First Class Aldis Dortāns took the flag to its old place.

The fire left a hole in the roof and gravely damaged the fourth and third floor. The Presidential Office suffered the most damage, the representative halls were burned. The museums who were located at the lower floors escaped the main flames, but were spilled with water. None of the collection items were actually destroyed, but suffered damage.   A temporary roof has only been set up recently. The National History Museum is closed for uncertain time. Its undergoing repair works. Here you can see the damage caused to the museum.

In this long story you might noticed one detail. All other previous castles of Riga suffered from fires. But, this castle had never experienced a serious fire incident in its century long history. Bullet fire, invader vandalism and other calamities could not destroy the castle. However, not even this one fire was not too strong enough to completely end the story of the Castle of Riga. As long there will be people who will care for its historic and symbolic importance the castle will stand for centuries.

The flag tower July 22 2013

The flag tower July 22 2013 after the fire

Selected Sources:

  Caune Māra. (2001) Rīgas pils. Rīga. Zinātne.

Caune, Andris, Ose, Ieva. (2004) Latvijas 12. gadsimta beigu 17. gadsimta vācu piļu leksikons. Rīga. Latvijas Vēstures institūta žurnāls.


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Kārlis Ulmanis Authoritarian Regime 1934-1940

Kārlis Ulmanis shown as the Great Leader. On the top of the left a possible future symbol for future single state party

Kārlis Ulmanis shown as the Great Leader. On the top of the left a possible future symbol of future single state party

Latvia as many other nations were the pioneers of the parliamentary democracy. The hopes for political freedoms were high as Latvian politicians made one of the most liberal constitutions of those times. The election law was also very generous as no percent cap was made and  only 100 signatures were needed to form a party. The good intended policy soon turned into a chaotic political struggle between various parties. Two largest political forces – The Latvian Farmers Union and the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party never managed to achieve political prominence because they had to mingle with the small parties. This caused resentment in many and opposition against the parliamentary democracy grew stronger every year.  Obvious opponents of the parliamentary system were  radicals both left and right wings. Latvian Communist Party worked in underground by the guidance of the Comintern and various nationalist movements also strived for dissolution of the parliament (Saeima). However, as in many cases abroad the people who destroyed the parliamentary democracy were the ones who actually helped to make and took part in it. They were so called founding fathers – the leaders of the wars of independence whose ambitions were limited by the parliamentary democracy. For Poland it was Jozef Pilsudsky, for Lithuania Antas Smetona, for Estonia Konstantin Päts.

Kārlis Ulmanis was born on September 4 1877 at a Bērze parish house called “Pikšas”. He was the third son in a wealthy land owner family.  As a third son, he was sent to various educational facilities. He studied at Zurich and Leipzig universities and earned an agronomist diploma. His entry into politics begun with the revolution of 1905. Czarist authorities sent him to Pskov prison where he spent a few months. After release he went to Germany where he worked as a teacher in Agricultural school. From 1908 to 1909 he was at Nebraska University Lincoln Industrial Agricultural college. After graduating it, he opened his milk farm in Texas.  But, his homeland was more dear to him, so he returned to Latvia in 1913. He resided in Valmiera and worked as an agronomist and the editor of the newspaper “Zeme” (Land). During the First world war he  worked in the refugee support committee. After the February revolution of 1917 he again could start his political career. His biography was perfect: son of a rich farmer family, diplomas from foreign universities, took part in the revolution of 1905 and took part in the important refugee support work.

The young Kārlis Ulmanis

The young Kārlis Ulmanis

So no wonder his designed political force was called the Latvian Farmers Union. Founded by his own initiative and him as the chairman the LFU soon became the leading force. By scoring support with his charisma and willpower, he took the role of the Prime Minister of the Provisional government in 1918. He led Latvia during the War of Freedom from 1918 to 1920 and became widely recognized by the Latvian nation.

 He continued to take part in the Latvian politics and was elected in every election. Many times he again took the role of the Prime Minister, he also served as foreign, war, welfare and agricultural minister. Ulmanis also tried his hand in the business, by founding the Latvian Farmers bank that turned out to bee short lived project. As the years went by his political image faded. Many blamed him for corruption, others noted that Ulmanis was too friendly with national minority party leaders especially Mordehai Dubin the Jewish orthodox politician. The last election results showed a dreadful possibility for Ulmanis not to be elected in future elections.

Kārlis Ulmanis ridiculed by the satyric press 1926

Kārlis Ulmanis ridiculed by the satyric press 1926

The opposition against the democratic system started to rise in the late twenties. In the first discussions were merely about changing the constitution (Satversme) or the election law. However, the leading parties especially LFU discovered that making the election law will hurt them too. Then in early thirties various proposals for changing the constitution appeared. The  usual call was for the president elected by the people not by parliament and making his powers stronger. The idea of a strong personality that would replace a quarreling parliament of 100 men was stronger than ever. The right wing Nationalist Union and the Ulmanis supportive block of the LFU was for this notion.

On October 24 1933 the LFU fraction proposed a radical change in Satversme. 100 parliament seats should be minimized to 50, the age of voting raised 21 years and president is elected by the people for five years. The presidential powers could allow him to dissolve parliament, remove ministers and suppress civil and political liberties. The proposal was not rejected but in usual style sent for examination at the parliamentary commission. That would take long months and that is what Kārlis Ulmanis needed. He was already plotting a coup and long unearthly discussions to divert attention is what he required.

Kārlis Ulmanis was a believer of the strong, solid government with the complete support of the people. He predicted the coming of the new age of unity. His ideal politician was the British dictator Oliver Cromwell, who was the leader of the English civil war and later deposed the parliament. His two close aides were Vilhelms Munters and Alfrēds Bērziņš.  Important ally was General Jānis Balodis also an independence war hero. With his high rank and influence in the Latvian army he devised the plan for the coup. Two other affiliated supporters were Marģers Skujenieks an ex moderate leftist now a nationalist and long time nationalist leader Arveds Bergs.

Conspiracy has begun in summer 1933 and continued until spring 1934. Ulmanis was also a Prime Minister that time that made the job easier. His military supporters took time to gather loyal army units. The most significant achievement was the support from the Aizsargi – civil guard a popular paramilitary organization. They would act as police and ensure order in rural areas.

There were also conspiring forces like nationalistic movement “The Legion” lead by “kopvedis” Voldemārs Ozols.  Their inspirations were uncovered by the secret police and their leaders were arrested few days before the coup. Another nationalist movement “Thundercross” despite sparking anti-governmental agenda was actually preparing for elections. Ulmanis was actually quite sympathetic to them, however their negative stance on LFU proposed changes in Satversme was a negative surprise for him. Eventually the “Thundercross” movement turned out to be the most active underground resistance movement against Ulmanis regime. Meanwhile Latvian Social Democrats that had the most largest arsenal of weapons and supporters was warning everyone  about the coming danger against democracy.

A similar coup took place in Estonia few months ago, Lithuania had already deposed of democracy in 1926. Nazi’s came to power in 1933. The heated rumors about communist/nationalist/military conspiracy was good enough for Ulmanis to call a cabinet meeting on May 15  to inform about expected riots by “the criminal elements”. Therefore an extra security was needed for main governmental buildings including Saeima and the House of Cabinet and also the Postal and Telegraph center. At 19:25 the last parliament session ended. Social Democrats were joking to Ulmanis to treat them as nice as could if he really makes a coup. Ulmanis replied: “Sure as best as I can!”

The conspirators went to jachtclub to play a card game. There Ulmanis said that the time has come. In 23:00 the telephone communications were shut down. At the same time police raided the Social Democrat headquarters. The only shot that was fired during the coup was made by social democrat Bruno Kalniņš that fired his pistol at the ceiling as a protest to his arrest. Despite having arms social democrats were taken by surprise and did not resist. Conspirators moved to the Foreign Ministry. At 8:00 in a morning Ulmanis visited the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis to inform about the coup. With resentment Kviesis accepted the  coup. This was one of the most civilized coups in Europe despite the heavy army and police involvement.

Karlis Ulmanis and Janis Balodis on the night of May 15 1934

Karlis Ulmanis and Janis Balodis on the night of May 15 1934

The official explanation for the coup was that other radical organizations were intending to seize the power, however the parliament was too weak to resist them. Also the unstable international situation was blamed. The reaction against the coup was passive. LFU elected deputies were quite sad about losing their jobs so as the other right wing parties. However, they seen Ulmanis as the lesser evil and silently resigned from their posts. Radical socialists decided that resistance is useless and decided to ally with the Communists and go underground. “Thundercross” was utterly surprised and was angry that Ulmanis had stolen their ideas. In so decided to go against Ulmanis. National minority leaders were worried about loosing their status. Mordechai Dubin called Ulmanis and said “If I am no longer needed here, I will leave!” Ulmanis however talked him out of it. The overall reaction from the people was passive and even welcoming.

The new authorities made arrests. The social democrats were arrested the most. With almost no use of violence, expect broken doors and windows people were taken to Riga Central Prison or the Liepaja Concentration camp. The target groups were social democrats, Thundercross, Jewish socialists and German and Austrian socialist emigrees that werre exiled from Latvia. 503 social democrats, 128 Thundercross members, 15 Jews, 2 Belorussians, one German, and a few members of the right wing parties were jailed. The main scapegoats for the coup – the Legion members were already jailed before May 15 and only six of them were taken into custody after it. Only a few people were actually put on trial and sentenced. The usual sentence was four months in the correctional facility.

The so called Liepaja Concentration Camp had 369 prisoners. The purpose of the camp was to keep the people from making trouble for some time then let go. The conditions of the camp were fine comparing to Nazi and Soviet camps. Until the end of the year nearly all people were released from the prison. The camp was closed in 1935.

Ruling regime fired many people from state sector considered unloyal. All 109 official political parties including LFU  were closed. 113 societies were either closed or demanded to close themselves. Most closed societies were leftist based. A censorship was issued and 50 newspapers were closed. Newspapers were banned from discussing social and national issues. For the first time it was banned to write bad remarks about other ethnic nations.

The press analysis of the 1933-1934 shows relative rise of antisemitism and social tensions within Latvia even in the rural areas. The growing radicalization on both wings was halted by the Ulmanis regime. We may suggest that political radicalization inspired by the Nazi Germany and the falling popularity of the ruling parties may cause greater danger than on May 15. If so then Kārlis Ulmanis had actually saved Latvia from possible problems in the future.

The new government issued a state of emergency for six months. A declaration was issued that stated that parliament is dissolved and constitution has lost its effect until a new one is made. All regional municipalities were fired and replaced with loyal councils.

Although Kārlis Ulmanis was talking about the Latvian national unity and placed Latvians first, he did not dare to suppress the national minority rights completely. However, he changed the liberal education law, by removing minority school councils. He replaced them with a single desk officer for each minority. The number of minority schools dropped, but not in the critical level. Even if some schools were forced to include more Latvian language and history lessons than usual it was nothing that could be compared with countries like Poland or Romania. Ulmanis continued to be a good friend to Jewish leader Mordecai Dubin. Ulmanis only suppressed Jewish socialist activities, he was very found of the Zionist ideas. Consequently from 1934 to 1940 Ulmanis helped thousands of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria to escape to Palestine, Australia and US.

Even with this light approach to things the Kārlis Ulmanis regime can be called exceptionally radical.  Instead of Estonia and Lithuania, where the new dictators passed new constitutions, Ulmanis never bothered to do that. The Satversme was simply taken out of effect to a “better times”. Because of this Latvia still uses the 1922 constitution while other two Baltic States had to pass a new one.  While other two Baltic States had a single official ruling party, Ulmanis simply ruled with his own loyal government. There are however speculations that Ulmanis was actually intending to make his own party, but the war canceled this. Ulmanis only took the president post once Alberts Kviesis had officially finished his days in office in 1936.  The presidential title was just a decoration for Ulmanis. His true  title was the Leader “Vadonis” that was almost a God like figure.

But, there are no reasons to label the Ulmanis regime as “fascist”. Soviet propaganda has created myths about the fascist nature of the Ulmanis regime. No political prisoners were ever sentenced to death. Antisemitism in the mass media was suppressed.  There were no single leading party. It’s true that Ulmanis went to Germany in 1933 to rehab, but that he met Hitler there who instructed him do make a coup is highly questionable. Even wilder tales of book burning marches that are still echoing in the modern Russian historiography are no more than fantasy. The Kārlis Ulmanis regime was a simple authoritarian regime with the featured cult of personality.

Ulmanis regime did a semi-centralization of the Latvian economy. Corporate economic chambers were made for every state sector. Six of them were made for trade and economy, agriculture, manufacture, labor, arts and writing and professions. Corporate chambers worked as a consultative body to the government and controlled associated societies and enterprises. Trough the Ulmanis rule many large enterprises were nationalized and the size of the public sector doubled. In later years plans were set for collective farming. The Latvian economy that already had recovered from the Great Depression experienced an upswing. It’s hard to say whether this was because of Ulmanis policies.

Ulmanis regime ideology was based on holy trinity- The Leader, national unity and Latvian nationalism. The Ulmanis nationalism was to achieve the Latvian national dominance in economy and culture. The Latvian culture and language was regarded as the uniting factor. National minorities were not excluded, nor was it possible to do that, however they experienced a minor reducing of their national rights. Greater importance was added to national unity. The solidarity, unity and common thinking were put in first place. Latvian farmer was placed as the main symbol of the Latvian nation.

The personality cult of Kārlis Ulmanis himself reached high level. He was called the “most wisest statesman in Europe” a “double genius”. His rights of dictatorship were given by the God himself. In the last years before the war Ulmanis had issued to make silver coins with his portrait on it and even new order with his face on it. The propaganda gave rapid dose of positivity and gave one sided look of the world outside and within. The fact that Ulmanis even suppressed to write negative comments about the Nazi Germany and Soviet Union proved to be highly unproductive during 1939-1941.

Ulmanis had vivid ideas in architecture. He planned to demolish much of the Old Riga buildings for being too German. His achievement was the creation of the Dome Square – before there were many small streets with buildings that were removed. He even wanted to remove more buildings. On 1936 The Monument of Liberty was finished (the project was started before Ulmanis rise to power) marking great celebrations. But Ulmanis wanted an even larger monument to the Victory in the War of Freedom. His wish was to build a 25 0000 seat stadium and 50 meter tall tower of victory. 3 million lats were already gathered in public charity, but WW2 halted these plans. Later in that same spot Soviets built the infamous Monument of Victory.

The Grand project of the Victory park

The Grand project of the Victory park

Ulmanis and his foreign minister Vilhelms Munters proved to be far less successful in foreign policy. The neutrality policy was not working in practice. Latvia became far too close to the Soviet Union. Ulmanis despite knowing the context of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact  may have hoped that the Soviets would keep him as a satellite state leader. On 17 June 1940 Ulmanis said a rather shameful speech urging not to resist the invaders and said a historic phrase: “I will stay in my place, you will stay in yours!” He was under the house arrest until 21 July and then deported on the next day to Stavropol. After the German invasion he was accused of anti-Soviet activities and jailed. On July 1 as the German army was approaching he was loaded on a ship to transport him to Krasnoyarsk prison. He fell ill on the ship over the Caspian Sea.  He died in the Krasnovodsk prison on September 20. His resting place is unknown, most probably in the modern day Turkmenistan city of Türkmenbaşy (Krasnovodsk).

The cultivated positive image of the Karlis Ulmanis regime has stayed in the minds of many. What happened after 1940, made a myth of the “good Ulmanis times”. From one side they were good times of stability and relative prosperity, from the other side the removal of democracy and the delusional positivism made Latvians totally unprepared for the greatest shock of the 1940-1941 and the Nazi invasion afterwards.

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks and Šcerbinskis, Valters. (2012) Apvērsums : 1934. gada 15. maija notikumi avotos un pētījumos.Rīga : Latvijas Nacionālais arhīvs : Latvijas Arhīvistu biedrība.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1992) Kārļa Ulmaņa dzīve : Ceļinieks. Politiķis. Diktators. Moceklis. Rīga : Zinātne : Lana.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava.

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Presidents of Latvia

On 14 November 1922 Jānis Čakste was elected as the first president of the independent Republic of Latvia. Since then Latvia had elected eight presidents. They could been more but because of the Soviet occupation the presidential institute was not working from 1940 to 1993. These presidents Jānis Čakste, Gustavs Zemgals, Alberts Kviesis, Kārlis Ulmanis, Guntis Ulmanis, Vaira Vīķe Freiberga, Valdis Zatlers and the present day president Andris Bērziņš have all been and are interesting personalities and played important role in Latvian history. This article will tell more about them and about the presidential institute in Latvia.

When Latvia became fully independent after wining the war of independence at 1920 the new republic needed new constitution. So an interim parliament called Satversmes sapulce (The Constitutional Assembly) was elected to write new constitution and rebuild the post-war state. One of the questions of the new constitution that Latvians called Satversme was the presidential post. How the president must be elected? What will be his authorities is Latvia going to be a presidential or parliamentary republic? However, the leftist Social democrat workers party thought that Latvia don’t need a president at all, since it resembles monarchy and Latvia did not have such tradition in the past. They said the presidential institute will be too expensive and ceremonial and will be not in the interest of the worker masses. Instead they proposed to keep the Chairman of Saeima (Parliament) as the first head of the state that will not cost so much and will not be too aristocratic. But, the center right wing parties objected this and declared that Latvia as democratic state needs a president that could in the case of need limit the parliamentary powers and keep balance in the country.

Another question was if the president was supposed to be elected in popular state wide elections with high powers or elected by parliament with representative powers only. The right wing parties feared that the people could elect left wing populist candidate like popular writer and poet Jānis Rainis. The leftists on the other hand feared that the Kārlis Ulmanis the first Prime Minister of Latvia could be elected putting great obstacles for their goals. So in the end it was decided that the president will be elected by the parliament in three years in office for maximum of two terms. The presidential candidate must be older than 40 years to be able run for office. To start his office he had to give ceremonial oath. The president had to represent Latvia in the international scene, appoint diplomatic representatives in foreign countries and meet with foreign diplomats. President was the number one commander of the armed forces. President had rights to give amnesty to sentenced criminals, summon and lead the cabinet meetings, propose laws, and dissolve the parliament. However a referendum had to bee called to dissolve the parliament completely, if the people vote in favor of the parliament the president must stand down. Also the parliament also had rights to remove the president from his office and all of his orders had to be signed by prime minister. Nothing much has changed today and the presidential authority is still strictly limited today despite numerous calls to make people elected president or to strengthen its powers.  Such calls have always met opposition from coalition parties who don’t want to give up its powers.

Jānis Čakste monument at Jelgava

Jānis Čakste 1922-1927

Jānis Čakste was likely candidate to take the presidential post. Born in 14 September 1859 in Liesesava parish in Semigallia He finished the Juridical Faculty at MoscowUniversity and worked in Jelgava as a secretary in Courland provincial prosecutor’s office however he was dissatisfied with his job and started personal practice as lawyer. He took great activity in social life lead the Jelgava Latvian society and was member in other societies. In 1888 he took the job as the editor of the newspaper “Tēvija” (Fatherland) where he defended the Latvian farmers against the misrule of the German barons his newspaper became the most popular in Courland.

His great speaker skills and national position made him popular and he was elected in First Russian State Council in 1906. His work in there was short lived as the Czar of Russia Nicholas II dissolved the council. Čakste joined the public protest and was arrested and jailed for three months. During the World War I Čakste took active role in leading and organizing the Latvian refugee live in Russia.

In 1917 after the February revolution he took work in Latvian interim national council foreign branch where he assisted to make memorandums for foreign countries. In 17 November 1918 he was elected as the chairman of the Latvian Peoples Council the front institution of the new state. He however received this news with delay and could not join the proclamation ceremony of Latvian republic at 18 November 1918. In 23 November he was summoned to represent Latvia in foreign countries first in Paris peace conference. He spent there a half of year and returned with positive news that he managed to make goods foundations for international state recognition of Latvia. At home he took the lead of the Latvian Peoples council that was sovereign interim power in Latvia and had rights to appoint governments.

In 1920 1 May Čakste was elected as the president of the first Latvian elected parliament the Satversmes Sapulce (Constitutional Assembly) beating social democrat Rainis with 83 votes to 48. His great reputation the wise rule was enough to elect him as the president of Latvia in 1922 14 November. With great majority of 92 votes and six abstaining with no votes against he was given unanimous trust from the parliament. Kārlis Ulmanis and Jānis Rainis resented this as they wanted to be presidents themselves.

Čakste choose his office in the Castle of Riga. He started his working days early waking up at six of clock and taking walks across the streets. He had no enemies and he walked across the streets with no guards meeting the people walking by. His workday begun at nine of clock where he gave instructions to his adjutant and secretary. Once a week a Prime minister and ministers visited him to inform him about the state affairs. President competent enough always gave recommendations and nothing was done without his word. He took time to receive private visits from ordinary people and always left good impression on everyone. He appointed 7 prime ministers, signed 402 new laws and took two diplomatic visits to Estonia and Finland.

Čakste was elected again in 1925 but did not live till the end of his second term; he died at 68 years on 14 March 1927. A great national grief was among Latvians and 150 thousand people attended his funeral. In 1931 a great grave monument was erected at his resting place in Riga at ForestCemetery that became national symbol for years to come. In 2003 in Jelgava a monument dedicated to him was reveled in Jelgava.


Gustavs Zemgals and the Army officers in the city of Daugavpils

Gustavs Zemgals 1927-1930

After the Čakste’s death his seat was temporary taken by Saeima chairman Pauls Kalniņš. Already in 5 April a new elections were held. The right wing proposed Alberts Kvieisis the member of the Latvian Farmers Union who received 44 votes, the left wing candidate Pērteris Juraševskis the minister of interior from Democratic Center got 41 votes. Since both of them did not get the required minimum 51 votes a second vote took place with 45 to 41 making Juraševskis to call of his candidacy. In third attempt Kviesis received 45 votes with 51 abstaining. Another Saeima extraordinary meeting was called in 7 April. Kviesis now headed against non party member Voldemar Zamuel with 43 votes to 44. In second vote they went tied at 47 votes and same tied at third attempt 43 to 43.  Now Kviesis fought Fridrihs Vesmanis the first chairman of Saeima now an envoy in London, 47 to 39 votes was again not enough. In second try 44 to 47 and at third try with Kviesis dropping out Vesmanis received 45 votes. Again not enough.

The nine unsuccessful votes meant that a compromise figure was needed. Social democrats found it in the person of the Defense Minister Gustavs Zemgals. First Zemgals declined such offer thinking he is not suitable for such job. He however was talked into by foreign minister Fēlikss Cielēns and in 8 April he was elected by 73 votes to 23.

Zemgals finished the same Juridical faculty as Čakste and worked for 32 years as the head of the Riga craftsman support society savings and loans bank. He also took role in Latvian Theater building construction and edited many newspapers. After 1918 as well know figure he was member of the Latvian Peoples council and deputy of Jānis Čakste. He took important role in state matters.

Zemgals kept all the Čakste administration members and had good relations with them. He appointed two governments and widely used his amnesty rights amnestying 648 persons. He was the first president who took visit to Sweden to meet the king of Sweden Gustav V in landmark visit. Gustav V in return also visited Latvia. In his years of office he was meditative figure between the various political forces and did not allow any extremes.

In 1930 Zemgals declined offer to run for second therm. He however later decided to run for parliamentary elections and was elected in all following parliaments until 1934. He was a minister of finance from 1931 to 1932 and was active member in parliament. He died in the age of 68 on 6 January 1939.


Alberts Kviesis gives speech at the Latvian Song and Dance festival opening

Alberts Kviesis 1930-1936

Same as Čakste and Zemgals, Kviesis was from Semigalia and was a jurist. He graduated the TartuUniversity and took active role in Latvian refugee affairs. He became a member of Latvian Peoples Council and later the deputy of the chairman. In 1920 he was elected in Satversmes Sapulce and later in Saeima. From 1921 to 1923 he took the office of Interior Minister. He was deputy of Saeima chairman in second Saeima. He already run for president office in 1927 but was defeated. Now in 1930 he run again and again a 10 voting sessions were held until he was untimely chosen.  He faced social democrat Dr. Paul Kalniņš. The far left party Workers and Peasants made things worse by proposing their member Miezis simply because Kviesis in Latvian means “wheat” but Miezis means “barley”.

Kviesis during his two terms of power resembled with his inactivity. He did not propose any new laws; he never took back any law back to parliament and never called any cabinet meeting. He only fulfilled his representative duties and was the most unpopular president of all. Kviesis was great fan of music and took part in the organizing the Latvian Song and Dance festivals and opening them.

In 1933 he decided to run again facing Pauls Kalniņš as competitor, but won in first round with 52 votes to 25. Despite that Kārlis Ulmanis was from the same party as Kviesis (Latvian Farmers Union) he never informed him about his coup plan. In the night of 15 Mat 1934 he was playing cards with his friends in the palace and was informed by plotters about the coup that has taken place. Kviesis despite being the high commander of the army and all the contacts never stepped against Ulmanis. Therefore he was kept as the official head of state while Ulmanis being the real ruler. Last time when he appeared in the public was in 1935 18 November when he reveled the new Monument of Freedom. In 1936 his official term ended and he Ulmanis took the presidential office for himself.  After that he again practiced jurisdiction and went off from politics. He stayed in Latvia during the Soviet occupation, was not deported but stayed under the soviet house arrest. After 1941 German occupation he took different step by joining the Latvian Self Government Juridical general direction in other words he became the Nazi collaborator. He led the general direction for one year until abstaining. In 1944 he with his family took on board the German ship to escape to Germany. He died on the ship on 9 August 1944 while leaving the shores at Daugava river. He was buried on the Latvian soil at Forest cemetery.


Kārlis Ulmanis at the front of journal “Atpūta”

Kārlis Ulmanis 1936 -1940

There is a need for many separate posts about the life of Kārlis Ulmanis, his political carrier and Authoritarian rule. He was born in 1877 in Courland Bērzmuiža parish. He took the agricultural education and traveled across Europe. He was arrested in 1905 during the revolution and exiled to US. He returned in 1913. Taking important post in agricultural sector and scoring serious man reputation he achieved political recognition and became the Prime Minister of Latvia during the War of Independence.

He was elected in all parliaments and led many governments. But he was frustrated in democracy and feared the loss of power as his popularity shrink by every election so he gathered enough supporters to overthrow the government at 15 May 1934. He was successful, the coup was bloodless and the Latvian people in majority did not resist him. After Kviesis left the presidential palace all Ulmanis needed was to issue a law that made him acting president until the constitutional reform. No such reform ever took place so Ulmanis stayed as president until 1940.

The presidential post was only ceremonial and prestige for Ulmanis much of the time was still spent in the Cabinet of the Ministers. He finished is presidency in 1940 with infamous speech saying “I will stay in my place you will stay in yours!”. In reality he was in house arrest and was forced to sign every law that occupation government issued. He then was deported to Soviet Union and died in Krasnovodosk, Turkmenistan 1942 20 September.

The presidential post was restored in 1993. The modern day presidency despite having nearly the same powers as before often has a different meaning and impact society.

Guntis Ulmanis gives speech at UN General Assembly

Guntis Ulmanis 1993-1999

His grandfathers brother was Kārlis Ulmanis making him relative of the legendary leader. G. Ulmanis was born in Riga 1939, but in 1941 he along with his family was deported to Krasnoyarsk Siberia. In 1946. they were allowed to return. He graduated the Economy Faculty of the Latvian State University. He was conscripted in the Soviet Army were he took duty for three years. After that he took office in Riga Administration in Trams and Trolleybuses, later in Riga city executive committee from where he was fired because of his surname. In 1965 he joined the Latvian Communist Party he departed from in in 1989. At seventies he took offices in consumer services.

In 1992 he was appointed as the member of the Latvian Bank council. In 1992. he joined the Latvian Farmers Union after his election he canceled his active membership in the party and became honorably chairman. He left the party in 2001. His surname was kick start for his run for presidency, he was seen as a candidate of compromise that had no political influence during the process of regaining independence.

So in 1993 the new parliament elected him as the new president. One his main achievements of the first therm was the signing the Russia – Latvia agreement of the withdrawal of Soviet Army from Latvia in 1994. He took active role in diplomatic matters and went to many countries. At his years of office he however got in peculiar situation in US when speech saying “the politicians are good liars” while actually trying to say “the politicians are good lawyers”.

In 1996 he was elected again. He took steps to abolish the death penalty. In 1998 he actively supported the changes in Citizenship laws. In 1999. G Ulmanis formed the Latvian Historian commission to research the totalitarian regimes and their crimes in Latvia. He was active in legislation by  proposing 12 laws, and turning back 18 laws.

After his second therm he continued to actively contribute to the society. He took active part in the organization of the international Ice Hockey championship in 2006 taking the head post of championship executive direction. He was one of the founders of the ice hockey club Riga Dinamo was the chairman of the club council.

In 2010 he returned to politics by joining the  political union “For Good Latvia!” that was made from two parties “Peoples Party” and “Latvian First Party”. Since both parties had bad reputation as the oligarch parties he damaged his reputation in the eyes of many.  He was elected and worked in European and Foreign affairs commission. After the dissolution of the parliament in 2011 he left the politics and now lives a peaceful live.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia acknowledges the applause of Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and members of Congress, Wednesday, June 7, 2006, after an address to a Joint Meeting of Congress held in her honor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Vaira Vīķe Freiberga 1999 – 2007

Vaira Vīķe Freiberga was born in Riga on 1 December 1937. Her family leaved Latvia in 1945 and went to West Germany later Morocco. Later they moved to Canada. Freiberga graduated the Toronto University in Psychology. Later she received PhD. in experimental psychology. At Montreal University she worked as lecturer in psychological studies. She also studied the structure Latvian folk songs. She has published 10 books and 160 publications.

In 1988 after being elected as the emeritus honorably professor of the Montreal University she moved to Latvia to become the first director of the Latvian Institute.

In 1999 Freiberga was again chosen as  a compromise figure between various political parties. Her high intelligence and great international reputation scored main part in her election. Her main achievement was the active role in Latvian entry into NATO and European Union. She scored a great sympathy from foreign leaders especially the US president George Bush Senior. In local affairs she took larger role than ever placing pressure on parliament and putting hold on government proposed changes in security laws. Some called her a Baltic Iron Lady. She was elected again without any opponent in 2003. Liked by many and disliked by some she managed to strengthen the presidential office.

Valdis Zatlers gives historical speech to dissolve the parliament

Valdis Zatlers 2007 -2011

A surgeon without any political experience Valdis Zatlers was unusual choice for presidents office. Born in 1955 22 March Zatlers graduated as a doctor and worked in medical sector for large part of life. Before the presidency he lead the Riga Orthopedic and Injury treatment center scoring great reputation as surgeon. His good connection with politicians made him a candidate for presidents office. The opposition proposed much respected candidate Aivars Endziņš who was the Chairman of the Constitutional court. Zatlers was elected with 58 votes to 39. Later it was discovered that the ruling parties have chosen him as their candidate in the Riga Zoo.

Zatlers firs years in office was unconvincing, because of his poor experience and many poorly made public attendances. He accidentally said to media “Who am I?” making his phrase historic. However later he started to show himself as a serious statesman who do not obeys the party interests. He is known for his visit to Kremlin in his last year of rule at 2011.

In his years of rule he many times toyed with threats to dissolve the parliament. First time he made a ultimatum against the crisis driven government to fulfill his  demands unless he dissolves the Saeima. His demands were met and he did not made this move. However in the last year of rule, it was a great possibility that he will not be elected for second therm. In 28 May 2011 few days before the election after the scandalous vote by parliament to prevent police search in one of the deputies Ainārs Šlesers also known as oligarch home, Zatlers officially dissolved the parliament.  However, he still wanted re-election from the parliament that dissolved him. He was beaten by candidate from Green Farmers Union Andris Bērziņš.

After leaving presidential office Zatlers formed his own party to enter the emergency election. His party came second, but faced great failures right from the start by making unpopular moves in coalition forming process  and having party split at first day of new parliament. He is now a member of the parliament and leads the Security and Defense commission. His bid to became Chairman of Saeima failed. Recently because of ongoing health problems he has resigned from his party leadership. On 2014 he did not run for the parliamentary elections and his party ceased activities. He now lives in retirement.

Andris Bērziņš in military uniform

Andris Bērziņš

Born in 1944, 10 December Bērziņš has education in Radio engineering and economics. He was director of industrial company RA “Elektrons” from 1971 to 1988. From 1988 to 1989 he was deputy of Latvian Soviet Republic consumer service minister. He was elected in Latvia High Council from 1990 to 1993. He then took job in business by leading the Unibank (now SEBbank) from 1993 to 2004. From 2007 to 2009 he was as working Latvanergo the energy company council chairman. From 2006 to 2010 he was a president of Latvian Trade and industrial camera. In 2010 he was elected in Saeima from Green Farmer Party list.

Having elected as Latvian president he already was one of the richest man in Latvia with the biggest pension in whole country. His first days were infamous as he met a large opposition from the society that was supporting Zatlers. To improve his ratings he made some populist moves like giving his pay to cities and social services, giving up the escort sirens and not giving speech on Christmas and New Years Eve.

Bērziņs however has gotten into trouble for his bad speaking skills, abrupt statements making him compare to  Bush Jr. or even Brezhnev. Many of his actions and spoken opinions have caused a great resentment and there was a campaign to asking him to resign. Despite his Green Farmers background he supported the coalition lead by Valdis Dombrovskis that was directed against Green Farmers. He supported Latvian entry into Eurozone while Green Farmers stood against and downplayed other populist Green Farmers proposals that would infringe the state economy.

Bērziņš maintained friendly policy towards Russia and Central Asian authoritarian leaders. He was caught off guard by War in Ukraine, for he could no longer keep balanced policy with the eastern neighbor. He stood in united line with other EU member states and supported sanctions and condemned the annexation of Crimea. However, because of his poor English skills and stiffness he was criticized for lacking leadership when comparing to Estonian and Lithuanian presidents. He still hoped for easing the relationships with Russia by delaying the decision to accept the invitation to WW2 victory parade at Moscow. While neighboring states gave quick and strict no, Bērziņš issued that he is not coming to Moscow after long delay. It took him long time to decide if he is going for the second term on 2015. After observing that he has low support for re-election among the parliament he issued that he is not running for second therm. Bērziņš was one of the most unpopular presidents of Latvia.


Raimonds Vējonis

On July 8 2015 Raimonds Vējonis was elected as the night president of Latvia. Born in 1966 in Pskov district in Russia, to a Russian mother and Latvian father, Vējonis spent his youth days in Madona district, village Sarkaņi. He graduated the Faculty of Biology in the University of Latvia on 1989. On 1990 he joined the Latvian Green Party, was chief  deputy in the Madona Regional Environmental direction also a member of Madona municipality. On 1996 he became director of the Greater Riga Regional Environmental Department. On 2002 he as appointed as Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional development. On 2003 he took the post of the Minister of Environment. He stayed at this post until 2011 when Environment Ministry was closed down and he again too the post of Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development. After 2011 elections his party alliance the Green Farmers where moved into opposition and he continued as parliament member.  On 2014 he as appointed as Minister of Defense. With that he is the most long long running members of the government, who survived many coalition changes and elections. He became influential within the allied Green Party and Latvia Farmers Party and lead the Green Party before getting elected as president. He became popular within the society after becoming the Minister of Defense. The chairman of the Green Party nevertheless showed great care for the army and showed tough stance on Russia by calling its actions in Ukraine as aggression.

On 2015 he was placed forward as presidential candidate by Green Party.  Vējonis was elected in stiff competition in four run vote, finally elected with 55 votes for.  After election Vējonis continued to express support for defense sector and close cooperation with NATO. He has called for changes in constitution to strengthen and  emphasis the role of the president and other government officials during military conflict. As president he has declined permanent stay in Presidential residence in Jūrmala and kept his apartment in the city of Ogre. He has became popular with light heartened behavior and jokes.  In the first moments when he learned that he was elected as president and came to hold the speech, he first took the glass of water and with  microphone on he said “Ok, First I must take a drink!”. He took the public reaction to his words as president with humor. Vējonis has been serving as president for few months and time will tell how well he will work in the presidential office.

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