Tag Archives: Russian Revolution

Jews and Latvians in the 1905 Revolution

The Bloody Sunday on the January 22 (9 according to Julian calendar still used in Russian Empire) was a wakeup call for many nations across the Russian Empire. For Russians it was a fight for more political and social rights. For Latvians it was fight also for greater national rights. This was shared also by the Jewish people living across the Russian Empire. Their main strive was to defend themselves from the violent anti-Semitism and abolish all restrictions towards them. Together with Latvian revolutionaries they were united under one common goal – to bring down the oppressive absolute tsar Nicholas II monarchy. The revolution of 1905 was one of the interesting moments in history where despite cultural and ethnic differences the Latvian and Jewish revolutionaries fought together and even averted the anti-Jewish pogrom attempt in Riga.

Russia was stranger to Jews until the first partition of Poland on 1772 . After the final land grab on 1795 Russia gained enormous territories of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  For centuries Poland had large Jewish population. They were in large numbers in present day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. The 1897 First All-Russia national census counted 142 315 Jews within modern borders of Latvia 7,4% of the population. To keep Jews from moving to Moscow or Petersburg Russia introduced the Pale of Settlement (Черта́ осе́длости) a territory for permanent Jewish settlement and it was forbidden to live outside it. Originally only the eastern Latvian part of Latgale was within the Pale of Settlement as it was part of the Province of Vitebsk. But, a sizable Jewish population already lived in Courland. Despite many restrictions Jews managed to settle or work in Riga. Northern Latvian part of Vidzeme renamed almost unreachable to Jews with very small population. Jewish youth faced hard conscription rules for 12 years to serve in army, taxes were higher for them.

During the reign of the liberal Tsar Alexander II the Jewish relations with the state eased but after his assassination the relations gotten again to worsen level. Reactionary forces blamed Jews in the murder first pogroms took place. Pogrom – a large scale violence soon became a synonym for major violent attacks directed towards Jews. A violence that led to a political response from the Jewish nation. One part of them joined the Zionist movement that called for unification of the Jewish people under national means. They rejected assimilation and conversion to Christianity as it would not completely erase anti-Semitism. As Jews will always be regarded as strangers no matter how emancipated in the society they are. There were Zionist movements in Latvia, but their part in the revolution of 1905 was insignificant. And it’s another story to be told in future. The main force of the 1905 revolution was the far left social democrats and within them the Jewish Bund.

The Bund represented the masses of the Jewish workers or the so called Proletariat. Although Jews were always stereotyped as wealthy traders, large masses of Jews worked for 14 hours in a day with low wages and lived in poor unsanitary conditions.  Plus the nationally based restrictions made then to unite under the Red Banner that promised equal rights for all nations. The Bund was founded in Vilnius on 1897 as the Universal Jewish Labor Union in Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Later it was commonly known as the Bund (alliance).Bund was the first major Jewish party in Russia and also the first social democratic party. As the Russian Social Democratic Workers party (RSDWP) was founded a year later. Bund joined them and took active part in the strikes and demonstrations. The Russian authorities persecuted them and arrested their leaders. Later because of the national differences on 1903 Bund left the RSDWP, but cooperated with them during the revolution. While the Bund rejected the nationalistic Zionist ideas, they agreed in need of having Jewish schools and keeping the national traditions. However, they were strongly against the role of the religion and insisted on secularity.

The industrialized Riga and other parts of the Baltic province was no stranger to the workers movement. Some Jews  like Jankel Epstein from Daugavpils were first to direct the movement. Bund was popular among the Jewish students within the Riga Polititechnical Institute some of them were ejected from it. Daugavpils with major Jewish population –  most of them workers was the main headquarters for the Bund. They took part in all strikes and protests including the major First May demonstration that took place in many cities of Russia. Because the demonstration in Vilnius caused rough government response by publicly whipping the organizers, that in response caused attack on the general governor, in Riga local Bund members created a armed resistance group. The external Bund bureau however asked to resort from violence.

The Russian defeat in the war with Japan led towards economical downfall. On January 9  (22) 1905 in Petersburg the large peaceful crowd marching towards the Tsars main palace asking him to listen to their petition was fired upon by the Tsars guard causing bloodbath known as the Bloody Sunday. The largest country in the world with modernizing society, but with decadent absolute monarchy went into rage. Nicholas II witnessed the murder of the Alexander II  who was killed by anarchists despite abolishing serfdom and intending to write a constitution. Because of this, Nicholas II was slow and reactionary to reforms. But, the people across the Russia had enough of this. So as the Latvian people.

The leading force of the Latvian revolutionaries was the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, united with Bund on January 13 it hosted a demonstration march in Riga for the fallen comrades in Petersburg. The large demonstration of 10 000 people lead by LSDWP leader Ansis Bušēvičs marched from Moscow Street to the city center. Despite Buševičs calling to end the demonstration and lower the red flags , large parts of crowds did not listen and moved towards the armed cavalry of Cossacks.Police and Cossacks responded with fire killing more than 70 people. Many tried to cross the frozen river Daugava to escape the shooting and drowned. Among the killed were five Jews and 9 wounded. The fallen were young men 22 year old Eliass Epstein, Michael David Abramovich of the same age, 17 year old Izrail Jaschikov, Chaim Jankel Sperling 18 years old and 22 years old Michail Ucca. Two among them were from the Bund.

Revolution sparked out in Latvia. Bund started major activities. On 1905 and 1907 two general strikes were held in Daugavpils. An odd form of strike was held in Riga on 1905 May and June a strike of the producers and traders of the kosher meat that left the kosher eating Jews of Riga without kosher food for almost a month. It’s not known how significant was the kosher only population that suffered from this as not all Jews applied to the religious rules. On summer of 1905 the rural workers in Kurzeme (Courland) issued a general strike and Tsarist government issued a state of war within the Courland province. On September 16 the Jewish-Latvian students of the Riga Politechnical institute issued protest in support of the striking field workers.

When the protests resorted to arms Jews joined Latvians in armed assault against the Riga Central Prison to free their imprisoned comrades. In the night of September 6 to 7 47 Latvian and five Jewish fighters raided the prison and freed two main revolutionaries J Lācis and J  Šļesers. Also the famous LSDWP commando who became an anarchist Jānis Žāklis later known as the Peter the Painter whose mother was a Lutheran Jew. He took part in most of the armed actions against the Tsarist authorities. However, later he became too violent and was rejected by his social democrat comrades.

The use of violence was a great issue for the Latvian revolutionaries. At the end of the 1905 the revolution was close to failure. On December 9 armed uprising begun in Moscow. Some Latvian, Russian and the Bund called for armed uprising in Riga too. They even insisted on storming the Fortress of Daugavgrīva where the main Riga garrison was stationed. The majority of LSDWP was against such bloodshed, however the Bund did not back down and joined the radical Russian social democrats who wanted the uprising. In long frantic talks from December 11 to December 16 the LSDWP convinced the Bund not to start uprising and general strike. On December 18 the interim Baltic general governor general-lieutenant V Sologob arrived in Riga and started the punishment expeditions.

In one cause the Bund and LSDWP was united without question. Do not allow any pogroms in Riga and elsewhere around Latvia. LSDWP as marxist party was against anti-Semitism and called for general human rights regardless of nationality. Even the future Latvian nationalist leader Arveds Bergs called for full cooperation between Latvians and Jews and asked to give them full rights. On the other side the Latvian monarchist Fricis Veinbergs published anti-Semitic slogans supporting the pogroms.

The 1905 revolution again ignited the pogroms in Russian Empire. The last major pogrom took place in Kishinev modern day Moldova. While Tsar openly condemned this, in private he expressed support for anti-Semitism that could unite nation in support for his regime. The major radical supporters of the Tsar Nicholas II were the far right radicals often with ultra-orthodox views. These people were called the “Black Hundred” (Чёрная сотня). The ideals of the Black Hundred were mix of Russian imperialism, chauvinist nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. Together with violent anti-Semitism the Black Hundred was the first early fascists. Sadly this form of Russian far right is gaining prominence again in the modern day Russia.

It was not just Black Hundred that was responsible for waves of pogroms in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. On October 18-20 in Odessa 400 people were killed. The Tsarist police although condemning the attacks and trying to arrest the perpetrators, often did nothing on purpose as they believed the majority of the revolutionaries were Jews. Tsar and the Church condemned the attacks, but they also thought that they help them to quell the revolution. Such pogroms could take place in Latvia also but were stopped by the joint Latvian and the Jewish efforts.

First violent attacks against the Jews took place in city of Ludza. But, they were small scale attacks on shops and were stopped by locals. Daugavpils was filled with rumors about coming pogroms in April but did not happen. On August the Riga port workers turned violent and wanted to attack the Jews. This time the police and Cossacks stopped them. On October 17 Tsar was forced to issue his manifesto that gave some of his powers away. The reactionaries blamed the Jews and on October 18 a pogrom started in Kyiv. Then in Riga the local Russian workers who supported the Tsar became violent. They mostly lived in the Moscow district where many Jews lived too and were angry that they liked the new freedoms granted by the weakened Tsar. Riots started on October 22-23. However, these riots only were a attempt to start a pogrom.

On October 22 first clashes between the Russians, Jews and Latvians took place on Lielā Kalna Street near the Orthodox Church. The angry Russians were from the Kuznetsov porcelain factory who assaulted both Latvians and Jews. The fight was stopped only by the arrival of the Cossacks. After learning the news both the LSDWP and Bund decided to form the self defense groups to defend both Latvian and Jewish supporters.

On October 23 the workers of the Kuznetsov factory gathered for a patriotic march a small crowd of 100-150 men. Despite having support for the Black Hundred, there was no such working Black Hundred organization within Latvia at that time. The marchers holding the pictures of Tsar and holding icons marched along the streets of  the Moscow district. The marchers started to attack everyone who they disagreed with along the way even Russians. Bloodshed erupted between the marchers, Cossacks and the LSDWP and Bund armed units. Among them the future foreign minister Fēliks Ceilēns. Angry mob joined by homeless and scoundrels attacked the Jewish shops reached the Yaroslavl street 44/43 (now Ludza street) where the Jewish Social home was located and was ready to attack it.

Fortunately the Jewish defenders along with Latvian comrades had already taken the defensive positions. Attackers were held back by the fire, and the Cossacks rushed to the scene to stop both of them. The major pogrom attempt was stopped although later in separate incident one Jew named Jankel Poplak was killed. Also Jew Zalman Gurevich was killed before him. 4 Latvian self defenders were killed in the clashes. 2 Latvians were killed by the angry mob. 3 Russians died along. A total of 47 people were killed or hurt. Majority of them were Latvians. Meaning this was not just pogrom attack against Jews but also against Latvians. As the Russian monarchists regarded Latvian revolutionaries as enemies too.

On October 24 the governor of Vidzeme Nicholas Zvegincev banned all patriotic demonstrations with the pictures of the emperor and the Russian anthem. With Tsar still in place this was clearly attempt of preventing pogrom. Similar clashes on the same time took place in Daugavpils resulting the death of the Jewish combatant Aron Feldman.

The major pogrom was avoided in Riga, because there was no major support for it among Latvian population. Also the Riga Tsarist police and the Cossacks were on the active side of the law. And of course the Latvian-Jewish joint defense groups fought off the Russian radicals. This is a rare event when pogrom was prevented in the major city of the Russian Empire. Other cities were not so fortunate.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution both the LSDWP and Bund worked underground. The outbreak of the First World War caused many Latvians and Jews to take refuge in Russia. The Pale of Settlement was broken. The Revolution of 1917 again took Latvian and Jewish leftists on the streets. Some joined the Bolsheviks. Other sided with democratic Republic of Latvia. During the period of 1918-1934 both LSDWP and Bund took part in the Latvian politics and worked together.

Selected Sources:

Stranga, Aivars (2006) 1905-1906. gada revolūcijas lappuses. Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Nr.2.

Stranga,Aivars. (2008) Ebreji Baltijā no ienākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam 14. gadsimts-1945. gads. Rīga. LU Akadēmiskais Apgāds.

Mendels, Bobe (2006) Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga. Šamir.

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The Latvian Red Rifleman in the Russian Civil War 1917-1922

The Monument of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The Monument of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The formation of the Latvian Rifleman regiments had national causes. Latvian land was invaded by the German army, and large numbers of Latvians applied to make national armed forces in the Russian army. The Czar Nicholas II had doubts about that – he remembered the revolution of 1905 where Latvians took active role. After three years of war his fears became true – Latvian rifleman joined the Bolshevik revolution. Latvian red rifleman is one of the controversial subjects in Latvian history. Praised by Lenin, doomed by Stalin and hated by nationalist Latvians, Latvian rifleman had made their place in Russian history. Their role in the Russian Civil war are often overestimated and filled with many myths. Only in last twenty years we are able to discover who these men really were.

As mentioned the Latvian rifleman regiments were originally formed in 1915 to defend Riga from the Germans and liberate rest of the Latvian land. Latvian rifleman fought in heavy frontline for two years. In the outcome, Germans could not capture Riga, but Russian army also was unable to chase Germans away. Latvian rifleman suffered heavy losses in battles of Island of Death (1916) and the Christmas Battles (1917). Latvians were angered by the incompetence and hypocrisy of the Russian high command. Also the Russian supporting divisions were not much of a help.

On 23-27 February (8-12 March) Czar Nicolay II resigned. Russia was now ruled both by Provisional government and by the Petrograd Soviet. The two government situation led to confusion and rivalry. The armed forces now became center of political fight arena.

The Interim government was ready to continue war, while Bolsheviks promised peace and bread. The leadership of 12th army where Latvians fought tried to establish loyal executive committee called Iskosol. However, Latvians had no interest about it. On 26 March representatives of the rifleman first met at Valmiera and decided that they must continue to fight and support the Petrograd Soviet. They also asked for autonomous Latvia in democratic Russia. Soon the rifleman circles were entered by the Bolshevik agitators. From 9 to 11 April in Riga 1st rifleman congress took place deciding to organize united officer and soldier executive committee or Iskolatsrel.

The Iskolatsrel was ruled by far left-wing majority, however there were calls for Latvian national autonomy. The leading figure was staff captain Ozols. Despite the presence of right wing views among Latvians, the Bolsheviks started to gain upper hand. They were superbly organized and experienced. Their sympathizers were mainly low rank soldiers, while officers were more nationally minded. Also there so-called Mensheviks that fell out with the Bolsheviks and asked to support the Provisional Government. On 29 May at Second rifleman congress conducted a resolution that disapproved the Provisional government and asked the handover of power to the workers, soldiers and peasants.

On spring 1917 the German general staff decided to finally capture Riga and encircle the 12th army. The attack was set at 1 September and Russians were aware of this. However, the army was demoralized and could not withstood the German cannonade and fell back. However, Latvian rifleman continued to resist faced Germans at Mazā Jugla. Facing German majority, Latvian rifleman held of the offensive rescuing the Russian army units who retreated in panic.  Even despite Bolshevik sentiments the Latvian riflemen were ready to defend their homeland. In same time loyal to Russian government units fled without a fight. Latvians managed to hold for 26 hours and then retreated with the rest of the 12th army. The army was saved but Riga was lost.

Meanwhile in Petrograd (Petersburg) the Provisional government started to lose its power. Bolshevik uprising in July and Kornilov Affair in August made Lenin stronger.

When 12th army was in disarray on 25 October (7-8 November) Bolsheviks seized the power by coup and called it an international revolution. Majority of the Latvian rifleman supported this. Only small circle of Latvian officers and nationally minded soldiers gathered in Latvian National Soldiers Union. The Iskolatsrel lead by Bolsheviks turned down the right wing Latvian National Provisional Council.

For a short time a Soviet power was established in Latgalia and much of Vidzeme. Meanwhile in Petrograd it was decided that Red Guards and Sailors are not enough to defend the city. So first Latvian rifleman 6th Tukums regiment was sent to defend the Bolshevik headquarters in Smolny institute. Many Latvians were against this. The new arrived Latvians took part in disbanding the Constituent Assembly 19 January 1918.

Lenin could not legitimize his seizure of power. The Russian army had collapsed and the new Red Guards were poorly disciplined. So Latvian rifleman who still kept relative unity and discipline were summoned to help the Bolshevik revolution. A Latvian revolutionary corpus was made. On 19 February 1918 Germans launched a full-scale attack to capture all parts of Latvia and Estonia. Latvians retreated this time. On March Latvia rifleman marched in Moscow. Russia was already full of Latvian refugees from WWII. Latvian riflemen were forced to abandon their homeland, but their will was still strong and hopes for returning were high.

Latvian Red Rifleman in Red Square at Moscow

Latvian Red Rifleman in Red Square at Moscow

On 3 March Soviet Russia signed peace agreement with Germany. The Russian military command was reorganized; all high command posts were disbanded and staffs were fired. It turned out that of destroyed multi-million Czar army only Latvian rifleman were left intact. At Moscow 5700, at Petrograd, Toroshin and Bologoje – 6000 Latvian man still were ready to fight. Initially an order came to disband the Latvian regiments, however with the lead of commander Jukums Vācietis the order was disputed. While Soviets officially declared that they have an international army, they were forced to include national division in their ranks. Latvians had great reputation and still ready to fight. Also Estonian divisions in the Red Army were formed.

On 13 April 1918 the Soviet Wartime and people’s commissariat issued an order to form Latvian Soviet rifleman division. The commander in charge was Vācietis, and commissars were Pētersons and Dozīte. It was one of the first divisions in the Red Army. Nearly all remaining Latvian men joined, all believed in coming defeat of Germany and the liberation of Latvia. Most of them took the rifleman regiment as their family and had nowhere to go since the border was closed. At the end of 1918 there were 23-24 thousand man in the division along with 400 machine guns, 80 cannons and 20 airplanes.

 One of the first serious Latvian battles in the Russian civil war was the uprising of the Czech legion May 1918. The legion of Czech and Slovak nationals was formed from prisoners of war and included in the Russian army. Soviets initially promised to transport them over Vladivostok to France. However, Soviet war commissar Leon Trotsky ordered to disarm them. A legion of size of 51 000 man revolted and too over large areas from Volga to Far East. After first incidental encounter between Latvians and Czechs, that proved successful for Latvians, more regiments were sent to deal with the enemy.

On 6 July at Moscow the anti-Soviet leftist movement the Socialist Revolutionary Party of so-called Esers, launched a coup against the Soviet government. Latvians took the most important part in defeating the Eser uprising that crushed this important movement completely. Latvians also crushed the Esers at Yaroslavl, where ex Latvian rifleman officer Kārlis Goppers was one of the anti-Soviet leaders. Also another Latvian officer Fridrihs Briedis was arrested by Cheka.

As the situation in the Eastern front was critical Latvian officer Vācietis was appointed as the commander in chief of the whole Red Army. At night between 16 and 17 July Soviets murdered the whole family of Czar Nicholas II. It has been speculated for many years that Latvians took part in the murder. While Latvian historians drastically denies that any Latvian took part in the shooting, Russian historians name at least one Latvian named Celms and claims that five other Latvians refused to fire at the Czar’s children.

Jukums Vācietis - the High commander of the Red Army

Jukums Vācietis – the First Main commander of the Red Army

Latvians took the most part in defending the Kazan. On September British Secret service agent’s ambassador R. H. Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Rielly was provoked by Latvian rifleman in to plot to depose the Soviet government. British believed that the Latvian rifleman will help them to stage a coup, however it was a trap by Cheka and the ambassador was arrested.

Latvians were sent to Southern front to face the Don Cossacks. Latvians remembered the actions done by Cossacks in Latvia in 1905-1907. However in 11 November 1918 Germany surrendered ending the WWI. On 13 November Soviet Russia annulled the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. Latvians were ready to go back to homeland and make it as Soviet republic. On 18 November in Riga the right-wing Peoples Council proclaimed the Republic of Latvia as national independent state. Soviets saw this as an obstacle. On 23 November the Commissar in the National issues Joseph Stalin ordered to form a provisional soviet Latvian government. That was done in 4 December. Soviets needed the puppet republics to justify the occupation of the Baltic States.

On November Red Army Pskov division entered Latvia. Latvians were still far behind caught up in other sectors of the whole civil war front. Latvian riflemen were told that the democratic Latvian provisional government is actually ruled by German barons and whole idea of sovereign Latvia is just a German trick to annex Latvia. Latvian government was forced to cooperate with Germans and ask for their armed assistance. However, both sides knew that is a temporary union dictated by the Soviet offensive. Latvian government issued a call to Latvian rifleman to join the ranks of the new Latvian army. Rifleman never heard this and it would not change much. On 18 December first red rifleman entered Latvia.

While the Latvian government had issues forming their own army, red rifleman defeated Germans at Inčukalns. On 3 January 1919 red rifleman brought Soviet power to Riga. A Latvian Soviet Army was formed with Vācietis in charge. The head of the Latvian Soviet government was Pēteris Stučka. Latvian army along with Germans were chased away to Courland and held small strip of land from Ventspils to Liepāja.

However, soon troubling news came from Estonia. Estonian army had defeated the Red Army and head into Northern Latvia. Red riflemen were sent to face the Estonians but were beaten. Estonians had effectively defeated the red rifleman along Valka.

The Soviet plans for communist revolution in Germany crumbled. Latvian Soviet government carried out nationalization angering the peasants who at first believed that Soviets will give them land. Soviets issued a mobilization and gathered a force of 250 000 man – young, untrained without any will to fight. Red rifleman in the end managed to stop Estonians from taking all of Vidzeme. Meanwhile Germany sent a large force of auxiliary forces of the so-called “Iron Divison”.

Germans along with Latvians started the offensive on February. Soviets were defeated in all fronts also Estonians continued to attack at northern Latvia. In April Estonians formed the 1 Valmiera infantry regiment made of Latvians, many of them deserters from the Soviet army. The mobilized Latvians refused to fight and joined the Estonian ranks.

Latvian Soviet republic crumbled. On 22 May Germans captured Riga. Latvian army followed behind but met their fellow Latvians in the battlefield of Kaugurciems. Soviets were chased away from Vidzeme and retreated in Latgalia. After Germans and Latvians turned against each other in the battle of Cesis, the situation stabilized. Meanwhile Moscow was unsatisfied with the red rifleman and renamed the Latvian Soviet Rifleman division to 53 Rifleman Division removing its national status. At last a communist fraction was made within division to suppress any anti-soviet activity.

On July red rifleman were sent to Belorussian front to fight Lithuanians and Poles. Disappointed Latvian rifleman left their homeland for the last time. On September they were sent to fight of White Guard offensive to Moscow. Latvians now fought on the fields of Orla and Kursk. After finishing Denikin Latvians were sent against Yudenich at Tula region. While other Red Guards run off from approaching White Guard tanks, Latvians did not lost courage and stood against them. Latvian rifleman entered Eastern Ukraine and encountered Anarchists lead by Nestor Makhno.

Meanwhile in Latvia at the winter months Latvian army liberated Latgalia. On 1920 news came to faraway rifleman about peace talks between Latvian Republic and the Soviet Russia. It now came to Latvian rifleman that their cause for free Latvia was lost and those who they stood against were the real heroes.  There was no way back they were trapped in Soviet Russia.

The Insignia badge of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The Insignia badge of the Latvian Red Rifleman

Despite that the remaining Latvian forces fought battles in Crimea. After a year of hard battles the remaining Latvian rifleman divisions were finally disbanded. Large numbers of Latvian rifleman choose to move to independent Latvia. Others however stayed. Many of them like Vācietis, Bērziņš, Pētersons and others stayed in Soviet Russia and took high governmental posts. In the purges of 1937-1938 the remaining elite of the Latvian rifleman was eliminated. Soviet leadership disliked the Latvian rifleman from the start, but was forced to relay on them.

Stalin destroyed most of the top Latvian red rifleman. After the occupation of Latvia, the Soviet propaganda remembered about them and used to justify the Soviet power. Monument commemorating them was placed in center of Old Riga. Museum dedicated to them was built nearby which now serves as a museum of occupation.

The reason why the Latvian Red Rifleman is sometimes called the core of the Red Army and the rescuers of communist revolution was their great discipline and will power. The Red Army units were often unorganized and cowardly. The Soviet commanders lacked talent. So the Soviet leadership sent Latvians to the most troublesome spots of the front where other Red Army units could not handle. The main dream of the Latvian rifleman was to liberate Latvia from the Germans. The fate made to fight for Soviets that did not want any independent Latvia. Undoubtedly many really believed the Soviet propaganda, but seeing how many left Russia for Latvia in disappointment shows that real ideal for them was their fatherland. Latvians did took part in many Soviet atrocities, however in overall Latvians were one of the most disciplined in the Red Army. The fate of the Latvian Red rifleman is one of the greatest tragedies of the Latvian nation. 20 years later Latvians again were forced to fight in the Soviet ranks where they met their Latvian brothers in Nazi ranks. Latvians must never again fight in ranks of the totalitarian armies. The main army for Latvia is our National Armed Forces that is a pride of our nation.

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The 1905 Revolution in Latvia

Piektais gads (Cirulis)

The 1905 revolution in Russia is mostly known for its Bloody Sunday and the Battleship Potemkin and the Jewish pogroms. But in Latvia, then part of the Russian Baltic provinces the revolution of 1905 was a wakeup call and the beginning of social and national liberation. The revolution took place on the streets of the cities, rural areas and forests. Latvian revolutionaries fought Czarist police and Baltic German landlords. Not only that, the fire of the revolution lighted up in Helsinki and London as the actions of the Latvian revolutionaries reached international level. There are many aspects of this revolution that need separate articles. This is a concise survey of the 1905 revolution that took place in Latvia.

In Russia the causes for the revolution was the great social inequality, the defeat in Russo-Japanese war, national divide and the despotic authoritarian government by Czar Nicholas II. For Latvia, one of the main reasons was the national inequality between Latvians, Jews and the Baltic Germans. Despite most Latvians enjoying relative freedom for education and carrier, the overall situation was still against them. In rural areas Latvian peasants were still fed up with the Baltic German landlords, from whom they had to rent their lands and work for them. The movement by intellectual Latvians faced many restrictions. Latvian press was censured; the rights for political activities were stripped down and the use of Latvian language was limited in public places. Latvians faced double oppression from Baltic German elite and Russian administration. Also Jews and Poles in many cases felt the same oppression. Latvians were also no strangers to war with Japan; many Latvians were sent to frontlines and the Russian navy that was destroyed in Tsushima, originally left from the port of Liepāja.

However, the main movement for revolution was not the nationalists, but social democrats who aspired from teachings of Marx. At the end of the 19 century the New Latvian movement had lost it original power for it could not answer the new emerging problems created by industrialization. The New Latvians were mainly middle class intellectuals, descendants of the Latvian farmer families. Their main strives were education, making their own business and national conservation. The rising working class needed different answers and many found them in internationalist social democracy. The main pushers of this new kind of thinking were The New Current movement that expressed their views in the newspaper “Daily Sheet”. The main person behind the paper was the new student Jānis Pleikšāns who called himself Rainis. He and his colleges took the ideas of social democracy from Germany where there was already an official Social Democrat party. Their ideology was internationalist and was based mainly on working class of whom only 5,6% were Latvians. While they certainly talked about the rights of the Latvian landless peasants and Latvian education, their cosmopolitism did not go along well with Russification policies that weakened the Latvian national strength. Latvian social democrat slogan was: “The worker has no fatherland!”

On 1897 at Vilnius the Jewish social democrats founded the General Labor Bund party. In 1898 the Russian Social Democratic party was born. Latvian Social Democrats became more and more inspired by their Russian and Jewish colleges. On 1899 Russian Authorities closed down the “Daily Sheet” newspaper and forced Rainis and his colleges to exile.

The one of the first Latvian political movements emerged in 1903 in Switzerland. Latvian exiles founded the Latvian Social democratic Union. Their first congress took place in Riga on December 29-30 1905. The party did not last long and was outmatched by Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party that was founded in 1904. There was a great difference between these two parties: the LSDU was more national oriented while LSDWP was overall internationalist. Their main leaders were Miķelis Valters, Ernsts Rolavs and Kārlis Skalbe. Their political platform was full rights of self-determination, the formation of Latvian parliament, and in case of break up of Russian empire – the formation of independent Latvian state. The LSDWP did not believe in full independence, but fought for free Latvia in united free Russia. As their colleges in Russia they desired to overthrow the Czarist regime and then establish autonomous social democratic Latvia. In the end the LSDWP was the main force behind the 1905 revolution.

The start of the 1905 revolution in Latvia is considered the January 13 (26 January according to Western calendar) when in Riga a large crowd of people marched along the Moscow Street to the city center. A day before a general strike was called in Riga and other cities. The action was inspired by the bloody events in Petersburg at 9 (23) January. The crowd singing revolutionary songs and waving red flags were stopped by junior officer squad at the Iron Bridge near river Daugava. As the protesters tried to break trough the soldiers opened fire killing more then 70 people and injuring more. The precise death toll of the Latvian Bloody Sunday is not known and varies in the different sources.

The general strike was one of the biggest in whole Russia. However, after winter passed the fires of revolution reached the country side. Thousands of landless peasants were united by the revolutionary ideas of equal rights and mainly the free land for all. Land workers started strikes against German landlords. Demonstrations waving red flags took place near churches sometimes protesters invaded the church mess and held revolutionary gatherings. Such sights were not common in Latgalia where Catholic and Orthodox churches were respected. The Lutheran church was associated with the Baltic Germans.

The peasant demonstration at Dundaga 1905

The peasant demonstration at Dundaga 1905

 

On 15 (28) June almost at the same time when mutiny on battleship “Potemkin” took place, the Russian sailors at Liepaja took arms. The reason was the same as in case of “Potemkin” – maggots in meat. Sailors took over the guardhouse and forced commanding officers to flee. However, on 17-18 (30-1) June reinforcements came from Riga and disarmed the sailors. 138 men were taken to war tribunal.

When Baltic Germans started to took arms to protect themselves, the blood spilled on the countryside. In Sesava church two barons opened fire against people calling “Down with the Czar!” and in return Latvians killed one of then injuring the other one. Baltic Germans asked for help from Russian army. Russia sent ruthless Cossacks, Germans themselves formed self-defense squads. Latvian peasants attacked the German mansions, took away their arms and money. In August LSDWP formed fight groups. In Riga 1000 men joined the ranks. On the night of 6 -7 September (19-20 Sept) a group of 52 men raided the Riga Central prison rescuing two of their comrades Lācis and Slešers. In this daring raid few Jews from Bund also helped their Latvian comrades. Latvian Jews took active part in the revolution. While in other places in Russia bloody Jewish pogroms took place, there was a relative unity between Latvian and Jews. Instead on 22-23 October Latvian social democrats helped to stop rioting in Riga Moscow district that could turn in t0 Jewish pogrom. The main leader of the Latvian Jewish revolutionary movement was Simon Nachimson.

At 12-13 (25-26) October General Strike in whole Russian empire took place. Latvians also took place in it. Czar Nicholas II was forced to issue a “October manifesto” where he promised to give people freedom of speech and meeting. Also a freely elected State Duma parliament was promised. Latvians met this with great joy and gathered in many demonstrations. At the Grīziņkalns Park in Riga 80 -100 thousand people gathered to celebrate “freedom”. However, there were bloodsheds between loyalists and revolutionists. At countryside locals abolished local Czarist municipalities and elected their own people. The October Manifesto did not ease the situation but heated up it as people were asking for more. In the end Czar was forced to  use armed force and break up the revolt.

 At November great battles erupted in Kurzeme (Courland). For a short time Russian authorities only controlled Liepaja and Jelgava. A large bloody battle took place in the city of Tukums. Latvian militia managed to chase away the dragoon squad and infantry. Then Russian forces tried to recapture the city, Tukums was bombarded by cannons. Revolutionaries were forced to retreat. Russian suffered great causalities. Similar events followed in town of Talsi. The last bloodiest battle took place at Aizpute on 16 (29) December. Revolutionaries lost 100 men.

On 17 (30) January 14 revolutionaries raided the Riga Secret Police headquarters. The aim was to rescue LSDWP Central Committee member Jānis Luters ‘Bobis’ and Pēteris Liepa. The Secret Police building was located at Aspazijas Boulevard in the city center. The building was guarded by 160 soldiers and there were more on the city streets. 14 men managed to slip trough the heavily guarded streets and invade the secret police building by surprise. Six men with them Jānis Luters ‘Bobis’ and Teodors Kalniņš were rescued. Police men fled the scene, but 160 Russian soldiers barricaded in their rooms.

Situation in Latvia was so extreme that the Russian authorities decided to send reinforcements. On 12 December 1905 a state of war was issued. The Russian punishment corpus lead by general Orlov entered Latvia to completely suppress the revolution. At the morning of 20 December revolutionaries raided the rubber factory Provodnik where 60 Russian dragoons were located. In four minutes 30 revolutionaries killed 17 and injured 20 dragoons.

General Orlov the leader of the Punishment corpus

General Orlov the leader of the Punishment corpus

In the country side the revolution had gone to extreme. Latvian peasants started to execute the German barons and burn down their mansions. Many architectural wonders like the castle of Stāmeriene were burned to ashes. 449 mansions were burned down. As the Orlov men came the bitter fights and executions erupted all around. The core of the Orlov army were Cossacks from North Caucasus. People were tortured and executed. For the first time some few thousand Latvians were sent to Siberia.

The burned down mansion of Stameriena

The burned down mansion of Stameriena

The revolution was completely defeated in 1907. 2041 revolutionaries lost their lives, 7-8 thousand men were imprisoned, 427 were executed and 2652 were sent to Siberia. The fires of the 1905 revolution reached the outside world in the following years. Latvian revolutionaries escaped Russia and continued their fight. Jānis Luters Bobis was the leader of the attack on Helsinki (Helsingfors) bank and lead the arms smuggling from the West. On 26 February 25-30 Latvian fighters invaded the bank owned by Russian state in the main city center. Their gain was 100 to 150 thousand rubbles. Social democrats called the bank robberies- “expropriations”. Joseph Stalin also started his revolutionary carrier with expropriations. Latvians managed to bring in to Latvia a large numbers of arms, explosives and money.

Some years later in December 1910 a group of Latvian anarchists lead by the Peter the Painter or Peter Piatkow started a wave of attacks on jeweler’s shops in London killing two officers. On 2 January 2 police became informed about their hiding spot at Sidney Street they blocked the street and started siege. Despite being outnumbered revolutionaries had superior weapons and showed stiff resistance. The Tower of London was called for backup and Home Secretary Winston Churchill arrived. He directed the siege and after six hours of shooting the field artillery strike set the building where Latvians were hiding alight. Churchill prevented fireman to dose the flames, instead he waited for Latvian attempt for escape. But, no doors ever opened and instead they found two burned bodies. There was no sign of Peter the Painter however.

The mystery of the Peter the Painter still lies unsolved. There are no clear facts of what happened to him after the Sidney Street siege or what  was real his identity. Some historians associate him with later Cheka agent Yakov Peters. British historian Philip Ruff first suggested that Peter the Painter was Latvian painter Gederts Eliass, however in his latest book he points to Latvian far leftist Jānis Žāklis.

The revolution in Russia in 1905 was a peoples and nations revolution. Similar national sentiment was present in Estonians, Lithuanians, Caucasians, Poles and Jews. Many Latvian Social democrat leaders exiled and continued their fight against Russian czarist regime. Some became anarchists. While others came to conclusion that international revolution is not the answer and started to fight for full national independence. In 1914 the First World War erupted and in 1915 it came to Latvia. It was the time of next Latvian national awakening – formation of the Latvian national rifleman regiments and the birth of Latvian Republic in the end.

Monument of the 1905 revolution at Grīziņkalns park in Riga where many demonstrations took place

Monument of the 1905 revolution at Grīziņkalns park in Riga where many demonstrations took place

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