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The Foreign Aspect during the Latvian Restoration of Independence 1987-1991


In 1945 the Soviet Army occupied Latvia for the second time. Despite the fact that the Republic of Latvia did not exist, its annexation by the USSR was not legally recognized by the most Western powers. During the long Cold Wars in US and UK Latvian diplomats in exile still continued their work. Also the Latvian organizations in exile did everything in its power to put pressure on the Western governments to keep its non recognition of the Soviet occupation policy. However, the exiles themselves were not strong enough to achieve the restoration of independence. The main impulse had t0 come from Latvia, and with the western support. When the political changes begun in the Soviet Union after 1985 that lead to independence movement the local leaders had to find ways for their own foreign policy. They had many tasks: first make contact with the Latvians in exile, gain the western support and start direct talks with Moscow. Later when the juridical and practical process for restoration of independence had started, Latvia had to restore its Foreign Ministry and build its diplomatic service from the scratch. It was a hard and complicated work knowing the experience and knowledge of the independence activists.

Before we start to talk about the Latvian diplomatic activities we must take a look at the global diplomatic situation from late 70’s to the end of the 80’s. The Cold War a stiff competition between the Western Block and the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The political and ideological struggle erupted in conflicts within the so called Third World Countries, Middle East and Asia. Soviets spent enormous resources for their diplomatic and military activities, but the results were questionable at best. The Soviet centralized economy was unfit to survive this arms race and that eventually lead to its collapse. However, the Western powers lacked proper knowledge about the exact scale of the Soviet problems and they could not predict the Soviet collapse. However, there was a hope to win the Cold war or at least peacefully end it.

To do this a great powerful leaders were needed. And coincidentally at the same time both opposing countries USA and USSR  got two such men. Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev. Both remarkable men with a  great will power. The goal of the Ronald Reagan was to restore the lost greatness of US during the Democrat rule. Gorbachev wanted to make grand reforms to end stagnation and restore the greatness of the USSR.  At first Reagan challenged the USSR with strong remarks like “The Empire of Evil” speech that heated up the arms race. However, at the same time he hoped to make equal dialogue with Gorbachev. And the pressure made by US against the Soviets achieved this. Gorbachev who himself started a cardinal reforms in his interior policy also wanted to make a change in the Soviet foreign policy. His goal was to reach strategic balance between the West and East to ensure the survival of the Soviet state. To achieve this he had to cut down the arms race and end the ideological rivalry. By such means Gorbachev gave up his positions one by one that lead to the ultimate breakdown of the USSR.

The Baltic States were not top priority for the Western powers. The main goal was to make the Soviet Union harmless. The collapse of the communist system was a wild desire for the West, however they were afraid of the consequences that may come. However, already in 1986 in Jurmala, Latvia during The Chautauqua Conference the US ambassador Jack F. Matlock openly declared that US still does not recognize the annexation of the Baltic States. However, the main support from US only begun in 1989 and lasted till 1991 when it was clear that the USSR has no future and the restoration of the Baltic States independence is  technically possible. This support was realized as warnings to Gorbachev not to realize any aggressive actions against the Baltic States. On 1989 the new US president George Bush in the Malta conference stated his support for the Baltic independence and made Gorbachev promise not to use any force, but make talks with the Baltic leaders to settle the question. Gorbachev kept his promise until  January 1991 and after the worldwide condemnation he was unable to make any more aggressive steps. 

In 1989 New York Times published a supportive statement for the Baltic States independence. Soon after that the US Secretary of State sent a letter to Latvian envoy in exile Anatols Dinsberģis where he promised to support the Latvian efforts to restore full power over their future and with the help of the emotional protests he wished Latvians to restore freedom in a peaceful way. Also the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed her support. In 1991 president Bush again pressed on Gorbachev to fulfill the Baltic States demands, however he pointed out that the Baltic States they have to resolve this process with Moscow leadership. US had no intention to escalate the relations with the USSR because of the Baltic States. The US and other Western countries feared that the Baltic States are pushing for the independence too fast and may halt the process of liberalization within the USSR and endanger the international balance. The fear that living space of the Soviet Union may turn into “black hole” made many to watch the Baltic efforts with suspicion and weariness.

During the 1991 August coup the US decided to wait for the outcome of this coup was unclear. However, the outcome was so favorable that Latvia finally restored its independence and almost every country rushed to officially recognize Latvia as a sovereign state. From these facts however, we cannot make an equivalent conclusion that it was only the US position that decided the Baltic States independence. The position by the US and its allies were greatly affected by Latvian load demands and foreign lobby. If there were no active struggle for independence within the Baltic States and no active communication with the Western powers, their position would be just as neutral as regards the question of the independence of the Central Asian Republics.

So we must pay attention to Latvian attempts of making foreign diplomacy during the restoration of independence. The first ones who tried to approach the West was the Helsinki – 86 human rights group founded in Liepaja 1986 by nationally minded individuals. Their acts of commemoration on June 14 and August 23 in 1987 sparked a start for the national awakening. They sent letters to US delegation in Jurmala on 1986 and also to the UN. They expressed anger over the worse social and political situation in the occupied Latvia. It has been a an act of courage since until then no such letters came from Latvia itself, but from Latvians in exile. Sadly the Helsinki-86 movement was soon repressed by the KGB and their leaders exiled.

In 1988 the Latvian Popular Front was established as a mass political movement. One of its goals was to establish contacts with Latvian organizations in exile. In every country with a significant Latvian population there were active organizations that may help to get LPF to appeal to western governments. The main Latvian exile organization was the Worlds Free Latvian Organization. Some Latvian exiles were suspicious of the LPF and feared the KGB involvement.  But, most representatives of WFLO expressed support. The head of the Latvian writers union Jānis Peters made a first LPF foreign visit to Canada. LPF made its first foreign support group in Sweden with the help of exile Atis Lejiņš. After that LPF made its groups in USA, UK, Canada and Australia. The first congress of the LPF was only speaking about the need for Latvian autonomy since the prospects for full independence seemed practically impossible.

The head of the LPF delegation Pēteris Laķis speaks to Latvian exiles in the castle of Abrene France May 1989

The head of the LPF delegation Pēteris Laķis speaks to Latvian exiles in the castle of Abrene France May 1989

On 1989 a Baltic Assembly was made that gathered LPF along with its Lithuanian and Estonian counterparts under a common goal. The WFLO and American Latvian Union expressed full support. On May 1989 in the castle of Abrene, France the WFLO and LPF made a meeting. The talks were led by Pēteris Laķis, Eduards Berklavs, Juris Rozenvalds and Juris Golde. In these talks a path to restoration of Latvian independence was set. From this point the cooperation between LPF and WFLO became frequent. LPF leaders made occasional visits to US and Europe. During the 1991 August coup the leader of LPF Dainis Īvāns was in the US with his exile friends. Also the Latvian National Independence Movement made similar contacts with Latvian exiles. These contacts were essential; if in the case of Soviet repressions the exiles had to support LPF and inform the world.

The successful talks with Latvian exiles helped to spread the word of LPF across the world. Exiles made lobbies in their governments. LPF also sent its envoys to other Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia. A petition of 700 000 sign ups was gathered to propose changes in the USSR Constitution to achieve greater freedoms for Soviet republics. In a clandestine way this petition was sent to Moscow to bypass KGB. However, what happened to these petitions reminds a mystery.

On 1990 the first free elections took place and the LPF managed to achieve a majority in the Latvian Supreme Soviet. With communists in opposition the LPF now could slowly transform the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic into the independent Republic of Latvia. On May 4 1990 a Declaration of restoration of independence was passed. The declaration made Latvia to start its own foreign policy. The will for good relations with neighboring states by using democracy and justice was expressed. Latvia declared its support of the Universal Declaration of the Human rights and 27 other international documents. Since the Latvian independence was not yet juridically and practically ensured no state rushed to recognize it. On May 16 Latvia received a document where the King of Sedang David Gil Mayréna II recognizes the Latvian independence and sovereignty. After the first moments of positive surprise, it soon turned out that this kingdom exists only on paper with no chance of recognition for herself.

To get recognition from real countries, Latvia had to make direct talks with the USSR. The president of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev was against the Baltic States independence and Latvia was still full of Soviet armed forces and KGB waiting for takeover. A Latvian Foreign Ministry was restored. The LSSR had its own Foreign Ministry, but it was made for symbolic functions and had only few active workers. Thus it was not recognized by anyone outside the USSR. On July 9 the Latvian government made a statement that the goal of the LR Foreign Ministry is to achieve the restoration of the Latvian independence -de facto. Jānis Jurkāns had become the first Latvian Foreign Minister since 1940.

On May 14 1990 Gorbachev outlawed the Latvian declaration of independence. Instead he proposed the formation of Soviet confederation and after that the Union of Sovereign States.  While some Latvian leaders like Ilmārs Bišers was ready to support this the majority of the national leaders stood against it. Soviets did not even start any talks about their proposal. On July 10 1990 Latvian Supreme Soviet proposed talks about the restoration of the Sovereign Republic of Latvia according to July 16 1940. Andrejs Skrastiņš was nominated as the chief of negotiations along with Jānis Peters who became the main representative of the Latvian Council of Ministers in Moscow. However, Gorbachev was still reluctant and hoped for his New Union Treaty. At the same time his rival Boris Yeltsin the leader of the Russian Federal Soviet Socialist republic took the chance and visited Latvia and expressed his support.

With no chances for peacefully stopping the Baltic breakaway, Gorbachev now looked ways to install presidential order over the Baltic States. It would mean the beginning of repressions and the removal of the national governments. However, such acts needed an internationally approved reason and failure to do so caused a massacre on January 13 in Vilnius, Lithuania and the Barricade movement in Riga. Soviet army and KGB was unable to make a provocation that would justify Gorbachev’s actions. With the Western media on the spot and even despite the Gulf War crisis Gorbachev received worldwide condemnation. He also lost his support from hardliners in the party, army and KGB.

On January 13 the Chief of  the Latvian Supreme Soviet Anatolijs Gorbunovs signed treaty with Boris Yeltsin is regarding the foundations in bilateral relations with the Republic of Latvia and Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was ratified by the Latvian Supreme Soviet and acknowledged the sovereignty of  the both states. However, it also asked Latvia to grant citizen rights to all people within its territory. This would mean that large masses of the Soviet migrants also may become citizens. That sparked protests within society.

However, this treaty limited the Gorbachev chances to affect Latvia. After the January crisis he met Gorbunovs and agreed on talks. It was achieved not without the help of US president George Bush who in congress speech declared that the soviets have promised to withdraw its forces and stop violence. On February 19 new delegation was sent to Moscow with Ilmārs Bišers and Jānis Dinēvičš. The first set of talks was about the Soviet Army, the Latvian property conversion, the state enterprises and the Latvian intellectual property. The next set of talks on March 17 failed because the Soviets were unable to accept the Latvian demands.

Lithuania and Estonia were also unable to reach common ground with Moscow. On May 12 1990 in Tallinn the tree Baltic States leaders Anatolijs Gorbunovs, Vytautas Landsbergis and Arnold Rüütel restored the Baltic States Council originally made in 1934. On December 1990 in Vilnius all three Supreme Soviets came together in joint session. All three governments made a common demand to stop the Soviet aggressive policy and allow the Baltic States representation in the international institutions.

The Baltic Council

The Baltic States Council

Letters were sent to the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Union to make an inter-parliamentary delegation speed up the restoration process. Also EU Parliamentary Assembly received plea to make special status for the Baltic States. EU institutions in fear from USSR reaction denied every such proposal. On November 19 1990 the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe asked the Baltic delegation to leave the conference room after receiving complaints from USSR. Only on June 1991 the OSCE finally discussed the Baltic question.

On July 10 1990 the chief of the Latvian Council of Ministers Ivars Godmanis and the Foreign minister Jānis Jurkāns went to Washington DC on a private visit. They managed to hold a meeting with president of US George Bush, and the Secretary of State James Baker.  Baker again expressed his support for Baltic States independence and said that Latvia has legal rights with the help of negotiations to restore their freedom. The President was much more reserved in his expressions.

The Sweden was the only state that recognized Latvia as legal soviet part and handed over the Latvian soldiers fighting in German ranks. However, now the Swedish government was more sympathetic towards Latvia. In 1989 Sweden opened Consular branch in Leningrad with diplomat Lars Freden  in charge. He was supportive towards Latvia and achieved official visit of the Swedish ambassador in Riga. The Swedish government made apologies to veterans and their families who were handed over to the Soviets in 1945.  Meanwhile the Eastern European countries who also looked to get rid of the Moscow yoke were quite reserved in talks with Latvians.

The August coup of 1991 suddenly halted all the talks for a short time. On August 21 the coup had failed and Latvia declared full independence. The first country to recognize Latvia as an independent country was Iceland. All others followed. The last country that was little “late” was Rwanda on 1993.  The US herself only officially recognized Latvian independence on September 2 after the Soviet Union had agreed to recognize it too. It was done by Moscow on December 6.

Baltic States leaders visiting George Bush at the White House

Baltic States leaders visiting George Bush at the White House

Just like in 1917-1921 when Latvia was fighting its war for freedom, Latvian diplomats had to make their message to the world. Only this time Latvians had support from exile compatriots and historical legacy. The US non recognition policy was essential to US position on the Latvian independence. The diplomatic activity from Latvian freedom fighters played the most important part in convincing the US and other western powers to keep this favorable position.  If the US position would be neutral Latvia may regain independence in the same way as Belarus and remain within the Moscow sphere of interest. The Latvian will of democratic western society is what achieved our independence. And this achievement must not be undiminished as there are many other far larger nations without their own country.

Selected Sources:

Latvijas valsts atjaunošana, 1986.-1993. : autoru veltījums Latvijas Republikas proklamēšanas 80. gadadienai. Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds, Latvijas Zinātņu akadēmijas Baltijas stratēģisko pētījumu centrs. Rīga : Latvijas Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds, 1998

Lapsa,Lato Metuzāls Sandris, Jančevska, Kristīne  Mūsu vēsture, 1985-2005 Rīga : Atēna, 2008 1. sēj.

Īvāns, Dainis LTF Rietumos  Rīga 2001

Argita, Daudze. Latvija Zviedrijas ārpolitikā 1945.-1991. Rīga. Zvaigzne ABC 2011

Matlock, Jack F, Jr.Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. Random House (NY), 2004

Fredēns, Pēters, Larss. Baltijas brīvības ceļš un Zviedrijas diplomātija 1989-1991 Atēna, c2007

Mille, Astra.  Te un citadelē. Jānis Peters : tumšsarkanā.Rīga : Atēna, c2006.

Lejiņš, Atis,  Mūra drupinātājs jeb Ceļš atpakaļ uz mājām Rīga : Jumava, 2002


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Latvia and the 1991 August Coup Attempt

The removal of the monument of Lenin after the failed August coup

The removal of the monument of Lenin after the failed August coup

On May 4 1990 Latvian Supreme Soviet had accepted the Declaration of the Restoration of Independence. However, the declaration set an “interim period” until full restoration of the sovereign Republic of Latvia, after which the Saeima the Latvian parliament would be elected again. Until then the legitimate ruling body was the Supreme Soviet (Council) of the Republic of Latvia. After first free elections since 1934, it was controlled by the Popular Front of Latvia, Latvian National Independence Movement. However, in the opposition there were still many convinced communists who wanted Moscow to help them to stop the Latvian breakaway from USSR. Latvia was still full with Soviet troops and special forces like OMON. So the “interim period” was a dangerous game, since the President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev was against the Baltic independence. And there were many around Gorbachev who tried to convince him to use more radical methods to not let it happen.

The main plot to effectively halt the Baltic independence was to impose the Presidential Order in the Baltic States. That would remove the Supreme Soviet from the power and impose direct rule from Moscow. The culmination of this plot was the January 1991 Barricade movement. The enemies of the Latvian independence could not bear their defeat and blamed the “Betrayal of Moscow”. On February 4 1991 the members of the LSSR Prosecutor’s office publicly asked the president of USSR to issue a state of emergency in Latvia, restore the order of the USSR constitution and stop the work of the “illegal state structures”.   On April 9 political organization “The Union of the Baltic Soldiers” issued a statement that it will with the use of arms will ensure the Soviet power within Latvia.

The series of provocative acts started once again. An explosion took place near dormitory rooms of the Latvian Ministry of Interior where Soviet soldiers and their families lived. Also an explosion on the bridge over Gauja where the Soviet troops were heading to their base in Ādaži. As in previous occasions these explosions were too weak to actually hurt anyone, but were intended to blame “radical nationalists” for the attacks on the Soviet forces. From May 23 to August 12 the OMON special forces responsible for bloodshed in January, started a series of attacks on Latvian customs posts. 21 such attacks were carried out. The customs points were burned down, the custom officers were beaten and their arms removed. In Lithuania on July 31 seven officers were killed by OMON and one paralyzed. On May 25 1991 the Soviet Army carried out a drill where they learned how to block the way to the center of Riga. Apparently the Soviets wanted to prevent a situation in January when people managed to move large amount of tractors and other agricultural transport and made barricades from them.

However, the local Soviet radicals were not informed about the plot to overthrow Gorbachev. On 19 August 11:00 after learning the news about the coup the main leader of the Soviet radicals Alfrēds Rubiks in the press conference issued the support for the coup. Alfrēds Rubiks was a carrier communist whose highest point of success was the chairman of the Riga Executive committee it can be compared to the title of the Major of Riga. Before the Latvian independence movement many remembered Rubiks as progressive communists supportive of the Gorbachev ideas. However, his ambition to build the metro system in Riga was halted by massive protests. Since the protest movement against the metro project involved certain national character the fear of more Soviet immigrants, Rubiks now turned completely into Soviet hardliner. He was the First Secretary of the breaking Latvian Communist party, and now took the leading role of the local coup supporters.

Meanwhile the Latvian Republic Supreme Soviet lead by Anatolijs Gorbunovs on 10:00 issued a statement that the State Council of State of Emergency that took over power in Moscow is illegal and has no power within Latvia. Meanwhile the head of the Soviet Baltic War region general Fjodor Kuzmin informed them that he is charge of the realization of the state of emergency in Latvia. Latvian Popular front stated that the coup has taken place in the neighboring country and it should be treated that way. At 18:00 the Latvian National Independence Movement made a decision to ask the Supreme Soviet to fully establish the Latvian independence.

Even when the Latvian national leaders declared that coup in August is not in effect within Latvia, in reality it was much more complicated. Western countries only had expressed sympathy and support for Latvian independence, but had not fully recognized. They wanted to that only in the most certain moment and if Moscow herself allows it. In this situation the Soviet Army and OMON had everything to remove the Latvian government from power. On 19:15 OMON and Soviet paratroopers raided the first floor of the Latvian TV center. On 20:30 OMON invaded the Riga Interior affairs administration and in 20:45 OMON again took over the Latvian Ministry of Interior. On 22:30 OMON raided the Popular Front headquarters and vandalized it. On 22:15 OMON men murdered the driver of the Jūrmala Creative house Jānis Salmiņš near the Riga Interior affairs administration.

On 4:30 at August 20 OMON took over the Riga International telephone central and telegraph station. Then OMON took over the Latvian Radio building. Latvian Radio restored its work in the airwaves in illegal transmitter station in the city of Salaspils. On August 20 Estonia had fully declared its sovereignty. Meanwhile in Latvia the OMON was still on the run and raided the Latvian training camp at Kauguri and disarmed the security of the Latvian Council of Ministers.

OMON armored cars heading to center of Riga

OMON armored cars heading to the center of Riga

The fate of the Latvian independence was decided in the White House square in Moscow. The Soviet army and the Special forces refused to attack the RSFSR parliament defended by thousands of Russian citizens. On August 21 it was clear that the coup had failed. However, on August 20 four OMON armored cars entered the Dome Square in Riga. They were heading to Latvian Supreme Soviet where people finally gathered to vote for the full sovereign status of the state of Latvia. As the sound of helicopters roared above and tanks moved even closer, elected deputies stopped the discussions and voted to end the interim period and restore the Latvian Republic de facto. 111 voted for, 13 against. In 13:10 the Republic of Latvia had become a sovereign country once again.

OMON did not received any clear order to assault the Supreme Soviet building. At 14:10 they left the scene. At the end of the day Soviets left the TV and Radio house. All who officially supported the coup attempt was removed from their office. In August 23 the Republic of Island officially recognized the Latvian independence first one to do so. On the same day Alfreds Rubiks was arrested. On August 24 the president of Russia Boris Yelstin officially recognized the Baltic states independence. The Latvian Communist party and all the Soviet security structures including KGB was made illegal.  On the night of August 24-25 the Lenin monument was demolished.

Soviet power was fully removed in the following months. In 1994 all Soviet forces were removed from Latvia. However, the people who in the critical days of August wowed to “arrest and shoot all the nationalists” still plays role in the Latvian politics. Alfrēds Rubiks leads the Latvian Socialist party and works in the European Parliament despite his imprisonment in nighties. Many others of his allies are trying to revenge the defeat of the August 1991 under the guise of the human rights and social democracy. We must understand that August 1991 was a close call for Latvian independence and if it succeeded we won’t be reading this. So our duty is to guard our country in every way we can.

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The Kremlin Conspiracy August 1991

The leaders of the August Coup in 1991: Boris Pugo, the Minister of the Interior Affairs of the USSR (to the left); Gennady Yanayev, the Vice President of the Soviet Union (in the middle) and Oleg Baklanov, First Deputy Chairman of the Defense Council of the USSR (to the right).

The leaders of the August Coup in 1991: Boris Pugo, the Minister of the Interior Affairs of the USSR (to the left); Gennady Yanayev, the Vice President of the Soviet Union (in the middle) and Oleg Baklanov, First Deputy Chairman of the Defense Council of the USSR (to the right).

On August 18 1991 the conspiracy by the high rank officials of the Kremlin and the KGB took place. A group of Soviet hardliners tried to avert the fall of the Soviet Union. In the end because of their incompetence, cowardice in contrary to the bravery of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yelstsin and the defenders of the White House their plot failed. Soviet Union collapsed anyway and Latvia could once again regain its independence.

The KGB 9th division was responsible for guarding and escorting the Soviet leaders and high rank officials. In Foros, Crimea where the president of the USSR resided, his guard Vasili Kravets was in his usual duty. His everyday duty was fulfilling the needs of the officials who rested in this governmental resort. Like sending back to Moscow two jackets that the Minister of the Interior affairs Boris Pugo forgot. Or arranging a limo for one guest to visit another. Suddenly in his control system the red alarm signal of the radio station “Alternativa” (Alternative) begun to flash. This meant that there is a failure in the communication line with the mansion of the president of the USSR. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Kravets immediately made contact with KGB 21st division responsible for governmental communications. They said: “We will check!”. The red signal continued to flash even more. Kravets again made contact he received the answer: “The communications have been disrupted by hill landslide, the repair works have begun!”. It was Sunday August 18 1991.

At this same moment the gates of the presidential mansion opened. The KGB codenamed this mansion as the “object Zarya”. Five Volga limos entered the mansion without invitation or announcement. The security guards could not allow such trespassing, but from the first limo the head of the KGB Security Service Yuri Plehanov and the major Vyacheslav Generalov the chief of the technical authority and the Crimea KGB chief from 9th Division colonel Lev Tolstoy stepped out. From other cars many more important Soviet officials came out. The security guards where ordered to lay down their arms and not to forget Romania where the guards defended their dictator Ceausescu and how it ended. The guards were in complete incomprehension- what it had to with Romania? There the president was deposed and the guards defended him and perished with him altogether. But here everything was suppose to be alright?

The mansion was sealed with additional guards from Moscow. The telephone lines were disrupted. Unimaginable, but the presidential mansion guarded by 500 well armed men, three defense lines, 34 border guard posts, special task force Alfa and air fleet in the Black Sea. However, all this defense personal was not really subordinated to the president himself. They were the employees of the KGB. And it was the KGB that decided to turn the tables on the Mikhail Gorbachev who got him effectively trapped in the “Golden cage”.

The president was worried about this sudden visit. He either thought they going to put a pressure again, or try to depose him from power. The two men who trapped the Gorbachev were: Vyachelav Generalov the head of the KGB special maintenance and technical authority. His task was to take over the presidential mansion and keep the president imprisoned there. He knew everything about the mansion and was fiercely loyal. His chief was Yuri Plehanov general lieutenant the head of the KGB security service.

The Gorbachev mansion at Foros or the Object Zarya

The Gorbachev mansion at Foros or the Object Zarya

The main spokespersons of the conspirators were secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee Oleg Shenin and Oleg Baklanov the head of the Military Industrial complex. According to plan Shenin was to speak first, but Gorbachev seized the moment and started to talk with Baklanov who he thought was their leader. They wanted to convince Gorbachev to step down by his own will, implying on his bad state of health and fatigue. Gorbachev said that this was out of the question and reminded about the planned signing of the New Union Treaty on August 20. The Union Law was a last straw for Gorbachev to save the USSR, but everyone knew that the Baltic states will not going to sign it. They said to him that there will be no such treaty and the head of the Russian Federal Socialist Republic Boris Yeltsin is arrested. He then corrected himself: will be arrested! The conspirators shamefully asked “Dear Mikhail Sergeyevich! We don’t ask nothing from you. Remain here for some time. We will do all the dirty work for you!” Gorbachev insisted that he will not resign and go into any ventures. Then the chief of the USSR Land forces general Valentin Varenikov lost his patience and shouted “Resign!”. He shouted angry remarks about the bad shape of the army, the shameful retreat fro East Germany and the nationalists that do what they want. In the end Gorbachev stood firm against the plotters and asked to inform their masters in Moscow to call the Higher Council or the Party Congress. Plotters in shame left the mansion. Despite the enormous force they had, they could not force their president to resign.

The conspirators  in Moscow were anxious.  The Soviet defense minister Dmitri Yazov informed the army command and issued that the state of emergency is possible. Yazov announced that all resources had to be taken control of. All  state services and the civil security. The Moscow Guard 2th mobile riflemen division  and 4th guard tank division had to take over the city. The 106th Tula paratrooper division was called to Moscow. The conspirators who called themselves the State Committee on the State of Emergency (SCTE) (Государственный комитет по чрезвычайному положению, ГКЧП) with the Minister of the Interior an ethnic Latvian Boris Pugo and the chief of the KGB Vladimir Krychkov issued a state of emergency.

These people were the hardline communists or even neo-Stalinists. Dmitri Yazov a WW2 veteran and Soviet patriot could not bear with the changes made by Gorbachev and the direction the Soviet empire is heading to. Soviet army was forced to leave East Germany and other former Eastern European satellites. Soviet army was unable to stop separatism in the Caucasus and in the Baltic states. Both the KGB and the Soviet army were ready to suppress them with extreme force. But, no direct order from Gorbachev ever followed. Gorbachev himself was against the independence of the Baltic states or other republics. But, he was caught up with the promises to the western leaders, his own mistakes and in belief that things can be solved diplomatically. After the events in Riga and Vilnius in January 1991, he was no longer trusted both by the west and his aides. His principal mistake was to fire the liberal reformers with who begun his Perestroika policy and surrounded himself with hardliners from KGB and the army.

The chief of the KGB Valentin Krychkov was constantly afraid from the “influence agents” from abroad who wants to topple the Soviet Union. He blamed them for the rotten state economy. His most paranoid belief that the western countries are trying to artificially downsize the number of the Soviet citizens. According to his “information’ the CIA plans to lower the demographics of the USSR by 150-160 million people. The Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov considered his western counterparts a “saboteurs”. The Soviet Vice President Genady Yanayev was an ambitious man who felt himself endangered by the incoming changes. All these men feared the signing of the New Union Treaty that would make for some of them to lose their jobs.

The New Union Treaty would replace 1922 Treaty on the Creation of the USSR and replace the USSR with a new country Union of Sovereign States. It would be a less centralized state with more freedoms to participating republics. However, the Baltic States, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia were not going to sign therefore fully breaking away from Moscow. Also people such as Yanayev and Pavlov would lose their jobs. After Gorbachev had removed the Communist party monopoly of power, on March 1990 a plot was born to remove the liberal reformers and encircle Gorbachev with hardliners. They succeed by removing a Gorbachev long time ally Alexander Yakovlev. Other two enemies the Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin  Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR were far tougher enemies and was on the arrest list.

After the conspirators learned that Gorbachev had rejected a plea to resign by his own will, the conspirators wanted to remove his power because of his illness. After long hesitation Gennady Yanayev wrote the directive of taking the presidential office. They had lost the legitimacy they hoped to get from Gorbachev now they were playing a dangerous game. The speaker of the Soviet parliament Anatoly Lukyanov also was dissatisfied with the New Union Treaty, however when the conspirators informed about their actions and asked to join, he denounced their actions. However, he merely just asked them to remove him from their plotter list.

First arrests begun on the morning of August 19. The head of the Human rights “Schit” Nikolay Pavlenko met the SCTE men with a tear gas canister and an ax and managed to hurt them before his arrest. However, they could not arrest Yeltsin. He was able to leave his house and with his collage Ruslan Hasbulatov open the extraordinary meeting of the RSFSR Supreme Council. Soviet tanks were present at RSFSR building also called White House, but were not willing to shoot at anyone. Yelstin used this and stepped on one their tanks and declared that the coup has taken place and the legally elected president has been deposed. He asked for all Soviet citizens not to listen to the SCTE. It was a definite moment, the conspirators now encountered a serious enemy. Meanwhile Gorbachev was sealed off from all radio and TV sources and heavily guarded. The head of the Ukrainian SSR   Leonid Kravchuk accepted the coup and did nothing for the president who was imprisoned on his territory.

Boris Yeltsin leading the Russian government

Boris Yeltsin leading the Russian government

However, on August 19 things were still looking bright for conspirators. Except the Baltic States no serious protests took place. Radio stations and newspapers considered rouge were closed. In theory they had enough force to suppress any kind of resistance. But, then on 15:00 first reports of protests and strikes within mainland Russia begun. Yanayev with a shaking hands took a press conference in front of Soviet and foreign journalists. He lied about Gorbachev health state. Meanwhile in the Crimea the major of Yalta where the Gorbachov lived warned Generalov who was responsible for the mansion, that since Gorbachev is no longer in office, the mansion will no longer receive food supplies. To solve this issue, Generalov summoned his employee to Yalta. There Gorbachev ordered to send a letter of two demands – 1) give an airplane to return to Moscow 2) restore communications. This packet was sent and reached Yanayev.

Meanwhile Yelstin had issued that all Interior forces, army and KGB units should subordinate to the president of RSRSR that was Yelstin himself. On the night of 19-20 August the commander of the Taman tank division major Sergei Yevdokimov was not informed why his tanks are in the city center. He only learned the true reason from the crowds that started to gather in thousands. People asked him and his men to join the Yelstin side. They placed metal bars in the tank tracks to make them immobile. He then soon met the RSFSR parliament members who convinced him that this is a conspiracy and Gorbachev is trapped in Crimea. They asked to help him to defend the White House against the possible assault. Major Yevdokimov agreed and when he went back to his men he heard the news on the radio about him joining the Yeltsin forces. He only managed to move six tanks out of 10 because first barricades were built and to escape accidents he left the remaining tanks on the bridge. He himself never acknowledged that he actually joined the Yeltsin ranks, but just agreed to move tanks closer to the White house to escape the civilian causalities.

After watching the infamous press conference on TV Gorbachev asked if Yanayev has received his demands. After not getting any affirmative answer he decided to make an unusual and a desperate step. Since all communication equipment was confiscated he used an amateur TV  camera to record his message to the world. He stated that the reason for his removal was false and its an unconstitutional coup. The message was recorded perfectly, his wife and son in law then dismounted the VHS cassette and planned the way on how to send it to Moscow.

On the morning of 20 August the SCTE was aware of their worse situation. They were unable to impose order in the streets of Moscow and the main rivals were free to whatever they want. Yeltsin who was still free because of the incompetence of the capturing team, was now set to be arrested. Also the parliament building of the RSFRS had to be attacked. The plans were thought out how to do it. The operation was called “Thunder” coincidentally a same name was given to unrealized Stalin’s plan to attack Germany in 1941… However the Generals were worried about the large crowds and barricades and the armed defenders of the White House. The attack was set to start on August 21 at 3:00. The attack would involve regular soldiers, tanks, special forces and snipers.

Yeltsin had called a large rally at 12:00 despite the ban on public gathering thousands came. The Whole Soviet Union was alarmed by the never seen before manifestation. At 20:00 the SCTE held a meeting and realized they are standing on very thin base. Many soldiers joined the protesters. The Eho Moskvi Radio station was not closed because one colonel defended it and now it became the main voice of opposition. The whole square of the White House was filled with large crowds, many were armed with Molotov cocktails.   Then at 21:00 a woman entered the barricades and claimed she has very important information. She was taken to the headquarters of the defenders of the White House.  She claimed her husband a KGB officer has received orders to take part in the attack that would begin at 3:00. Later he masked in hood appeared himself and warned about the special task force Alpha attack. Radio issued all women to leave the square. Defenders gathered in companies and squads made a living defense line. The element of surprise was lost.

Soviet tanks near the White House

Soviet tanks near the White House

Meanwhile the Alpha team was uneasy about their given task. Many did not want to kill their own government and the people. Such an attack would cause enormous losses of life’s on both sides. And the mass media attention from the whole world was more than ever. The SCTE order was insane, and even the Alpha team understood this and in the end asked to cancel the order. At 24:20 a brief battle erupted between the Taman tank division and the protesters in the Sadovoje koļco tunnel on the way to the White house. The curfew was issued to prevent the people from entering the White House square. The Taman tank division was tasked to ensure the curfew. As they moved towards the Smolensk square, they were attacked with stones. Armored vehicles broke through the trolleybus barricades. But, a war journalist first rank captain Mihail Glovlko was standing in the way with the raised hands, he was hit by the fast moving vehicle.  At that moment a 23 year old Afghan war veteran jumped Dmitri Kromar on the BMP 536 vehicle and tried to cover its sightseeing hatch to make it “blind.” The BMP tried to steer its turret to get him off and succeed. But by the hitting the  pole the hatch  opened. Kromar chased the BMP and jumped in it trough the open hatch. BMP made a swift move and threw him out, but his clothes get stuck in the open hatch dragging Kromar on the ground as the BMP moved backwards. 37 year old Vladimir Usov rushed to help and was shot dead by the warning shots from BMP crew.  Another protester throwing rocks Krichevsky was also killed.

All this made the General Yazov to finally cancel the order to attack the White House. It was a suicide for him and the whole coup, but it was the only possible solution. Two KGB mobile brigades was just an hour from the main target. Meanwhile, a special task force landed in the Crimea and was ready to storm the Gorbachev mansion. On August 21 Yazov decided to miss the SCTE morning meeting, making things worse. Now the last chance to save something was flying back to Crimea. On 14:15 Yazov, Baklanov, Lukyanov and others took the plane to Crimea.

However, Yeltsin also wanted to visit Gorbachev. Krysckhov chief of KGB did everything to prepare the SCTE visit in time. He received a message that the SCTE time for the Gorbachev visit was over and at 16:00 the Yeltsin delegation will fly to Foros. Krychkow said that he would join the delegation and asked to postpone the flight until the evening. It was a lie and it was only discovered once the SCTE plane was already in the air. Yeltsin was unable to get there before them and only could bring the plane down which he refused. Conspirators landed at the airfield filled with marines ready to strike the presidential mansion. However, they were convinced that they will be greeted peacefully for a cup of tea.

Instead they were greeted with AK-47’s and Gorbachev refused to talk to them before the arrival of the Yeltsin delegation. Meanwhile the Yeltsin TU-154 airplane made circles around the Belbeck airfield. They were refused to land. After Gorbachev’s communications were restored, the plane landed. KGB special forces silently left the airfield. The Russian government were the ones who brought back Gorbachev home to Moscow. But this was no longer the country he once ruled.

The Baltic States declared full independence and were officially supported by the majority of the world countries. All other Soviet republics followed suit. On August 29 the Communist Party was officially shut down and made illegal. On December 8 the USSR was officially dissolved.

Protesters managed to tear down the statue of the KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. However, the main force behind the August plot the KGB in disguise of FSB still lives on

Protesters managed to tear down the statue of the KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. However, the main force behind the August plot the KGB in disguise of FSB still lives on

The August Coup attempt was a heavy defeat for the KGB and the ultra patriotic army officials. However, the  KGB survived   and transformed into FSB the Federal Security Service. For many years these people sought to revenge on those who managed to break down the Soviet empire. In the end they succeeded – an ex KGB officer and the director of the FSB Vladimir Putin took over the modern Russia. Since then the Russian policy is based on revenge and revision. It’s a question if a similar situation  where the army and security forces will choose to support the people or to attack the White House like in 1995 by the Yeltsin orders. The Putin’s Russia has not yet reached this critical point and lets hope it will not reach it the same way.

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Banned Soviet Movie about Latvian Waffen SS Legion

Movie poster for the "Rocks and Splinters""I Remember Everything Richard"

Movie poster for the “Rocks and Splinters”
“I Remember Everything Richard”

Again the 16th March approaches heating up the discussions between historians, politicians and other members of the society. The Latvian Waffen SS Legion day will be commemorated again. The story about this celebration and the Legion itself has been already told here. This article is about interesting attempt to make a full feature film about the Latvian Legion during the Soviet times in Latvia. A film that was made for 10 years, had changed its title many times and finally made on the cinema screens for only 24 days, after it was banned by local Latvian communist authorities. Ironically outside Latvia, in Russia the movie was praised and no opposition from authorities in Moscow against the movie ever followed. It was a cowardice of the local Latvian censorship and officials that canceled this interesting war drama about the Latvian Waffen SS Legion. The movie was called “Rocks and Splinters” or “I Remember Everything Richard”.

After the death of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the relative liberalization in culture allowed to talk about questions that were suppressed before. During the so-called thaw times, the Soviet film directors dared to make a new kind of war films. In movies such as “The Cranes are flying” (1957) by M Kalatozov, “A Soldiers Ballad” (1959) by G Cuhray, “A Mans Fate” (1959) by S Bondarchuck, and “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962) by S Tarkovsky the emotional side of the war was shown for the first time. The Stalinist movie characters were shown as manful, brave and mature fighters, while the new kind of war heroes were allowed to have fallbacks, weakness and fear.

The movie “Rocks and Splinters” or “I Remember Everything Richard!” featured this kind a characters. The movie tells a story about three friends – Jānis, Zigis and Ričards who were conscripted in to the Latvian Legion. Their fate turns differently – Ričards to save his friend executes the Soviet war prisoner and gains respect from the commanding officers. Zigis tries to defect to the Soviet side, but gets killed during the attempt. At the end of the war the disillusioned Janis deserts. Twenty years later in Riga the Jānis and Ričards meets again. Jānis lives in Soviet Latvia and works as a stonecutter and keeps friendly relations with Ričards youth time bride Antra. Ričards and Jānis both remember their war days and find out that their point of views differ. In the finale Ričards turns out as the spy from the West and in his deadlock stabs Jānis to death.

Two main movie characters-Jānis (Harijs Liepiņš) and Ričards (Eduards Pāvuls)

Two main movie characters-Jānis (Harijs Liepiņš) and Ričards (Eduards Pāvuls)

The movie is about whole generation, its worries, the feel of guilt and need to be understood by the society. The active participants of the World War II were born from 1920 to 1928. This was the movie about them.

The idea of this movie was first brought up by the Viktors Lorencs who wrote the script called “Fatherland forgive me!” (Dzimtene Piedod!) Viktors Lorecs was the son of the prominent Latvian Socialdemocat politician Klāvs Lorencs before the war, who was supportive of the Soviet occupation, but later in 1951 was arrested. Viktors Lorencs himself in the age of 17 in 1944 was mobilized by the German army and sent to Air Force Assistant Squad. It was his goal to defend the mobilized men in Latvian Legion against the accusations from the regime. He later remarked: “We were aware that we are no fascists. Furthermore, none of us believed in the German victory. The tragedy lays in there. After that, together with older man, myself seventeen we had to go trough filtration camp”. He wrote the script in 1957 and published in the students almanac „Творчество молодых” (The Youth Art). In same year the in the Riga Movie Studio the works for the movie begun and Varis Krūmiņš was chosen as a director. Lorencs submitted all needed materials for the script, but in 23 December 1957 he suddenly received note from the chief of the Riga Movie Script department O Kublanov that the work for the movie “Fatherland forgive me!” has been canceled. Lorencs received no explanation for this, however the archive documents show that script was declined for its ideologically artistic qualities. More notable was the note made by unknown author on the script that said: “Was there before Soviet power in Latvia? If it was then the movie is useless!”

Things changed only in 1964 when the members of the Riga Movie Studio script editorial staff were invited to visit the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee. The first secretary of the Central Committee Arvīds Pelše, the first man in the Soviet Latvia wanted to make a good historical movie to celebrate the 25 years of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. Lorencs again submitted upgraded version of the script that was criticized, but was encouraged to be continued and edited. In 10 November 1964 the Council of the Arts discussed the edited script and approved it. It was then sent to Moscow for approval. Rolands Kalniņš was chosen as the director. Rolands Kalniņš was mobilized in the Legion, but did not believe that it could restore the Latvian independence and managed avoid the war. However, he also felt the strong need to make this movie to show the tragedy of his generation.

In 6 March 1965 after many months of discussing the script the movie was allowed to be filmed. In 26 May the first day of shooting begun and first scenes were taken. But, then they were suddenly interrupted by deputy of the film director Gunārs Sops who announced that movie shooting must be canceled. Not Sops or anybody else knew what was going on. It turned out that the script was discussed in the party Central Committee and some members pointed out that this movie could cause scandal for its politically wrong.

However, the Movie Studio decided to continue to make the film. 13 November 1965 the movie title was changed to “Rocks and Splinters” and allowed to be put on screens. In 19 November the LSSR Cinematography committee decided not to put the movie on-screen. In 23 November the making of the movie was finished. In 3 November the main USSR Cinematography committee praised the movie and allowed it to be shown everywhere in the Union.

In 24 December 1965 the social discussion about the movie was made. The participants were LSSR War Commissar I Chasha, Rector of the Latvian State University V Šteinbergs, the LSSR Minister of Education A Elvih, former partisans V Samsons,  H Bendiks,  the Minister of Culture V Kaupužs, the Secretary of the Youth Communist League J Barkāns, the circus director A Mlokit. The war commissar I Chasha who was apparently little drunk shouted: “What are they doing? Drinking in the army is bad, but in the movie the soldiers are drinking in the party!” Understanding his failure he then continued: “Anti-Soviet movie, for it forgives the legion! The Brothers war cemetery is shown in pre-war style.” The red partisan leader and historian V Samsons noted that people must speak about this tragedy and defended the movie. Minister of Culture V Kaupužs was against the movie and accused of attempts of dividing the society. The Minister of Education declared that this movie suits the interests of the Latvian emigrants and stated that the Legion is no longer important for Latvians. The rector of the University said this movie is politically detrimental. Other party officials called the movie as a danger to youth. It was decided not to show the movie on screens.

In 10 January 1966 the LSSR Cinematography committee orders to rename the movie to “I Remember Everything Richard”. The main script redactor J Lūsis was fired and replaced with A Grigulis.

In 6 May after many script and scene reconsiderations the movie production was canceled. 245 300 rubles spent on production were called as losses. The original copy of the movie was however, ordered to be preserved in the cinematic archive.

18 August the movie was officially finished and allowed to be shown in movie theaters.

From April 3 to 26 1967 the movie was shown in theaters, banning it from being mentioned in the press. After that the Soviet bureaucratic carousel ended. The movie disappeared completely for decades. In 10 January 1992 the movie was restored and shown again. In 1999 it was distributed in VHS format, but in 2009 included in DVD collection of Rolands Kalniņš banned films.

Why was the movie banned in Soviet Latvia while it was praised by the critics and officials in Moscow? Apparent reason was the fear of the local communist officials from the “big” masters in Moscow. The leadership of the Latvian Socialist Republic was mostly Latvian communists from Russia, who survived the Stalin’s purges and was franticly afraid to do anything that could be seen as hostile to Moscow. The movie “I Remember Everything Richard” in no way praised the legionaries as heroes. Instead they were shown as tragic victims of the Nazi policy, forced to fight useless war bound to fail. The main character Jānis shows no sympathy to the Legion, while Ričards who is nationalistic minded turns out to be Western spy. Also the commanding officers were shown as hypocrites and involved in Holocaust. Therefore now such movie may not be liked by people who admire the Legionnaires and calls them heroes. However, the communist elite still saw this movie as politically incorrect and danger to them. The reason, why despite numerous orders to not to show the movie, it did appear for the short time on screens, was because Moscow had accepted it.

With that the local Soviet leaders showed the usual weakness against the high power, a weakness that persisted until late eighties. We can see that this weakness in issues about the Latvian Legion has not gone until this day. Latvian political elite constantly juggles with the Latvian Legion. First it allows to officially celebrating it, even makes a parliamentary declaration defending the Legion. After protests from Russia and its supporters in Latvia and the West the government removes the 16th March from the official calendar. But still as many celebrates it, and its supporters are now coalition the Latvia continues to ridicule itself more and more. The Russia and West enjoys this Latvian inability to take a concrete stance on this important matter and continue the diplomatic harassment of our country.


Music video shows scenes from the movie

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The restoration of Latvian independence 1986-1992

Soviet armored transport in Riga, August 21 1991

There are three independence days for Latvia. The first one is  November 18 – the date of the actual proclamation of Latvian republic, the May 4 – the declaration of restoration of independence and 21, August today – the restoration of Latvian independence in practical matter when Latvia used the breakdown of coup in Moscow to finally break away from the Soviet Union. There is a discussion what is most important- the declaration of restoration of independence or actual restoration itself. One is clear that in  May 4 Latvian national government made the decision to make an interim period until actual restoration of independence and it may take longer if there would not be any coup in Moscow. This article tells the story of how the Latvian independence was restored from the beginning until the end.

The independence of Latvia was halted in 1940, by the Soviet Union when it was occupied and annexed. The independence was not restored after the end of World war II since Latvia was kept as Soviet possession without any protest by Western powers. However Western powers such as US was smart enough not to officially recognize Latvia as juridical part of the Soviet Union. No relations with the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic was made since Western powers still regarded Latvian republic as juridical entity and Latvian diplomatic service still worked in Western countries. This action made possible to restore Latvia as a justified state if such time would ever come. The only Western state that recognized Latvia as Soviet possession was Sweden. Also Australia did that for a short time by the time of labor government but changed its stance after the collapse of leftist government.

In Latvia itself during most years of Soviet rule it was impossible to openly fight for independence. Armed resistance by partisans took place between 1945 to 1953 but was defeated by superior Soviet security forces. A passive, unarmed resistance persisted during the Soviet time, but Soviet KGB did everything to halt any open movement. The dissidents like Gunars Astra was intellectuals and was under constant surveillance  by the KGB . It was clear that open resistance was not possible until the Soviet government itself would lift the iron curtain of single party rule and KGB presence. Under the reign of Khrushchev and Brezhnev it seemed impossible.

The situation changed once Micheal Gorbachev became the General secretary of the Communist party. Contrary to his predecessors who were in old age and lack of will to change everything Gorbachev seemed young enough to make a major change. Soviet Union needed one since its stagnating planed economy, disadvantage to Western economy and technology and lose the fight in arms race with US made USSR weaker and weaker. So he made new program called – perestroika.

Gorbachev desired to change the planned economy to make it free from bureaucracy that made low gains for the state. He gave more possibilities for the farming and local business.  But he was still far from changing communist economy completed.  But Gorbachev added another change that was critical for his success – he allowed more freedoms on the political field. People now had rights to openly say their mind, took part in demonstrations and even form non-Party movements. That was a fatal error of Gorbachev – he attempted to liberalize both economy and politics but was not ready to give up the full power of the communist party. Another communist country – China did otherwise – they liberated economy, but kept the full totalitarian power of the communist party. China still persists as communist country and are top two superpower in the world. Soviet government made a rather schizophrenic approach – they tried to change everything but on the other hand they did not want to change nothing. That was the main cause of collapse of Gorbachev policy.

The perestroika did not go unnoticed in Latvia. As the press and television became more liberal it made seed for the nationalist movement. The first sign was in August 25 1986, when an international conference in Jurmala, Latvia took place between American and Soviet diplomats. At the so called Chatowka conference US ambassador in Moscow made a public speech where he reminded of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact and noted that US has never accepted the occupation of Latvia. This first time when this question was raised and openly discussed. Improvements between relations of US and USSR made possible for the west to openly talk about this issue.

Nationalist march in 14, June 1991

Things moved on in 1987 when local Latvian nationalists were strong enough to appear from underground. A political movement Helsinki – 86 named after a civil right conference in Finland made a public appearance.  The June 14 was the day of great deportation to Siberia in 1941. Helsinki – 86 made a step to commemorate this event by attending the Monument of Freedom and laying flowers in front of it. Soviet government did everything to stop them but they succeeded by making an appearance at the monument. It was a symbolic act that moved the masses. The next step was to remind of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact in August 23. This time Soviet security forces were more prepared however a large masses attended the demonstration and it turned into semi-violent outburst when Soviet militia arrested the demonstrators. The reaction by the Soviets was so strong, that nationalists did not make the same step in November 18.

It was not only the nationalists, there were also the environmentalists. The Environment protection club made large demonstrations against plans to build hydroelectric plant near Daugavpils and Riga metro. It was also important in terms of nationalism since such plans would require a large number of workforce from the Soviet Union. Latvia already had a large influx of Soviet migrants and they were against more of them. In the end both projects were canceled.

1988 was a milestone of political movement in Latvia. Nationalists openly demanded the restoration of independence. Latvian people became more active. Gorbachev was speaking more and more about democratization and Soviet security suddenly felt weak to halt anti-Soviet activities. New nationalist movement Latvian national independence movement was founded and Helsinki – 86 continued their fight. A large nationalist demonstrations took place and it was no longer a taboo to call the events of 1940 as the Soviet occupation.

It was October 8 1988 when things begun to move a step further. A new mass movement Latvian Peoples Front was organized. The main leaders were journalist Dainis Īvāns, Sandra Kalniete and others. It was made as the alternative against Communist party and was allowed to function.  However Peoples Front had a more careful planing then Helsinki 86 and LNIM. They wanted to achieve their goal by working with the Soviet authorities and gain independence in parliamentary way. It was possible by taking place in the now free election of Supreme Soviet – the parliament of the Latvian USSR to gain majority in it. Radical nationalists resisted any cooperation between the Soviet Authority. That made a sharp divide between moderate and radical nationalists that still persists today.

The strategy by Peoples front was a successful first was a good result in Soviet People’s congress that worked in Moscow and second was the absolute majority in the Supreme Soviet of Latvian SSR. First achievement was the restoration of Latvian national symbol – red and white flag as the official symbol of the Latvian SSR. This all was possible due to the Gorbachev decision to lift the sole status of the communist party. The next step was recognition as Latvian language as the official language in Latvia.

As the Latvian society was more ready for the restoration the legislative project of the declaration was finished on July 28 1989. The peoples Front had 65% support of the population and Moscow was now afraid of losing Latvia. The Latvian communist party had leader change and Anatolijs Gorbunovs  became the chairman of the Supreme Soviet.  Gorbunovs was not a hardline communist instead he supported national movement. However the other side of the party lead by orthodox communist Alfrēds Rubiks was strongly against independence. Along with them a large Russian population was strongly against change that would remove their first hand political status. However a large part of them was still unaware of what the changes will bring, a minority of them supported the independence. It was now clear that Latvian political forces had split in two rival parts, one that supported breakaway by the Soviet Union, others that were strongly against it. Crucially the second side was supported by Moscow and Gorbachev however his power was declining.

Enemies of the independence organized a movement called Interfront a counter force against the People’s Front. It was a rabid organization made from hardliners, army and security officers and anti-Latvian minded Russians. On the other side Latvian hardliners started to organize Citizen congress an alternative to the Supreme Soviet. Their goal was to register all rightful citizens of Latvian Republic who or their children had been citizens before 1940. Peoples Front however was against the Citizen congress and did not take any part in it. However in 1990 elections took place and the congress has begun work but it had a marginal effect on the events since the power was in Supreme Soviet and Peoples Front. In same time a split in the Latvian communist party was apparent and in summer 1989, it parted in two forces. It was a clear sign of weakness. The landmark event of 1989 was marking of the anniversary of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact. Two million people in the three Baltic states joined in living line from Tallinn to  Vilnius to show unity against Soviet tyranny. It was the most highlighted event of all that even encouraged Warsaw Block countries to stand up to Moscow.

The year 1990 was the time when a move to restore independence was to be done. Everything was set for this – a massive support by the people, strong position in Soviet authority and weak communist opposition. However it was to remind if such action will take place the response from Moscow would not be positive and situation in the republic would change. So far Gorbachev watched events in the Baltic states in with suspicion but refrained to make harsh counter steps. Communist party and KGB still tried to hinder the nationalist movement but they lacked direct order from Moscow to make repressions. If restoration of independence would be declared Moscow would find a reason to allow harsh measures.

Outside Parliament building May, 4 1990

Latvian neighbors Lithuania and Estonia already did this step, Latvia was ready to do it on May 4 1990. With support of 138 deputies and one abstained and 57 Interfront deputies leaving the parliament before voting- the declaration of independence was signed. A large crowd greeted the deputies with joy and flowers a mood was in an upswing. However now the Latvian government had to make a troubled road to make independence working in full-time. Soviet army and KGB was still in Latvia and Moscow denounced the declaration. One goal was to form own form of government free from Moscow which meant making own ministry of interior and foreign ministry and own security forces. It was the time of two governments in Latvian the one Latvian the other Moscow.

The situation in Moscow started to stir up. As the national movement outburst not only in Baltic states but in Ukraine and Caucasus, Gorbachev now was in a tough situation. So far he has shown himself to Western leaders as democratic statesman. US president George Bush Senior made Gorbachev made to promise him not to make aggressive movements in the  Baltic states. Soviet power already lifted in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Berlin wall. Hardliners begun to pressure Gorbachev to make aggressive moves, he himself was undeceive but he was against the full collapse

A plan to halt Baltic independence was based on making various provocations made by security forces to give Moscow official reason to enforce direct presidential rule over the Baltic republics. In Latvia it was done by special forces the OMON who attacked Latvian border posts, seized the house of press and made various coverup explosions.

A violent outburst’s already happened before in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Now one happened in Vilnius, Lithuania 1991 on January 13. An attempt by Soviet tank division to capture Lithuanian TV tower was faced with resistance of  the large unarmed crowd. In uneven battle with tanks 14 Lithuanian citizens lost their lives. A sharp response took place in Riga. The government decided to surround the Riga city center with barricades. Thousands of Latvians from all sides of Latvia came to protect the Latvian government. Old Riga was surrounded with Barricades and people was ready to face armor and OMON if necessary. On  January 20 the OMON attacked the Latvian ministry of interior. A bloody shootout took place in Old Riga. But the Soviet government was unable to send more forces because of the large outcry of the international community. Even if the US were busy with Gulf war the CNN and BBC made reports from Riga that stopped Gorbachev from making more aggressive moves.

After the events of January 1991 things begun to move towards Latvian way and downwards Soviet way. Gorbachev had lost sympathy from both Western powers and both hardliner communists. A last attempt by Gorbachev was to sign Union Agreement that would keep the Soviet Union as federation with autonomous republics. Baltic states denounced such agreement. But a conspiracy against Gorbachev begun to realize as the hardliners made a last desperate attempt to save the Soviet Union.

The hardliners were supported by elements of the KGB. Their plot was to oust Gorbachev from power and declare the status of emergency in all Soviet Union. The coup begun on  August 19 1991, when Gorbachev was on vacation in Foross. He was ready to take a plane back to Moscow, when the coup leaders locked him on house arrest and cut him from the outside world. Gorbachev however hesitated to cooperate with the coup leaders. They went back to Moscow were attempted to seize power. However they failed to arrest the main enemy Boris Yeltsin – the President of Russian SSFR who begun to organize resistance against the coup. A large crowd gathered in Moscow to support him and the army was unable to open fire against its own people.

In Latvia the OMON captured the phone central, radio and television. A Latvian government led by Ivars Godmanis declared the X hour. It was the event when if necessary the Government had to go underground and start resisting. The enemies of the independence saw chance to act. Alfrēds Rubiks announced support for the coup and threatened to get tough with all nationalists.

It was  August 21. The night before there were bloody clashes between the army and Yeltsin supporters. The army comradeship begun to object the coup. Yeltsin was in control of the White House of Moscow and the army resisted to attack it.  It was now in Latvia where no other choice was left but issue official status of Latvian republic. The government had voted for Constitutional law of state status of Latvia.  The interim period had to be canceled and the independence had to be  now in full effect.

The vote took place 13:00 as the OMON armored vehicles approached the parliament building. However the OMON did not storm the building and the vote was successful.   A failure of the coup in Moscow prevented the OMON from attacking the parliament. In the evening OMON abandoned all captured buildings.

When Gorbachev arrived in Moscow on August 23 he was now a president of collapsed state. As other Soviet republics declared independence the Soviet Union only on the paper. New Russian government supported Latvian independence.

The first country who officially recognized Latvia as  an independent state was Iceland. Nearly all countries in the world including North Korea rushed to recognize Latvian independence. US however was slower and recognized Latvia only on September. The last one was Rwanda in 1993.

This is only a instruction on complicated aspects of the events between 1986 and 1992. This was the time of hopes and dreams, fears and troubles. The independence was not a cheap price to pay, Latvia is still on the long road to build solid state. But the very cause of this long fight was just and was for the interests of Latvian people.

Selected Sources:

Latvijas valsts atjaunošana : 1986.-1993. (1998) Riga : [Latvijas Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds.

Latvijas Tautas fronte : 1988-1991 : veltījums Trešajai Atmodai un Latvijas Tautas frontes dibināšanas desmitgadei. (1998)Rīga : Jāņa sēta.

Tālavs,Jundzis (2000) 4. maijs : rakstu, atmiņu un dokumentu krāj. par Neatkarības deklarāciju. Rīga : Fonds Latvijas vēsture.

Starptautiska zinātniska konference “1990. gada 4. maija Latvijas Neatkarības deklarācija: starptautiskie un iekšpolitiskie aspekti”(2011) Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

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The Times of the Barricades in 1991

Dome square at the times of the barricades

20 years have passed since the center of Riga was surrounded by barricades. They were made from any possible obstacles, blocks, tractors and woodcuts.  The purpose of them was to protect Riga from Soviet repression on the fight for Latvian independence. It was the critical period in Latvia. Since May 4 1990, Latvia had started a path to full independence from the Soviet Union.  Soviet officials in Moscow and their supporters in Latvia attempted to cancel Latvian fight for independence, by setting bloody provocations so the direct rule from Moscow would cancel Latvian path to freedom.

The movement for independence started in 1987 when Nationalist organization Helsinki 86 first appeared in public to commemorate the deportations of  June 14 1941. They placed flowers to the monument of Freedom and waved national Latvian flags. They also showed a large poster with slogan “Down with the occupation!”. It was the signal for whole Latvia and Moscow that Latvians are willing for freedom from the USSR. Although Helsinki- 86 was soon suppressed and their leaders exiled new  national organizations   started to form up. In 1988 Latvian National Independence Movement (LNNK) was formed and demanded the separation from the Soviet Union. At the end of the same year Peoples Front of Latvia was formed and became the main force behind national movement.

The demonstration of the enemies of the independence

This all happened because of the Soviet policy of perestroika that allowed more political freedom in the USSR. However, Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev did not expect the rise of nationalism in the result of his reforms. To counter nationalism Latvian communists mainly Russians formed Interfront a counter force to Peoples Front. On 199o things begun to turn to nationalist way as in the first truly free elections since 1931. Peoples Front won a majority of seats in the Supreme Council of Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic. Now Peoples Front started the consequent move to make Latvia a sovereign republic once again. Latvian Communist party and Interfront failed to stop their intentions. Peoples front also had representatives in USSR Peoples Congress.

Nationalists succeeded by restoring national Latvian flag as an official state symbol. Many other changes were enacted until  May 4 1900 everything was ready to vote for a declaration of restoration of Latvian independence. The constitution of 1922, was restored and Latvia has now officially been a Republic. From that date an interim period was set until the elections of parliament takes place.

The Soviet government in Moscow was angry of such move. They had enough military power to completely stop independence movement as they did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. However, the climate of Soviet government had changed and Soviet leaders feared to use direct action. The eyes of the world watched closely the events in the Soviet Union. So in order to stop the separation of the Baltic States, Moscow planned to use local supporters in Baltic states so they trigger provocations, that would allow to set the presidential government in Baltic states. It would mean full control of Moscow and halt to any separatist activities.

The Soviet supporters in Latvia were members of the Soviet army, orthodox communists and Russian population. On May 15 1900 a large crowd of war school cadets attempted to storm the Supreme Council building.  They were pushed back by OMON- the special forces of the USSR. Situation begun to chill as more and more military transporters drove through the streets of Riga to warn Latvians of repressions.

The Latvian government cancelled to give supplies to a local Soviet army. Another threat was local KBG, Soviet prosecution and OMON. Latvians failed to take over them and in the result they were two Interior Ministries in Latvia- Latvian and the Soviet one. OMON refused to subdue to Latvian government and listened only to Soviet ministry. In the result OMON started numerous provocations and sabotages with the use of firearms against Latvian government. They razed down Latvian border stations and stormed the Press Building .

The Latvian communist party took organizational steps to attempt to overthrow Latvian national government. The enemies of independence united in USSR and Latvian SSR constitution and citizen protection comity. The communist party was led by Alfēdrs Rubiks. At the end of 1900 communist party changed the above named committee  in two All Latvia society rescue committee (VSGK). Its goal was to  seize back the power for communists. They hoped for direct presidential rule from Moscow.  In January 1991 Communists with armed force seized the Press Building to monopolize the press for their interests.

Peoples Front aware of the danger in  December 11 1900, issued a statement to all supporters of independence to be ready for “X- Hour” the time when direct rule from Moscow will be issued. People must resist the direct rule by any means possible.

Barricades in Riga, January 1991

On the night of 12-13  January in Vilnius, Lithuania Soviet army attacked the main television tower. It was a first attempt to seize power back from nationalists. However, the stiff resistance from Lithuanians ended in a bloodbath and resulted 14 deaths. The Soviet attack failed to reach their goal.  In response of this Latvian Communist leader Alfrēds Rubiks called for an armed uprising against Latvian government.

But Latvian government and the people acted quickly as well. Fearing an attack from Soviet tanks, barricades were built all around Old City. All governmental buildings were blockaded. Thousands of people gathered to protect national government. Such unity with the people and the government was never seen before. Soviet tanks would have no problem to crush the barricades but such action would result in even bigger bloodbath than in Vilnius. Despite United States and Western world was busy with the Gulf war Riga was filled with western journalists and the world media watched the events in Latvia closely.

VSGK in  January 15 issued a takeover of the Latvian institutions. To do this they used OMON to do attacks that will provoke a direct rule from Moscow.

In the night from 14 to 15 January OMON attacked the office of Minsk Supreme militia school in Riga , beat up the cadets and stole ammunition. Between 14 to 16 January OMON attacked the bridge guards. They beat them up, burned the cars. At the bridge of Vecmīlgrāvis OMON killed a car driver Roberts Mūrnieks.

In January 20 final attempt by VSGK was done. On 21:06 OMON approached the ministry of Interior and opened fire. They hoped for stiff resistance.  However, the ministry building was taken with ease. One ministry officer was shot dead.  The only serious response was from militiaman who opened fire.  This resulted wild shooting in the parks that caused deaths of two camera man Gvido Zvaigzne and Andris Slapiņs. Both cameraman filmed their own deaths as bullets hit them. Two militia officers died and schoolmate E. Riekstinš was shot dead. OMON suffered no damage. However, there is a video that shows how OMON car takes  away a dead body in fast speed. There is a theory of so called “third force” that also took part in shootings. They were man wearing camouflage and masks and took part in the shootings.

Bloody shootings strengthened the condemnations for the enemies of independence. International community condemned the attacks. The attempts for direct rule ended in failure as the Gorbachev opposition in Moscow halted this.

Soon after this much of the barricades were removed. The times barricades were legendary as the sign of never seen before unity of the Latvian people.   People from all ages spend cold nights in the Old City to protect their leaders.  People were ready to face tanks with empty hands. They however, had prepared for military activity. Some had hunting rifles and WWII weapons ready for just in case situations. Soviet government was unable to face such crowd with tanks that will result in bloodbath larger than in Vilnius. This was a clear sign that Latvians have the courage to fight for their freedom at the most important time.

The enemies of independence rise up once again in August when coup attempt in Moscow tried to save the Soviet Union from her collapse. This time there were no barricades protecting national government. Soviet armed vehicles approached the Supreme Council, but were forced to fall back as the coup in Moscow failed.

The years of struggle for independence were harsh and unstable. But the will of Latvian people was the main force that helped to regain the Latvian independence.

The commemoration badge for defenders of the barricades

Selected Sources:

Blūzma, Valdis, Celle, Ojars, Jundis, Tālavs, Lēbers, Dītrihs, Anderjs, Levits, Egils, Zīle, Ļubova. (1998) Latvijas valsts atjaunošana: 1986-1993. Riga: Latvijas Universitātes “Latvijas vēsture fonds”.

Ēlerte, Sarmīte (Ed.) (1998) Latvijas Tautas fronte : 1988-1991 : veltījums Trešajai Atmodai un Latvijas Tautas frontes dibināšanas desmitgadei. Riga: Jāņa Sēta.


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