It’s hard to imagine what it is like to be oppressed for most of your life. To have your freedom taken away and to live in perpetual fear of what your captors will do next. We shudder as we hear stories of people incarcerated for years in basements by kidnappers, men locked away for crimes they did not commit by tyrannical regimes, women trapped in crushing religious systems. Across the world the list, tragically, goes on.
As for individuals, so for nations. We have just come back from visiting one. The experience and history of Latvia could not fail to make an impression.
Independence between the Wars (1918-1939)
Throughout its history the little country of Latvia has been possessed and oppressed by bigger and more powerful nations. In the past 100 years she has been fought over and subjugated in turn by Russia and Germany. Like two would-be parents fighting over the custody of a child – where the battle is everything and where the “good of the child” is at the same time claimed and completely ignored by both sides. The result for Latvia has been half a century of horrific suffering.
As the first world war ended, Latvia finally freed itself of the shackles of those who had sought to control it. She asserted her own independence and she set off on her own, to make her own way, her own mistakes and her own future.
The Latvians designed and built their own constitution – asserting their own democratic sovereign power over their own independent country. They erected their own Freedom Monument high above the capital city of Riga. Even Soviet Russia agreed in a peace treaty that it “unreservedly recognises the independence and sovereignty of the Latvian State and voluntarily and forever renounces all sovereign rights to Latvian people and territory”.
If only they had. If “forever” had meant forever. If so, the history of the twentieth century Europe could have been entirely different. Instead, the criminals would return to the scene of their crimes, to ransack and steal everything the Latvians had worked for.
The First Occupation – Sold out by the Soviets and the Nazis (1940-1941)
In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin conspired to construct a secret “non-aggression” pact. The Soviets could have the Baltic countries, and in return would turn a blind eye to Germany invading Poland. “In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States, the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and U.S.S.R”. They agreed it illegally and executed it perniciously
In this way, the countries of Europe and the rights of their people were carved up between these two totalitarian powers. The Germans duly invaded Poland on September 1st, with the covert acquiescence of the Soviets, and the second world war was unleashed in all its terror and destruction. And the Baltic were the unwitting and unwilling makeweight.
And so the Soviets were left alone to overrun Latvia and her Baltic sisters. These small nations faced the impossible choice between hopeless bloody resistance and surrender to an overwhelming military power. They “chose” the latter, thereby sealing their imprisonment for the next 50 years.
Finland, which chose to resist, was invaded by the Red Army. Thousands of lives and miles of territory were lost, but somehow she hung onto her independence.
As for Latvia, the New York Times described it as “deliberate annihilation of their territory and independence”. Conversely, Soviet history books describe it as a “Socialist Revolution”; a victory for democracy and the working classes over the bourgeois government. As they annexed the country to the USSR by force, they dressed it up as the will of the people. Truth certainly is the first casualty of war.
For the subsequent Latvian election, they identified only one party as “conforming to all requirements of the law”. Spoiled papers were forbidden. 97.6% voted in favour and Latvia was declared as a “Soviet Republic”. In truth, they were treating the real will of the people with contempt, and ignoring their previous peace agreement and the Latvian Constitution.
“Sovietisation” began in haste. 25,000 Soviet troops were quickly stationed in Latvia. The Latvian Army was renamed the “People’s Army” and incorporated into the Red Army. Latvian officers were ordered for “special training” in Moscow, where they were either shot or sent to Gulag Camps. Religious teaching was forbidden and the clergy were barred from officiating over births, marriages or deaths. Moscow took over the media and the printing presses. And all of this was enforced by dreadful fear and intimidation. The cellars of Riga served as torture or execution chambers. In 1941, almost 20,000 Latvian men women and children were sent to hard labour camps. Hardly any survived.
They took it all –
our native land, our honour and our name.
They punished us for being human beings
They numbered us like things or cattle all the same.
(a Latvian Poem, as are all those quoted below)
Lies and terror are the twin weapons of self-obsessed cowards who have no integrity and no feelings. And yet they have the shocking temerity to believe that they have the authority to play god over the lives of millions of others.
The Second Occupation – The Nazis and the Holocaust (1941-1944)
Then the Nazis drove the Red Army out of Latvia in 1941, many viewed them as liberators – the enemy of their enemy. They knew nothing of course of the previous pact between the two tyrants.
It proved to be merely a changing of the cruel guard, but this time accompanied by the unimaginable horrors of the holocaust. The Jewish community, previously living in peace and harmony with the rest of the Latvians, were isolated and deported to labour camps. As the utter nightmare of the appallingly named “final solution” was implemented, over 65,000 Latvian Jews were murdered. On two successive days in June, 25,000 Jews were killed in or on the way to Rumbula Forest near Riga.
frozen on the trunks of pines
Their horror-roughened bark
heaped over buried lives,
still moving in the morning –
Would all out country’s woods
not be such
as I that grows in Rumbala –
a greenish horror-crater
midst the fields of grain
Each one who’s set his foot in me,
Becomes my tongue,
You’ve entered me
For the rest of Latvia, it was the same awful oppression but under a different banner. Another 20,000 were sent to hard labour camps – only this time in Germany.
The Third Occupation – Sold out to the Soviets (1944-1991)
In 1944, as the second world war came to its bloody conclusion and German forces neared capitulation, the Soviets re-entered Latvia. Germans fought Soviets on Latvian soil. 200,000 Latvians fought on either side – many against each other. Half of them were killed in action for a cause they didn’t believe in. It was the Soviet’s turn to prevail and to declare themselves as liberators. It would be ironic, if it were not so seriously and devastatingly true.
By the end of the war, a third of the Latvian people had been killed or deported from their own soil..
Finally the war ended, and at last, the Latvians felt there was to be an end to their five years of dreadful occupation and oppression. Some who had fled across the seas to Sweden in the last years of the war prepared to return to their newly restored independent country. Their hope lay in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which had declared the principle of the self-determination of nations and the right to reject territorial changes which violate their wishes.
But – to the despair of the Latvians – on the issue of Baltic independence, Britain and the US yielded to the demands of Stalin who did not believe it applied to the “indivisible USSR”. Churchill had stated that “the Baltic peoples inclusion into the Soviet Union against their will would be in contradiction to all the principles for which we are fighting this war”. And yet, the 1945 Yalta Summit did not give the Baltic countries the right to choose their own government which it granted to other European countries.
Imagine the sense of despair and betrayal they must have felt when they were handed back to the Russians in 1945 to becoming the 16th Soviet Republic.
Moscow took over the rule of the country and institutions were re-Sovietised. The Russian population expanded from 10% to 34%. Contacts with the outside world were cut off. The Latvian language became a minority language in its own country and all Latvians had to master Russian. Terror and oppression were unrelenting. In 1949, 43,000 Latvians – mainly farmers – were deported to Siberia, destroying her agricultural base.
They were to remain under the oppression of the USSR for 45 years. My school atlas consumed Latvia as part of the enormous red monster of the U.S.S.R. For my first 30 years, Latvia effectively didn’t exist.
Independence Regained (1991)
And then, in the late 1980s, Gorbachev’s Glasnost brought some liberty and relaxation of control in the USSR and the Soviet bloc countries began to assert their independence. At the same time, the freedom movement in the Baltic states gathered increasingly visible momentum and quiet determination. In 1988, spontaneous mass night demonstrations precipitated what became known as the “singing revolution”. On 23rd August 1989, two million Baltics held hands in an unbroken 600 kilometer chain across three countries – “The Baltic Way”.
The “Latvian Popular Front” grew into a mass movement. In the first true democratic elections of 1990, it finally gained a majority and quickly passed a law to reinstate the Latvian constitution. Fearing retaliation from the Soviets, who had already hit back in Lithuania, barricades were erected in the streets of Riga.
Back in Moscow, having defied the attempted coup against Gorbachev, Yeltsin pushed forward his agenda of perestroika. And as the powerful winds of liberty swept across eastern Europe, on 21st August 1991, the Supreme Council of Latvia voted to declare complete independence and sovereignty.
The 1918 constitution was restored. After three occupations in 100 years, the country had finally found its independence. This period of self-determination has just surpassed the twenty years of freedom which Latvia enjoyed between the two wars. Hopefully, this time, it will go on forever.
Latvia Today (2013)
How does a country emerge from such a horrible history? How does a child who was bullied at school or abused by his parents recover, repair and move forwards, once the bullying stops and the abuse is no more? How does a nation respond to its new found freedom and take up its new found responsibility?
My feet no longer know how to walk free
How many years have yet to pass
For signs of shame to be erased from soul and
How many years have yet to pass
Until the fear will disappear
In breezes through the fields of rye
And in the tristar light of native night?
Especially when the bully is still in town – 30% of the population of Latvia remain Russians and Moscow continues to press for Russian to be adopted as an official second language. Unlike the contrite and ashamed German nation, Russia has never admitted or apologised for the crimes of the past. The very existence of the 1939 secret treaty only emerged in 1989, before when its very existence was denied.
To this casual foreign visitor, Latvia seems to be doing very well indeed. Riga is a spacious, attractive, modern and well-presented city. It is replete with fabulous 5-6 story buildings with beautifully ornate facades which would not look out of place in Kensington or Washington DC.
The city – steeped in history, appears clean, efficient and well-maintained. Unlike Bucharest, for example which remains dominated by grey communist blocks and austere buildings, or Berlin where the scars of the war and occupation are still prominent. Here in Riga, the signs of the Communist and Nazi occupations are relegated to museums and memorials. It seems that these people simply want to move on and move forwards.
And they seem to be succeeding. Today Latvia has a booming economy. Since 2011, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have exhibited Europe’s fastest economic growth. Latvia is expected to have the highest GDP growth in the EU in 2013 and 2014, just as it did in 2012. The Baltic countries have re-invented themselves as exporting economies.
Moving Forwards (2013 – )
We found the people quiet and polite. Waiters and waitresses seem a little wary of eye contact or pleasantly surprised by words of gratitude. But somewhere in this people is a quiet determination to rebuild, to renew and to create the future they always wanted.
For those of us who have suffered pain or oppression in our pasts, we have two choices. One is to continue to complain about the injustice of the past, awaiting some sort of apology or reparation. But those who should show contrition are long dead, and their successors can only pay lip-service and utter empty words. Our other choice is to move on, without forgetting the pain and horrors of the past, but without letting them paralyse our future either. Bitterness oppresses and imprisons the bitter, prolonging and never salving the pain. And those who cause it are usually beyond redemption.
Latvians seem to have decided to mark the past and to rebuild for the future. Rebuilding is something they seem to have a particular talent for. The wonderfully ornate Blackheads House opposite the Riga Town Hall was raised to the ground during the second world war. In 1990, it was rebuilt brick by brick on the original foundations.
Each person comes into this world to accomplish a lifetime task. (Our) task was to give the city back its heart. The blackheads House has recovered from nothingness the historical centre of Riga. In the time and space allotted to an individual person, man fills in a fraction of the Infinite Time and Infinite Space by creating spiritual values whose energy gets materialised as objects and things. In the meandering course of history this important evidence is often lost or destroyed which makes it essential to identify it or at least to gather information about it. In this was the past is revived, history is revived.
And so the best memorial and testament to the thousands of Latvians who suffered and died at the hands of their oppressors, is to recover their stolen lives from nothingness, mark it in memorials and to invest their legacy in the future of the country which they only ever wanted to inhabit in freedom.
So Long Live Latvia – and the long-suffering Latvian people. So dreadfully mistreated, and now in their political liberty, determined to be unconstrained by their history, and to build better lives for themselves their children and, I hope, for endless generations to come.
Research from a variety of local books and the Museum of Occupation in Riga. As ever, I welcome your comments, corrections and thoughts.