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Independence, 1918-40

Latvian independence was proclaimed on November 18, 1918, but its real advent came only in 1920 after the cessation of hostilities between pro- and anti-Bolshevik forces and the withdrawal of all foreign armies from Latvian territory. The peace treaty signed with Soviet Russia on August 11, 1920, was a critical step. As stated in Article 2 of this treaty, "Russia unreservedly recognizes the independence and sovereignty of the Latvian State and voluntarily and forever renounces all sovereign rights over the Latvian people and territory." Latvia became a member of the League of Nations in 1921.

Latvia's ensuing period of independence lasted for twenty years and has become embedded in the Latvian consciousness as a golden era of progress and achievement, now referred to as the second awakening. The period of independence was characterized by both economic viability and political instability. The Latvian currency, the lats, became relatively stable. Farming and exports flourished. Inflation was low. Welfare provisions were generous. Foreign debt was minimal. One of the more important indexes of economic achievement was the volume of gold--10.6 tons--that the Latvian government placed for safekeeping in the United States, Britain, France, and Switzerland.This period is also important in understanding a significant thread of present-day Latvian political culture. The state intervened as a direct economic actor in many areas, including heavy industry, building materials, electricity, tobacco, brewing, confectionery, textiles, insurance, and food processing. The government also made a conscious attempt to provide stability and, even more important, to help expand Latvian control of the economy.

Until 1934 Latvia had a system of democracy similar to that in Weimar Germany (1919-33). The use of proportional elections and the absence of any dominant party encouraged participation by more than forty different political parties. The 1931 parliament (Saeima) had representatives from twenty-seven parties. It is not surprising, then, that Latvia had eighteen different parliamentary governments with new combinations of coalition partners in fewer than fourteen years. The evident political instability and the threat of a coup d'état from both the left and the right encouraged Karlis Ulmanis, a centrist, to take the reins of power into his own hands in May 1934. Ulmanis had been one of the founders of independent Latvia and had also been prime minister several times. His acknowledged experience and the public's general disgust with politicking assured little protest against the "setting aside" of Latvia's constitution.

Ulmanis was a populist ruler who did not countenance opposition. He banned all parties and many press organs. It is important to note, however, that not a single person was executed during this period, although several hundred activists from the left and right were incarcerated for brief periods of time. Ulmanis tried to maintain a neutral stance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but his best efforts failed when these two totalitarian systems connived to carve out spheres of dominance in the heart of Europe.

Ulmanis was deported by the Soviet authorities and died in captivity in Russia in 1942, but his legacy remains alive in Latvia. Today, Ulmanis is a powerful symbol of selfless dedication to Latvia, and his memory is honored even by organizations with high concentrations of former communists. These groups realize that the once-vilified dictator has tremendous appeal among Latvians, especially in rural areas, and that their association with Ulmanis can provide long-term political dividends. At the same time, the historical experience of such a dictatorship, even if beneficial in some respects, has been used in debates as a warning against a repetition of dictatorial rule.

The fate of Latvia and the other Baltic republics was sealed on August 23, 1939, when the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, respectively, signed a secret protocol giving Estonia and Latvia to the Soviet Union and Lithuania to Germany. Within five weeks, however, Lithuania was added to the Soviet roster of potential possessions in exchange for other territories and sizable sums of gold.

The Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) was not acknowledged by the Soviet Union until it was forced to do so, fifty years later, by the Baltic delegation to the Congress of People's Deputies (see Glossary) in Moscow in 1989. The pact was seen by Latvian and other Baltic independence supporters as the Achilles' heel of the carefully constructed myth by Moscow propagandists of how the Baltic countries had joyfully embraced the Soviet Union and had voted to become new Soviet republics. Indeed, the Latvian dissident group known as Helsinki '86 had organized demonstrations on August 23, 1987, to underscore the secret pact's existence. These demonstrations had reverberated throughout the world and had put Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's regime on the defensive.

For the Baltic countries, the half-century following the 1939 pact was a particularly tragic time. During that period, hundreds of thousands of people perished, and much effort was expended to obliterate the memory of independence.

On October 5, 1939, soon after the Nazi-Soviet Nonagression Pact was signed, the Soviet Union coerced Latvia into signing the Pact of Defense and Mutual Assistance. It then forced Latvia to accept occupation by 30,000 Soviet troops. Similar treaties were imposed on Estonia and Lithuania, whose forces also were vastly outnumbered by Soviet forces. (The Baltic states' northern neighbor, Finland, refused to accept such a demand, however, and, after it was attacked on November 30, 1939, valiantly fought the Red Army in what became known as the Winter War. The Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations for this unprovoked attack on Finland.)

Stalin made his next move in the Baltics when world attention was riveted on the imminent surrender of France to the Nazis in June 1940. An ultimatum was sent to each one of the Baltic countries demanding replacement of their existing governments by those capable of ensuring the proper fulfillment of the previously signed pacts of mutual assistance. Moscow also demanded the free entry of unlimited troops to secure strategic centers. With no hope of external support, all three countries capitulated to these demands.

The Soviet Period

The new Soviet troops moved into Latvia, together with a special emissary, Andrey Vyshinskiy, who was entrusted with the details of mobilizing enthusiastic mass support for the Sovietization of Latvia. Vyshinskiy had learned political choreography well when he staged the infamous Moscow show trials against the theoretician Nikolay I. Bukharin and other enemies of Stalin.

A so-called "people's government" was assembled, and elections were held to help legitimate the changes in the eyes of the world. Only the communist slate of candidates was allowed on the ballot, and the improbable result of 97.6 percent in favor--with a more than 90 percent turnout--was never found to be credible by any of the Western governments. For the purposes of Soviet strategy and mythmaking, however, they sufficed. On July 21, 1940, the newly elected delegates proclaimed the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and voted to petition the Soviet Union to allow Latvia to join as a constituent republic. Not surprisingly, their wishes were granted. The process of Sovietizing Latvia was interrupted, however, when Stalin's ally and co-conspirator attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. One week before the Nazi attack, the Soviet regime had arrested and deported to Siberia, in sealed cattle cars, about 15,000 of the former Latvian elite, as well as suspected anticommunists, including 5,154 women and 3,225 children. In all, during the first year of occupation, Latvia lost 35,000 people to deportations or executions. Most deportees died in Siberia.

The equally brutal Nazi occupation lasted until May 8, 1945. Latvia's Jews and Gypsies were particularly subjected to mass annihilation, and only a small number of each group survived this holocaust. The Nazis had no intention of liberating Latvia or providing renewed independence. Even the bulk of nationalized property was not returned. They did, however, draft young men into the armed forces--an illegal move in occupied territories, according to international law. These young people fought against the Red Army in two divisions, suffering high casualties.

With the advance of the Red Army into Latvia, about 200,000 Latvian refugees fled in panic to the West. Many lost their lives in the Baltic Sea, and others were bombed, together with their horse-drawn wagons. A sizable group was captured and turned back to await punishment for their "disloyalty." About 150,000 refugees from Latvia settled in the West, where many of them continued a half-century-long struggle against the occupation of their homeland.

The reestablishment of Soviet control in the mid-1940s was not welcomed. Many Latvians joined the guerrilla movement, which fought the occupying power for close to a decade. To break this resistance and also to force peasants into collective farms, new deportations to Siberia, involving more than 40,000 people (10,590 of them children under sixteen years of age), were completed on March 25, 1949. This date was to become a focal point of demonstrations in 1988.

The leading positions in postwar Latvia's political, economic, and cultural life were filled by Russians or Russified Latvians, known as latovichi , who had spent much or all of their lives in the Soviet Union. Political power was concentrated in the Communist Party of Latvia (CPL), which numbered no more than 5,000 in 1945. The rapid growth of industry attracted migrant workers, primarily from Russia, further facilitating the processes of Russification and Sovietization. Net immigration from 1951 to 1989 has been estimated at more than 400,000.

After Stalin's death in 1953, conditions for greater local autonomy improved. In Latvia, beginning in 1957, a group of national communists under the leadership of Eduards Berklavs, deputy premier of the Latvian Council of Ministers, began a serious program of Latvianization. He and his supporters passed regulations restricting immigration, requested that party and government functionaries know the Latvian language, and planned to limit the growth of industry requiring large inputs of labor. Increased funding was planned for local requirements, such as agricultural machines, urban and rural housing, schools, hospitals, and social centers, rather than for Moscow-planned "truly grandiose projects."

These programs were not well received in Moscow, and a purge of about 2,000 national communists was initiated in July 1959. Many of the most gifted individuals in Latvia lost their positions and had to endure continuous harassment.

Berklavs himself was exiled from Latvia and expelled from the CPL. Later, upon returning to Latvia, he was one of the leaders of the Latvian underground opposition and coauthored a 1974 letter with seventeen Latvian communists, detailing the pace of Russification in Latvia. In 1988 Berklavs became one of the key founders of the Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas Nacionala neatkaribas kustiba--LNNK), and as an elected deputy in the Latvian parliament he vigorously defended Latvian interests.

After the purge of the national communists, Latvia experienced a particularly vindictive and staunchly pro-Moscow leadership. Under the iron fist of hard-liner Arvids Pelse (CPL first secretary, 1959-66), who later became a member of the Political Bureau (Politburo) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Latvia suffered many restrictions and petty harassments in all fields of national culture and social development. Sovietization and Russification programs were of an intensity and dimension not found in either Estonia or Lithuania. Pelse was replaced by Augusts Voss (CPL first secretary, 1966-84), who was equally insensitive to Latvian demands. With the advent of a new period of glasnost (see Glossary) and national awakening, Voss was transferred to Moscow to preside over the Supreme Soviet's Council of Nationalities and was replaced by Boris Pugo, a former chief of Latvia's Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti--KGB). Pugo, who served as CPL first secretary until 1988, subsequently gained prominence as a partici-pant in the abortive Soviet coup of August 1991.

Data as of January 1995


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