Riga, with its well-preserved medieval center and art nouveau district, has long been known as the Pearl of the Baltics. Thirty years after the restoration of the Republic of Latvia, its capital is also dotted with architectural and sculptural relics of the “Soviet time”—the occupation from 1944 to 1991. They range from the monotonous rows of five-story gray apartment blocks with which Moscow carpeted the Baltic states to the Latvian Academy of Sciences. Built between 1951 and 1961, this towering edifice, known locally as “Stalin’s birthday cake,” was originally intended as a birthday gift for the dictator, who died in 1953. Latvians once regarded the building, which retains its original decorative hammers and sickles, as an eyesore, as well as an unpleasant reminder of Stalin, who crushed the short-lived Latvian Republic in 1940 and reimposed Soviet rule over the country in 1944 after more than three years of Nazi occupation. But they don’t seem to mind it anymore. The seventeenth-floor balcony offers a panoramic view of the city that is popular with tourists, on whom Riga is dependent.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, however, thrust other architectural legacies of the Soviet occupation into a dramatically different light. Today the most controversial is the Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders, built in 1985, during the twilight of the Soviet empire, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Red Army’s victory over Germany. Also known as the Victory Park Memorial, the monument consists of a towering obelisk and two groups of sculptures, one of which is an idealized depiction of three Soviet soldiers. At 260 feet high, it is one of the largest war memorials built by the Soviets outside of Russia and is nearly twice as tall as Riga’s soaring Freedom Monument, known as Milda, built in 1935 to honor the Latvians who died during the country’s war of independence between 1918 and 1920, after more than a century of Russian rule.1
The Victory Park Memorial is located in an expansive park on the opposite side of the Daugava River from Milda. For many years ethnic Latvians loathed it as a symbol of Soviet rule. In 1997 the ultranationalist group Perkonkrusts tried to blow up the monument with improvised explosives, but they went off prematurely, causing only superficial damage. Two of the perpetrators died in the blast. The others were arrested, tried, and imprisoned by the Latvian government, in accordance with the agreement it had made with Russia in 1994 to protect, maintain, and care for each other’s memorials and war graves, after which the Kremlin belatedly and reluctantly withdrew its remaining forces in the Baltics. Among other things, the agreement also called for the Latvian government to continue paying the pensions of the 22,000 (now 11,000) retired Russian military personnel who chose to remain in Latvia.
Until recently the disputes over the Victory Park Memorial seemed to be dying down as tensions eased between the ethnic Latvian majority and the Russian-speaking minority—approximately a quarter of the country’s 1.9 million people. Over the years the memorial also became the site of the Russian minority’s raucous annual May 9 “Victory Celebration,” as they called it. The government wasn’t happy about these celebrations, but it maintained a hands-off attitude toward them.
That was before February 24. Since the Russian invasion the memorial has become a flash point for a rekindled debate about Latvia’s historical memory, and the Latvian government is intent on demolishing it. On May 26, after a heated debate, the Saeima, the Latvian parliament, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a sweeping new law, entitled “On the Prohibition of the Display of Objects Glorifying the Soviet and Nazi Regimes and Their Dismantling in the Territory of the Republic of Latvia,” and it was formally approved on June 16. Only seventeen members of Harmony, the party that represents the Russian minority and commands a substantive if declining amount of support, and two nonaffiliated members were opposed.2
The legislation was the culmination of a chaotic chain of events that began with this year’s May 9 commemoration, which was canceled by the government, or rather with the botched handling by the police of the protest that took place on May 10, when the hundreds of flowers that Russians were allowed to leave at the obelisk’s base were hauled away, leading to a demonstration by three hundred surly pro-Russian protesters, who also confronted a group of yellow-and-blue-draped Ukrainian supporters. There was widespread criticism of the way the Riga police handled the incident, particularly from the conservative National Alliance party, one of the four parties in the governing center-right coalition, and the minister of interior, Marija Golubeva, was forced to resign.
By then the drive to demolish the memorial, which had begun to gather steam after February 24, had expanded to include all three-hundred-odd Soviet-era memorials and monuments around the country, despite Riga’s original commitment to protect them under the 1994 bilateral agreement. On May 12 the enraged Saeima voted to suspend that agreement “until Russia terminates breaches of international law with regard to Ukraine, including the removal of its armed forces from the territory of Ukraine and the full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
Rihards Kols, the outspoken chairman of the Saeima’s foreign affairs committee, who spearheaded the legislation, explained its rationale to me. “The so-called Victory Monument has been the site of May 9 ‘Victory Day’ celebrations since the early 2000s, when Putin came to power,” he told me in his modest office across from the fortresslike mid-nineteenth-century building in the historic Old Town that is the home of the Saeima.
Over the years the monument has become a catalyst for post-Soviet nostalgia for the small section of society living under the influence of the Russian media, while most of us perceive it as a reminder of Soviet occupation and a signifier of the “Russian Mir” ideology promoted by the Kremlin abroad.
The Kremlin continues to use Victory Park “as a tool to mobilize its ‘Russian subjects’ to its own distorted view of history and demoralize the Latvian population, one in which it is acceptable to celebrate ‘Victory Day’ on May 9,” said Kols. “Latvia,” he pointed out,
has no public holiday—or anything to celebrate, really—in the context of the Second World War. With the change in international realities, we now have an opportunity to express our true attitude toward the monument, which has come to symbolize the Soviet-successor regime that is perpetrating crimes against humanity today in Ukraine, and remove this “thorn.”
Selma Levrence, a young progressive activist and former parliamentary aide who was one of the pro-Ukrainian counterdemonstrators in Victory Park on May 10, agrees. Until recently, she maintained, “I was very much against removing the Soviet memorial, even though the annual event there had devolved into an increasingly militaristic celebration of Putinism, as were many if not all of the people in my bubble.” Latvians, particularly young Latvians, often speak of living in one of the two ethnic “bubbles.” Until recently it had been my impression, having employed students from both bubbles, that the differences dividing them were dissolving. Not anymore. “Many things have radically changed since February 24,” said Levrence.3
“There is no value or benefit it brings to Latvian society,” Levrence, who recently announced her candidacy for the Saeima in the forthcoming fall elections, told me. “Of course, the removal of the monument won’t solve the deeper issues of our divided society. But it is an opportunity to start from a fresh page.” That is why she showed up on May 10 to confront the pro-Russian protesters there, as well as to show her support for Ukraine. Ukraine’s fight is also Latvia’s fight, she insisted.
The reaction of the Russian embassy in Riga, which has been in a state of semi-siege since a horde of angry Latvians descended on it on February 25, the day after the invasion, was predictably sulfurous. “We are outraged by the decision of the Latvian Saeima to unilaterally suspend Article 13 of the Russian-Latvian Intergovernmental Agreement of April 30, 1994,” the embassy announced.
This situation clearly demonstrates for the entire responsible international community the true face of the political elite of Latvia: cynicism, double standards, a complete rejection of the civilised ways of settling interstate issues and brazen disregard for the fundamental principles of international law.
There were, understandably, a lot of smirks when legislators read that last line. Still, it is difficult to take issue with the next one: “In Latvia, the problem of settling the score with one’s own historical past is looming large.”
On the other hand, not all the Latvian Russian speakers who are angry at the prospect of the monument’s demolition are supporters of Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. Some of them, including several of my acquaintance, regard Victory Park as it was originally intended—or supposedly intended: as a commemoration of the USSR’s victory over Germany, even though it was followed by draconian Soviet rule.
One of these is Kersti Ilves, a Russian Latvian actress who lives in Paris. Ilves says that she and her family revere Victory Park “as a memorial to the soldiers who liberated Latvia from fascism. In each family—certainly the ones I know of—there is a grandfather or a great-uncle who fought against the Nazis. That is why it is special to us.” Not, she says, because of what is happening in Ukraine, despite the unapologetically pro-Putin and anti-Ukraine demonstrators who showed up on May 10.
Arturs Krisjanis Karins, the American-born Latvian prime minister, is not worried about the pro-Putin faction among Latvia’s Russian population. It is a “minority of a minority,” he said in a radio interview on May 19, a week after the Victory Park fracas. As proof, he cited a recent poll by the respected Latvian pollster SKDS, which showed that the number of Putin supporters had dropped from 20 percent to 13 percent since the war began. “That translates to about 5 percent of the population of our country,” Karins pointed out, observing that even in most Western countries there is usually an equally small percentage of the population who are unhappy with the government.4 “We can live with that.”
Karins went on to enumerate his government’s moves to fortify both the country’s military defenses, in concert with its NATO allies, and its cultural defenses, by accelerating the ongoing effort to remove the Russian language from the educational system, “so that all of our schools will be teaching the state language.”5 Don’t worry about the crazies who showed up at Victory Park on May 10, he said. And don’t worry about Russia.
Yet rightly or wrongly, a lot of Latvians are worried about Russia, as well as the future of their country. One hears of older people, especially those with memories of the horrific Soviet deportations of the late 1940s, who packed their suitcases in February and March, just in case the Russians did come back. They are a minority. But there are many more Latvians from both sides of the ethnic divide who are worried about whether the still-fragile Latvian state will withstand the reverberations from the war in Ukraine.
The last week of May was an intense and eventful one, as the shadow of the war loomed larger. On May 26 Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Latvian parliament from Kyiv. He thanked Latvia for the profuse military and humanitarian aid it has extended his country, including accepting, housing, and schooling more than 30,000 Ukrainian refugees, a not inconsiderable number for a financially strapped nation of fewer than two million. He also explicitly tied Ukraine’s fate to Latvia’s. “Dear Latvian people!” he exhorted.
Our parents hoped that the war would not hit our generation. That you and I would not be threatened by what previous generations had to endure. Oppression, repression, deportation…. We have everything we need to eliminate these threats. And I am sure we’ll do it. Together. And guided by our values. Paldies, Latvija! Glory to Ukraine!
Zelensky’s impassioned speech was greeted with a standing ovation by the visibly moved legislators, although the Harmony representatives were seen to be clapping somewhat more tepidly than their colleagues.
Four days later, on May 30, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia had its grand reopening. Established in 1993 to depict what had happened in Latvia between 1940 and 1991, including the crimes committed under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, with a heavy emphasis on the latter, as well as the difficult path to the restoration of independence in 1991, the museum is in a massive, boxlike building with a checkered history. Built in 1971 to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Lenin’s birth, it was first a museum for the Latvian Red Riflemen, the Latvian Soviet troops who fought in the Russian Civil War. Each of the Baltic states has a museum of occupation, and Latvia’s was definitely the least impressive of them. I recall touring it on my first visit to Riga in 2002 and being struck by its amateurish, agitprop character.
The reopening of the museum, which was housed at the former US embassy during its long-delayed, controversial €10 million renovation, would have been a charged affair under normal circumstances. The war in Ukraine and the dispute over Victory Park made it even more so. Latvian president Egils Levits, a mild-mannered, bespectacled sixty-six-year-old jurist and lawyer who was a longtime judge on the European Court of Human Rights, has yet to grip the Latvian public’s imagination like his formidable and still-beloved predecessor Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who served from 1999 to 2007 and helped usher Latvia into both the EU and NATO. But his remarks, delivered before a standing-room-only crowd in an emotion-laden voice, electrified the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Levits began.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has evoked in our national memory the Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940. The crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine remind us of the brutal murder of Latvian civilians during the [Soviet] occupation.
The president went on to extol the importance of the refurbished museum in “explaining the tragic knot in Latvian statehood,” as he described the successive Nazi and Soviet occupations, the illegal mobilization of Latvians in occupation armies, and the all-but-forgotten resistance movement during the Soviet occupation, known as the Forest Brothers.
Levits did not mention the Victory Park Memorial, but he strongly alluded to it, while dismissing both the Western interpretation of Latvia’s liberation and the one that Putin and the Russian media have used to rationalize Russian aggression in Ukraine and, at least implicitly, to justify a possible future move against the Baltics. “The European space of remembrance is still divided by different interpretations of World War II,” declared Levits.
In the West, the narrative of the Allied victory over Nazism as the only evil has dominated for years. Russia, on the other hand, especially under Putin, has based its identity on its victory in the so-called Great Patriotic War, glorifying its image as the liberator of the world. Neither of these interpretations corresponds to the Latvian experience. Latvia was not liberated by the West, but reoccupied by Soviet Russia in 1945.
After his speech I toured the museum. The new exhibition, which takes up nearly a thousand square feet, is replete with dozens of fascinating, carefully edited videos and myriad creatively mounted photographs and accompanying texts. It is more understated than its predecessor, allowing the victims as well as the survivors of the two occupations to speak of the horrors they endured and witnessed.
In the section about the Soviet occupation, my eye was caught by a display illustrating how the Soviets tried to erase the memory of the first Latvian republic by defacing or demolishing monuments from that time. “Purging Memory,” it is called. I asked Gints Apals, the head of the museum’s public history department, if that wasn’t what the Latvian government was now proposing to do with Victory Park and other memorials. He disagreed. “I do not think that the current developments around Soviet-era monuments could be compared to Soviet policies directly,” he insisted.
The Soviet regime tried to erase the memories of independent Latvia in order to subjugate the people and build a new Russified communist society. Latvia is not trying to purge the memory of anyone. The fact is, many people in Latvia perceive the Soviet military monuments as a reminder that the Soviet—or Russian—terror might come back.
To be sure, there is little evidence that any Latvians from either community—even the vociferous pro-Putin minority of Russians—have any interest in being part of Mother Russia again. Nor has Putin, his hands full with Ukraine, explicitly said that he has designs on the Baltics. Hackles were raised on June 9, however, when, in a bombastic talk about his predecessor Peter the Great, Putin hinted at such designs, praising Peter for “reclaiming,” as he disingenuously put it, the Swedish-ruled Estonian city of Narva in 1704, during the Great Northern War.6
How, I wondered, did the people of other Latvian cities, particularly ones in the eastern part of the country near Russia, perceive the Soviet-era military monuments in their towns? To find out, the weekend before the museum opening I traveled to Rezekne, a city of 27,000 twenty-three miles west of the Latvian-Russian border.
Rezekne’s population is almost evenly divided between ethnic Latvians and Russians—47.5 percent to 41.5 percent. The hotel where I like to stay, the Kolonna, was built in 1939, during the waning days of the first republic. Designed in the Scandinavian style favored in the Baltics at the time, with large windows and a curved façade, it was intended in part to accommodate the Soviet officials and tourists who were expected to pass through Rezekne en route to the 1940 Olympic Games across the Gulf of Finland in Helsinki.
Those games were canceled after the Soviets invaded Finland in November 1939, and the three-month Finno-Soviet Winter War, which the Ukraine war so eerily resembles, was followed by the first Soviet occupation of the Baltics. The Kolonna was almost completely destroyed in the heavy fighting between retreating German forces and advancing Soviet ones that raged in the area in the spring of 1944. After the war and the return of Soviet rule, the hotel was reconstructed and became popular with the Russian tourists who liked to summer in Rezekne and sun themselves along the shore of nearby Rezekne Lake.
Before the Soviets departed, they also erected in the center of town the Monument to the Liberators of Rezekne, a hulking, approximately sixty-foot likeness of a Soviet soldier cradling a PPSh-41 submachine gun—standard issue for Stalin’s troops. Unsurprisingly, the monument, which is also known as Alyosha, is high on the list of Soviet memorials that the Saeima would like to have removed. It also happens to be located within sight of the Kolonna. When I arrived, there were no police there, like the watchful ones now stationed around the clock at Victory Park, which has been blocked off. Nor were there many visitors. I did notice, though, that every morning there were more flowers. The impression I got from talking with members from both ethnic communities was that the monument was not as controversial as the Victory Park Memorial in Riga has become. Nevertheless, on June 7 the Rezekne City Council peremptorily decided to move it to the city cemetery on the outskirts of town, where some of the Soviet war dead are buried.
—June 22, 2022
Stalin wanted to tear it down but was reportedly dissuaded from doing so by Vera Mukhina, the eminent Riga-born Soviet sculptor. ↩
In the last election for the Saeima in 2018, Harmony won 19.9 percent of the vote, down from 28.6 percent in 2011. ↩
It should be noted that the Russian “bubble” includes many Latvian Russians who consider themselves Latvians first and Russians second. ↩
Actually, that translates into only about 3 percent of the Latvian population. ↩
On March 1, four days after the invasion, the Latvian government said it would increase the defense budget from 2.2 to 2.5 percent of GDP. According to the accelerated language reform, all education will be conducted in Latvian, the country’s official language, by 2025. ↩
Putin’s remarks caused the Estonian foreign ministry to summon Vladimir Lipaev, the Russian ambassador to Tallinn, for a dressing-down. “At a time when Russia is implementing its revanchist policy informed by the Russiky Mir ideology by trying to destroy the statehood and people of Ukraine, [this] is completely unacceptable,” Rein Tammsaar, the foreign ministry’s undersecretary, told Lipaev. ↩