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Freedom and the meaning of Latvia

The three Eastern Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are relatively new constructs. Their languages are among the most ancient spoken in Europe, but their national identity was only slowly constructed, culminating in the late nineteenth century. Their political identity might have remained bound up in the Russian Empire had not that entity collapsed into murderous barbarism under the hammer blows of the evil of Lenin and Stalin.

As a result of the collapse and the simultaneous fall of the German Empire in 1918, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania together with Finland and Poland were able to construct independent states- in the case of the Baltic three, for the first time in 700 years.  Yet within twenty years of their creation they were subject to a monstrous conspiracy between a Russia under the rule of the psychopath Stalin and a German under the rule of the no less wicked Adolf Hitler.

The first consequence of the Nazi-Soviet pact was their joint attack on Poland. The second consequence was the invasion of Finland and the diktat to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the Soviet Union. Within a few days of the Soviet occupation, life in the Baltic had already become cheap. From a prosperous bourgeois existence, the Baltic descended into a charnel house. All of the government and civil service, teachers, ministers of religion, army officers, even boy scouts were arrested and most were shot. Before the end of the first occupation in June 1941, the death toll as the result of Soviet occupation already stood at several thousand.

Of course the first Soviet occupation was brought to an end not by peace, but by the German invasion. The consequence was the genocide of the entire Jewish community in the region. over 100,000 were murdered in the local concentration camps or sent to the killing fields of Poland. 

Then the Soviets fought their way back in. The countries were devastated- half of the old city of Tallinn was leveled by a Soviet air raid- even though the German troops had already fled the city. In reoccupying the Baltic, the Soviet troops displayed the barbarity for which they would become infamous in Germany: pillage and mass rape of the local population was commonplace. The Soviet troops returned not as liberators but as harbingers of yet greater terror.  Over 150,000 Balts fled the onslaught and were scattered through the displaced persons camps and the wider world after the war was over.

In 1949 the largest of a series of purges and deportations sent yet furthers hundreds of thousands into Siberia with no preparation or even notice. The cattle trucks and forced marches took weeks- the conditions were so severe that those few who ever returned were physically and mentally shattered.

Still the Balts resisted- a  hopeless guerilla war continued until the mid 1950s. 

By the time the resistance was broken, even with the trickle of returnees, the Baltic has lost about a third of the population. The Soviet response was to create huge new industrial and military combines and invite the Russian industrial proletariat to settle in the "Baltic Republics"- which even despite the devastation wrecked on them were wealthier than the Russian heartland. Russian became compulsory- the local languages were to be forgotten. Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were second class citizens in their own countries- forbidden to travel without permits and not permitted to settle in large areas. Even visiting the country districts or the Estonian islands required much paperwork- which could and was denied on any pretext. The Baltic populations settled down to life in prison.

Yet the fact was that the Baltic occupation let a bacterium into the Soviet system. As Anne Applebaum explains in her masterwork, Gulag. After the occupation, it became yet clearer that so-called finest system in the world was a squalid sham- that far from being advanced, the Soviet Union was backward. The growing realization that all of the monstrous bloodshed of Stalinism had been for nothing destroyed the ideological impetus of Communism. Though the system lingered on in bureaucratic inertia, the dream had already died long before.

The Occupation of Latvia had been as brutal as elsewhere, with the added grief that Riga, and its surburb, Jurmala, were particularly attractive places for senior army and party leaders to retire to. Riga became a 60% Russian speaking city. Latvia was also more penetrated by Communist fellow travelers, since a cadre of Latvians had chosen to leave Latvia after independence in 1918 and become loyal servants of the Bolsheviks- sufficient numbers of them survived the Great Terror to return and act as a fifth column for the occupation.

Nevertheless, Latvia, as the other two Baltic countries, followed a path to freedom and independence from the USSR that made an accommodation with the Russian population. The Russian speakers largely supported the restoration of Latvian independence. Although the vexed question of citizenship has left several thousand either stateless or with no claim to Latvian citizenship, the fact is that their condition is not of oppression in the sense the Latvians knew it , but subject to some relatively minor inconveniences.

Yet tensions remain. Latvian nationalists still resent the presence of so many recent immigrants- particularly if they make no attempt to assimilate. Yet the majority have been happy to create a social contract that works for both language groups in the interests of creating a stable and prosperous Latvia. Of course the economic crisis has hurt the country severely: Latvia has, however achieved the kind of fiscal discipline in one year that the government of Greece, for example, is still unlikely to deliver in the next five years. Latvia is a success.

The country has returned to growth, but the political structures remain a work in progress. That attempt by the Latvian nationalists to force Russians to use Latvian backfired badly since they could not get a sufficient number of signatures to force a constitutional referendum on the subject. By contrast the substantially Russian speaking party- Harmony Centre- was able to gain enough signatures to force a referendum on whether Russian should become an official language. It is this referendum that has just taken place.

At present the Russian speaking population is about 30% of the population- which is down from the 45% in the 1980s. That fall reflects the death of the Russian retirees and the relatively higher emigration of Latvian Russians- both to Russia, but also to Western Europe. The referendum result looks like being 75% against making Russian the official language- which suggests that even a substantial proportion of Russian speakers have opposed the change too. Although the referendum has been divisive, it underlines that- despite pressure from Vladimir Putin- the local Russian population has accepted the reality of the Latvian state- they have after all voted in the referendum, even though it was clear that the status quo would remain, rather than boycotting the process. The Russian speakers, on a high turn out, have got used to exercising their democratic rights.

The impact of the vote will be to reawaken the Latvian national debate- to refine the definition of Latvia as a political construct. It will remind both Latvian and Russian speaking populations that the process of politics is a dialogue not a monologue. Government service in Russian will continue to be offered in Russian- there can be no crack down against the Russian language. Perhaps however, the dialogue will be made in a more positive way- and especially important will be the growing understanding of the benefits of greater bilingualism- among the Latvian as well as the Russian speaking populations.

The unspeakable horrors of the twentieth century are gradually receding. Perhaps the best memorial would be a stable, prosperous and democratic Latvia- for all the citizens of that country.


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