One past, two histories, how many futures?
The May 2017 was in Latvia surely a festival month as two huge events were celebrated in the beginning of the month. While both of these festivals were highly connected, they could not have been more different.
On the 4th of May Latvians celebrated especially in the capital Riga around the Freedom Monument. Food markets, free movie marathons, traditional costume competitions, fireworks and many other things were presented to the citizens of Riga and many Latvians who came for this special occasion from other regions of the country.On the 4th May 1990 the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic declared independence from the Soviet Union and after a year fight with demonstrations, tanks, and barricades and finally the Baltic Way Latvia regained the lost independence.
Just some days later on the 9th May not far away from the city centre of Riga, in fact on the other side of the river Daugava, another group of the country celebrated the victory over Nazi Germany in the 2nd world war. To be precise they did not celebrate the end of the war, or the victory in the 2nd world war, but the victory in the Great Patriotic War. As the world war started with the invasion of Poland by Nazi German, Russia ´joined´ the war only when it was attacked by the Wehrmacht in the Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. With the difference between World War II. and the Great Patriotic War the Soviet Union and now Russia forget that it has indeed joined the war already in 1939 by occupying the free Baltic states and eastern Poland. The Soviet Union then declared itself as a victim of Nazi Germany and ignoring deliberately the political, economic and territorial advantages that the Soviet Union has gained during the last part of the war. The celebration of the victory hurts therefore many Latvians for two reasons. First, it was not only Russia who has won the war because of great suffers, but also the population of other Soviet Republics, like Latvia. Especially the countries and regions that are placed between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union have suffered high civilian and military casualties. Second, the victory did not mean deliberation, but just a new occupation. So on the 4th May some people celebrated the end of the Soviet rule, and five days later other people celebrated the occupation?
Look into the one past
A look into the 20th century history of the three Baltic states can give an answer if the end of the war resulted into a deliberation from the Nazi Regime or if it was an occupation by a foreign country. All three countries gained their independence more or less shortly after the World War I. It was for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia a time to which is often referred to as golden times. And surely the times were indeed golden for the culture and architecture. But not so much in terms of economy and politics, as the Great Depression in 1929 hit also these small countries. The weak, young and so far unskilled democracies stood no chance against fascist movements who promised salvation and betterment with strong leaders. The Soviet Union threatened the young states to grant access for their military and in fear of occupation the Baltic states allowed the entrance. Half a year later the Soviet Union accused the Baltic states of conspiracy and demanded the change of government. Again the Baltic states agreed and an election under the supervision of the Red Army was held. The results of the election were published in newspaper in Moscow several hours before the polls were closed in the countries itself, which raises suspicion on the election. The new elected parliaments announced themselves as Socialist Soviet Republics and seeked admission into the Soviet Union. Straight after that the KGB or better known as Cheka started their work. Politicians, representatives of political movements and everyone who opposed the new leadership was imprisoned and eventually sent to gulags in Siberia. Every person who was suspected to be an ‘Anti-Soviet element was deported, imprisoned or executed. The horror of the Cheka can be today seen in the famous Corner House in the middle of Riga, where prisoners were executed or imprisoned under cruel conditions. During the night of 13-14 June 1941 over 15.000 Latvians were deported. In all Baltic states over 131.000 people were deported from the Baltic states to gulags. Only a week later after the deportation started Nazi Germany launched the attack on the Soviet Union. When the Wehrmacht conquered the Baltic states a second deportation wave started and jews, gypsies, communists, academics and everyone who opposed this new leadership were deported, shot or imprisoned. Of course the story does not end here, as only two years later the Red Army defeated the German army and once again conquered the Baltic region. A third deportation wave started in which also the last people who stood for a free society and free press were taken. In the following years the three former free Baltic republics were transformed to Socialist Soviet Republics and remained within the Soviet Union. To transform and adjust all Soviet Republics, Russians were moved from South Russia, Siberia and other regions to all Republics. Goal was to erase not just all languages but Russian, but also to weaken the culture and traditions of these countries. Free thinking and press, nationalism was forbidden and violators of these laws were either imprisoned or sent straight to gulags. Many buildings faced the possibility to be destroyed like the Freedom Monument. Latvians, Uzbeks, Armenians should not identify themselves anymore with their traditions, religion or citizenship but rather only as a citizen of the Soviet Union, as the soviet proletariat. Surely the Republics were governed mostly by native people. But if we look closer: the orders came mostly from centre of the Soviet Union, Moscow. The uprising, the Singing Revolution, the fights between civilians and the Red Army draws a picture of an occupation. But after the independence things changed fast as the newly formed states Latvia and Estonia claimed to stand in the tradition of the former interwar period Republics. With this decision goes also the question of citizenship, as only people received the citizenship, if they were able to proof that their family lived on the territory of the independent Latvia/Estonia.
Everyone else had to apply for a citizenship. Many immigrants, especially ethnic Russians felt insulted as they have lived in the Soviet Republic of Latvia/Estonia for centuries. As many immigrants have denied till today to apply for the citizenship there are thousands of people in Latvia and Estonia who has no citizenship and are just known as “Aliens”. These “Aliens” are not allowed to work in state service like police, administration or military. Both countries are often criticised for this lack of integration, but once the facts speak another language as the test for the citizenship demands that the applier is able to speak the language, knows basic facts about the history, culture, polity, the song text of the anthem. Furthermore are most “Aliens” either too proud to apply as they don’t see reason to learn another language as Russian seems to be sufficient, but their status allows them to move freely within the European Union and within Russia. Nevertheless these ethnic Russians see themselves oppressed by the new government as they are “supposed” to learn the national language while Russian was all they needed in the last centuries. Now it’s the ethnic Russians who feel oppressed and more or less occupied.
The question if the soviet past of the Baltic states was a deliberation or an occupation depends not so much on the state but rather on the ethnic group. While the celebrations of the 9th May are seen for many Latvians as a celebration for the final occupation of their country, the Russians celebrate the victory and mourn about the fallen empire.To sum it up, the ethnic Russians see themselves discriminated by the fact that the Russian language is banned from the public space and because of the citizenship-law, Latvians feel that their culture and their language is threatened by the amount of ethnic Russians and the foreign language. So the two different views on the history result also in two different views in the present.
How many futures?
Although the fear of a new Russian aggression is very alive since the incidents in Ukraine, the celebrations are an even greater reminder of the centuries under the Russian-Soviet domination. Slowly the Latvian government and the Latvian society start to understand the potential they have with educated and integrated Russians. Experts expect that the frosty times with Russia and Belarus won’t stay forever. And by that time Latvia can function as a bridge between Western Europe and Russia. Unfortunately the Latvian government sees the issue of ethnic Russians as solved and takes little to no action to integrate them better, to invite them to be an effective part of the Latvian society.
It is an undeniable fact that the huge ethnic Russian group won’t leave or vanish into thin air, which is a reason that the Latvian government but the society and the culture of Latvians have to understand and to accept that Latvia is not only about Latvians. Latvia consists of Latvians and Russians. But also for the ethnic Russians it is time to acknowledge that they live in the present day and not in past days of a powerful Soviet Union. The Russian group has to understand that the victory in the war was as important as the original reason for this war, the ethnic Russians have to accept that also the ethnic Russians have to be ready to take their part and integrate them. Neither the Russian Federation, nor the ethnic Russians in Latvia, nor the Republic of Latvia, nor the ethnic Latvians can turn back the time. Latvia is a state of Latvians and Russians. For a common successful and peaceful time it’s time to realise this fact.