July-August 2022 Articles

A Monumental Conflict in Latvia:

Where History Is in the Making, There History Is at Stake

Even as Russia's invasion of Ukraine passes the six-month mark (February – August 2022) with no end to that conflict in sight and more than eight years (2014) since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, Russian attempts to reclaim an empire have spilled over into the neighboring states and international organizations of Europe.  While armed warfare has not yet spilled over the boundaries of Ukraine, conflicts between Moscow and many of its former satellite states, especially the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – have emerged in surprising symbolic forms that are nonetheless heated for being symbolic.

Nowhere is that more true than in the conflict between Latvia and Russia over war memorials, monuments honoring those – Russian and Latvian – who fought to protect and control the territory that emerged from World War I as a newly sovereign country independent of the defeated Germany.  Though briefly independent between the two world wars, Latvia - as well as the other Baltic states - became a pawn in the territorial chess match being played by Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union.  Germany sought to avoid the dangers of a two-front war, while Stalin sought to buy time to strengthen his forces in anticipation of an eventual conflict with Germany.

The brief flirtation between Hitler and Stalin resulted in the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (1939), which included a behind-the-scenes agreement for the division of Central Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union with Latvia to be under Soviet control.  Units of the Red Army entered Latvia in 1940 and declared it to be a Socialist Soviet Republic.  The agreement between Hitler and Stalin was short-lived however, and Latvia was occupied by German forces from (1941-1944).  The Soviet Army "liberated" Latvia from German control in 1944 as part of their Baltic Offensive designed to rescue the "Soviet Baltic peoples" from fascism.  Subsequently, Stalin claimed Latvia as a Socialist Soviet Republic as part of the territorial settlement ending World War II, though Cold War history would persist in referring to the Baltic peoples as "captive nations."  Only in 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, however, did Latvia once again claim national independence and full sovereignty.

Convoluted as this 20th century volley of competing sovereign claims may seem in this complex thumbnail sketch, the reality of overlapping national identities and overlapping cultural claims was/is an even more complicated map of competing national narratives and contradictory historical memories resulting in what some observers have called "memory wars."

Ethnic Russians constitute roughly 25% of Latvia's population though that percentage is significantly higher in the capital city of Riga, where it approaches 50%, and certain regions of the country – Latgale province – where Russian speakers predominate.  Still, as one teacher in Daugavpils, the capital of Latgale province, observed, "Just because most of us are Russian speaking doesn't mean that we are for Russia.  We have many cultures here under our roof because most of us are Russian speaking doesn't mean that we are for Russia."

Other observers, however, suggest that many of Latvia's Russian speakers live in an "ethnic bubble."  In other words, linguistic affinity, cultural identity, and political ideology do not perfectly coincide in Latvia.  Instead these factors are more like a Venn diagram of intersecting circles that overlap in some places and diverge in others.

Nowhere is Latvia's cultural complexity and history of serial occupations more visible than in the capital city of Riga where a struggle over two monuments built fifty years apart and on opposite sides of the Daugava River which transects the city, encapsulates two quite different historical memories both claiming to have liberated Latvians.

The older of the two monuments is the Freedom Monument, also referred to as the "Latvian Statue of Liberty" and affectionately known as "Milda" after the name of the model who posed for the statue.  Built in 1935, during Latvia's brief period of interwar independence, the statue is visible evidence of Latvia's continuing struggle to attain and sustain independence, national sovereignty and the freedom and liberty that characterizes the country's self-rule.  As if to underscore that point, the monument in Riga's central square was built on the former site of a statue of Russian ruler Peter the Great.

Originally dedicated to honor the memory of the soldiers killed during Latvia's War for Independence (1918-1920) the monument has tacitly become an emotional symbol of independent Latvia's identity, its resistance to Soviet domination, and its struggle to regain sovereignty. Inscribed on its base are the words "Tevzemi un Brivibal" – "For Fatherland and Freedom."  Even the three stars held aloft by Lady Liberty reflect Latvia's evolving history.  Originally they were interpreted as representing the three historic regions of Latvia.  Under Soviet rule the three stars were said to represent the three Baltic SSRs held aloft by Mother Russia.  Amid Latvia's drive for renewed independence in the 1980s and beyond the three stars were often said to represent independence, sovereignty or liberty, and freedom.

By contrast, the Soviet-constructed "Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga," also known as the "Victory Monument," was built in 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Red Army's victory over Fascism and the liberation of Latvia from the occupying German forces.  The 262-foot tall concrete spire, more than twice the height of the Freedom Monument, was built in the waning days of the Soviet Union as both a memorial to the forces that liberated Latvia and an architectural reminder of Soviet power and presence even as Mikhail Gorbachev was named General Secretary of the Communist Party and subsequently Executive President of the Soviet Union.

On August 22, 2022, the Latvian government, acting on a motion overwhelmingly approved by the Latvian parliament, began the process of disassembling the "Victory Monument" because it has become controversial amid the turmoil generated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The "Victory Monument" that has been a memorial to those - Russian and Latvian alike - who gave their lives to free Latvia from Nazi oppression and a site where families placed flowers in memory of those honored dead is becoming something quite different.  In the current tense atmosphere of Russian ambition and Putin's aspiration to pursue what he calls "Russkiy Mir" (a Russian Peace, or hegemony), what has been a memorial has transformed in the eyes of many Latvians into a political and cultural irritant - a symbolic reminder of Russia's historic repression of the Latvian people, a controversial challenge to Latvian nationalism, and a feared marker of the potential threat to Latvian sovereignty posed by Russia's repeated and violent attacks on Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Such is the power of symbolic architecture in a world of sovereign states and competing motives.

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