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Latvia: A Nation Celebrates Its 80th Independence Anniversary

By Katya Cengel

Riga, 18 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Latvia today celebrates the 80th anniversary of the independence it gained from Russia after World War One.

On November 18, 1918, Latvia declared its independence from a Russia crippled by war and revolution.

Celebrations are being held around Latvia to mark the anniversary, and the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia, Valdas Adamkus and Lennart Meri, are in Riga for the festivities. Hosting them is Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis.

Lithuania and Estonia have lived through the same experiences as Latvia during this turbulent century. They both declared independence slightly earlier than Latvia, in February 1918, and thus celebrated their anniversaries accordingly earlier this year.

The Baltic states spent some 50 of the 80 years since independence in 1918 under occupation, at the hands of either the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Latvia announced restoration of its independence from the weakened Soviet Union in 1990, and Moscow recognized this move the following year.

Most Latvians do not see a contradiction in celebrating today as the day of independence while at the same time recalling the long intervals of occupation. As Foreign Ministry spokesman Toms Baumanis put it, Latvians see November 18 as a day of fundamental importance for their nation. They regard May 4, 1990, as a "cornerstone" which completed the edifice of independence.

Latvia's checkered history this century is that of a small nation powerless to control the vast forces swirling around it, but also one which has known how to use the opportunities presented by events. After enduring a period of occupation by Imperial German forces in the First World War, Latvia seized its chance of freedom after both the German Reich and the empire of the Russian Tsars had collapsed.

Latvia at that time was one of the most industrialized regions of the Russian Empire, with a high standard of living. For the next 22 years, the nation enjoyed an interlude in which Latvian culture blossomed. But it had its internal stresses also. In May, 1934, President Karlis Ulmanis seized power and ruled for the next six years, justifying his authoritarian action by the need to prevent excessive foreign influence and to prevent local extremists from taking over.

As the clouds of the Second World War appeared on the horizon, Latvia strove to remain neutral, realizing that a rapprochement between the antagonistic powers of fascist Germany and communist USSR would have consequences for the tiny Baltic republics.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Moscow and Berlin, with its secret provisions, realized the Baltic states' worst fears. On June 17, 1940, Soviet troops entered Latvia. The other Baltic states were also occupied. The following year, commonly referred to as the year of horror, 35,000 Latvian citizens became victims of deportations, mobilizations, massacres and unexplained disappearances. At this time Latvia lost 1.5 percent of its population.

In July, 1941, Nazi German forces took Riga and proved no better than the Soviets. When the Red Army re-took Riga in September 1944, only 10 percent of Latvia's Jewish population remained. Thus began the second Soviet occupation, during which many restrictions were imposed on society, and a second wave of deportations began. The process of Russification -- replacing the local population with Russians -- got underway, and the general standard of living underwent a sharp decline.

Again using the opportunity provided by events, Latvia and the other Baltic republics seized the chance to regain their independence from a Soviet Union in the process of dissolution.

The old Russification policy resulted in the present situation in which almost a third of the population of Latvia is Russian-speaking. Coping with this ethnic divide has led to tensions both inside Latvian society and between Riga and Moscow.

However, a prospective relaxation began in October. In a nationwide referendum, Latvian voters backed moves to ease the naturalization process for around 600,000 stateless persons, most of them Russian-speakers. The move was welcomed both in Moscow and in the West.