Monthly Archives: December 2012

Latvia 2012 The Year of Quarrels

As every year comes to conclusion this site gathers all the important events that happened in Latvia. Last time I called the year 2011 as the year of Troubles as the emergency elections, bankruptcy of bank Latvijas Krājbanka and national ethnic issues were truly troublesome for Latvia. This year will be called the year of quarrels because of the various issues in political fields that often sparked quarrels between politicians and the various groups of the society. This was the year of reform attempts that faced great contra-reaction from those who opposed the changes for legitimate or illegitimate reasons, many of the government cabinet ministers were asked to resign in almost regular basis by various groups of society. Also the inner instability within the government coalition is clearly visible although the government still works and most of the ministers except one still keeps his seats. This was an interesting year full of discussions and actions and the main events and themes will be outlined here.

The two state language referendum fails and issues about other possible referendums continues.  

The necessary 180 000 petitions for initiation for making Russian as the second state official referendum was gathered at the end of the last year by Russian nationalist radical organization “For Native Language” led by Vladimirs Lindermans the ex national Bolshevik. It may be that the referendum would not take place if the Major of Riga Nils Ušakovs would not join the campaign along with other members of pro-Russian leftist party the Harmony Center. Although both sides denies it the Harmony Center and the Linderman party has secretive ties together. Linderman and his radical members saw the referendum as their kick-start for their political career. In 2013 a municipal elections will take place and Linderman hopes to enter the elections in some municipalities with significant Russian population.

The referendum itself took place in 18 February. 70,66% of the voters or 1 091 757 citizens of Latvia. 74,80% said decisive no to two state languages, 24,88% said yes and Latvian as the sole national language was kept secure by the majority of people. The great voter activity was achieved by calls from all Latvian parties to take part in the referendum and say “no” to show the strong position of the Latvian people. On the other side of the front those who voted “yes” wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the current Latvian government and their national position.

The example of what could be achieved by such referendum did not went unnoticed by other Russian political groups. The political party “For Equal Rights in United Latvia” that has lost last two elections initiated the referendum to give citizenship to all non-citizens of Latvia. This sensitive issue was raised by them to resurrect popularity of the forgotten party. There are still about 15% of Latvian people who are non citizens that live in Latvia. Most of them are Russian speakers the ones that entered Latvia during the Soviet times as immigrants. By the citizenship law made in 1995 these people who had no legal nexus with prewar independent Latvia was not eligible for citizenship as they or their ancestors did not resided in Latvia before 1940. The Soviet citizenship was not taken into account as the Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. However, during the last 20 years the legislation allowed most of the non citizens go trough the naturalization process to acquire the Latvian citizenship. But, some of them did not because of lack of language skills or strict stance against naturalization. One part of them acquired Russia citizenship that was more easier for them and maybe more suitable.

The lawmakers saw great danger in using referendums as tools for making political instability and national ethnic troubles and rushed to change the referendum law to make the petition gap larger than 10 000 sign-ins. As always the legislation process was slowed down by the opposition parties and various groups and experts. The first version accepted by Saeima (parliament) was turned down by the president of Latvia Andris Bērziņs. At last the law was passed in November that now required 30 000 sing-ins in the first step and then after 2015 there will be only one step with 154 000 sing-ins. Before that the first step required 10 000 sing-ins and then 150 000 sing-ins. Opposition and liberal political groups said that this makes initiating new referendum impossible and the opposition parties are threatening of gathering sing-ins for referendum against the new referendum law.

But, the gatherers for citizenship free giving referendum achieved their goal and gathered 10 000 sing-ins for the first step. But the lawmakers saw their project for the changes in the Satversme (constitution) as unconstitutional and against the principles of the state. This was approved by various law experts and now the pressure on Central Election Commission was to not approve the referendum project for the next sing-in step. And after month of thinking in November the Central Election Commission for the first time decided to turn down the referendum project for the next sing-in step. Some political commentators saw this as threat to democracy while Russia again spread out the news about “ethnic discrimination in Latvia”. While the all the attempts of preventing destabilizing referendums may really hurt democracy the history shows that in most cases the referendums in Latvia were mostly based on national issues even before WWII and really made divisions and instability within society.

But the Russian radicals along with Vladimir Linderman continued to be active players in politics. The Linderman’s newest project is the Autonomy of Latgalia (Latgale) region from Latvia. Since Latgalia had the highest percent for support for Russian language he thinks that its rightful that Latgalia deserves autonomy. He however did took account of Latvian Latgalians who may not think so. Because of these actions his office and apartment was raided by the Security Police. Security Police also has noted that his party is illegal since he did not made all the steps to fully register his party but because of gaps in laws the society and party registry cannot cancel his party existence and Linderman still presses ahead and hopes to gain success in 2013 municipal elections even though he is not a  Latvian citizen.

The fight between parties within coalition 

The emergency elections in 2011 was won by Harmony Center but it stayed in opposition and because of support for two state referendum it may stay there until next elections. The Green Farmers Union has bad relations with Unity and the Reform Party that categorically dismiss any cooperation with it is also locked up in the opposition. With that that the centrist Unity, liberal Reform Party (ex Zatler’s Reform Party) and national conservative National Alliance along with six non party members the “Olšteins six” has great chance to lead the country for three more years with the leadership of Valdis Dombrovskis who was lead the state since 2009.

But it seems that Reform Party and especially the National Alliance dislikes the bossy attitude by the Unity. The latter has made many sabotaging and blackmailing attempts on Unity. The first one by them was the resignation by the Minister of Justice Gaidis Bērziņš over issues of returning the Jewish property. For years the Latvian Jewish community has asked to return or at least compensate the lost property of various Jewish organizations after the WWII. Bearing the fact that these organizations were many and their property very valuable the various Latvian governments were unable to met the Jewish demands. The government of Aigars Kalvītis was ready to pay large compensations but then changed their minds. But, the national minister Gaidis Bērziņš who first firmly declined any chances of looking at this issue again, then resigned after he was asked by Prime Minister to consider it after-all he resigned because of “discrepancy of opinions” between Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister and National Alliance and the Unity. It’s a question if this move was dictated by antisemitism, or just inter rivalry between nationalists and Unity. Others however note that Gaidis Bērziņš had secret ties with oligarch Aivars Lembergs and was caught up in corruption therefore he used the Jewish question as the way to hide his true issues with the law. Other reason was simply the fears by the nationalist party to lose its hardline voters.  Whatever was the true reason this made a strain on Latvian-Jewish relations.

But that was not enough from the nationalists and they turned to blackmail. At the October in time of new budget approval the National Alliance threatened not to vote for the new budget if significant amount of money would not be allocated for the demographic policies that truly require attention. If the budget is not approved the government must resign. After load quarrels and  political bargain National Alliance achieved at least half of their demands bringing new financial improvements for the new parents.

However, the National Alliance had another antic in mind. Ahead of approving decision of joining the Eurozone in 2014  five members of the national fraction declared that they are not sure about voting for joining Eurozone. For two weeks a rest of coalition attempted to convince nationalists to make up their minds to vote for Euro. If they would vote against the chance to enter Eurozone in 2014 will be missed and Latvia will not fulfill the obligations to EU. The Nationalists decided that this antic is too dangerous and decided to vote for Eurozone. The hardline nationalists and ultra-patriots now saw National Alliance as traitors and their gamble backfired against themselves.

The reforms and counter-reforms

When ex-president Valdis Zatlers called emergency elections he said that new swift reforms needs to take place. In so he formed his own Reform Party. And after entering coalition the Reform Party gained power of Ministry of Education, Ministry of Economics, Ministry of Regional Affairs and Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs and the Minister of Economics Daniels Pavļuts were mostly praised, the Minister of Education Roberts Ķīlis and the Regional Minister Edmunds Sprūdžs met most stiff opposition to their reforms.

Roberts Ķīlis is a social anthropologist with education in Cambridge University. With his pro western outlook and admiration to western education system he had ambition to completely reorganize the Latvian education. He has many ideas like extending the learning semesters, replacing text books and workbooks with tablet PC for every schoolchildren. But for Academic Education he has even more ideas: removing study budget places completely and replace them with vouchers and force students to take credits compulsory. Closing many higher education facilities like Universities and colleges because they are inefficient and make one University that is in Europe top 10. While on ideal basis these ideas seem great in practical basis they are draconian. The whole educational system that is based on Latvian limited resources cannot adopt to such reforms altogether as the most of the personnel of the educational system are not ready for such changes. Therefore,  most of Higher education facilities called Ķīlis to resign as Ķīlis backfired calling them treacherous stagnates. His campaign against the Higher Education will bring more bad than good as many youngsters seeing this will choose to go to abroad to get Higher education. In the end the stiff quarrels between Ķīlis and education representatives ended with health problems and surgery for Ķīlis. He however stays defiant and promises to return after the recovery. But, now even the Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis has doubts in him.

The Regional minister Edmunds Sprūdžs has no Higher Education yet, but great plans and ambitions. One his ideas that came trough but faced great stiffness from the municipalities was to scale down the size of the deputy seats in Town municipalities. Other his great struggle for he is known is the fight against the oligarch Aivars Lembergs the major of rich port town Ventspils. Because of his corruption charges he has no full rights of authority as the major. But the prosecutors thought that he still uses his major title to affect the courts. So Edmunds Sprūdžs decided to discharge Lembergs from his major duties. Despite the fact he already was in fact discharged by the prosecutors.  But Lembergs called this decree illegitimate and still went to work as majors office as usual and went to court to appeal against the sentence. With the elections drawing again in 2013 Lembergs has great chance to become major again because of vast support from citizens of Ventspils despite all the corruption charges. And with that the eternal fight against Lembergs will start once again.

Ķīlis and Sprūdžs are political amateurs with great plans, but with lack of experience. But these two ladies from Unity party has big political experience but still a great opposition. The Health Minister Ingrīda Circene has always used iron fist policies during his previous terms as a Health Minister and she is using them again now. She was asked to resign because of inability to raise pays for doctors and making new provisions for family doctor qualifications. She also came out with strict provision that those who only pays taxes are eligible for state paid healthcare. In situation were many are not able do that it would sound draconian.

The Minister of Welfare Ilze Viņķele from Unity is also a iron lady who has many great ideas but very straight assertive way of communication that many would dislike. When she was interviewed in Latvian Playboy magazine she was asked why the pensions for people who worked in Soviet times are much lover than they earned back then. Her explanation shocked the Latvian Pensioner Federation and she was asked to resign. Before that she was attacked by conservative organizations about support  for children’s book that promoted gender change. Viņķele is called as the next possible replacement for Valdis Dombrovskis as she has already lead few government meetings in the absence of Dombrovskis but her strong language may scare away the weak hearten  voters.

The photo Radar saga

The last notable point for quarrels was the photo radars. The photo radars are seen as the important tool for road safety and minimizing  the traffic accidents. They are in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland and the rest of Europe and so logically the Latvia needed them too.

But, as in many similar events in Latvia the way how the photo radars were introduced brought them to their failure and removal. In neighboring countries the photo radars are set up and maintained by state police. But, in Latvia because of lack of money the photo radars were set up and maintained by private firm “Vitronic”. The problem was that the contract between Vitronic and police allowed Vitronic to take half of the money earned from speed fines. Of course the private company was interested not in preventing the speed limit breaking, but to gain as much of money from it. So the dreadful green boxes were placed   along all the streets of Riga, often disguised and because they were portable their location always changed. The contract required to make stationary radars but the company was slow to that also no radars were placed outside Riga. The great resentment from drivers was big, the radars were vandalized, others put home made signs to warn drivers of the hidden radars. In the end the contract with great expense was broken and radars disappeared from the streets before Christmas.

Prospects for the next year

The main event in 2013 will be the state-wide municipal elections. The main battleground will be Riga, were Latvian right-wing parties will be battling to oust the pro-Russian Major Nils Ušakovs along with his Harmony Center party. For years the young ex-journalist Nils Ušakovs has become powerful, arrogant and eccentric ruler of the main city. His city government works as caviar socialdemocrats, who spends a lot of money on popular decisions like free tickets for pensioners and school students while shunning the frugal state government. Despite the large spending and placing the party members in public city enterprises Riga has still many problems and the city government has sunken into corruption.  But, because of Russian speaker majority that adores Ušakovs the right-wing parties will have to show a stiff fight to mobilize against Ušakovs.

The next great issue will be the economic recovery and the drive to Euro. The opposition against the Euro in Latvia is great and often irrational, so the forces who will call for referendum to join Eurozone will be strong. Although Latvia technically already agreed to join Eurozone in 2003 when voting for EU membership, many people don’t understand this. If such actions will be taken the joining the Eurozone will be canceled and Latvia EU membership will be doubted in general. Some big country across the Eastern border will probably like this.

And off coarse as the reform process has not yet finished if not even went few steps further the quarrels between ministers and the representatives will continue. The year 2012 was the year of Great Fire Dragoon so no wonder this year was quite stormy all over the year. The next year is year of Snake so lets look out for treachery and intrigues judging by whats to expected they may be many of those. But also the Mayan calendar ended in 21 December bringing new Earth time cycle, the beginnings and  endings are always difficult, but whats to come in between should be worth to work for.

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The Courland Fortress 1944-1945

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The Map of Courland fortress

The Christmas is getting close this time and spirit of love and joy is in the air. But in 1944 at this time the air was filled with rockets, artillery shells and gunfire. It was the Battle at Courland (Kurzeme) region of Latvia between the trapped German army and advancing Soviet forces. May Latvian soldiers fought there on the both sides. This battle has many names the Courland pocket and the Courland Fortress. I like the therm fortress because the German army defended the Courland like a fortress fighting of six large Soviet offensives. Also Courland was a last stand for many Latvians – those who fought on the German side, those who still believed in independent Latvia and Courland was the last resort for many Latvian refugees who escaped the Soviet regime. Latvian SS Legion veteran and author Visvaldis Lācis has called Courland as the fortress of the Latvian spirit and shelter. This article tells the story of this fortress.

In Summer 1944 Soviet army returned to Latvia. First Soviet forces entered Latgale forcing German forces to give up their positions. In September Soviet forces reached the line that crossed large part of Vidzeme and Semigallia (Zemgale) Then heavy battles were fought by the Soviet advance to Riga. The German army could fight back many Soviet attacks and hold on for a long time. However, the German army was forced to evacuate Riga at  October 13 and it was taken without a fight by the Soviets. Then the Soviet army advanced to west to Mēmele river. Soviets managed to break through to Palanga and Klaipeda (Lithuania) at the Baltic Sea and Rucava at Latvian side. In so the German army group North was trapped in to Courland. Later the group North was renamed as army group Courland. Along with Germans Latvian SS Legion 19th Division was trapped in to Courland fortress.

The Courland fortress had strategical importance. As the Soviet fleet was still unable to move because of the frozen Gulf of Finland, Germany was still able to send evacuation and supply transports to ports of Liepaja and Ventspils. Courland helped the Germans to paralyze the Soviet Baltic fleet and preserve Swedish iron ore exports. The Soviets had to capture Courland to gain control over ice- free harbors and take over the Baltic sea.

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Latvian soldiers in the 19th division

First battles for Courland  started in  October 15 as the Soviets were attacking to Sloka and Dobele. The Latvian 19th Division was set to defend the positions. On  October 11 19th Divison along with German 6 Corpus retreated to Džūkste. Here all main division parts gathered. On October 12 the division received orders to take over defense positions at Lestene command point. On 15 October Soviets were attacking this position with tanks and artillery fire.

The 19th Division survived continuous Soviet attacks from 15 to 22 October. Facing heavy causalities Latvians defended its sector. At Putnukrogs Soviets lost 26 tanks and reported an especially heavy resistance in this sector. At the same time at night to 17 October German units retreated to Tukums line that they held until the end of the war. By  that the Latvian defense line was moved from Līvbērze station to Apšupe station.

Adolf Hitler decided to hold German troops in Courland and defend is as a fortress. Many of the German General staff resisted this including General Heinz Guderian who in the day of his sacking at  March 28 1945 in heavy argument again criticized  Hitler that he had not evacuated the Courland army group. But for Latvian legion it was a relief because many thought that they will have to leave Latvia that cause many to desert the ranks.

On  October 20 after the Soviet attack a front line in length of 218 kilometers from the Gulf of Riga to Žagare had been taken by the Second Baltic front group with six armies and air force army under the command of the general A Yeryomenko. A 80 divisions at whole.  The first Baltic front group was located from Mažeikiai to the coast of the Baltic sea with four armies and air force. The Germans had two field armies with 33 divisions.

First Baltic front planned to crush the fortress with two armies on the direction of the Vaiņode – Skrunda. On the second day including 5 tank guard army to reach Durbe. The Second Baltic front planned to break through to direction of Saldus. This was the first Courland great battle.

In reality the Soviet plans failed. The attack began on October 27. Soviets could not break through the German lines for three days. Only in  November 6 Soviets reached Venta river at Nīgrande. Heavy battles were fought around Auce that was captured but the Soviet attack was stopped. Only Soviet success was capture of  Mažeikiai.

The second great battle for Courland took place at 19 to 27 November. Soviets again tried to achieve what they did not in the first place. First Baltic front advanced to Skrunda, but was stopped at Pampāļi. Second Baltic front attacked Auce- Zvārde. Soviets captured Ezere but were halted by Germans. Soviet commanders blamed the lack of ammunition and because of the winter mud the artillery was unable to move. Also the thick clouds and fog made air force unable to operate.  Air force commanders said that had enough flights. While German planes were out of fuel their only hope as anti-air guns that many Latvians operated including boys.

Soviets were too sure about themselves and underestimated the Germans. After first two failures the marshal M Vasilevsky came to conclusion that Latvian 130 Rifleman corps will be best units to break through the German lines. The corps had two divisions 43 guards division with 8276 men and 308 guards division with 7128 men. They would have to fight against their nationals in the Latvian Legion. Vasilevsky ordered to attack the direction to Saldus with Latvian divisions attacking to Lestene, Irlava and Kandava and Ventspils. The corps was commanded by major general Detlavs Brantkalns with chief of staff colonel Pēteris Baumanis. Once again the Soviets relaid on the Latvian soldiers.

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The 130 Latvian Rifleman Corps

In the line of the Soviet attack the Latvian SS 19th Division stood against. The Frontline was fortified and well prepared for soviet attack. The Germans had no idea where the next attack will take place and it will be watched by chief of Soviet General Staff Vasilevsky himself.

After month of preparation at December 21 the third great Battle for Courland started. With three armies with 44 divisions Soviets could only capture Pampāļi and reach Zvārde. Soviets opened a heavy artillery fire dropping 177 000 shells and 1600 air attacks. Latvians lost all of their fortifications, almost all officers were hurt or killed. All transport cars were destroyed.

The Soviet attack went as planned with 43 Latvian rifleman guards attacking. However, the 312 mobile artillery corps that was sent as tank replacement became stuck in first ditches and was stopped at the anti – tank ditch. Same happened with 19th tank corps. At 106 corps sector Soviet tanks came trough legionaries positions because there was no more any communications with artillery. Only then the tanks were discovered by Latvian artillery and great duel between tanks and artillery started. 14 tanks were shot and Latvian rifleman was tied to the ground because of opposing Latvian artillery and gun fire. Latvian artillery also had heavy causalities only 5 cannons out of 24 were still in order.

Soviets made a breach and Germans added reinforcements. Soviets were unable to move further in the dead of the night. Latvian legion lost 40% of its man. In exchange of attacks and counterattacks both sides suffered great casualties. Latvian rifleman was unable to attack and tanks were crushed. At  December 29 Latvian rifleman was replaced with units from 1ts strike army. The fire ceased at December 31 with Soviet offensive stopped again with great cost.

The fourth great battle took place in 5-7 January. Germans aware that Latvian rifleman was removed from their captured positions intended to counter attack and take them back. With three tank battalions with Latvian grenadiers. But the Soviets had already swapped Latvian rifleman with four divisions and artillery support. Thrusting into Soviet positions German tanks directly came over Soviet artillery and Soviets needed 30 shots to destroy them. Germans could not fulfill their goals completely.

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The Badge for wounded soldiers in Courland

In December 16 Germans started their last offensive in the Ardennes hoping to beat the Allied forces to free more forces at the Eastern front. With surprise to allies Germans managed to break through behind the Allied lines at 100 km where they stopped because of the lack of ammunition. British prime minister Winston Churchill was forced to ask Stalin to fasten up his attack on the Eastern front. Really since September the Eastern front was stranded. Stalin agreed and on 12- 14 January Soviets attacked region between Visla river, Oder river and East Prussia. Within six days in heavy fights Soviets crushed the German defense and Soviet first line units even reached the Oder. It affected the Courland as the commander in charge general Sherner was moved to command group Center and was replaced with general Hilpert. The army group North was renamed as the Army Group Courland. Also some units were moved to Germany from Courland.

Soviets saw this a new chance to attack and in 21 January 1945 again attacked in whole front but were halted after two days. In 25 to 26 January Germans left Klaipeda that was still under their control. Soviets fired all of their shells at the besieged city.

Soviets united two Baltic fronts in one army group under the command of Marshall L. Govorov. New commander wanted to split German forces in half from Irbene to Skrunda. He wanted to that with two armies and one tank corps.

The attack began on February 16. Soviets headed to Liepaja but were stopped after five days. The only achievement was capture of Priekule with two armies in five days. Soviets lost the greatest number of casualties in all the war times in the Baltic region. In war cemeteries of Priekule, Vaiņode 29 188 were buried. At Ventas Pampāļi a 7 361 men were lost but at Rucava 1174 more.

The last six great battles started on March 4 . The objective was to reach the line between Kandava – Saldus. 22th army with 130 Latvian Rifleman corps started the attack but was stopped again. On March 13 the attacking forces were regrouped and 8 Estonian rifleman corpus was added and from Latvians and Estonians the 42 Army Baltic shock group was formed.

Battle took place during spring when ice melting caused floods with only roads used for moving around who also were in bad condition. A week break was taken by both sides until in March 16 battle restarted again. The route of attack was intended to Kuldīga. Because of thick spring fog the attack was postponed to 17 March. In three days of fighting both Latvian and Estonian corpus’s reached Dobele-Saldus railroad, while Russian divisions were unable to move. The Germans suffered great casualties and Latvian 19th Grenadier division was called to help also 43 legion corps came along. With great losses on the both sides again the Soviet offensive was stopped at 3 April. Soviet staff removed the Baltic Front and joined it with Leningrad front.

On April 4l Allied forces reached the River Elbe and stopped. On  April 16 Soviets started an offensive against Berlin. 23 to 26 April the encirclement of Berlin was complete. Hitler made suicide on  April 30. On May 7 the act of capitulation was signed in Reims.

On May 3 decision was made to evacuate from Courland as much as possible. In 7 and 8 May 26 000 men were evacuated with all possible ships in Courland harbor. Some Latvian motorboats reached Sweden while others were intercepted by Soviet ships and taken back to Ventspils.

On May 7 the Leningrad front command sent a radio message to Courland command that contained the terms of capitulation. Germans made radio contact with Govorov staff  at 7:00 local time. Govorov demanded to cease-fire on 14:00. At 18:00 at Ezere both staffs met and signed to halt warfare on land, air and sea at 23:00 Central European time.

Using the unset time on 8 May at 12:00 Soviet bombers attacked the Liepaja harbor. All German aviation excluding the damaged planes already left for Germany while anti-air guns still intact. Three soviet bombers fell into the sea. 32 transport planes Ju-52 took part in the evacuation and were destroyed by the Soviets on their way back. Even if technically the May 7 capitulation in Reims was signed also by Soviet general Sulsoparov the Soviets still fired on German forces. To escape further causalities Germans retreated from Tukums, Saldus and Brocēni.

On May 9 last capitulation was  signed in Berlin the war was over. Soviets reported that 181 032 soldiers and sergeants, 8038 officers and 42 Generals were taken captive in the Courland front. 130 Latvian rifleman corps disarmed 4172 soldiers from 24 German infantry division and also 16 officers 170 junior officers and 1291 legionaries from 19th division. Most of the legion disbanded few made it to Sweden and Denmark. There were 14 00 Latvian soldiers in Courland still remaining – 5200 at 19th division and 2500 in Rusmanis combat group. Soviets also detained all adult males in Courland and sent to filtration camps.

The Courland fortress was never conquered it survived until the last day of the war. Soviets with their flawed planing and underestimation of the German forces took great casualties. It was a tragedy for Latvians as the 19th Latvian SS division  had to fight against the 130 Latvian rifleman corps. Brothers fought against brothers, fathers against sons. In a Lestene largest war cemetery for fallen Latvian legion soldiers was unveiled after the regain of independence. Many cemeteries for Soviet soldiers are all around these places. Today German organizations are coming to Latvia to take care of fallen German soldiers. The forests of Courland are still full of war relics, one can find shells, rusted medals and human bones… The bravery and tragedy on the both sides in the Courland fortress can never be forgotten.

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The war cemetery and memorial at Lestene where the heaviest battles took place

Selected Sources:

Pētersons, Aivars. (2007)  Krustugunīs : latviešu karotmāka, 1940-1945 : 60 gadus no tautas slēptais. Riga : Author publication.

Kurowski,Franz. (2002)Bridgehead Kurland: The Six Epic Battles of Heeresgruppe Kurland. Fedorowicz (J.J.) Canada
Lācis, Visvaldis (2010) Kurzeme (1944-1945) Latviešu gara un patvēruma cietoksnis. Rīga. Jumava.

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Latvian industry during the Soviet times. Myths and reality

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All that is left of the Soviet industrial monster the Sloka paper factory

The period of the Soviet occupation of Latvia (1944-1991) has been controversial subject among Latvian historians and Latvian society. It’s either shown too much in negative aspects or gets too much idealization from certain members of the society. The critics of the Soviet period usually sticks to repressions, forced mass immigration, lack of free choice and low standard of living compared to west at those times. The apologetic minded people usually praises the high level of employment, ethnic harmony and lack of poverty. The present day economic crisis has made the voices of these people more stronger. Among many left and far left parties and their supporters a desire of revision of the Latvian democratic capitalist system is getting stronger. One of their arguments to praise the socialist system is soviet time Latvian industry that was described as productive and strong and gave people jobs and social security. The great bankruptcy of this industrial complex after regaining the independence often is put on blame solely to Latvian government and privatization. However, the greatness of Latvian soviet industry is surrounded by many myths that will be discussed here. The facts come from the newest research published just recently by authors who study the economical and demographic losses done by Soviet Union.

The Soviet propaganda machine made a large effort to promote communist model as the best for industry and as a great contribution in industrial development and raise of the standard of living for the working people. However, the facts show that after the occupation Latvian economic development was lot more slower than on average Soviet Union level.

Despite that, until the collapse of the Soviet Union so-called “old republics” (union members before 1940) continued to fall behind the Baltic states. But comparing to Western powers, Latvia, along with other parts of USSR and its satellite states were on deep stagnation and in rapidly growing disproportion between various regions of the Soviet Union. These facts were hidden from Soviet society.

The thing worthy to note is the specific growth of the Latvian industry in first years after the war that was far more greater than the rest of the Soviet Union. These differences were caused by economical and demographic disaster in so called Nechernozemye region (non black earth region in contrary to black earth region in South Russia and Ukraine with distinctive fertile soils) that covers vast areas in European part of Russia including St. Petersburg, Pskov, Novgorod, Moscow, Smolensk, Ryazan and other areas. The damage done by Stalin purges and World War II made large masses of people to escape to Baltic States mainly to Latvia from these areas. Most of them came from poverty driven soviet state collective farms (kolhkhoz’s) and poor small towns, despite the actions trying to preventing to escape from these places these people found ways to do it. Also large parts of soviet soldiers stationed in Latvia did not wish to come home and choose to stay here instead and bring their whole families with them. The regions in Russia was so badly devastated by Stalinist actions and war that they did not will to go  back there.

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Factory workers from Latvia and all over Russia

The numbers of these people were so great that in Latvia and Estonia the main cities faces enormous sufficiency of the employment. Already in  1950 the population in Riga was two times higher than in 1945. With such worker sufficiency in Riga resulted in never seen before overfulfillment of industrial plans many times faster than set dates. According to industry five-year plan (1946-1950) the 1940 amount of product had to rise to 180% but in reality it rose up to 303%. Comparing to regions of western Russia  the Nechernozemye areas were industrial plans were never fulfilled the Latvia was industrial metropolis. But it was at the expense of the people who came from these regions, the Latvian post war population without immigrants could never achieve such productivity. Despite that the Soviet authorities ignored this and their attempts to fix the bad situation in Latvia close regions failed mainly because of the lack of desire.

Latvia was already a highly industrial country before the war. Despite the great WWI damage Latvian industry in private means could develop faster than agriculture. Latvia was a place for radio equipment, photo product, telephones, bus, bicycle, cement and electroenergy production. Comparing to relative slow industrial growth in most Europe Latvia was a leader in industrial development. It was even greater comparing to many areas of the Stalin’s Russia. So Latvia was sustainable to achieve industrial success without the help of USSR and their immigrants.

After the WWII Latvia lost the quarter of  its population in 1939, 1 million 885 thousand  people in 1945 1 million 48 thousand people. The first five after the WWII in Latvia was time of great losses as the Soviet government depleted Latvian economy bringing in equal situation with rest of poor Soviet areas.

In Cold war situation the Soviet leaders promised to pull ahead the US and Western Europe. In reality the Latvian industry in technological level was far behind the western counterparts. Also the investments from Moscow for many years was far behind in investments made in old Soviet Republics and Russia itself. The resources and production made by Latvia was largely allocated to Russia and old republics. The investments were two times lover than average in USSR and Moscow according to official data published in Khrushchev times.  Latvia donor for Soviet Union not Soviet Union to Latvia.

The great rise of industrial production in Latvia was only achieved by mass immigration from Russian regions of  Nechernozemye. Surely also a significant number of intellectual and middle class Soviet immigrants came but the main part was played by lower class uneducated people from poor Soviet regions whose culture and lifestyle greatly differed from Latvians.

Another important thing to note is the great military involvement in the Latvian industry. Soviet Union started arms race already before the WWII and because of the Cold War the arms production mania was greater than before. Soviet Union invested in military equipment and nuclear weapons many times than needed. Despite the fact that both sides had already a significant amount of nuclear weapons to destroy one and another many times and conventional weapons would be useless in such war, Soviet Union continued to invest more and more in all military fields. By this the more than half of actual civilian state-run industrial enterprises  were allocated to Soviet military industrial complex. That was one of the main reasons for stagnation of the soviet economy and its collapse later on.

According to modern-day research 70% of Latvian industrial productions were allocated to the military. We know that State Electrotechnical Factory VEF produced great civilian products such as radios, telephones and other things but 80% of its production was made for military. The Soviet military was like octopus that stretched its tentacles around every Latvian factory. Even pharmacological factories made substances for chemical weapons.

By this its no wonder why the Soviet built industry collapsed so quickly after the regaining of independence. There was no longer a soviet military complex to relay on. Also as the Soviet technological level was greatly lover than the western these factories could no longer compete in international market. And that was the fault of the deeply flawed Soviet model of economy. However, the incompetence and often avidity that was present in first years after the regain of the independence was also to blame.

As mentioned before Latvia could reach prosperity without Soviet help and with soviet help it only reached it in artificial way that was deeply devastating for Latvia. The massive flow of immigrants has caused more losses for years to come than productivity of Soviet industry. It completely changed the Latvian society and has made only problems in social and national level after regain of independence. So when driving past the deserted factory blocks people should remember that advancements made by these factories were achieved in a faked way that could no longer work in independent Latvia.

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Latvia’s national minorities in Latvian caricatures 1920-1934

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Jews, Russians and Germans shown as the main rulers of Latvian government.
From Svari 1925

The parliamentary period of independent Latvia had two common things the vast ethnic diversity and great freedoms for press. Latvia with her many national minorities outlined in whole picture of Europe. For centuries in the small geographical area of Latvia Germans, Russians and Jews lived side by side. All of these minorities had its own culture and national elite that made Latvia a multi-ethnic nation. According to national census made in 1935 Latvia was inhabited by 75% Latvians, 10,59% Russians, 4,79% Jews, 3,19% Germans and 2,51% Poles.

The founding fathers of Latvia had to cope with these minorities and since the very start at November 18, 1918 Kārlis Ulmanis said these words: “All citizens, without no ethnic distinction are asked to help, for all nationality rights will be ensured in Latvia. It will be democratic country of justice where they cannot be any repression or injustice!” It was a strong promise that had to kept in order to gain support from non-Latvians who were skeptical about new Latvian state. The goal of founding Latvian right-wing politicians was to form a national democratic nation with emphasis on Latvian language and culture, but to give equal rights to all national minorities including them in the state political and social system.

Steps were made for this. The citizenship made in 1919, granted citizen rights to all who lived in Latvia before 1914 without any national restrictions. Already in 1925 96% people of Latvia held citizen rights. The main step towards the minorities was the Law about minority school autonomy issued in 1919, that granted minorities to get education in their maiden language and maintain their own schools. Also the election the law  that did not require no 5% barrier and needed only 100 people to found a party made relative easy to be elected in to parliament.

As for unknowing observer this may seem that national relations in Latvia were quite good and there were no serious problems. However that was only on paper. The nationalistic calls in newspapers, anti-minority talks in parliament and even some national violent outbursts (that were still pretty rare) and rise of radical nationalist movements showed that there is something wrong within Latvians and the minorities.

The cause for this was cross national economical and ethnic rivalry. In every ethnically uneven country it’s not matters how sizable is the minority, but how much influence does it have in state level. And this was the main problem in Latvia. For centuries Latvians faced economical and political discrimination from foreign rulers. Latvians were mainly limited to agriculture sector, in finance and industry Latvians were minority. Still at the end of 19 century and the beginning of 20 century Latvian middle and upper class was still weak and unfolded.

After gaining independence Latvians were still behind the minorities in many sectors. In 1935, of all commercial companies 58% belonged to Jews, 24% to Germans and 5,4% to Russians. Jewish tradesman were present in Riga and the province and Germans owned the large industrial companies. This made many Latvians envious and unsure about their position in their own country. From saying: “Everything belongs to Germans and Jews, we Latvians still are not the masters of our land”   a slogan came “Latvia for Latvians!”. And this were the caricatures come in that shows pretty much what Latvians thought about their national minorities.

Caricatures were integral part of every newspaper at those times. Satirical art was favored by the readers and there many caricaturists. In this article we only will take a look on caricatures published in satirical magazines, for almost all main newspapers had caricatures. Satirical magazines were usually a hobby contribution of many caricaturists who came to together. The magazines consisted from caricatures, anecdotes and funny stories.

From all 40 satirical magazines that came out between 1920-1934 some can be mentioned with distinction. “Svari” (Scales) was the biggest magazine that came out from 1920 to 1931. It first came out already in 1906 in Petersburg, and after short live of fame was banned by Czarist authorities. The main authors of the caricatures were Roberts Tilbergs, Rihards Zariņš and Jānis Zeberiņš. It is worth to note that first version of “Svari” was leftist minded, but after the 1920, the journal became more nationalistic and anti-Semitic. Caricatures were made in national realist style. A contrary to “Svari” was “Ho-Ho!”  a magazine made by young generation artists – expressionists, Cubists and suprematists. Something that was strongly opposed from “Svari” artists. The main artists of “Ho-Ho!” was Romāns Suta, Sigusmunds Vidbergs, Otto Skulme and Aleksandra Belcova. It was extraordinary magazine in arts and style and leftist minded. However leftists were pretty anti-German at those times. The journal came out from 1922 to 1924 after went bankrupt. The third main journal was “Sikspārnis”  (The Bat”) Journal came out with gaps from 1922 to 1940. A nationalist minded it was a big journal and was very found of satirizing Jews.

According to my calculations the most depicted minority in caricatures were Jews a satirized a  total of 204 times, Germans were depicted 204 times, Russians 19, Gypsies 5 times, and Poles 3 times in a period between 1920 to 1934. Before the World war and the Holocaust there was no political correctness towards the minorities, nobody expected the tragic events that would happen with Jews and other minorities. And minorities themselves did not mind much about caricatures and there were no or less complaints registered from them. Today a anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic caricature would cause a large scandal or even violence. None of this was present before the world  war.

A dream by "Svari" editor about removing the Orthodox cathedral and put Monument of Freedom in place From Svari 1930

A dream by “Svari” editor about removing the Orthodox cathedral and put Monument of Freedom in place
From Svari 1930

As the biggest minority in Latvia the Russians were often associated with old Czarist past. The past Russifaction  policies made a large resentment towards Russian language and Russian culture. Caricatures showed antipathies towards Russian monarchists who wanted to restore Russian Empire. “Sikspārnis” suggested to kick them out of Latvia back to Russia. Satirical press praised the removal of Orthodox chapel in Riga Railroad station square in 1925 (it was done to extend the square and chapel was intended to be moved to Pokrov Russian cemetery, but Orthodox church wasted the money and chapel was lost forever). But, that was not enough as “Svari” even wanted to remove the Orthodox cathedral in city center and place a Monument of Liberty there. The church was a symbol for Czarist past for many. Interestingly enough Russians were not associated with Soviet Union at those times.

The Lachplesis fighting against the German baronFrom "Ho-Ho"! 1922

The Lachplesis fighting against the German baron
From “Ho-Ho”! 1922

Germans were lesser than Russians and Jews but held a large influence. They still played a great role in national politics and economy. The past experience the myth of 700 years of slavery made Germans as the main Latvian enemy. Germans were shown constantly plotting against Latvia and Latvians. Great anger was made against Germans that still held large influence and took important governmental posts. The political demands by German parties that were constant were depicted as a threat to Latvian nation. Satirical magazines praised the controversial took away of St. Jacobs and Riga Dome cathedral from German congregations. The most noted German politician Paul Schiemann know for his liberal policies and progressive national ideas was shown as a German nationalist and chauvinist. While Scheimann really had a progressive liberal views he still played the role of German national right defender.

Jew as the ruler as the worldFrom Pūcsspieģelis 1923

Jew as the ruler as the world
From Pūcsspieģelis 1923

The main satirical slur was headed towards the Jews. While Jews had no political claims against Latvian state and no past as a Latvian oppressor, their influence in trade and finance was so clearly seen that they got themselves many enemies. There were many myths about Jews in Latvia that were present in caricatures. Satirical magazines outlined the uneven Jewish role in Latvian society; while being overly present in economy and education almost no role in state sector and army. The magazine “Lapsene” (The Wasp) called Jews the artificial insects and asked how to destroy them. Jews were accused of speculating the new Latvian currency and later even taking over all Latvian money capital.

Another paranoid view since gaining independence was that the many Jews from Russia that never lived in Latvia before, came in large masses along with Latvian refugees. That was partly true, but it should  noted that the Soviet government and the Checka simply loaded many undesired people on the refugee trains to get rid of them. Another thing is that many of the Jews really lived in Latvia before the war. But satirical magazines were talking about the “new Palestine” in Latvia and influx of swindlers. It all came to climax at 1927, when the changes in citizenship that extended the list of people eligible for citizen rights were made. Nationalist parties initiated a referendum to turn down the changes. The nationalists insisted that even more Jews will gain citizen rights.  For whole year till December that was the main theme in satirical press. The referendum failed to reach its purpose as the quorum was not reached.

Jews were also accused of being communists and plotting against Latvia. While there were really some underground Jewish communists and Soviet agents their role and size was not significant as depicted in caricatures. Latvian communists were more a threat and larger in size.

Mordehajs Dubins visits the US president Herbert Hoover From Kultūras Bals Satīriskais kalendārs 1931

Mordehajs Dubins visits the US president Herbert Hoover
From Kultūras Bals Satīriskais kalendārs 1931

One of the most remarkable Jewish personality was rabbi Mordehajs Dubins who was also a Orthodox Jewish politician. He was elected in all parliaments was a personal friend of Kārlis Ulmanis and talented businessman. He even gained audience to US President Herbert Hoover office a something that could not be done by many Latvian politician. He was true leader of Latvian Jewry. In so the Latvian satire depicted him as oligarch and real mover of many governments. Sometimes he even was show as a President or Prime Minister. He really had a large influence on governmental decisions, but his power was overestimated by Latvian satires.

The disinfection of the parasites of the earthFrom Intīmās politiskās aizkulises 1933

The disinfection of the parasites of the earth
From Intīmās politiskās aizkulises 1933

One interesting siting in Latvian satirical press was a journal “Intīmās poltiskās aizkulises, jeb mazas piezīmes par “lieliem” vīriem”  (Intimate political back scenes, or a small notes on “great” men”) with such peculiar name you could not guess that this journal was published by United Latvian Nationalsocialist Party a small political party inspired by Nazi Germany. This was one of the most anti-Semitic publisher of caricatures calling for complete “disinfection of Earth parasites” and removal of “council of Elders of Zion”. Jews were accused of selling cocaine, seducing Latvian women and harming the Latvian state. Party was short-lived from 1933 to 1934 and did not gain any significant popularity but its journal its example of the limits of Latvian anti-Semitism.

The caricatures showed that national question in Latvia was actual and hardly addressable. A Latvian desire for “being masters in their own land” and the presence of nationalism was clearly seen. Despite the fact that caricatures could be accused of spreading the hate not always they called for violence. In place of that a notion was seen that these problems could not be solved by democratic meas. But without democracy no political satire was possible. After Kārlis Ulmanis took power by coup all political satire and anti-Semitic remarks were banned. A national problems were solved simply by not talking about them. That was a proof that Latvia between 1920 to 1934 was very democratic country that allowed freely talk about the national issues.

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