Monthly Archives: November 2013

Latvians in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

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Cover of the book about the Latvian Fighters in the Spanish civil war

On July 18 Spanish radio station issued a signal “Over all of Spain, the sky is clear”. It was a code phrase that started the right-wing nationalist coup against the left-wing Popular Front government that also was allied with Catalan and Basque nationalists. For three years Spain erupted in all out civil war between the fascist National Alliance and the Republican Alliance an alliance between communists, anarchists, republicans and Basque and Catalan national fighters. As fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to support the Francisco Franco lead fascist forces, Soviet Union supported the republicans. While France and United Kingdom claimed neutrality, large numbers of volunteers from the western countries arrived at Spain to fight the republican cause. George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway were one of the most known.  And there were many Latvians from Latvia and the Soviet Union who came to Spain to support the republicans. For the most part they were on the communist side. Latvian authoritarian regime claimed neutrality and tried to prevent Latvian volunteers from reaching Spain. However, there are many stories about Latvians and Latvian Jews and Latvians from Soviet Union who took direct part in the war. This is a small collection of these.

On 1930 Spanish King Alfonso XIII was forced to abdicate. A Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed. As in every new democratic republic Spain became involved in political struggle with various political forces looking to seize power. Republican party together with Socialists tried to install various reforms limiting the power of the army and widespread secularization angering Catholic community. Anarcho-Syndicalists and radical communists had their own paramilitary units. Among ethnic Basques and Catalans a strong will of national sovereignty was eminent. That caused the conservative forces among Spanish army and Catholics to gather under Fascist slogans.

Weakened by the unstable governments, anti-Catholic riots, military coup attempts, on 1936 left-wing parties including Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM, independent communist) and the republicans: Republican Left (IR), (led by Azaña) and Republican Union Party (UR), led by Diego Martínez Barrio joined in Popular Alliance and secured a narrow victory. Right wing nationalist Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups faced defeat. A left-wing government led by socialists took power. Meanwhile in Catalonia and  Basque land that enjoyed vast autonomy became dominated by left-wing radicals, armed trade unions, Trotskyists and anarchists. Spanish socialists faced a split after radical leftists lead by Francisco Largo Caballero demanding socialist revolution left the united cause. In growing tension a shot that killed the conservative leader Hose Kalvo Sotelo on July 13 1936 triggered the full-scale civil war.

A few days later the best Spanish military units located in Spanish protectorate of Morocco started uprising. On July 18 a full-scale nationalist uprising took place in mainland Spain. Reactionary army units, together with Fascist Falange movement and monarchists took over vast regions of Andalusia, Seville, Navarra. The cities of Saragossa, Salamanca, Burgos and the Canarian Islands were taken over by them. However, Madrid, Barcelona and other parts of Spain was still in the  hands of central government. The commander of Morocco Spanish units Francisco Franco soon became the leader of the Nationalist forces.

While UK and France looking to avoid a new world war in all costs claimed neutrality, Nazi Germany together with Italy saw the Spanish conflict as possibility to test their military capabilities. Same went for Soviet Union who used the chance to become the main supporter of the Republican alliance. In long run it turned out that support from Moscow actually ruined the Republican efforts. Also the rather cowardly stance of UK and France was to blame.

Meanwhile Latvia itself had been ruled by authoritarian dictator Kārlis Ulmanis since 1934. Ulmanis regime although more lighter and liberal was hostile to both radical right and left-wing movements. Latvian government declared full neutrality in the Spanish matter and on February 23 1937 banned Latvian citizens from taking part in the war. However, Latvia was no stranger to radical leftist movements. With the help of illegal Latvian Communist Party and the Communist Internationale in Moscow, many Latvian citizens joined the International Brigades.

According to Soviet intelligence reports 862 people from all three Baltic states came to Spain. 179 of them fell in battle 21% of all count. Baltic fighters suffered the most casualties within all foreign volunteers.  According to some sources 120 Latvians and 25 Latvians from USSR joined the Republican cause. Most Latvians joined in united International Brigade Artillery units. 13th Dombrovsky International Brigade 6th Slavic antitank battery Latvians formed a group named after poet Leon Paegle. Other Latvian artillery unit was formed within 1st Slavic heavy artillery squadron 3th Kolorov Bulgarian battery. The group was named after Janis – Jansnons-Brauns the Latvian revolutionary. 16 Latvians took part in 15th International brigade Dimitrov battalion.

The International Brigade 20th battalion was commanded by Major Georgs Boziņs. His adjutant was lieutenant Fricis Pūce. Assisted by the communist party he left Latvia in secret to avoid draft in the Latvian army. In Paris, France a hub of communications and assistance was organized by Latvian citizen Masja Zilberman.

Jānis Bērziņš on the soviet postmark

Jānis Bērziņš on the soviet postmark

One if the most notable Latvians who took direct part was Jānis Bērziņš the head of the Soviet Foreign Intelligence.  As he arrived at Madrid on 1936 and became advisor to José Miaja – the main commander of the Republican army. Along with him the aviation specialist Dāvids Beika, artillery specialist Vilhelms Kumelāns, intelligence advisors Artūrs Sproģis Kristaps Saliņš.

Jānis Bērziņš or General Grishin as they called him in Russia, was famous Russian Civil War veteran. For many years he led the Soviet military intelligence and is regarded as many as the main designer of the soviet spy net across the world. His methods in recruiting, spying, coded message system helped the soviet to take the lead in the intelligence warfare.

Bērziņš helped the Republicans defend Madrid on 1936 -1937. However, his reports to Moscow where he accused the soviet diplomats treating the Spain as a Soviet colony angered Joseph Stalin. Despite awarded with the Order of Lenin he was shot as many other Latvians during the 1938 purge. Many Latvians from Soviet Union who returned to Spain at this time perished along him. With exception of Arturs Sproģis who survived the purge and took part in the WW2 by training and commanding the soviet commandos.

Other Latvian from Soviet Union Pēteris Tiltiņš  lived in Riga when he joined the communists on 1920. He then moved to France to study radio equipment and as French communist party member changed his name to Paul Armane. Posing as actor of Jelgava Drama Theater he took part in the communist underground within Latvia and France.  His brother Alfrēds Tiltiņš was a soviet resident spy in US and UK. Later Pēteris arrived at USSR and emerged as a commander of 4th army mechanized corps. And in Spain he lead the soviet tanks. On 1936 October 28 his T-26 tanks faced the Italian “Ansaldo” light tancettes. Some soviet history books even called this event as first known tank battle in history. He was awarded with the title of the Soviet Hero, first tank commander in USSR. He also escaped the purge and died in 1943 August 7 near Leningrad.

Spanish Republican General Voldemārs Ozols

Spanish Republican General Voldemārs Ozols

One of the most known Latvian volunteers from Latvia was colonel Voldemārs Ozols. Ozols started as first class officer in Petersburg War school. He made his name in the WWI Eastern Front. First as Staff Captain in the Caucasus front where he organized the Armenian national units and lead  the capture of Van and Erzerum. On 1916 by his own demand he was dispatched to Latvian rifleman units and directed the 2th Latvian Rifleman Brigade in the Christmas Battles of 1917. He was awarded and promoted as junior colonel. After the 1917 February revolution he was elected as the head of the Latvian Rifleman united executive soviet committee. Or Iskolatstrel that was dominated by Bolsheviks. He however, resigned and returned to 12th Russian army staff and asked to form united Latvian corps removing the Bolshevik supporters. He was turned down and he left the army.

When Latvia was invaded by Bolsheviks on 1918, he arrived at Latvia and asked to join the Latvian army. He was however, rejected because of his involvement with Bolsheviks on 1917 and accused of spying. He was arrested, but released because of  the lack of evidence. He moved to Estonia and joined the Estonian forces. By his help the Latvian North Latvian Brigade was organized that defeated the Germans near Cēsis on 1919. However, he was still distrusted by Latvian generals and the Provisional government. He left the Estonian army and then shortly joined the Lithuanian army and took part in Lithuanian – Polish conflict.

Disappointed, about his rejection and mistrust Ozols opposed the Latvian democratic system. He became the leader of the right-wing nationalist movement “Legion”. His movement was very similar to Francoist movement as it involved demobilized generals and he was planning to  overthrow the democratic government. The “Legion” became pursued by the Latvian Secret Police on 1933. On 1934 Kārlis Ulmanis who deposed the government used him as scapegoat to justify the takeover.

Ozols was exiled and lived in Estonia and Lithuania. His attempts to organize the Legion underground struggle failed and he was arrested for entering Latvia again on 1934. After spending time in prison he was exiled again in 1936. He went to Paris and became involved with Latvians who organized the International Brigades against Franco’s Fascists. Voldemārs Ozols who once strived to create fascist type government now took part in battle against Spanish fascist forces. In Spain he was ranked as General and served as reserve forces instructor. Republicans however also mistrusted him and on 1937 arrested him. The Failed Latvian Franco was however released by the help of Latvian social democrat Fēliks Cielēns. And then Ozols joined the Soviet secret service and as agent Zola worked in France. He survived the WWII within France and returned to Latvia as lecturer in Latvian State University in Faculty of Geography. Such was the story of the Latvian Military adventurer – from the officer in the Russian Imperial Army to foreign spy in Soviet secret service. In Latvia he desired to make his own nationalist military coup while in Spain he was fighting against nationalist militants. A truly exceptional personality in Latvian history.

Latvian movie about Spanish Civil war "Nocturne" on 1966

Latvian movie about Spanish Civil war “Nocturne” on 1966

During the Soviet times a well-known Latvian literate was Žanis Grīva, also a volunteer in the Republican forces. He came trough all front lines and ended up in French front lines. He returned on 1940 after Soviet occupation and later fought the Nazis in the Eastern Front. As veteran after the war he published many books about Latvians in the Spanish civil war from the Soviet point of view. On 1966 one of his novels about the Civil war “Nocturne” was adapted on the movie of the same name.

Latvian citizen Harijs Tranzē book about his fight for Francos army

Latvian citizen Harijs Tranzē book about his fight for Francos army

There was one known Latvian citizen who fought on the Franco’s side. Harijs Tranzē an heir of Baltic German noble family arrived at Berlin, Germany at the Nationalist Spain consulate. He served in Spain for nine months and wrote memoirs about it.

Among Latvian nationals who went to Spain, many were Jews. Most of them were convinced communists. 14 of them fell in battle. Those who survived took part in WWII on the Soviet side. Baron Abram Solmonovitch was convinced communist and spend time communist underground also in Czechoslovakia. When he was called to serve in Latvian army on 1935 he left Prague and carried out his duty despite his communist conviction. On 1936 he joined the International Brigade. He served there until his death in Aragon front on 1938. Kur Chaimanovitch survived the war and on 1939 entered France and was detained by the French authorities. He was denied to go back to Latvia. He returned only on February 1941. As Germans invaded he joined the Latvian Red Riflemen division and fell in battle near Moscow in 1942.  Permand Chaim Davidovich also survived the war and was in the French detention camp. He returned to Latvia after it was occupied by the Soviet Union. Žanis Grīva helped him to escape Germans and both joined the Latvian red divisions. He also survived the both one of few to do so.

The Republican forces failed to defeat the Nationalist forces. There was no valid support from France and UK, while Germany and Italy sent bombing raids and equipped Fascists with best weapons. Republicans were abused by devious Stalin’s policies, on 1939 Stalin was now looking to ally with Nazi Germany. So all the support from Moscow was halted. On February France and UK recognized the Franco government. On March 28 Madrid was taken without a fight. Valencia was last to surrender. On April 1 1939 war was officially over.

Hitler’s gamble on Franco later backfired. Franco refused to join the Axis forces and refused to attack Gibraltar that belonged to British. Had the Spain joined the Axis forces the outcome of the North African front would be different.  Francoist victory was a disaster for Catalans and Basques. Barcelona was ravaged by the conflicting anarchists and fascists. Catalan national autonomy was suppressed for many decades. Basques who suffered heavy casualties continued the national struggle in the means of terrorism against the post-Francoist government. The scars of the Civil War are clearly visible today. As Catalan national forces are looking to restore their independence by civil legal means, the Madrid government has shown a Franco style hostile reaction. The passion for Franco is still present in Spain and is masked by unionism. Despite the long distance Latvia has long-lasting historical connection with Spain and Catalonia and this connection is still needed today and in the future.

Selected Sources: 

Latvijas cīnītāji Spānijā : 1936-1939 : Atmiņas un dokumenti. (1966) LKP CK Partijas vēst. inst. PSKP CK Marksisma-ļeninisma inst. filiāle ; [Red. kol.: S. Ziemelis (atb. red.) u.c.]. Rīga : Liesma

Daukšts, Bonifācijs (2013) Kopveža Voldemāra Ozola kara gaitas un politiskā evolūcija.Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

Ватер, Ева.(2006) Евреи Латвии в борьбе с нацизмом. Latvian Jews in fight against Nazism Иерасулим

Рочко, Иосиф.(2010) Евреи в Латгалии. Исторические очерки. Кн. 1. Даугавпилс: Музей «Евреи в Даугавпилсе и Латгалии» Даугавпилсской религозной обшины и еврейского обшества.

Latvieši Spānijas piloņu kara ellē. Ilustrētā Vēsture. 2011. Nr. 39

http://www.laikraksts.com/raksti/raksts.php?KursRaksts=2901

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Latvia 2013 November Political Crisis

Collapsed Maxima Superstore that shaked the Latvian political system

It’s rather sad and frustrating to see all the events that have taken place during the last week since November 18, the day that most Latvians held dear. It also not pleasant to write about these things, but its my duty to report and say my opinion about what’s happening now in Latvia.

It was November 21, a rainy and dark day in contrast to bright and sunny November 18. Beautiful military parade was held involving NATO planes. Great fireworks display ended the rather positive and patriotic Independence day. And then on November 21 a tragedy happened that shocked the whole nation.

On 17:48 local time the State Fire and Rescue Service received news about roof collapse in Maxima supermarket Priedaine Street 20 at Zolitūde suburb. Maxima is shopping chain service from Lithuania. Entered the Latvian market in the economical growth years the Maxima soon became key player in Latvian shopping market. Its rivals are Rimi from Norway, Stockman from Sweden and other smaller shopping chains. As the name implies Maxima company is focused on maximum profit. And that was one of the reasons for this tragedy. This medium size supermarket was located in Zolitūde suburb on  the left side of river Daugava. Zolitūde named after word solitude soon became the center of national attention.

The roof had partially collapsed over the busy supermarket. As it was end of workday it was filled with people and for the worst the most part of roof had collapsed right on checkout counters.First rescue unit arrived and issued a state of severe danger. Reports described a large numbers of suffering people. Then on 19:01  the roof collapsed for the second time burying more people and rescuers under the rubble. And there was another more shocking thing: around 16:21 a fire alarm went off in the crowded supermarket asking people to evacuate. According to eyewitnesses no  proper evacuation by the shopping center administration was made. According to later statements by Maxima representatives the fire alarm was caused by welding construction in the basement. So it was considered a false alarm plus they also found unable to turn it off. However, other smaller shops like Narvesen and Drogas within the building ordered the evacuation of their employees. Maxima instead kept everyone inside that was crucial mistake. According to western safety standards even in case of false alarm the building should be evacuated until the reason for the alarm is determined. Instead only few rushed out, while others continued to shop under the breaking roof.

As enormous numbers of rescue service was brought to action, the size of rescued grew, but more worse the number of victims grew even steadily. At the end of third rescue day the final report was 29 injured and 54 dead. Along with them 3 firefighters lost their lives.

What was the cause of this tragedy? First we must describe this supermarket building project for its a unusual one: The building was completed on November 3 2011. Architectural design was by Zane Kalinka and Andris Kalinka from the local architectural firm of KUBS. It was developed by Homburg Valda and built by the company Re&Re. When the building was finished, it won the Latvian Building of the Year award. Just several months after its opening, a fire broke out in the market in which nobody was injured. At the time of the collapse, there was construction taking place, also by Re&Re. The area of supermarket was 4,750 m2 (51,100 sq ft). and cost around €1.4 million. The part of the building where the Maxima supermarket is located is owned by SIA Tineo, but originally was owned by The Homburg Group, which still owns the apartment building next to it.

The construction that took place on the roof of the working building was attempt of making winter garden with kids playgrounds. The Riga Building Administration had allowed to make construction works on the top of working supermarket. Originally the project just included green roof, however then the focus came to build garden with stone pathways. Plus the large residential building that was connected to the supermarket may have extorted its wall and destabilized the supermarket roof foundation. If this true then the building is in a danger of collapse that would bring even more tragic consequences.  More speculations follows about integral flaw in design and construction. But, the bottom line was that not one of the involved sides declined to take any responsibility until the end of investigation. Plus also they started their own investigations. And that opened door to widespread criticism and calls for resignations and swift changes. As its widely known in Latvia the investigations are slow and bring no clear results.

Ones asked to boycott or even ban Maxima chain. Others pointed their fingers at Re&RE. The company responsible also for many other grand projects like the repair works of Riga Castle, that went in flames in July during the repair works. It also turned out that one of the Re&Re built supermarkets Alfa had suffered a roof collapse on October 25 2012.  Since it happened in the night when the shop was closed the supermarket was not evacuated and the very event was kept silent. Yesterday in the State TV interview two owners of Re&RE company stated that they were not informed about it. And another roof collapse took place in Riga school also maintained by Re&Re, luckily it happened in the night right before Autumn semester. Meanwhile many were talking about the systematic incompetence and corruption in the building process that is widespread. It is no secret that many new buildings in Riga and other parts of Latvia are built in low quality. Many experienced flaws in quality just few months after unveiling, as they were built by incompetent builders. With large part of experienced builders emigrating to Western countries the Latvian building sector suffers of lack of skilled builders in all levels. Also the RE&RE as other such companies do not build themselves – they give job to lover level companies, but takes the most profit. What is worse the building companies enjoy very light control from the building inspections. On 2009 the Latvian parliament Saeima in the spirit of austerity policies closed the State Building Inspection. Since then the building inspection is only carried out by local municipal inspections. In such way the control over the buildings were weakened, and on 2013 more changes were made within the Building Law to ease the administrative control over the private builders.

This lead to question is the government of the Riga municipality responsible? Latvian President Andris Bērziņš sent a strong emotional message calling the tragedy as “murder” and called for statewide responsibility. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in his usual slow tempered style called the event as “crime” and demanded a fast investigation. The Chairman of Saeima (Parliament) Solvita Āboltiņa compared the disaster to 9/11 in America. Meanwhile the Mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov in his usual style rather blamed government and fired some members of Riga Building Inspection that signed the documents approving the supermarket construction. He however, did not saw much blame for himself.

On October 27 Valdis Dombrovskis after meeting the President Andris Bērziņs issued a resignation. Longest serving Latvian Prime Minister who survived the hardest years of crisis and the dismissal of Saeima of 2011 now made a decision to resign. It may seem that he was forced to resign by the president as he was meeting him in smile, but the left the meeting in unusual emotions and in tears issued his resignation. An event that surprised most including his party members, ministers and advisers.

Meanwhile the Mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov in his usual arrogance declined that he should resign too as he was supported by 55% of voters and he needs to finish his job, not to quit. A typical gesture of pro-Kremlin type politician who sees the resignation as the sign of weakness. Instead he would just put others to blame not himself. It’s a systematic belief caused by post-soviet thinking that taking responsibility is a sign of weakness and  vilingful resignation is a sign of humiliation.

Valdis Dombrovskis came to power when Latvia was deeply hit by the economic crisis. The previous government by Ivars Godmanis had left an inheritance of flawed state budget, nationalized PAREX Bank and International Monetary Fund connection. In his first government Valdis Dombrovskis managed to hold a government filled with hostile Peoples Party who was one of the blame for the crisis. He pragmatically pushed tough austerity measures and won the 2010 election. He led the coalition with the Green Farmers Union lead by Aivars Lembergs accused of corruption charges.  Despite heavy pressure from Green Farmers he kept his seat and was left unscarred by the dismissal of parliament on 2011. Despite his party Unity that came in third he again took the Prime Minister seat and took over a complicated coalition with Reformists lead by former president Valdis Zatlers and National Union that constantly opposed him. His third government was in constant struggle, two of the Reform Party ministers had resigned because of great criticism from the society. National Union Minister of Culture was asked to resign by Dombrovskis, while the National Union had excluded their own Minister of Justice from their party. As Dombrovskis decided to keep him, the National Union called that they no longer apply to coalition treaty. His coalition was slowly collapsing, but most predicted that it will last till the 2014 elections. Because there was no one good enough to replace him.

What is the political future of Latvia? It will be tough work to find a proper candidate, most parties have seldom choice of leaders especially National Union and the Reform Party. As Dombrovskis has stated that he will not lead the next government the Unity will had to wage struggle to keep the power. Green Farmers will probably try to enter coalition. Harmony Center actions are unpredictable as their may ally with  Green Farmers to secure power or will stay in opposition to gather forces for 2014 elections. And the responsibility of the President Andris Bērziņš in this situation is crucial.

In the eve of 2014 elections such situation is unbearable. The political rivalry could overshadow the Maxima disaster investigation. The stable currency change from Lats to Euro may be strained. A national ethnic rhetoric may again rise as opposing nationalist groups will try to gain attention. Russia who has become excessively hostile to most Western countries may try to take advantage of this situation. And new political forces lead by re-emerging politicians as Einars Repše and former state  controller Ingūna Sudraba will use to boost their political capital. Latvia is in for political rivalry and social instability. Rationality and carefulness can bring us to better while irrational and dubious politics may bring us in to nowhere.

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Coat of Arms of Latvia

The Coat of Arms of Latvia

The Coat of Arms of Latvia

In conclusion of describing the Latvian national symbols, the coat of arms of Latvia needs its attention. Latvia was a new country on 1918 without no sovereign heraldic traditions like Lithuania had. Therefore, it took time to make concept of how the new coat of arms would look like. During the War for Freedom the Latvian Provisional Government used  unofficial coat of arms that rather looked like emblem than Coat of Arms. It was  a flaming sun enclosed in round shape. In the middle a capital “L” resembles word “Latvia” and three stars – Courland, Vidzeme and Latgale – the three Latvian regions. Below a Latvian national flag. It was a simple yet powerful state symbol that included three important elements Sun- the Symbol of The Latvian Riflemen, The Three Stars as the Latvian regions and the Flag of Latvia. However, according to heraldic rules this was in no way as legitimate coat of arms. So when Latvia won the War for Freedom the plans were set to make a new official Coat of Arms.

The first unifocial emblem of the Republic of Latvia

The first unifocial emblem of the Republic of Latvia

The designer of the Coat of Arms was well-known  Latvian graphic artist Rihards Zariņš. His project was made official by the Constituent Assembly on July 16 1921.

The sun in the upper part of the coat of arms symbolizes Latvian national statehood. A stylized depiction of the sun was used as a symbol of distinction and national identity by the  Latvian Riflemen during World War I. During the war, the sun figure was fashioned with 17 rays that symbolized the 17 Latvian-inhabited districts. The three stars above the coat of arms embody the idea of the inclusion of historical districts (Vidzeme, Latgale and combined Courland-Semigalia (Kurzeme-Zemgale) into the united Latvia.

Culturally historical regions are also characterized by older heraldic figures, which already appeared in the 17th century. Courland and Semigalia (Western Latvia) are symbolized by a red lion, which appears as early as 1569 in the coat of arms of the former Duke of Courland and Semigalia. Vidzeme and Latgale (Eastern Latvia) are symbolized by the legendary winged silver creature with an eagle’s head, a griffin. This symbol appeared in 1566, when the territories known today as Vidzeme and Latgale had come under Lithuanian control. Base of the coat of arms is decorated with the branches of an oak tree, Quercus robur, which is one of Latvian national symbols.

The three versions of the Coat of Arms of Latvia.

The three versions of the Coat of Arms of Latvia. From the left the major Coat of Arms, Small Coat of Arms and Middle Coat of Arms

Coat of Arms is used in three versions. The large version with all details, Middle Version and Small Version. Large version is used by is used by the President of Latvia, the Parliament, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers, government ministries, the Supreme Court and Prosecutor General, as well as Latvian diplomatic and consular missions. Middle version is used by The Small Enhanced Coat of Arms is used by the Parliament agencies, the Cabinet of Ministers and other institutions under direct or indirect supervision of the government ministries. And the small version by The Small Coat of Arms is used by other government institutions, municipal authorities and educational institutions on official documents.

After the occupation of Latvia on 1940, the coat of arms was forbidden to use. Soviets tried to remove all images of the Coat of Arms as much as possible. For instance in the Brothers War  Cemetery the Coat of Arms on the main gate was removed and all the pre-WW2 coat of arms of the various Latvian cities were removed. Right now the Coat of Arms of Latvia has been restored on the main gate and other coat of arms of the Latvian cities are placed back. The Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic had its own coat of arms featuring hammer and  sickle, wheat and the Baltic sea. On February 15 1990 together with national flag and the national anthem the  Coat of Arms was restored as official symbol of the Latvian Republic.

The Latvian Coat of Arms was made according to Western European heraldic traditions. Its symbolic code involves heraldic symbols from the Latvian past and national symbols such as sun and oak tree. The Coat of Arms shows Latvian special identity a western nation who was under foreign rule and unique nation with its own history and desire for freedom.

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Lāčplēsis – the First Latvian Major Movie from 1930

Lilita Bērziņa as Laimdota in the opening scene

Lilita Bērziņa as Laimdota in the opening scene

Lāčplēsis day on November 11 is heading close. The Latvian victory over the German-White Russian army of Bermont-Avalov was one of the major military victories of the Latvian people. No wonder why many still held this date and celebrations as sacred. But, they were even more sacred during the first twenty years of independence. Latvia was full of war veterans and large portions of Latvian society remembered the events of 1918-1920 like they were yesterday. So it was no wonder why the Latvian cinema and theater were dedicated to war events. First Latvian movie made on 1920 was called “Me joining the war”. Latvian cinematographers  had very little experience to make high quality movies like in US or Germany. Even Soviet Union started to make high class works of art despite their propagandist character.

As the 10 anniversary of the victory in the War for Freedom was heading close, a grand movie was needed to mark these events and show them in nationally patriotic way. And that is where actor Aleksandrs Rusteiķis, cameraman Jānis Sīlis and drill sergeant of the Civil Guard Alfrēds Bērziņš came in. On 1928 they made the first movie For Fatherland on 1928 about the Soviet invasion in Latvia on 1919. Movie was known for explicit scenes of violence and rape, but managed to pass the censorship law  that usually rejected such scenes. Mostly because of the Civil Guard support that was very popular paramilitary movement. The movie was poorly received and was technically weak for those times.

Then Rusteiķis started his project for the movie to mark 10 years of independent Latvia. His movie was called “Lāčplēsis” Lāčplēsis translated roughly in English as Bear Slayer was mythical hero who first appeared in Andrejs Pumpurs epic poem of the same name. Lāčplēsis is a strong ancient Latvian hero who fights against the German crusaders and also for his beloved Laimdota. This epic poem was one of the strongest literal works of the New Latvian movement. After Latvian army defeated the mainly German lead army of Bermont the victory seemed almost like the final victory of Lāčplēsis. Since the epic poem ended tragically with both Lāčplēsis and his enemy the Black Knight drowning in the river Daugava. The poem said that they still fight with each other in the deeps of the river and when Lācplēsis finally defeats the Black Knight the Latvian nation shall be free again. It seemed on November 1919 that this day has come and ever since then the November 11 is celebrated as Lāčplēsis day.

The movie was silent, but with musical score that follows the plot and changes according to dramatics. However, for our days it seems rather annoying. Massive battle scenes involving gas and artillery attacks were made. There are many special effects like explosions and falling war planes. However, in same cases like the war plane explosions its clearly seen that a plane is just a model.

So it was logical to name the movie in such way. The main cast for the movie was mostly amateurs. Voldemārs Dimze was a pilot. He played the main hero Lāčplēsis and Jānis Vanags as Lāčplēsis spiritual incarnation. His character is brave, honest and monolith personality not bounded by fear or lust. His character set the traditions for the future Latvian male characters as manly and patriotic. The main female character Laimdota or Marta was played by Lilita Bērziņa. She played beautiful and honest Latvian virgin who is trapped by the evil forces.  She also shows signs of courage and self confidence. She can spend a great time alone and defend herself. It was common for post war Latvian society with lot of single women forced to look after themselves. The main villain the Black Knight or later German officer was played by Osvalds Mednis. His character was shown in the best traditions of horror movies of those times. With one eye, bald head and frozen sinister look he resembled Count Dracula. A minor but colorful role by Jēkabs Upelnieks was Kangars. The vile Latvian traitor who assisted the Black Knight. Sinister expressions and moves were played out well.

The main characters of the movie. From the left: Lilita Bērziņa as Laimdota/Marta, Voldemārs Dimze as Lāčplēsis/Jānis Vanags, Osvalds Osis as the Blak Night/German villain, Kangars as Jēkabs Upelnieks

The main characters of the movie. From the left: Lilita Bērziņa as Laimdota/Marta, Voldemārs Dimze as Lāčplēsis/Jānis Vanags, Osvalds Osis as the Blak Night/German villain, Kangars as Jēkabs Upelnieks

As we already noticed all three main epic characters – the Lāčplēsis, Laimdota and the Black Knight appear later as people within the historical setting of 1905-1919. That’s because the movie starts in Mythical age within the setting of Andrejs Pumpurs and then all three main characters spiritually reborn within Jānis Vanags, Marta and unnamed German officer. Also Kangars appears by his side as unnamed Latvian traitor. This seems rather mystical for our days, but in those days it was understood perfectly. Also special part in the movie is given to Laimdota brooch, decorated with Latvian  folk symbols including swastikas this decorative peace had rather mystical role on the main characters. It was nothing unusual to add such esoteric things as  spiritual rebirth or magic brooches since these things were very popular among European society.

The magical brooch of Laimdota

The magical brooch of Laimdota

The movie starts with Laimdota trapped in crusader castle with her brooch on her chest. Then the vile Black Knight appears and attempts to take her by force. In the event of struggle she looses her brooch and its been taken by Kangars. The brooch seems to defend Laimdota. A bunch of witches and wizards with grotesque expressionist style faces tries to place spell on the brooch to make Laimdota love the Black Knight. After failed attempts the evil spirit appears from nowhere and commands to use the blood of dove. As they prepare to spill the blood of dove on the brooch the Lāčplēsis appears. Lurking in darkness within the castle walls he hears the cry from Laimdota about her lost brooch. He throws the spear at the room where wizards are and stops the dove from being killed.

Wizards and witches

Wizards and witches

As Lāčplēsis then rushes to free Laimdota he defeats the German soldiers, who curiously wears more WWI style helmets rather than Medieval helmets. Some even have horns on them showing the way people understood ancient days in those times. Lāčplēsis meets the Black Knight in duel. Kangars tries to stab the Lāčplēsis in the back, but gets killed by the Black Knight’s sword who falls out of the knights hands. By loosing his sword Black Knight retreats and Lāčplēsis considers it as a victory. But, the vile knight grabs the sword and apparently kills Lāčplēsis.

Tzarist executioners on 1905. The vile German/Black Knight on the left

Tzarist executioners on 1905. The vile German/Black Knight on the left

Movie then departs to the revolution of 1905. Lāčplēsis is spiritually reborn in the young Jānis Vanags. Vanags means hawk and hawk was a very popular Latvian patriotic symbol. He has the Laimdota brooch with him proving his connection with Lāčplēsis. He then encounters the Tsarist punishment expedition   driving to Saulīšu house. He immediately recognizes the peculiar looking stiff faced Baltic German  Tsarist officer with one eye as reincarnation of the Black Knight. Violent Russian officer demands to show the way to Saulīšu house. Jānis ruins the carriage wheel and makes to Saulīšu house before the officers do. There he meets Saulītis and his young daughter Mirdza. Saulītis manages to escape, but the vile German Tsarist officer slain Jānis with a whip and leaves a scar on his left cheek.

Mirdza and Jānis meets again

Mirdza and Jānis meets again

Movie then moves to 1914. Germany invades the territory of Latvia. Latvian rifleman comes to defend their homeland. With them the officer Jānis a grownup mature man. He is summoned by Captain Briedis a real life person to send a message to Colonel Francis another real life personality. Colonel Jānis Francis is stationed on the Island of Death a bridgehead encircled by Germans. The Island of Death was one of the most bloodiest war points for the Latvian riflemen. In his way he encounters Mirdza and his father who are trapped in forest after their refugee carriage crashed in the forest. Another – Latvian social trauma the massive Latvian exodus during the first months of WWI. To make things more dramatic the refugee caravans are bombed by German war planes. Luckily Mirdza who lost her conciseness is found and rescued by Jānis. Mirdza recognizes the boy who saved her father and instant love erupts between them. She and her father moves further to Riga, while Jānis continues his military duty. He survives many battles because of Laimdota brooch that stood in the way the bullets as he was always carrying underneath his uniform. After last such event in 1917 Christmas Battles he sends the brooch to Mirdza as sign of his love to her.

German WWI gas attack

German WWI gas attack

A major war scenes are shown: artillery fire and German gas attacks. The Eastern front within Latvia was no stranger to chemical warfare another message for the social memory. Meanwhile in Riga, the Baltic Germans and the ex-Tsarist officer are plotting against the Latvians. Baltic Germans who were on the other side of the front were not united against the Tzarist regime, as there was many German nationals fighting within Russian lines. However, there were certain Baltic German groups who wanted to create the German state in the outcome of the war. Movie shows real footage of Germans entering Riga on 1917 and Kaiser Wilhelm II who made a visit there.

The proclamation of independence on November 18 1918

The proclamation of independence on November 18 1918

However, then movie departs to November 18, 1918. Around the present day National theater where the proclamation of independence took place, a man in a German spike helmet is hanging around showing that independence was proclaimed during the German military presence. A unique scenes were made as the directors choose to replay the whole proclamation scene with people who took direct part there. Kārlis Ulmanis and Gustavs Zemgals as well other real life people were present at the proclamation scene. Its known that there is only one picture made from this event. On 2008 it was done for the second time in the movie The Only Photograph.

While the rule of the Soviet government in Riga from 1918 to spring of 1919 its not directly mentioned, the next part begins in winter time Riga where Mirdza is struggling to survive by selling her valuables. A reference to poverty made by Bolshevik terror. She is then approached by the vile German alias Black Knight who she does not recognize. He seduces her by buying some valuables and asks if  there is more. She says “Yes in apartment”. German follows her to her apartment and notices the brooch. He wants to buy it as well, when Mirdza rejects he tries to take it by force. He is only interrupted by Mirdza father who recognizes him. After the German leaves the father angrily asks: “You did not know what is person did in 1905?”. German returns again to steal the brooch and assaults Mirdza. In the event of struggle she runs away, but the German assistant the reborn Kangars finds the brooch and gives it to vile German. After, Germans demands to give herself in return for brooch she leaves Riga and sends letter to her imprisoned father to tell Jānis to find the villain.

Pavel Bermont Avalov

Pavel Bermont Avalov

Jānis meanwhile is in Estonia and takes part in the organization of the Northern Latvia brigade that together with Estonians defeated Germans at Cēsis at June 22. A scenes show the Latvian army marching in the streets of Riga Jānis returns to Riga and finds that Mirdza had left for country side. Vile German and his traitor is leaving his office, but forgets the brooches. Jānis finds it takes it back. However, the German is far from giving up. He plots with Bermont-Avalov who stereotypically chews his cigar and shows eccentric dull behavior.  The Bermont army is showed in German and Tzarist uniforms and are marching to Riga. The German finds out where Mirdza is. As she tries to hide he asks: “Why you are so inhospitable to the victors?”, she replays: “I am not won yet!”, “Then soon you shall be!” German smears.

The Symbolism in the movie

The Symbolism in the movie

The Battle of Riga is shown in grandiose way. The allied help from British and French navy was not forgotten, instead their ships play exact role as they really did. A scene of Bermont war plane being shot down and exploding on ground was rather unsuccessful since its clearly seen its just a prop. Then there is a interesting special effect: on the left side of River Daugava that was taken by Bermont a vile German face appears and changes to Black Knight, and on the right side of Riga the opposite happens – Jānis face changes to Lāčplēsis. It was a symbol of eternal struggle between Latvians and Germans. The Germans were clearly shown as enemies and many people who lived those times really saw Germans as the main enemies of the Latvian nation. And the Black Knight was the symbol of the German reactionary forces.

The battle scenes with the spirit of Lāčplēsis taking action

The battle scenes with the spirit of Lāčplēsis taking action

In grand battle scenes Latvians chase away Bermnot, another special effect the spirit of Lāčplēsis clears the front line with  his sword. As the battle ends a map shows up showing Latvian forces marked as Swastikas chasing away the Germans shown up as crosses. On 1930 swastika was still mainly seen as Latvian national folk symbol and as we see this movie had very anti-German character. The Bolsheviks were never directly mentioned in this movie.

Defeated Bermont is enjoying himself in Jelgava

Defeated Bermont is enjoying himself in Jelgava

Vivid scenes are shown after Germans are forced to retreat to Jelgava. The officers of the Bermont army is enjoying wild party with dancers and alcohol. Such travesty actually took place not to mention the damage the Bermnont made to Jelgava before finally leaving it.

The movie ends with Jānis confronting the German. He unhands his pistol and orders to defend himself with his sword. Kangars again sneaks to shoot Jānis from behind and gets killed by the German sword. Again the vile German tries to grab his pistol, but the father of Mirdza shows up and fires from behind. German is shot twice and falls down the stairs. As the father is looking if her daughter is fine, he sees her kissing with Jānis. He silently closes the door and in relief lights up his smoking pipe.

The ending scene

The ending scene

The movie was praised by viewers and the press. Few criticized for being oriented slightly towards the Kārlis Ulmanis party the Green Farmers Union, since it was funded by Civil Guards who were openly supportive of Ulmanis. Jānis Čakste and Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was not present at the movie. Some technical flaws made this movie not as good as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. In Hollywood first full audio movies were already present. But, what it makes this movie so special it was first major Latvian movie, with special effects, major historical background and artistic quality. On 1939 the Fishermans Son was first full audio Latvian movie a classic a adaptation of Vilis Lācis novel. But, without Lāčpēsis the Latvian cinema would be different.

Latvian post stamp showing the score from the movie

Latvian post stamp showing the score from the movie

On 2007 similar Latvian movie The Guards of Riga was produced. Also resolved around the Battle of Riga on 1919 sadly it was more historically biased then 193o Lāčplēsis. While Lāčplēsis showed that Latvians had enough forces at the beginning of the battle, the Guards of Riga was showing that Latvians had to build army from the scratch. The role of the Northern Latvia brigade and the allied warships were completely diminished by the Guards of Riga, while Lāčplēsis took large detail on this. The whole historical context of the battle events were completely misinterpreted in the Guards of Riga while they mostly close to history in Lāčplēsis. This shows, how the national memory about the War for Freedom gets deformed by the years. On 1930 the movie producers who witnessed the war themselves despite lack of technical advances made a movie that by all right is included in the Latvian national canon.

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Latvian Monument of Freedom

The Monument of Freedom on the Latvian post mark before WW2

The Monument of Freedom on the Latvian post mark before WW2

One of the most definite Latvian national symbols is the Monument of Freedom at the very center of Riga at the Brīvības Bulvāris (The Boulevard of Freedom). Also called Freedom Monument (Brīvības Piemineklis in Latvian) this great memorial complex has become a landmark for Riga. All the main national celebrations takes place within it. At every November 11 the military parade is being held to celebrate the Day of Lāčplēsis. The guard of honor is placed within the monument and all visiting state leaders place their flowers at the monument during their official state visits.

The first proposal of the Memorial Column by Eižens Laube

The first proposal of the Memorial Column by Eižens Laube

After Latvia gained independence there were calls for building monument to commemorate the heroes killed in action during the War for Freedom. On July 27 1922 the Prime Minister of Latvia Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics issued an order to make rules for contest for the “Memorial Column”.  The winner of this scheme was Eižens Laube who proposed a 27 meter high obelisk, that would be placed within the Alexander Boulevard, Raiņa Boulevard and the pedestal of the former statue of Tzar Peter I. Laube called his obelisk as “The monument of the fallen soldiers and Victory”. It was a classical approach, with similar designs across Europe. Also it was somewhat similar to Washington Monument in US. However, the idea was widely rejected within the society and called “artistically inferior”. On April 1923 a protest letter of 57 artists reached government calling to cancel this project. The government was forced to cancel the Laube project and issued a new project on October 9 1923. Here for the first time the name “Monument of Freedom” was used. A deadline for the contest was May 15 1924.

Statue of Peter I the Great that stood where the Monument of Freedom stands now

Statue of Peter I the Great that stood where the Monument of Freedom stands now

Latvian society was weary about how the monument should look like. Only now Latvians had real chance to decide what kind of monuments can be placed in Riga. During the Tzarist times, the main monuments were devoted to the Tzarist regime. The Victory Column in Riga palace square, the Statue of Peter I in the Alexander Boulevard.  The Statue of Peter I was built on 1910 commemorating the capture of Riga on 1710. The Statue was unveiled with Tzar Nicholas II  himself present. Peter I on his horse did not stand long, as on 1915 because of approaching German invaders the statue was evacuated and placed on ship “Serebino”. It was however, sunk by German U-Boat. All what was left was the foundations of the Peter I statue. Now this very place was chosen as the place for the new Monument of Freedom. Understandably it had to be something more grander than the statue of Peter I.

The proposal by Marta Liepiņa Skulme

The proposal by Marta Liepiņa Skulme

The Monument should in honorable, clear way express the idea of Latvian liberation with sculptures and architectural setting. 25 contestants with them Kārlis Zāle and Mārta Liepiņa Skulme. Kārlis Zāle proposed a large two massive blocks as the “Gates of Freedom”. Marta Liepiņa Skulme proposed a simple setting of Lāčplēsis – Latvian hero warrior standing in front of obelisk. The contest jury could not decide between the two different proposals as well as 23 other proposals. So the contest ended only with awards, but no clear winner.

On March 18 1925 a new contest was made. In contrary to previous contest this contest was closed to avoid proposal hoarding. Kārlis Zāle, Marta Liepiņa Skulme, Emīls Melderis, Eižens Laube and Teodors Zalkalns were invited. This time Kārlis Zāle proposed a completely new project with a large obelisk with the Mother Latvia armed with sword looking at Old Riga direction. However, he then replaced Mother Latvia with Lāčplēsis the hero warrior. Teodors Zaļkalns also made similar proposal with a multi-level architectonic composition with horseman on top. He also wanted to make a shrine within monument. However, because of quarrels and rivalry between artists the contest again ended with no results. Many were envious of Kārlis Zāle and his successes in Monument Freedom and Brothers War cemetery contests. For some years no new contests were not made. Many monuments were placed within the battle sites of WWI and War for Freedom.

The Bismark monument in Hamburg may have inspired the Kārlis Zāle Monument of Freedom final project

The Bismark monument in Hamburg may have inspired the Kārlis Zāle Monument of Freedom final project

On 1929 October 15 new contest was issued. Kārlis Zāle returned once again with more original and monumental project. He may have been inspired by the Soviet monuments that featured a Mother figure on the top of large obelisk. Others have noted that his new project was inspired by the Monument of Bismark in Hamburg. Indeed the architectonic setting of the Monument of Bismark by Johann Emil Schaudt had similar architectonic setting. Not only the large sculpture on the obelisk, but the oval architectonic setting was somewhat similar to the Monument of Freedom.

Karlis Zāle final project on 1930

Karlis Zāle final project on 1930

At the end of 1929 his project was ready. A large vertical spire in three levels decorated with many symbols of the Latvian past ends in concluding Statue of Liberty or Mother Latvia holding three stars – Courland, Vidzeme and Latgalia. The three main Latvian regions (in this case Semigallia is connected with Courland according to pre-WWI regional setting). His project won the first prize, Teodors Zaļkalns came second, Kārlis Baumanis came third. On 1930 Kārlis Zāle teamed up with architect Ernests Štālbergs who helped to improve the monument with architectonic part and area around the monument. On November 18 1931 the construction begun.

A large sums for the monument were acquired by the state-wide public charity. Because of massive support from the society the monument construction went steadfast. On November 18 1935 it was unveiled to the cheering public. By this time the Kārlis Ulmanis had taken power by coup and dissolved the parliament. So the Monument had even more importance within Ulmanis nationalist ideology. The unveiling celebrations begun on 9:00 large crows gathered to the new Monument square. On 10:00 the Ulmanis and the formal president Alberts Kviesis along with other leaders of the regime arrived in limos. The president Alberts Kviesis made the last public appearance and gave the opening speech. As the sheet from the monument was taken down the cannon fire marked the opening. 12 war planes crossed over and large military parade took place. The Monument was praised by the society and became strong national symbol.

The Monument stood strong during the WW2. Both occupational regimes disregarded it, but were unable to tear it down. It was situated on the very center of the city making unable for silent removal. Most prewar monuments in country side were taken away during the night. This monument was too large to simply take it away. However, on 1949 Council of People’s Commissars of the Latvian SSR proposed to restore the statue of Peter I. While they did not openly called to remove the Monument of Freedom, there was no other way to restore the Peter I statue on its historical spot. However, at end of the debate the idea was rejected. According some unproven sources the Russian Artist Vera Mukhnia the author of the Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman who was present at the meeting convinced others to keep the monument since it was of very high artistic value and that its demolition might hurt the most sacred feelings of the Latvian people. Instead the Soviet propagandists tried to re-interpret the meaning of the monument. It was now explained that the Woman Statue is not Mother Latvia, but the Mother Russia that holds three Baltic Soviet republics. Also they tried to convince that the monument was erected after WWII.

However, the blunt lies could not wash away the truth. For many decades soviet KGB recorded dozens of attempts of people placing flowers to commemorate the independent Latvia. On 1963 idea to demolish the monument was sounded again, but rejected because of fears of negative response from the Latvian society. Soviets placed a trolleybus depot around the monument to prevent people from accessing it. However, when on June 14 1987 the Helsinki -86 movement came to monument to commemorate the deportations of 1941, not even improvised bicyclist celebrations could not stop them. The Monument once again became the center of political activity and regained its prewar legacy.

As the independence was regained the Monument of Freedom received its guard of honor back. Multiple restorations have taken place. Some restoration and preservation attempts have taken place even during the Soviet times. The Monument of Freedom is of high artistic quality. It was made in the time when monumentalism was very popular across Europe. It’s known that Kārlis Zālis was a modernist during his early carrier, but then changed to more publicly appealing traditionalism and monumentalism. Some say that Marta Liepiņa Skulme who modernist artist did a much better proposal, however its a matter of taste. The importance of the Monument of Freedom, have not been lost during the decades and will not lose in the future.

The Monument of Freedom today

The Monument of Freedom today

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