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Latvians in the Great Purge 1937-1938

Cathedral at the Butuvo polygon where about 200 Latvians were killed

Every first Sunday of December its official commemoration day for Latvians who died in the Great Purges in 1937 -1938.  Latvians along with other non-Russian communists were targets of Joseph Stalin repressions. Before the purges many Latvians were involved in the Soviet government, many took high rank posts. Nearly all them became victims of Stalinist repressions. Along them many low rank Latvian activists and intellectuals were killed only because of their nationality. However, not all Latvians living in the Soviet Union were exterminated, but they are part of overall Stalin Genocide that took place during 1929 to 1939 that was aimed on social and ethnic groups.

The reason so many Latvians lived in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign was the events of First Wold War and Russian Civil War. The German invasion in the Latvian territory in 1915  sparked a mass exodus to inner parts of Russia. About half million Latvian and Jewish refugees entered Russia and settled in major Russian cities. Also in Latvia, a Latvian Rifleman division were formed to fight against the Germans in Baltic front. After the February Revolution, political divisions affected the rifleman and Latvian refugees and many choose to follow the Bolshevik path. Majority of Latvian rifleman after the Bolshevik coup in November joined the ranks of the Red Army. The Latvian Red Rifleman was one of the most important units that helped the Bolsheviks to gain victory. Over the end of civil war, not all Latvians head back to Latvia. Many of then were true believers of communist ideas and were willing to contribute the Soviet government. And the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin was friendly to non-Russians in the government. He believed in internationalist ideas and so he allowed Jews, Latvians, Caucasians to share the power.

There have been a wide discussion on why Stalin, who himself was a Georgian decided to remove non-Russians from the posts in the party and the army. Commonly described reason was the Stalin’s belief of coming war with the western powers that made him to look at foreign nationals as the members of the “fifth column”. All ethnic groups who had independent countries outside  Soviet Union fell victim of ethnic cleansing. For instance there was no action taken against the Jews, because they had no country at that time. But, Latvians, Poles, Germans and others were considered as foreign spies.

However, it’s a question whether the Stalin’s fears of spies and conspirators were real or just a disguise. Stalin’s policy was to eliminate all his competitors and people who may question his orders. He had a certain dislike for people who took a direct part in October revolution and the Civil war. As we know Stalin’s role in these events was marginal. So Stalin eliminated all government and army members who he considered not loyal.  He certainly had aggressive plans and he prepared not to defend his country, but took active part in the future world war.

The start of ethnic cleansing was July 25 1937 when the chief of Soviet NKVD (the secret police) Nikolai Yezhov issued the order nr. oo49 to arrest in five days all German citizens and political emigrants who mainly worked in the military and transportation system.  Next on May 11, repressions were started against the Poles. All who emigrated to the Soviet Union to find a better place to live in now were thrown in prison and shot.

By this time many Latvians were arrested as the members “fascist conspiracy”, “Trotsky supporters”, “spies of Latvia” and members of “counterrevolutionary organizations”. Already on January 21, Yezhov reported to Stalin that he had discovered and eliminated a “Latvian counter-revolutionary organization” formed by party members and emigrants. The idea of “Latvian Action” was brought by the chief of the western sector of the People’s Commissariat of Interior comrade Nasedkin.  He arrived in Moscow on November 1937, to report to Yezhov and inform him about the so-called “Latvian National Center”. It was described as a wide network of Latvians working in a Latvian section of the Comintern and Latvian society “Prometejs” and other Latvian circles. Nasedkin reported that 500 people are suspects in what Yezhov replied “Nonsense! Arrest no less than 1500 people!” Two days later Nasedkin received order from Yezhov that everything is set for the “Latvian Action” and the members of Belorussia Interior Commissariat, the Latvian Club, Latvian National Theater and Latvian rifleman sections should be first to be arrested.

Soviet operatives did this with ease. If they found a Latvian national within any governmental office, they automatically  added him to “Latvian conspirator list”. Next on November 23, Yezhov issued an order to gather information about all Latvian societies and organizations in every region and town.

On 30 November deputy of Peoples Commissar of the Interior Frinovsky sent a coded telegram to all commissars within the Soviet Union claiming that Latvian counter-revolutionary nationalists and saboteurs have been discovered and must be eliminated. The order allowed to arrest everyone with Latvian nationality in the passport. The arrests of all Latvian suspects within all Soviet Union begun on December 3.  To gather enough information about Latvian nationals top members of the communist party were arrested and tortured. Basically after hours of torture these people were willing to not only admit their “guilt”, but also report other Latvians, friends and relatives.

The death sentences were issued in masses by the so-called “trios” (troikas) or “duos” (dvoika) the two or three top NKVD officials who could issue death warrants for more than 1000 people within a day. On February 3, 1938 in Butovo 258 people were killed along with then 229 Latvians

The Soviet “style” of death sentencing was not only to sentence the prime suspects, but his wives, children and relatives. Whole families were killed along the way. According to Russian historians N. Okhotin and A. Roginsky from December 1937 to September 1938, 172, 830 people were sentenced to death. Along with then 22, 360 people were sentenced because of their Latvian nationality. 16, 573 were shot. Others were deported to Siberia and concentration camps of the Gulag.

The precise number of the Latvian victims of the Great Purge is yet to be fully discovered. It must be kept in mind that the “Latvian action” along with actions against Poles and Germans was a prime initiative of the Communist Party Central Committee Politburo and its chief Joseph Stalin.

Selected Sources:

Riekstiņš, Jānis (2012) PSRS Iekšlietu tautas komisariāta “Latviešu operācija”, (1937-1938). Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

Riekstiņš, Jānis (Ed) (2009) Represijas pret latviešiem PSRS, 1937-1938 : dokumenti. Rīga : Latvijas Valsts arhīvs

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The Birth of the Latvian Nation

Krišiānis Valdemārs- The First Latvian National leader

Every nation in this world has been formed throughout the centuries. From small groups of tribes with common language roots and traditions of united nation with one language, religion and culture. All large nations The English, Russians, Chinese were united in one nation in a very long time using politics, culture and religion. Latvians have also gone through this process. The only difference from large nations is that the Latvian nation formed under circumstances of foreign rule. And foreign factor had played a large role in the formation of the Latvian nation. However, it’s only up to Latvians themselves to recognize itself as a nation that strives for sovereignty and freedom. Every nation has formed with the help of local national intellectual circles that made to justify the national identity.

Ancient Latvian ancestors were members of Balts a group of people who lived near Baltic Sea. Balts are part of Indo-European language family. Baltic languages show many similarities with the ancient Indian language the Sanskrit. Until 13th Century when German Crusaders arrived Baltic lands were inhabited by various Baltic tribes. In modern territory of Latvia, four Baltic tribes lived- the Curonians, Semigallians, Selonians and Latgalians. Although they came in contact with Vikings and Russians  their pagan culture was untouched and they were mostly on their own. It was because the Vikings and Russians did not have the desire and chances to conquer Baltic lands yet. But German crusaders certainly had.

From 14th century Latvia and Estonia was part of German ruled Livonia. German knights downgraded Ancient Latvians to peasants and removed their rights. It was tyranny by the minority since Germans were in very low numbers. This was a time when Ancient Latvian tribes started to blend in one piece. Important aspect here is Livonian tribe- a part of Finno- Ugrian speakers close to Estonians and Fins.  Livonians and Latvians mixed in one piece because of mixed marriages. Because of that Livonians lost their numbers and the language became endangered.  Today last remnants of Livonians live on the shores of the Baltic Sea and heading for extinction. However its irrelevant to blame Latvians for this, since Livonians did not hesitate to mix with Latvians and did not do enough to protect their identity. Also a certain foreign factor is blame for Livonian extinction like Soviet imposed militarization of Livonian inhabited lands. But because of this according to genetic research Latvians hold a large part of Livonian genes in their genome.

In times of German rule Latvians had the role of peasants, low-level craftsmen without no rights to take part in political matters. Because of that Germans showed little interest in education for Latvians. Latvian language was not in written word nor was special schools open for Latvians. Because of that Latvians received minor information on Christian teachings and kept their pagan folklore and traditions. Throughout the generations Latvians kept their traditional folk songs, symbols, national dress and traditions.

The first books in the Latvian language appeared in 16th century during the Reformation. They were Lutheran catechisms and other religious texts. The Lutheran Catechism published in Latvian in 1588 is the oldest preserved Latvian text. They were written by local German Lutheran missionaries who knew Latvian language and made in print form to convince Latvians to join Lutheranism. The teachings of Luther allowed to translate religious texts in the local language not just Latin and that was the starting point of Latvian literal language.

It was the intellectual revolution in Western Europe that made local Germans remember about the education for their Latvian subjects.  In 17th Century first schools were open for Latvians and German intellectuals started to show interest in teaching Latvian children. The 18th Century was times of Enlightenment the movement for educating the masses. Enlightenment helped all European nations to develop and modernize. In this spirit the Bible was translated into Latvian in 1694 by a German clergyman Ernest Glik.  And in 1774 a fundamental work by Gothard Friedrich Stender “A book of higher knowledge“was the first scientific encyclopedia in Latvian.

Latvians had gone through many painful and disastrous wars in the Modern Era. The Livonian War and the Great Northern War brought heavy atrocities done by Russian army. The destruction could be compared to Genocide. But those wars did not bring down Latvian will to survive. Latvians did mix with Germans, Swedes, Poles or Russians but despite that kept their ethnic unity.

Until the end of 18, Century Latvians were in absolute majority in the territory of Latvia. 89% of the population was Latvians. The Germans were in 6,5% , Jews 1,1%, Poles 0,8% and Russians 0,6%. Despite that Latvians were enslaved by German-Russian politics of serfdom. A majority of Latvians lived in rural areas and worked for the German landlords.  The serfdom was the main obstacle for Latvians to become a modern educated nation.

The serfdom was abolished by Russian Czar Alexander I in 1816-1817 in the Provinces of Courland and Vidzeme.  Peasants were released without land and could not travel around without the permission of the landowner or local authority. Latvians were still stuck with German landlords. They had to rent a land from them and work for them for money. After many years they could purchase their plot of land from the landlord. Because of shortage of free land, many Latvians moved to Latgalia, Belarus or Russia. Others moved to Riga or other major towns. Others searched for education possibilities. In Latvian peasant families usually an elderly son inherits the family property, younger brothers who had little chance to inherit the property were sent off to educate in the cities. Some of them made it to the University in Dorpat (Tartu). The Tartu University was the seed of the Latvian intellectual circle. From them the first Latvian nationalist movement emerged. The so-called New Latvians (Jaunlatvieši) were the breeders of Latvian nationalism and national identity.

Among them were Krišiānis Valdemārs- the leader of the movement. He in 1855 at Tartu University organized a Latvian student group. His followers were Krišiānis Barons and Juris Alunāns. Next year he surprised everyone when post a visitation card with words C.Woldemar Stud. Cam. Latvian. This was a protest to German belief that Latvian did need a higher education and need for their own language.

Finishing the university Valdemārs and his colleagues did many important things for Latvian revival. Valdemārs opened the first Latvian naval school in Ainaži. Barons did a tremendous work by gathering all known Latvian folk songs (Dainas). Alunāns took part in Latvian journalism and wrote many important essays and book Country, nature, world in 1861. He did notable work in agricultural education but died in young age of 32 and did not realize his goals. Notable Latvian nationalist and educator was Atis Kronvalds.  One of first famous Latvian poets was Auseklis (Krogzemju Mikus) whose most famous work was the Castle of Light (Gaismas Pils). Andrejs Pumpurs inspired by national epics written by other national wrote his own The Bear-Slayer, The Hero of Latvian Nation an epic describing Latvian fight against German Crusaders in a heroic mythical way.

In 1856 the first daily Latvian newspaper “Mājas Viesis” went out. It was however, owned by Baltic Germans. The first Latvian newspaper bringing Latvian national ideology was the Newspapers of Petersburg (Pēterbugas avīzes). It was founded by Krišjānis Valdemārs in 1862 Newspaper was published in St. Petersburg  Russia, but made way to Latvian reader. The authors of the newspaper faced a stiff resistance from the Baltic German elite who demanded the Russian authorities to censor or close the newspaper. At the end because of the pressure from the censorship the newspaper closed it in 1865.

The city of Riga was under the heavy foreign influence it was a more a German city than Latvian. But the Latvian population grew steadily and in 1868 The Riga Latvian Society was founded. The society became the core of Latvian national intellectual society. One of their main achievements was founding of the first Latvian song festival in Riga in 1873 at 26 to 29 June. Since then in every four years the festival has taken place, even during Soviet occupation. The festival when large choirs gather to sing Latvian national songs and folk songs is a treasure of Latvian culture. Such festivity only took place in Latvia and Estonia.

The opening of Latvian Song festival next to the house of Riga Latvian Society

In late 19 Century Latvian National revival came to danger when Russian authorities decided to impose strict  Russification laws on state services, schools and the press. It mobilized the Latvian nationalists. However, the Russification failed because Latvian national societies were strong and first private Latvian schools appeared. From last years of 19 Century Marxism came to Latvia mobilizing Latvians against Czarist tyranny. From 1886 to 1905 a leftist Latvian newspaper “Dienas Lapa” (Daily Sheet) was one of the main Latvian press organs. Its editors were Jānis Rainis and Pēteris Stučka the future communist leader. The revolution of 1905 was the climax of the Latvian nationalism. Despite the fact that main pushers of the revolution were Latvian social democrats the revolution had national character it was an uprising against German-Russian tyranny.

When the First World war started Latvians were formed as a united nation and a few years later were ready for national independence.

Selected Sources:

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1962) Latvijas vēsture, 1600-1710. Stockholm: Daugava.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1964) Latvijas vēsture, 1500-1600. Stokholm. Daugava.

Bērziņš, Jānis (Ed.) (2000)  Latvija 19. gadsimtā : vēstures apceres. Riga: Latvijas Vēstures institūta apgāds.

Hausmanis, Viktors (Ed.) (1998) Latviešu literatūras vēsture : 3 sējumos Volume 1. Riga: Latvijas Zinātņu akadēmijas Literatūras, folkloras un mākslas institūts.

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