History of Latvia

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The Soviet Period

The new Soviet troops moved into Latvia, together with a special emissary, Andrey Vyshinskiy, who was entrusted with the details of mobilizing enthusiastic mass support for the Sovietization of Latvia. Vyshinskiy had learned political choreography well when he staged the infamous Moscow show trials against the theoretician Nikolay I. Bukharin and other enemies of Stalin.

A so-called "people's government" was assembled, and elections were held to help legitimate the changes in the eyes of the world. Only the communist slate of candidates was allowed on the ballot, and the improbable result of 97.6 percent in favor--with a more than 90 percent turnout--was never found to be credible by any of the Western governments. For the purposes of Soviet strategy and mythmaking, however, they sufficed. On July 21, 1940, the newly elected delegates proclaimed the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and voted to petition the Soviet Union to allow Latvia to join as a constituent republic. Not surprisingly, their wishes were granted. The process of Sovietizing Latvia was interrupted, however, when Stalin's ally and co-conspirator attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. One week before the Nazi attack, the Soviet regime had arrested and deported to Siberia, in sealed cattle cars, about 15,000 of the former Latvian elite, as well as suspected anticommunists, including 5,154 women and 3,225 children. In all, during the first year of occupation, Latvia lost 35,000 people to deportations or executions. Most deportees died in Siberia.

The equally brutal Nazi occupation lasted until May 8, 1945. Latvia's Jews and Gypsies were particularly subjected to mass annihilation, and only a small number of each group survived this holocaust. The Nazis had no intention of liberating Latvia or providing renewed independence. Even the bulk of nationalized property was not returned. They did, however, draft young men into the armed forces--an illegal move in occupied territories, according to international law. These young people fought against the Red Army in two divisions, suffering high casualties.

With the advance of the Red Army into Latvia, about 200,000 Latvian refugees fled in panic to the West. Many lost their lives in the Baltic Sea, and others were bombed, together with their horse-drawn wagons. A sizable group was captured and turned back to await punishment for their "disloyalty." About 150,000 refugees from Latvia settled in the West, where many of them continued a half-century-long struggle against the occupation of their homeland.

The reestablishment of Soviet control in the mid-1940s was not welcomed. Many Latvians joined the guerrilla movement, which fought the occupying power for close to a decade. To break this resistance and also to force peasants into collective farms, new deportations to Siberia, involving more than 40,000 people (10,590 of them children under sixteen years of age), were completed on March 25, 1949. This date was to become a focal point of demonstrations in 1988.

The leading positions in postwar Latvia's political, economic, and cultural life were filled by Russians or Russified Latvians, known as latovichi , who had spent much or all of their lives in the Soviet Union. Political power was concentrated in the Communist Party of Latvia (CPL), which numbered no more than 5,000 in 1945. The rapid growth of industry attracted migrant workers, primarily from Russia, further facilitating the processes of Russification and Sovietization. Net immigration from 1951 to 1989 has been estimated at more than 400,000.

After Stalin's death in 1953, conditions for greater local autonomy improved. In Latvia, beginning in 1957, a group of national communists under the leadership of Eduards Berklavs, deputy premier of the Latvian Council of Ministers, began a serious program of Latvianization. He and his supporters passed regulations restricting immigration, requested that party and government functionaries know the Latvian language, and planned to limit the growth of industry requiring large inputs of labor. Increased funding was planned for local requirements, such as agricultural machines, urban and rural housing, schools, hospitals, and social centers, rather than for Moscow-planned "truly grandiose projects."

These programs were not well received in Moscow, and a purge of about 2,000 national communists was initiated in July 1959. Many of the most gifted individuals in Latvia lost their positions and had to endure continuous harassment.

Berklavs himself was exiled from Latvia and expelled from the CPL. Later, upon returning to Latvia, he was one of the leaders of the Latvian underground opposition and coauthored a 1974 letter with seventeen Latvian communists, detailing the pace of Russification in Latvia. In 1988 Berklavs became one of the key founders of the Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas Nacionala neatkaribas kustiba--LNNK), and as an elected deputy in the Latvian parliament he vigorously defended Latvian interests.

After the purge of the national communists, Latvia experienced a particularly vindictive and staunchly pro-Moscow leadership. Under the iron fist of hard-liner Arvids Pelse (CPL first secretary, 1959-66), who later became a member of the Political Bureau (Politburo) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Latvia suffered many restrictions and petty harassments in all fields of national culture and social development. Sovietization and Russification programs were of an intensity and dimension not found in either Estonia or Lithuania. Pelse was replaced by Augusts Voss (CPL first secretary, 1966-84), who was equally insensitive to Latvian demands. With the advent of a new period of glasnost and national awakening, Voss was transferred to Moscow to preside over the Supreme Soviet's Council of Nationalities and was replaced by Boris Pugo, a former chief of Latvia's Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti--KGB). Pugo, who served as CPL first secretary until 1988, subsequently gained prominence as a partici-pant in the abortive Soviet coup of August 1991.

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress

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