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The History of the Occupation of Latvia

A Symbol of Victory or Occupation? The Soviet Victory Monument in Riga

A Symbol of Victory or Occupation? The Soviet Victory Monument in Riga

Author: Mārtiņš Mintaurs

Since its unveiling in 1985, the “Victory Monument” in Riga has been viewed as an ambiguous symbol. The divisive interpretations of the symbolism of this monument are focused on two decidedly different historical memories in Latvian society about the Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991. Today, the monument has become the catalyst for nostalgia for the Soviet era among those members of Latvian society influenced by Russian media. But, the other segment of society views it as a symbol of Soviet occupation. As a result, this monument has become part of history politics used by Russia in an attempt to strengthen Russian influence in the post-Soviet sphere by using rhetoric that extolls the victory over Nazi Germany by the USSR in World War II as an instrument to construct the identity of the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Latvia.

INTRODUCTION

The construction of cultural-historic monuments are always subject to political ideology, which conveys a political message. The purpose of a monument can be found in the linguistic origin of the Latin word monumentum: a reminder of the significance of an historic event or personality. In this way, monuments maintain a connection to important historic events and are the cornerstone for historic identity. Each cultural-historic monument is both a part of society, as well as a representation of current politics. The role played by the Victory Monument, built during the Soviet occupation, in interpretations of Latvian history is a clear example.

FROM PETER’S PARK TO VICTORY PARK

Victory Park is located on the left bank of the Daugava River; during the 17th century, the location was part of Riga’s fortification system. This area was part of the esplanade until 1908, and in compliance with military requirements, was not allowed to be built upon. Changes in the early 20th century allowed the city to gain this space upon which it could build a park, similar to the situation that occurred half a century earlier on the other side of the river when the fortifications were dismantled. Georg Kuphaldt, Riga’s Director of Parks and Gardens, was entrusted with the task of creating this park. His plan included a segment of the 52.25 ha area to be set aside for construction of private homes; proceeds from the sale of these homes would fund the building of the park. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on 5 July 1910 during a visit by Nicholas II to Riga. The future park was named Peter’s Park, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Russian rule over Riga and Vidzeme province. Thus, before the construction of the park had begun, it already expressed a political ideology through its politically motivated name.

Construction of the park had not been completed before World War I began, and in 1919, the area proposed for construction of family homes was converted to city gardens for use by local residents. Riga had become the capital of an independent Latvia, and its city planning experienced changes as a result. The location of Peter’s Park in the Pārdaugava region was quite advantageous, so the city decided to build socially significant buildings in this location. The park was renamed “Victory Park” by the city in 1923 to commemorate “the liberation of Latvia” and in 1930, Riga’s Parks Department, under the direction of the director Andrejs Zeidaks, began construction of the park.

The next phase of development of the park took place during the authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis and grand building plans were developed at this time. A special law was passed in 1936 regarding the construction of Victory Park in Riga, and since this time, this has been the official designation of the park.

Two years later, the Victory Park building committee, headed by Ulmanis, declared a national competition for its design. Requirements stipulated that the design clearly indicate “…monumental documentation of renewed Latvia’s growth”. In the summer of 1938, the 9th Latvian Song Festival took place in the park. The project needed to include areas for army parades, space for 200 000 Song Festival participants, a central stadium with seating for 2500, separate sports and training fields, as well as symbolically significant “memorial buildings” and meeting halls. Thus, Victory Park unified the representation of the nation through this complex of public buildings meant for both sport and also culture.

The competition ended on 30 December 1938; a total of 44 projects were submitted, but the jury chose that of architects Frīdrihs Skujiņš and Georgs Dauge. All the submitted projects included plans for the construction of various monuments to be placed in several locations in the park. Construction of the park was partially funded by society through donations and a lottery, and by January 1940, over 8 million lats had been collected, but construction of the park was interrupted by the Soviet occupation in 1940.

ALTERATIONS DURING OCCUPATION

During World War II, Victory Park maintained its official name during the first Soviet occupation (1940–1941) and the following German occupation (1941–1944). After WWII and the reoccupation by the Soviets, the park was the site of the public hanging of seven convicted German army officers on 3 February 1946. Among those sentenced to death was Friedrich Jeckeln, commander of the SS and police in Ostland. The hurriedly organized show trial and execution was quickly followed by an architect’s suggestion to create a culture and leisure park, including an open-air stage for song festivals. But the Mežaparks area of Riga was chosen for this purpose, and Soviet authorities lost interest in Victory Park for the next 15 years.

The park area was slowly taken over by small city gardens, but they began to be liquidated in the 1950s. The first real changes in this area took place in 1961 when Riga City Council decided to rename the park CPSU XXII Congress Park. The development plan, adopted in 1963, projected a grand plan for sports and leisure activities and facilities. However, this plan was too ambitious and was declared untenable in the late 1960s.

Development of CPSU XXII Congress Park did not include any plans for monuments associated with historic events. The idea for the Victory Monument only came about in 1975 when the USSR embarked on a grand campaign to celebrate the “Great Patriotic War”. The competition in 1976 resulted in 33 projects, of which two were chosen to be combined – both these designs had won third place in the competition. In this way, the monument gained a unified ideological motif, but was artistically clichéd and contradictory in appearance. Nevertheless, the creation of this monument partially solved the long-standing problem of the park’s completion. Victory Monument served as a tool for Soviet ideology and propaganda, symbolically strengthening the Soviet position in Latvia.

The creation of monuments during Soviet occupation was meant to “rewrite society’s memories”, by dismantling those monuments that did not adhere to the regime’s ideology, as well as building monuments to illustrate accepted ideology. Particular significance was attributed to those memorial sites that were associated with the Great Patriotic War, which accented motifs of war and victory but paid relatively little attention to maintaining the memory of the victims of the war.

The monument was unveiled on 5 November 1985 and received the long official title of Monument to Soviet Army Soldiers – Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders. It is quite surprising that the original name of Victory Park was restored. Perhaps this was associated with downplaying the unrealized building goals of the communist building program heralded by the CPSU XXII congress. One of the then most prominent specialists evaluated the name change: “… this is a fine example of the sensitivity towards local traditions and local landscape features [author’s highlight]. The placement of the Victory Monument in the territory of CPSU XXII Congress Park is the logical conclusion of the long search for spatial perfection (Victory Park – Victory Monument!) and gives the park an appropriate ideological centre.” With this tactic, Soviet ideologues attempted to use the symbolism of the monument to transform the significance of the place.

Yet, this attempt cannot be construed as successful: During Mikhail Gorbachov’s period of ‘perestroika’, in 1989, artist Miervalds Polis organized a modern art performance/demonstration – “Bronze human against occupation”. This political action was reported upon by West German correspondents for the magazine Die Zeit. This action also revealed the attitude of most ethnic Latvians towards the symbolic meaning of the monument. However, the monument continued to stand after the renewal of Latvian independence for several reasons.

“MONUMENT WARS” AND THE POLITICS OF HISTORY

The restoration of the Republic of Latvia liquidated the political rituals of the Soviet occupation era – USSR holidays and remembrances, including the celebration of 9 May. In the early 1990s, society believed that the Victory Monument had lost its significance and that it would remain as a relic of Soviet culture, “at the foot of which… Soviet army veterans and supporters of communist ideology would regularly meet”. Exile Latvian architect Raimonds Slaidiņš’ call for the creation of Soviet occupation memorial park by the Victory Monument did not gain local public support. Members of the radical Pērkoņkrusts [Thundercross] organization attempted to blow up the monument, which served only to attract renewed attention not only to the monument itself, but also to its symbolism. The suggestion to dismantle the damaged monument was dismissed, as this would have contravened the agreement reached with the Russian Federation in 1994 to protect the monument as a memorial to Russian military personnel, as well other Soviet memorials and mass gravesites.

At this time, discussion began to appear in the press about possible changes to the Victory Monument, in order to change its symbolism. Some of the creators of the monument (architect Viktors Zilgalvis, designer Aleksandrs Bugajevs, and sculptor Leonīds Kristovskis) suggested it be recreated as an “anti-fascist coalition memorial site”, but others rebuffed this proposal and offered the addition of an informative plaque that would explain the Soviet context for the monument. Yet others completely disagreed with any alterations to the monument. These conflicting opinions about the fate of the Victory Monument expressed in the beginning of the 21st century indicated the unresolved conflicts and lack of public debate about historic events that continues to plague Latvia’s society.

CONCLUSION

After the collapse of the USSR, the newly-democratic nations of Central and Eastern Europe attempted to “cleanse” the public space of ideologized monuments and place names, by dismantling monuments that reflected Soviet ideology and restoring place names to inhabited areas, streets, and squares. Most members of these countries’ societies quickly accepted the changes because the Soviet monuments and places names were associated with a regime that had been imposed upon them by the USSR. The creation of collective social values and cultural memories was important to society in Latvia, as well. The conflict over monuments, or ‘heritage wars’, reflect the conflicting views of the past in society, particularly when these historic events and their monuments become the embodiment of a conflicting version of history. The use of the Victory Monument in political demonstrations that were directed against education reform that required an increase in the number of Latvian language lessons in Russian schools, as well as 9 May remembrance ceremonies in which not only representatives from the Russian Federation, but also Riga City Council members participated, reveals the nature of this conflict. If we realize that we are currently living in a post-colonial situation, where conflicting groups in society have their own goals and priorities, it is clear that the Victory Monument has become a catalyst in the on-going debate about history and politics. A name change, initiated by Riga City Council in 2003 in order to neutralize the conflict, is clearly not a solution and is only a repetition of Soviet era manipulations to change the historic name of this space.

This situation also has an international context: Since 2000, Russia’s history politics have systematically stressed imperialist ideas and the significance of the USSR’s victory in WWII. The use of the Victory Monument for social and political protests to express the views of many of Latvia’s Russian-speakers has resulted in the strengthening of the perception of the monument as a symbol of Soviet oppression for many Latvians. Perhaps it is time to return to the recreation of the Victory Monument to show the other side of the Soviet Union’s “spoils of war” and remind society of the crimes committed by the Soviet totalitarian regime, which have not yet received international condemnation.

Recommended reading

I. Dāvidsone, Rīgas dārzi un parki, Rīga, Liesma, 1988.

S. Kruks, ‘Pilsētas semiotizācija: politiskais rituāls un mākslas konjunktūra pieminekļu celtniecībā Padomju Latvijā’, Letonica, nr. 18, 2008.

J. Lejnieks, Rīga, kuras nav, Rīga, Zinātne, 1998.

M. Mintaurs, ‘Pieminekļi un atmiņa: padomju perioda kultūras mantojums Latvijā’, grām.: M. Kaprāns, G. Strenga un N. Bekmans-Dīrkess, Atmiņu kopienas: atceres un aizmiršanas kultūra Latvijā, Rīga, Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts, 2016

N. Muižnieks un V. Zelče (red.). Karojošā piemiņa. 16. marts un 9. maijs, Rīga, Zinātne, 2011.

  • 1939 - 1940 Okupācijas priekšvēsture
    1939 - 1940
    Occupation prehistory
    • 23 August 1939
      The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany sign a non-aggression treaty.
    • 1 September 1939
      Germany attacks Poland – World War II begins; Latvia declares neutrality.
    • 17 September 1939
      USSR attacks Poland.
    • 5 October 1939
      As a result of military and political pressure, Latvia signs a “bilateral assistance” agreement with the USSR, allowing military army bases to be placed on Latvian territory.
    • 30 October 1939
      Nazi Germany signs an agreement with the Latvian government to transfer ethnic Germans living in Latvia to Germany.
    • 15 June 1940
      USSR attacks several border guard posts on the eastern border of Latvia.
    • 16 June 1940
      USSR presents Latvia with an ultimatum demanding Latvia allow unlimited Soviet troops to enter Latvian territory.
  • 1940-1941 Padomju okupācija
    1940-1941
    Soviet occupation
    • 17 June 1940
      USSR occupies Latvia.
    • 20 June 1940
      A new government, created by Moscow and led by Augusts Kirhenšteins, is installed in Latvia.
    • 14-15 July 1940
      Rigged, non-democratic elections, which contravene Latvian election laws and the Latvian Constitution, take place; only one party participates – Latvijas Darba Tautas bloks [Latvian Workers’ Bloc].
    • 21 July 1940
      The illegally elected Parliament declares Latvia a Soviet Socialist Republic and requests that the USSR admit it to its Union. Kārlis Ulmanis steps down as president; he is arrested and deported to Russia the following day.
    • 5 August 1940
      Latvia is admitted to the USSR.
    • 13 August 1940
      The All-Union Communist Party (bolshevik) (AUCP(b)) Central Committee ratifies the constitution of the Latvian SSR.
    • November 1940
      The Soviet Russian Criminal Code officially becomes law in Latvia.
    • 14 May 1941
      The Soviet government and the AUCP(b) begins planning mass deportations and repressions of Latvian citizens by adopting the secret decision "On the deportation of foreign elements from the Baltic republics, Western Ukraine, and Moldavia ".
    • 13-14 June 1941
      The Soviet Union deports 15 443 inhabitants of Latvia.
  • 1941-1944/45 Nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas okupācija
    1941-1944/45
    Nazi German occupation
    • 22 June 1941
      Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union. Hostilities begin on Latvian territory along with Nazi occupation.
    • 16 July 1941
      Berlin creates the administrative region Ostland – Latvia is one of the four regions that make up Ostland.
    • July 1941
      The first mass annihilation of Jews begins – the largest actions take place in Riga, Daugavpils, and Liepāja, as well as in other smaller towns.
    • 30 November 1941
      Killing of Jews in the Riga Ghetto begins. In total, 70 000 Latvian Jews were killed. Thanks to the efforts of local citizens, 400 Latvian Jews were saved.
    • 5 December 1941
      The German army is defeated at Moscow.
    • 7 March 1942
      Nazi occupiers create the Landesselbstverwaltung – local administrative rule.
    • 29 января 1943 года
      Nazi occupiers adopt regulations for the arrest of Latvia’s Roma population and their incarceration in concentration camps.
    • 11 February 1943
      Orders are passed for the creation of a “voluntary” Latvian legion under the auspices of the SS; mobilization is often involuntary.
    • 13 August 1943
      Representatives of the four largest parties from the last Latvian Parliament found the Latvian Central Council (Latvijas Centrālā Padome – LCP) in Riga, which calls for the renewal of Latvian independence. Konstantīns Čakste is named head of the LCP.
    • 28 November 1943
      USA president Franklin Roosevelt, Great Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin meet at the Teheran Conference. Stalin succeeds in gaining permission to have a free hand in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe after the war.
    • 22 March 1944
      189 Latvian politicians submit a resolution to the Nazi occupiers for the renewal of Latvian independence, which is denied.
    • 18 July 1944
      The Soviet army defeats German troops and crosses the Latvian border at Šķaune in Ludza county. The second Soviet occupation begins.
    • End of July – beginning of August 1944
      German occupiers allow General Jānis Kurelis and the chief of his headquarters, Captain Kristaps Upelnieks, to create a separate military unit. It cooperates with the LCP in the hopes of becoming the nucleus of the army of independent Latvia.
    • 8 September 1944
      The last LCP meeting to occur on Latvian soil takes place at which a declaration for the renewal of Latvian independence is adopted.
    • 20 November 1944
      Unable to control troops under the command of Kurelis, German SD units arrest all military personal at his headquarters. Eight officers are convicted and shot. The remaining military personnel are imprisoned in concentration camps.
    • 5 February 1945
      Leaders of the USA, GB, and the USSR meet at Yalta. During discussions, Soviet demands are met, and the Soviets occupy Latvia once again.
  • 1944/45-1953 Staļinisma terors. Padomju okupācija.
    1944/45-1953
    Soviet occupation
    Stalinist terror
    • 8 May 1945
      WWII ends on Latvian territory; German forces in Kurzeme surrender, including the 19th Latvian Legionnaire division.
    • 3 October 1945
      The first meeting of members of the LCP who have escaped to Germany takes place in Lustenau, Austria. Latvian citizens in exile continue the struggle for Latvian statehood.
    • 6 October 1945
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council members accept Moscow’s decision to annex the city of Abrene and six neighbouring townships to the Russian SSR.
    • 10 February 1946
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council elections take place.
    • 17 February 1947
      In order to weaken communist rule in Eastern Europe, the USA begins transmission of the Voice of America, which is listened to in Latvian territory illegally.
    • 29 January 1949
      USSR Council of Ministers decide to deport members of the National Partisans and their supporters, as well as wealthy farmers (kulaks) from Latvia to Siberia.
    • 25 March 1949
      Soviet occupiers carry out the second mass deportation of Latvian inhabitants to Siberia – in total 42 322 people.
    • July 1949
      As a result of repressive Soviet occupation politics, the number of collective farms (kolkhozes) triples, creating 3857 kolkhozes.
    • 17 January 1953
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council adopts the decree creating a new Latvian SSR flag.
    • 5 March 1953
      Stalin dies.
  • 1953-1959 “Atkusnis”. Padomju okupācija.
    1953-1959
    Soviet occupation
    “Thaw”
    • 12 September 1953
      Nikita Khrushchev becomes First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee (CPSU CC).
    • 14 May 1955
      Creation of the Warsaw Pact.
    • 25 February 1956
      At the CPSU 20th Congress, Khrushchev openly speaks of crimes committed by Stalin and condemns the Stalin “personality cult”.
    • 23 August 1956
      The uprising by the people in Hungary is put down by Soviet forces.
  • 1959-1985 “Stagnācija”. Padomju okupācija.
    1959-1985
    Soviet occupation
    “Stagnation”
    • 7–8 July 1959
      Latvian CP plenum condemns the national communists.
    • 13 August 1961
      The GDR closes the border to West Berlin; building of the Berlin Wall begins.
    • 10 October 1964
      Khrushchev is forced to resign as First Secretary of the CPSU CK; Leonid Brezhnev takes his place.
    • December 1965
      The Hydroelectric Station at Pļaviņas begins operation.
    • 27 May 1968
      Calls for ending censorship and freeing political prisoners in Czechoslovakia initiates the “Prague Spring” demonstrations.
    • 20 August 1968
      Soviet troops put down the “Prague Spring”.
    • 25 December 1979
      Soviet forces invade Afghanistan.
    • 10 November 1982
      Leonid Brezhnev dies; Yuri Andropov becomes First Secretary of the CPSU CK.
    • 9 February 1984
      Yuri Andropov dies. Konstantin Chernenko becomes First Secretary of the CPSU CK.
    • 10 March 1985
      Konstantin Chernenko dies.
    • 11 March 1985
      Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the leader of the CPSU CK and the Soviet Union.
  • 1985-1990/91 “Perestroika”. Padomju okupācija.
    1985-1990/91
    Soviet occupation
    “Perestroika”
    • 10 July 1986
      The first Latvian human rights organization Helsinki-86 is founded in Liepāja.
    • October 1986
      Widespread public support for the environmental protection of the Daugava River begins.
    • 28 February 1987
      The Environment Protection Club (Vides aizsardzības klubs – VAK) is founded.
    • 14 June 1987
      Helsinki-86 invites people to lay flowers at the Freedom Monument to commemorate the deportations in 1941.
    • 23 August 1987
      A protest takes place by the Freedom Monument to commemorate the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
    • 27 April 1988
      VAK organizes protests against the proposed construction of a metro in Riga.
    • 1–2 June 1988
      The Latvian Creative Society organizes a plenum. Journalist, Art Academy professor, and member of the Supreme Council Mavriks Vulfsons publicly declares that Latvia was occupied in 1940.
    • 10 July 1988
      The Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības kustība – LNNK) is founded.
    • 16 July 1988
      VAK organizes a protest in Mežaparks at which the Latvian national flag is flown.
    • 8-9 October 1988
      Latvian National Front (Latvijas tautas fronte – LTF) founding congress. Dainis Īvāns is elected leader.
    • February 1989
      The pro-communist supporters of Moscow Interfront organize protests – they oppose proposed policies to stop migration to Latvia from other Soviet republics and to give the Latvian language official national status.
    • 5 May 1989
      Latvian SSR SC adopts a law granting Latvian national language status.
    • 23 August 1989
      The Baltic Way – a human chain over 660 km long is formed through all three Baltic countries to commemorate the 1939 Hitler- Stalin Pact.
    • 9 November 1989
      The Berlin Wall falls.
    • 18 November 1989
      Mass demonstrations for an independent Latvia on the banks of the Daugava with over 500,000 participants.
    • 18 March 1990
      Latvian SSR parliamentary elections.
  • Neatkarīga Latvija
    Independent Latvia
    • 4 May 1990
      Latvian SSR SC adopts the resolution for the restoration of Latvian independence.
    • 2 January 1991
      Soviet special forces OMON occupy the press building in Riga; there are armed attacks by OMON against other strategic government sites.
    • 13–27 January 1991
      Residents of Latvia create barricades in Riga to protect key locations from forces loyal to Moscow.
    • 3 March 1991
      Inhabitants of Latvia participate in a referendum on declaring an independent democratic state – two-thirds vote for restoring independence.
    • 12 June 1991
      Boris Yeltsin is elected president of Russia.
    • 19 August 1991
      Radical communist attempt a coup in Moscow – the August Putsch.
    • 21 August 1991
      Republic of Latvia Supreme Council declares the Republic of Latvia as an independent democratic state.
    • 22 August 1991
      Iceland is the first nation to recognize Latvian independence.
    • 24 August 1991
      The Russian Federation officially recognizes Latvian independence.
    • 17 September 1991
      Latvia joins the United Nations.
    • 30 December 1991
      The Soviet Union officially ceases to exist.
    • 14 February 1994
      Latvia joins the NATO program “Partnership for Peace”.
    • 12 March 1999
      The first post-Soviet nations join NATO – Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.
    • November 2002
      Prague summit. NATO leaders decide to invite Latvia to begin negotiations for admittance.
    • 20 September 2003
      Referendum on joining the European Union.
    • 29 March 2004
      Latvia becomes a member of NATO.
    • 1 May 2004
      Latvia becomes a member of the European Union along with 10 other nations.