The History of the Occupation of Latvia

Exaggeration of the Violence and Heroism of the Latvian Red  Riflemen

Exaggeration of the Violence and Heroism of the Latvian Red Riflemen

Author: Edgars Engīzers

At the end of 2017, pro-Kremlin media, touching upon the topics of the history of Latvia, mainly dealt with the centennial of the October Revolution (the so-called Bolshevik Uprising). An article that was published in a portal owned by the Russian Federation, named Sputnik, emphasised that it is an uncomfortable anniversary in the former USSR countries, especially stressing that "The Baltic states completely neglected the centennial of the Great Russian Revolution[1] and are currently actively engaged in the preparation of the centennial of their independence, to be celebrated in 2018". Said article claims that "the Latvian Riflemen [in Latvia] are depicted only as a power promoting the statehood of Latvia, yet there is not a single word about them playing an enormous role in the Russian Revolution. This fact has remained untold". It also says that inhabitants of the Baltic states did not express "historical gratitude" for their independence. Referring to this article RuBaltic reported that "the Baltic states neglect the centennial of the October Revolution, even though they owe their independence to these events". In November, the portal Sputnik wrote that in 1917 the Red Latvian Riflemen, in the course of the Bolshevik supporting activities, were actually thinking of an independent Latvia and were approaching this goal as they fought against the white guards who stood for a united and indivisible Russia". The Sputnik article also points out that "regarding all of Russia's reprimands for the Latvian Riflemen, their inclination to Bolshevism and cruelty, Latvia replies — it is your business, the Red Riflemen do not pertain to us, they were not connected with the State of Latvia".

Widespread statements in the Russian media are based on exaggerations and merely reveal ignorance about the content of Latvian media where special attention was paid to the centennial of the October Uprising. Preparation for the 100th anniversary of Latvia began with a recollection of the events of 1917, for example, by publishing a series of articles by Jānis Šiliņš in the Latvian public media portal and also in the Russian language. These and other publications do not deny that revolutions, taking place in Russia in 1917, had a significant impact on Latvia's course to independence. If looking from a broader perspective, the October Uprising was only one link in a longer chain of events, starting with the so-called Democratic Revolution of February 1917 and closing with the November Revolution 1918 in Germany, eventually leading to the declaration of independence of Latvia. The Soviet Russia, a product of the October Uprising, was the first to invade the freshly declared Republic of Latvia and until its defeat in the Latvian Independence War in 1920, did not recognise the self-determination rights of the Latvian nation. On the one hand the October Uprising promoted the idea of Latvian independence but on the other hand — Bolshevist Russia was the main threat to Latvia's independence.

Meanwhile the so-called Red Latvian Riflemen[2] not only actively participated in strengthening the Bolshevist power promptly after the October Uprising and the Russian Civil War, but also dynamically engaged in battles against the independent, democratic Republic of Latvia. At the same time the Red Riflemen cannot be clearly described as the pillars of the Bolshevism idea and the opponents of a democratic Latvia — some of them deserted and already joined defenders of a democratic Latvia during the Latvian Independence War, but the majority of them returned to Latvia after the Russian Civil War.

On the 2nd of December the topic of the Red Latvian Riflemen was in the spotlight of one of the largest Russian state-owned TV channels Rossija 24 that broadcasted a documentary “Judges. The truth about the Latvian Riflemen”, which was created already in 2007. The documentary, interwoven with many factual inaccuracies or errors, claims that since the very first days of the October Revolution the guard units of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders of the revolution were comprised solely of Red Latvian Riflemen. However, during the first days of the revolution the Latvian Riflemen were not present in Petrograd - the 6th Tukums Riflemen Squadron only arrived in Petrograd on the 6th (11th) of December, but the united company of the Latvian Riflemen squadrons, created in Valka and led by Jānis Pētersons, later serving as the basis for so-called Kremlin Squadron arrived one week later. Thus it is falsely claimed that the Red Latvian Riflemen were the main private guards of Lenin in the wake of the October events. Besides, it must be taken into account that the government of Soviet Russia was safeguarded not only by the Latvian Riflemen Squadron, but also the navy of the Baltic Fleet and the so-called red guards. In particular, Lenin's office was safeguarded by the red guards, with some Latvians (not Latvian Riflemen) among them.

The documentary also mentions that on 26 July 1914 the Latvian representative in Russian State Duma, Jānis Goldmanis, allegedly announced that the Latvian Riflemen under the Russian flag were ready to free the fatherland from the German landlords. However, in this Duma session Goldmanis did not speak of either the Latvian Riflemen or the formation of separate military units; he said quite the opposite regarding the German landlords: "Now we will not deal with the Baltic Germans." It also mentions that the banishment of the Russian Constitutional Meeting in January 1918 was carried out under the lead of the Latvian Riflemen military union's mariner Zheleznyakov, even though it is commonly accepted that the military unit, safeguarding the Constitutional Meeting, was comprised of revolutionary mariners and not Latvian Riflemen.[3] The documentary further claims that the Russian tsar Nicolas II and his family were also destroyed by the Red Latvian Riflemen. The Russian historians, however, have proven that the Riflemen declined participation in the execution of the tsar's family.[4] The tsar's family was shot dead by a special KGB team. The Latvian Riflemen were affiliated to the Red Army rather than the KGB. The only Latvian whose participation in killing the tsar's family is conceded to be of great likelihood is Jānis Celms.

The documentary also emphasises that the Peace Treaty signed between Latvia and Soviet Russia on 11 August 1920 helped to repatriate the Latvian Riflemen. Despite this fact the Riflemen had hoped that their merit would allow them to stay in the Red Army. The war, however, was over and there was no need for such special, mobilised formations, therefore Lenin signed a decree to disband the Latvian Riflemen division. The Latvia–Soviet Russia Peace Treaty intended the provision of citizen and repatriation rights to the majority of the Red Latvian Riflemen rather than forced repatriation of the Red Latvian Riflemen. Besides, in 1920, these Riflemen could not be considered as pillars of the Red Army — it had already mobilised more than 5.5 million people. After the civil war Soviet Russia saw rapid demobilisation and within this framework the Latvian Riflemen Division was abolished. The documentary also notes that after returning to Latvia, the Riflemen who served in the Red Army had to face an evidently negative attitude. In fact however, the Red Riflemen were not subject to particular condemnation from the Latvian society and the service in the Red Army was not deemed to be an obstacle to continuing a military career in the army of the independent Latvia.[5]


[1]     This claim is based on an idea that both the February Revolution in 1917 and the October Revolution in 1917 converge to become a united Great Russian Revolution of 1917.

[2]     The Red Latvian Riflemen, Latvian Riflemen military units of the former Russian Empire Army, who joined the Bolsheviks, withdrew to Soviet Russia in February 1918 and were included in the newly created Red Army. On the basis of these military units the 1st division of the Red Army — Latvian Riflemen Division — was established.

[3]     Савченко В. А., 100 знаменитых анархистов и революционеров. 2008. p. 488.

[4]     Плотников, И., О команде убийц царской семьи и ее национальном составе.// «Урал» 2003, №9, http://magazines.russ.ru/ural/2003/9/plotnik-pr.html

[5]     Nagle, G. Latviešu strēlnieki. Sarkanie? https://www.diena.lv/raksts/pasaule/krievija/latviesu-strelnieki.-sarkanie-11148736

The preparation of this report was supported by the Latvian Ministry of Culture
  • 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
    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
    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.
    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.
    Soviet occupation
    • 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.
    Soviet occupation
    • 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.
    Soviet occupation
    • 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.