“Lenin gave them independence, but they, ungratefully, knocked down monuments of Lenin!” Statements like this type regularly appear in the comments of social media and Russian language portal as soon as the issue of the independence of the Baltic states is in question (similar statements can be read about the events of 1990-1991 as well).
The conviction that independence of the Baltic people came out of the blue in 1918 only due to the favour of Lenin and he Bolsheviks is alive among certain circles of the Russian speaking population of Latvia, as well as the population of Russia, even including circles that believe themselves to be academics. The popularity of this opinion was especially emphasised at the end of the last year, when conferences dedicated to the centenary of the Bolshevik coup of 1917 were organised in Russia on various levels. Ideas from these conferences were quickly spread to the wider media environment.
“Independent Baltic states, like other national provinces of the former Russian Empire, developed thanks to the recognition of national self-determination by the Bolsheviks (...). Therefore, the action of Soviet Russia towards the new nations was highly beneficial,” the EurAsia Daily portal circulated the statement voiced at one such conference in October 2017, by the historian and political scientist from St. Petersburg University, Natalia Yeryomina. The participants of the conference, 100 Years of Revolution: Reconstruction of Anniversary, organised in Moscow in November 2017, complained that the people of the Baltics only paid attention to the centenary of their independence, ignoring the “100 years’ anniversary of the Great Russian revolution, although their independence anniversaries are rooted in the revolution”.
On 7 November 2017, Vesti, a Russian language website in Latvia, for instance, mentioned the speech of Ludmila Gotagova, the co-researcher of the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Gotagova undertook “to monitor” the situation with the reflection of the situation of the revolution of 1917 in the Baltic States; she had hoped that “they would at least have had historical feelings of gratitude for having such great luck, but no...” – “and that is so strange, because the Baltic States received their independence only thanks to the revolution and coincidence of circumstances – the First World War, Brest Peace Treaty, German occupation, etc. And, in contrast to others, except for Finland and Poland, they became independent for as many as 22 years,” the historian said. Even academic events were not held on the anniversary of the revolution! “They are all overtaken with the idea of self-affirmation, which has lasted for a quarter of a century. This is abnormal,” Gotagova was horrified.
Meanwhile baltnews.lv portal, while reflecting on the event European Union 2017 and Russian revolution of 1917: Unlearned Lessons organised by Tatjana Ždanoka in Brussels, the European Parliament in December, emphasised the idea of extremely leftist and pro-Russian lawyer Bill Bowring: “Estonia and Lithuania actually received their independence from the hands of Lenin.” The name of Lenin during this forum was voiced as “the name of a person who has given independence to many countries”.
This conviction is stable, because several years ago, the Russian portal Okno v Rossiju (A Window to Russia), designed for Russian compatriots, complained that Latvia opposes the use of history books published in Russia in Russian speaking schools. “Indeed, why should Latvian pupils know that, having had independence twice for a period of 20 years, Latvia received its independence from the hands of Russia – initially from Vladimir Lenin, the head of the Bolsheviks, and then from the leader of democracy, Boris Yeltsin?” Okno v Rossiju asks sarcastically.
Winning and protecting the independence of Latvia was indeed a miracle and great fortune, considering the fact that, quoting the professor of the University of Latvia, Ēriks Jēkabsons: “In 1918-1920, the territory of Latvia was the place where the interests of the originating Republic of Latvia, Soviet Russia and Latvian Bolsheviks, Baltic Germans and defeated and humiliated Germany, ambitious anti-Bolshevik Russia or representatives of various anti-Bolshevik forces, new and renewed neighbouring states – Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland –, People’s Republic of Belarus, which failed to safeguard its independence, and Western Superpowers clashed and mutually intertwined.”
It is not a surprise that the prophets of the “gift” of independence usually fail to mention the battles of independence, which were fought by all three Baltic states, among others, against “peaceful” Soviet Russia. The War of Independence claimed the lives of 3,046 soldiers of the Latvian army and left 4,085 soldiers injured. The February Revolution of 1917 and the coup of the Bolsheviks indeed created conditions under which the wish of the peoples of the Baltic states could come true – not only their wish for autonomy, but for an independent state as well, however, it is not clear, what we should be “grateful” for? The statehood was coined by our own hands, despite obstacles created by the Russian Provisional Government, as well as the Bolsheviks.
The situation got even worse after the Bolshevik coup because a dictatorial power was established, which attempted to extinguish even those sprouts of democracy that appeared after the February Revolution. For instance, in Vidzeme, democratically elected peasant councils were declared “counter-revolutionary”; the advocates of the idea of the independence of Latvia were arrested and attempts were made to physically eliminate them; newspapers “Līdums” (Clearance) and “Laika Vēstis” (Time News) that popularised the idea of statehood were prohibited.
Neither did Lenin present anything to Latvia in 1918, since the land was occupied by Germans and, after signing the Treaty of Brest, Soviet Russia did not control even the part of Latvia that it was formally entitled to. Sometimes the impression arises that “history experts” deliberately mix up the Soviet Latvia of Pēteris Stučka with the civic Republic of Latvia of the 18th November. It is true that, on 22 December 1918, Lenin signed a decree “On the Recognition of Latvian Soviet Republic”, but it is a sign of illiteracy to announce that it has something to do with the independence of Latvia.
Historian Ainārs Bambals, in the encyclopaedia Latvian Freedom Battles 1918–1920 notes: “To formally justify the invasion of Latvia by the Red Army, the interim Latvian Soviet Government was established in Russia on 4 December 1918, based on the instruction of V. Lenin. The Chairman of the government, P. Stučka, did not attempt to hide that he considered an independent Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic fictional, which was not a part of Latvian Bolshevik plans, who were oriented towards the German Revolution and, consequently, the victory of worldwide revolution.”
“The creation of national Soviet states would become a strong propaganda and diplomatic instrument to justify the offensive of the Red Army westwards. What was also important, was the fact that the development of communist governments would permit the masking of the military campaign against the independent states proclaimed in the Baltic region, thus creating the illusion of a civil law in each of the countries affected by the aggression,” historian Jānis Šiliņš adds in the book Soviet Latvia 1918–1919. Masking the real purposes was the direct plan of Russian Bolsheviks because the highest goal of the Latvian Bolsheviks, lead by Stučka, dreamt of was an “autonomous commune” within Soviet Russia.
The peace treaty between Latvia and Soviet Russia was signed on 11 August 1920. However, it was not signed because of the good will of Lenin to recognise Latvia, but because of the fact that Latvian and Polish armies, during heavy winter battles, drove the Bolsheviks out from Latgale and, in August, “The miracle at Wisla” occurred – the Polish stopped the attack of the Red Army against Warsaw.
Professor at the University of Latvia, Ēriks Jēkabsons, in his works has indicated several times that the western diplomats, who were based in Riga at that time, were completely convinced – after “finishing off” Poland, the Bolsheviks would direct all their military power and propaganda against the Baltic states. The leader of the delegation for Soviet Russia in negotiations with Latvia, Ādolfs Joffe, while in informal back room conversations, did not attempt to hide his conviction that the Baltic states would later “themselves voluntarily join” Soviet Russia.
The threat of aggression from Soviet Russia remained even after the conclusion of the peace treaty. In late 1920, a new attack was expected and the representatives of foreign missions in the Baltic states started secretly sending off their families, requesting ships for evacuation from their governments.
Regarding the commemoration of the disturbances of 1917 in Latvia, Ludmila Gotagova seems to have done poor “monitoring” work – it is really difficult to understand how she could overlook the centennial conference of the Latgale Congress held in Rēzekne in May, or the event dedicated to the interim Latvian National Council organised in December, not to mention historical conferences of a smaller scale.
The preparation of this report was supported by the Latvian Ministry of Culture