The History of the Occupation of Latvia

Historian: The USSR violated international law against thousands of Latvian Legionnaires

Historian: The USSR violated international law against thousands of Latvian Legionnaires

Author: Uldis Neiburgs, Dr. hist.

Intransigent discussions about the activities of Latvian soldiers in World War II often ignore lesser-known pages in history, i.e. post-war repressions against former Latvian Legionnaires: incarceration in filtration camps and camps in the Gulag and decades of restrictions on work and life in communist-occupied Latvia. While the Latvian Legion Remembrance Day on 16 March that is marked unofficially has transformed from a simple day of remembrance of war veterans to a politically charged day of explication and conflict, it is important remembering how communists in occupied Latvia restricted living and working conditions to the Latvian war veterans for several decades.


One way ticket to the Soviet internment camps 

During the Second World War, approximately 115 000 Latvian soldiers served in the Nazi German armed forces against the Soviet Union. At the end of the war, almost 50 000 of them became Soviet prisoners-of-war, imprisoned for short or long periods of time in Soviet filtration or Gulag camps. Among them were soldiers who were captured in battles on the eastern front in Russia in 1943-1944, those who had either been separated or deserted from their units, and those who had been sent to Germany in 1944–1945 and were surrounded or injured in battle. This number also included soldiers extradited from Italy, France, and Sweden; those who were repatriated from English and American captivity; and Legionnaires who were in the Courland Pocket when the war ended on 8 May 1945.

Soviet armed forces, in extended formations, combed the forests of the Courland Pocket area up until the end of May 1945 and herded all males between 16 and 60 into collection areas surrounded by barbed wire. Captured Legionnaires were frequently robbed of their watches, boots, and articles of good clothing. Frequently, the captured were shot on the spot, immediately upon detention or shorty thereafter. Prisoner verification procedures were organized and implemented by the Soviet Red Army Counter-intelligence Branch SMERSH (“Death to spies”). Many of the imprisoned were gathered in Kūldīga, Grieze, Kandava, and elsewhere, but prisoners who ended up in the furthest regions of the USSR were usually deported after being processed in filtration points in Jelgava, Riga, or Daugavpils. After numerous verification sessions, they ended up in filtration camps and were forced to work in a variety of Soviet factories and building projects; those who were convicted – most frequently under Article 58 of the Russian SFSR Penal Code (as enemies of the state) – ended up in special camps or special settlements.


Repeated arrests and imprisonment

Soviet security authorities arrested well-known Latvian Legion officers, tried them at special war tribunals, and sentenced them to death – their only “crime” was war activity against the Soviet army. Among them were Lieutenant-colonel Nikolajs Galdiņš (executed 5 October 1945 in Leningrad) and Captain Miervaldis Ādamsons (executed 23 August 1946 in Riga). Later, the Soviet occupying regime also deemed captured commanders of partisan units dangerous to the regime – Legionnaires First-lieutenant Miervaldis Ziedainis (shot 13 July 1946), Captain Pēteris Čevers (shot 24 August 1951), Lieutenant Kārlis Mūsiņš (shot 2 June 1955), and many others. Most of the captured Legionnaire officers were sentenced to 10–25 years in hard labour camps or general corrective labour camps in Kolyma, Karaganda, Vorkuta and Norilsk. Thousands of Latvians slaved in Medvezhyegorsk in Karelia, Moscow and its environs, Morshansk in Tambov, Solikamsk in Perm, Severouralsk in Sverdlovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Sov Gavan in Khabarovsk, and many other locations. Many never returned, and a number of the former Legionnaires experienced repeated arrests and imprisonment after they had served their initial sentence. This was the fate of 19th Division Reconnaissance Battalion Commander, Major Ernests Laumanis, who served time in Vorkuta Gulag (1946–1955) and then Mordovia (1957–1966), where he came to be a noted figure for the then young Latvian dissident Gunārs Astraa, poet Knuts Skujenieks, and other political prisoners.


Countless years of forced labour

The forced imprisonment of tens of thousand of Latvian citizens in USSR filtration and Gulag camps and their treatment as Soviet citizens was a human rights violation. Provisions and living conditions in the filtration camps were deplorable and belittling. Often illness, and sometimes death, resulted from malnutrition, poor hygienic conditions, lack of medical treatment, and exhausting labour. Frequently, time spent in these camps resulted in negative effects on physical and mental health; contracted diseases and illnesses had long-lasting effects. Thousands of Legionnaires, who had managed to survive the war, died in the repressive Soviet penal camps and never returned to their homeland.

Legion soldiers and instructors who could not be found guilty of specific activities were released after approximately two years in the filtration camps, and many of enlistment age were forced to serve in Soviet army Construction Battalions. Approximately 6000 former Legionnaires ended up in Soviet Ministry of Interior Construction Complex No. 7 in Narva and Sillamäe, Estonia, where they were forced to work in dangerously unhealthy conditions until 1950. Many were allowed to return home only after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the USSR Supreme Council decree adopted on 17 September 1955 – “On the amnesty of Soviet citizens who collaborated with the occupiers during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945”. 


Returning to Latvia and facing new humiliation

Latvian Legionnaires who managed to survive inhumane conditions in Soviet imprisonment returned home with seriously impaired health that significantly shortened their life span. Imprisonment frequently separated many families: wives and children awaited the end of the war in occupied Germany and later dispersed to other corners of the globe while the men were located in Soviet occupied territories, or vice versa. For example, one of the 130 Legionnaires extradited by Sweden to the Soviet Union was Ernests Ķeselis, recipient of the highest Latvian military award (the Order of Lāčplēsis) and Latvian army and Legion Captain, whose wife and daughter ended up in England after the war. He was accused of participating in the liberation of Limbaži in July 1941 and fighting against the Red Army and only returned to Latvia in 1962 after being imprisoned in the Gulag in Irkutsk and Komi – he was separated from his family for life. 

After their return to Latvia, former Legionnaires experienced physical and moral discrimination the entire duration of Soviet occupation. Frequently, family members suffered as well: they were mistrusted by the Soviet regime. Soviet authorities continuously created barriers, restricting their rights and freedoms, including education opportunities. Such an example is Legionnaire Lieutenant Rolands Kovtuņenko who returned in 1955 after ten year in the Urals, Kazakhstan, and Vorkuta Gulag. He tried to enroll in the Riga Road Construction Technical School, unsuccessfully. On his second application attempt, he succeeded in being admitted to entrance exams, which he passed with flying colours, but the director refused him entry noting: “With this biography? With your two Iron Crosses? I am not allowed to admit you.” (Excerpts from former Legionnaire experiences are taken from Tālivaldis Vilciņš’ study “Latviešu leģionārs 50 gadus pēc kara. Socioloģisks aspekts” [The Latvian Legionnaire 50 years after the war. A sociological approach]. Latvijas Arhīvi, 1994, No. 2, p. 32-40.)

Similar obstacles took place at work and in daily life. J. Burkevics worked at VEF [State Electronics Factory] during the 1950s as a millwright and invented a tool that increased productivity 37 times. The factory director, Georgs Gaile, even arrived at the workshop, shook his hand, and promised a grand prize. Yet, when the authorities realized that the man was a former Legionnaire, in place of an award, he was threatened with being returned to the “polar bears”, i.e. repressions. In another incident in 1970, V. Eneris had managed to reach second position in line for a state-issued apartment but was told: “A Legionnaire’s family can wait until ‘humans’ get their apartments first.” Former Legionnaires were often denied access to proper medicine, not to mention treatment time in sanatoriums or similar health institutions. These restrictions and the inability to resign themselves to life in Soviet occupied Latvia caused some former Legionnaires to become alienated from society, resulting in increased use of alcohol and other socially unacceptable behaviour.  


Restrictions and hostile attitude until the end of the USSR 

Only on rare occasions were former Legionnaires able to hide their war activities from Soviet authorities for an extended period of time. Occasionally, serendipity, benevolent managers, or, of course, the individual’s abilities and competence allowed some to develop a relatively successful career during Soviet occupation. But these were exceptions and not the norm. Former Air Force assistant Harijs Liepiņš returned from 18 months heavy labour in a coal mine in Vorkuta  Gulag and successfully graduated from the Daile Theatre Studio to become a beloved actor of stage and screen. In contrast, a famed author of the beloved Blue Kerchief and other popular Latvian songs, Eduards Rozenštrauhs who suffered repressions at the hands of Nazi and Soviet authorities, spent many post-war years eking out his existence with casual jobs or as a guard at VEF.

The Latvian Legion was a taboo topic in the Soviet arts as well. If any works addressing this topic managed to escape the watchful eyes of the censors, it was only briefly and followed by a ban (Rolands Kalniņš’ 1966 films Akmens un šķembas [Rock and Fragments]; Es visu atceros Ričard! [I remember everything, Richard!]), or they were published only in part and became available to the general public only during the final days of the Soviet era, such as Visvaldis Lāms’ 1958/1989 novel Kāvu blāzmā [In the Glow of the Northern Lights].

The restrictions and hostile attitude of the Soviet occupying authorities succeeded in hampering, but not totally suppressing the work of a number of the creative intelligentsia and members of other professions, whose undesirable past was known only to close friends and relatives. Soviet security institutions continuously reminded them of their past, but the wider public only learned of this when the blank spots of history began to be filled in the latter half of the 1980s. Writer Egons Līvs, mathematician Jānis Mencis, landscape architect Alfons Ķišķis, camera man Laimonis Gaigals, linguist Konstantīns Karulis, and sociologist and historian Tālivaldis Vilciņš were just a few. Only during the Third National Awakening was the fully-fledged return of Legionnaires into society possible, which coincided with the actual renewal of Latvian sovereignty and the factual assessment of the events of World War II. It also strengthened the respectful attitude towards and collective memory about the experiences of Latvian Legionnaires during the war and the repressive post-war measures taken against them by the Soviet occupying regime.

  • 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.