Each November, Latvia observes two key historic dates: 11 November, the Day of Remembrance (Lāčplēsis Day) to honor the country’s military and freedom fighters, and 18 November, the proclamation of the Latvian Republic. This year, pro-Kremlin media outlets targeted these highly symbolic dates by portraying them as the glorification of Nazi ideas.
On 11 November, Russian state-owned TV channel RTR—which is popular among Latvia’s Russian-speakers, reported on the torch parade in Lestene, the parish in western Latvia that hosts the country’s largest commemorative site for the so-called Latvian Legionnaires—the Lestene Brothers’ Cemetery. (The Latvian Legion was a military formation of the Waffen-SS created in 1943; it consisted of Latvian soldiers who were mostly conscripted by force). The RTR news presenter claimed the torch parade was organized to commemorate the Legionnaires. In fact, this memorial event honored all soldiers who had fought for Latvia’s freedom. There is no evidence that the torch parade and accompanying religious service at the Brothers’ Cemetery was exclusively dedicated to the Legionnaires. Moreover, RTR’s positioning of the commemoration in Lestene as a central event is misleading, since 11 November is marked all over Latvia as a holiday and culminates in Riga, where thousands light candles on the walls of the city’s castle.
Russia’s Channel 5 TV also reported on the Lestene torch procession, claiming it was the latest march of the SS Legionnaires: “This time, however, the SS veterans already had a new status.” said a Channel 5 reporter. “A few days ago, the country's authorities adopted a bill that grants veterans of the Nazi army the status of participants in World War II.” The reporter said that in Lestene, Nazis are “marching openly and fearlessly. And this is understandable, because the Hitlerites don’t have to be afraid of anyone in contemporary Latvia” (see starting from 00:40). The reporter failed, however, to show any “marching Hitlerites.” Instead, he aired the invented opinion of a priest who spoke at the Lestene Brothers’ Cemetery. While the priest talked about legendary rulers of ancient Latvia, the voice-over translation stated that “the Latvian Legionnaires are our present heroes” (see starting from 00:55).
Meanwhile, Latvia’s parliament is considering a law that would grant the status of “participant” to everyone who took part in World War II as a citizen of Latvia until the Soviet occupation on 17 June 1940. It hasn’t yet adopted the law, but did pass it on the second reading. Russia and its embassy in Latvia have harshly criticized this draft, insisting the law would equate Nazi soldiers and the Red Army. But Russia downplayed the fact that most Latvian citizens were forcefully conscripted into both armies.
Pro-Kremlin media reports on the unofficial torch parades also said the Latvian Legionnaires allegedly committed Nazi crimes. This narrative was supported, in their view, by the honors granted by Latvia’s president on 18 November to seven partisans who fought against the postwar Soviet occupation. According to the official statement, the orders were granted for “outstanding accomplishments” by the national resistance movement. Russian state TV Zvezda misleadingly reported that the president gave orders to veterans of the SS legion (see starting from 02:57).
The Kremlin TV channels use the symbolic torch parades as evidence of Latvia’s affinity toward Nazi ideas, but ignore the fact that torch parades are a common Latvian tradition on public occasions, particularly during autumn and winter. They have nothing to do with Nazi ideas.
The Kremlin’s media efforts to discredit these celebrations are primarily targeted at local Russian-speakers who are increasingly inclined to accept these rituals. By reinforcing the link between nationally unifying dates and the glorification of Nazis, these media outlets aim to strengthen the self-isolation of the Russophone minority in Latvia. Arguably, this also helps to undermine Latvia’s 100th anniversary celebrations taking place next year.
The preparation of this report was supported by the Latvian Ministry of Culture