The History of the Occupation of Latvia

The Tradition of Deportation Commemoration

The Tradition of Deportation Commemoration

Author: Mārtiņš Kaprāns

The commemoration of Soviet deportations is an important part of Latvian collective memory. Many citizens of Latvia suffered deportation. Experts estimate that over 60,000 people were deported between 1941 and 1951. The tens of thousands of deportees and other victims of repressions have given the Stalinist era an extraordinarily inhumane face in the history of Latvia.

The Latvian government has created a commission that is researching the effects of Soviet occupation in Latvia – victims, repressions, and material losses1 – and has recognized that these victims are the most directly calculable losses suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime.

The tradition of commemorating the victims of deportation began in the latter half of the 1980s and became one of the precursors to the National Awakening movement when, on 14 June 1987, the human rights group Helsinki-86 organized a flower laying ceremony at the Freedom Monument to commemorate the victims of the 1941 deportations.

The loss of human life, suffering, and long-term feeling of wrong-doing, as well as the generally negative opinion about the brutality of the Soviet regime in the West, became the central motivation for the initiative for commemoration at the end of the 1980s and the strengthening of this tradition during the 1990s. It was precisely the grass roots and government initiatives that made the deportation experience a significant aspect of Latvian identity, which social anthropologist Vieda Skultāns has compared to the role of the Holocaust in determining Jewish identity.

The rise of the National Awakening movement gave impetus for the creation of societies and clubs that united people who had been politically repressed, and the members of these organizations were also the main driving force behind creating commemoration memorials and plaques. The public was invited to donate funds, participate in the design of memorial plaques and monuments, find the most appropriate locations, and help fix up these areas.

These places of commemoration were most frequently placed in spots where people had experienced physical brutality: railway stations where people had been corralled into cattle cars for the trip to Siberia and marshaling areas where they had been forced to congregate before deportation, such as municipal buildings, post offices, KGB buildings, and churches. Places of commemoration were less frequently created in places close to the homes of the deported, their destroyed homesteads, or city squares.

Latvia has 390 registered memorial plaques dedicated to the memory of the deported, repressed, or other victims of the Soviet regime; 40 symbolic grave sites dedicated to those who were deported and whose fate is not known, created by their family members; and 109 actual grave sites of deported, repressed, or other victims of the Soviet regime that contain the remains of one, several tens, or even hundreds of people. In all, a total of 539 commemorative sites have been created in Latvia.

Since the renewal of Latvian independence, four official days of commemoration have been declared:

  • 25 March – Day of remembrance for the victims of the communist genocide;
  • 14 June – Day of remembrance for the victims of the communist genocide;
  • 23 August – Day of remembrance for victims of Stalinism and Nazism;
  • first Sunday in December – Commemoration day for the victims of  the genocide against the Latvian people by the totalitarian communist regime.

The commemoration of the deportations are most directly associated with 25 March and 14 June. These days of commemoration are not just symbolic, but are connected to a return to historical truths.

Most of the deportees returned to Latvia during the “thaw” initiated by the then head of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev. During this time, people began to discuss Stalinist repressions not only privately, but also publicly. Nevertheless, the period of liberalization in the late 1950s was too brief to instill an alternative understanding of the Soviet version of history.

In the latter part of Soviet occupation, the topic of deportations was not critically evaluated in the public sphere, but rather this policy was justified by claiming the need to protect the Soviet regime. In addition, the Soviet regime continued to view the returned deportees with suspicion – they were often unable to develop careers or travel to ‘capitalist’ countries in the west. As a result, deportation continued to be a stigma for the victims and created a lasting sense of injustice.

Currently, Latvia has approximately 16,000 people who have received the status of ‘politically repressed persons’. Among them are many who were deported to Siberia during the Soviet occupation. People with this designation may retire and receive pension benefits earlier than other citizens. In addition, they also receive other benefits, which are determined by the municipalities or townships in which they live.

The renewal of historical justice also requires punishing those who are guilty of these acts. In 1996, the European Parliament General Assembly adopted resolution Nr. 1096, in which measures to dismantle the heritage of former communist totalitarian systems were defined so that cases can be investigated and criminal charges brought against those individuals who committed crimes during the Soviet totalitarian regime.

Since 1991, eight people have been charged with the crime of participating in the deportations; five have been convicted: Alfons Novik, Mihail Farbtuh, Jevgeny Savenko, Nikolay Larionov and Nikolay Tess.

Many state and non-governmental organizations have participated in the commemoration of the deportations – their primary goals are to identify aspects of the history of the deportations, compile information, and educate society. Latvia has many ‘politically repressed’ associations whose main purpose is to continue the tradition of remembering in various regions of Latvia.

One of the most active and outspoken organizations on the national level is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (LOM), founded in 1993. Soviet repressions are the central element of the museum’s permanent exhibition. LOM also has as video archive of over 2000 oral testimonies of which approximately 40% are from former deportees.

The Latvian State Archives (LVA) are also actively involved with research and the dissemination of the history of the deportations. This institution has compiled a vast collection of information and documentation about the deportees. One of their largest projects is the creation of a database about those deported during the two largest deportations in 1941 and 1949 that has culminated in the two-volume publication Aizvestie [The Deported].

In 2000, the foundation Sibīrijas bērni [Siberia’s Children] was founded, which has also made a significant contribution to the practice of remembrance of the deportations through its vast collection of video testimonies from people who experienced the deportations as children. These interviews have been used by the founder of the organization and film director Dzintra Geka to produce several documentaries. The foundation has organized memorials outside Latvia and trips to deportation locations in Siberia (Vyatlag, Solikamsk, Kirov, Omsk, Norilsk, etc.) where commemorative plaques have been unveiled.

Memoirs of the deported and dramatizations of their stories are published and produced regularly, and poetry, many written by the victims themselves, are often an integral part of commemoration ceremonies. During the National Awakening period, memoirs most frequently appeared in the press, but since the renewal of independence, many volumes have been published in which the victims share their stories. Examples are Gunārs Freimanis’ edited 10-volume collection of memoirs and documents, Anda Līce’s edited 6-volume series of memoirs, and the Siberia’s Children Foundation’s 2-volume memoirs.

In addition, other authors have published their memoirs in many regions of Latvia. In the last 20 years, memoirs by those who experienced repressions at the hands of the Soviet regime have been published almost annually.

Accounts of Soviet deportations have also appeared in Latvian fiction. Since the National Awakening, many novels, documentary films and plays have featured deportation as the central theme.


Recommended reading

D. Bleiere un J. Riekstiņš, Latvijas iedzīvotāju pirmā masveida deportācija. 1941. gada 14. jūnijs, Rīga, Latvijas Valsts arhīvs, 2007

D. Bleiere un J. Riekstiņš, Latvijas iedzīvotāju otrā masveida deportācija. 1949. gada 25. marts, Rīga, Latvijas Valsts arhīvs, 2008

M. Kaprāns, O. Procevska, L. Uzule un A. Saulītis (red.), Padomju deportāciju pieminēšana Latvijā. Atmiņu politika un publiskā telpa, Rīga, Mansards, 2012

1 Komisija PSRS totalitārā komunistiskā okupācijas režīma upuru skaita un masu kapu vietu noteikšanai, informācijas par represijām un masveida deportācijām apkopošanai un Latvijas valstij un tās iedzīvotājiem nodarīto zaudējumu aprēķināšanai.

  • 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.