After the invasion: Latvia coming to terms with its Russian and Soviet inheritance13 min read
The small Baltic country of Latvia, with only two million inhabitants and Russia as a neighbour, has, since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, been one of Ukraine’s most steadfast supporters. During 2022, a number of events took place as a result of the invasion: protests at the celebrations of the World War Two victory on 9 May, the tearing down of a central monument, as well as the arrival and then shut down of the Russian opposition media channel “Dozhd.” I have kept up to date with the events in Latvia for a long time, and from January to August 2023, I spent six months in the country and had the chance to take a closer look at how Latvians are dealing with their relationship towards both the Soviet Union of the past, and the Russia of today.
Latvia and its many Russian speaking citizens
If you arrive by train or bus to Riga, one of the first things you will see is the big railway station, featuring large letters spelling out “Stacija” in Latvian and “Terminal” in English. But between those two words now exists an ugly and grey faded mark, reminiscent of a scar. Only a few months ago, there used to be a sign reading Вокзал (vokzal), the word for train station in Russian. Why was this Russian word, printed in a language roughly half of Riga’s population speaks as their mother tongue and that is also understandable for the many Ukrainian refugees now residing in the city, removed?
Similar to the other two Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia is home to widespread feelings of mistrust and fear among its population and its politicians towards its big neighbour in the east, Russia, who, after having driven away the Nazis from the Baltics during World War II, occupied the territory. Latvia — with its large minority of Russian speakers (roughly 25% throughout the country and closer to 50% in the capital Riga) — sees itself as a clear target for Russian influence and manipulation. This feeling has been reinforced after 24 February 2022. One of the proclaimed reasons for the invasion of Ukraine was the aim to protect the Russian minority in the country.
9 May and the demolition of the Victory monument
Since the restoration of independence in 1991, all the Baltic countries demolished or changed the various Soviet monuments that they thought were unfit. These decisions were rooted in the countries’ conception of the Soviet period as an occupation, similar to the Nazi occupation during World War II.
Until August 2022, a disputed and controversial monument stood in a park in western Riga. The Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders, often referred to as the Victory Monument, was built in 1985, when Latvia was still a part of the Soviet Union, in honour of the soldiers of the Red Army who defeated the Nazis in Riga and liberated the city.
The monument had been controversial from the beginning, since it symbolised to a large portion of the ethnic Latvian population a period of suppression and occupation. At the same time, for the Russian speaking population, the monument, since the 1990s, acted as the primary spot to commemorate the Victory Day celebrations on 9 May.
In light of the invasion of Ukraine, the celebration of Victory Day has become even more politically charged. Latvians interpreted the celebration in 2022 as an expression of unacceptable support and sympathy for Russia. The authorities urged individuals not to commemorate the day, even by, for example, placing flowers near the monument.
However, there were many individuals who defied this guidance. Though fences were put up so that it was not possible to get close to the monument, people were still able to give flowers to municipality workers who placed such flowers at the foot of the monument.
Latvian police estimated that around 20,000 individuals visited the monument on 9 May, which took place peacefully. The next day, however, unrest erupted as a municipal bulldozer removed all the flowers early in the morning. Videos of this event spread quickly and resulted in anger and frustration among Riga’s Russian speaking population. Subsequently, many people met by the monument to demonstrate, which in turn, resulted in a small number of arrests.
The police remained calm and there were no larger clashes, instead the day passed in a relatively peaceful manner. In the following days, however, Minister of the Interior Maria Golubeva was criticised for not reacting more forcefully against the demonstrators. In the end, Golubeva was forced to resign on 16 May, after her own prime minister, Krišjānis Kariņš, put pressure on her to due to threats by the nationalist rightwing party The National Alliance to resign from the government if Golubeva did not quit. Over the following days the government decided to tear down the monument, which was done in August without any large protests.
The government mandate of prime minister Kariņš’ New Unity coalition can also be considered to be a consequence of the war. Prior to 24 February, the government had low levels of support due to their handling of the Covid pandemic, but in October 2022, they claimed a large victory in the election.
This success is grounded in the widespread satisfaction of how they handled the war, as well as the fact that the rhetoric of New Unity has drifted closer to that of the right-wing nationalist Latvian party National Alliance — even though, at the beginning of the war, the government reiterated that Russophone Latvians did not have any responsibility in connection with the invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, the Russian-speaking party Harmony, the big winner of the previous election, did not even reach the threshold of 5% of the votes. That being said, a newly created and even more pro-Russian party For Stability! did reach the threshold. The question is whether the war will lead to more Russian speakers casting their vote across the different Latvian parties, or whether there will be a consolidation around a new ethnic Russian party.
The removal of TV-Dozhd’s licence
Another event that took up a lot of space in Latvian as well as Russian media was the scandal regarding the independent Russian TV channel Dozhd (TV-Rain), which after being blocked in Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, was allowed to open a new studio in Riga during the summer of 2022.
In December 2022, only a few months after the channel was restarted in Riga, it got into serious trouble after a host encouraged viewers to send in information about maltreatment of mobilised Russian troops. During the feature, the host used the term “our troops” about the Russian military, which was not received well in Latvia.
On top of other criticisable occurrences and minor mistakes, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to Latvian hospitality. After the feature was aired, it was perceived as if the host called on people to help the Russian mobilised troops by exposing leadership flaws, and the Latvian TV Authority chose — more or less legally — to strip TV-Dozhd of its broadcast licence. The decision was criticised by a number of international journalistic organisations as well as the Latvian journalist association, which argued that there was no basis for the removal of the licence.
The scandal led to a larger discussion about how Russian opposition figures should behave in a country in which they reside in exile. What is a Russian in exile allowed to say about their country of residence? And how should one appeal to the general Russian population without getting in conflict with the host nation? As TV-Dozhd experienced, it can be difficult to distinguish where the limit is for acceptable speech. This is especially true in a country such as Latvia, where there is widespread distrust from the political perspective towards everything Russian, including the Russian opposition.
TV-Dozhd has now gained broadcasting permission in the Netherlands, but there are still a number of Russian speaking opposition media organisations based in Latvia, including Meduza, Novaya Gazeta Europe, and Radio Svoboda. Until now, these media outlets have not followed the same path as TV-Dozhd, but the scandal has, if anything, provided a lesson for the Russian opposition that the old saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not always stand.
The one year anniversary of the invasion
On 24 February this year, a demonstration in support of Ukraine took place in front of the freedom monument in central Riga. A crowd assembled to hear various people give their view on the latest year’s events, accompanied by music from both Ukrainian and Latvian singers.
At such an event, it became clear how strong the bond between the two countries, who in many ways have much in common in their relationship with Russia, is. Both countries see their time in the Soviet Union as periods of occupation marked by the suppression of their national language and culture.
To commemorate the anniversary, Ukraine sent a burnt-out Russian tank to each of the Baltic capitals, as well as to Warsaw and Berlin. In Riga, the tank was placed in front of the Russian embassy, where, on the opposite building, a banner portraying Putin with a skull in place of half of his face had hung for months. On 24 February, the Latvian-Ukrainian Friendship Association also opened a tent next to the tank where one could help make trench lights for Ukrainian soldiers. In addition, a Latvian military orchestra played in front of the tank. Later in the day, however, red roses were placed on the tank, reportedly by staff of the embassy, to show support towards Russian soldiers in a clear provocation from the embassy’s side.
The exhibition of the tank in front of the Russian embassy clearly shows how far the Latvian government and a large part of the Latvian population will go in their support for Ukraine. Ukraine’s struggle is also Latvia’s struggle, and these kinds of demonstrations bring the Latvian population closer together as well as show support to Ukraine.
Symbolic showdowns with the past Russian heritage in Riga
Symbolic actions in relation to the war are not far from the eye in Riga. One of the most eye-catching changes recently was when the local authorities chose to remove the Russian word for “Train station” (вокзал) on Riga’s central station, where it previously had been flanked by the word both in Latvian and English. Now, there is only empty space between the Latvian Stacija and the English Terminal.
The Russian вокзал sign stood as one of the last reminders of the Soviet era in the public space. Though, as previously stated, Riga is to a large extent a Russian-speaking city, in Latvia, it is the Latvian nationalist parties that hold power, and for them, a symbolic showdown with the Russian past is important in order to establish their independence and express the Latvian identity.
The next target in the battle regarding language, monuments, and historical memory is likely to be the statue of Alexander Pushkin, which stands in one of Riga’s central parks. The Russian national poet has almost a saintly status for many Russians. People make the sign of the cross in front of the statue, and place candles and flowers next to it as if it was an Orthodox icon. But although Pushkin did not have a specific relation to Riga, the statue is still present as a symbol of the Soviet past. For this reason, protests in Riga took place in support of keeping the statue after the local government proclaimed intentions to remove it.
Can the past be forgotten and the present changed by removing Russian symbols?
Since the original publication of this article in April 2023, more monuments have been removed, including the statue of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin donated by the city of Moscow in 2009. The celebration of Victory Day 2023 went by peacefully, with many people instead visiting the military cemeteries where Soviet soldiers are buried — only 26 people were detained. The Victory Park, the former location of the controversial monument to the defeat of the Nazi occupiers by the Soviet Union, has been rebuilt, and is open to the public as a regular park.
The events in Riga show how there are still groups in Latvia who have differing views of the past. The nationalist forces on both sides of the ethnic divide like to fan the flames, especially in connection with historical and cultural occasions.
The resignation of the Minister of the Interior and the removal of TV-Dozhd’s broadcasting licence exemplify how the Latvian nationalist parties hold great sway in Latvia. An example can be found in the lawful Latvian-Russian demonstration, which proceeded quietly but nevertheless led to the forced resignation of the Interior Minister. In this way, Latvia’s democratic ideals, crucial to their current self-understanding as belonging to the European-democratic tradition as opposed to Russia’s authoritarianism, was suppressed in favour of more harshly dealing with historical trauma.
In the face of inflamed historical and political issues, it is not always easy to live up to the declared principles, when the urge to mark one’s opposition to divergent positions trumps the strength to adhere to one’s own principles. But as the removal of “вокзал” shows, it is not possible to simply erase the past — there will still be visible scars and realities one cannot ignore, no matter how much one wishes for it. Right now, though the “вокзал” sign has disappeared, the Russian speaking population is still present and the facade of the station now looks asymmetrical and scarred. The empty space between “Stacija” and “Terminal” represents a crossroads that Latvia stands in front of. It is a powerful reminder that it is not possible to ignore the large Russian-speaking minority simply by erasing their words.