Soviet regime in Latvia

The occupation of Latvia (1940-1990)

The brutality of First Soviet occupation (1940-1941) was such that it has been named the „Year of Terror“. All Latvian property was nationalized. Some 35000 were arrested, murdered or expelled to inhospitably cold Siberia – most never to return. 1% of all Latvians (15000) were expelled to their deaths in Siberia in a single night of June 14, 1941 alone.

Victims of the Soviet genocide in Latvia
Victims of the Soviet ‘Year of Terror’ in Valmiera. Most Latvians were tortured before being murdered, by means such as gouging their eyes or burning the face.

So terrible was the Soviet occupation that many Latvians welcomed the new occupation by Nazi German forces in 1941 as a relief. Not the Jews however, who were the new target set by Nazi Germany (over 50000 were killed, expelled or fled).

Salaspils prison camp
A drawing of Salaspils prison camp for Soviet POWs, established by Nazi Germany and built by Jewish forced labor.

Despite the effort of both Germans and Latvian Legion to stop them, in 1944-1945 Soviets had reconquered Latvia and their Stalinist terrors have returned (additional 150000 people were murdered or expelled). Not wishing to wait for their deaths, some 120000 Latvians fled westwards just before Soviet reoccupation, eventually taking refuge in America and Australia. Others launched a failed guerilla war in Latvian forests (1944-1956).

Soldiers of the Latvian legion
Soldiers of Latvian Legion fight to prevent Soviet re-occupation in 1943. While nominally a part of German army, this regiment did not participate in any war crimes.

While Soviet murders became more tamed by late 1950s (after Stalin died) the mass settling of Latvia was the new danger to the survival of Latvian nation. Tens of thousands new ethnic Russian Soviet settlers would be encouraged to move to Latvia every year. By 1970s already the main Latvian cities were Russian-majority. By 1989 merely 52% of country’s inhabitants were ethnic Latvians (44% in the cities, 37% in Riga).

People squeezing into Riga trams in 1950s
People squeezing into Riga’s trams in the 1950s. Throughout the Soviet occupation cars remained a luxury and most had to rely on unbelievably crammed public transportation instead.

Latvians were taught Russian in schools but Russians would not learn Latvian, seeing Russian language and culture as more important and “international”. This meant ethnic Latvians would find increasingly little use for their own language in their own homeland as most public events would now be Russian. Additionally, religions and religious traditions were heavily repressed.

Concrete slab building in Riga with Soviet propaganda
A 1970s Soviet building in Riga with Soviet propaganda poster that was typical then, declaring (in Russian only): ‘Wherever there is [Communist] party, there is progress, there is victory’.
While the Soviet oppressiveness and discrimination surely made the occupation even more hated by Latvians, it was the economic backwardness of the Soviet Union that initiated its final collapse. Supposedly egalitarian (as most people earned similar wages), the Soviet system actually had a person’s social standing determined by what “relationships” with important people he or she had. People would commonly steal goods from their workplaces in order to exchange them in the black market or to give them to friends; “important people” were the ones having “access” (direct or indirect) to the “best” goods and services. Working hard was not rewarded at all, leading to hopeless productivity levels, which dragged Soviet (and thus Latvian) economy decades behind the West.

Corn harvest in 1955
Corn harvest in 1955. Mandatory planting of corn (inapplicable to the cold Latvian climate) was one of Soviet centrally-planned economic failures which ravaged the agriculture.

On geopolitical scale Soviets still sought to compete with USA (“Cold War”) but that was possible only through allocating larger and larger share of resources to the military, making shortages of civilian goods even more acute (for people without “relationships”). Understanding that he is losing the Cold War, Soviet leader Gorbachev declared a policy of perestroika and glasnost, or the transformation to democracy and capitalism. In a couple of years the democratic People’s Front movement in Latvia became brave enough to demand freedom. Soviet reprisals were no longer able to stop the masses as similar calls resounded all over Union’s non-Russian lands.

Baltic Way in Latvia (1989)
Baltic way (1989), one of the largest protests in the world history. It was a 600 km long human chain of 2 million people, connecting Latvia to Lithuania and Estonia, demonstrating the unity of Baltic States