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.
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).
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).
While Soviet murders became more tamed by the late 1950s (after Stalin died), the mass settling of Latvia was the new danger to the survival of Latvian nation. Tens of thousands new ethnically-Russian Soviet settlers would be encouraged to move to Latvia every year. By the 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).
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 were finding increasingly little use for their own language in their own homeland as most public events would now be in Russian. Additionally, religions and religious traditions were heavily repressed.
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.
On the geopolitical scale, Soviets still sought to compete with USA (“Cold War”) but that was possible only through allocating a greater and greater share of resources to the military, making shortages of civilian goods even acuter (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.
7 thoughts on “The occupation of Latvia (1940-1990)”
A Latvian Immigrant from 1930-1950 has heard stories of her family member of the Latvian Army (1936-1940) being “Arrested/Deported” by the occupying Russians, also that he was “Shot by the Russians and placed in a mass grave”. No record has been found to date of any immigration or death of this person, so wondering what “Arrested/Deported” could have meant during that period.
In 1940, Russians would „arrest“ thousands of people who had non-communist political beliefs. The proofs of being „anti-Soviet“ could have been minuscule, e.g. if person owned a Latvian flag or being a member of boy scouts or being very religious and so on. It is even impossible to list all the possible reasons for arrest.
Some Latvians were eventually exiled (deported) to some of the harshest areas of the Soviet Union, primarily Siberia. Exiles were not the same as arrests: while typically only adults would be arrested, their entire families were exiled, and some 1/4th to 1/3rd of those exiled were kids.
There, in some cases 50%+ of those deported to an area would perish, especially the kids, therefore, all these Soviet actions, together with outright murders/executions, are considered a genocide against Latvian nation (one of numerous such genocides Soviet Union has comitted).
There were two types of exile locations. The „less bad ones“ were simple Siberian villages; neverthess, even there many people died due to hash weather they were unused to (e.g. winter temperatures of -50 C); they had to build homes for themselves in this harsh weather, find a way not to starve and so on. Many kids did not even survive the initial train „journey“ as they were transported in cattle carriages.
Even worse place of exile that combined arrest and exile were the GULAGs. In addition to harsh weather, there prisoners were forced to work long hours in deplorable conditions. GULAGs are also called Soviet concentration camps and death rates there did often surpass 50%.
After Stalin died, most of Latvians who survived were allowed to return home.
So far, haven’t been able to locate any information or records on the fate of a non-Jewish male family after 1940s Riga “Deportation/Arrest”. Any suggestions?
Some non-Jewish Latvians were arrested and sent to Stutthof Concentration Camp, especially if they were government officials or part of the resistance. My great uncle, a government official and part of the Soviet resistance, tried to bargain with Germany to let Latvia remain independent and wound up in Stutthof in Poland. We have evidence he was there through several first hand accounts, including published accounts online (published records, war tribunals) but his name does not appear on any Stutthoff inmate list (there hundreds, if not thousands who are listed), which are incomplete. Stutthoff’s records are available online. If the names you seek don’t appear, there are links to organizations that exist to help find missing family members (they make family members a priority over those doing research). However, it may take about a year or so to hear back from them–we are still waiting to hear if they’ve found any record of my great uncle.
Non-Jews were sent to detention camps referred to as Displaced Persons (DP) some did end up in the concentration camps too. This also should help https://arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/search-online-archive/
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My family escaped by boat that they had modified in their backyard in 1945. They behide a import rug business . They were picked up by a steamer ship that took the to Sweden where my mother was born . They made it to America after three years . Were in South America for those 3 years .. I had a great great uncle that was left behide . He refused to get on the boat . I always wonder what happened to him.