BBC interviews Vaira Vike-Freiberga for Her Story Made History program

  • 2019-08-05
  • LETA/BBC/TBT Staff

RIGA – British BBC broadcaster has interviewed Latvia’s former president Vaira Vike-Freiberga for Her Story Made History program.

Vike-Freiberga in the interview told about her childhood, life in exile and how she became the first female president in Latvia.

Asked what she remembers from the war, Vike-Freiberga said that she has vivid memories of that chaotic time, especially 1944, when Russian troops - the communist Red Army - marched back into Latvia. "I was impressed by the ones with the red flags and the fists. So at one point, as one of them marched by, I raised my fist in the air and shouted 'hurrah!'," she says. "At that point I saw my mother lean against the lamppost, absolutely stricken, with tears streaming down her cheeks, saying 'Please, child, don't do that. This is a very sad day for Latvia'."

“My parents never let me forget that I am Latvian," she told the BBC.

Vike-Freiberga, aged seven, and her family first headed to Germany. Then they moved to French-ruled Morocco, then to Canada.

"We took the ship on New Year's night of 1945. It was a transport ship with troops and with armaments and of course if it gets torpedoed it's going to blow it up. But they have taken a certain number of civilians with them, who also want to flee from communism at any price. Latvians gathered on the deck and sang the Latvian anthem," she said.

The family reached the refugee camps being set up across Germany. The conditions were very harsh and her baby sister fell ill with pneumonia and died, just 10 months old.

At the age of 11, Vike-Freiberga had to move again, to Casablanca in French Morocco. And later the family moved to Canada.

Vike-Freiberga got a job at a bank, aged 16, and went to night school. She eventually made it to the University of Toronto. And while there, she met the man she would marry, Imants Freibergs, another Latvian exile.

She studied psychology and was eventually awarded a PhD, in 1965.

She learned quickly though that women were tolerated, rather than welcomed. "Our dear professor at one point in a seminar said, 'Yes, well, we actually have three married women here in this PhD program, it's such a waste, because they're going to get married and they're going to have children, and they're actually taking up a place that a boy could have taken who will become a real scientist.' "And all of us girls in that seminar, we remembered that for the rest of our lives," she said in the interview.

Vike-Freiberga spent 33 years at the University of Montreal. She became fluent in five languages and wrote 10 books.

In 1998, aged 60, she was elected professor emeritus and decided to retire. But one evening her phone rang. It was the prime minister of Latvia. And Vike-Freiberga got the offer to head a new Latvian Institute. Almost immediately she found herself caught up in Latvia's presidential race. She gave up her Canadian passport to run for election and, just eight months after returning, she became Latvia's first female president.

She was instrumental in Latvia joining both NATO and the European Union in 2004.

Vike-Freiberga's second term ended in 2007, a few months before her 70th birthday. She co-founded the Club de Madrid - an organization of former leaders, with a mandate to promote democratic leadership and governance.