Standing firm in the name of freedom

  • 2005-01-26
  • By Tim Ochser
RIGA - One of the good things about being a journalist is that you can sate your curiosity about whatever takes your fancy. For several years I have often wondered about the two guards of honor that stand on the steps of the Freedom Monument in Riga.

Sometimes they're there, sometimes they're not. What, I wondered with fleeting curiosity as I hurriedly walked past them on countless occasions, is the deal with these guards? Why do they stand there? And are they allowed to wear extra undergarments when it's freezing cold?

The Freedom Monument is, of course, the ultimate symbol of Latvia 's a jolly green icon of everything it stands for. When former U.S President Bill Clinton made his historic address there in 1994, proudly flanked by the presidents of the three Baltic states, he made an emotional reference to the monument and its symbolic place in the nation. "The shining figure of liberty stands guard here today and the spirit of your peoples fills the air and brings joy to our hearts," he said, amid much lachrymosity.

On guard

The guards of honor were introduced on Nov. 11 (Lacplesis Day), 1992, shortly after Latvia regained its independence. In the words of Uldis Vadonis (photo), commander of the national armored forces staff battalion, they were placed there "to defend the Freedom Monument."

The guard of honor's company is 140-strong, and its soldiers are also permanently positioned outside the presidential castle. They also stand by to formally welcome VIP visitors when they step onto the tarmac at Riga Airport.

But the guards of honor are not professional soldiers. The entire battalion is made up of young men, aged 19 's 27, who are currently doing their stint of national service.

They train for three months as infantry soldiers at a training base in Aluksne, northeast Latvia, before receiving a further four months' special training to serve as guards of honor. Then they're ready to defend the nation's most precious public monument, for the modest sum of 20 lats (29 euros) per month.

The guards keep regular office hours when it comes to keeping watch over Milda, as some locals affectionately refer to the Freedom Monument. They go on duty at 9 a.m. and work until 6 p.m. Three pairs of them take turns to stand there for an hour at a time, and if you've ever seen them, you'll know they do a remarkably good job of staying absolutely, are-they-really-alive still.

No matter how hard you scrutinize them, you won't see so much as a flicker of emotion on their faces, or so much as a sway of unsteadiness on their feet. God only knows what they think about for all that time, especially when some snap-happy tourist thrusts a camera into their faces.

However, the guards recently had their routine slightly altered to make their duty easier to bear. Uldis Vadonis explains: "Before, the guards used to have to stay perfectly still for the whole hour until they were relieved. But now they go on a five-minute march after half an hour. We introduced this change because it was very hard for them to stand there for a whole hour without even twitching."

As well as having to endure the hardship of standing still for all that time, the guards also have to contend with the inclemency of the Latvian weather. But there are certain extreme weather conditions that exempt them from duty.

"If the temperature is 's10 degrees Celsius or below, they don't go on duty," Vadonis explains. "If it's 's5 degrees Celsius with a wind speed of more than 10 meters per second, they don't stand there. If it's 's5 degrees and 70 percent dry, they don't stand there. If the wind registers 10 meters per second whatever the weather, they don't stand there. If it's very rainy or stormy, they don't stand there. And if the temperature is +25 degrees Celsius, they don't stand there."

Job hazards

The guards change over every hour in a rather quaint show of military pageantry. One pair walks over to the guards with exaggeratedly slow steps, and then relieves them of their duties. The other pair slowly marches off and then gets into a waiting van before going back to the Ministry of Defense to relax for two hours. Or perhaps they pass the time cleaning their immaculate 1930s-style uniforms.

Girts Skanis, 22, is now a professional soldier, but he did a year's stint as a guard of honor and knows exactly what it's like to have to stand perfectly erect, in the full gaze of the public, without flinching in the face of boredom, tiredness and, in some cases, abuse.

As I watch the ceremonial changing of the guard with him, he seems to be relieved to be looking on at the whole thing as a spectator. I ask him what passed through his mind as he used to stand there every day.

"The first thing I thought is 'Stupid people!'" he says. "People would come up to me and try and touch my gun, girls would come up to me and try to make me laugh. Something happened almost every day."

I ask him if he ever received any professional advice to help him cope with the hardship of having to stand dead still in all sorts of uncomfortable weather conditions, but he merely bursts out laughing by way of a reply.

"No!" he says. "I used to just focus on the Laima clock in the background and watch the time slowly pass. Some older soldiers would offer you advice on how to get through the watch. They'd advise you, for example, never to make eye contact with the public."

Although the guards prominently display their guns while they stand on duty, the weapons aren't actually loaded. But there's always a soldier nearby to protect the guards in the event of trouble. You can normally see him in his khakis, conspicuously strolling around the pleasant environs of the monument.

Girts says there has never been a case of the guards being physically attacked, although they do sometimes get abuse shouted at them by a passing drunk. He recalls one ugly incident that happened during his time as a guard. "I wasn't actually there when it happened, but as the guards were changing over and slowly marching back to the van, one f*****g idiot came over to one guard, tapped him on his shoulder, and spat in his face when he turned around. Then he ran away 's very quickly. No one had any idea why he did it."

But Milda has probably seen much worse things than that as she serenely gazes down from above.