During the Soviet period, a hydroelectric dam threatened to destroy the castle at Koknese. Popular indignation with the dam led to one of the first successful environmental protests in the mid-1980s. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that picturesque Koknese will now be the home to a monument honoring those who died over the last century due to war and totalitarian regimes.
The monument, still in its planning stages, will honor the estimated 600,000 people that died during the first and second World Wars and the Soviet occupation. Its home will be on Krievkalns' Island, which lies in the middle of the Daugava River, a body of water that has been referred to as the "river of fate" in Latvian.
Unlike many other West European countries, both the share of the ethnic Latvian population and the overall number of inhabitants decreased since World War I, falling from 2.6 million, 1.9 of which were ethnic Latvians to 2.3 million today, of which only 1.3 million are ethnic Latvians.
Koknese was chosen partly due to the high cost of buying property and building in the capital, and because of the help from the local city council which provided the land.
The monument will honor those who died under totalitarianism and those who were forced into emigration around the world.
While the state already has a large number of heavy monuments and poignant days for remembering those that suffered during World War II, the monument in Koknese will be different.
"We don't want to have one of these depressing stone monuments, where one feels uncomfortable and guilty," Sandra Kalniete, a former foreign minister and a lead fund raiser for the monument, said. She said the monument would incorporate elements that recall the past and the people lost in war.
The Koknese Foundation, an organization created to commission the project, took off once Vilis Vitols and Kalniete began participating.
"I met Mr. Vilis Vitols, and we started to talk about Latvia, the people and the nation, and we talked about how there was no national monument," Kalniete said. "For years I had an idea that we had to construct a national monument," she added.
The driving force was Vitols, Kalniete said.
The foundation now counts other well-known Latvians, like the poet Mara Zalite, as members.
According to Kalniete Vitols provided a large donation of 450,000 lats to get the Koknese Foundation started. Kalniete became involved in the project partly by way of biography she said.
Kalniete was born in Siberia to parents who had been deported there during the Soviet period. Later she was a key leader in the independence movement.
Organizers hope to receive a number of international applicants for building the monument.
The committee that will pick the winning entry will also be composed of an international jury. Kalniete, who is an art historian, will also sit on the board.