2006 's fifteen years after the barricades

  • 2006-01-04
  • By Ben Nimmo
RIGA - This January millions of Balts will commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of a defining moment in its recent history: the barricades. Latvia's path from Soviet domination to independence, in particular, was a long one.

Legally, it began on May 4, 1990, when Latvia's Soviet government voted to declare independence from the Soviet Union. (Lithuania and Estonia had already declared their independence, on March 11 and 30, respectively.) Over the next few months, despite intense pressure from Moscow, the Baltics began introducing such novelties as a free press and the promise of democratic elections. Then, in January 1991, Moscow ran out of patience.

The crackdown began in Vilnius. On Jan. 12 's while the eyes of the world were fixed on the war then brewing in Kuwait under the name Desert Storm 's Soviet special forces stormed the Vilnius TV tower and took the independent Lithuanian news services off the air, killing 14 civilians and wounding 110 in the process. As word of the assault spread, the chairman of the Latvian Popular Front, Dainis Ivans, broadcast an appeal to all the people of Latvia to come out on the streets in a peaceful protest against Soviet brutality.

The response was astonishing. According to the estimates of the Riga Museum of the Barricades, which will be opening a new exhibit on Jan. 10 to commemorate the anniversary, half a million people took to the streets of Riga to make their feelings known. Centered on the TV Tower on the island of Zakusala, the Interior Ministry building 's a block from the Freedom Monument, and held by pro-independence forces since the summer 's and the Latvian Radio headquarters in the cathedral square, the protesters set up a network of barricades to deny the city to the Soviets. Hastily constructed from makeshift materials, the barricades would have been of minimal use in stopping a determined assault.

Their message was a moral one: we will not submit to violence.

Indeed, the barricades were a moral victory for the independence movement. Based on the principles of self-organization and non-violence, they showed the outside world the maturity of Latvia's civil society and made it very hard for Soviet agents provocateurs to portray them as anarchic terrorists.

It is worth noting that a significant number of those manning the barricades came from the country's ethnic Russian minority, a fact which the museum is at pains to point out, unlike most modern politicians.

The separate defensive regions were linked by field radios. Representatives of the city's medical institutions organized care points for those kept outside in freezing weather. Food, firewood and water were provided for the defenders. Again, none of this would have stood up to a concerted attack such as in Hungary in 1956 or in Prague in 1968, but the peaceful nature of the demonstrations would have made such an overwhelming use of force extraordinarily hard to justify.

After a week of skirmishing over the barricades, Soviet infantry forces attacked on Jan. 20. Confusion still surrounds the exact events. What is clear is that the focus of the attack was the Interior Ministry building, and that during the assault representatives of the Soviet armed forces and security police were joined by plainclothes snipers firing from the direction of the Bastejkalns hill. A model in the museum details the approximate lines of fire used by the three different groupings; a series of memorial stones in the Bastejkalns park commemorates the five civilians (including one cameraman) killed in the skirmish.

It is no coincidence that Latvian legislation still bans anyone who was an active collaborator with the Communist Party after Jan. 13, 1991 from politics. The most important victim of that main attack was the last shred of the U.S.S.R.'s moral authority.

The barricades did not, in themselves, herald Latvian freedom: in the aftermath of the winter of discontent, skirmishing between the Baltic capitals and Moscow continued, with Soviet special forces staging attacks on border posts and pressuring the Baltics to return to the fold.

Western opinion, too, was divided, with many commentators seeing support for the Gorbachev regime and its imperial ambitions as the best way to maintain stability across the U.S.S.R. (The same obsession with regional stability was to lead, at exactly the same time, to the Desert Storm coalition's decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power.)

It was not until August 1991, when an army clique tried to install martial law in Moscow, that Gorbachev's government fell, taking the U.S.S.R. with it. With dramatic images of Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank being broadcast round the world, the winter's events in Riga were forgotten outside Latvia itself. Indeed, the key factor in the Baltics' subsequent renewal of sovereignty was Yeltsin's support for it.

And yet that is exactly the lesson of the January barricades. Admittedly, they did not contribute directly to the renewal of Latvian independence, let alone the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the final destruction of totalitarian communism. The most fateful decisions, as ever in Latvia's history, were taken by the great powers.

But the organization, media savvy and sheer determination the inhabitants of Latvia revealed in the defense of their principles showed the world how morally bankrupt the Soviet regime had become. The barricades were not a test of strength, nor even a test of organizational ability. At bottom, they were a test of will. The question was never, "Can the Soviets crush the barricades?", but "Do they have the will-power to do it?" And despite the bloody events of Jan. 20, the answer was a resounding "No."

In essence, and with all respect to those who braved the cold and the fear of attacks to man the barricades, the events of January 1991 showed not so much the strength of Latvia's people, as the moral weakness of the Soviet regime. In that sense, they were very much the beginning of the end.