A GOOD CAUSE: Thousands came out to mark the end of WWII and to pay respect to those who made sacrifices in the bloody conflict.
RIGA - Around 100,000 people in total attended the May 9 WWII Victory Day celebration at Uzvaras (Victory) Park in Riga, as the event passed relatively calmly, said State Police Chief Valdis Voins in an interview on the LNT show ‘900 Seconds,’ reports news agency LETA. Those in attendance were able to watch a live broadcast of Moscow’s Victory Day parade on big screens specially set up for this purpose.
Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs (Harmony Center) and the ambassadors of several former Soviet republics joined Russian Ambassador Alexander Veshniakov and representatives of the U.S. armed forces in laying flowers at the monument. Small flags, Ribbons of St. George and leaflets were distributed among visitors.
In contrast with previous years, there were no major attempts at provocation, although at one point veterans had to be prevented from trampling a German flag, said Voins.
Two small displays, however, on exhibit in a Soviet-era concrete Congress Center in Riga’s center tell a tale of the Baltic States’ double vision of the controversial 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. One display, set up by a local Russian-minority group, recounts how Soviet troops drove Nazi German forces from Riga in October 1944.
The other, set up by the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, tells the story of the Baltic nation’s struggle for independence during five decades of Soviet rule.
“History is one of the most divisive issues in the Baltic States,” says Nils Muiznieks, a professor at the University of Latvia. Different, and often bitterly conflicting historical narratives are commonplace in this small Baltic country which shares a painful past with neighbors Lithuania and Estonia.
The debates spill onto the streets on anniversaries like May 9, when Russia marks the 1945 end of World War II in Europe. The celebration comes a day after the equivalent celebration in Western nations because of the different timing of Nazi Germany’s official surrender there.
The Baltic States were militarily occupied by the Soviet Union, who collaborated with the Nazis under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Soviet Red Army, under the auspices of the 1939 Pact, initiated the aggression in attacking the Baltic States in 1940, forcibly incorporating these countries into the Soviet Union.
The Nazi forces rid Latvia of the Red Army occupation in 1941, though they brought their own terror to the country including massacring the region’s Jews, sometimes with local help.
The Red Army returned in 1944, finally driving out the Third Reich troops by May 1945. It is a misconception, though, to say that the Red Army ‘liberated’ Latvia from the Nazis, as liberation entails setting people free. It would also seem ludicrous to consider that the Red Army liberated a country that it initially started a war against and invaded.
Despite the war’s end in 1945, the Soviet Army remained in the Baltics, enslaving these people within the USSR for another 50 years in a murderous regime of oppression, discrimination and foreign control. Decades of economic mismanagement and decline followed.
Talking today about events of this recent past, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis (New Era) said, “The recovery from this period is taking a long time. Nobody will return those people whose lives were lost in the Stalinist repressions. Therefore, it’s important to also remember the occupation to raise awareness not only in Latvia, but also in Europe and the world about the history of the Baltic states in that period,” he said.
The Baltic States regained independence as the Soviet bloc crumbled in 1991, and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.
Since they became anchored in the West, Moscow has often accused them of trying to “rewrite” the history of World War II by equating the Nazis and Soviets. The Baltic countries counter that the Kremlin has failed to acknowledge its own wrongdoing, that the Russian people have failed to honestly and objectively examine their own history.
“History is always very difficult between neighbors,” Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite said in a recent interview. “It’s not for today’s Russia to be responsible for it, but to have a political acknowledgement of the past,” she said.
For many Russians, including those living in the Baltics and who often have Soviet-era settler roots, May 9 has a very different meaning. It marks the end of the 1941-1945 ‘Great Patriotic War’ with Germany, which cost millions of Soviet lives, and any purported failure to acknowledge that suffering is painful for them.
“This resentment comes from two different interpretations of what is perceived as the same war,” said Ojars Kalnins, head of the Latvian Institute. Kalnins has the insightful suggestion of giving a different consideration of the events. He asks if there were actually two different wars going on concurrently.
His explanation would be that World War II began in September 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. During this war, the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941, and again by the USSR in 1944. That occupation continued until 1991.
The Great Patriotic War, on the other hand, began with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and brought tremendous destruction and suffering to the Russian people. The Great Patriotic War was fought in the heart of Russia and it was the Russian people who suffered in huge numbers.
The end of any war is worth celebrating, he says, and there is no reason why Latvians cannot join their Russian neighbors in celebrating the end of this Nazi attack on Russia and its people. Tragically, the end of the Great Patriotic War did not end suffering in the Baltic States, due to the continued occupation, and there is no reason why Russians can’t join their Baltic neighbors in acknowledging this as well.
If one looks at this history as two wars, it is a lot easier to agree on one truth, he says.