RIGA - On VE-Day, May 8, President Valdis Zatlers, government and parliament leaders, members of the armed forces and the diplomatic corps gathered in Riga’s Brethren Cemetery to honor the multitude of fallen during World War II, reports news agency LETA. Wreaths were placed at the foot of the Mother Latvia Monument, the national anthem was played and a clergyman recited a prayer asking for blessing and peace for the people of Latvia, and for the souls of the millions of Nazi and Soviet victims of WWII.
On hand besides Zatlers were Speaker Solvita Aboltina, Defense Minister Artis Pabriks, NAF Commander Raimonds Graube and Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs among the approximate 50 persons in total.
Marking the May 9 Soviet Victory Day, about 30,000 people gathered throughout the day on the left bank of the Daugava river, at the Soviet WWII war memorial in Riga’s Uzvaras (Victory) Park, to lay flowers at the monument and watch a live broadcast of Moscow’s Victory Day parade. Mayor Usakovs (Harmony Center) and the ambassadors of several former Soviet republics - Russian Ambassador Alexander Veshnyakov, the ambassadors of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, central Asian countries - also laid flowers at the monument.
Several representatives of Harmony Center’s Riga City Council and Saeima groups also participated in the ceremony, as well as European Parliament members Alfreds Rubiks (Latvia’s Socialist Party), Tatjana Zdanoka (For Human Rights in United Latvia), Vladimirs Buzajevs (For Human Rights in United Latvia), and others.
In a touch of irony, this was a day of celebration of the end of a war in which Russia itself was complicit in starting, when it signed, with the Nazis, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. Stalin’s regime remained a loyal ally and friend to Nazi Germany for another 2 years, writes Andres Kasekamp in A History of the Baltic States.
Despite the usual appearance of a small number of hooligans and those having consumed excessive amounts of alcohol in commemorating the event, a substantial police presence, with officers posted from the park through to the surrounding area, meant the day passed rather peacefully.
The May 9 rally is a controversial event as most Russian-speakers in Latvia consider May 9 the Soviet Union’s single-handed victory day over Nazi Germany in World War II. Though the war ended on May 8, it was already after midnight in Moscow when the documents were signed in Germany.
The end of WWII didn’t bring peace, justice or an end to the war to Latvia or its Baltic neighbors as the brutal Soviet occupation and destruction of its economy continued for almost another 50 years. The Baltic people find little in May 8, let alone May 9, to celebrate. Most Latvians see this day as an ‘Occupation Day’ as one repressive regime - Nazi Germany - in Latvia was replaced by another repressive regime - the Soviet Union - during World War II.
Though the Red Army ‘liberated’ Latvia from the Nazis in 1944, it remained an occupying force after the war ended. In fact, it was the German army that drove out the Soviet army, in 1941, after the Soviets had illegally invaded the country in 1940.
Nevertheless, a jovial atmosphere was apparent in the air, with attendees waving Russian and Soviet flags and shouting out various slogans. One of the many speakers was ex-Riga mayor, now MEP Rubiks, who lauded the courage and sacrifice of Soviet soldiers in battling Nazi Germany. As expected, he sharply criticized “hired” historians who attempt to lessen the feat of Soviet soldiers.
Some felt the pro-Soviet nostalgia was going a bit too far. Playboy deputy editor-in-chief Ivars Abolins turned to the Security Police (DP), complaining of planned fundraising during the May 9 celebrations looking to attract funds for a memorial for convicted WWII war criminal Vasily Kononov.
“Latvian legislation prohibits justifying or glorifying war crimes and criminals, and fund-raising at the monument clearly can be regarded as such praise. I have read Kononov’s file, and it is absurd to glorify such a person,” said the Playboy editor.
The party Our Choice, in cooperation with the often violent Russian youth organization Nashi, is collecting donations for the Kononov project. The party says that respect should be for the soldiers who fought against fascism - both Russian and Latvian soldiers.
However, it fails to urge that soldiers who fought against the evils of the Soviet Union should also be respected.
Kononov died this year on March 31 at the age of 88.
Latvia’s Supreme Court Criminal Chamber, on April 30, 2004, found Kononov guilty of war crimes: his guerrilla group in 1944 in the small village of Batu brutally killed several civilians and burned down their houses.
Meanwhile, back at the May 9 festival, it was Rubiks who perhaps made sense of the entire affair, as he declared that it makes no difference when the victory is marked - May 8 or May 9. “We can celebrate on any date; it doesn’t matter; the main thing is to celebrate!,” he beamed.