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Here we are again, dear readers – the demonstration season is upon us once again here in Latvia. Each year it begins on March 16, and ends on May 9. And in both instances it demonstrates one of this country’s biggest problems.
March 16, as I would imagine most Baltic Times readers know, is the day when more nationalistically inclined Latvians commemorate the so-called Latvian Legion, which was part of the German military during World War II. This year, for the first time, the Riga City Council did not try to ban anyone from approaching the Freedom Monument in the context of this commemoration, and perhaps inevitably, this led to some pushing and shoving and yelling and screaming that was kept from developing further only by the presence of a substantial police force (several people were detained). Among those who were doing the pushing and shoving were several members of Parliament from the so-called National Alliance [NA]. They hail from a non-governmental organisation cum political party called Everything for Latvia! Apparently “everything” includes the endorsement of a process which by no means is all nice and good.
The problem, as I have written on other occasions, is that the history of World War II was written long ago in Europe, and the Nazis were indisputably the bad guys. Those who think about the issue know that Stalin was an even greater monster than Hitler if only because his murderous ways continued far longer than the Nazi dictator’s life. And yet the breathtaking slaughter that was the Holocaust meant that the Nazis would go down in history as the incarnation of evil.
Now, the Latvian Legion was created after the Sho’ah was largely “complete” in Latvia, it was other Latvians who policed the ghetto in Riga and escorted Jews to their deaths at Rumbula and elsewhere. It is also true that Latvia underwent a year of absolute terror in advance of the German invasion, complete with the deportation of thousands of people in cattle cars to Siberia in just one day. Still, surely it is no stretch to realise that it is really not wise to remind the world once every year that Latvians were on the side of the Nazis. Even more so, it is not wise to try to enshrine March 16 as a national date of commemoration, as the NA did last week. Thankfully, smarter heads in Parliament prevailed and the proposal was rejected, but there is nonetheless this spitefulness in putting up the middle finger against world opinion, and never mind the consequences.
May 9, in turn, is the date when nationalistically inclined Russians commemorate the end of World War II, doing so, as is Russia’s wont, not on the same day as the whole rest of Europe, but one day later. Even more, the folklore about the war which existed during the Soviet era and which has been pumped up by Tsar Vladimir to an outrageous level holds that Russia pretty much won the war all by itself. The so-called Victory Monument in Pardaugava only shows Soviet soldiers “liberating” Latvia. There are no statues of British or American soldiers in the park.
In both cases, this is a regrettable process, because it illustrates the fact that lots of people in Latvia are firmly stuck in the past. Those who gathered at the Freedom Monument on March 16 just cannot let go of what happened during the war. Latvians are even masochistic enough to hang out the flag, albeit with a black ribbon, on the date when the Soviet Union invaded Latvia in 1940. In Parliament, if time is spent discussing whether an event now 60 and more years past should be commemorated in a more specific way, then that is time which is not spent on far more urgent issues which relate to the present and to the future.
Those who will gather at the Victory Monument in May, for their part, will be upholding the nonsensical myth that the Soviet Union liberated Latvia and that Latvia joyously and eagerly rushed to become a Soviet republic without at all being prodded to do so. This is of particular concern at a time when the government of Russia seems to be primarily concerned with looking macho, whether in domestic or in international affairs. This bull-headed approach has even led to a partial rehabilitation of the monster Stalin. What is wrong with the people of a town who believe that on holidays their whole city should be named for the man?
The bottom line to March 16 and May 9 is this: The war is over. It ended nearly 60 years ago. To nationalists on both sides of the line: It’s time to let go.
Karlis Streips is an American-Latvian journalist who has done extensive radio, television and print work. He has lived in Latvia since 1989.