Latvia remembers fight for freedom

  • 2001-01-18
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Events to mark the 10th anniversary of the mass struggle for Latvian independence get into full swing this week. Concerts and wreath-laying ceremonies will be held to commemorate six people killed by Soviet forces.

Those at the forefront of the events will speak at an international conference Jan. 19 in Riga. But some whose role was crucial to the movement's success have expressed alarm at the nationalism they feel has been a feature of post-Soviet Latvia.

The program of events began on Jan. 12 with commemoration of a Latvian People's Front meeting, which initiated the campaign to protect key buildings from Soviet special forces by the use of street barricades, which on one day attracted an estimated 700,000 participants. A new exhibition will be opened on Jan. 18 at the People's Front Museum on Vecpilsetas Street. Renovations at the Museum of the Barricades Social Support Fund in Kramu Street will be inaugurated on Jan. 17.

On Jan. 20 flowers will be laid in cemeteries around Riga and concerts will be held in the Dome Cathedral, St. Peter's Church, the Small Guild and the Riga Stock Exchange. The day is the anniversary of the deaths of five people killed during the storming of the Interior Ministry by OMON special forces. Those killed included two members of the camera crew of celebrated Latvian filmmaker Juris Podnieks, one of whose documentaries, Homeland, will be shown on Latvian TV on Jan. 20.

A conference will be held on Jan. 19 at Riga's Congress Hall, where speakers will include former Latvian Popular Front leader Dainis Ivans, Vytautas Landsbergis, former chairman of Lithuania's Sajudis independence movement and now a Conservative MP, and Edgar Savisaar, Estonia's first post-Soviet Prime Minister. Others who played leading roles in the collapse of the Soviet Union in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia will also speak.

On Jan. 18 the Latvian Parliament will decide on the possible granting of special benefits to the children of those who died at the barricades. Relatives of the dead deserve special support, said Renars Zalais, President of the Barricades Social Support Fund, who himself helped defend the Interior Ministry from OMON forces.

"For society this was a time of rebirth rather than a tragic event, but all but one of those who lost husbands are now bringing up families alone," said Zalais. "For the families it is still a trauma."

The fund has been involved in the establishment in 1998 of Jan. 20 as a state anniversary, and the awarding of 4,895 medals to those who "actively participated" in the independence struggle.

Marina Kostenecka, one of those who led the independence movement says the struggle has been understood in too nationalistic terms. An ethnic Russian, Kostenecka's father was deported to Siberia before she was born, and died when she was 15, five years after his return. Non-ethnic Latvians also suffered under the Soviet regime, she points out, and were committed to bringing it down.

"For me the independence struggle was revenge for my father. At school they called me the daughter of a fascist. The last thing he said to me was that I might be ashamed of him now, but one day I would be proud."

Kostenecka's ethnicity seems not to have lost her support.

"In 1989 I stood against 10 men for election in Preili and won 75 percent of the vote, despite a campaign in the Russian press saying I was a fascist.

"Because I was a famous writer I was able to encourage people at the barricades. People sitting by the fires felt if I was there they should be too. I recently presented a medal to a man in Liepaja who said he was proud to be receiving it from my hands."

Efforts by Kostenecka and other independence campaigners to educate people about the barricades are now paying off, she says. As a judge of an annual essay-writing competitions in schools she now sees a more enlightened attitude emerging.

"Earlier no one wrote about how other nationalities participated in the barricades. They didn't know there were barricades in Moscow as well. This was our fault. So we organized a club to tell people what really happened. This year kids mentioned for the first time that Russians participated in and supported independence.

"I'm not afraid of future ethnic conflict. The older generation here has closed the doors, but now I see a new generation which is free-thinking, not afraid to write, not afraid of being sent to Siberia. They are politically educated, unlike us who were just thrown into this struggle. Reading young people's essays I see they know their home is here, but they also know about the outside world. They know there are so many things to discover."

More critical of the direction Latvia is taking is Mawrik Vulfson, a Latvian Jew whose first language is German. Vulfson, whose condemnation of Soviet oppression in front of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow stunned TV audiences, played a major role in exposing the truth about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, by which Hitler and Stalin carved up Eastern Europe between them. But he quickly fell from grace in the newly-independent Latvia, being forced from his post as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for his outspoken comments on Latvia's role in the Holocaust.

Once a committed communist, he later lost 20 to 25 members of his family during the Nazi occupation, and 12 more in Stalin's camps, he says.

Vulfson has fond memories of the independence struggle, but believes it should be seen in a wider context.

"We really were heroes, with our hearts buoyed by our emotions, our readiness, and also the experience some of us had in the army," he said.

"But we were also lucky. Moscow was paralyzed from responding after the deaths at the TV tower in Vilnius. Many of Gorbachev's friends resigned and everyone was blaming everybody else. Vilnius was the key."

Latvia's leaders have since forgotten some of the movement's high ideals, he says.

"The Latvian Popular Front was a very positive organization, not only in its aims but also morally. It was not anti-Russian, but anti-Soviet. The moment news appeared of the killings in Vilnius 350,000 people demonstrated in Moscow. Latvia should be grateful to Russians who opposed the regime. Russian women were phoning radio stations saying they were ashamed of being Russian."

Ethnic Russians who voted for independence in the March 1991 referendum should have been rewarded with offers of citizenship, says Vulfson.

"I watched Russians voting for independence under the gaze of military officers. We couldn't have got 73 percent in favor of independence without them. We'd have far fewer problems today if these people had been offered citizenship. Now Russians want citizenship for personal gain, not because they want to be our friends."