Artistic controversy erupts around president's memory

  • 2001-11-01
  • Ilze Arklina
RIGA - As parliamentary elections approach, Latvian society is ready to split in two over yet another monument planned for Riga. The idea to put up a statue to Latvia's revered prewar president and four-time prime minister, Karlis Ulmanis, who dissolved the Parliament in 1935 and became sole leader until the Soviet invasion in June 1940, has already sparked a heated debate.

The Riga Municipal Monument Council decided last week to erect the monument to Ulmanis in a square opposite the Riga City Council's building on Krisjana Valdemara Street. However, the City Council has yet to approve the decision.

Approximately 30,000 lats ($48,400) have already been donated for the monument, of which 8,700 lats have been given by Latvian Australians, 10,000 lats by Latvian Americans, and 9,200 lats inside Latvia.

Ulmanis is seen by many as the very symbol of Latvia before the Soviet invasion - free and prosperous, with a standard of living comparable to the rest of Europe.

His deportation by the Soviets along with 35,000 other people from Latvia in 1940 still haunts the nation. His death in Siberia and the failure to locate his remains leaves this sad chapter of Latvian history open. A monument to his memory could prove to be as meaningful to Latvians as the Freedom Monument of 1935, which stands in the very heart of Riga.

"We need a monument to Ulmanis. He is a vital personality in Latvia's political history. However, it has to reflect Ulmanis' controversial nature. He was a founder of the democratic state of Latvia, but he was also its gravedigger," says Ainars Dimants, head of the communication studies department at Stradins University in Riga, reflecting on the 1935 coup d'état.

The multiplicity of parties in the Parliament at the time (22 in 1922 and 24 in 1931) made it impossible to form a stable government. On May 15, 1935, Ulmanis declared a state of emergency. The Saeima (parliament) and all political parties were dissolved overnight. As soon as the second term of office expired for President Alberts Kviesis in 1936, Ulmanis succeeded him.

Yet after his apparent dictatorship was cemented, the country's economic position improved considerably.

Extreme regime?

Ulmanis' regime was different from the fascist regimes of the time. It gained wide support from the people. He was popular especially among the farmers and the army.

Latvia chose a neutral foreign policy line, forced to exist between fascist and Soviet superpowers. But the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in 1939 determined Latvia's fate: it was to be tucked inside the Soviet sphere of interest. On June 17, 1940, Soviet troops entered Latvia.

Dimants was most critical about Ulmanis' inability to act strongly when Latvia was occupied. "Liquidating the 'satversme,' the Latvian constitution, without replacing it with anything and handing the country to the occupants without any protest at all has left a demoralizing effect that is still felt today," he says. "This action has no reason to be immortalized in a monument."

Ulmanis' words in a nationwide radio address on that tragic day of June 17 still have an echo today. After all those years in power, "You stay in your place, I'll stay in mine," is probably his most famous quote, a symbol of Latvia's non-resistant takeover.

"At least a diplomatic protest was necessary," Dimants stressed. "There were no official documents from the Latvian government against the Soviet occupation. Instead, as the country's president, Ulmanis merely signed the few documents the Soviets allowed him to sign. This burdened the work of Latvian diplomats abroad, and it burdened the restoration of the Latvian state."

One alternative

Current Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins would rather see a monument raised to Latvia's first foreign minister, Zigfrids Anna Meierovics, instead of Ulmanis. Without Meierovics, Latvia's international recognition "would not have been possible," Berzins said. "If the future Foreign Ministry building has to have a monument nearby, it has to be to Meierovics who was not only a great foreign minister but also a true democrat," Berzins said.

Riga City Council will be relocated to the Rathaus building currently under construction in the Old Town, while the Foreign Ministry is expected to take over the council's present premises.

It was Meierovics who brought about the 1920 peace treaties with Germany and the Soviet Union, who succeeded in gaining de jure recognition of Latvia by the Allied powers, who paved the way for a defensive alliance with Estonia, and who gained Latvia's admission to the League of Nations.

From 1921 to 1923, Meierovics was also head of the Latvian government. He died in a car accident in 1925. Thousands of people paid their respects at his funeral, on what was a day of national mourning.

Karlis Ulmanis was the action man of Latvian politics, Dimants said. People who lived under his rule remember those days as the "good times" in the history of Latvia.

Many attributed the presidential election victory in 1993 of Guntis Ulmanis, the country's first president after regaining independence, to his surname. Karlis Ulmanis was his great uncle. The family link at the time reinforced the idea of the "continuity" of the Republic of Latvia from before the occupation.

"My grandmother always used to tell a story about when she was a young teacher in the village of Vircava near Jelgava," recalls Ilze Kraule, a journalist in Riga.

"One Saturday President Ulmanis came unexpectedly in his car, accompanied only by his driver and an aide. Ulmanis called all the teachers together and asked what their needs were. They said everything was fine except for the gravel road that passed too close to the school. The classes filled with dust every time someone drove by. The following Monday asphalt machines came and fixed the road."

The Latvian Farmers Union, Ulmanis' home party some 80 years ago, is now a minor political force with high yet ungrounded ambitions. It staged a competition for the design of the monument. They chose the winning project in September.

But the competition has had its detractors. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga described it as something out of the Soviet era. "I had the feeling that the competing sculptors simply took out some old models, maybe from the days when they were making monuments to Lenin, and put Karlis Ulmanis' head on top for a monument in the same style, approach and artistic concept as the old days," she said in an interview with Latvian Radio.

The guidelines set by the organizers were conservative, said one Latvian curator, barring most contemporary Latvian artists from participating.

Gallery games

To mock the stiffness of the event, students from the Latvian Academy of Arts are staging an alternative exhibition of Karlis Ulmanis monuments at the academy until Nov. 2, called "Ulmanis in Our Hearts." Ulmanis is a figure in butter, a portrait on watering cans and a plastic statuette with a mobile phone on a marzipan cake. The exhibition has been widely debated and fiercely criticized.

A patriotic youth organization, Visu Latvijai (All for Latvia), staged a picket before the opening, against what they called "a mockery of Ulmanis and desecration of Latvian symbols." But the five youngsters with crimson-white-crimson national flags were mobbed by 30-odd reporters and cameramen waiting for some action.

"This kind of exhibition is inadmissible. This is against Ulmanis!" said red-faced Raivis Dzintars, 18, a political science student from the Riga Humanitarian Institute. "Ulmanis was the leader who built Latvia as a country. Under his rule, we reached a very high level of prosperity and education."

Young painter Ernests Klavins was behind the students' exhibition. "We decided to make a competition that is open to everybody so people could freely express their ideas about Karlis Ulmanis," Klavins said. "It's not about Ulmanis as a person or about him as a political figure - it is about Ulmanis as an idea. Ulmanis is both a beloved and controversial figure in Latvia."

"Does Ulmanis need a monument? No. His monument is the Latvian state. As long as Latvia exists there will be a memory of Ulmanis. It's just sad that this clash of monuments involves young artists who are willing to do good but instead do evil," wrote one visitor in the exhibition's comments book.

Ulmanis is not widely known outside Latvia as Latvia is not widely known itself, said Ojars Kalnins, director of the Latvian Institute and a former Latvian ambassador to the United States. "The 1920s and 1930s were so complicated in Europe. So little is known about what happened in these small countries."

Ulmanis as a personality is little debated in the Latvian émigré community as everybody praises him. "But I feel that there are many Latvians in Latvia who would like Ulmanis to be paid homage to," he said.