The aggravation of Russia–Latvia relations over history proves again that conflicts stemming from memories of WWII have not abated
Hardly had a month after the failed referendum on granting Russian an official status in Latvia passed, when another conflict erupted, fuelled by clashes between memories of history held by ethnic Latvians and the Russian-speaking minority who immigrated during the Soviet era. The scandal unfolded around 16 March — Latvian Legion Remembrance Day. For Latvians, who were conscripted under duress to either the Latvian Legion in the German Waffen-SS or the Latvian Corps in the Red Army, the memory of the Legionnaires is objectively more significant – at least because there were nearly 150,000 of them, while only slightly more than 50,000 served in the Soviet Corps (which also included a large proportion of ethnic Russians). The Latvian population at the time was barely over two million, so there would be a legionary virtually in every Latvian family. The evidence provided by eye-witnesses and numerous subsequent commissions by the Western alliesshows that the death-bound legionnaires (40,000 were killed in action, another 50,000 were taken prisoner by the Soviets, many of whom did not survive) were convinced they were fighting against the reoccupation of Latvia by the Soviets, rather than for the interests of Nazi Germany. Latvians associated the Soviet occupation of their country with the mass terror of 1940-41, which indeed recurred on a much larger scale after the Soviet reoccupation of the Baltic states in 1944-45.
A STRANGE CAPITAL?
In February, the Riga Duma received applications for mass events scheduled on 16 March both from the organisations for veterans and supporters of the Latvian armed formations of WWII and anti-Soviet resistance fighters and their ideological opponents from the so-called antifascist, pro-Russian movement. However, on 28 February the city’s government banned all events scheduled for 16 March on the pretext of Security Police reports about possible provocations allegedly being prepared by a few dozen radicals from the post-Soviet countries. However, law enforcers immediately protested against the ban and suggested assigning separate venues for the antagonistic groups, since a ban would hinder safety measures, and would eventually be voided by the court anyway, due to insufficient grounds for limiting citizens’ constitutional right to the freedom of assembly. This is actually what happened in the end.
The ban on events related to the Legionnaires’ Day for the umpteenth time brought to light a problem which has festered in Latvia since the capital came under control of the pro-Kremlin Harmony Centre, SC in Lettish (United Russia’s official partner, which takes advantage of the fact that ethnic Latvians still comprise only 42% of Riga’s population), and nationwide power belongs to a coalition of Latvian parties, including Harmony Centre’s major opponent, the National Alliance. The “threat of provocations” seems to have become the Harmony Centre’s attempt to demonstrate its authority in Latvia’s political life – both at home (after the language referendum, personally supported by Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs, flopped) and to its “senior partner” abroad. The Kremlin traditionally overreacts to any displays of national memory models in post-Soviet countries which differ from the Russian line.
The problem of reconciling veterans and especially the descendants of the soldiers who fought on opposite sides of the front line during WWII in today’s Latvia greatly resembles the situation in Ukraine. The only difference perhaps is that in Latvia both dates, 9 May (Victory Day in the Soviet Union. – Ed.) and 16 March, are not state holidays and neither Soviet nor German army veterans enjoy any special status and preferences. The official Latvian stand is that the memory of the fallen soldiers, who were forced to fight for two equally criminal totalitarian regimes (as the Nazis and Bolsheviks took turns occupying Latvia in the 1940s), may not be used as grounds for political speculation. Thus until recently the celebration of both dates in Latvia was confined to traditional events focussed on commemoration. However, this year the nation has felt a rising tension related to issues, fundamental to Latvian identity, such as the official language and historical continuity which dates back to Latvian independence of 1920s – 1940s, and resumed in 1990 by a parliamentary declaration.
The campaign by Russian and pro-Russian mass media, aimed at discrediting Latvian Legionnaires and prohibiting commemorative events in Riga on 16 March, was suddenly opposed by Latvia’s president Andris Bērziņš. Last June he was elected largely thanks to the votes supplied by the pro-Russian Harmony Centre, and during the recent coalition debate he ardently argued for the involvement of SC into the governmental coalition and public authorities. However, after SC leader Ushakovs supported the referendum on granting Russian the status of an official language, Bērziņš categorically confronted the initiative as posing a threat to Latvian identity. He even threatened to resign if the status of Latvian as the only official language be called into question.
The Latvian president has publicly censured those who call Latvian legionaries “war criminals” and “SS guards,” emphasizing that the Legion was only formally connected to the Waffen-SS, and none of its members was ever a member of the Nazi party, which was a must for all Waffen-SS men. The Legion never took part in any punitive operations against civilians and never confronted the Western allies, though it did fight against the Red Army which occupied Latvia in 1940. After all, according to the Nuremberg tribunal ruling, the term “war criminal” cannot be applied to anyone who was conscripted under duress, as was the case with the absolute majority of Latvian legionnaires. Thus, according to the president, soldiers of the Latvian Legion cannot be made answerable for the crimes of the Nazi regime. “The hype around the Latvian Legion should be viewed as a targeted campaign, aimed at defaming and humiliating Latvia and unrelated in any way to the objective assessment of historical facts,” Bērziņš said.
DETERRING THE ATTACK FROM THE EAST
Russia’s official reaction, like that of its satellite organisations in Latvia, was another round of charges against Latvia for alleged revanchism and the rehabilitation of Nazism. Aleksandr Pochinok, head of the Russian PACE delegation, declared that the Assembly was preparing a special report on “manifestations of fascism and nationalism,” after which Russia would lobby for a resolution on the inadmissibility of “glorification of fascism, which has already become a trend in a number of European countries, in particular, in the Baltic states and especially in Latvia.”
Latvian pro-Russian (aka “antifascist”) organisations are more outspoken in their responses and directly state that the “fascism” in the Baltic countries is deeply rooted in anti-Russian sentiment. Following their logic, any anti-Russian force can thus be labelled “pro-fascist” by default.
Against this background another revealing, history-based clash between Moscow and Riga is unfolding. On 2 March Latvia’s foreign minister Edgar Rinkevich declared Aleksandr Diukov, director of the Historical Memory Foundation, and Vladimir Simindey, director of the Foundation’s research programmes, both persona non grata, following the Foundation’s provocative exhibition about “the war crimes of Lettish Nazi collaborationists” in Moscow. The exhibition was seen by Latvia as falsification and an act of anti-Latvian propaganda. In particular, Diukov maintained that the large-scale deportations and repressions against Latvians “were an appropriate policy” in Soviet times. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry has already threatened with imposing similar sanctions on Latvian researchers unless the ban on Russian historians’ entry into Latvia is lifted.
Latvian political circles should have already gained sufficient experience to realize that no concessions will stop Russia from continuing the campaign to discredit Latvia’s de-sovietisation efforts. Latvia tolerates the monument to Soviet soldiers who started the country’s 46-year-long occupation in the very centre of Riga; the official celebration of the Latvian Legionnaires’ Remembrance Day was cancelled; President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga took part in the official celebration of Victory Day in Moscow on 9 May 2005; Latvia ceded Abrene district (now Pytalovo, Pskov Region), which belonged to Latvia prior to its occupation of 1940, but was subsequently annexed by Russia). And yet the Kremlin is never satisfied.
The conservative National Alliance has already elaborated a draft law defining the status of a “fighter for Latvia’s freedom.” The draft provides for a special legal status, monthly payments, and special awards for those Latvian soldiers who were engaged in action against the Soviet troops during the Second World War. Besides, the draft envisions the same status for all former members of regular military units which fought “to prevent Latvia’s reoccupation and the genocide of the Latvian people.” The authors of the draft maintain that this can be one way to restore historical justice and compensate, albeit partly, the decades of discrimination and injustice, inflicted on them during the Soviet occupation of Latvia.
TWO DISTINCT WARS
Many Europeans still fail to understand that the Second World War on the Eastern Front was fundamentally different from WWII on the Western Front. If the latter was a showcase of the confrontation between democracy and universal human values, on the one hand, and an inhuman, totalitarian empire, on the other, in Central and Eastern Europe it was just a war between two basically identical systems. Western democracies could see this for themselves, in fact, immediately after defeating the common enemy.
Thus, when people in Europe give in to Moscow’s demands to stand up for the so-called common values, which allegedly protected the Western democracies and the totalitarian USSR in the Second World War, they should ask themselves a question: what is there “in common”? And moreover, how could the victims of the Bolshevik aggression in Eastern Europe have recognized it? In 1939-41 Nazi Germany and the communist USSR were the closest of allies, methodically tearing Europe apart, and no one had any doubt about the Soviet Union being as aggressive as Germany. The latter is proved by the expulsion of the USSR from the League of Nations in December 1939.
The Kremlin’s current campaign to discredit the policy of national memory in the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries is first of all facilitated by the fact that, unlike Nazism, the communist ideology and practice has still not been properly denounced. Instead, its apologists and ideological heirs exploit the myths of the “joint victorious war,” which resulted in the expansion of the communist totalitarian empire, as a tool of its restoration and upgrading. Europeans have to decide for themselves if they have any “values in common” with Putin’s authoritarian regime, and if trying to please him and assist his attempts to manipulate the complicated history in his geopolitical games will not result in the Eurasian space expanding at the expense of Eastern Europe.
23 August 1939
The Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact gave the Kremlin a free hand to manage Latvia and other Baltic states (Finland, Estonia, and according to a subsequent amendment, Lithuania). In October 1939, after he and Hitler had divided Poland, Stalin forced Latvia to accommodate Soviet garrisons on its territory. Later, in June the next year, the country was completely occupied by Soviet troops. The country’s government was overthrown and replaced with a pro-Soviet dummy regime. Latvia’s parliament was dissolved and a fraudulent election was held. Only pro-communist candidates got elected, who immediately declared their desire to vote for Latvia’s joining the USSR. Latvian intellectuals, who were not able to (or would not) leave the country, in the first year of the Soviet occupation were physically exterminated, imprisoned, or deported to Siberia.
16 March 1944
Units of the Latvian Legion first engaged in combat against Soviet troops near the Velikaya River, south-east of Ostrov, Pskov Region. Since 1945, this date has been celebrated by former Latvian legionaries in emigration as Legionnaires’ Remembrance Day. In Latvia proper, this date has been openly celebrated since 1988. Supporters of the Latvian Legionnaires’ Remembrance Day maintain that the legionaries not only fought against occupants after 1940, but also defended Kurzeme (Courland) during the war, thus rescuing a considerable number of Latvian intellectuals who later maintained Latvia’s statehood traditions in emigration. The Legion’s officers did not surrender on 9 May 1945, but continued to command the numerous units of the national anti-Soviet resistance movement well into the late 1950s.
1 October 1946
The verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal clearly defines the circle of persons associated with the criminal SS organization. Notably, those conscripted under duress (which was the case with most Latvian legionaries) were not listed as criminals if they had not committed any crimes of war. The UK Foreign Office stated in 1946 that [Latvian] legionnaires had no SS ideological grounding, they were not members of the National Socialist party, were not implicated in war crimes, and did not fight against the Western allies, but only fought against the Bolsheviks. The US Displaced Persons Commission ruled on 1 September 1950 that Waffen-SS Baltic legions should be considered distinct units, differing from the German SS units in their goals, ideology, activities, and qualifications.
CRIMINALS OR VICTIMS?
Deprived of their own state due to the Soviet occupation and forcibly drafted into the Nazi army, Latvian legionnaires had to fight against one enemy on the other’s side.