BALTICS          LATVIA   


January 1991: A dream came true..

by Irina Jakovleva


The road towards the complete independence for Latvia can be compare to a roller coaster ride. One of the most painful days in the history was 16th of June, 1940 when Latvia had been occupied and proclaimed a Soviet Republic. Nearly 200 000 soldiers were sent to this small Baltic Republic to suppress any resistance, even the slightest one. On that day, Latvians silently bowed to Moscow and accepted its will. Since then, one of the major frustrations, occurred within the native population, was a loss of the National identity. Soviet ideology, rules, and norms to a significant extent overshadowed and overwhelmed national culture, traditions, and historic life-style of Latvia. The country became an integral part of USSR and Soviet regime, and was meant to stay that way forever.

However, nearly 50 years later Latvia got the opportunity to make its dream come true and resurrect its origins and identity. One possible explanation of a sudden change is that it takes time for feelings like frustration and rage to grow. It is like a balloon, constantly blown by someone. At some point balloon cannot handle the pressure anymore, thus explodes. Somewhat similar "explosion" happened to the Latvians


The first major signs of non-satisfaction took place in the late 80's. The idea of reestablishment of an independence overflowed the minds of Baltic citizens, especially the younger generation. The major role belonged to Latvian Popular Front (Latvijas Tautas Fronte)-radical, anti-communist party. Although, their ideology was based on nationalism, it gained extreme level of popularity within the country. Obviously, there was no "room" for any backward movements. However, people could hardly imagine how big the price would be for walking along this "path" till the end. In 1990, some other Soviet Republics shared and supported the idea of being independent form USSR. These circumstances added the significant amount of confidence for Baltics to public accusation of Moscow in oppression and occupancy. However, in Moscow there was a different opinion about the forthcoming crisis. Therefore, it used the extreme methods to sustain the power and dictatorship.

The first country to "get punishment" for resistance was Lithuania. In the beginning of January 1991, Soviet army occupied Vilnius and its most important objects such as headquarters of television and major newspapers. The worst day, when many civilians were killed would be known as "The Bloody Sunday". At the same time, Latvians had been preparing for the same terror. The main goal was to stop the Soviet troops from attacking the Parliament Building and Television headquarters. Barricades were erected everywhere in the center of Riga. About 700 000 people were sitting on the streets twenty-four hours a day. Overall, civilian patrols lasted for three weeks. Unfortunately, the worst expectations came true. The week after "revolution" in Lithuania Russian troops received the order to cross Latvian border. Within few hours Riga was filled with tanks and heavily armed soldiers.


The whole situation was unbelievable. On the one side professional army with a significant amount of military equipment and clearly defined, specific tasks. On the other side, bare-handed exhausted citizens, unaware of what to expect. Their "weapons" were believes in a different, brighter future, enthusiasm and fear. Fear, that tiny little nation will just disappear one day. Probably, it was a justified fear, as almost half of the Latvian population were Russians. Therefore, because of the frequent marriages, there was a theoretical possibility, that in a certain period of time there hardly would be any pure Latvians left. However, more puzzled question was about the motive of Russian part of population, supporting the idea of independence. I think, Baltic Russians have had more opportunities to go abroad compare to the citizens of Russia. They had more chances to see what it was like to have a "normal" life. A life, where it is not a problem to buy bananas or where no one has to go and pick up once a month cards for butter and sugar. A life, where everyone can spend money in any desirable way and to forgo the 10-years car waiting list. Therefore the Baltic Russians were an integral part of participants in January events.

The crucial and turning point of the crisis took place on January 20. OMON, a special unit under the command of the Soviet Minister of the Interior, attacked Latvian Interior Building. Shooting was heard everywhere. Many citizens were injured. Four people were killed on the Bastion Hill (Basteja Kalns) in the very center of Riga. One of the victims was a famous film director Andris Slapins, who basically filmed his own death. The fifth victim, another famous camera man Gvido Zvaigzne had been deadly wounded and died later in the hospital. Undoubtedly, this week was the scariest of my life in Latvia. I can still recall from my childhood memories, that schools were closed and how terribly nervous my grandmother was, while waiting for for my parents to return back from work.


The whole week was like a one big test for a nation. It looked as if for one night Latvia was thrown back to June 1940. Latvians were given the second chance to fight and build their own future. This time nation did not forgo the opportunity and no one bailed despite the shooting, blood and deaths. Although, Moscow won the military battle, it neither did manage to breakdown the spirit and unity of Latvians nor to seed any doubts about the positive outcome. Later, in the March it was proven officially, as 73% of the population voted for independence. Russia had no choice, but to admit its defeat. Although Latvia was proclaimed an independent in August, in my opinion, January 1991 was the catalyst and the beginning of the new era in Latvian history. This week proved that despite the national disagreements and problems, all residents of the country, regardless of their nationality, would unite together to stand to their rights and fight against threats and oppression. I really hope, that it has been the worst and the last "test" for my country and its citizens, and that in the future original Latvian identity will be recognized and respected by the other nations.



1.Plakans, Andrejs "The Latvians". 1995 Stanford, California

2. Eiksteins, Modris. "Walking since Daybreak". 1999, New York Press

3. Visited on 02/3/01



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