Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine an old Soviet memorial in the Latvian capital of Riga has come to epitomise a generational, ethnic and cultural division that affects the entire nation. The government’s apparent plans to demolish this monument have only exacerbated the gulf between Latvian citizens and the country’s large Russian community.
Riga, the capital of Latvia. It’s 9 March and the silhouette of the ‘Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders’ towers over a bustling crowd. Those assembled stand facing the structure, but from a distance of almost fifty metres. The whole area has been cordoned off. There are dozens of policemen and riot vans, and you can’t get close to the obelisk. Nevertheless, hundreds of people flock to the barriers holding flowers in their hands. One by one, almost in procession, they pass their flowers sadly to stewards in fluorescent jackets, who, in turn, stand up, turn their backs and mechanically deposit the offerings at the foot of the monument.
The stewards are dressed in black, with black facemasks, black glasses and black hats. Bored-looking, devoid of emotion, they seem like robots. The contrast with the commotion of the crowd is surreal. There are a lot of people. Later, the newspapers will estimate as many as twenty thousand. Those attending have flocked here as they do every year, but this is the first time they’ve been forced to pay their respects at a distance, unable to touch the monument.
“I’ve got mixed feelings, I don’t know what to think about this ban. But generally I think the authorities have reacted too harshly,” says Artūrs as he strides to his desk. Well-groomed, dressed in a white shirt, Artūrs works as a journalist for TVNET, one of Latvia’s biggest media organisations. He and his family belong to the country’s Russian speaking minority, just like the hundreds of people that gathered together in front of the memorial. For this community the monument is particularly special.
This is more than evident from the reactions of those crowded before the obelisk. A few elegant-looking pensioners kneel down, others hug friends, some are visibly moved, still others offer-up indignant interviews to the many cameras that have assembled to document the occasion.
The following morning the flowers are removed by a bulldozer, thrown away like garbage. Many of those who were present the night before interpret this gesture as an affront on the part of the authorities who had encouraged citizens not to congregate in the first place. Waves of indignation, anger and panic are unleashed. That evening, an even bigger crowd flocks to the memorial. People gather and sing Soviet songs and there are clashes with the police. Arrests are made.
In Latvia, historical epochs seem to blend into one another. Not everyone lives, or wants to live, in the same era. As you move away from Riga’s elegant centre the steeples and red bricks that so boldly recall the period of the Hanseatic League are gradually replaced by square blocks of concrete flats. Beyond the Daugava River, Russian is the predominant language.
This side of the river is also home to the contentious obelisk. Its official name may be the ‘Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders’ but the locals have given it another nickname: Maskavas pirksts, “Moscow’s finger.” The memorial was built in 1985 to celebrate victory during what the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union called the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (as opposed to World War II). This ‘Great Patriotic War’, which cost the lives of over 26 million Soviet citizens, ended on the precise date of 9 May 1945. Propagandists transformed this occasion into a kind of Communist Easter and – subsequently – this anniversary became an opportunity to show off the power of the Red Army, to strengthen patriotic faith in class struggle, and, ultimately, legitimise the USSR at home and abroad as a liberator of oppressed peoples.
In the current context, celebrating Russia and its history also – tacitly – means endorsing the Kremlin’s expansionism, and supporting the imperialist politics which were so clearly expressed on 24 February when Russian tanks crossed the border into Ukraine.
This, at least, is the stance of the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, which on 8 April approved a snap law to render 9 May the day of “Commemorating the dead victims in Ukraine.” And not only this. The law also euphemistically prohibited “any other celebration” on that date. Everyone understood what that really meant. There was to be no celebration of the Soviet victory in WWII this year. The police, for their part, reinforced this message, warning the public not to congregate at the monument on 9 May on that basis that “such an act could be seen as support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that country’s revisionist, neo-Stalinist version of history,” as one official message put it. This was also why the flowers left by the Russian-speaking (and Russophile) crowd were removed with such diligence.
The Soviet Union collapsed thirty one years ago, but its symbols live on. Today, in Putin’s Russia, 9 May is used as an opportunity to celebrate the greatness of Russia, and the ‘will to power’ of the world’s largest state.
“I’d venture to say I’ve never seen anything like it. The Russian-speaking community experienced Victory Day as a matter of survival. When they saw the bulldozers remove the flowers, they rallied together and brought many, many more with them. They felt their very existence was threatened. For them this action was not targeted at Russia, but at the community itself: ‘first it’s just the flowers, then they will come for us, and force us to emigrate to Russia,’” says Artūrs.
According to the official statistics one in four Latvian citizens can be defined as “ethnically Russian.” Overall, this is around 460 thousand people. Russians have been present on what is now Latvian territory for around a millennium. When the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed, on Christmas Day 1991, these people woke up in a new world. From majority to minority, rulers to marginalised subjects, from offspring of the glorious liberators who overthrew Nazi Germany they came to be perceived as the heirs of the hated Soviet occupier.
“Instead of disseminating a forward-looking idea of national identity, [the Latvian governments] used and abused the historical trauma that the population lived-through during the time of the USSR”
After claiming their independence, the governments of post-Soviet Latvia chose not to guarantee full citizenship to the majority of ethnic Russians; they even began talking of “nepilsoņi”, literally “non-citizens.” And so, in part due to these discriminatory policies, thousands of ethnic Russians were left with their feet in Latvia, but with their hearts and minds turned towards Russia, a benign motherland where many had not even set foot before, save for the occasional vacation.
“My main criticism of the Latvian governments is that instead of disseminating a forward-looking idea of national identity, they used and abused the historical trauma that the population lived-through during the time of the USSR. I also think it’s important to remember that trauma, but we need to work through it: not limit ourselves to re-opening an old wound and pouring salt on it, but trying to cure it,” reflects Deniss Hanovs, cultural anthropologist and professor at the Art Academy of Latvia.
“I chose to be Latvian”
Artūrs was born and raised in Riga, just like his parents. They’ve always lived in the same neighbourhood, Iļģuciems, whose skyline is dominated by numerous seven story residential buildings, constructed during the Soviet era.
Iļģuciems is about 5km from the centre of Riga, a journey of just 25 minutes by bus. Nevertheless, whenever Artūrs’s mother needs to go there she says: we have to go to the city. “For lots of Russian speakers the city centre is Latvian, another world,” reflects Artūrs with a smile.
Russian is by far the most-used language in Iļģuciems. Residents use it to order coffee, to give directions or ask for the time. Three schools in the area teach in Russian. Only one teaches in Latvian. Artūrs’s father and grandmother understand Latvian, but they don’t speak it. Like most of his childhood friends they talk exclusively in Russian.
“You never have to leave the neighbourhood, which has more or less everything you need: shops, friends, a few bars. When you really do have to go to the centre for an errand, you know you’ll get by using Russian anyway.”
Artūrs, meanwhile, speaks and writes well in Latvian. But this didn’t happen by chance. “After high school I thought about going abroad to university, for exactly that reason: I didn’t know Latvian,” he explains. “Of course we had lessons at school to learn it five times a week, but outside of class I almost never had the opportunity to use it. I stayed here because my mum asked me to, so I enrolled at Riga Stradins University where the courses and exams are in Latvian. I’ve lived in Riga all my life, but I only learnt Latvian when I was 19 years old, at university.”
In post-communist Europe those processes of nation building – the traces of which are all but invisible in the West – are still underway. And these processes are slow, divisive and tumultuous. Here, at the extreme East of the European Union, people almost never inherit an identity; they choose it, shape it, and claim it as their own. It’s a personal choice. A political choice.
“I chose to be Latvian precisely because I didn’t want to be Russian”
Artūrs’s mother is half-Azerbaijani and half-Russian, but she has chosen to define herself as the latter. His father is half- Belarusian and half-Russian, and he too has chosen to define himself as the latter. There is possible Jewish ancestry somewhere in the family’s genetic heritage. Nevertheless, Artūrs has decided to be, or rather to become, Latvian. “I chose to be Latvian precisely because I didn’t want to be Russian.”
“Calling oneself Russian here doesn’t just mean speaking Russian and appreciating Russian culture. It’s something more than that: it means sharing Russian values. And I don’t share them,” he states, resolutely. “Many Russians raised in Russia grow up believing they belong to a glorious country, the greatest of them all. For them the world is made-up of Russians, Americans, Chinese and then all the others. That’s chauvinism, and I’m opposed to it. First and foremost I’d define myself as cosmopolitan, but, if I were made to choose, I’m Latvian,” he states.
This stance has created a kind of invisible gulf between Artūrs and his family. They still live in the same house, and talk to one another. But they’ve been occupying ever more distant worlds, especially since 24 February. “Ever since I was a kid my father would make me watch the Russian public TV news on ‘Pervyjj kanal’ every evening. It was like a religious rite,” he says.
In fact, for Artūrs’s father, and for thousands of his fellow “ethnically Russian” citizens, many of whom are not even officially Latvians, history – both personal history and that of the last century – looks quite different.
“Since the end of the 90s, as the distance between the Russian speaking minority and the Latvian majority grew, a new politics of memory began to develop,” Deniss Hanovs explains. “That’s how the ‘Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia’ became a space associated with identity, a space of memory.”
As a scholar of processes of collective identification, Deniss is well equipped to decode the profound political meaning of that controversial realm of memory. For many Russians in Latvia, choosing to meet in front of that monument, choosing to merge one’s private memory with a collective, transversal memory, is a political act. Through this process, individual grief becomes community grief, which in turn renews the bonds that hold together the marginalised minority.
At first glance this ‘communion of suffering’ might seem like a way of feeling part of a community. For some, however, against the backdrop of the ongoing war, it has come to symbolise support for Russia’s current foreign policy. “The more people that gather there, commemorating loss in a capacity that is not only private, the easier it is for the Kremlin to manipulate this place’s meaning. Putin has been exploiting the memory of the Great Patriotic War for years now, and particularly the image of those who fell in battle: he has stolen peoples’ tragic memories. In the current context that monument is a pipeline that’s pumping out pro-Putin propaganda,” summarises the anthropologist.
Artūrs too has frequently found himself interrogating the fusion of private and collective memory, and the means by which superimposing the wars of the past on the present in imperceptible ways can result in confused, overlapping meanings today. In his family, in fact, 9 May has always been a divisive date: while his parents, like most Russian-speaking Latvians, have always insisted on celebrating it in front of the memorial, over the years Artūrs has developed the need for a more intimate commemoration, more clearly distanced from the present forces that are instrumentalizing history. “I asked my Dad recently: why, on the occasion of Victory Day, have we never taken flowers to my great grandmother’s tomb, given she survived the siege of Leningrad? He hesitated. He told me: ‘because we normally go there at Easter.’ But I insisted: ‘do you think that taking flowers to the tomb and not to the monument is equivalent to saying that we do not oppose nazi-fascism? That we are dishonouring those that fought and defeated it?’ He didn’t know how to answer.’”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s suddenly become easier to imagine what might be hidden in silences like these.
As many commentators have observed, Putin’s propaganda campaign has relied heavily on a mystified narrative of Ukraine as ‘land of nazis’ in order to justify the attack. Looked at from Latvia, this campaign seems less like a hastily cobbled together gimmick to give some veneer of legitimacy to a rushed military operation than a studied strategy, planned in advance. In a parallel media sphere, which Western mainstream media often deliberately ignore, the alarm over a supposed “nazi threat” that is apparently gaining ground in countries to the west of Russia is all part of a carefully cultivated lie that is established one report at a time, one broadcast at a time. The message has managed to gain some traction outside of Russia too, especially among an older generation immersed in post-Soviet nostalgia.
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the LSM – Latvia’s national radio and television broadcaster – has been monitoring citizens’ attitudes to the conflict via opinion polls. The last poll, published on 7 July, demonstrated that just 40% of Russian-speaking Latvians condemned the war, 12% supported it, 29% felt neutral, while 19% did not want to answer the question. In the same survey, participants were asked what feeling they most associated with the 9 May anniversary. Just 3% of Latvians reported having positive emotions. Among the Russian speaking minority this figure rose dramatically to 62%.
This is how the war has brought an intergenerational conflict to boil that has been bubbling away for three decades. “My mum was brainwashed by Putin’s propaganda. I well-remember 24 February. I called her to talk about the invasion and, as soon as we hung up, I sent her a few articles in Russian by European media. Like the BBC or Deutsche Welle. I did my best to find some sources in Russian that she could read. The next time we spoke, she told me that she’d deleted all the links without opening them. She was very proud of herself. But it wasn’t really she who’d deleted them, it was Putin,” Deniss laments. “Lots of my friends and colleagues have ‘lost’ parents in the war with Putin. Lost, in a symbolic sense. We’ve had to admit that we can’t talk with them anymore,” he adds, laconically.
Despite this distressing picture, Deniss does see one small glimmer of hope, a basis from which to re-start building a cohesive social fabric in Latvia in spite of the deep wounds that divide the community. “The war has shown everyone that the Russian speaking community is not a single monolithic block like some Latvian politicians have been suggesting.”
Russians afraid of Russia
While many Russians that live in Latvia would like to live in Russia, there are others that hold the exact opposite view. Evgenija, a theatre director, who was born and raised in Moscow, is one of them. In Russia she worked for various public institutions, but then in 2015, following the invasion of Crimea, she took refuge in Riga. “Perestroika was the best moment of my life, it seemed like we were destined to become a normal country. But I lived under the USSR and I know how to recognise the signs. After 2014 I saw the USSR was coming back, and I didn’t want to relive that experience. I already had connections here, so emigrating was a natural decision,” she explains. Her four nephews are in Russia, and her sisters let them out as little as possible for fear they might be conscripted. After almost seven years in Riga, Evgenija feels at home, thanks in no small part to the support of her colleagues. “Now I’ve got more Latvian than Russian numbers in my phonebook,” she admits.
Evgenija is almost reluctant to talk about 9 May, the memorial, and the tensions between Latvians and the Russian-speaking minority. She just wants to get on with her work, in a foreign country that will enable her to do so. Yet she does have many concerns of her own. “I try and work with actors of different nationalities: Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Belarusians. But will people still come to see a play in Russian, a work by a Russian author now?” she asks nervously.
For she and her colleagues, a new generation of dissidents forced to abandon their country, rebuilding a life abroad is not so simple. “A friend of mine left Moscow and escaped to Europe after someone painted a Z on the door of her home. She’d worked for years in Vienna, was paid in euros, and she’d counted on living off those savings. As soon as she got to the country, however, she found that her accounts were frozen. She didn’t have a cent.”
As she leaves the cafe, Evgenija lights a cigarette. The last thing she says before walking away is: “As a Russian citizen I feel guilty. I feel that I’m also responsible somehow.”
Two days after the Victory Day, on 11 May, a campaign was posted on an online crowdfunding site calling for the monument to be demolished. In just half a day thousands of Latvians donated €39,000. On 12 May, the Latvian parliament quickly approved a flash amendment to the law which, due to international agreement, had previously prevented the demolition of the controversial monument.
This is the story of how a cement obelisk from the 1980s became the symbol that divided an entire country, nearly 40 years since its construction, in the context of a war that – back then – was unimaginable.