Latvia in the 20th and 21st Century
Latvia was also drawn into the Russian Revolution of 1905 when manors and castles of the German nobility were burned. The revolution was suppressed and as a result the idea of the Latvian national identity was halted for a while.
On 1 August 1914 World War I reached the territory of Latvia. During the war factory facilities were brought out from Latvia, thousands of the inhabitants of Latvia left for Russia as refugees.
World War I seriously weakened countries that had decided the fate of Europe for several centuries — Germany, France, Russia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed completely. This created a political power vacuum in the Central and Eastern Europe.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk concluded on 3 March 1918 was important for the creation of the Latvian state, because as a result of the treaty Russia renounced its territorial claims over the territories of Vidzeme and Kurzeme. On 9 November 1918 the German Empire ceased to exist and on 11 November a truce was declared between Germany and the Triple Entente. On the same day the United Kingdom recognised the Latvian Provisional National Council as a de facto independent structure and Z. A. Meierovics as an unofficial diplomatic representative of the Provisional Government of Latvia.
The proclamation of the state of Latvia took place on 18 November 1918 after Gustavs Zemgals, Deputy Co-Chairman of the People’s Council of Latvia, had proclaimed the acquisition of sovereignty over Latvia on the previous day. The Latvian Provisional Government headed by K. Ulmanis was created simultaneously with the proclamation of independence of Latvia on 18 November 1918, however, the German occupation administration still held the actual power due to the conviction that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, based on which Russia had renounced its territorial claims in the lands along the shores of the Baltic Sea in favour of Germany, was still in force.
The People’s Council of Latvia, who regarded themselves as the sole supreme authority in the state of Latvia, declared that “Latvia, unified in its ethnographic boundaries (Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Latgale), is a separate, independent, democratic state, a republic, the Constitution and relations with other countries of which will be determined in the near future by the Constitutional Assembly of Latvia voted in universal, equal, direct and proportional elections by secret ballot”. “Dievs, svētī Latviju!” (God, Bless Latvia!) was played for the first time as the national anthem of Latvia.
The People’s Council of Latvia was a provisional legislative body that existed until the first democratic election of the parliament.
Soon after the defeat of Germany in World War I the Russian Red Army started the invasion of Latvia. This marked the beginning of the Latvian War of Independence on 1 December. Since the Government of Latvia had not had any time to create armed forces that would be ready for combat, the Soviet army quickly took over almost the entire territory of Latvia. In December 1918, with a support from the Soviet Russia, the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic was formed in Latvia, with the government headed by P. Stučka.
At the beginning of March 1919 Latvian armed forces launched a counter-attack against the forces of the LSSR and captured Riga on 22 May. After hard battles Latvians beat Germans and forced them into retreat in the direction of Riga. The Ceasefire of Strazdumuiža was signed, according to which the German army had to leave the territory of Latvia. Until the end of January 1920 the army of the Republic of Latvia succeeded also in driving the Soviet forces out of Latgale and thus ending the Latvian War of Independence.
On 11 August 1920 the Latvian–Soviet Peace Treaty was signed between the Republic of Latvia and the Soviet Russia. According to its Article 2, “Russia recognises the Latvian state as a separate, independent and sovereign state, and voluntarily and forever renounces all sovereign rights Russia had over Latvian people and land…”.
One of the first tasks the new state had to complete was the redistribution of the feudal lands to landless peasants, thus the parliament initiated the agrarian reform as soon as in 1920. Manors were left with only 50 hectares of land, the rest was alienated and redistributed among landless peasants free of charge. In 1922 the Saeima (parliament) gathered for its first session.
On 15 May 1934 the Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis dissolved all political parties and the parliament and in fact established authoritarian rule in the country. In 1936 K. Ulmanis assumed office of the state president and continued to exercise the powers of the head of the government, a move considered unconstitutional.
On 28 March 1939 Latvia received a message from the USSR about a possible use of military force should Latvia draw closer to Germany in its foreign relations. K. Ulmanis failed to take decisive actions to protect the independent Latvian state. In October 1939 the Soviet–Latvian Mutual Assistance Treaty was signed, which allowed the Soviet troops to establish numerous military bases in the territory of Latvia. They were mostly located along the Western coast of Kurzeme to block any assistance to Latvia. Any resistance in such an isolated position would have been rather suicidal. After receiving an ultimatum from the government of the USSR in June 1940 K. Ulmanis chose to give in.
During the next couple of months Latvia completely lost its independence and was incorporated into the USSR as the LSSR. On 17 June 1940 the troops of the Soviet Union entered the territory of Latvia according to provisions contained in the secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Thus the USSR had breached the provisions of international agreements signed between the USSR and Latvia, including the Latvian–Soviet Peace Treaty of 1920 and the Latvian–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1932.
A few days later, on 20 June, under the dictate of the USSR a Soviet government headed by Augusts Kirhenšteins was formed. On 14 and 15 July 1940 the election of the so-called People’s Parliament took place. Only the Working People’s Bloc created by the authorities was allowed to participate in the election. On 5 August 1940, during the session of the USSR Supreme Council in Moscow, the “request” of the People’s Parliament of Latvia delegation to admit Latvia into the “family of nations of the Soviet Union” was formally fulfilled.
The Soviet authorities began a large-scale terror campaign even before the incorporation of Latvia into the USSR. Many Latvian intellectuals were arrested, interrogated, and deported to Russia. A large-scale deportation took place on 14 June 1941, when over 15,000 Latvian citizens were deported to the eastern regions of Russia.
Within several months the economic crisis intensified. An agrarian reform was launched — the land was redistributed to landless peasants and small land owners.
On 22 June 1941 World War II started in Latvia with Luftwaffe attacks on Latvian towns. German troops completed the occupation of Latvia on 8 June. The Third Reich established its own administration in the invaded territories. Creation of ghettoes, concentration camps and the prison system began. Jewish Latvian citizens, who had lived here for many centuries, were almost completely destroyed.
Soon after the surrender of Germany on 9 May 1945 the entire territory of Latvia came under the control of the USSR. Immediately after the war administrative and territorial changes were introduced in Latvia, adapting it to the system used in the USSR and creating Selsoviets or rural councils that replaced parishes and regions that replaced districts. Peasants were forced to join kolkhozes (collective farms). All spheres of life were subject to the dictate of the Communist Party of Latvia, and its highest authority according to the principle of the “democratic centralism” was concentrated in the highest authority — the Central Committee (CC of CPL). However, its powers were also limited — the most important decisions were made by the functionaries of the CPSU Central Committee in Moscow, the Politburo of the Central Committee of CPSU.
Immediately after the war and in the following years the Soviet regime implemented massive repressions. During the deportations of March 1949 42,133 inhabitants of Latvia were deported to Siberia. According to the estimates of various experts, the total number of inhabitants of Latvia who were victims of political repressions of the Soviet regime from 1940 to 1953 could have been between 140,000 and 190,000, or even up to 240,000.
Centrally planned economy was introduced based on centralised five-year plans that were divided into compulsory annual plans. The USSR and the local government encouraged massive influx of workforce from other republics, especially from Russia and Belarus. Immigrants were given priority when providing accommodation. In the 1960s celebration of Jāņi, Latvian summer solstice, was forbidden. It was also forbidden to celebrate Christmas. Functionaries in Moscow did not trust the local population, exercised strict control, and limited their possibilities to take higher positions in the government or higher positions related to economic affairs. Leading positions were given to Russians or Russian Latvians who were partially russified.
In the second half of the 1980s a number of circumstances and events in the USSR and Latvia facilitated the restoration of independence of Latvia. It started with the reforms introduced by M. Gorbachev after he took office of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in April 1985.
Formerly forbidden events in Latvia took place one after the other. The Human Rights Defense Group Helsinki-86 was established in 1986. This group organised a flower laying event at the base of the Freedom Monument on 14 June 1987, the anniversary of the deportations of 1941. On 23 August of the same year, the anniversary of signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the group organised a protest demonstration against the pact at the Freedom Monument. Public celebration of Jāņi was soon allowed.
On 23 August 1989, 50 years after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a peaceful political demonstration, the Baltic Way, was organised by the Popular Front of Latvia, the Popular Front of Estonia, and the Sąjūdis movement in Lithuania. Approximately two million people joined their hands to form a human chain spanning almost 600 kilometres and connecting the capitals of the three Baltic states.