Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Twenty years ago: Latvia's Barricade Days

Mrs. MP in Riga--
during the Barricade Days
An almost forgotten event in the fall of the Soviet Union was the attempt by Soviet troop and an elite police unit, OMON, to crush the independence movements in the three Baltic states--Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1991.

Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost, or "openness," took root and then some in the Baltic republics. For instance, while many living there did not seriously believe that their nations willingly joined the Soviet Union in 1940--the story which was taught in schools--the contents of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact weren't widely known in the Baltics. Among other things, the pact allowed the Soviets to annex the three nations with the blessing of Nazi Germany, which of course went on to declare war on the USSR two years later.

Click on any photo to make it larger

Popular Front Leader Mavricks Vulfsons.
Signs say "Freedom" and "1940--
Year of Stalinist Occupation Regime"
Even during Czarist times, song festivals were popular in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They continued during the Communist era, but songs deemed too nationalistic by authorities were banned. By the late 1980s, the Baltics' "Singing Revolution" had commenced--the banned songs were performed again. On August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Baltic Way, a 370 mile-long human chain, consisting of two million hand-holders spanned from Tallin, Estonia, through Riga, Latvia, and ending in Vilnius, Lithuania--the three Baltic capitals. Soviet officials responded as if fascism was reborn there.

Let me remind you, they were holding hands.

By 1990, each Baltic republic had declared its independence from the Soviet Union. But events had moved too quickly for Soviet hardliners. On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops fired on Lithuanian protesters in Vilnius, 12 died of gunshot wounds, two others were crushed by tanks. Immediately afterwards, Latvijas Tautas Fronte (the Popular Front of Latvia) called on their fellow patriots to gather in Riga's old city. Barricades made of wood, concrete blocks, logs, and sand bags were hastily built to protect likely targets from attacks, such as the Latvian Interior Ministry. Human shields were also used. In addition to serving as houses of worship, churches were utilized as warming centers.

OMON, the elite police unit, fired on the ministry on the night of January 20. Five people were killed, two Latvian policemen, a schoolboy, and two cameramen. Portions of the work from one of the fallen camera operators are included in the YouTube video; his camera is still rolling after he his shot and his friends carry him away to receive medical care.

The next day another protester was killed at the barricades. Mrs. Marathon Pundit arrived in Riga after the January 20 attack, she spent most of her time near the offices of Riga's television station. Vilnius' TV tower is where the Lithuanian protesters were attacked by Soviet troops.

The funerals for the victims were held on January 25--twenty years ago today. Most of the defenders of the barricades went home by January 27.

It's been hypothesized that the attacks in the Baltics were the first battles in a plot to oust Gorbachev from power. By August of that year, there was a coup against him, albeit only temporarily successful.

A few weeks later, the Soviet Union, again with Gorbachev in power, recognized the independence of the Baltic States.

The Singing Revolution was over. The vocalists had won. Freedom prevailed.

And on Christmas Day in 1991, the country dubbed the Evil Empire by Ronald Reagan was in history's dustbin.

About the photographs: Each of them are from Mrs. Marathon Pundit's collection. All but the one of them were taken by her friend Harijs Liepins, his photos were taken at a 1990 protest in Riga. Her picture was taken by her boyfriend at the time. But two years later she met me, but that's another story for another time.

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