Monday, January 22, 2007

Latvia: Commemorating in 2007 the Barricades of 1991

This is footage of members of the folk choir Skandinieki singing this past weekend at a rock that marks one of the spots in Riga where 5 people were killed during a Soviet crackdown on January 20, 1991.

In the course of its terminal year segments within the Soviet government made two bungled attempts to keep things from falling apart. The second of these is better known--i.e., the August Coup. However, that long and tense year began right away with a display of the Soviet authority's anxiety--a crackdown was launched in the breakaway Baltic States. In the Spring of 1990 each of the Baltic States had made moves toward independence from the USSR. On January 13, 1991 in Vilnius and on January 20, 1991 in Riga, blood was spilled as the Soviet government tried, unsuccessfully, to reassert control after months of failed negotiations by which the Soviet government had hoped to persuade the Baltic States to sign Gorbachev's new Union Treaty. To read more about what happened in Riga, you can go to this post on my blog. Scroll down to the middle of the post where the red letters read "About the Massacre."

5 people were killed and hundreds were injured in a park in the center of Riga in 1991. On the places where the dead fell are large rocks bearing the victims' names. Throughout the year in Riga people place flowers and candles on or near these rocks, and they especially do so each year on January 20, which is an official day of commemoration. I went with some fellow members of the folklore ensemble Skandinieki to sing at each of the rocks in honor of the day.

January 20 was the culmination of a week long series of events during which, in 1991, people built and staffed, night and day, barricades throughout Riga in expectation of a Soviet crackdown. Thus each year on January 20 folks come out to rebuild a small portion of the barricades, light campfires, eat soup and sing, much as they did in 1991. 

The experience of people standing at the barricades, sharing food, singing, and risking their lives together was a foundational moment for the renewal of Latvian statehood and of Latvian society in general, one that remains meaningful for many people in the country today. For others, in the context of Latvia's current woes (the lowest wages in the EU, high unemployment, labor leakage/brain drain to Western Europe and the US, continuing corruption, and heightened tensions between Latvia's largest ethnic communities), January 1991 is a fading memory or is viewed as a moment of an all-too-delusional hope. It is just as likely that one in either camp--the camp of those for whom January 1991 remains a vivid memory or of those for whom it is a fading experience--could bemoan the current situation in the country with statements like, "Remember what we stood for in '91?" or, "Too bad things couldn't be more like they were in '91." or, "When did things start to go so wrong?"

In either case, memory of the day is still conjured in a way that endows it with a powerful role in the making of this nation.

January 20 is an important part of the country's yearly cycle and a pillar in the formation of its post-Soviet national identity.

Note, however, that though the number of those who do come out on January 20 each year is often small--as it was this past Saturday--many people in this country will attest to the importance of the day.  Thus it is important that a subcultural or small group actively makes the event that helps keep the memory alive; and it is no surprise that members of the folk choir Skandinieki--many of whom together as members of the group and seperately played important roles in the anti-Soviet resistance--would take an active role in commemorating events on January 20. 

And perhaps one can comment here that if a critical enough mass of people could have--after the deluge that was the Soviet collapse--eventually become as active again in the political and cultural life of the country as they had been in the days of the barricades, and as member of the ensemble continued to be, many of the woes mentioned above might not have come to pass.  

And this speaks volumes to Ukraine's ongoing experience of the Orange Revolution.  Spirit will perish without struggle and the efforts of, at the very least, a very determined minority.  Thankfully a sizable enough mass exists to keep the spirit of the OR quite alive in Ukraine; but how about the larger, political-economic picture?  Much struggle is still needed. . .


Taras said...

Latvia, you're my hero!

You and your Baltic neighbors have achieved something Ukraine has not. Perhaps it's because you're more geographically condensed and more historically emancipated. Lucky for you, your melting pot experience at the Animal Farm didn’t start as early as ours:) Long live the sons and daughters of Latvia who sacrificed their lives to end that experience!

Stefan, you have the best of three worlds;)!

Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Great video, Stefan -- thank you!

When do we get a report on the Warsaw workshop you attended? Mosties, celies, strādā!

Stefan said...


in short, i would caution against idealizing the situation in latvia, even if, in indeed many ways, latvia and the baltic states in general have achieved certain things that ukraine has not--things that are indeed related, as you stated, to the fact that their experience at the farm was much shorter (and it goes back even further--for as you probably well know, i am sure--to the fact that colonial administration of the baltic states was not as thoroughly repressive in imperial times as administration of ukraine was). i don't have time at the moment to write much more than that--other than to say that so far, my personal experience with life here has left me with the strong impression that, given what Latvia continues to struggle with that remains a legacy of the soviet past, it was very premature of yushchenko to have declared that ukraine had entered a post-post-Soviet stage of its history after the OR.

i wouldn't say that latvia has reached the land of post-post-sovietism, and yet it is in the EU. . .

but this is just thinking out loud. debate--well, i don't hold this notion very strongly, so its more that discussion is very welcome.


ES ESMU nomodā, bēt. . .man ir grūti teikt. varbūt šovakar, varbūt rīt vai parīt. . .nezinu, bēt ja, es gribu drīz par to rakstīt. . .

playing around with someone else's latvian fonts--how'd i do? i still basically have no idea when a vowel is long and when one is short.

long/short vowels are an incredible feature, to my mind, of the baltic tongue and ear.

thanks fellas for writing in. . .