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Occupation of Crimea repeats Latvia’s occupation by USSR

Exposition from the Museum of occupation of Latvia. Image courtesy of
Occupation of Crimea repeats Latvia’s occupation by USSR
Article by: Sarmite Elerte
This article is from the proceedings of the conference Usage of the topic of WWII in the Russian political discourse, held in Paris on 16 April 2015. Read part 1: Memory of the Great Patriotic war in Russia’s expansionist policy

Latvia’s Second World War history has always been in conflict with the discourse of the Great Patriotic War in Soviet or Russian politics. From Soviet historiography, Russia has assumed the role of Latvia’s liberator from fascism, and has maintained that Latvia joined the USSR of its own free will. From Latvia’s perspective, the Soviet Union was one of two aggressors in the Second World War. During the period from 1940 to 1945, Latvia was occupied three times: twice by the Red Army and once by the armed forces of Nazi Germany.

During both the German and Soviet occupations, civilians were murdered and oppressed. A significant number of Latvian citizens were conscripted into both the German and Soviet armies. The existence of Latvia as an independent democratic state did not figure in the post-war plans of either the Soviet Union or Germany.

Soviet propaganda poster depicting Latvia joining the USSR from the Museum of Occupation of Latvia

In 1939, Hitler and Stalin agreed upon Latvia’s fate in their pact of friendship. But these events of 75 years ago suddenly acquired a new relevance last year. We became witness to how Latvia’s history was repeated in Crimea and how, almost step by step, the Kremlin is repeating the scenario of Latvia’s occupation and annexation.

  1. Soviet military bases. The Soviet Union began the annexation of the territory demarcated in the secret protocols of the Hitler–Stalin Pact with an ultimatum, demanding to establish ground, air and naval bases within the territories of these countries.  The armed forces of the Red Army were concentrated on Latvia’s borders and numerically far outnumbered the Latvian Army. On the 5th of October 1939, hoping to avoid futile casualties, the Latvian Government agreed to the establishment of Soviet bases. Only the Finns refused, triggering the start of the Winter War. In Crimea, no ultimatum was necessary. Russian bases were located there long before the annexation.
  2. A meaningless non-aggression treaty. In 1932, Latvia and the USSR had signed a non-aggression treaty, guaranteeing the territorial integrity, inviolability and political independence of the parties. This treaty turned out to be just as meaningless as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia, the USA and the United Kingdom guaranteed the independence, security and territorial unity of Ukraine, in exchange for the withdrawal of nuclear weapons.
  3. A “people’s parliament” and fraud elections. On the 16 June 1940 came the next Soviet ultimatum to Latvia, which demanded the resignation of its government. The next day, Latvia was invaded by the Red Army. A new government was formed by the Soviet Embassy. On the 4th of July, a decision was taken in Moscow that an election of the “people’s parliament” should take place in 10 days’ time. Only one list of candidates was allowed to take part in the election. The fact that the only list of candidates won with 97.5% of the vote was announced by the Soviet news agency TASS 12 hours before vote counting began. On the 5th of August, the Latvian delegation asked for Latvia to be admitted to the Soviet Union.In the Crimean referendum voter support to join Russia was 96.7%. The referendum took place two weeks after people with no insignia occupied government buildings and airports. Just like the 1940 election in  Latvia, the Crimean referendum was conducted in the presence of the Russian Army. On the 17th of March, the Crimean Parliament asked for Crimea to be accepted as part of Russia. A day later, Putin approved this request.

The myth of the Great Patriotic War as an instrument of geopolitics today

The unlawful occupation and annexation of Latvia in 1940 took two months. The unlawful annexation of Crimea took two weeks. Henry Kissinger once wrote that about 20% of the population took part in the 1940 election in Latvia. In 2014, Forbes announced that information accidentally leaked from the Russian Council of Human Rights confirmed that voter turnout in the Crimean referendum was 30%.

Western countries did not recognise Latvia’s occupation and annexation. Nor will the annexation of Crimea be recognised. Latvia had to wait 50 years to regain its independence and for justice to be restored. We have no idea how long Ukraine will have to wait.

Militarised theatrical shows in honour of Krim naš! (Crimea is ours) and the Kremlin’s statements regarding its special rights to Crimea  continues to develop the myth of the Great Patriotic War. It is adapted to meet the contemporary domestic and foreign policy requirements of the Kremlin. The only difference is that it conceals Russia’s imperial ambitions less successfully than before.

In his speech on the 18th of March 2014 in honour of the annexation of Crimea, Putin stressed that a historic restoration of the unity of Russia and the “Russian world” had occurred. Earlier Putin had stated that Russians are the biggest divided people in the world and that this has occurred involuntarily due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The concept of the Russian world (Russkij mir) widely used in the Kremlin’s ideology since 2008 postulates that this divided body longs to be reunified.

Latvia has a large Russian-speaking minority. These are people who arrived during Latvia’s occupation when mass immigration served the Soviet authorities as a means of colonising newly-won territories. As a result of this immigration, the size of Latvia’s population grew by one third. It is to this part of the population that the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov apply, when he says that Russians living overseas are an important resource that must be used to the full.

In Moscow, the 9th of May celebrations are the theatrical-militarised culmination of the myth of the Great Patriotic War. In Riga, the 9th of May celebrations seek to create the brightest moment in the consolidation of the Russian-speaking community during the course of the year. Since the 2000s, these celebrations have been less dominated by remembrance than by Soviet-era pop culture, incorporating nostalgia for the Soviet era.

In Latvia, the 9th of May celebrations also mark the most important confrontation between historical memories. Latvia commemorates the end of the Second World War on the 8th of May. For Latvians, the 9th of May is a date that symbolises Latvia’s 50-year occupation, whereas for part of the Russian-speaking community, this date signifies the myth of the Great Patriotic War: liberation and the might of the former motherland. Two mutually exclusive historical memories divide Latvian society more than language or culture. These historical memories form group identities.

Responsibility for the organisation of the 9th of May celebrations has been undertaken by one of Latvia’s biggest political parties, Harmony Centre, whose main political issue is the interests of Russian speakers. The 9th of May and the myth of the Great Patriotic War help to consolidate Harmony Centre’s electorate. This party has signed a collaboration agreement with Putin’s party, United Russia. It has received not only moral, but also propaganda support from the Kremlin media and its spin doctors. Its policies are pro-Kremlin. For these reasons, until now the party has never succeeded in securing a place in the Latvian government. It would be convenient for Putin if this party was part of the Latvian Government. This would mean that another Kremlin-friendly weak link has been established within the European Union and NATO. With this brief insight into current Latvian politics, I want to emphasise that the myth of the Great Patriotic War can be also used to attain far-reaching geopolitical objectives.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The myth of the Great Patriotic War has great potential. The Kremlin will continue to refine the myth, revealing new aspects, which it will then proceed to use. The myth will be used for the Kremlin’s expansionist political purposes. Therefore, I would like to express my utmost gratitude to the organisers of the conference for tackling this important subject.

[hr]Other proceedings from the conference:

Usage of the topic of WWII in the Russian political discourse:
Memory of the Great Patriotic war in Russia’s expansionist policy
Occupation of Crimea repeats Latvia’s occupation by USSR
The “Great Patriotic War” as a weapon in the war against Ukraine
Russian media operates by law of war, tapping into Great Patriotic War myth

Sarmite Elerte is the ex-minister of Culture of Latvia, head of the opposition at the Riga municipal council


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