12 January 2007

The Barricades

Sixteen years ago yesterday, while the world's attention was focused on the impending beginning of Operation Desert Storm, what Lithuanians and many Latvians euphemistically call "the January Events" began -- Soviet troops captured various buildings throughout Lithuania and armored columns began to move towards Vilnius, where unarmed citizens gathered at the TV Tower to defend the democratically elected government that had proclaimed the restoration of Lithuania's independence. Vytautas Landsbergis, the head of state, tried to contact Gorbachev three times -- without success. In the wee hours of 13 January, 110 people were injured and 14 were killed as the Soviets attempted to take the Tower by force.

In Rīga, between half a million and seven hundred thousand people (out of a total population of just over two and a half million in Latvia, Soviet military personnel and colonists included) gathered on the right bank of the Daugava whilst timber and heavy machinery were brought into the city for the construction of the Barricades. Latvians, and they counted among their number not a few people from Latvia's ethnic minorities, rose to the defense of the Republic despite the bloodshed in Vilnius. The journalist Bens Latkovskis, among others, has observed that there are two years of which the Latvian nation can be proud -- 1919, when Latvians of all political persuasions and walks of life (
minus hardcore Bolsheviks and reactionaries) united against the German and Russian forces under Bermondt-Avalov, and 1991, when ordinary people from all over Latvia gathered on the Barricades to defend "your freedom and ours," as some of the banners had it in both Latvian and Russian. A chronology of the events in English and photos are available here. 11 November 1919, when Bermondt-Avalov's soldiers were driven from the outskirts of Rīga, is still marked in Latvia as the Day of the Bear Slayer. Appropriately enough, the commemorative coin issued to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Barricades last year brings the Bear Slayer to "the January Events" -- the fires on the averse of the coin, around which the participants warmed themselves in that chill winter, are remembered by a bonfire at the Rīga TV Tower every year.

The photograph, from the Memorial Fund for Participants of the Barricades, shows the Council of Ministers being surrounded by crowds of defenders. The statue of Lenin was chopped down that August, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed.

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Blogger Jens-Olaf said...

I remember these days very well. Hanging around radio and tv. It was difficult to follow the news from Germany. Cause at that time the journalists had often to come from Moscva to report and if they did they did it with a lot of distortion. In one case a well known German correspondent from Moscva said that she has spoken with Latvian delegates of the Riga parliament and that they have a wish to be under the presidential rule. Means Latvia under presedential law with Gorbatchev as leading person. It was so unbelivable I had to call a central Latvian instituion in Germany to get to know that there is no such order from the latvian parliament. The opposite was true.

12 January, 2007 12:30  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

"Cause at that time the journalists had often to come from Moscva to report and if they did they did it with a lot of distortion."

Did that ever change? [grin]

12 January, 2007 12:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminder Pēteri. My wife was there on those fateful days. I have been to the barricades museum and found it fascinating. Each time we stroll in Rīga's "central park", we pay our respects to the fallen. Those stones are a discreet, yet potent, reminder...


12 January, 2007 21:15  

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