14 May 2007

The Fifteenth of May

The first fortnight of the merry month of May is rife with red-letter days. Having blogged about May Day, the Fourth of May, Europe Day and Victory Day, I may as well end this bout of calendrical focus by writing about the Fifteenth of May.

Seventy-three years ago, slightly over six years before Stalin destroyed our Republic, the gentleman in the waxwork pictured at left destroyed our democracy.

Kārlis Ulmanis is a figure Latvia has not yet come to terms with. He still has his hagiographers. In 2003 a statue of him was unveiled in Rīga, paid for with contributions from admirers -- not a few of the donors were Western Latvians, especially Australian Latvians. Raivis Dzintars' young radicals and nostalgic elderly people gather there for a candlelight vigil to celebrate the 1934 coup. I'm with those who wonder why a democracy needs to erect a monument to a dictator, but the nostalgia of those who remember "the Latvia of 15 May" is understandable -- he is styled as a "benevolent dictator," and by comparison to Hitler, Stalin, Antonescu, et al., he certainly was; he didn't snuff anybody, and that's a rather admirable characteristic. His earlier career, which included study and dairy farming in the United States, was positively noteworthy -- as the first Prime Minister of Latvia, from 1918, his faith in the Republic and strength of resolve were peerless; not too many people could so determinedly run a state without a territory (for a while, he governed from a ship, the Saratov).

Nonetheless, as the great poet Knuts Skujenieks pointed out not long ago ago, his dictatorship was a prelude to Soviet totalitarianism -- the Vadonis ("the leader") was the nation, though he never received the nation's consent. Even local government was dependent upon him. Even bus schedules were censored (to remove Slavicized toponyms). Classic plays that depicted the evils of peasants had to be reworked before being staged -- the peasant was to be exalted. "A Latvian Latvia" was supplemented with the slogan "in Latvia, the sun shines upon everyone."

There are a multitude of takes and sidelights -- this one, for instance. It's skewed. From the most recent book on Latvian history available in English (this is not a plug -- though I'm one of the translators, I'm not too fond of the book) --

p. 151: “the coup of 15 May was not a preventative action but an illegal act consciously directed against Latvian democracy.” See also p. 149: “Ulmanis informed the President of what happened [on 16 May 1934]; according to the Satversme, Kviesis was to defend democracy with all his powers. Without the slightest formal protest, he accepted the coup and betrayed democracy. Nothing threatened Latvia at the time that could have justified killing democracy. Neither a political nor an economic crisis encouraged the coup; to the contrary—the approaching end of the economic crisis would have prevented Ulmanis from accusing democracy of weakness.”

p. 153: “Latvia in the time of Ulmanis was characterized by a distinctly anti-democratic government. The May 15th régime was the most authoritarian in the Baltics and possibly in all of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, it was virtually the only dictatorship in Europe that retained no formal elected representation whatsoever.” p. 159: “The idea of the unity of the people was closely allied with an idea of leadership opposed to parliamentary democracy—an idea of leadership practiced by Ulmanis in making decisions as a dictator with practically unlimited powers. Official propaganda attempted to portray him as a leader given to the Latvian people by God himself. [...] The praise and flattery accorded him very quickly developed into an exaggerated and ridiculous cult of personality—the Vadonis was dubbed ‘the greatest statesman in Europe’; he was ‘the Great Sower’ and the ‘Double Genius’. This worship of Ulmanis was interwoven with an uncritical assessment of authoritarian rule devoid of any objectivity. Latvia’s monolithic press usually lauded even the least achievement with the words, ‘we’re headed straight up’.”

For people who grew up under Ulmanis, criticism of the Vadonis is often seen as heresy (unless they came of Social Democratic "stock," perhaps...). I've made at least three elders cry, and the reason is simple -- no matter how noxious "the Latvia of 15 May" was, what came after was incomparably worse. I highly recommend this study of minority policy for some insight -- "The Price of Free Lunches: Making the Frontier Latvian in the Interwar Years." The difference between free lunches and Siberia is vast, and most Latvians understand the difference most intimately.

The political scientist Jānis Peniķis asks, rhetorically, what it means "to be ready for democracy." Were we? Are we? One of the most interesting things about that period is that nothing indicates that democracy was failing in 1934. On the other hand, other than a Social Democrat firing his pistol into the ceiling of his villa whilst being arrested on 15 May, there was never any real opposition to Ulmanis' dictatorship.

To today -- where are we in time? 1993/1939 -- these transposed digits were well nigh mystical, Guntis Ulmanis becoming President on the strength of his surname. We restored the Republic of 18 November 1918 -- but the elder generation remembers only the May 15th régime. 54% of those surveyed in Latvia yearn for "a strong hand." That's not as bad as it is in Russia -- but it ain't pretty. Other stats explain why -- people feel powerless, basically. We choose between indifference and the lesser evil. This country, or imagined community (pace Benedict Anderson) being small (tiny, my Transylvanian friend would say -- if you open the newspaper in one Baltic state, it shades a neighbor), we all "know everybody." The standard line is "they're all thieves (robbers, bandits, good-for-nothings...) -- you vote for your good-for-nothing, I'll vote for mine."

Only 44% of the population feels that it's possible to influence anything by protesting. Is it 1934 again? Nah, 'cause we're comfortably ensconced in various structures of elastic strength -- no strong hand is rising to try to clean out the Augean stables.

I take some small solace in the number of people turning out to sign for the referendum.

I'll close with the words of Bļodnieks, the last PM before Ulmanis' last election to the post he sullied so. In The Undefeated Nation, Bļodnieks includes a chapter entitled “Unjustified Coup d’État.” He writes how the events of 15 May “filled me and all other true democrats with deep indignation.” Bļodnieks said “that never and under no condition would I renounce the ideals I had formed in my youth and for which I had shed my blood--my determination to go with the people and work for the people, to defend its right to shape its government and life in freedom. I also stressed that any dictatorship, in its essence, was alien and irreconcilable to the Latvian people and the sense of justice and legality and should therefore be inacceptable and combatible.”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The document on "free lunches" is shocking to say the least, at least in my view. I need to take some time to "digest" it. How many Latvians are aware of this document?


14 May, 2007 17:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Вы теряете времени о этом деле. што делал сталин на том времени? И што делает теперь путин? Какие ваши приоритеты? Пишите о реально важно.

14 May, 2007 18:58  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Cher Pierre,

I think most Sorosistas and their ilk must know about this...

Dear Anonymous,

I seem to misunderstand your sense of time -- but most of all I don't understand where you're going, and worst of all I don't understand where you're trying to go.

I face my history just fine. Try to face yours -- I'm sure it'll do you good.

14 May, 2007 19:10  
Blogger Unknown said...


Just a quick comment about the Free Lunches monograph, which was discussed at length on a Latvian language forum in the autumn of 2002. Absolutely undeniable: it is shocking to read it through the first time, and an indefensible policy. However, from the paper it is impossible to determine how many schools were involved between 1924 and the end of 1928 when the secret program existed. We only know that “By the summer of 1925, the free lunch program (kopēdināšāna) was successfully test run in a few isolated spots” and there were “plans for implementation in a further twenty-five schools”. As for its effects, we’re only told that by the spring of 1926 “several Polish grade schools had already closed” in the Ilukste and Jaunlatgale. [page 64] It’s clearly implied that it was because of the secret program, but it would have been great if the author had ruled out other possible factors that might explain this (e.g., economic migration of the parents to wealthier regions in Latvia).

All other concrete figures provided by the author about minority school closings are from the Ulmanis’ dictatorship period after May, 1934 – six+ years after the program ended. Not mentioned by the author is that free lunches were provided in the 1920’s even in impoverished border zone areas in Russian-language schools (per private correspondence this occurred in Kacens pagasts in the Abrene district. I don’t know who funded it.)

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not trying to minimize this egregious policy. But especially since Pierre mentioned needing time to ‘digest’ the paper, it’s good to keep in mind that there’s no indication of the scope of the project, nor what the budget for it was in any particular year, so that ultimately it’s hard to put it into perspective.

All the best,


14 May, 2007 23:40  
Blogger Unknown said...

Mea culpa! I just re-read the article and in 1927 96.000 Ls was budgeted for the program. At the official rate (20 santīmes/lunch), and if a school year has roughly 150 days (?), then about 3.200 minority school children were targeted.


15 May, 2007 01:00  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May Karlis Ulmanis rest in peace. What about today's threat to Latvian democracy from Janis Vanags and Janis Pujats or is this the acceptable form of male authoritarianism and dictatorship?

15 May, 2007 23:58  
Blogger Robert The Bruce said...

Great roundup, Peter. However, I think you are a little soft on Ulmanis re: "he didn't snuff anybody." He might have not used firing squads, but the prisons and the concentration camp physically broke people. Old Man Celms, for example, died in 1935 shortly after his release from custody.

Bummer about "Visu Latvijai." This worship at the Altar of the Usurper can go down as one of Raivis' great "clunkers." A more cynical part of me believes he only did it to play to the core of his support, but from the accounts of my people on the street in Riga, he seemed rather sincere about extolling the "virtues" of the Ulmanis' era. Ah well.


16 May, 2007 05:23  
Blogger Blair Sheridan said...


Whoever Anonymous is, I can assure you that he/she is not a native Russian speaker. The grammar and spelling are far too poor.


16 May, 2007 07:18  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Paldies, spasebo, and thanks to everyone commenting!

Elizabetei -- thanks for the precizēšana (and re-precizēšana)!

Robert -- I don't mean to come off as "soft on Ulmanis" (as you know, many would say I'm the opposite). You're right, some few people, esp. on the far left and the far right, suffered a lot. I do think, though, that the difference in degree between his dictatorship and Hitler's or Stalin's is so vast that there's no comparison at all. Almost all of the people held in the Liepāja concentration camp were released within a year, for instance.

Blair -- I was quite convinced that the comment written in Cyrillic was from someone you and I both know virtually. I guess I should never assume... unless said individual was doing ye olde "vodka, vobla, chastushka" when commenting...

Visu labu visiem,

16 May, 2007 14:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geez Peteri, better wipe all that lipstick off your face before your wife comes home.

And your comment response here that softens the blow of comparative regimes ? Not like you /P...

But anyway - yes, lets recall the evils of our respective dictators, drink a toast to them a final time and move on. There are more immediate and pressing matters before us.


17 May, 2007 06:49  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

I am not a soft on Ulmanis! I am not soft on Ulmanis! I am not soft on Ulmanis! (...writes on blackboard...)


Just as I think Russia will not be able to put the past behind it without a form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, I don't think we can. We may have less heavy a Vergangenheit to come to terms with, but it is an exceedingly complex one and most haven't even tried to come to terms with it (for exmple, there is national victimhood complex that seems to be growing rather than diminishing). Though I lost my temper in this debate, I hope I pointed to some issues we need to face. As long as serious people praise Ulmanis (or part of his policies -- e.g., some on the far right take a supposedly "balanced" approach but spread the idea that his minorities policy was excellent), I will keep hammering at it.


By the way, I've received some complaints re my "Sorosistas" remark. As some readers know, I'm quite ecstatic about most of what the Soros Foundation has done here. I was being facetious, sorry!

17 May, 2007 09:46  
Blogger Robert The Bruce said...

I still think you are somewhat soft on Ulmanis!

You wrote: "Almost all of the people held in the Liepāja concentration camp were released within a year, for instance." Mind you, most of the people sent to Auschwitz didn't stick around for very long, either.

Are you serious about people giving you a hard time about the "Sorosistas" remark? They must not be aware that you are soft on Soros too. Thank the stars that NewsCorp has finally invested in Latvia's media, at least there will be some kind of counter-balance to the constant flow of misinformation that Georgie Schwartz's minions inflict upon the Latvian people. I hope it is not too little too late. Ol' Rupe might have a share of the broadcasting, but Soros still owns a good deal of the "reporters."


19 May, 2007 06:09  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Auschwitz, Robert? Excuse me, but even people like Bruno Kalniņš, a leading Social Democrat who experienced Ulmanis' repression first hand, writes that Ulmanis' régime was not totalitarian. Again -- Ulmanis didn't snuff anybody.

The UK's chargé d'affaires at the time reported 190 political prisoners on 9 January 1935, for example, most of them Communists. On 5 February 1936 he counted 694, 617 of them Communists (it should be noted that the Comintern was constantly attempting to subvert the state, so it is difficult to say to what degree such prisoners were "prisoners of conscience" or criminals). Cyril James Wenceslas Torr was hardly a fan of Ulmanis or Balts -- he clamed that Lithuanians and Latvians were uncivilized and had no culture beyond what would be mummery in England, and believed that (then already Nazi!) Germany would do Europe a favor by annexing us, to protect us from "inferior races." Ah, our British friends!

There is no comparison whatsoever between Auschwitz and Ulmanis' brief incarceration of leftists and far-right extremists. To draw such a comparison, even as a joke, is offensive and highly inaccurate. To keep things in perspective isn't to minimize the damage done by Ulmanis' dictatorship -- quite the opposite. You minimize the Holocaust and Stalinism by drawing false parallels between the Latvia of 15 May and those horrors.

Re Soros -- SFL has done more for civil society here than any other non-governmental structure. Soros doesn't "own" journalists -- it just so happens that many decent journalists share his goal of an open society. Murdoch's recent purchase of a large share of Latvia's media is regrettable. The paper you think of as Sorosista, Diena, is by far the best paper in Latvia, with the highest journalistic standards.

19 May, 2007 07:48  
Blogger Robert The Bruce said...


What, pray tell, was Bruno Kalniņš' crime that he deserved to be expelled from Latvia, a country he founded and fought for on the battlefield? Was it the shot he fired harmlessly into the ceiling of his home as Ulmanis' thugs came to take him into custody for being a duly elected representative of the people?

I'm sorry that you feel offended at the comparisons between the Vadonis and the Soviet and Nazi regimes that followed. I see the coup and the resulting loss of liberty as egregious crimes. It sent Latvia down a very dark path. Ulmanis may not have ordered up any firing squads, but he still did cause a great deal of misery.

I don't suppose you and I will ever agree on Diena. I do regard you as a well-educated and intelligent guy, but I don't get how you can't see the institutional bias of Diena. It pushes a leftist agenda not only in its editorial policy but at the very root of its reporting. Its editors and writers (one cannot call them "journalists") are well known to have received cash and stipends from Soros -- Ēlerte and Streips conveniently "share" Soros' views and have been handsomely compensated by him. Soros' targets always seem to be Diena's targets as well. During the last election, Diena grilled Šlesers mercilessly, but gave Repše a pass when he killed someone. I may disagree with Raivis Dzintars on any number of issues, but he still edits a much better newspaper than Ēlerte.

How you can describe Murdoch's acquisition as "regrettable" is beyond me. NewsCorp employs real journalists, who check their politics at the door. Even when, say, Fox News is running a discussion program (a la Hannity & Colmes, the O'Reilly Factor, et al.) they do get all sides of the story out there -- fair and balanced. This is much more than can be said for Diena.


19 May, 2007 09:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is a bit late but I have decided to clear up some of the misinterpretations that people have of this era. My grandfather Janis Fridrihson was employed by Ulmanis to filter out any potential Soviet enemies to Latvia. When we see that they exiled Bruno Karlis during the coup to Sweden is surely proof of their belief in Latvia as a free country. This man Karlis as soon as the Russians arrived in 1939 returned only to collaborate with the communists. Who can say but perhaps he even spied for them. My Mum Janis's daughter is a witness to loyalty of Ulmanis to his country her father worked with him personally.
Anita Morvant

02 September, 2009 19:48  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Anita Morvant, I assume you mean Bruno Kalniņš, who has given detailed explanations of his return to Latvia after the Soviet invasion.

Excuse me, but banishing Social Democrats and other political opponents and incarcerating many in a concentration camp after destroying democracy hardly demonstrates "loyalty" to the Republic of Latvia.

02 September, 2009 19:55  
Blogger Anita Morvant said...

In fact in this epoque as you well know there was virtually no country that 100% democratic in todays sense of the term. It was a very politically volatile situation in Europe. What could Latvia and their two allies do but be vigilant against communist and fascist infiltration. They were nearly defenceless against these two major powers.

We should ask this question before we condem the régime of the President Ulmanis " Would the Russian have taken over Latvia earlier?"

16 September, 2009 21:19  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

I have never seen the slightest suggestion that anything Ulmanis did delayed the Soviet takeover. I have no idea why one would think destroying democracy made Latvia more defensible; I think it's exactly the opposite. By depriving Latvians of a voice at every level -- there weren't even local elections, and censorship was pervasive -- Ulmanis was able to deliver Latvia into the Soviets' hands with his notorious speech ("you stay in your places and I'll stay in mine"). As to "vigilance against infiltration" -- Ulmanis was himself the greatest danger to the Republic at the time he took power; there was no other credible threat to democracy.

16 September, 2009 21:37  

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