In 2005 in Moscow Jean Claude Juncker said: “Since the Second World War, we know how much we are indebted to the Red Army. We, Luxembourg, like other European countries, could not have gained freedom and democracy if the Russian people had not done what they did for us”.
What Mr Juncker failed to mention was that the Red Army kept half of Europe under a brutal occupation for nearly 50 years. Tens of millions of Europeans were locked behind the Iron Curtain and denied freedom and democracy. In Soviet-occupied Europe Nazi concentration camps were not destroyed. The Soviets continued to use them to persecute dissidents and members of resistance movements. “This is certainly not the Liberated Europe we fought to build up. Nor is it one which contains the essentials of permanent peace,” Churchill noted in 1946.
What Mr Juncker failed to mention was that the Red Army kept half of Europe under a brutal occupation for nearly 50 years.
A British diplomat who visited Riga, the capital of occupied Latvia, in 1945 reported to London: “First anniversary of liberation of Riga by Red Army was not made occasion of any public manifestation... Latvians of all classes seem most unhappy under the restored Soviet regime and still look to the United Kingdom and the United States for restoration of their independence. Emotions are however mostly passive, as the spirit has been ground out of people by events since 1940.”
The year 1940 marked the end of independence for Latvia, as it was invaded by the Red Army following the Nazi-Soviet pact. The initial Soviet occupation lasted only one year, until 1941. But the events which took place during that year were so horrific that it was later called “The Year of Horror”. Many Latvians were brutally murdered. Thousands were rounded up and deported. Entire families were loaded into cattle cars and transported to Siberia. Nearly half of the deportees did not survive.
When the Soviets returned in 1945, people had no illusions about the Russian “liberators”. Many Latvians fled to the West, while thousands took to the forests and joined the ranks of partisans. The resistance movement involved more than 20,000 people both in cities and in the countryside. Numerous underground youth organisations scattered throughout all three Baltic States. The youths printed leaflets and encouraged their fellow countrymen not to lose hope. Latvians were listening to Western radio stations in anticipation of a showdown between the West and the Soviets that might bring an end to the Soviet occupation of their homeland.
Armed resistance of Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians against the Soviet occupation went on for more than a decade, until the mid-1950s. It was a bloody and merciless war which left thousands dead on both sides. Cut off from the rest of the world by the Iron Curtain, the desperate fight of the Baltic partisans was largely unknown in the West. Receiving no tangible aid from outside, the resistance movement depended on the support of the local population, which provided food and shelter. The Soviets deported tens of thousands of ordinary peasants, women and children in their pursuit to cut support for the partisans.
A massive program of Sovietisation and colonisation was launched to seal the Soviet conquer of Latvia. Nearly a million Russian-speaking settlers were moved from Russia and other Slavic republics of the USSR to colonise the Baltic country of two million.
Eventually the Soviet occupiers prevailed. A massive programme of Sovietisation and colonisation was launched to seal the Soviet conquest of Latvia. Nearly a million Russian-speaking settlers were moved from Russia and other Slavic republics of the USSR to colonise the Baltic country of two million. The unprecedented influx of Russian immigrants completely changed the traditional ethnic composition of Latvia in a couple of decades. The share of Latvians in Latvia decreased to an all-time low – 52 per cent in 1989. In Riga the Russian-speaking group increased from 10 per cent in 1940 to 70 per cent in 1989. By the end of the Soviet occupation in 1991 the Russian-speaking settler community became the dominant population group in the seven largest cities of Latvia and made up approximately one-third of the whole population of Latvia.
The sheer scale of the Baltic colonisation was so alarming that in 1983 the European parliament adopted a resolution, in which it suggested submitting the issue of the Baltic States to the Decolonisation subcommittee of the UN. In 1987 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted special resolution 872 on the situation of the Baltic peoples. It pointed to the fact that “as a result of forced immigration into their area, the Baltic peoples are brought under pressure to assimilate, and that the lack of possibilities for education and cultural expression of their own is leading towards the loss of national identity”.
The national identity of Latvians could indeed have been lost, had the Soviet occupation lasted 10 more years. Latvia would have been totally Russified and would resemble Belarus today. The demise of the USSR in 1991 made it possible for Latvia to regain its independence. However, the consequences of 50 years of Soviet rule were grave. Tens of thousands of killed and deported, a generation brought up in isolation, a ruined economy and a polluted environment. Seven hundred thousand Soviet settlers, including tens of thousands of Russian military personnel, remained in Latvia after 1991. Nearly half a million of them voted against restoration of Latvia’s independence in two referendums in 1991.
Nevertheless after Latvia became independent they were granted rights to stay in Latvia and to naturalise. Several hundreds of thousands used this opportunity. They learned the Latvian language and became Latvian citizens. However, about a quarter of a million Soviet-era immigrants chose not to do it. Even today they prefer their current status of non-citizens, which gives them the privilege of travelling (and working) visa-free in both the EU and Russia.
However, the consequences of 50 years of Soviet rule were grave. Tens of thousands of killed and deported, a generation brought up in isolation, a ruined economy and a polluted environment. Seven hundred thousand Soviet settlers, including tens of thousands of Russian military personnel, remained in Latvia after 1991. Nearly half a million of them voted against restoration of Latvia’s independence in two referendums in 1991.
In the early 1950s Ronald Reagan said: “Communism, the greatest hoax of the century, was perpetrated on the world to cover nothing more or less than a programme of Russian aggression and expansion.” Nowhere in the world was this demonstrated better than in Latvia.
Communist rule methodically turned Latvia into a part of the so-called “Russian world” (Русский мир) – ultimately the gravest and the most dangerous consequence of the Soviet occupation. As we see today, wherever there is the “Russian world”, the Kremlin may invade to “protect” it. Europe has seen this pattern already, during the 1930s. Hitler invaded countries to “protect” the “German world” – the Volksdeutsche. At that time there were those who appeased Hitler and who bought his “humanitarian” arguments. It ended in a world war. Today we must learn from this lesson in order not to make the same mistake again.