In Riga​ this summer I went to a ceremony at the Freedom Monument to commemorate the deportations of 1941, when Soviet authorities removed 14,000 citizens in less than 24 hours, sending many of them to labour camps in Siberia. One elderly woman, born in Siberia after her parents were deported, spoke of the illness, cold and malnutrition that had killed many children: she thought of herself as one of the lucky few. Younger people, too, spoke with force about their parents and grandparents’ experience of war, deportation, occupation and – in some cases – independence.

One man told me that ‘Russians’ hated ‘Latvians’. He was impatient for the ‘Russians’ to leave. They had arrived in large numbers after 1945, he said, and taken all the best apartments. If they go, ‘we’ll be free.’ Of Latvia’s population of just under two million, around a quarter are Russian speakers, though in the big cities, including Riga, the figure rises to half. They include people whose origins are in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine; questions of ethnicity, language, identity and politics are further complicated by intermarriage and migration. Some of the Russian-speaking minority are Latvian citizens, while others carry Russian passports (dual citizenship is rare). Roughly 10 per cent of the population, most of them ethnic Russians, have no citizenship and no voting rights. None of this is simple, yet the war in Ukraine is making attitudes to ‘Russians’ clear cut.

The Freedom Monument, built in 1935 to honour the fighters who opposed Soviet and pro-Bolshevik Latvian forces, narrowly avoided destruction after the Second World War thanks to the intervention of the sculptor Vera Mukhina (already the winner of two Stalin Prizes). It stands on the right bank of the Daugava river. On the left bank, a far more imposing monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia from the German Fascist Invaders, built in the 1980s, squared off against the Freedom Monument for almost forty years. On 25 August, on the orders of Riga city council and with the authorisation of the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, the Victory Monument’s 79-metre obelisk was demolished, crashing into the lake below. A flurry of water rose into the air, as demonstrators outside the security perimeter cheered.

The Victory Monument had long been the site of Great Patriotic War commemorations, attended by many Russian speakers on 9 May every year. But this spring the Saeima banned all rallies celebrating the Soviet victory and the monument was fenced off. Thousands of Russian speakers defied the ban and laid flowers in front of it. The flowers were cleared with a bulldozer; more were laid. Opponents of the Victory Monument saw it as a revisionist bulwark. Others see the decision to pull it down as an unwise attempt to co-opt growing anti-Russian sentiment, which can only lend weight to the Kremlin’s line on persecuted Russian-speaking minorities, even though support for Russia’s war in Ukraine among Russian-speaking Latvians is low and getting lower.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October; the five-party governing coalition is presiding over one of the highest inflation rates in the EU (21 per cent in July) and has failed on its promises to weed out corruption. Harmony, the party backed by most Russian speakers, recently severed ties with Moscow but lacks the voter base – and potential coalition partners – to lift it out of permanent opposition. It’s currently the largest single party in the Saeima, thanks to the support of older left-wing and socially conservative Latvians as well as moderate and radical Russian speakers, but the war is driving some of those voters away.

The staunch pro-Moscow element, meanwhile, looks likely to abstain or vote for the Latvian Russian Union (LKS), which openly supported the annexation of Crimea. Tatjana Ždanoka, its co-chair and an MEP, voted against a European Parliament resolution to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. A LKS Riga city council member described the plan to demolish the Victory Monument as a ‘declaration of war’. LKS has yet to win a seat in the Saeima, but if the latest polls are to believed, it has a real chance of gaining a foothold in the upcoming elections.

Almost half of the Russian-speaking community in Latvia now opposes the war in Ukraine, a significant increase since March (20 per cent). But something like 70 per cent wanted the Victory Monument left alone. It’s mostly among older generations, as far as I can tell, that attachment to the monument coincides with Kremlin narratives about Ukraine. One older woman told me she had defied the ban on 9 May. Wasn’t Russia fighting a new generation of Nazis? she asked. How can we know what is really happening on the ground? And anyway, where had the West been during the eight years of conflict in Donbas?

Younger Russian speakers make a point of appearing not to care. Two Russian-speaking women in their late thirties told me they wanted nothing to do with the Ukraine war and didn’t care about the fate of the monument. A bigger issue for them was the gradual phasing out of Russian in Latvian schools. They had a separate grievance about their children’s history classes. They teach our kids that Latvia was ‘occupied’, one of them said, but it was the Soviet Union that built all the roads and schools. What Russian speakers say about their opposition to or support for the war doesn’t seem a helpful measure of their integration into Latvian society. Meanwhile, the coalition presses forward with its project of dismantling Soviet memorabilia, not only in Riga but across the country.

The crowds who turned up to watch the fall of the obelisk were wearing Latvian colours and waving Latvian flags. The TV live-stream of its collapse was part of the fun; as were televised vox pops. ‘I’m here for my grandfather, who survived two world wars and always hoped that Latvia would finally be free,’ someone said. ‘We are finally free of the ghosts that haunted us for fifty years.’ Removing a mammoth amount of steel and concrete is a low-cost operation with high symbolic returns, but it’s sure to fuel national divisions in the short term. Bigger, more complicated processes lie ahead. The decision to reinstate military service is controversial among the young, whatever language they speak. The elimination of Russian in schools is opposed not only by students but by economists, who argue that narrowing educational opportunities will worsen Latvia’s brain drain and have negative consequences for years to come.

26 August

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