[by Sarah Argodale]
On August 1, 1920, the Bolshevik government signed a treaty that established the independence and official borders of the Latvian state (Lieven, 59). For a brief period, from 1920-1940, Latvia was free of foreign rule for the first time in centuries. As a newly independent country, the Latvian elites and intellectual class set about legitimizing their new nation, building a Latvian national myth to mobilize the population around their young independence. The Freedom Monument in Riga was intended to represent one aspect of the emerging Latvian history. The redefinition of the monument under Soviet rule and now the second phase of independence, demonstrates the malleability of national identity in the Latvian state.
Completed in 1935, the Freedom Monument first commemorated freedom from Russian imperial oppression. The monument is a large column upon which a female statue, called Milda, stands thrusting three stars skyward. These stars represent three historical Latvian regions, Vidzeme, Kurzeme, and Latgale (Vecriga Media Library). Milda holds the stars, an extension of Latvia, upward, as if to symbolize Latvia’s continued progression forward from its past. The base of the column bears thirteen different depictions of different concepts like family and labor, and statues of the soldiers who fought for Latvian independence from 1918-1920. It also bears an inscription, “To Motherland and Freedom,” which invokes the national spirit of Latvian independence at the beginning of the twentieth century (Vecriga Media Library). The independence Milda represents, was lost five years later when Soviet troops retook Latvia and annexed it as a Soviet republic. Latvians would not be independent again until over fifty years later, in 1991 (Lieven, 429). During this time, the monument came to represent the Soviet government’s perception of Latvian national identity.
The monument was an obvious problem for the Soviet Uleaders, because it symbolized an independence that no longer existed in Latvia. They debated various ways of handling the monument. Although little documentation exists today, there were proposals to restore a monument to Peter the Great that had formerly stood on the site of the Freedom monument (Bormane). Restoring Peter would naturally lead to the demolition of the current monument. By invoking the Russian imperial legacy in Latvia, a new Peter I statue would undermine earlier Latvian independence and curtail Latvian nationalist sentiment. These rumored plans, however, were never successfully carried out. Instead, the Soviet Union launched a campaign to redefine the monument’s three stars as symbols of the three Baltic Soviet Republics (Bormane). By associating this new meaning with the statue, the Soviet Union could attempt to legitimize its control of the Baltic region.
Following the second independence in 1991, the imposed Soviet identity was removed from the Freedom Monument. For a second time, the Latvian elite set about forging a Latvian identity, while simultaneously removing the evidence of Soviet history from the country. To accomplish this, the Freedom Monument came to symbolize a link between the first and second periods of Latvian independence. However, some Latvians exclusively view the monument as a symbol of independence from Soviet rule, as opposed to its original intention to represent Latvian independence after 1920 “Riga and its Main Sightseeing”).
This new meaning is evident in the speeches of Latvian President Ulmanis and US President Bill Clinton at the Freedom Monument. President Ulmanis spoke of the monuments significance to the present:
I hope that America will not forget what happened to us during the mid-course of this century. The suffering of people and their victimization should not have been for nothing, but should be an historical lesson. This is also chiseled in this monument, which invites us to work for a better future keeping to the stars above us (The White House).
President Clinton also acknowledged the monument’s symbolism of Latvia’s new era of freedom and its relationship with the past:
The shining figure of liberty stands guard here today and the spirit of your peoples fills the air and brings joy to our hearts. We hear the songs of freedom that have echoed across the centuries. We see the flames that lit your way to independence. We feel the courage that will keep the chain of freedom alive. May the memories of this day linger. May the spirit of the Baltic souls soar. May the strong sense of freedom never fade. So, in the name of the free people of the United States of America, I say to the free people of the Baltic Nations: Let freedom ring. Vabadus! Laisves! Briviba! Freedom! (ibid.).
In less than seventy years, the Latvian Freedom monument had been used to define and help legitimize three different governments. Few Latvians are alive who remember the original incarnation of the monument from the 1930s, and nearly all Latvians have cast aside the Soviet interpretation of this national symbol. In constructing their national narrative, Latvians must prevent the Soviet period from detracting from their overall legacy, while simultaneously linking the past to the present. The Freedom Monument is only one example of the challenge facing Latvia as the country attempts to create a clear future from a muddled past.
- Anita Bormane, “Freedom monument to blow up, instead of Peter,” Apollo, 5 May 2006 < http://translate.google.com/translate?prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.apollo.lv%2Fportal%2Fnews%2F73%2Farticles%2F73539&sl=lv&tl=en&history_state0=> (2 March 2009).
- Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).
- “Riga and its Main Sightseeing,” Riga, Latvia 25 Dec 2005. < http://www.rigalatvia.net/en_places_of_interest.html#point%20freedom> (14 March 2009).
- Vecriga Media Library, “Monument of Freedom,” Vecrgia Info, n.d.< http://www.vecriga.info/excursion/new/?lang=en> (1 March 2009).
- The White House, Remarks by President Clinton and President Ulmanis at Freedom Monument, 1994. <http://clinton6.nara.gov/1994/07/header/1994-07-06-president-and-latvia-president-freedom-monument-riga.header.html> (2 March 2009).