Jan. 13 marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre along the Daugava River in Rīga that sparked the 1905 Revolution in Latvia. During the past week, the event was recalled in a conference about the history of the revolution, several activities in the old city square (Rātslaukums) and a small and brief commemmoration at the spot where the massacre occurred.
Rather than being an important and unifying moment, the anniversary seems to have largely passed unnoticed, although the mass media did provide coverage. The evening television news programs gave only brief mention to the activities, which is understandable considering that cleanup from the Jan. 9 hurricane remained a top concern for much of western Latvia. The daily papers offered photographs and brief stories, and Diena provided a 12-page special section about 1905.
In the National Theater, Jan. 13 also saw the premiere of a play by Pauls Putniņš, “Aicinājums uz…pērienu” (Invitation to a Whipping), which deals with the choices people made in the aftermath of the first flames of the revolution.
Still, the anniversary should have garnered more attention.
Historians tell us the Jan. 13 massacre came at the culmination of a general strike in Rīga. The strike had been called to protest a Jan. 9 attack on demonstrators in St. Petersburg. As about 10,000 strikers gathered along the riverbank, soldiers—some of whom also were Latvians—opened fire. Seventy-three people died and about three times as many were wounded. As Diena noted in its special section, an unknown number of people also drowned when the ice gave way as they tried to flee onto the frozen river. Among the dead were mostly young Latvian men, but the fallen also included women and represented other ethnic groups such as Russians, Germans, Jews and Lithuanians. The youngest to die was a 14-year-old boy.
Fifty years ago, a classic Socialist Realist-style statue was erected on the spot. The Soviets, of course, interpreted the events of 1905 as a prelude to the worker’s paradise coming to fruition in Latvia.
Instead, as historians in the conference held at the War Museum reminded listeners, the 1905 Revolution was a signal that the Latvian nation was struggling to come alive. The revolution—which included terrorism on the part of Latvian revolutionaries and bloody “punitive expeditions” by Russian soldiers—failed to immediately overturn Russian imperial rule and German influence in Latvia. By the time activity subsided in 1906, thousands of Latvians had died or fled their homeland.
Conference participants also could view a small exhibit of photographs and documents about the revolution. Of particular interest to Latvians abroad might have been the all-too-spartan notes about Latvian political refugees who fled to western Europe, the United States, Canada and even Australia. One panoramic image showed a group of Latvian political exiles in 1908 somewhere in the Wisconsin woods.
Historians and politicians drew parallels between the events of 1905 (repeated throughout the Russian Empire) and the desires for freedom at other times and other places. As a brisk wind blew from the west across the Daugava to the spot where the massacre occurred, Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement during Poland’s break from the Communist rule, came to pay their respects. Both spoke of the longing for nations and peoples to be free.
Representatives of the Latvian Socialdemocratic Labor Party (Latvijas Sociāldemokrātiskā strādnieku partija, or LSDSP) brought two banners to remind those attending that it was their political organization that helped propel the revolution. The LSDSP, in fact, was Latvia’s first political party, formed in 1904.
(Noticeably absent from the event, in my opinion, was Rīga Mayor Gundars Bojārs. The mayor of the city in which such a momentous event occurred—and who himself is a socialdemocrat—should have been there.)
For Latvian social and cultural life outside of the homeland, the revolution brought both positives and negatives. The poltical refugees, some sent with the purpose of continuing to propagandize the revolution from abroad, brought renewed vigor to Latvian “colonies” around the world. In cities such as London, Boston, New York and Chicago, they created new publications and brought new energy to local theatre. But their increasingly radical tone also turned off many immigrants who wanted little to do with politics. In the United States, for example, Latvian social and cultural life by the 1920s was in rapid decline, even though some estimate that as many as 50,000 Latvian were in the country at the time.
The lives of the revolutionaries are all but forgotten outside of Latvia and, if the week’s events in Rīga were a guide, it won’t be long before they’re forgotten in Latvia, too.
Visitors take in an exhibit about the 1905 Revolution displayed in the Rātslaukums, the old town square in Rīga. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)
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