What became of Latvia’s left?

Looking at the state of the country’s politics today, you’d hardly imagine it. But 100 years ago, Latvia was one of the most left-wing corners of the doomed Russian Empire.

Will Mawhood
18 December 2017

The Red Latvian Riflemen, 1918. A work by constructivist art Gustavs Klucis's featuring the photo-montage technique. Image courtesy of the author.

The past month has seen a flurry of articles on the anniversary of October 1917 in St Petersburg and their consequences — many illuminating, some rather less so. Illuminating or not, the emphasis has usually been on the Russian in Russian revolution — the impact on the modern Russian state. But St Petersburg was an imperial capital at the time, ruling not only over the cities of the modern Russian Federation, but Tashkent, Tbilisi and Tallinn as well. It was very often in these peripheral regions that the revolution was most enthusiastically received.

Indeed, the corner of the empire that was perhaps the reddest of all was not Russian at all. It was a place that very rarely comes up these days when the left is discussed, a country where the right appears to have a lock on both the government and the retelling of history — Latvia.

When Riga went red

There aren’t a great number of territories where there is demonstrable proof of mass support for the Bolsheviks early on, but Latvia is one. In the elections to the Constituent Assembly that November, the vote for the Bolsheviks in the Latvian part of Livonia was 72%, almost three times the national average. Ethnic Latvians played a pretty crucial role in securing Soviet power militarily too. The most reliable and well-trained units the revolutionaries had at their disposal were the Latvian riflemen — national battalions, tens of thousands strong, formed by the Russian imperial authorities to fight on the frontline, which, following early German advances, ran right through the middle of Latvian-inhabited territory. Angered by heavy losses and the incompetence of their generals, the riflemen overwhelmingly transferred their allegiances to the Bolsheviks in spring 1917, after which they were deployed extensively in the civil war and to put down anti-Bolshevik revolts. The following year, the first ever commander-in-chief of the Red Army was appointed: Latvian Jukums Vācietis.


LSDSP' election poster, 1925. Source: Wiki.

Latvia had been radical for a long time. During the convulsive year of 1905, the governorates making up what is now Latvia were probably the most ungovernable in the whole Russian Empire. In January of that year, strikers in Riga were fired on: 73 people died, hundreds were wounded. Further strikes and violence followed and, by the autumn, meetings in the working-class district of Grīziņkalns were drawing crowds of over 100,000. Much of the city was de facto run by the illegal Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (LSDSP). By this point, disorder was even greater in the countryside, where the situation began to resemble a civil war.

Over 90% of rural parishes elected new governing bodies, after the LSDSP urged them to disregard the old, undemocratic administrations. Pent-up rage was turned on symbols of the existing order: by the end of 1905 in what is now Latvia, 184 manor houses had been burnt to the ground. 

The following year, the LSDSP entered the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party as a territorial organisation — a slightly misleading fact, given the Latvian party had more than double the membership of the parent organisation.

There were particular reasons for all this. In addition to the factors that sparked revolt in Russia in 1905 and 1917, there was a powerful and complex colonial dimension in Latvia. Like the rest of the Russian Empire, it was a wildly unequal society, but in Latvia, wealth and social status were tightly bound to the language you spoke.

A peculiarity of Latvia was that most did not feel primarily oppressed by Russia or Russians, but by the Baltic Germans

A peculiarity of Latvia was that most did not feel primarily oppressed by Russia or Russians, but by the Baltic Germans, roughly seven percent of the population who were descendants, for the most part, of crusaders who had invaded the region in the 13th century and instituted a feudal system, with themselves at the top. Latvian-speakers, who were an overall majority — and an overwhelming majority in the countryside — were mostly poor and landless. And yet it was also a highly literate and industrialised society. Riga was behind only St.Petersburg and Moscow by the number of industrial workers, and at the turn of the century over 90% of Latvians could read. Latvia was primed in equal measure for radical leftism and nationalism.

In the years after 1917, Latvians seemed to face a choice between the two, as an extraordinarily complicated three-way struggle began between various German forces (allied at points with White Russians), the Red Army and supporters of the independent Latvian state declared in November 1918 in Riga. During this period, two separate Soviet-sponsored republics existed on Latvian territory. Though initially both seemed to command a considerable amount of support from locals, they descended before long into food shortages and arbitrary repressions. By the end of 1920, the Republic of Latvia had been successfully consolidated in roughly its current borders.

Many of those Latvians who had supported Bolshevism in Latvia chose to remain in Soviet Russia, where they wielded disproportionate influence in the party. Jēkabs Peterss was involved in setting up the Cheka, Jānis Bērziņš headed the union’s military intelligence division, artist Gustavs Klucis was among the most prominent Constructivists (all are better known by the Russian versions of their names – Yakov Peters, Yan Berzin, Gustav Klutsis). In Soviet Russia there were Latvian theatres, Latvian publishing houses, Latvian clubs, a whole culture — all wiped out from 1937 onwards, when, accused of fascist, nationalist or counter-revolutionary sympathies, Latvians were purged in their thousands.

By the turn of the century, Latvia was primed in equal measure for radical leftism and nationalism

But leftist politics were by no means dead within Latvia itself, although there they took a milder form. In the first elections in 1920, the LSDSP — now reformed as a primarily Menshevik party — won almost 40% of the vote, more than double its nearest rival, on a radical platform of land redistribution. Internal splits and their reluctance to join coalitions meant the social democrats were rarely in government, but they remained the largest party in the Saeima, Latvia’s legislature, until democracy was suspended in 1934.

Left in the past

Jump forwards to the Latvia of around 80 years later and the picture for those of leftist sympathies is dispiriting: the country is run by a coalition of self-described right-of-centre parties, as has been the case, in shifting configurations, since the restoration of its independence in 1991. Its best-known contribution to international political thinking in recent years has probably been “the Latvian model”, referring to its method of dealing with the 2008 financial crisis, which was unusually crippling in Latvia.

Then-prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis responded with austerity of quite extraordinary intensity: half of all government agencies were closed, and public sector salaries were cut by 26%. A huge, almost immediate spike in emigration followed, before an eventual return to growth.

So just what has become of Latvia’s left?

When I put this question to Ivars Ījabs, a Latvian political scientist, I get an immediate and straightforward answer: “the ethnic cleavage has prevented the development of leftist politics.” In Latvia, he tells me, “what most people mean by ‘left’ is post-Communist/Russian-speaking.”

This speaks to one of the many factors that separate the Latvia of 1940, the year it was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union, from the Latvia that unilaterally declared the restoration of its independence in 1990. Before the war, it was a highly multicultural country, as it had been for hundreds of years before. While ethnic Latvians made up between 70 and 80% of the population, there were statistically significant numbers of Germans, Russians, Jews, Poles and Belarusians.

By 1990, and the restoration of independence, Latvia can be more accurately be described as a bicultural state: certain minorities had almost vanished (the Baltic Germans, recalled “home” by Hitler), some had sharply decreased in number (the vast majority of Latvia’s Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1944 by the occupying Nazi forces and local collaborators); others, meanwhile had increased greatly due to immigration (the number of Russians had more than tripled) and still others had largely adopted the Russian language (Poles, Belarusians). Latvian-speakers, at 52% of the population, were now almost equalled by the proportion who spoke Russian, if not as a native language, then at least more readily than Latvian — as only a small proportion of those who immigrated during the Soviet occupation learnt the Latvian language to a level of proficiency.

“The ethnic cleavage has prevented the development of leftist politics. In Latvia today, what most people mean by ‘left’ is post-Communist/Russian-speaking”

This all led to intense fears among many Latvians that their language and culture would disappear, as well as that the Russian-speaking minority would keep Latvia in the orbit of its eastern neighbour. Laws passed on the restoration of independence privileged those who could prove a connection to the interwar republic: they would receive citizenship automatically, while residents who had entered during the Soviet occupation would have to pass a citizenship and language test first. Those who could not or would not became “non-citizens”, able to stay, but unable to vote. State-funded education in the Russian language continued, but knowledge of Latvian became essential for government and customer-facing jobs.

Many among the Russian-speaking population found the process demeaning and the changes alienating, and a series of parties, most prominently Equal Rights, pushed for weakening of the citizenship and language laws and closer ties with Russia. As more and more non-citizens have naturalised, parties seen as representing the interests of the minority population have grown stronger; in the last two parliamentary elections Harmony, colloquially known by many Latvians as “the Russian party”, have achieved the largest vote share. Harmony were not included in coalition talks. Their attitude towards Russia has often been cited as making them a potential security threat.


The St George Ribbon and the Latvian flag: Victory Day in Riga, 2012. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This pattern was established in the 1990s: “Latvian” parties of various political stripes forming coalitions in order to keep out of power those principally supported by or seen as sympathetic to Russians. While cultural, social and historical issues have been the principal topic of dispute, it’s true that “Latvian” parties have tended to be more right-wing on economic issues, while “Russian” parties have sounded social democratic notes. Leftist parties appealing primarily to a Latvian electorate have periodically won support. A revived LSDSP did well in the 1998 elections and took the Riga mayoralty shortly after, forming a coalition with Equal Rights — but this has evaporated fast when it’s become clear that political power would involve working with, and concessions to, Russian-speakers.

Mārtiņš, a Riga-born Latvian in his late twenties, told me: “To me, Latvia has always been outside of the left-right divide, somehow off the spectrum entirely. I think this is partly because I grew up at a time when the spectrum was perceived (in many Latvian families – mine included) to run from Russian to Latvian, not left to right. I feel like people cared very little about actual policy. It was less about what kind of country we were going to have and more about this feeling that we had to be extremely careful so that we don’t somehow end up in Russia again.”

Some of the consequences for Latvian society of this situation are made clear to me during a conversation with Edgars Eihmanis, an academic. Eihmanis’s article “Cherry-picking external constraints” sets out how, after receiving a bailout in 2009, the Dombrovskis government went considerably beyond the conditionality required under the terms of the loan, overachieving fiscal targets, while markedly underachieving on social measures. The EU Commission, IMF and World Bank were placed in the odd position of urging more support for the poor and vulnerable.

Latvians unhappy with harsh austerity were left with unattractive options: parties seen as friendly to oligarchs, or seen as friendly to the Kremlin

That such radically neoliberal policies could be effected was partly due to a further split in the ethnic Latvian electorate that occurred in the early 2000s, Eihmanis tells me, which he calls “the corruption cleavage”. From the formation of the New Era party by former central banker Einars Repše in 2002, and continuing with Dombrovskis’ Unity party, a succession of parties had prioritised stringent fiscal discipline and combating corruption above all else — the latter symbolised by the vastly wealthy “oligarchs” (and their political backers) who had emerged during the 1990s. Latvians unhappy with austerity were left with unattractive options: parties seen as friendly to oligarchs, or seen as friendly to the Kremlin. Unity remained the dominant party in government until last year.

Kvass and circuses

So just how does Latvia reconcile all this with its really quite red history?

A lot is revealed by the name by the name Latvians tend to use when referring to the interwar period — Ulmaņlaiki (the Ulmanis times). This refers to Kārlis Ulmanis, a key independence fighter and long-time leader of the Farmers’ Union political party, as well as the man who ended democracy in a bloodless coup in 1934. Latvians are often keen to stress that the regime was mild by the terrible standards of the time, and it is true that demonisation of minorities and violent repression were essentially unknown under Ulmanis, although the free press was suppressed and elements of a cult of personality developed.


Singing of “national (re)birth”. A poster from interwar Latvia, under the rule of Kārlis Ulmanis. Photo CC: Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.What’s most often remembered, though, is the unquestionable economic success achieved under his rule. By 1939, after a boom propelled primarily by high-quality agricultural goods, Latvia was the richest of the Baltic countries, and had a GDP per capita higher than Finland or Austria. To many, the Ulmanis years are synonymous with good times, a golden age in the middle of a tough century. This was evidently the thinking when Cēsu, one of Latvia’s biggest breweries, decided to name their brand of kvass “Ulmaņlaiku”.

In a 2004 poll of the most significant Latvians in history, Ulmanis took second place, behind only the folklorist Krišjānis Barons.

Then in 1993, in the first presidential election held in restored Latvia, his great-nephew, Guntis Ulmanis, was elected president.

Kārlis Ulmanis was a nationalist, of a rather mild kind, and an economic conservative, of a very Latvian, agrarian kind, but the right has also proved capable at co-opting many less obvious historical figures — the leaders of 1905 and the pro-Bolshevik riflemen, to take just two examples. Many of them may have been socialists, but they were also Latvians struggling against exploitative foreigners.

In the 1920s, LSDSP electoral material could pointedly invoke its revolutionary past, certain that this would resonate with their electorate. But history is no longer an asset for the left in Latvia — not least because of the significant number of prominent LSDSP politicians who collaborated with the Soviets, serving in government after the elections of 1940, elections in which only one party was permitted to stand. Some were themselves subsequently purged, but they and their party are still defined for many Latvians by the deportations, executions and forced collectivisation that followed.

The Latvian left faces the further challenge that its radical legacy was mined very extensively by the occupying Soviet authorities as a way of justifying their presence there

The Latvian left faces the further challenge that its radical legacy was mined very extensively by the occupying Soviet authorities as a way of justifying their presence there.

In 2012 the British historian Philip Ruff published A Towering Flame, a biography of Peter the Painter – a member of the anarchist gang at the centre of one of the most dramatic crimes of British history, the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911. Years of research in archives in the UK, Latvia and Russia convinced Ruff that this mysterious figure was, in fact, Jānis Žāklis, a Latvian from the small town of Talsi. Radicalised early in life, Žāklis led the LSDSP’s militia in Riga in 1905, springing captured social democrats from prison and placing guards in the city’s Jewish districts to protect locals from Black Hundred attacks. Like many other Latvians, Žāklis fled the country when the uprising was put down in 1906, eventually finding himself in London.

Ruff made his first trip to Latvia in 1988, where he says he found conducting research on the country’s radical history a challenge. As he explains, “the Communist Party appropriated the bits of LSDSP history that they wanted.” Documents would refer to pre-war Latvians “joining the party” — meaning the Communist party and its precursors — even when the LSDSP had been a separate organisation. “They do this sort of fake history that goes back to Adam and Eve. If you look at these Soviet memorial books, there are pages and pages on people who, after 1917, sided with the Bolsheviks, even if they’d done nothing in 1905.”

The LSDSP was kept alive after 1940 by emigres, but since being formally revived in 1989, it’s struggled to recapture anywhere close to its former strength. Disputes over whether former Communist Party members should be allowed to join tore it apart in the early 1990s, and after its brief revival around the millennium, it has sunk back into irrelevance. The LSDSP currently has no representation in the Saeima.


Riga, capital of Latvia. Photo CC BY-SA 2.0: Ricardo Liberato / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Ījabs, the political scientist, feels that “right now, if you want to have a left-wing party, you have to create it anew, because this legacy has lost any significance”.

What are the chances of that happening? Iveta Kažoka, another political scientist, tells me that she has noticed a shift in the last few years, with the increasing emergence of more ideologically consistent parties. This is in contrast with the rather vague groupings, often centred around one particular figure, which have defined Latvian politics since independence. She cites For Latvia’s Development (liberal, centre-right), For! (liberal, centre-left), and The Progressives, an explicitly social democratic party who campaign under the slogan “turn Latvia in a Nordic direction”. Kažoka expresses qualified confidence that “we are moving to a more values and issues-based politics than previously”, and notes that, in a change from even a few years ago, political parties are not afraid to state that they are centre-left, that they are socially liberal.

The ethnic cleavage remains clear, but there has been an absence in recent years of explicit, organised challenges to the citizenship and language laws — at least since the crushing defeat in a 2012 referendum of a proposal to instate Russian as a second official language. This may suggest a degree of acceptance, if not satisfaction, with the situation, and thus the eventual possibility of moving beyond ethnically-defined politics. None of the new parties listed above promise much change to the status quo in this regard, but neither do they promote policies likely to alienate Russian-speakers. These parties’ present significance shouldn’t be overstated — at present none are polling above the five percent needed to enter the Saeima — but their appearance could give a clue to long-term trends.

At the very least, it suggests that the long, peculiar story of the left in Latvia may not quite be over.


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