Latvians in the Soviet Union: The Victims of Communist Terror, 1929-1939

The peace treaty between the governments of Latvia and Soviet Russia signed on 11 August 1920 allowed First World War evacuees, refugees, soldiers, and farmers granted land in Russia the opportunity to return to Latvia By 1 January 1926, 215,874 former residents of the territory of Latvia of various nationalities had repatriated from the USSR, while the Soviet census of 27 December 1926 registered 151,410 ethnic Latvians still living in the Soviet Union. A large number of the latter, despite their wishes to the contrary, were not able to return to Latvia, because they lacked the proper documents to emigrate from the Soviet state. Soviet Russia created many administrative obstacles for Latvians attempting to leave, since many of them were highly qualified specialists desperately needed for rebuilding the Soviet economy. The government of Latvia, for its part, also did not do everything within its power to encourage the process of repatriation. Approximately 60% of the ethnic Latvian population in the USSR lived in cities, while 40% was rural. According to the findings of K.Šķilters published in 1928, throughout the Soviet Union there were 372 sizeable Latvian colonies, made up of about 12,000 households in all. The largest concentrations of ethnic Latvians were in the gubernia of Leningrad and Pskov, as well as in Byelorussia (Belarus) and Siberia.

The official policies allowing a limited market economy in the Soviet Union in the 1920s (known as NEP) stimulated a widespread intensification of labour on farmsteads run by Latvians, and led to the development of many co-operatives in the Latvian colonies. This process, combined with the work ethic and industriousness of the Latvians, widened the social gap between the Latvian farmers and their ethnic Russian neighbours. A partial study in 1927 of the peasantry in the USSR found that, on average, 3.2% of the country's farmers could be classified as well off, while 26.1% were poor. The statistics amongst Latvian farmers in the Soviet Union showed that 10 to 15% were wealthy and only 20% poor.

The first political repression of the wealthier farmers in the USSR and the start of forced collectivisation began in 1928. These actions culminated, in 1930 and 1931, in two waves of mass deportations of wealthy farmers. At present, it is not possible to establish the number of households destroyed as a result of deportation and political repression, but in the areas around the Kuban and Don, for example, 27% of Latvian farmsteads were liquidated as wealthy, while in the Latvian colonies near Vitebsk, this figure is around 25%. This can be considered the first practice of genocide along class lines.

Forced collectivisation increased the number of Latvians wishing to repatriate to Latvia. In a secret circular dated 19 December 1938, however, the RSFSR People's Commissar for Internal Affairs forbade further emigration to Latvia, although the formal right to apply was outwardly retained. Those who persisted in their requests to emigrate were arrested as counter-revolutionaries. The authorities forcibly suppressed other forms of resistance to forced collectivisation: getting rid of one's own property, arson, or armed resistance.

As a result, forced collectivisation of the Latvian colonies in the European part of the USSR was completed by 1932, with collectivisation in Siberia being finished not long afterwards.

In the first half of the 1930s, the judicial basis was created. For increasing mass repression in the USSR, with the terror reaching its climax in 1937 and 1938.

In 1937, there began the first wave of Soviet repression aimed against specific nationalities. First was Order No. 00439 of the USSR People's Commissar for Internal Affairs, dated 25 July 1937, on the repression of ethnic Germans. This was followed on August 1937 by Order No. 00485 for the repression of ethnic Poles in the USSR. Although it has not been possible to find a similar order stipulating the repression of those of the Latvian nationality, there is evidence to suggest that such a document was the basis for NKVD actions against the Latvian diaspora in 1937 and 1938. Certain persons involved in carrying out the repression have admitted to its existence, and there exist document, where the reason for a person's arrest is clearly stated as being that the person is Latvian. Many Latvian communists were killed, despite their holding important positions in the upper echelons of the USSR state apparatus, the armed forces, the economy, or the Communist Party. Repressive measures were taken against members of the Latvian intellectual, agricultural, and industrial classes. Many writers, actors, artists, teachers, and others were shot. Cultural and educational institutions and publications were closed - among them Prometejs Latvian Cultural-Educational Society, the Skatuve Latvian State Theatre in Moscow, the journal Celtne, the Latvian Education House in Leningrad, and the Letgallian section of the Achinsk Pedagogical Technical School. The closing of over 150 Latvian schools was justified by claims that parents desired a shift to unilingual education in Russian, "because children find it difficult to master two languages at once."

Mass repression of the Latvian diaspora in the Soviet Union was a conscious act of genocide. By January 1939, no less than 15.23% of the Latvian population of the USSR had been eliminated, mainly men in their most productive years. Unknown thousands of Latvians were imprisoned during this period in the GULAG camps, and it is currently impossible to tell how many of them survived.

On 9 December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The second article of the convention states that any act with the aim of whole or partial annihilation of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group is genocide, and thereby a crime punishable under the conditions laid out in the first article of the convention.

The genocidal policies carried out against Latvians in the USSR by the communist system were continued in Latvia following the Soviet occupation in 1940. International judgement of the legal and historical aspects of this crime are necessary, in order to ensure in Latvia an acceleration of development, the strengthening of democracy and society's spiritual, economic, and political rebirth.