The Socialist State in Latvia: From the revolutionary triumph to the drama of dissolution

Vladimir Frolov, Chairman of the Board of the Socialist Party of Latvia

Latvia has a special place in the history of the revolutionary movement and the socialist construction in Russia, during the 20th century. At the end of the 19th century, the rapid development of capitalism was marked in the Governorates of Livonia and Courland, in the Russian Empire (today parts of modern Latvia). Latvia’s population was only equal to 1.5% of the total population of the Russian Empire, while the 5.5% of the total industrial products were produced in Latvia. 62,300 workers were employed in Latvia’s heavy industry. Thus, in Latvian society the main opposing classes emerged - the bourgeoisie and the industrial proletariat. Due to these conditions, the socialdemocrats’ ideas attracted great interest within the forces of the workers and their objective allies - the agricultural workers. Nevertheless, by the local conditions defined the preconditions for the primary division of the supporters of the socialdemocratic movement into Latvian, Russian and Hebrew organisations. Even though it appeared that they managed to overcome this division into national groups, in the following period it remained extremely active and strongly manifested itself during the crisis of the Communist Party of Latvia in 1959 and, of course, with its split during the period of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

At the same time, it remains especially important that the first State established on a Soviet basis was on 9 November 1917, on the ground of present-day Latvian Republic. At that time, the power was in the hands of the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers, Soldiers, and the Landless (established in August 1917), also known as the Republic of Iskolat. On the contrary to other similar founding formations on the territory of the former Russian Empire, Iskolat was easily able to control the situation; it was supported by a well organised armed force -the battalions of the Latvian Riflemen- that contributed decisively under the conditions of the “confusion and oscillations” of the administration at that time. 

Also, during that time, the material assistance of the newly-established Soviet Russia was of special importance. And this kind of assistance was indeed offered. Thus, in December 1917, the Soviet Government sent 815,000 kg of rye and 407,000 kg of wheat flour to the unoccupied land of Latvia. In December 1917, Latvia received 68,020 rubles as economic aid, while in was planned to receive even larger sums in January and February 1918. [1]

The Republic of Iskolat was destroyed in February 1918, as a consequence of the occupation of the whole territory of Latvia by German troops. However, the battalions of the Latvian Riflemen played an important role during the October Revolution in Petrograd as well as in the subsequent civil war. Iskolat was the political and historical precursor of the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic (in 1918) and the subsequent Latvian SSR (1940). But, how such a Republic with this kind of revolutionary traditions and such a historical past, ended up in the vanguard of the bourgeois anti-socialist counter-revolution after 70 years?

The “Perestroika” counter-revolution: General factors and local peculiarities

In our view, the following internal reasons decisively contributed to the destruction of USSR: from the ideological work crisis and the betrayal of the elite up to the downgrading of the masses’ class conscience. These causes are of a more general nature and concern the whole territory of the first socialist State, the USSR. Thus, for example, Anatolijs Gorbunovs was the first leader of Latvia after the withdrawal from the formation of USSR. He was a graduate of the Academy of Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the CPSU, a successful high-ranking cadre of Komsomol with 15 years of experience, afterwards Secretary of the Party Central Committee and in charge of the ideological issues in the Republic. At the same time, there were clear local differences between various Republics. At the same time, there were also certain local differences in how the far-reaching consequences of these causes manifested themselves in different republics. For example, corruption and clannishness (tribalism) were seen as manifestations of the ruling establishments’ degradation in the Asian republics and Transcaucasia in the 1970s and 80s of the last century, but these consequences were not typical for Latvia. 

A common and very important factor that contributed to the counter-revolution were the acute national relations. These relations were especially fragile as it had already been manifested a long time ago, during the period of the formation of the revolutionary forces in Latvia, as we mentioned above. The ideological roots of the priority of the national interests at the expense of the class interests, continued existing in form of a latent inter-ethnic conflict that afterwards led to the sharpened crisis within the Communist Party of Latvia in 1959 and to its split in the period of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

Another reason of the mass discontent of the population was the condition in the economy and social sectors. This fact is surprising since the living standards in Latvian SSR were higher in comparison to many other Republics of the USSR. All the more so that living standards were, in fact, rising year by year.

After the end of the war, the fourth Five Year Plan for the restoration and development of the national economy of the USSR for 1949-1950 also determined the issues of peaceful construction. The main tasks of the Five Year Plan were specified by the 25 July 1946 Session of the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Soviet Republic, and were the following: to restore the national economy, destroyed by the Nazi German occupiers, as soon as possible; to reach the pre-war development levels; and afterwards to overcome the pre-war development levels to a large extent. 

As early as 1948, the volume of gross industrial production of the Latvian SSR exceeded the 1940 levels by 81%. Thus, the main goal of the Five Year Plan, which predicted that the pre-war industry level would be exceeded by 80% in 1950, had been already achieved in just 3 (!) years. 

The large scale industrialisation of the Republic was a fruit of the Soviet period. Besides the pre-war crafts and factories (which were reconstructed and expanded), more than 200 companies and new factory workshops were put into operation, along with the Daugava river hydroelectric power station, which continues to supply Latvia with electricity to this day. At the same time, the Republic's industrial technology progress gained importance for the whole Union, while on the other hand; no less important was the traditional economic specialisation of Latvia, i.e. agriculture.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the industrial production of products kept rising and exceeded the pre-war levels 47-fold while the gross production of national economy rose 1.5-fold. During the 1985-1990 period, the production of products of the Latvian SSR rose by 18%, while the production of agricultural products rose by 14% and the turnover in retailing, excluding alcoholic beverages, rose by 29%. Consequently, according to the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), in 1990 Soviet Latvia reached the 40th place internationally (!) in relation to GDP per capita.[2] The achievements were obvious. It is simply impossible to overlook these facts or to ignore them consciously. However, this did not stop dissolution from occurring. 

For us to understand this paradox, we need to refer to the sociopolitical base. The problem can be seen from the fact that, despite the successes of socialist construction, the real development of productive forces neither corresponded neither to the real nor to the registered level of social relations. 

This fundamental problem objectively negatively affected the fulfilment of the requirement of one of the basic economic laws of socialism: satisfaction of the constantly growing needs of the people.

The magnificent, without exaggeration, successes in industrial development sector, co-existed with phenomena that did not characterise the level of the “developed socialism” (as the leadership of PCUS used to call it), such as shortage in housing, places in pre-school establishments, in a wide range of mass consumption products (including even food!), as well as their mandatory rationing, along with their low quality.

These, along with other negative conditions, inevitably led to discontent amongst the workers, to a climate of distrust in relation to the defined socio-economic tasks, and this created sentiments of indignation within the society against the ideological positions declared by the Party Organs. Additionally, the even lower quality of household and luxury articles, caused surprise and indignation amongst the more conscious sections of the workers, along with the fact that the Soviet Tractors and other agricultural vehicles and trucks were worse than the corresponding vehicles produced in capitalist countries in relation to their technical characteristics and to the quality of work, as the users themselves could be able to understand. 

It could be concluded that the capitalist could better provide for the worker’s comfort and health, rather than the socialist State. While during the 1930s and the 1950s, the delay in progress could be explained as objectively inevitable and therefore the people could show comprehension, on the contrary, during the 1970s-1980s this delay led either to a severe isolation of the political and economic leadership of the country from real life matters, or to a conscious undermining of the prestige of the socialist system. From today’s point of view, it is reasonable to admit that both issues were true. 

Today, many economists, even those who are not Marxists, admit that the socio-economic conditions that prevailed in the USSR in the 1930s and 1950s: public/state ownership of durable means of production in strategic industries and cooperative, collective ownership in small-scale production and the service sector, represented the objective grounds for the development of socialist construction during the concrete-historical stage of the socialist social relations development. The attempt to overcome the still existing remnants of private-cooperative production after the Second World War and the death of J.Stalin under the influence of different market tools and capitalism turned out to be disastrous, rather than the development of socialist production relations. At the time when everybody talked about the “building of communism”, certain market elements were introduced in reality. “Running ahead” was the beginning of a huge rollback. Acceptance of the bourgeois category called “business profit” of each individual production unit and dependence of the salaries of directors and employees on this “business profit”, further strengthening of goods-money relations, changing the proportions between Division I (production of manufacturing equipment) and Division II (production of consumer goods), “Kosygin’s reforms” in the 1960s, planted an economic “delayed-action mine” that was blown up in the late 1980s by Gorbachev's “cooperative” (in fact, already actually private-capitalist) reform. In this regard, events in Latvia developed in line with the events happening in other republics of the USSR. 

The factor of nationalism throughout the history of Socialist Latvia

After a period of sharpening of the international relations at the end of the 1950s (the emergence of the so-called “national communists”, the fact that the CC of the CP of Latvia was “canceled” thanks to the large effort of the Presidium of the CC of PCUS, by using administrative measures and by appointing certain cadres, in the second half of 1959), then a calm period began. Amongst certain leading cadres of the Communist Party this action created a false illusion that the problems had been resolved while others were trying to embellish the whole situation, aiming to promote their personal careers. Some of them, while remained secret supporters of the nationalist ideology, they were appearing as convinced internationalists, at the same time as they were searching amongst the leading cadres for those who supported the slogan “Latvia is for Latvians!”. On the basis of these principles, they were attempting to create a reserve group of cadres as well as to take the management of specific sectors in their own hands. Special importance was given in the sector of education and culture.

A special issue was the choice of personnel involved in mass media, which played an important role afterwards in supporting the propaganda in favour of the victory of the counter-revolution. Besides that, it is surprising the fact that the majority of the mass media were the publications of the Communist Party (!) and Komsomol of Latvia. During the intense period of the conflict of 1989-1991, most workers involved in these publications, along with the radio and TV stations, adopted anti-socialist and nationalist positions. Those workers, who remained loyal to internationalism and to the socialist ideals, ended up being a minority. They lost their job, and were forced to create printed media anew (or they were forced to create anew the material base for publications that managed to retain their historical names.

On the outside, the above could seem a bit paradox, since Latvia has always been heterogeneous on the national level throughout its history. At the time of the Proclamation of Independence (1991) the proportions between the Latvian ethnic group and the other ethnic groups residing in the Republic were nearly equal: 52% Latvians and 47% other nationalities (Russians. Ukrainians, Poles, Hebrews and other ethnic groups of different descent that were classified as Russian-speaking people due to the language of communication they were using). Even now, 30 years after the independence, the percentage of Latvians in relation to the total population does not exceed the 62%.

However, the secret activity of the national-oriented activists brought the desired result after 1985, when the infamous “Perestroika” was proclaimed in the USSR. As it turned out, a broad and well-organised base for the development of nationalist and anti-socialist processes had been prepared in Latvia: An ideological and material base, including working cadres. Typically, the so-called “Popular front of Latvia” was born on the basis of a wave of political activism that concerned a wide range of issues, from ecology to history.

An example of such an activity was the strong social campaign against the construction of the Daugavpils hydroelectric power station and the Riga metro. Preliminary works for the construction of the power plant had already begun in the late 1970s and by the mid-1980s a significant part of it had been completed. However, in 1986, journalist Denis Ivans, in an article in Literatura un Maksla ("Literature and Art"), called for construction to be stopped in order to prevent flooding in the protected river valley and to preserve its rare species of plants and animals.

In the case of the construction of the Riga metro, the "rare animals and plants" could not be harmed in any way. It is obvious that this issue was just a pretext to cover one of the most important factors of psychological incitement to protest - ethnic xenophobia. In meetings with his supporters and in private propaganda discussions, he cited as main cause of the opposition to the large-scale economic plans the arrival of a large number of experts and workers from other parts of the country, some of whom the nationalists believed they would remain in Latvia after the end of the construction works and would change the ethnic composition of the population.  

The call to stop the construction of the project had many supporters. The collection of signatures for the termination of the project started. A total of more than 30 thousand signatures were collected, an impressive number for that time (in terms of comparison: today a referendum requires the collection of 150 thousand notarized (!) Signatures) and in the summer of 1987 the union leadership agreed to stop the project construction. The success in the fulfillment of this goal not only inspired the protagonists of that protest, but also allowed them to gain prestige and a large number of supporters, which led to the emergence of anti-Soviet organizational structures that promoted increasingly radical, initially economic or cultural and later political goals.         

However this is the result. What are the reasons that nationalism  remained present for a long time wearing ostentatiously the mask of legitimacy and even ostentatious internationalism? It seems that one of the main reasons was the absence of a truly scientific, research project in the field of mass psychology and especially on the phenomenon of the peculiarity of ethnic consciousness . The existing works had an openly dogmatic character and consisted in the repetition of the well-known theories that nations arose under capitalism while in socialism the national (ethnic) peculiarity consisted of a culture "national in form, socialist in content". Although, as it turned out, in the USSR there were state formations that were socialist in form but national in content…

The Great Patriotic War is considered a particular historical-psychological milestone in the European territory of the former USSR. This is happening to such an extent that due to the debate it causes until today (!), it does not weaken the strong counter-propaganda by the part of the imperialist, anti-communist and nationalist forces. In former USSR republics, such as Latvia or Ukraine, the relationship between modern state nationalism and the wartime Nazis is quite obvious and open. A typical example thereof is the fact that in practically all the countries of the former USSR, where nationalism is used as the official ideology, the local collaborators of the SS and the quislings are declared as "national heroes".     

At the same time, we have to admit the unpleasant fact that the foundation for such a political revision was already prepared, albeit unintentionally, in the post-war socialism building period. Incredible as it may seem, one of the causes of concealed nationalism was also an overestimation of the socialist system’s power, both due to the existence of a conclusion that the balance of power on the world stage had turned in favour of the forces of socialism, and due to the misplaced belief that socialism in the USSR was developed to the degree that it was impossible to overthrow it. This situation led to a loss of vigilance in relation to the concealed nationalism, expressed in such an unexpected outbreak in the late 1980s that is the most vivid example of the lack of an appropriate level of denazification policy after the end of the war.

Due to the misinterpreted principle of internationalism and the assessment of the temporary situation, that part of the population that actively collaborated with the Nazis was practically released from the burden of moral guilt for what it had committed. For all the atrocities committed in the territory of the republic during the war years, exclusively the "German fascist occupiers" were accused. This sinister formulation pervaded everything, from textbooks to inscriptions on the monuments to the victims of the genocide. Although legally German occupation authorities undoubtedly bear the main responsibility for what happened in the occupied territories, a significant part of the crimes were committed by their local accomplices.     

The fact that more than 115.000 Latvians, primarily communists, fought heroically against the Nazis through the lines of the Red Army, the Partizan sections and in illegal organizations, should not be a pardon for the responsibilities of those tens of thousands of compatriots thereof who voluntarily served in the SS and police battalions and became for the occupiers a relentless tool of extermination of the local population.   

Certainly, the mood in favor of Soviet power in Latvia immediately after the end of the war was not homogeneous. Many among the population waited for the Red Army mainly because they hated the Nazi occupiers while the issue of the political system at that time was not of fundamental importance to them. At the same time, according to information gathered and analyzed by the leaders of the Latvian Partisan movement, the successes of the Red Army made the people's sympathy for the Soviet power grow. 

There were anti-Soviet sentiments in the section of the population (nationalist strata of the cities and the villages) who wished the restoration of "old Latvia" and hoped that after the Allies would exhaust their power in the conflict with Hitler, Sweden would guarantee Latvia's independence. [3]  

In this very social stratum of the population the former collaborators of the Germans and their descendants were hidden, constituting the support of the external forces during the "Cold War" in the magnification of the myth of "second occupation" of Latvia in 1944-1945. In fact, this was nothing more than an attempt to regain their right to manage Latvia’s post-war destiny.

Of course, if we compare the situation with what was happening in the area of Germany under​​ Anglo-American occupation, the local population was subjected to a serious psychological "treatment", through mandatory "visits" to concentration camps, being used for burial and exhumation in mass graves of victims of the Hitler regime. At the same time, in the midst of the shock that was naturally caused by the sight of the hundreds of victims’ corpses, they were informed in the crudest way that this was done by their husbands, brothers and fathers. In some Western European countries, which had been liberated by Allied troops, the mass extermination on the streets of local quislings was permitted. As a result, German collaborators appeared nowhere in post-war Europe and could not emerge from positions similar to those of Latvian nationalists as this inevitably led to de-Nazification and marginalization. 

Therefore, the descendants of those forced by British- American soldiers to carry corpses of concentration camp prisoners see the United States and Britain as liberators of Europe, and NATO as the guarantor of peace. At the same time, descendants of the quislings, diligently released from the feelings of guilt for the actions of their ancestors, residents of the former USSR and Eastern European countries of socialism, demolish the monuments of Soviet soldiers and honor former SS collaborators. Practice has clearly shown which method of anti-Nazi propaganda is the most effective ...     

Accumulated and unsolved problems, errors and miscalculations in socio-economic development

One of the most important issues of the post-war period was the reconstruction and development of the rural economy. A system of drastic measures had to be put in place for the period of transition from capitalism to socialism. The main socio-political task of that period was to create socialist relations of production in the countryside. This happened under conditions of acute class struggle. Thus, at the meeting of workers and peasants of the republic in 1945, it was noted: "The robbers are related to the people of the old regime, to the kulaks who do not agree with the Soviet power ... They oppose to it not only with weapons, but also with propaganda so that the peasants do not settle their debts to the state, they seek to ensure that in the executive committees of the provincial and peasant Soviets there will be no Soviet people, but kulaks who would incite the peasants against the Soviet power. .. » [4]

The policy of restricting and expelling the kulaks as a class and implementing economic measures against them in the Latvian Soviet Republic differed from the corresponding measures taken in the "old" republics in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In Latvia the kulaks were not deprived of their voting rights, kept private property, albeit reduced, but were more powerful in comparison to other peasants. They were allowed to employ partly-salaried work force.   

While carrying out the construction of cooperative buildings in the republic, some Soviet and party bodies showed unacceptable haste and negligence. However, the demonstration of zeal during creation of cooperatives could not call off the fact of the objective social support for the Kulaks in the countryside and their ability to influence cooperative organisations to a greater or lesser extent. It was a common situation when speculators, swindlers and Kulaks stepped in the cooperatives and their management boards, providing such persons with one more channel for undermining the socialist system. When they managed to get onto the management boards, they carried out anti-Soviet propaganda, discredited the actions of the Soviet government in agriculture by their actions, as well as sought to undermine the confidence of the working people in government.

The struggle against bourgeois nationalism was to some extent hampered by shortcomings in the methods of party work. Today it is strange to learn about this, but in that tense period, neither in the mass political events, nor in the speeches, nor in the democratic and regional press were the sabotaging actions of bourgeois nationalists properly revealed and exposed. The errors and miscalculations made during the collectivization of the Latvian countryside can in no way question its necessity. The agricultural production of the republic could not function normally without being included in the unified national economic complex of the whole country.

It should be noted that, probably in those circumstances , the characteristics highlighted in relation to the quislings, the collectivization of the rural economy and some other aspects of socialist construction, could be seen as an acceptable compromise, taking into account domestic and international conditions. As a need for an urban reconciliation to stabilize the situation. But today, the fact that such actions  are erroneous is quite obvious and it is necessary to speak honestly about it and analyze it impartially. The fact that this was not done in time was the long-term factor in the development of events in Latvia in the late 1980s, early 1990s.

 In the assessments of the 1980s period today we can come across assertions that only the betrayal of the leadership of the CPSU headed by Gorbachev and the subversive work of the imperialist encirclement of the socialist countries are to be blamed. Undoubtedly, both of these facts contributed to the victory of the counter-revolution. However, we cannot ignore the fact that during this period the USSR was already in a state of serious crisis — both in the economy and ideology. It should be noted that the concepts of the “end of the class struggle”, “all-people's country”, etc. have already been cultivated since the 1960s. All of this contributed to the changes in the features of the workers' revolutionary state, weakening of the revolutionary vigilance, and functioning of Soviet revolutionary institutions.

The way out of this crisis required such political decisions that would not shake the country but would serve to overcome the mistakes accumulated on the one hand during the Khrushchev’s "flight forward" with the aim of "building communism within 20 years "and on the other hand during the period of Brezhnev’s "stagnation" with the theoretically confused "developed socialism". But ideologically and theoretically, the party proved unprepared for this. The unsupported hasty steps of the economy remained not only insurmountable but instead accelerated. Sectors such as services, retail, catering, small commodity production, certain sectors of agriculture, in fact did not fully fulfill their socio-economic functions, thus accumulating a critical potential in all population strata. 

The absence of appropriate solutions and timely actions actually destroyed the economic basis of socialism - the planned organization of the popular economy. External factors, such as falling oil prices combined with internal catastrophic manipulations such as the infamous anti-alcohol campaign, constituted the additional factors deepening the crisis.

Why is all this important today? Because the causes that led to the destruction of the first socialist state and the factors that contributed to the victory of the counter-revolution in 1991 are no less important for the development of the international communist movement than the causes and factors for the achievement of the socialist revolution. Capitalism is obsolete. And its inevitable end will not be achieved with the help of the measures currently demonstrated by the authorities of both the individual states and the unions of countries. Those who create a new society must carefully and diligently study the actions of their historical predecessors, analyze all their achievements and mistakes, just as the founders of Marxism-Leninism did with the Great French Revolution, the Paris Commune and the popular uprisings of previous eras.

[1] Essay on the History of the Communist Party of Latvia 1893-1919. Riga, 1962, p. 419.

[2] “History of Decline. Why did the Baltic states fail”. AA Nosovich.-M. Editions “Алгоритм” (Algorithm), 2015, p. 309

[3] L.M. Vorobiova The history of Latvia from the Russian Empire to the USSR , Moscow, 2011, p. 359.

[4] Excerpt from G. Riekstinis" The socialist transformations and the class struggle in the Latvian villages in the first post-war years "Latvia at the turn of the times. Riga 1987.