World War I and the Revolutionary Movement. V. I. Lenin About the National Issue During the Revolutionary Struggle in Latvia from 1917 to 1920s

Raimonds Rubiks, Member of the Saeima of the Republic of Latvia. Victor Matiushenok, Member of theEditorial Board of magazine “Latvian Socialist”

Bourgeois nationalism and proletarian internationalism—these are the two irreconcilably hostile slogans that correspond to the two great class camps throughout the capitalist world, and express the two policies (nay, the two world outlooks) in the national question.

V.I. Lenin

The collapse of four empires: German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Osman during World War I led to the reshuffling of the European map and the creation of new nation states. Though there were revolutionary processes in all these empires and though there was massive revolutionary unrest in some regions (Hungary, Bavaria) the socialist revolution was victorious only in the Russian Empire bringing about a completely new state based on social and political principles instead of ethnic and national considerations. At the same time, the western part of the crumbling empire proceeded towards the establishment of national and bourgeois states that counterbalanced the social revolution of the classes.

Most probably, the causes and effects of such developments are important not only from the point of view of correct understanding of the historic processes in question but also to ensure the success of the political left not only in Europe, but even more so in the Eastern Europe and the former states of the USSR. Ethnic factor played an enormous role in the downfall of the USSR and of the global socialist system, as well as in the shaping of the political stage during the following decades. We believe that it will continue to maintain its relevance in the nearest future, too.

It was World War I that elevated the national (ethnic) factor to this significance and in many cases it had the decisive influence on the political processes. Former European wars masqueraded as religious, religious-protective or protective wars of brethren in faith though, in fact, they were wars during which new territories, resources and markets were seized, reshuffled and redirected. It should be noted that the political elites and the ruling dynasties of the multi-national empires that started the war in 1914 had four dominating religions: protestant in Germany, catholic in Austria-Hungary, Islam in the Osman Empire, and orthodoxy in Russia.

Of course, the ethnic factor was used even earlier than that, but it was done with great care due to extreme sensitivity. For example, there were quite many Poles living in the territory of three empires – German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian. And any attempt to use the Polish factor in international affairs would immediately lead to changes in internal policies with regards to this ethnic group. Clearly, when ethnic rights and freedoms were requested from a competing empire the same rights and freedoms would have to be granted to its own nationals, too. Besides, the empire in question would have to be ready that other nations and groups would demand the same. The war that at some stage became the war of total destruction for its main parties demanded the use of all resources and removed all the barriers. Ethnic nationalism became a political resource and a political tool. Initially, it was used to fight other capitalist predators, but later to oppress the ever growing revolutionary movement.

And it is widely known why the socialist and proletarian revolution was successful only in one country, the country that was not so socially or economically developed as the others, the country where the proportion of proletariat was even smaller than in many other European states. Because a new revolutionary party was established in Russia and the Marxist theory was developed creatively.

At the same time, the revolutionary movement was suppressed in many regions of the former empire where new bourgeois states were established: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland. Besides, these territories were socially and economically advanced: Helsinki, Riga and Warsaw were important industrial centres with a large number of proletariat and many well-developed workers’ movements.

Let us try to find an answer to this problem question using one of these newly created states – Latvia, as an example.

War and the European Social Democracy: the Moment of Truth

It was no secret to the Western and Russian socialists that there was a major war approaching Europe. Even in 1907 many prominent members of the Socialist International predicted the war though they were of differing opinions about it irrespective of their declared dedication to the idea of Marx and Engels’ “Manifesto of the Communist Party” about the “proletariat having no country.” In a way, the world war became a dividing line between those that claimed to be Marxists in words and those who were Marxists in deeds.

During the International Congress of the Socialist International of August 1893 held in Zurich a proposal was put forward to start a general strike where the workers can affect the situation or to refuse military service if the governments decide to declare a war. G.V. Plekhanov, Chairman of the Russian Social Democrats, strictly opposed this idea. He claimed, “...socialism has varying success. Thus, for example, in Germany there is a very powerful, extremely well organised and disciplined Social Democrat Party, while in Russia the social democrat movement has just been born. Let us imagine that in the case of a war with this country our German friends manage to organise an anti-war strike. What would happen? The Russian Army would conquer the Central Europe and instead of the forthcoming victory of socialism we would be faced with the victory of Cossacks.”

The position of this outstanding Marxist theoretician was quite characteristic. Later, when the war had already broken out he wrote in his “Letter to the Russian Social Democrats”, “Germany did not declare the war to give freedom... It just tries to execute its imperialist programme. And since it involves our country which is now seized by the Germans, it will became an economic vassal. Germany will impose such conditions that will almost bring to a halt any further economic development of Russia. And, since the economic growth is the precondition of the social and political development, Russia will loose any or almost any chance of doing away with the Tsarism...”

(see Давид Шуб, «Политические деятели России (1850-1920 гг.»)

As you see, in 1893 Plekhanov tried to frighten his International comrades with the Russian Cossacks, while in 1914 - with the German military force (but where did the advanced German working class and the “extremely well organised and disciplined Social Democrat party” disappear in the meanwhile?...), though the German militarism, a reactionary force, existed even at the end of the 19th century, while the Russian Cossacks - at the beginning of the 20th century.

He explained this by the utmost importance of the fact of who is the aggressor and who - the victim. Thus, if two imperialist predators were ready to scuffle for colonies and markets just to meet the demands of their capitalists, Marxists would condemn the attacker and help the other predator just because it did not manage to be the first? ..

Considering this, the position of V. I. Lenin, who clearly explained his attitude towards the war, seems to be very different,

The European and world war has the clearly defined character of a bourgeois, imperialist and dynastic war. A struggle for markets and for freedom to loot foreign countries, a striving to suppress the revolutionary movement of the proletariat and democracy in the individual countries, a desire to deceive, disunite, and slaughter the proletarians of all countries by setting the wage slaves of one nation against those of another so as to benefit the bourgeoisie—these are the only real content and significance of the war.” (V.I. Lenin “Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War”, Complete Works, Vol 26, page 1).

It may seem that the global situation has significantly changed during the last hundred years: there have been revolutions, and the socialist countries have been built and then destroyed by the common effort of the international imperialism. Also, weapons of mass destruction capable of wiping the humanity off the face of the Earth have been created. But the essence of capitalism has not changed and the characterisation of Lenin of this social order and the objective interests of its ruling classes is as relevant (if not even more relevant) than before,

Capitalism ... has developed the forces of production to such a degree that mankind is faced with the alternative of going over to Socialism or of suffering years and even decades of armed struggle between the “great powers for the artificial preservation of capitalism by means of colonies, monopolies, privileges and national oppression of every kind.”(V.I. Lenin “Socialism and War”, Complete Works, Vol 26, page 314).

As we know, nowadays the USA are the first in line to the self-professed role of a “great superpower” having the ruling elites that practically do not hide their ambition for the global domination by getting into yet another military venture.

But all these claimants for the “world domination” should not forget that kindling a war quite often returns a different result than initially expected...

Socialist Revolution in Latvia

After the outcast of the autocracy a diarchy was formed in Latvia, as well as in the whole of Russia. Temporary government relied on the leaders of the Army and some non-governmental organisations, created by the local bourgeoisie. This government was opposed by the Soviets of worker deputies, Soviets of districts and Soviets of landless farmers (labourers – waged agricultural workers.) Revolutionary winds started blowing stronger not only in the rural and urban areas, but also in the Army. The fact that the front crossed the territory of Latvia and that the Germans had occupied Riga and a large part of Latvia was a particular contributor. Also, the existence of separate national units in the Russian Army was of utmost importance for the success of the revolutionary events.

The first riflemen (infantry) units were formed from the Latvian volunteers (inhabitants of Livonian, Kurland and Vitebsk provinces according to the then current administrative and territorial set-up) in 1914.These units were national, most soldiers communicated in Latvian and sometimes knew very little Russian. This was one of the reasons for merging them into a separate military unit. Only in 1915 they were transformed into combat-ready units, received their uniforms and appropriate weapons, and were organised into a hierarchical structure. This is the reason why 1915 is the year usually named as the year when the Latvian riflemen forces were created.

Besides, the growth in numbers of such units in 1915 can be explained, first and foremost, by the German offensive towards Kurland (the Western part of Latvia.) When there was a danger of the German attack on Riga, an appeal was published to join the Latvian battalions. This appeal was enthusiastically met by all the layers of the society. The enthusiasm was also enhanced by the fact that the government allowed to communicate and prepare official documentation in Latvian in these units and to have their own flags and distinguishing signs.

Battalions that immediately went to battle were created. Each battalion was named after the historic name of a land or a city – Riga, Bauska, Kurzeme, Vidzeme, etc. These battalions were later transformed into regiments.

By the summer of 1916 Latvian units had less than 11 thousand troops. Though the initial backbone was formed by volunteers, the units were later strengthened with Latvians transferred from the other units of the Russian Army, as well as the mobilised youth. In total, there were 10 300 Latvians serving there, the remaining troops represented other groups living in Kurland and Livonia – Estonians, Poles, Germans, Russians and Lithuanians.

At the same time, in 1916, the quantitative and qualitative development of these units led to the creation of the Latvian Infantry Division that was included in the 12th Army. Its first large-scale offensive was in the area of Mitava (Jelgava) in December 1916 – January 1917, known as the “Christmas Battles.”

Both, the commanders of the Russian Army, as well as the enemy recognised the heroism and the military skill of the Latvian riflemen. There is no doubt that by the end of 1916 the Latvian units were the most combat-ready units of the Russian Army.

At the beginning of 1917 the division consisted of 35 thousand riflemen, of which 1000 were officers. The combat units had 25 thousand troops, while the reserve unit– approximately 10 thousand. During the events of 1917 an overwhelming majority of the Latvian riflemen joined the Bolsheviks.

This is due to three factors. First, the whole of the Russian Army was under the influence of Bolsheviks and Latvians were among those soldiers that were most fed up with the war, the bloodshed and the senseless carnage.

Second, the Bolshevik party became the only political force that clearly and unambiguously declared that nations had the right of self-determination. During the revolution and the civil war all the other parties either promised to restore the borders and ways of the Russian Empire or left this issue for later creating an impression that they did want to let the nations free, while the Bolsheviks promised to free everyone who would wish to be so.

V.I. Lenin assessed the attitude towards the growth of national awareness among the nations of the Tsarist Russia as follows, ”The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that “its own” nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible; the hypocrisy of the reformist and Kautskyan advocates of self-determination who maintain silence about the nations which are oppressed by “their” nation and forcibly retained within “their” state will remain unexposed. The Socialists of the oppressed nations, on the other hand, must particularly fight for and maintain complete, absolute unity (also organizational) between the workers of the oppressed nation and the workers of the oppressing nation.” (V.I. Lenin “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”, Complete Works, Vol 27, page 257)

Third, social-democratic ideas, including the revolutionary ones, advocated by the Leninist RSDLP, had always been popular and influential in Latvia due to the high socio-economic development of the region. Soldiers were no exception.

After the February revolution these processes intensified even more and by the summer of 1917 Bolsheviks had the majority in the Soviets of soldier deputies of the Latvian riflemen. Meanwhile, the front was falling apart, nobody wanted to fight and everybody was tired of the war. On September 2, 1917 the Germans occupied Riga.

In the meantime, the Bolsheviks were preparing a rebellion in Petrograd. To ensure success, they needed military support from combat-ready army units. And the only units that still had a high level of readiness, discipline and military skill were the Latvian units and they almost fully supported the Bolshevik party.

During October 1917 events Latvian riflemen, following the orders of the CC of the RSDLP, occupied railway junctions around Petrograd preventing the Temporary Government from bringing in loyal troops. Latvian riflemen took over the most important positions in the Russian capital blocking bridges, phone, telegraph and railway stations, as well as major road junctions. And only then was the famous round fired from the “Avrora” and the red guards and sailors occupied the Winter Palace – the symbolic seat of the Russian government.

On November 22, 1917 the 6th Tukums regiment of the 2nd Latvian division settled in full in Petrograd as the main military unit of the new Bolshevik government entrusted with the maintenance of order in the city and prevention of any counterrevolutionary insurgencies.

At the end of November 1917 a separate, related company of the Latvian riflemen was formed. This company became the main security unit of the Bolshevik government and V.I. Lenin personally. Its members guarded the government when it moved from Petrograd to Moscow. The 9th Latvian Riflemen regimen was established there to ensure the security of the Kremlin and the Soviet government.

Due to November revolution Germany exited the war and it was forced to agree to a truce with the Entente on November 11, 1918. This allowed Russia to annul the restrictive Brest peace treaty. At the same time, Germany and the Entente, recent enemies that sent thousands of troops to the carnage of war, immediately joined their forces against the revolution. Germany was allowed to leave its troops in the seized territories of the former Russian Empire with the condition that it would ensure no revolutions there.

In the unoccupied part of Latvia the Soviet of worker, landless and soldier deputies, created in June 1917, had a meeting on November 8th and 9th in a small town of Valka, during which it declared that all the power in Latvia belonged to the Soviets.

Almost at the same time, on November 18, 1918 an illegal conference of the Social-Democratic Party of Latvia was held in the German-occupied Riga, during which the organisation of an armed rebellion was named as its main task. Also, in the shadow of German bayonets, there was a completely legal meeting of the so called National Council consisting of the members of eight bourgeois and nationalist parties that declared “independent” Latvia and formed a temporary government. Karlis Ulmanis, leader of the nationalist conservative party “Farmers’ Union”, became the head of the unelected government.

Meanwhile, the units of the Red Riflemen approached Riga, liberating Latvia from the German occupiers. With December 4, 1918 decision of the CC of the Social-Democracy of Latvia the new Socialist government of Latvia, headed by Peteris Stucka, was formed. On December 17th the temporary Soviet government of Latvia published a manifesto where it declared that all the power was handed over to the Soviets of worker, landless and riflemen (soldier) deputies. Occupational forces and the Latvian bourgeois “government” were declared to be deposed and their decrees and orders – invalid. Some of the first normative acts abolished the ownership of land and introduced an eight-hour working day.

The Soviet government of Latvia approached the government of the RSFSR requesting to recognise the independence of the republic. In response, on December 22, 1918 the Council of the People’s Commissaries of the RSFSR adopted a decree “On the Recognition of Independence of the Soviet Republic of Latvia” which was signed by V.I. Lenin.

This is the reason why the bourgeois historians lie when they claim that the independence of Latvia should be counted from the day of creation of the puppet government of Ulmanis. Chronologically, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia was the first Latvian state in the whole of the world history.

The Defeat of Revolution in Latvia: Causes and Lessons

Nevertheless, the Soviet power did not last long in Latvia. International imperialism stepped up its efforts in the Baltic region. Various economic and political missions of the Entente generously supplied the anti-Soviet forces of Latvia with weapons, food and cash. The army of von der Goltz, exceeding the forces of the Soviet Army in Kurzeme threefold, was stationed in the area of Liepaja in the spring of 1919. Belopolski forces that had recently crushed the Soviet power in Lithuania (at the same time cutting off a significant chunk from its territory for themselves) were approaching Riga from the south. Estonian forces assisted the white guards in the North. Fighting heavily, the Latvian Riflemen retreated towards Riga. The Soviet power suffered a defeat in Latvia as it was overpowered by its manifold enemies. The friendly Soviet Russia, itself locked in by fronts, were unable to provide serious military assistance. In May 22, 1919 Riga fell. In January 1920 it was followed by Latgale, the Eastern part of Latvia, where the Soviet power held on the longest.

Of course, assistance offered by the Entente to the local bourgeoisie, as well as the intervention of the occupying German and counterrevolutionary forces of the neighbouring countries were the main factors that led to the defeat of the Latvian revolution in 1919-1920. But it should be also noted that the example of revolutionary and national liberation wars show that military force is not the only decisive factor, especially, in the case of ideologically motivated conflicts. The political force that has the greatest impact on the minds of the people and enjoys the support of the majority can win even if the military balance is unfavourable.

At that time there were other significant factors that contributed to the victory of counterrevolution in Latvia besides the military supremacy. One of these factors was the ability of the national bourgeoisie to win over part of the population, especially the rural population, by skilfully using the mistakes of the Soviet leaders, as well as the specifics of the national awareness.

At the beginning of the 20th century Latvia had the following ethnic composition:

Table 1. Main nationalities in Latvia according to 1897 and 1920 censuses (in thousand)







































Besides Latvians that mostly resided in the rural areas there were other major ethnic groups: Germans, Russians, Jews, as well as Poles and Byelorussians who lived in Latgale. The social status of these groups differed. Historically, Germans came from the feudal aristocracy or the wealthy and privileged city dwellers that gradually transformed into bourgeoisie and the local administration (in the western part of Latvia German was the official language of choice for a long period of time.) Russian group was not so socially uniform as it included representatives of the Tsarist civil and military administration, commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, as well as the proletariat from large cities and the farmers from the East of Latvia that used to be part of Vitebsk province before the revolution (in the administrative and territorial system of the Russian Empire ethnic considerations were not taken into account.)

Historically, Latvians never had aristocracy and had been farmers or fishermen for hundreds of years. Besides, the farmers were heavily oppressed as serfs to the German (in Latgale – Polish and Russian) landlords. When the Baltic lands were transferred to the jurisdiction of Russia their position did not improve much – German nobility demonstrated its loyalty to the Russian Tsar and enjoyed a complete protection from the Tsarist administration. When the social oppression results from the activities of foreign landlords, while the administrative power is enjoyed by other foreign officials, it is quite natural that the social protest of an ethnically uniform farmer group has a distinct national character. First and foremost, anti-German, but also anti-Russian.

Situation was quite different in the cities where the capitalist production, sea and railway transport had been rapidly developing since the second half of the 19th century. The class of exploiting rural capitalists represented various nationalities, including former Latvian farmers that accumulated wealth after the abolition of serfdom, as well as Latvian merchants. The proletariat came from all the nationalities that resided in the given region. Due to this, the workers of Riga formed a quite mature and organised force and actively participated in the revolutionary events of 1905 and 1917.

Latvian bourgeoisie was still weak. As a result, it constantly had to manoeuvre and look for allies and protectors to strengthen its political and economic position and, eventually, to establish its own statehood. At the same time – the second half of the 19th century a certain stratum of purely Latvian and well-educated intellectuals was formed, poet Janis Rainis and Peteris Stucka, the Head of the first government of the Soviet Latvia, being some of them.

The second factor that differentiated Latvia from the rest of the decaying Russian Empire was a different system of land ownership shaped by an earlier and a deeper development of capitalism in the agricultural sector. The serfdom was abolished in the Baltic provinces in 1816-1819 (while in the rest of Russia only in 1862) and the social stratification of the rural population had practically finished by the revolution. The economic growth at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century gave a strong impetus to the development of trade and market relationships in rural areas. During this process a layer of wealthy and middle-class landowners and agricultural traders was formed, as well as a layer of very poor and bankrupt farmers that became the rural or urban proletariat.

On the one hand, this layering made the poor actively support the revolution and allowed the phenomenon of the Latvian Red Riflemen to materialise, but on the other – promoted the creation of a quite a large stratum of small and medium proprietors in the commercial and agricultural sectors. This stratum that supported the revolution during its bourgeois and democratic stage (ousting of the monarchy and abolition of class and national restrictions, etc.) was completely unprepared for the forthcoming social changes. Even more, such decisions of the Soviet power as the abolition of the private property and imposition of commercial restrictions were met with open hostility.

In February 1919 Decree on Land was published stipulating that all land is being nationalised without any compensation to its former owners. All such land was divided into two groups: Soviet land and rented farms. 239 Soviet farms were created, usually in and around former estates where agricultural labourers and small renters used to work. Besides, if and when they decided to join such farm, they had to sell all their animals to it.

Organisers of the nationalisation (Francis Rozins, the Commissary of Agriculture, was the author of the project) assumed that the enlargement of farms will not only stimulate the rapid socialisation of the production in rural areas, but also allow to improve the productivity and increase the total output, as the issue of the shortage of food was quite acute in the post-war period. From the economic point of view these considerations were quite rational as large estates had a good production base – farming equipment, facilities for working and productive livestock, as well as the equipment for the primary processing of agricultural products. Nevertheless, farmers were not psychologically ready for such changes.

Irrespective of the fact that the order about the sale of private cattle was revoked quite soon, nationalisation of the agricultural land and any attempts to organise the collective work were met with cold feelings; even poor farmers understood that social fairness entailed redistribution of the agricultural land and assignment of this land to those who cultivated it. The option of one year lease did not appeal to the farmers, either, as they expected that the cultivation rights would be indefinite (as it was done in the Soviet Russia.) These expectations were widespread and they had to be taken into account when the socialist reforms were implemented. As it was not done, the level of support to the Soviet power fell significantly, especially among the rural population. Later, during the 7th and 8th Congresses of the Communist Party of Latvia the decision not to distribute the nationalised land to the farmers was found to be a mistake.

During the same period of time, that is in February 1919, nationalisation of private industrial and commercial companies and banks began. Decree of March 8th stipulated that any private property with the estimated value of 10 thousand roubles was subject to the nationalisation without compensation. Thus, the sector of state economy was created. Professional unions were entrusted with the important task of managing the sector – every company was overseen by a board of 3-5 people elected by the respective trade unions and approved by the Commissariat (ministry) of Industry. Members of trade unions elected control commissions that supervised the production and controlled the activities of the boards. These commissions were fully independent of the administration of the company. Similar commissions were also created in private companies where they made sure that orders of the Soviet government were implemented and the rights of the labour force protected. At that time almost all workers were members of trade unions that invested enormous effort in the rebuilding of the industrial production (approximately one hundred companies resumed working in Riga alone) and the stabilisation of the living conditions of the population of Latvia.

It has to be noted that the urban proletariat was weakened as a result of the evacuation of the largest companies that had any military significance when the German front approached. During the evacuation many qualified workers, the former backbone of the organised urban proletariat that had some theoretical knowledge dating back to 1905 events and that was hardened by the revolutionary struggle, followed these companies. Members of the poorer classes had been also killed in the trenches of the war that had lasted since 1914. Watering down of working classes unavoidably leads to the intensification of petty bourgeois trends that eventually affects the success of socialist reforms.

Lessons of the defeat of 1917-1920 revolution in Latvia point to the necessity of considering the opinions of people carefully. When, due to objective reasons, the masses are not psychologically ready for revolutionary social changes, these changes should not be enforced. This will only lead to the loss of support and the bourgeoisie will use that for its own ends.

Generally speaking, this short, but very vivid existence of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia taught an important lesson about the building of a socialist society. This lesson was successfully applied after the restoration of the Soviet power in Latvia in 1940.


V.I. Lenin, Complete Works, 5th Edition, M., Politisdat, 1969

O. Niedre, «Еще раз о 18 ноября 1918 года», collect. «Латвия на грани эпох. III», Riga, “Avots”, 1988

Дрибин Л. «Социалистическая Советская республика Латвия» (December 1918- January 1920), collect. «Латвия на грани»