One of the privileges of my work at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is teaching and discussing with Latvian high school students the difficult chapters of our history under occupation regimes. I realize that for these teenagers it can be very abstract to talk about events in the 20th century. Also, it does not take very long to find out if this history is a part of their family’s communicative memory or not. We discuss certain facts and events but the students can describe if and how their parents and grandparents talk about them. And these memories can be contradicting, even conflicting, and certainly confusing.

I was born during the time when Latvia was still under the control of the Soviet Union. My coming of age in the late 80s and finishing high school in the 90s coincided with the Latvian national awakening. So-called, Singing Revolution. Honestly, this is how I remember it -demonstrations in support of the independence of Latvia, different forms of personal resistance to the Soviet rules, and lots, lots of singing. I cannot remember much about my studies and exams. I can remember, though, which teachers were the ones to allow the use of national symbols like the Latvian flag and which teachers were too afraid. Now, working in the museum, I get to learn more and more about what the adults were actually doing during those years, months, and days. Those adults who had the vision and the courage or, to use the phrase by theologian Walter Brueggemann, “the prophetic imagination” for a different future without a totalitarian, colonial regime.

January is the month when in Latvia we annually remember the events from January 13-27, 1991, called the Barricades. In January 1991, the central power in Moscow began military campaigns to restore its control in the Baltic Republics. On the evening of 12 to 13 January, the Soviet armed forces attacked unarmed civilians at the television tower in Vilnius, Lithuania, killing 14 and injuring 110 people. My family like everyone else was getting all our information from radio and TV. I remember seeing the video of a tank crushing a young man. It was shocking and unbelievable. The next day, January 13, around 500 000 people gathered for the demonstration in Riga, organized by the Latvian Popular Front, to express support to Lithuanians and to demonstrate the resolve of Latvian society.

My mom did not hesitate for a second to take us, the kids, to this gathering. Afterward, we walked around and observed how the barricades were put up around the major state and public buildings. Streets and access roads to strategic buildings were blocked by heavy-duty equipment. The city of my childhood was becoming a place that was ready for a “street fight”. Except everyone knew that the fight would have to be won without any weapons. There was an understanding that the Soviet regime is trying to destabilize the situation in Latvia and looking for any excuse to issue marshall law and to use military force. The organizers of the barricades kept reminding all participants that this has to be non-violent resistance. The message was clear – we have to prove to Moscow and to the world readiness to sacrifice our lives to defend Latvia’s independence.

Since most of the significant buildings were located in Old Town Riga, its territory became the central gathering place. The narrow streets were blocked by heavy machinery and concrete blocks, leaving only narrow paths. I remember it like a maze. The clear memories are of the church buildings where people could get some rest, refreshments, and, if needed, medical assistance. I don’t know what the exact temperatures were but it was very cold. The bonfires did not give enough warmth if you had to spend hours sitting in the open. If I was afraid, my memory has blocked it out. Probably because of my age at that time, youth idealism, and certain romanticizing of those two weeks. I do recall, though, being very scared for my dad who was in Riga on January 20. He was with a group of men near the TV tower when the shooting and the attacks started in the center of Riga and 5 people were killed. Of course, it was before mobile phones and the internet. We had to wait for a few hours until we heard from him, and our fears were calmed.

“I think that we have nothing left to lose. We have already won, we have overcome ourselves. There are young people here. I am proud that my Old Town Riga has lived it.” These words, spoken in one of the videos we show the students, make me emotional every time I hear them. It forces me to reflect on the awakening, including my personal, as not only desire to correct the historic injustice by restoring the independence of Latvia. The inner freedom, freedom from fear and hypocrisy – individually and collectively – felt like the greatest and most important prize. Stepping through the looking glass and not looking back. It was a revolution as understood by Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), when a dramatic shift in values and ideas, rather than a shift in social and political structures, takes place. 

Today one of the students wrote, “Freedom is when there is a will to be free.”

(Photo: Boriss Kolesnikov / A.F.I.)

3 thoughts on “Coming of age during the barricades

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