On 21 August 1991, the small Baltic state of Latvia gained full independence from a brutal Soviet regime after a failed coup. Although a vital triumph, the fallout was, and continues to be, an appalling reminder of Latvia’s turbulent history behind the Soviet Union’s iron curtain, and the astonishing sacrifice on the part of the men and women that struggled for autonomy.
The road to independence was an inherently arduous period of transition, and as with many nation states that seek liberation, the unsettling reality was a cataclysmic loss of life.
It was after an incitement of unrest by the Soviet forces towards the end of 1990, the systematic bombing of Latvia, and an attempt to overthrow the elected parliament, that a third of Latvia’s population gathered in Riga with a mission to build barricades and protest against the impeding political tumult. This was, for the people of Latvia, the ultimate mark of camaraderie, at a time when the press was heavily censored and freedom of expression was stagnating.
Nearly 25 years after the liberation of Latvia, however, the events that lead to independence culminated in a unique experience for Banuta Kalns-Timans, marking a crossroads in which the past and present intersected in one unforgettable evening. As a result of an astonishingly rare piece of footage recorded by Banuta’s mother and restored by Banuta herself, the pair were invited to a national concert entitled ‘Freedom at Bulevard’ last month, and were given the opportunity to shed vital light on the construction of the barricades in Riga while meeting a sizable number of Latvia’s interior ministry in the process.
The concert, held at Riga’s Kipsala International Exposition Centre, welcomed participants of the barricades and their families to an evening of commemoration and reflection. Banuta recalls the last-minute decision to attend the concert: “It was the first time anything I had edited was potentially going to be shown to such a large audience, so I thought it would be an incredible experience for me to see that happen. I suppose that’s how I ended up a little over a week later on a plane on the way to snow-ridden Latvia.
“I hadn’t expected much and wasn’t even sure if the footage would be shown at the concert, so when I entered the hall and found that we were to be seated with the Minster of Defence at the time of the barricades and a Princeton University Professor who specialises in this particular area of Soviet history, I was fairly surprised to say the least.”
She had risked her life and had almost been shot to capture this moment.
Live music, speeches and video recordings were dispersed throughout an evening that aimed to reflect on how freedom is perceived today, how future generations may seek to continue this legacy, and how the commemoration of past bravery is imperative. Banuta recollects how “seeing around 800 people watching something I had created was incredible, but what was even more so was being able to see my mother’s bravery and work be rewarded and appreciated.
“She had risked her life and had almost been shot to capture this moment in the hopes that documenting it would help in gaining Latvia’s independence. What my mother had done reflected in my mind the sacrifices, that she, my father and everyone else who took part in the barricades had made in January 1991 and what they had been willing to do in order for their nation to be free again.”
Reflecting on the barricades of Riga, Banuta discusses how the event was one marked by unbridled unity: “People would open their homes to anyone who needed to rest and the radio would announce throughout the day the places where people could go to get free food and tea. Rudimental barricades were constructed from whatever people could find. Metal rods, bricks and lorries were lined up in front of buildings of significance, and people were ready to slash the tyres of their own vehicles so that the Soviet forces couldn’t hotwire them.”
In a similar vein to many Baltic nations searching for autonomy during the fall of the Soviet Union’s formidable command, Banuta acknowledges that the social, political and economic struggles of days-gone-by are equally pertinent today, and are merely manifested in differing ways. “The wounds inflicted to the Latvian populace by the Soviet regime run too deeply to not still have an effect even now.”
One need only cast an eye on the recent conflict in Ukraine to comprehend the continuing fragility in the region, in line with Latvia’s political past. “Russia had proved itself to still be a dangerous and enigmatic force. In spite of Latvia joining the EU, and more recently NATO, the strength of a still relatively new country is not as definite as one would wish.”
Empire, imperialism, subjugation. These are complex faculties that have long-term, far-reaching implications. They affect present and future relations between nations. They complicate advancement, reconciliation and social progression. They have the capacity to deter generations from operating in agreement and mutual understanding, even with events such as ‘Freedom at Bulevard’ seeking commemoration over tension.
People would open their homes to anyone who needed to rest.
In this light, Banuta points to how oligarchs still play a prominent part in Latvian politics, coupled with intrinsic financial difficulties and the fact that many Latvians today search for work within the European Union. “While other nations made vast social strides over the latter half of the last century, ranging from liberal politics to equal rights for under-represented communities, in Latvia the main focus was gaining domestic freedom.
“Personally I consider this to be one of the principal reasons as to why social issues regarding women’s rights, for instance, are not as addressed in Latvia as they are in Britain (as well as the fact that Latvia had been occupied by an often brutal regime). The grassroots movements needed for this sort of progress were occupied, justifiably, with regaining independence.”
Returning to her night at ‘Freedom at Bulevard’, Banuta meditates on the passion and pride among her esteemed guests: “The fact that we, as a country, are able to host an event to commemorate the individuals that took part in Riga’s barricades 25 years on speaks volumes of how Latvia’s previous generation did indeed succeed in their search for independence. Despite today’s tumult in Eastern Europe, Latvia remains a free state, and it is a nation that has prospered in many respects.
“The people I spoke to in Riga have few doubts that Latvia wouldn’t stand together again in the face of brutality similar to that of the Soviet Union, and having our footage dedicated to this cause was an honour and a privilege.” M