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More than just a monument (2001)

When I first visited Soviet-occupied Latvia in 1978 as a tourist, I was told it was best not to go near “The Monument.” There it was, this massive, imposing object with a soaring obelisk topped by bronze female figure, standing tall in the heart of Riga, and we tourists from America were told it would be best to pretend that it didn’t exist. It was smack dab in the middle of Riga’s busiest intersection, in a place where no one could ignore it. Every one of Riga’s 800,000 inhabitants who walked, trolleyed or rode by it every day had to acknowledge its presence, like it or not. It was inescapable.

But in the Riga that was ruled by the Soviet Union in 1978, it was a no man’s land. We were told that it was intensely monitored by KGB cameras in the surrounding buildings and KGB agents in the surrounding trees, and that any local who gave the monument more than a passing glance faced an obligatory visit from Soviet security officials. Some had even been arrested and sent to Siberia for looking too longingly at the monument. Someone once burned himself to death there. As foreign tourists, we were warned it was okay for us to take a few quick pictures, but any inappropriate amount of extra attention could cause us difficulties in the remaining days of our trip.

Even in 1978, it was clear that the monument by the Riga canal, built in 1935 to honor Latvia’s independence, was the focus of intense attention. And a repository of intense energy. The mere fact that the Soviet regime did as much as it did for 40 years to deny it, disguise it, ignore it and keep people away from it, attests to its remarkable power. But what puzzled me then, and still puzzles me now, is why they never tore it down.

The Latvian Freedom monument, as its name denotes, symbolizes Latvia’s independence. The Soviets had crushed that. Why then let it stand? I’m told that the Soviets feared a popular uprising in Latvia, but fear had never stopped Stalin before. In 1940 he arrested the government, annexed Latvia to the USSR and deported tens of thousands of its citizens to Siberia. In the late 40’s and early 50’s, Stalin had every repressive weapon he needed to suppress any uprisings in a decimated post-war Latvia. The monument could have been blown up and carted away in 24 hours, and any subsequent Latvian grief would have been vigorously brought under control by Soviet security forces.

What was it about this monument, this Milda (as the woman atop the pedestal is affectionately called by Latvians), that intimidated the Soviet authorities so? Was it her stern stare? As a symbol of Latvia’s independence, Milda was like a hypnotic Medusa to Soviet officials in the 60’s and 70’s. They couldn’t look her straight in the eye. They prowled around her base, surrounded her and enshrouded her, doing all they could to minimize her, but never looked directly at her, for fear they would turn to stone. The monument inscribed to Fatherland and Freedom symbolized everything that the Soviet regime had tried to erase in Latvia, but for some reason the monument itself – Milda – always prevailed.

It was as if the monument was at its heart a powerful magnet of the Latvian soul. When it was built entirely through private donations in the 1930’s, its creation and presence drew energy from throughout Latvia. Rather than tear it down, the Soviets tried to reverse its magnetic polarities and drive people away.

But as Soviet power withered in Moscow, the negative forces that had shackled the monument grew weaker. On June 14, 1987 they broke altogether, when two young Latvians named Rolands Silaraups and Eva Biteniece, led a silent column of people to the base of the monument for a forbidden flower laying ceremony. The KGB watched, and did nothing as the first unauthorized demonstration at the monument in 40 years unfolded before them. On that day, Rolands, Eva and the several thousand that had the courage to join them, liberated the monument from 4 decades imprisonment. The Soviet spell had been broken. The negative energy had been replaced by positive energy, and the magnetic monument again began to draw people toward it again, more powerfully than the KGB could pull them away.

The Soviets had always feared the monument as a symbol of Latvian independence. But by allowing it to remain standing as the only surviving symbol of Baltic independence (comparable monuments in occupied Estonia and Lithuania had long been destroyed by Soviet authorities), it became a broader symbol. And on June 14, 1987 it became broader still. The Latvians who gathered at the foot of the monument that day were openly asking for independence. In doing so, as they laid their flowers, they marked both a birth and a death: the rebirth of the Republic of Latvia, and the end of the Soviet Union. Both were to happen just 4 years later, following a series of events and developments that, symbolically at least, began on this day at the foot of Latvia’s Milda.

Two months later on August 23 (the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact that subjugated the Baltic countries) an even bigger demonstration was held at the monument, while similar rallies were now taking place in Estonia and Lithuania as well. By 1989 Popular Fronts were leading the charge for independence in all three Baltic countries and public rallies, demonstrations and manifestations became commonplace in many locations. On August 23, 1989 when one million Balts linked hands from Tallinn to Vilnius, the masses that gathered at the Freedom Monument in Riga marked the spiritual center of this 400 kilometer human chain.

By the time Latvia restored its independence in 1991, rallies at the monument had become the norm. All trolley and bus traffic around its base was rerouted to prevent
further deterioration of its foundation. By 1994 the newly released magnetic power of the monument reached all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and brought a new guest to its steps. On July 6, at the spot where dissidents had been arrested in 1978, and Rolands and Ieva placed their bouquets in 1987, the President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton and his wife Hillary, paid their respects as well. He was the first US President to ever do so. Milda looked down confidently as if she always knew it would happen.

Milda has looked down on President Karlis Ulmanis and an independent Latvia in the 1930’s, on Soviet and Nazi tanks in the 1940’s, on Soviet dreariness through the cold war and impassioned national rallies in the 1980’s. During the last ten years of independence Milda has attracted thousands of tourists, hundreds of official guests, countless ceremonies and endless photographers. When young Latvian hockey fans exploded from Old Riga’s bars to celebrate victory in the world championships in St. Petersburgh in 2000, they instinctively descended upon Milda and surrounded her with song. Official or otherwise, she still knows how to attract crowds.

The three gold stars held aloft in Milda’s outstretched hands symbolize the three historic regions of the Latvia nation and state. During the dark and dreary cold war years of occupation and Sovietization, it seemed as if she were holding them high above the fray, away from danger, as if to protect them from what was happening below. An artist’s poster in the late 1980’s depicted her just that way, sinking in water over her head, only her hands still visible, holding the stars above the flood.

Today the tanks are gone, the waters have receded, and the square below her is filled with endless well-wishers covering her base with a sea of flowers. Her surfaces have been cleaned and polished in a just completed major renovation, financed, once again, with private donations. The stars have received a shiny new coat of gold, and her arms, it seems, stretch a little bit higher, a little bit prouder. As if to better show the rest of world that her mission has been accomplished. The Latvia she symbolized and protected for 65 years, is still with us. And so is Milda.

July 26, 2001 – Riga, Latvia

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