RIGA, Latvia – For years, the team of researchers worked in obscurity, patiently tallying what they say is the economic toll of Latvia’s decades under Soviet rule.
The answer, they decided this spring, is $205 billion. They didn’t expect the firestorm that would come next. The report added ammunition to a raging battle between Russia and the West over history and influence. Russia’s top diplomat said Latvians should be grateful the Kremlin wasn’t more violent when they broke from the Soviet Union in 1991. Then the Russian Foreign Ministry announced a competition to pick who could mock the scholars the best.
The conflict between Russia and the West is being fought not just with tanks and troops stationed on either side of the border, but also with dueling versions of the past. Few places feel it more strongly than Latvia. Leaders have battled with their domestic Russian-speaking population and with the Kremlin about whether their country’s decades-long incorporation into the Soviet Union was voluntary or an occupation. With the Kremlin reaching deep into the pages of history to justify its actions in Crimea, Latvians say the fight over the past has present-day consequences for their security — and they are calling for Western support not just with weaponry but also in the battle of ideas. The concerns have grown even stronger after the British vote to leave the European Union, with the Baltics losing an key ally inside the union.
“There was an ultimatum. We could not resist. We were occupied completely,” said Ruta Pazdere, the leader of the Latvian government-sponsored commission that tallied the costs of the 1940 Soviet takeover of Latvia. She said her group, which has labored for more than a decade, was less interested in monetary compensation from Russia than forcing an honest conversation about the lingering effects of Soviet rule.
“It's not easy to recognize your past. And if you start one lie, they just keep getting bigger and bigger,” Pazdere said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used Soviet history to inflame the passions of his voters, turning the May anniversary of the World War II victory into the country’s biggest holiday. Modern-day Russia’s opponents are now often dismissed as “fascists.” There is little tolerance for countries such as Latvia, where for many people, Soviet victory in World War II meant 46 more years of foreign dominion. And since the Kremlin framed the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as an effort to protect an allegedly embattled ethnic Russian population there, Latvia’s tense relations with its own large Russian population have new security implications.
“These people are deranged beyond help,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the Latvian study’s authors after the figures were released. Instead of talking about how much the Soviet Union cost Latvia’s economy, he said, the small nation should be more thankful it was allowed to leave in 1991.
“The Soviet Union behaved honorably. No one attempted to keep the Baltic republics by force,” Lavrov told the Swedish Dagens Nyheter newspaper. “Nobody saw or heard any gratitude for this.”
The idea that the Baltics were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 is widely accepted among mainstream Western historians and backed by historical evidence. But little of that is acknowledged by the Kremlin. Instead, Joseph Stalin has been largely rehabilitated in recent years. Nostalgia for the years of Soviet empire pervades many levels of Russian society.
Russian television – a tightly controlled instrument of Kremlin policy – has devoted significant airtime to attempting to discredit Baltic governments. On one program in June on the state-owned Rossiya 1 channel, for instance, the host, Evgeny Popov, said that Eastern European countries’ efforts to break from their Communist past were just part of a covert effort to spread fascism.
NATO, the Western military alliance, has struggled to confront a threat that comes not just from tanks but also from television screens. Western nations plan to send about 1,000 troops to each Baltic nation, plus Poland, at a summit starting Friday. And NATO has supported a Riga-based center largely devoted to combating information warfare from Russia. Separately, Latvia’s state broadcasting agency in April banned one Russian state television channel for six months, saying it was promoting war propaganda and inciting hatred.
“For us, World War II ending didn't bring back our independence. They try to use history as another element to mobilize their society, and as part of their information war,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics.
Latvians say that the lack of historical reckoning is a security risk, as Putin has declared that he will defend all ethnic Russians, no matter where they live. Some historians contrast Russia’s approach to Germany’s far more contrite approach to its Nazi past.
“One of the differences between Germany and Russia is that Germany has admitted that what they did was wrong. Russia has not said what it did was wrong,” said Gunars Nagels, the head of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which seeks to document life under Soviet rule.
The museum, one of the main historical institutions in Latvia, is sometimes a direct target for aggression. Nagels said his building had to be evacuated on May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, after receiving a bomb threat.
To activists on the other side of the Latvian-Russian divide, however, the Latvian attitudes toward the past are part of a broader campaign to marginalize the Russian-speakers who remain in the country, about a third of Latvia’s 2 million residents. Because Latvian citizenship requires a language test, many of the Russian-speakers are non-citizens. The high point of tensions comes every year on May 9, the celebration of Nazi defeat.
“The answer is always the same: You're serving Putin if you're celebrating,” said Elizabete Krivcova, an ethnic Russian rights campaigner who organized a rally tied to Victory Day this year.
“There is a basic Russophobia,” she said. “It's very similar to undemocratic developments in Russia.”
Krivcova said that many Russian-speakers inside Latvia acknowledge that the Soviet Union took over Latvia at gunpoint — but she said that using the word “occupation,” in many of their minds, leads to being stripped of their rights.
Others are more defiant.
“Soldiers came in and they were greeted with flowers,” said Meyer Deych, 95, who lives in Riga and served in a Latvian volunteers’ division of the Red Army. “We came to our homeland and we stayed here. Is that occupation?”
He said that Victory Day celebrations were a major part of his calendar.
“I was wounded three times during the war. I'm alive now. I always think that this is my second birthday because I could have been killed,” he said. “These people who are noncitizens are expected to be friends of Latvia. But how can that be when they’re treated this way?”
The competing narratives makes it deeply difficult for Latvia’s political leaders to try to appeal to both sides of the gulf. Those who do are often viewed with suspicion for their motives.
“It’s a huge share of society. You cannot ignore them. You should address these people,” said Nils Usakovs, an ethnic Russian who is a naturalized Latvian citizen and mayor of the capital city of Riga. As the leader of the country’s main ethnic-Russian political party, Usakovs has had success in broadening his appeal at a local level, but he has been shut out of national leadership.
In recent years Usakovs says he has tried to defuse tensions around the Victory Day celebrations, which this year drew 170,000 people, according to city estimates — a turnout on a workday that represents about nine percent of the population.
Ethnic Latvian leaders say that understanding wartime history is the best way to ensure that conflict does not again touch their territory.
“What happened in 2014 brought back the worst memories of what happened in 1940,” said Rinkevics, the foreign minister. “We are seeing a kind of repetition of history.”