January, the Month of the Barricades

January usually comes with well-meant wishes for the New Year. But January in Latvia also comes with memories of the barricades. The Barricades of 1991. They were real barricades and also symbolical ones.  They were erected in order to safeguard strategic points in the newly formed power structures of Latvia – parliament and government buildings, the radio and telephone exchanges, the television – from the growing threat of violent retaliation emerging in the depths of the orthodox soviet party and military ranks. Signs of approaching emergency were many – the taking of the Press house by the OMON in Rīga in November 1990, a chain of subversive explosions at meaningful places around the capital city of Riga in December, leaking of information about a planned coup in Latvia, not to mention direct attacks of television studios in Vilnius and Riga to follow in January.

The Barricades thus are part of the emergency situation action plan or the X-HOUR PLAN devised by the Popular Front in December, in case the USSR Presidential Decree is passed, abolishing the freshly gained and yet unstable freedom of Latvia and its decision-makers.  To a certain extent the X-hour sets in: the bloody taking of the Vilnius television tower on January 12 demands a greater readiness from the Latvian leaders if the scenario is repeated in Riga. The brave and speedy transmission of the shots filmed in Vilnius by Juris Podnieks and his colleagues to the Western media in part prevents an immediate massive attack from the Soviet military. However, the situation remains tense and unclear, and, as we see, there are attempts to retaliate. 

In January 20, the OMON, supported by undefined units or forces, attacks the Interior Ministry of Latvia. There are victims among the defenders, local militia men, as well as among journalists, whose role in attracting global attention to these events cannot be overestimated. The aim of the attack is not clarified either, nor is the person to be held responsible. Unmistakeably, the aim was the struggle for dominance during the fragile period of democratisation in the whole USSR against the background of hardliners losing their power and international support.

In Moscow, masks fell too. A decisive blow to those who Mikhail Gorbachev tries to cover up is dealt by Boris Yeltsin.  Right after the events in Vilnius, on January 13, he goes to Tallinn and as head of the Russian Supreme Council signs a four-sided treaty of solidarity with the leaders of the Baltic States, as well as an appeal to those who have been conscripted from Russia to abstain from further violence towards the nations of the Baltic States.

The Barricades in Riga mark the line, when the people of the Baltics sign their petition for freedom with their blood. The Barricades in Riga mark also a dividing line between progress and reactionarism, between peaceful democratic processes and adherence to violence in the whole Soviet territory, be it among the political, civil or military contingency.

The Barricades show that there is no way back. They prove to the Western governments the resolution of the Baltic peoples, as well as the bigotry of the Soviet leaders. No-one knows what turns are yet to come, no-one can foresee the August coup that will offer a miraculous solution for everybody involved. But sometimes you need such thing as the Barricades to make many things clear for good.


Karina Pētersone Director, Latvian Institute, 28.01.2013