¼ Projekti

Latvia’s "Soviet Story". Transitional Justice and the Politics of Commemoration


"The Soviet Story is a story of an Allied power, which helped the Nazis to fight Jews and which slaughtered its own people on an industrial scale. Assisted by the West, this power triumphed on May 9th, 1945. Its crimes were made taboo, and the complete story of Europe’s most murderous regime has never been told. Until now…i"

The Soviet Story, 2008)


The Soviet Story written, produced and directed by the Latvian filmmaker Edvīns Šnore compares the atrocities of the Soviet Communist regime with the crimes of Nazi Germany. In his argument, Šnore makes a causal connection between both dictatorships stating that not only were the crimes of the former inspired by the crimes of the latter, but that they helped each other, and that without their mutual assistance the outcome of World War II could have been quite different.

In Latvia, the attitude comparing the two totalitarian regimes on equal terms has become quite common. Indeed, for this Baltic State, which has been the object of atrocities of the Soviet, then the Nazi and then again the Soviet regime, such a comparison seems to be the natural consequence of its experience of World War II (Felder, 2008, 15). Yet among many intellectuals in Western Europe – especially Germany and France – the comparison of the two totalitarian regimes that shaped the history of the 20th century in Europe, let alone the equation of their crimes, has been and still is widely rejected (Ackermann, 2000 and 2009). When in 2004 the former Latvian minister of foreign affairs, Sandra Kalniete, gave a speech at the book fair in Leipzig, Germany, in which she drew on the parallels of Nazism and Communism, it resulted in a scandal. Kalniete’s remark had been that „both totalitarian regimes – Nazism and Communism – were criminal to the same extent“ and that „one should not differentiate between those two only because one of them had been on the side of the Allies, who won the war“. (Kalniete, 2004) As a consequence of this speech, the head of the German General Committee of Jews left the room in protest. Kalniete’s speech was widely criticized by the German intellectuals on the grounds that such an equation would relativise the Holocaust.

The comparison of Communism and National Socialism was, however, not a new argument. Germans felt very much reminded of the famous Historikerstreit (quarrel of historians). In 1986, the historian Ernst Nolte had claimed in an article that Auschwitz had in fact been preceded by the Gulag and that there was even a causal connection between them: the Nazi crimes were – supposedly – a defensive response to the Bolshevik threat (Nolte, 1986; Warren, 1994). Germany’s academic elite, led by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for the most part objected Nolte’s thesis calling it revanchist and an attempt to downplay the Nazi crimes (Habermas, 1986). One of the main arguments in this controversy was that the holocaust with its immense brutality and technical, inhuman attempt at destruction of the whole Jewish race, wiping out the Jewish culture in Europe, was singular and would be diminished by such a comparative analysis (Augstein, 1987; Leggewie, 2008, 55-56). The attitude that any comparison of Nazi and Soviet regime is highly politicized still prevails in German society.

However, Latvia has (not yet) experienced a Historikerstreit and Kalniete’s standpoint does not shock anyone in the Baltics, even though World War II is a very politicised and debated topic here as well. Moreover, Kalniete’s perspective is actually very similar to the general Latvian approach towards the history of World War II. In that approach, the starting point of all evil was the alliance of Hitler and Stalin and the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This is a viewpoint which has recently been promoted by several acts of Latvian Geschichtspolitik (history politics). The Latvian perspective is supported by similar voices from Estonia and Lithuania.

The memory of World War II in Eastern and Western Europe is indeed quite different (Judt, 2004; Troebst, 2005 and 2009). Yet, since the states of the former Communist bloc joined the European Union, their approaches on history have been brought onto the European agenda, which resulted in several initiatives regarding the recent European history and its commemoration on the European level (Hammerstein and Hofmann, 2009). Latvian members of the European Parliament, Inese Vaidere and Ģirts V. Kristovskis, members of the party “For Fatherland and Freedom”, were very active in those European commemoration activities. Their active support in the making of the film The Soviet Story – which was financially supported by Vaidere’s and Kristovskis‘ parliamentary group „Union for a Europe of the Nations“ii – has to be seen as an instrument of commemoration politics. Soviet Story is therefore a very political film indeed, serving a precise political purpose, and raising the question of the instrumentalisation of history. As Edgar Wolfrum has explained referring to post-war Germany „the telling of history may be functionalized for political aims“ (Wolfrum, 1999, 22). This is all the more likely when – after a dictatorship – the question of „historical justice“ is raised. As Ruti Teitel in her book on transitional justice pointed out, the search for historical justice and the search for the “truth” can “serve to lay the foundation of the new political order” (Teitel, 2000, 69).

In the following I will first give an overview on the criminal justice after Latvia’s transition to democracy. I will explain why criminal justice fell short in responding to the demand of justice for the victims of Soviet atrocities, which – as a result – led to a concentration on the political forms of adjudication. After analysing the political measures of transitional justice in Latvia, I will take a closer look at its effects on a broader, popular scale – examining the film The Soviet Story as one example of popular science. In the end, I will pose the question to what extent Latvian history politics attempts to shape not only the national history-making – as a form of “searching for historical justice” – but also the European outlook on the history of the 20th century.


Criminal Justice as a means to come to terms with Latvia’s repressive Soviet past?

Post-dictatorial countries always face the difficult task of having to come to terms with their past. For the study of post-dictatorial or post-authoritarian societies and their dealing with the legacies of the past the term “transitional justice” emerged in the mid-1990s, in the aftermath of the ongoing transition processes in Central and Eastern Europe as well as South and Central America (Bell, 2009, 7). Although being rooted in the discipline of law, the focus on human rights perpetrations soon expanded and the concept of transitional justice became much broader and interdisciplinary (ibid). Recent approaches to transitional justice not only concentrate on the role of criminal justice or on political criteria of transitions, but also on the historical responses, which serve to facilitate national reconciliation (Teitel, 2000). Since adjudication alone does not “heal the wounds” of a post-dictatorial society, the questions of accountability went further and led for example to the establishment of truth commissions or national commissions for remembrance in a number of post-dictatorial states (Hughes, Schabas and Thakur, 2007). Timothy Garton Ash, in Jan-Werner Müller’s volume which focussed on the “power of memory”, has pointed out three ways of dealing with the past: “trials, purges, or history lessons” (Ash, 2004, 271).

From this interdisciplinary perspective I will put the emphasis on two significant components of transitional justice: 1) the decision of how to deal with former elites and perpetrators of crimes against humanity and 2) the re-assessment of history, especially the period of dictatorship, including its causes, consequences and the commemoration of its victims. In many cases, as in Latvia, transitional justice and the rewriting of history become intertwined since historical accountings are very crucial for the re-defining of a state after a dictatorship (Kiss, 2009). In Latvia especially, the national history emphasizing the pre-Soviet period has been extremely prominent after 1991 (Stukuls Eglitis, 2002). Clearly, how to deal with elites and/or perpetrators of the former regimes is directly related to the important task of transitional justice – the first and most direct instrument of which is criminal justice. However, in the context of transition processes of several post-communist societies we have seen that other, political forms of transitional justice became more frequent, for instance the lustration laws in the Czech Republic and Poland (Ash, 2004, 273-275; Jaskovska and Moran, 2006, 488).

The reason why political measures of transitional justice have been so prominent in the post-communist world has to do also with the shortcomings or problems of criminal justice. It is difficult to investigate with the means of criminal justice against a regime whose most atrocious crimes lie 40 or 50 years ago. In the Latvian case a second problem follows suit: the Soviet Communist regime was a regime whose directives came mainly from outside. Although working together which local Communists – where any could be found – the mayor decisions were made in Moscow. A broad investigation of the Soviet crimes would therefore require cooperation between Latvian and Russian authorities, something, which has become very unlikely nowadays, especially after the era of Putin and its commemoration policies, which again portrayed the glorious memories of the “Great Patriotic War” as the cornerstone of Russian identity (Gudkov, 2005; Siegl, 2007, Timofeeva, 2009).

The Latvian government nevertheless engaged in the prosecution of the Soviet crimes (Jaskovska and Moran, 2006, 491-492). The Criminal Division for the Investigation of Crimes of the Totalitarian Regimes (Totalitāro režīmu noziegumu izmeklēšanas nodaļa, TRNIN) started in 1995 to investigate the Soviet crimes against humanity (Upleja, 1998), working closely together with the Centre for the Documentation of the Consequences of Totalitarianism (Totalitārisma Seku Dokumentēšanas Centra, TSDC), which was founded in 1992 as research institution.iii Only nine investigations against perpetrators of crimes of the Soviet regime in Latvia ended in criminal charges. Latvia’s adjudication with the means of criminal justice was hindered on several levels. Abandoning its headquarters in former Soviet Latvia in 1991 the KGB had left very little behind: most documents were either destroyed or brought to archives in Russia (Urdze, 1997, 31). The documents, which stayed in Latvia –called the Čekas maisi (Cheka-sacks) in colloquial Latvian – are too fragmentary to serve as a proof for a broad-scale criminal investigation.iv But the biggest problem was the long duration of the Soviet regime. The old age or the bad health conditions of those perpetrators who could be held responsible for the Soviet crimes during Stalinism and who were still alive made criminal processes often impossible.

The fundamental crimes of the Soviet regime in Latvia, which are still widely remembered and which are therefore in the focus of memory, are the mass deportations of 1941 and 1949. Alone in the two mass waves of deportations of 14 June 1941 and 25 March 1949 more than 57,000 citizens of Latvia were arrested and either tortured and sentenced to work in labour camps or forced to migrate to Siberia (State Archives of Latvia, 1999). These crimes were committed during a period when dictatorial measures of Stalinism had effectively annulled the rule of law. According to the principles of international law, crimes may not be punished retroactively unless they are crimes against humanity (Trappe, 2009, 128-132). Due to the establishment of the Latvian Criminal Law §68 (later §71)v of “Crimes against humanity/ genocide” those responsible of the deportations could be prosecuted. The inclusion of the term “Genocide” – which will be discussed later – is most likely a consequence of the Latvian tradition of viewing the mass deportations of 1941 and 1949 as genocidal practice. This tradition already developed in the writing of Baltic historians and activists in exile (Budryté, 2004, 84-85) and was reproduced by Latvian historians in the 1990s (Riekstiņš, 1991; Strods 1995). It is noteworthy that the Latvian §68 established in 1993 did not differentiate between “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”. In international law, however, the verdict “genocide” is a specific “crime against humanity” and has been defined on grounds of the Geneva Convention on Genocide of 1948 (Barth, 2006, 14).

Out of nine persons accused of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” according to the Latvian Criminal Codevi, only one, the first convict, Alfreds Noviks, actually served his sentence. Several processes had to be called off because of the bad physical condition or certifiable insanity of the accused, or the defendants were convicted on the first level of jurisdiction but died before the appellate proceedings had been decided. In two cases, the convicted successfully appealed against their sentence at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) due to either procedural errors or on health grounds.vii The verdict most discussed in the media was the first one against Alfons Noviksviii, commonly referred to as “Chekist No 1” or “the big slaughterer”.ix Noviks had been the head of the Latvian branch of the NKVD and was held responsible for having been actively involved in the crimes of the totalitarian Soviet regime against Latvian citizens, notably arrests, torture and executions during 1940 and 1941. The text of the sentence stated that Noviks “had realized genocide against groups of the Latvian population, which the totalitarian Socialist regime considered hostile. The aim was to completely or partially destroy this population group.”x Noviks died aged 88 in prison in 1996, 3 months after the verdict was spoken and before his lawyers could appeal against the judgement.

The term that stands out from the judgement is “genocide”. The classification of the Stalin era mass deportations as “genocide” is still being debated in the academic literature (Barth, 2006; Polian, 2004; Mälksoo, 2001; Ternon, 1996). However, in Latvia the term “genocide” as a classification for the mass deportations and forced migration of the Stalin era has been very prominent after 1991. In a recent volume Aizvestie (The Displaced) in which the Latvian State archive published the names of those deported in 1949, the following quotation – after Norman F. Naimark’s book Fires of Hatred. Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe – is provided as a definition:

“[F]orced deportation often possesses traits of genocide, when people are forcefully removed from their houses, but those who resist are killed. Even if the goal of forced deportation has not been the extermination of people, its consequences often do not differ from the consequences of genocide.” (Naimark, 2001, cited after Riekstiņš, 2007, 12)xi

Yet Naimark in his book on Ethnic Cleansing actually makes the argument to differentiate between the terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” – and he is using the latter. With regard to the term “genocide” he explains that “intentionality is the critical distinction” as it determines first-degree murder and he argues: “Genocide is the intentional killing off of part or all of an ethnic, religious, or national group; the murder of a people or peoples (in German, Völkermord) is the objective.” (Naimark, 2001, 3) Moreover, Naimark does not at all talk about the deportations of Baltic peoples to Siberia. Instead his chapter on the Soviet deportations deals only with the Chechens-Ingush and the Crimean Tatars.

Naimark’s emphasis on “intentionality” goes in line with the argument of others, who have questioned the applicability of the term “genocide” with regard to the crimes committed by the Soviet authorities in the Baltic States. According to the UN definition:

“Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (Article 2, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948).

Critics argue that it may not be proven without doubt that Soviet authorities actually attempted to murder the Latvian people as such, since all peoples of the USSR were subject to the arbitrary terror regime of the Stalin era (Barth, 2006; Mälksoo, 2001; Ternon, 1996). Furthermore, it is pointed out that those deported – especially those, who were not sent to labour camps but instead forced to live in “special settlements” in Siberia – often survived. Indeed, from those deported in 1949, a large percentage returned to Latvia: Out of 12,100 “nationalists” (and family members) and 27,115 “kulaks” deported on 25-30 March 1949 – in total about 42,000 people – the majority, 38,902 persons, survived and were allowed to return to Latvia, most of them between 1954-1960 (Bleiere, 2007, 195-205). Although the life of those returned was often very hard because of the discriminations against former deportees by Soviet authorities, their life was not threatened after their return to Latvia.

Since the re-establishment of independence Latvian historians, and most notably the Latvian State Archives, have published several volumes, in which the tortures and repressions of the Soviet dictatorship are documented. These works lay an important basis for further research. However, the applicability of the term “genocide” has never been debated in Latvia. Despite the critique by various researchers of different nationalities, who find it questionable to apply the term “genocide”, Latvian state officials have been using the term since the restoration of Latvian independence. I argue that the usage of the term “genocide” has become a political issue as well as an essential part of the Latvian victim narrative. The popularity of the term, especially also in popular science and politics, can be viewed a direct result of the shortcomings of criminal justice: no “Latvian Nuremberg” – a reference which the chief persecutor in the process against Noviks indeed made – has fulfilled the victims’ desire for condemnation of the perpetrators. Since criminal adjudication on a wide scale was impossible due to the reasons discussed above, political adjudication stepped in.


History Politics in Latvia after 1991

The shortcomings of criminal adjudication, which have been explained, put even more emphasis on the political adjudication, and especially, on the commemoration of the Soviet repressions and their victims. This led to a number of initiatives, resolutions and laws after 1990, in which the Latvian state (or its officials) attempted to receive recognition for the Latvian victims of the repressions of the Soviet regime.

Central for the Latvian understanding is the term “occupation”, which was already used in the Latvian declaration “On the Renewal of Independence of the Republic of Latvia” on May 4, 1990xii, and which emphasizes that Latvia was for more than 40 years object of Soviet policies (Wezel, 2008, 214-217). In the context of Russian-Latvian relations the term “occupation” is highly controversial since Russia does not accept that Latvia was forcefully occupied and then annexed by the Soviet Union – instead it perpetuates the Soviet propaganda myth of the Baltic States having voluntarily joined the USSR. As a consequence, in its 1996 “Declaration on the Occupation of Latvia” the Latvian parliament, Saeima, asked “the countries of the world and international organizations to recognize the fact of the occupation of Latvia and to help Latvia to liquidate the consequences of occupation [].”xiii In 2005, the Latvian Parliament directly addressed the Russian Federation in its “Declaration on the Condemnation of the Totalitarian Communist Occupation Regime Implemented in Latvia by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. The Saeima demanded the recognition of the occupation and called on the Russian Federation “to acknowledge the Russian Federation as the legal and political successor of the USSR is morally, legally and financially responsible for the crimes committed against humanity in Latvia [].”xiv

In the official Latvian narrative and its culture of remembrance the mass deportations of the Stalin era are central: they have been shaping the focus of Latvian commemoration practise ever since the Atmoda movement and its “calendar demonstrations”, which started on 14 June 1987, the commemoration day of the 1941 deportations (Karklins, 1994, 70). In this narrative of Soviet repressions, the memory of the terror of the Stalin era is very prominent while other phases of the Soviet dictatorship are fading. This observation can also be made at the Occupation museum in the centre of Riga, a museum financially supported by the Latvian state (Michel and Nollendorfs, 2005). According to the director of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, Gundega Michel, the mass deportations and the experience of the Gulag are the “most persistent and humiliating historic memory of the Latvian people in the 20th century” (ibid, p. 121). A replica of a wooden Gulag-shed exemplifying the hard and extreme living conditions in the Siberian work camps is therefore the central piece of the exhibition (Nollendorfs, 2002).

The Latvian calendar also has two commemoration days, 14 June and 25 March, for the “Victims of the Communist genocide”. But since these days explicitly remember the mass deportations of 1941 and 1949, there is an additional day for all other victims of Soviet Terror, the “Commemoration Day for the Victims of the Genocide of the Totalitarian Communist Regime against the Latvian People,” on each first Sunday in December.xv For the Jewish Latvians, who perished during the Nazi Occupation, there is yet another commemoration day: on 4 July Latvia has its national commemoration day for the “Victims of the Genocide of the Jewish People”, thereby remembering the day when Latvian synagogues were burnt down in 1941 (Angrick and Klein, 2006, 84-86). Also with regard to the Holocaust Latvia chose a day connected to its own national history instead of – for instance – the nowadays broadly accepted Holocaust commemoration day on 27 January, the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp.

Apart from this concentration on a very national Latvian narrative this also shows that the commemoration of the victims of Soviet repressions – which is expressed in three commemoration days – is far more present in Latvia than commemoration of the victims of the Nazi repressions. This is a general tendency of the Latvian culture of remembrance related to the fact that the victims of the Soviet regime are widely present in Latvian society and ask for the recognition, which was denied to them during the era of Communism. The former Latvian minister of foreign affairs and former EU-Commissioner Sandra Kalniete has depicted this victim experience in her book “With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows”, using the example of her own family history (Kalniete, 2006 [2001]). Another example is the 2005 documentary film “Once There was Siberia” by the Latvian producer Dzintra Geka, who also published her research on the deported children of 1941 in two large volumes (Geka, 2008).

A glance at the Latvian commemoration calendar is enough to understand that the term “genocide” and its commemoration plays a central role. Behind this is the aim of Latvian history politics to find recognition for the sufferings of the Latvian people during the totalitarian Soviet regime. Thereby, the Soviet era as such becomes classified as “totalitarian” portraying a renaissance of the theory of totalitarianism, which could be observed in a number of post-communist states after the fall of the iron curtain. The starting point for Latvia, which leads directly to the comparison of the two “totalitarian regimes” and the two dictators, is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (or Hitler-Stalin Pact). The Pact is yet another cornerstone of Latvian commemoration culture, and similar tendencies can be observed with regard to Latvia’s neighbouring states Estonia and Lithuania. As the recent commemoration festivities at the 70th anniversary of the Pact on 23 August 2009 showed, the Pact plays a central role for the Baltic historic narrative. Furthermore, the Pact as reference point is also important because of the commemoration activities in 1989: the Baltic Way was the start of a joint Baltic fight for independence from the USSR. Compared to the commemoration of the Pact in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, which were equally effected by it, the Baltics stand out.xvi Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova have other symbolic dates connected to World War II, which are more central for their national culture of remembrance (Troebst, 2009). And in Poland, where the Pact is also a crucial point of reference, the remembrance focuses more on the dates when Poland was occupied on September 1 and 17, 1939 by Nazi and Soviet troops respectively (Loew, 2008).

For Latvia, however, 23 August 1939 is a vivid lieu de mémoirexvii as this quote from the former Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga demonstrates:

As the President of a country that subsequently suffered greatly under Soviet rule, I feel obliged to remind the world at large that humanity’s most devastating conflict might not have occurred, had the two totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union not agreed to secretly divide the territories of Eastern Europe amongst themselves. I am referring to the shameful agreement signed on August 23rd of 1939 by the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Vyatcheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop.” (Vīķe-Freiberga, 2005, 21)

The atrocities of World War II and the sufferings of Latvians during this time are explained by the pact of two dictators, both of which showed no respect for small nations and its people. From this perspective it becomes obvious that for Latvians the trauma and sufferings of World War II may only be understood when the crimes of both regimes are taken into account at the same time. The quote is from the declaration of the Latvian president, in which she expressed her critique on the commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow 2005. In contrast to her Estonian and Lithuanian colleagues, Vīķe-Freiberga decided to take part in the commemoration event in Moscow on 9 May 2005 as she wanted to inform the world public that Latvia does not share the Russian perspective of the end of World War II solely as a “liberation” from dictatorship (Onken, 2007).

The 9th of May is very important for Latvian commemoration culture since this day demonstrates how Latvia is being influenced by two completely different discourses. On the one hand, there is the Latvian call for recognition of the Latvian sufferings due to the repressions of the Stalin era. On the other hand, the Russian history politics of the Putin era restored celebrations of May 9 as “Victory Day” and central commemoration day for the Russian identity (Gudkov 2005; Siegl 2007, Schtscherbakowa 2009). The development in Russia is mirrored by the growing interest of Russian speakers in Latvia in the celebrations of May 9. The number of those, who have been celebrating “Victory Day” in Riga, has doubled between 2002 and 2009 (Raudseps, 2009). Recently, not only Red Army veterans but also, increasingly, young people have been very actively participating in the commemoration events. In 2008, a youth organisation, Nam po puti! (Let’s do it), directed specifically towards young people, started to advocate the commemoration of ”Victory Day”.xviii The growing interest of young Russian speakers in the May 9 commemorations can also be seen as a result of Latvian history politics and their complete focus on the Latvian victims. This one-sided narrative, which concentrated solely on the Latvian sufferings during the Soviet repressions, led to an alienation of Russian speakers (Gundare, 2003). Family experiences of Russian speakers, especially if they arrived in Latvia only after 1945, often differ sharply from Latvian experiences, which is why young Russian speakers did not find themselves in the official Latvian narrative advocated after 1991.

Therefore, for members of the Russian speaking population in Latvia the commemoration festivities around May 9 fill a vacuum in the public memory landscape. Due to its very emotional focus on the Latvian victims only, Latvian history politics failed to integrate the Russian speaking population of Latvia. Latvian minister of Interior, Linda Murniece, shared this opinion in her comment on the celebrations of May 9, 2009: “Something is probably wrong with the integration policy in our country. If people are not offered an identity, they find it themselves. The event [May 9] demonstrated this.”xix The focus on “historical justice” has become an inhibiting factor in Latvian politics (Rozenvalds, 2006). After decades of Soviet propaganda the Latvian victims found their voice and – understandably – called for the recognition of their sufferings. Yet, the constant demand for recognition of the victim status and the complete focus on the Soviet repressions led to a new imbalance and propagation of new historic myths – as will be demonstrated by analysing the film The Soviet Story.


The Soviet Story and commemoration initiatives on the European level

Edvīns Šnore’s film The Soviet Story. A Documentary tells the tale of the Soviet atrocities. The advertisement poster of the film already shows a pile of dead bodies, on which two figures – resembling Soviet ‘socialist realism’ sculptures – are hoisting the Soviet banner. The picture summarizes the main message of the film, namely that the Soviet state in particular and Communism in general were completely dependent on a system of terror and that the state itself could only be built on thousands of mass graves. According to Šnore’s narrative even Hitler was inspired by Stalin’s terror methods. This leads Šnore to the comparison of the two dictatorships and their crimes, arguing that Soviet “class genocide” and the “racial genocide” of the Nazis can be equted. The argument of the film goes even further stating that the Communist terror was to some extent worse and more barbarous than Hitler’s because Stalin’s victims were chosen randomly. In his comparison of “class genocide” and “race genocide” Šnore uses nearly the same argument as the Black book of Communism, first published in France as Le Livre noir du communisme (Courtois et al. 1998 [1997]).

Šnore’s aim is to break the alleged taboo of talking about Communist crimes and their genesis. Attempting to demonstrate the extreme cruelty of the Communist dictatorship, the audience is exposed to the images of dying people, dead bodies and mass graves. In his tale of Communism Šnore uses archive material – the film claims to use unpublished sources – but he does not work like a historian. Instead, Šnore, a political scientist by training, has produced an utterly politicised film, in which history is being instrumentalised. Most of the time, Šnore also does not state the sources of his material. When asked in an interview about the reasons for making this film, Šnore explained that he wanted to give a “true” account of history. He further explained that Russian films like Baltic Nazism had completely distorted Latvian history. Therefore, as Šnore pointed out, a film like The Soviet Story was needed in order to revise the picture. Baltic Nazism produced by the Russian film company “Third Rome”xx had indeed wrongly accused Latvians of crimes against humanity, showing Nazi concentration camps and drawing an absurd comparison of the Latvian collaboration with Nazi authorities and the failed integration of Russian speakers into today’s Latvian society. Yet, it apparently set the tone making Šnore draw on the far-fetched argument that Communism as such was an evil ideology that led directly into terror.

The Soviet Story’s account of history does not only cover Latvian history. It starts with the Holodomor in Ukraine, as the first large-scale Soviet crime against humanity. Following are – in chronological order – all crimes of the Soviet regime. But Soviet Story does not stop by telling Soviet crimes. Moreover, the Soviet repressions are pictured as part of a complete heinous history of Communism. According to Šnore, already the Communist Manifesto pointed towards the crimes of the Stalin era. By this, the Communist ideology as such is compared to the Nazi ideology. In order to back up his argument Šnore uses oral history methods interviewing several well-known historians, for instance Norman Davies, Professor of History at Cambridge University, and Françoise Thom, Professor of Modern History at Sorbonne, Paris. In their short interview sequences both attest the criminal energy of the Communist Soviet regime and agree on the comparability of the Soviet and the Nazi crimes.

One main line of Šnore’s tale is to compare the Soviet regime with the Nazi regime, which has been already internationally condemned for its inhuman record. Yet, referring to the Nazi regime and its crimes, Šnore does not use archive material picturing for instance Nazi concentration camps. Instead he uses extracts from the Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (Germany 1935). The crimes of the Nazi regime are not documented by horrible pictures, which is why the picture of Nazi terror within the film appears very pale beside the crimes of the Stalin era. The reference to the Nazi regime is being made only in order to attract attention – since the Nazi crimes are universally known for their ferocity (Kroh, 2008). In general, Šnore’s film fails short of approaching the historic material in an analytical and balanced way. The subtitle A documentary is extremely questionable. The film does not want its audience to reflect on the arguments and to arrive at their own judgement. Instead Šnore is propagating a very linear narrative of history. Thereby – although criticising Soviet and Nazi propaganda – he is himself using propagandistic methods and style, as the Latvian historian Gustavs Stenga has pointed out:

Soviet Story shocks the audience with the brutality of the Bolshevik crimes but doesn’t allow one to reflect upon the film’s argument and come to one‘s own evaluation. [] Šnore’s film makes me ask why we (the Latvian society) after nearly 20 years since the re-establishment of independence are trapped in a totalitarian form of historic thinking, which essentially perpetuates the traditions of Soviet historiography and propaganda.”(Strenga, 2008)

Strenga’s argument goes much in the same direction as the argument of Eva-Clarita Onken, who already in 2003 asked for a “democratization of history” in Latvia (Onken, 2003).

Yet Šnore’s film indeed depicts the tendencies of Latvia’s history politics since 1991: the complete concentration on the suffering under Soviet rule while ignoring other narratives. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the film has been promoted by Latvian politicians, most notably the members of the European Parliament Inese Vaidere and Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis. Both MEPs, who were at that time members of the Latvian party “For Fatherland and Freedom, actively supported the making of the film, not only financially. The first public viewing of Soviet Story took place in Brussels. Vaidere’s and Kristovskis’ EU parliamentary group “Union for Europe of the Nations”, UEN, has been very active in advocating the Baltic perspective on twentieth-century history. UEN also promoted the initiative of a “European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism”. The declaration proclaiming August 23 as the day for the commemoration of the victims of Stalinism and Nazism was adopted by the European Parliament on 23 September 2008.xxi Latvian MEP Inese Vaidere was one of the authors of this declaration, which states that “the influence and significance of the Soviet regime and occupation for the citizens of the post-communist States are little known in Europe” and therefore demands “to preserve the memory of the victims of mass deportations and exterminations.”

The film Soviet Story and the manner of its promotion by Latvian MEPs clearly demonstrated the aim of bringing the other, specifically “Eastern European” perspective onto the European history arena. This tendency is also portrayed by other initiatives, for instance the resolution 1481 of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on the need for international condemnation of crimes of totalitarian communist regimes (Hammerstein and Hofmann, 2009). Thus, it can be concluded that Latvian history politics not only at the national but also at the international level is still very much preoccupied with the recognition of Latvian victims.



As this essay demonstrates, Latvian history politics should be read as a form of political adjudication in coming to terms with Latvia’s repressive Soviet past. Since criminal adjudication proved to be extremely difficult and a “Latvian Nuremberg” was not in sight, Latvian politicians sought and found other ways to address Latvia’s Soviet past and draw a line between the dictatorial past and today’s politics. In commemorating the Soviet past and its atrocities, which for so long had been a silenced in the remembrance culture of the Soviet Union, Latvian politics gave a voice to the victims of Soviet terror. This was extremely important since their desire of justice could not be fulfilled by the mechanisms of criminal justice. The new official national Latvian narrative of history had a very different focus than the one before and new lines of demarcation were drawn. Yet, although such mechanisms of demarcation are important when a post-dictatorial society is coming to terms with its past, they also may be questionable when they become too exclusive.

The theme of recognition of Latvia’s victim status is naturally still a very strong motive for Latvian politics, especially on the international level. However, the question remains for how long the concentration on one theme should be sustained, especially when looking at the obstacles it poses with regard to Latvian integration policies. The author does not question the necessity to further study the Soviet repressions and crimes against humanity. Yet does the recognition of those crimes need to depend on the term “genocide”? Diverse and thorough historic research is needed to come to terms with Latvia’s repressive past. I agree with the evaluation of Anatoly Vishnevsky, who pointed out with regard to the forced settlements and migrations of the Stalin era: “Although these tragic events are known to virtually everybody today, there are still only a few thorough research works written about them.” (Polian, 2004, 322). What is not needed are aggressive and one-sided accounts of history, like the one provided in The Soviet Story, since this will not help to understand the history of World War II and its consequences for Latvia today. Instead, it will be likely to further hinder the integration of Latvia’s Russian-speaking population.

Moreover, academic research should not be limited by boundaries of national or international resolutions. History politics can be very dangerous when it is being instrumentalised, a fact which has recently be highlighted by the Appel de Blois.xxii In this appeal, more than 1,000 historians from 45 countries warned against the monopolizing of history writing. They were referring explicitly to the danger of the recent European initiatives and resolutions in the sphere of history politics putting obstacles in the way of historical research. Instead they called for a freedom of speech, diversity and a plural discussion of all viewpoints on the past – an appeal, which the author would like to subscribe to, also with regard to Latvia.


This article is a revised version of a chapter published in German in the volume: Birgit Hofmann, Katja Wezel, Regina Fritz, Katrin Hammerstein and Julie Trappe (eds.) Diktaturüberwindung in Europa. Neue nationale und transnationale Perspektiven (Heidelberg: Winter, forthcoming). The author would like to thank Birgit Hofmann and Katrin Hammerstein for their comments, as well as anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article.




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i http://www.sovietstory.com/about-the-film/ [last accessed 15 August 2009].

ii The “Union for Europe of the Nations”, short UEN, was a parliamentary group in the European Parliament, which existed from 1999-2009. UEN united MEPs from national-conservative parties from Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. UEN’ Latvian MEPs were members of the Latvian Party “For Fatherland and Freedom”. See: http://www.uengroup.org/home.html [last accessed 2 July 2009].

iii For the TSDC and its work see: http://vip.latnet.lv/LPRA/tdsc.htm [last accessed 15 August 2009].

iv Interview of the author with Indulis Zalite, head of the TSDC, in Riga, 6 May 2008.

v The current paragraph 71 of the Latvian criminal code (Latvijas kriminālikums), in force since 1 July 2009, has been revised and is now divided into subparagraphs, which differentiate between “Genocide” (genocīds) and “Crimes against Humanity” (Noziegumi pret cilvēki), but is essentially equivalent to the former paragraph 68. Cf. “Krimināllikums” at: http://likumi.lv [last accessed on 15 Aug 2009].

vi Those accused were: Alfons Noviks, Ilja Mašonkins, Nikolajs Larionovs, Nikolajs Tess, Mihails Farbtuhs, Vasilijs Kononovs, Jevgeņijs Savenko, Trofims Jakušonoks, Vasilijs Kirsanovs. Cf.: Sestdiena 19 April 2008.

vii Farbtuhs v. Latvia, ECHR (02-12-2004), Application No. 4672/02, and Kononov v. Latvia ECHR (24-07-2008), Application No. 36376/04. For further information see: http://sim.law.uu.nl [last accessed 15 August 2009].

Katja Wezel, Ruprecht-Karls University, Heidelberg

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