With the disintegration of the USSR the new post-Soviet states have faced multiple challenges of re-building state institutions, integrating heterogeneous populations and consolidating new national identities. Collective memories and mnemonic actors have played an important role in political and social transformations. The controversy between different narratives addressing the Soviet past eventually escalated to memory wars within fractured memory regimes, as a nation building processes were led by mnemonic warriors, who are not ready to peacefully coexist while there is an opposing stance on the past exists in the public space, and lacked pluralists, who are more open towards softening of the discourse (Kubik & Berhnard 2014, p.12). This article examines narrative on the Soviet past of Russophones and ethnic Latvians withing independent Latvia. The developments are studied on the example of Victory Day (May 9), which is connected to the self-identification of both groups.

Soviet legacy: mass holidays and divided memory

One of the most interesting institutions developed under the Soviet rule was a mass holiday. Its didactic mission was aimed at constructing pan-Soviet behavioral norms to foster a “new Soviet man” (Zelče 2018, p.390). In this context Victory Day is one of the most successful projects of the Soviet establishment. This commemoration practice, which symbolized the end of the Great Patriotic War (GPW) (1941-1945), has gone through different stages. Under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev (1962-1982), when, due to a series of political setbacks, in particular the unpopular Afghan war, the establishment turned to the times of its recent glory. Thus, shaped from above, the collective memory of the heroic deeds of the Soviet people during GPW and World War II, was formed. The personal tragedy of the victims was illuminated, while a Russocentric and glorious viewpoint on the events was gradually created, in which Russian-speakers were seen as “first among equals”, while many problematic points, such as forceful incorporation of Latvia into USSR, were ignored. Such a narrative, alongside with deep historical traumas, contributed to alienation of the Russian-speaking population in the post-Soviet Latvia (Zelče 2018, p.400).

Over the decades of independence, May 9 has undergone transformation in Latvia, but to this day it has not lost its relevance for both, Russophones and native Latvians. As the war in Ukraine erupted, the debate over the commemoration blew up again. What allows this topic to be so relevant for so many decades in Latvia? The answers lie behind the concept of “divided memory” (Wezel 2008, p.150). This phenomenon is characterized by the existence of two parallel assessments of the same event within one state, which manifests in a fractured mythscape. The narrative of the “Three Occupations” (two incorporations of Latvia into the USSR in 1940 and 1945, the Nazi rule 1941 – 1945), which implies sufferings of Latvians under the foreign rule, is as a cornerstone of nation building of modern Latvia. At the same time, Russian speakers, the second largest group within the Latvian state (Official Statistic Portal of Latvia 2022), do not accept the official discourse on the country’s occupation by the Soviet Union. The divide leads to the situation when two groups of mnemonic actors have different stances: “Latvians” predominantly share the perception that Russophones are successors of “occupants” and “colonizers”, while Russophones see themselves as “liberators” and hence, have a right to be present in Latvia. So how has the narrative around the 9th May developed and what does the commemorations look like today?

Keeping the tradition up to date

The future conflict between the Latvian national narrative and the official Soviet narrative was set in the Brezhnev era, while reached its final form in the Perestroika period (Cheskin 2016, p. 41). Further, after independence, strengthened local mnemonic actors, among others the Popular Front of Latvia (PFL), continued the natural process of tightening the spiral. While at the beginning of the independence movement in the late 1980s the USSR was seen as the “Other”, with the Soviet Union eroding the emphasis was shifted to the Russian minority. The strong transitional justice practices in the country (Pettai, Eva- Clarita 2017, p.57) led to the political exclusion of Russian-speakers and to creation of a “non-citizen” group (Kolstø 1999, p. 615). This illustrates a clear division into “Latvian people” and “Russian-speaking people” within one country, whereas the second group has far fewer rights. A popular newspaper of the aforementioned party back in 1990s underlined that that the “Latvian nation” is the only purely “Latvian” construct while the “Russian nation” is as a foreign object, whose members “have no inherent right to interfere” and has to come back to Russia where it belongs (Cheskin 2018, p. 44). As a result of such alienation, Latvian Russophones felt sentimental about the USSR. In addition, Russian Federation with Putin in lead started to regain its soft influence in the post-Soviet space and successfully exported the heroic narrative (Malinova, Olga 2017, p.42). All in all, Victory Day gradually became the litmus paper of the Russophones identity in Latvia.

Up to 2006, Victory Day was blatantly anti-Latvian, directly supported by the Russian Embassy. Its semantic content, down to the repertoire of songs performed, was almost a complete copy of what was happening in Moscow and other Russian cities on May 9 (Zelče 2018, p 405). However, with the strengthening of the centrist Saskana Party as a mnemonic actor, Russophones began to be seen as a significant electoral potential, and attempts to integrate them in the political process were made. Under the supervision of the party, the current identity of the Latvian Russophones gradually emerged. The traditional jubilant atmosphere of the Victory Day event remained untouched, the concert and the dressing up in Soviet wartime uniform were not erased either. Victory Day maintained its heroic narrative, but started to include elements of Latvian culture. From now on, Latvian folk songs were sung on equal footing with Russian songs, Russian ambassadors ceased to be regular speakers, and the emphasis on modern Russian state symbols were diminished, though not fully removed. The use of St. George’s ribbons and other traditional symbols remained as well, but the organizers of the commemoration, the Saskana Party and its affiliated volunteer organizations, avoided directly contrasting Latvian occupation and Russian liberation narratives. The emphasis was made on the joint expulsion of Nazi invaders, rather than on the further incorporation of Latvia into the USSR (Delfil.lv, 2011). Such narrative mirrors the mood among “Russian Latvians”, who seemed to retain a connection with their external homeland, but also saw Latvia as their true home (Kaprāns & Mierina 2019, p. 42).

Escalation and the open ending

Although the discourse was softened, the commemoration has never been accepted by the ruling elites. During the 2010s, despite tensions and annual attempts to abolish the event or tear down the Soviet memorial, the commemoration was still held steadily and attracted hundreds of participants in Riga. However, Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in February 2022 provoked new wave of the restrictive policies, partly due to the active use of the GPW heroic narrative as a justification of the aggression by Russian elites.
In 2022, May 9 was officially declared “Memorial Day for Victims of War in Ukraine,” but this did not stop crowds of people coming to lay flowers to the Soviet memorial in Riga (Meduza.io 2022). Moreover, it is in this year that the interaction between the authorities and the Russian minority takes on the character of open protest. In previous years, the authorities had only indirectly influenced the commemoration of 9 May, for example, by banning the use of the St. George symbols in 2021. However, since 2022, the state is actively restricting the event itself: the Soviet monument was fenced off, preventing people from crowding in, and the flowers that are traditionally placed at the pedestal of the monument were bulldozed by a tractor. Nevertheless, on the following day the fenced off area was again laid with flowers. Notably, some participants that year wore new war symbols, in particular the “Z” sign used by the Russian military, which is officially banned in Latvia. Although the authorities were eventually able to prevent further provocations by reinforcing perimeter security, this episode demonstrated the resilience and willingness of the Russian diaspora to protest rather openly. Relations between the two mnemonic groups reached a new level of conflict by the spring of 2023, after two laws were passed: a ban on celebrations on 9 May and a law on the demolition of the Soviet memorial (Latvijas Republikas Saeima, 2023).
Pillarized regime: to be continued?

Despite the fact that confrontation between the two narratives within the country has never been characterized by violence on either side, the latest aforementioned developments show current radicalization and irreconcilability of the two narratives within the present mythscape (Meduza.io 2023).


Going back a couple of years back, before February 2022 the confrontation was set between “Russians” and “Latvians”. Under this scenario, one of the possible ways to overcome the difference in assessments of the past, over which the mnemonic wars are fought, is to tackle history as a set of histories of different ethnic groups who had their motivation in acting in a certain way (Shevel 2012, p. 35). To promote such attitude mnemonic actors, namely pluralists, who are ready to accept other viewpoints, should lead the political elite of the country. To some extent, the Saskanа party’s attempts to soften the narrative of the Russian community can be attributed to the actions of the pluralists.


However, a series of foreign policy steps taken by Russia made such a course impossible. Latvia’s domestic agenda is now implicitly at the international level because of the Ukrainian factor, as official Russian propaganda draws blatant parallels between today’s events and those of the Great Patriotic War (Politico 2023). The influence of Russia as an external homeland on the Russian-speaking diaspora cannot be underestimated, as at least the renewal of the pantheon of symbols during the celebrations demonstrates. This is also partly what forces Latvian authorities to go for harsh prohibitionist measures at the legislative level since they act within the mono-ethnic doctrine of nation-building. Taken into account all the intertwined developments within the country and on the international arena, the question of how the self-identification of Russian speakers in Latvia is transformed in the course of conflict and in the aftermath remains open, as none of the main mnemonic actors can be characterized as a pluralist.

Literature and Sources:

• Bernhard, Michael; Jan, Kubik (2014): Twenty Years After Communism: The Politics Of Memory And Commemoration. Oxford University Press.

• Cheskin, Amon (2016): Russian-Speakers in Post-Soviet Latvia: Discursive Identity Strategies. Edinburgh University Press.

• Delfi.lv (2011): It Must Be Admitted That There Are No Occupiers In Latvia https://rus.delfi.lv/news/daily/latvia/cs-nado-priznat-chto-v-latvii-net- okkupantov.d?id=40681233&all=true

• Dw.com (2022): Latvia removes soviet era monument
https://www.dw.com/en/latvia-removes-soviet-era-monument-in-riga/a-62933639

• Kaprāns, Martinš, Mieriņa, Inta (2019): Minority reconsidered: Towards a typology of Latvia’s Russophone identity. In Europe-Asia Studies Vol.71.1, 24-47.

• Kolstø, Pål (1999): Territorialising Diasporas. The case of the Russians in the former Soviet republics. In Millennium-Journal of International Studies Vol. 28.3, 607-631.

• Latvijas Republikas Saeima (2023): https://titania.saeima.lv/LIVS14/saeimalivs14.nsf/webAll?SearchView&Query=([Title]=9.+maija)&SearchMax=0&SearchOrder=4

• Lsm.lv (2023): Twenty six detained in relation to May 9 provocation https://eng.lsm.lv/article/society/crime/09.05.2023-twenty-six-detained-in-relation-to-may-9-in-latvia.a507976/

• Malinova, Olga (2017): Political Uses of the Great Patriotic War in Post- Soviet Russia from Yeltsin to Putin. In War and Memory in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, 43-70.

• Meduza.io (2022): Russia supporters in Riga staged a protest after officials bulldozed flowers left at a WWII monument
https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/05/11/after-declaring-may-9-a-day-of-commemoration-of-the-victims-in-ukraine-latvian-officials-removed-flowers-from-a-soviet-era-wwii-memorial-outraged-pro-russian-residents-staged-a-protest-in-response

• Meduza.io (2023): Latvian Saeima outlaws post-Soviet Victory Day celebrations. Only Europe Day festivities will be permitted on May 9 (2023) https://meduza.io/en/news/2023/04/20

• Occupation Museum Foundation (2005): The Three Occupations of Latvia 1940-1991 https://www.mfa.gov.lv/data/file/e/P/3_okupacijas.pdf

• Official Statistic Portal of Latvia (2022): https://data.stat.gov.lv/pxweb/lv/OSP_PUB/START__POP__IR__IRE/IRE010/

• Poitico.eu (2023): How Vladimir Putin sells his war against ‘the West’ https://www.politico.eu/article/siege-stalingrad-battle-bucha-vladimir-putin-russia-war-against-west/

• Pettai, Eva- Clarita (2017): Prosecuting Soviet genocide: comparing the politics of criminal justice in the Baltic states. In European Politics and Society Vol.18.1, 52-65.

• Shevel, Oxana (2016): No way out? Post-Soviet Ukraine’s memory wars in comparative perspective. In Beyond the Euromaidan: Comparative Perspectives on Advancing Reform in Ukraine, 21-41.

• Wezel, Katja (2008): „Okkupanten “oder „Befreier “? Geteilte Erinnerung und getrennte Geschichtsbilder in Lettland. In Osteuropa Vol.48.8, 147-158.

• Zelče, Vita; Ardava, Laura (2017): Media Literacy. A Code for Sustainable Development of Latvia in the Age of Post-Truth? In Mastery of Life and Information Literacy. 78-93.

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