25th Anniversary of the Riga Barricades

This year in January we’ll commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Barricades that took place in Riga for two weeks in 1991, before the collapse of Soviet Union.

The monument to the Barricades of Riga
The monument to the Barricades of Riga

The idea of barricading parts of Riga Old Town and places of high strategic importance like Supreme Council and Latvian TV and Radio came about after it was clear that the departure of Baltic States from Soviet Union will be delayed even by military force. Starting our as provocations, like bombings on the December in 1990, to disrupt peace and create a state of emergency, that would grant the Soviets full authority to intervene and stop the independence movement by taking over the power, it grew into a more violent attack on the peaceful protesters in the neighbouring country Lithuania where Soviet special forces opened fire at civilians near the Vilnius TV tower and events seemed to escalate faster. This and other warnings made the Latvians take it to the streets to physically barricade important buildings that were used for transmitting radio or TV signal to keep people informed about the development of this crisis.

Letting the people of Latvia and especially local pro-independence forces know about the events taking place was imperative, in case of a Soviet attack they’d know which locations are under attack and could try to prevent these buildings from being taken. Largely these were places where one could transfer information, like the international telephone exchange, as foreign press was constantly being updated about the situation in Latvia. Up to 300 foreign journalists were working in Riga at the time, reporting back to their home countries. This was extremely important as in reality the small Latvian state had no chance against the Soviet military in case of a full on confrontation, but an international outcry and pressure from the democratic western governments was seen as almost the biggest help they could get from the international society.

The most tragic events happened on the 20th of January, when, while the Soviet OMON forces were trying to take the Latvian Interior ministry, several people where shot to death: two militia men, a camera man(another died from injuries later on) and a student. After this incident things calmed down later in January, but the barricades stayed up, in some places even until 1992, after the collapse of Soviet Union in late 1991.

Nowadays the events are remembered every year in January, so expect to see bonfires on the Dome Square, people placing flowers near the memorial stones where the barricade participants were tragically killed and the Freedom Monument and maybe even make a visit to the Barricade Museum to learn more about Latvian nation’s peaceful fight for freedom just a quarter a century ago.