Honourable President of Latvia,
Honourable members of the Saeima,
Participants of the Barricades,
Ladies and gentlemen,
“If I do not capture all of this on film, nobody will ever know what January 1991 in Riga was like. Everyone will be able to interpret the events as he or she likes. But the truth will be recoded on tape. Someday it will have enormous value.” This was said by cameraman Andris Slapiņš, who died with a video camera in his hands.
His words always make me think about the immense conviction and selflessness of each Latvian patriot who defended our state. Everyone had a particular task – to stand with bare hands at the barricades, make tea, record events, or organise groups of defenders from the outlying regions. There are no major or minor heroes. Everyone had a specific role. Everyone found courage within which helped Latvia to defend its independence and freedom.
We have gathered here to commemorate the Barricades of 1991 and their participants in Latvia; to recall the events which 20 years ago changed the course of history not only in our country but also in the other Baltic States and the entire world. We have gathered here to honour those people who during the days of the Barricades had the courage, sense of responsibility, patriotism and conviction to oppose the predominant power of the tottering and agonising totalitarian state.
Is 20 years a long or a short period? It seems that these events happened only yesterday. Many of us still remember the bonfires lit next to the television building, the tea served at the Dome Church, the streets of Old Town Riga barricaded with concrete blocks, and the strange feeling of alarm and solidarity in people on the streets. During these 20 years we have raised a new generation that was not yet born in the days of the Barricades. What does this anniversary mean to this generation?
What does it mean to our country, which during these 20 years has experienced times of hope and growth, as well as disappointment and crisis? What lessons have we learned during this period and what can we still learn from reminiscing about turning points in our history?
In January 1991, Latvia, together with Lithuania and Estonia, attracted global attention. The terrifying Soviet empire, which for decades was regarded as invincible, was approaching the moment of its collapse. Back then no one could predict how and when that would happen, but we in the Baltic States already knew that change was inevitable. We knew that aspirations for freedom had previously been ruthlessly oppressed by the Soviet regime, and we also knew that our dreams and hopes could be trampled in mud by the same boots that stomped into Hungary in 1956 and into Prague in 1968.
The real struggle takes place in one’s mind. Real strength lies in one’s heart. Conquer your own fear! Conquer your disbelief, and you will celebrate victory over your enemy!
Twenty years ago we won this struggle. People at the Dome Square were united by strength, courage and fearlessness.
Our barricades, which were erected to defend the buildings of television, radio, and the Supreme Council, did not mean that we were afraid of an attack. Actually, they were rather a symbol and a challenge; they signalled that a nation humiliated during the years of occupation was no longer afraid.
The night of 13 January 1991, when tanks with their caterpillar tracks crushed live human beings next to the television building in Vilnius, did not instil fear in us. We bowed our heads to honour these fatalities for freedom, and we knew that we were ready to confront the tanks as the Lithuanians had done.
Barricades have always been an important symbol. For centuries they have signified a nation’s resistance to illegitimate power. Barricades have never been an offensive measure; they are always erected to stop a predominant armed power from entering. They have always conveyed the message that “This is where we stand, and we will not retreat from our convictions by a single step!” During the French Revolution, student revolts in the 1960’s and the events of 1991 in Riga and Vilnius, barricades have embodied hopes for change. Terrorists do not erect barricades. An occupation army does not erect barricades. They are erected by people who want to protect their city, homes and streets. They are erected by people who want to protect their country.
Ladies and gentlemen,
How symbolic! The Barricades of 1991 in Old Town Riga were erected in order to prevent the capture of the parliament building. Back then, the work and decisions of the Supreme Council were so important to the nation that many people were ready to risk even their lives for the sake of this goal.
Protecting your parliament means protecting your country. That was the conviction of people who were willing to stand in the line of fire if zero hour arrived. The parliament building, which was protected by unarmed individuals, became a symbol of our nation’s non-violent and persistent striving for independence.
We, members of the Saeima who are elected by the people, should keep that in mind. We should work in a manner that shows we are worthy of working in this building. Every day we should work so that we justify the trust and tragic sacrifices of our people back then.
The events of those years will always remain in the history of our nation as moments of unprecedented solidarity. The popular demonstration at the embankment, the human chain of the Baltic Way and assembling in the Dome Square during the days of the Barricades are the three most significant events that made us aware of the greatness and spiritual strength of our nation.
We felt the unity of our nation when throngs of selfless people from every corner of Latvia streamed towards the Barricades in Riga. January 1991 was also the time when inhabitants of Latvia representing various ethnicities – Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, Jews – answered the call of the Popular Front and stood shoulder to shoulder with Latvians because they also believed in the idea of a better Latvia. During those days their patriotism and support were very important – perhaps even decisive – because they helped us to win the struggle in our minds and caught the enemy off guard.
The energy generated by national unity, shared aspirations and hopes was the catalyst that enabled us to regain independence and to begin shaping a new democratic and Europe-oriented Latvia. And now, 20 years later, it is important not to lose the momentum that was gained back then. It is important to keep alive the ambitious aim we set for ourselves in 1991.
Our attempts to defend independence were closely related to our understanding of our place in the geographic and cultural space. We had awareness of our language, our culture and the family of nations to which we belong. Therefore, the friendly countries that were willing to be our allies and our advocates had a significant role in the events of 1990 and 1991.
The early support of democratic Western countries to the Baltic States in our aspirations to regain independence, broadcasts of Western radio stations in the Latvian language, coverage of events in Latvia by foreign journalists, as well as inspiring examples set by other countries in the collapsing Warsaw Pact alliance – all of these factors helped us keep alive our conviction, courage and faith in the idea of an independent Latvia.
A small nation needs to keep its friends, to preserve mutual trust and to rely on international support in order to attain shared goals and ideals. It turned out that a 50-year-long occupation cannot be an obstacle for returning where we belong, namely, the family of confident, Western, democratic countries. Those who lent us a helping hand and supported us back then are now our full-fledged allies and partners in European and transatlantic organisations.
Today we can be thankful for the fact that Latvia managed to gain its independence without spilling rivers of blood. Fittingly, the secession of the Baltic States from the Soviet Union is referred to as the Singing Revolution – the sovereignty they regained by means of non-violent transformations inspired many nations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the world.
Nevertheless, we have to enshrine in our memory the names of those who lost their lives and whose destinies will be forever entwined with the name of independent Latvia – police officers Vladimirs Gomonovičs and Sergejs Konoņenko, who showed courage in confronting OMON troops; cameramen Andris Slapiņš and Gvido Zvaigzne and driver Roberts Mūrnieks, who were performing their professional and civic duties; schoolboy Edijs Riekstiņš, who was caught in the centre of events; and Ilgvars Grieziņš, who organised the Barricades.
Let us have a moment of silence in memory of these brave people.
A free democratic country has to be shaped and protected every day and every hour. Twenty years ago we defended Latvia against a foreign power. Today we must continue to be vigilant and remain on the same side of the barricades – that is, on the side of justice, the rule of law, patriotism and national conscience. I appeal to you to remember the events of the Barricades and to draw your strength and faith from them.
During these days I am often asked whether everything has not changed, whether faith has not been lost, and whether the new generation would stand up and defend their country at a critical moment. I am certain that it would. And my certainty grows with every ceremony of awarding the Commemorative Medal for Participants of the Barricades of 1991. When schoolchildren from all over Latvia read aloud their essays and even their own poems, I can see in their eyes the same sparkle, passion and love for their country as I see in the eyes of the award recipients.
We are as strong as the longing that dwells in our hearts. We are as free as our spirit. We are as resilient as the collective memory rooted within us. Let us tell our children and grandchildren the stories of our national destiny. May every hour of these days reminds us of the dearest we have – our own state and freedom.
May free and flourishing Latvia be there forever!
God bless Latvia!