RIGA – I discovered this picture in my family photo archive several days ago. The second from the left is my great uncle, my great-grandmother’s brother, Vasily. He is wearing the interwar Latvia’s uniform, though I don’t know where he served or what rank he held. Nor do I know who the other people in the photo are or where exactly the photo was taken. The two men on the far right are the most puzzling. Why are they holding hands?
The great-uncle comes from the family’s Old Believer side, who had lived in the region of Latgale for centuries. Vasily was born in 1920, so this photo must have been taken between 1938 – when he turned 18 – and 1940, the year when the Soviets dismantled the Latvian army along with the Latvian state. He went on to serve in the Red Army after the Latvian military units became part of the Soviet military force. During the war, he fought against the Nazi Germany. According to my grandmother, Vasily was wounded several times near Moscow, and, eventually, killed.
My photo discovery coincided with the Lāčplēša Diena or the Bear Slayer’s Day, a day when Latvia remembers all its soldiers who fought in all wars. Unlike the UK Remembrance Day, Latvia’s military holiday has no connection to the end of the First World War. It marks a day when the almost one-year-old Latvian republic chased the West Russian Volunteer Army out of Riga. “Riga is liberated,” hailed the Russian-language newspaper “Segodnya” in its November 19, 1919 edition. “The nightmare of the 30-day assault entered the pages of the heartless history,” its editorial said.
Today, Latvia is remembering the Bear Slayer’s Day with military parades, candle-light vigil, concerts and remembrance services in Pārdaugava, where the Latvian army defeated the enemy, awarding medals to those soldiers who died defending their country. Even a reenactment. One is reminded of Latvian soldiers serving in Afghanistan and three Latvian UN workers abducted in Sudan.
Today is a day free of historical interpretations. It lays diametrically opposite other days on Latvia’s political calendar such as May 9 or March 16. A motion to elevate this day to remember all fallen soldiers regardless whether they fought on the German or the Soviet side seemed to have failed as the people appear to prefer controversy over remembrance.