Bear Slayer’s Day

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.

Categories: History, Personal, Society

8 Comments

  • Anita says:

    I have no knowledge to back up my guess, but perhaps the “hand holding” was actually a presentation of some sort (a medal, or officers’ bars)?

  • Pierre says:

    “Why are they holding hands?”

    Aleks, don’t ask, don’t tell!” :-)

    All kidding aside, very nice photo, an amazing find. I hope you can find out more about your great uncle, and the other men.

  • Irena Skrejans-Fields says:

    Love the old pics–they are really fascinating and to think this is your “great” grandmother’s brother born in 1920; that’s the same year my father was born, my mother, in 1921–eek!! Have I ever grown ancient!!

    Irena

  • Aleks says:

    Anita:

    It didn’t ocurre to me that it could be a medal presentation. I noticed that only one guy – the one on the far right – wears a cross of some kind.

    Irena:

    He was the youngest of my great-grandmother’s family. Only 13 years younger than my grandmother.

  • agi says:

    How wonderful to find the photo!

    Do you think they are brothers they appear to look similar, maybe twins.

    a

  • Asehpe says:

    Aleks, does this mean that both ethnic Russians and ethnic Latvians join hands in celebrating Lāčplēša Dienu? If so, that is indeed very beautiful. Would this mean that both groups agree that at least the first war of independence was a good war?

    I’m surprised that, given the intensity of ‘historical interpretations’ for other days, this one remains free of them. No distinction between soldiers fighting in German and/or Soviet uniforms? And the ‘bad Commies!’ vs. ‘bad Nazis!’ crowds don’t fight about that?

  • Thomas says:

    I would guess, based on their simple insignia, that these guys are conscripts from infantry units, all holding the rank of private. Except the one on the far right. I would be pretty sure he is a cadet, because he has a dark stripe on the lower part of his insignia. He is also wearing that cross, which I believe is a cross of Cadet Corps (or smth similar) and a part of uniform for all cadets. The colour of his insignia seems to be something light, possibly yellow or orange, so he could from a pioneer or cavalry unit. First five from the left are not wearing similar hats. This could indicate that they are from different infantry units.

    Why are these guys from different units having their picture taken together? My guess is that they are friends who know each other before the army. There is a very informal feeling to that picture, so most likely it is not any official occasion. They are not carrying any weapons or anything else either, so they could be on their way for an evening leave. Maybe last evening leave before their conscription is over, and they wanted to celebrate and commemorate it with a picture together.

  • Bear Slayer’s Day is much more descriptive than a simple moniker like Veteran’s Day.

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