In January 1991 the Soviet military attempted to force Latvia back into the USSR. Latvia had declared its renewed independence the previous year. The siege lasted two weeks from January 13 to January 27th.
Today we pay tribute to the efforts of people in Latvia to protect their newly-regained freedom in 1991. That month, leaders of the USSR in Moscow decided to mobilize security forces to restore Soviet order in the three Baltic countries. Upon realizing this, people of all ages and backgrounds rushed to Riga – they brought trucks, tractors, and heavy equipment to build barricades around government buildings. They spent days outside in the freezing cold of January. The face-off culminated on January 20th when Soviet special forces initiated a gun battle and temporarily seized the Ministry of the Interior. Several people were killed. But the barricades held! Pro-democracy forces prevailed and went on to restore full independence. In honor of these events, today is marked as the Commemoration Day of Defenders of the Barricades in 1991. We thank and honor everyone who stood up for freedom and joined the barricades!
Back in the bad old days, there were no direct flights to Rīga from anywhere in the USA. I was fortunate to have a local Latvian travel agent who took care of the hairy details. My tour group flew from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, across the pole to Denmark. From Copenhagen, we flew to Helsinki where we spent the night. Because I was on this trip alone, my travel agent paired me with a Latvian woman from Connecticut, who was traveling with her mother and sister. Two to a room. Laima would be my roommate throughout the trip. She was a lovely person, we hit it off right away.
The next morning a Finnish ship took us across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, Estonia. Passport control was quite different from what I remember upon entering the States after a trip to London a few years earlier. In those pre-terrorism days USA border control was easy, a glance at your passport, a smile, and “welcome home!” In Estonia, I had a brief freak-out because I couldn’t immediately find my passport. I guess I was nervous because I knew that no matter what title they sported, customs men were actually KGB agents. Mirrors hung above each customs station so the agent could see people’s back. The man scrutinized my passport and my face for such a long time, it seemed that he was trying to memorize my face so he could paint my portrait later.
A woman in our group was wearing an olive-drab jumpsuit with epaulets. Maybe the military appearance of her outfit was why she was pulled aside for further questioning. We were all concerned about her. Would they arrest her? Strip search her? Send her back? After a while, she returned to our group no worse for her experience. I didn’t talk to her later, so I’m not sure what the deal was. Maybe she was simply picked at random and her choice of clothes had nothing to do with it.
Did we have a bus tour of Tallinn? I think we did, but that’s a detail that’s fuzzy in my mind. I know that we had lunch there. After our meal, we climbed onto a bus bound for Rīga–a four hour trip of almost two hundred miles. Our party needed three buses, two for passengers and one for our luggage. The driver “graciously” stopped at the border between Estonia and Latvia, so people could stretch their legs, use the facilities, similar to ones at any US freeway rest stop, and take photos of each other in front of the sign that announced in huge letters, LATVIJA.
Funny, for some reason, my Minolta camera started behaving erratically while I was on that trip. I have one decent picture. I’m sure the KGB customs officials had nothing to do with it. Right? At least my Polaroid worked and I could leave photos with my relatives.
After the photo session, back on the bus. A woman from Intourist (a USSR tour operator) collected our passports. Foreigners are such children. Can’t even keep their documents safe. We would get them back when we were on our way home.
We were two hours late getting to our hotel. By then it was midnight. At that hour I was so rum-dum from two days of travel and jet lag that I’m not sure what day it was. My mother had written to our relatives to let them know when I’d be arriving. I hoped that after such a long wait, no doubt having no idea when to expect me, and getting hungry and tired my relatives had given up and gone home, even the ones who lived in the city should not be out that late, waiting and wondering. The road distance from Limbaži, my uncle’s home to Rīga is 55 miles, 90 km. It would make sense for him to go home and come back the next day.
A crowd of people was waiting for us al;l under the porte-cochere. When the bus rolled to a stop, I stood up, eager to get off. But I had to wait for the aisle to clear. I heard someone knocking on the window next to where I’d been sitting. I ignored the knocking. It couldn’t be for me. Laima, who’d been sitting next to me, poked me and pointed to the window. A smiling, gray-haired woman was waving at me. I had no idea who she was, but I waved back.
When I stepped off the bus, there was my uncle, my mother’s younger brother. Andrejs was skinny and taller than most people, easy to recognize from photos. I’m not sure which of my relatives were in the crowd. Andrejs’ son, Reinis was there. They had brought along Pavils Zicāns, one of my mother’s many cousins because he’d visited his sister in Seattle a few years before and would be able to identify me. It wasn’t necessary. The gray-haired woman was another of my mother’s cousins, Irēne. She’d recognized me right away, through the bus’s window. She said I looked exactly like my mother in her youth. One of my father’s nephews, Guntis Pedecis, was also there. I still have no idea who all had come to welcome me.
It’s a Latvian custom to welcome visitors with flowers. By the time I’d greeted everyone, I had an armload of flowers, so many bouquets that the hotel maids had to get extra vases for them. I think there were a total of four vases, all crammed full.
My uncle Andrejs and I agree to meet the next day in the park across the street.