The Rise and Fall of the Latvian National Communists

by William D. Prigge (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 174 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 71


The 1959 purge of the Latvian national communists has long been cast in black-and-white terms: Russification and resistance; victimizers and victims. Conventional wisdom holds that Nikita Khrushchev was behind the purge. After all, he was the Soviet premier; he stopped in Riga just a few weeks before; even the leading victim of the purge, Eduards Berklavs, labeled Khrushchev the culprit. For the first time, William D. Prigge’s penetrating analysis challenges this view and untangles the intricacies of Soviet center-periphery relations like a political thriller. With each new chapter, a truer understanding of events comes into sharper focus – more complex and fascinating than could ever be imagined. Ultimately, the reverberations are felt all the way to the Kremlin and weaken what Khrushchev thought was his own firm footing. For the student of Soviet and Latvian history alike, this volume provides more than just the story of a purge – it is a unique snapshot into the political machinations of the Soviet Union and one of its republics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Hot Summer of 1959
  • Chapter 1. Russophiles and Culture: The Early Years of Occupation, 1946–1953
  • Lebedev and Titov: Russian Nationalists
  • Pelše and Suslov: Marxist Internationalists
  • Linguistic Russification
  • USSR
  • Chapter 2. Between the Anvil and the Hammer: National Communists, Cadres & Beria, 1946–1953
  • The Early Years of National Communism
  • Promotion of Latvian Cadres
  • Beria and the June 1953 LCP CC Plenum
  • The Aftermath
  • Chapter 3. The Education of Eduards Berklavs, 1955–1957
  • Khrushchev and the National Communists
  • Bourgeois Nationalism in Riga
  • Chapter 4. Unholy Alliances: Moscow, the Military, and National Communists, 1953–1957
  • The Anti-Party Purges
  • The Anti-Party Purges and Latvia
  • The Latvian Cultural Wars, 1952–1957
  • Attitudes toward Party Control and the Military
  • The Alliance Unravels
  • Chapter 5. The Summit: Latvian National Communists in Power, 1958–1959
  • Party Democracy
  • Populism in Latvia
  • The Press
  • Thesis 19
  • The Daugavpils Incident
  • Chapter 6. Industrialization or Russification? Demographic Changes in Latvia
  • Demographic Changes in Latvia
  • Industrial Growth in Latvia
  • Context of the Protest Letter
  • Chapter 7. The Strange Death of Latvian National Communism, 1959–1960
  • Khrushchev’s Role in the 1959 Latvian Purge
  • Cause of the Purge
  • The Purge Expands
  • The Purge and Kremlin Politics
  • Epilogue
  • The Importance of Legitimacy
  • Berklavs’s Revenge
  • Fire and Night
  • Notes
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Archival Sources
  • Published Documents and Published Collections of Documents
  • Published Documents and Published Collections of Documents, Cont.
  • Periodicals, Encyclopedias, and Directories
  • Periodicals, Encyclopedias, and Directories, Cont.
  • Memoirs
  • Memoirs, Cont.
  • Interviews
  • Books and Scholarly Articles
  • Books and Scholarly Articles, Cont.
  • Books and Scholarly Articles, Cont.
  • Unpublished Dissertations and Manuscripts
  • Index

| VII →


THE PURPOSE of this book, through the analysis of high politics, is to untangle the web that is Soviet Latvian history between 1946 and 1959. The period in question, in its most simplistic terms, frames a power struggle between an older generation of Sovietized Latvian and Russian communist leaders, who arrived in the tiny republic after its permanent occupation by the Soviet Union in 1944, and a younger generation, the so-called national communists, who were indigenous Latvian communists. Throughout the 1950s, the national communists gained power and influence, which they used to defend the republic against real or perceived Soviet abuses. This Latvian Thaw came to an abrupt end in 1959 with the purge of nearly two thousand national communists, mainly through demotion in the Party or, in a few cases, exile.

The history of the Latvian national communists can be understood on many levels, and this study examines several recurring themes: First, is Latvia a victim of Soviet, more specifically, Russian expansion? The histories of nationalities that border Russia are haunted by the specter of occupation and Russification, the forced assimilation into Russian society. In a sense, Russification is a type of genocide: not the kind practiced by the Nazis, but more subtle. This genocide was cultural—the quiet extinction of one’s national identity. For evidence, one need only look as far as Tsar Alexander III’s complete Russification of the former Finnish lands, Karelia, or the ← VII | VIII → Russification policies in the Baltic Provinces during the 1880s. Did the tsarist practices resurface in Latvia under Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev? If so, in what way? Cultural Russification? Diluting the local Latvian population with imported labor?

Second, were the Latvian national communists nationalistic? If they were, then how compatible was Latvian national communism with the Soviet system? The theme of nationalism has bedeviled Soviet leaders since the Soviet Union’s inception. In theory, Karl Marx saw nationalism as a bourgeois invention and a ploy to keep the working class divided. His ideal was an international society of a united working class in which nationalism would wither away. In reality, the dilemma of nationalism’s continued existence confronted Soviet leaders almost immediately. For example, what language should this new Union speak? Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev all had policies, but instead of a precise manual, they devised ad hoc solutions. Each leader recognized the reality that nationalism would not vanish, so they either suppressed or appeased it. The term national communism, itself a paradoxical designation, is the culmination of this process.

Finally, what was the place of the national communists in Latvian history? Often, they are lionized as heroes and national martyrs who stood up to Soviet aggression, only to suffer at the hands of Moscow. However, there are those who see the national communists as traitors. Since Glasnost, the pages of the Latvian press have been alive with debate, including articles of justification countered by articles of accusation. Nevertheless, the historian must assess, not judge. That is for the readers themselves.

Latvian historiography is as murky as the waters of the Daugava, its treacherous currents to be navigated with care. Past studies have been incomplete or tainted by politics. During the Cold War, Western scholars had only scant sources available; Soviet histories gave only the official interpretations, and Latvia’s post-war émigré historians sought to delegitimize the occupation by demonstrating Soviet crimes. Only today are the archives accessible, the memoirs written, the interviews recorded, and the questions given perspective with age. Even now, however, politics are never far behind Latvia’s new histories of its Soviet past. The Soviet legacy remains potent. In Latvian society today, what is the place of the Russian language, culture, and non-Latvian immigrants? The struggle between Ukraine and its Russian minority give the issue a certain immediacy. Despite Latvia’s new independence, the legacy of its Soviet past continues to haunt this tiny country as it integrates into the European Union and forges new relations with Russia.

| IX →


SUCH WORKS can never be done without the help of others. I would prefer to keep anonymous the person to whom I owe the greatest debt of gratitude. Because of this book’s sensitive nature, I do not want to do anything to cause this man embarrassment within the Latvian community, but you know who you are. As my professor, mentor and friend, I know how much you care for your country and its history is not a light matter. Even if you may not agree with some of the conclusions, I want you to know that I sought to give an account as fair, honest and even-handed as the evidence would allow. I wanted to treat the historical actors with dignity, including your good friend, Eduards Berklavs. Thank you for everything and I hope you find this a meaningful contribution to our understanding of the past. I would also like to acknowledge the help of my other key mentor, Dr. Alan Ball, who graciously served as my advisor and sounding board on this project. My work and travel would not have been possible without the financial support of the Fulbright Hays Research Fellowship as well as the family of Cyril E. Smith family of Milwaukee, WI. While I would like to the thank the State Archives of the Russian Federation, the Library of Congress Dmitrii Volkogonov Collection, and the National Library of Latvia, I want to reserve special thanks for the archivists at the Latvian State Archives who helped me consider and find every source ← IX | X → they had available. I would like to express my gratitude to Heidi Burns at Peter Lang, who recently lost her battle with cancer. My project was likely the last that she worked on and all the while never let on how sick she was. Heidi believed in me and my research. Finally, I would like to thank my mother Patricia and wife Amy. They both served the same function at different periods in my life: tireless proofreader. Amy had the additional burden of months alone while I was away on research. Your support means everything.

| 1 →


The Hot Summer of 1959

Before the cock crows twice, you will deny Me.

—Mark 14: 72

IN MID-JUNE, the Latvian days are long and lazy. The northern sun never ascends high but skims the horizon, dipping low enough to gray the sky at night and climbing just beyond eye level to warm the midday. The Daugava River drifts toward the sea in broad, easy waves. Ancient Varangians once plied these waters deep into Russia on their way to Kiev, Byzantium, and Arabia. As the mighty river careens past the first bridge of Riga, the rooster-steeped spires of St. Peter, St. Jacob, and the Doms Cathedral emerge from the bend, reminding the traveler of Riga’s rich Hanseatic past. Just beyond Old Town, the Daugava spawns several large lakes, whose distant shores are carpeted by pine trees. On the last ten kilometers of the Daugava’s journey to the sea, the land becomes low marsh, scarcely managing to contain the river. Only docks and tall steel cranes dot the river’s edge. The steady hum of machinery resonates as ships bound for ports of the world are busily loaded and unloaded.


X, 174
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
Political purge Soviet Union Latvian history Communism Nikita Khrushchev
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 184 pp.

Biographical notes

William D. Prigge (Author)

William D. Prigge is an associate professor of history and department head at South Dakota State University. He received his PhD in Soviet history from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His research focuses on national communism throughout the Soviet Union during the 1950s. In addition to various book chapters, Dr. Prigge has published several times in the Journal of Baltic Studies and Diena.


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