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The Rise and Fall of the Latvian National Communists


William D. Prigge

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.
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It is easy for the Soviet Union to speak for the elimination of the colonial regime, since the Soviet Union has no colonies.

—Nikita Khrushchev

The World’s Newest Colonies are in Russia—Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia.

—Earl of Home, British Foreign Secretary

The Importance of Legitimacy

IT WOULD SEEM that the Latvian national communists won the battles, but lost the war. In this struggle of Soviet power politics, Pelše carried the day. However, the conflict had a second front: a war of image and perception. Thus, July 1959 represents only a single struggle in a larger war of legitimacy in which Berklavs had just joined the battle. In the June 1959 session of the CPSU CC, Khrushchev feared the Latvian instigators might use a purge as a pretext for rebellion, and he also worried that it would spoil the image of Soviet unity.1 The first concern never materialized in 1959, but the purge did encourage a perception that Latvia was subjected to the rigid control of Moscow, which infuriated Khrushchev. According to Kruminš when he, ← 129 | 130 → Pelše, and Kalnberzinš met with the premier in November 1959, the Soviet leader fumed: “instead of formal conversation, you made a ruckus in the world.”2 In such a fragile and illegitimate union, Berklavs and the national communists were potentially more powerful outside the system as deposed martyrs than they had been working within the system for limited gains.

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