Cracking the Iron Curtain

[Note: This is not a historian’s overview of the events, so if you want to pick at the historical details, feel free to do so but don’t expect me to participate. I have compiled several sources of information and added my own personal impressions. That is all.]

It was two weeks in the frigid January air, two weeks waiting for an unknown future, two weeks that culminated in a night of violence but a final victory, of sorts.

The Barricades (LatvianBarikādes) were a series of confrontations between the Republic of Latvia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in January 1991 which took place mainly in Riga. The events are named for the popular effort of building and protecting barricades from 13 January until about 27 January. Latvia, which had declared restoration of independence from the Soviet Union a year earlier, anticipated that Soviet Union might attempt to regain control over the country by force. After attacks by the Soviet OMON on Riga in early January, the government called on people to build barricades for protection of possible targets (mainly in the capital city of Riga and nearby Ulbroka, as well as Kuldīga and Liepāja). Six people were killed in further attacks, several were wounded in shootings or beaten by OMON. Most victims were shot during the Soviet attack on the Latvian Ministry of the Interior on January 20. One other person died in a building accident reinforcing the barricades. Casualties among Soviet loyalists are considered likely, but the exact number remains unknown. A total of 15,611 people have registered as having been participants of the Barricades,[citation needed] but other data suggests that more than 32,000 Latvians took part.


There’s a small photo gallery here (25 photos).

25 years have passed, which is a bit strange to think, because I still remember watching news footage from the night of January 20 as a small child, and not really understanding quite what was happening. It’s one of the most fascinating events of recent history for me, though, because so much seems to be wrapped up in it.

The phrase “the Barricades” is typically used to refer to the period between January 13 and January 25-27, 1991. Sometimes this term is expanded as far as the August coup d’état, [when Communist hard-liners in Moscow unsuccessfully tried to seize power from Gorbachev, and tanks again appeared on the streets of the Baltic capitals] because the last barricades (concrete defence structures, blockades) were still standing in Old Rīga in August of that year.


People from Western countries usually have a simplified view of what happened during the National Awakening in the Baltic states, seeing it as mainly a struggle against the Russians. In fact, during the Barricades of 1991, the film director Zigurds Vidiņš walked through Dome Square and interviewed people, asking whether they were afraid, why they were there, and so on. He found that some of the defenders of the Old Town couldn’t even speak the Latvian language. And, during the Barricades, the blue, red and white flag of Russia flew alongside those of the three Baltic states outside the Council of Ministers building in the centre of Riga. The collapse of Soviet power in Latvia was not about rising up against Russians, but about people who were tired of oppression rising up against the regime.


There is a museum, which I have yet to visit. From their Live Riga page:

The museum offers to experience the nation’s mighty spirit, unity and self-confidence that carved the Republic of Latvia. The declaration “On the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia” was adopted on May 4, 1990. After 50 years of Soviet occupation, the nation stood up once again to demand its rights to freedom. However, the Soviet Union did not want Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to reclaim their independence so easily and directly assaulted the countries’ civilians in January 1991.

The Soviet Union’s military campaign started in Lithuania where its forces attacked unarmed civilians. It continued also in Rīga, which turned into the city of barricades in just one day. The barricades surrounded the most important state and public buildings. They were also on the main bridges and roads. Thousands of unarmed people guarded the city’s streets with bonfires, providing each other food and hot tea and singing songs that united the nation.

This moment, when the nation was determined to defend the land, was highly important for its resolve and self-confidence, and turned the tide. This was the most important stage in the restoration of Latvia’s independence.

Please note language style. There’s been debate about how many people were actually unarmed (well, definitely most, because photographs), and while it took only a day to erect all the barricades, hours and hours of advance planning had been happening for, well, I’d guess a few years (since the late 1980s?), to make sure that once that call went out, the heavy tech (tractors etc.) would be on their way.

At the same time, the readiness of volunteers to provide food and shelter to those (sometimes far from home) during this time is quite impressive. It’s hard to find such a dedicated sense of solidarity about anything anymore (see: current political situation).

But it’s an event commemorated each year to mark a turning point in history. In some ways, from my personal interpretation, I think it is one of the first events where, for the people here, it felt like the world finally heard them. It took bloodshed in Vilnius, in Riga, and elsewhere, but hearing people talk about it, it feels as if the media presence was what mattered most – that finally someone was paying attention, someone was listening. In one of the galleries, there’s a photo of a CNN Sky Net satellite with the word ‘Paldies’ (Latvian for ‘Thank you’) graffitti’ed on it. That, I think, says a lot, having the visibility, at least for that moment.

The soundbites included in this song are from actual news footage at the time.

The lyric themes are quite characteristic of popular rock music themes of the time, a perennial favourite is this one, about the Baltic Way.



  1. voyager says

    Very interesting, rq. I don’t recall hearing about The Barricades at the time. It must be a meaningful commemoration for a great many people.

  2. avalus says

    I never heard of this, thank you for helping me out of my ignorance.
    Paldies! (I wondered how this word is pronounced and went to check before posting :D )

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