Grassley Statement on the 100th Anniversary of Latvia’s Independence
Prepared Floor Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Co-Chairman, Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus
On the 100th Anniversary of Latvia’s Independence
On Saturday, the Republic of Latvia celebrates 100 years as a country.
As co-chair of the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus, I recognized the centenary of Estonia and Lithuania in February, and I mentioned that I would be back in November to talk more about Latvia’s 100th anniversary.
On November 18, 1918, the People’s Council of Latvia proclaimed independence.
However, the establishment of a separate Latvian state did not come out of the blue.
The movement toward an independent Latvia was a process of continuous historical development going back to the Latvian national awakening in the 1850s.
At that time, between local German-speaking nobles and the Russian imperial government, and divided by the internal political boundaries within the Russian Empire, Latvians did not control their political fate.
However, Latvians increasingly began to focus on promoting unity around their distinct language and culture.
With the collapse of the tsarist government in Russia, Latvians began to push for a united, autonomous territory, although independence did not yet seem feasible.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and attempted to consolidate control of Latvia, the time came to declare independence.
However, as we Americans know well, declaring independence means being prepared to defend it.
Much as our founding fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of American independence, the founding fathers of Latvia knew that they would have to defend their independence with the force of arms.
In fact, they had to fight invasions by both Soviets and Germans.
If this sounds familiar, it is because it’s pretty much the same story I described in February with the Estonian War of Independence.
In fact, the Latvians and Estonians coordinated closely and fought side by side.
Latvia also received help from Lithuania and Poland.
Soviet Russia ultimately signed a peace treaty recognizing the independence and sovereignty of Latvia and renouncing forever all claims to the territory.
Sadly, it wasn’t long before this treaty was violated.
Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide up their neighbors between them in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
The Soviets annexed Latvia and the other Baltics in the lead up to World War II, then Hitler broke his end the bargain and invaded.
At the end of the war, the Stalin had taken back the Baltics and made clear he was there to stay.
Despite courageous resistance by the Latvian forest brothers for many years while Latvians held out hope of assistance by the United States and the Western allies, Latvia remained occupied by the Soviet Union for 50 years.
However, the United States never recognized the legitimacy of the Soviet occupation of Latvia.
Throughout the Cold War, we maintained diplomatic relations via embassy staff who had been accredited to the United States by Latvia before the occupation. I should note that if anyone is interested in learning more about Latvian or Baltic history, there are books on the subject written by a professor emeritus at Iowa State University, Andrejs Plakans.
After World War II, Latvians who had fled the Soviets or otherwise found themselves outside their country were unable to go home to a country under foreign occupation.
The Displaced Persons Act allowed refugees to come to the United States provided they had a sponsor, and about 700 of them came to my home state of Iowa. There is a Latvian-American community in Iowa to this day.
In fact, the first Latvians to come to the Des Moines area were the family of the current pastor of the Iowa Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church congregation, Leo Pelds.
After his family’s initial arrangements for a job at a creamery in Birmingham, Alabama fell through, they heard that Iowa would be a good choice as the climate would be what they were used to. So, they moved to the Des Moines area.
Other Latvians soon arrived and they sponsored further Latvians until there were three to four hundred just in the Des Moines area.
The Latvian Society of Iowa was formed in 1950 and the Latvian Lutheran congregation was formed in 1952 after the arrival of the Latvian pastor.
Like in other Latvian diaspora communities around the world, cultural events were organized to keep the Latvian culture alive and a Saturday school was established to teach Latvian language, history, geography and folk dances.
Song Festivals have played an important role in the preservation of Latvian culture going back to the national awakening so naturally there was also a choir.
The Latvian Society of Iowa was part of the larger effort by the Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian American communities to keep the plight of the Baltics on the radar of American political leaders.
Then, in 1991, thanks in part to external pressure from the United States, as well as the courageous efforts of Latvians and others in the Soviet Union demanding their freedom, the Evil Empire collapsed.
Latvia is now back in the family of free, democratic European nations where it belongs.
Latvia is a member of NATO in excellent standing both in terms of meeting its financial commitment of 2 percent of GDP and in terms of its soldiers fighting shoulder to shoulder with Americans and other allies in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even while Latvia is looking toward a bright future, its large neighbor to the east is ruled by a man who sees the fall of the Soviet Union as the “major geopolitical disaster of the century.”
Vladimir Putin appears to be stuck in an old fashioned way of thinking that assigns smaller countries to spheres of influence.
He bullies neighbors that do not tow the Russian line. In fact, he has even occupied the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which the U.S. does not recognize just as we didn’t recognize the Soviet occupation of the Baltics.
Putin resents the fact that Latvia and the other Baltics naturally choose to align with fellow European countries to their west, with which they share a common European history, culture, and outlook.
Given their past and current experience dealing with KGB thugs like Putin, the Latvians can provide invaluable insight as we grapple with how to combat Russian disinformation.
In fact, it is appropriate that Riga is home to the NATO StratCom Centre of Excellence, which provides analysis and solutions for NATO on strategic communications and countering disinformation.
I look forward to continuing the strong partnership between Latvia and the United States and I offer my best wishes to all Latvians as they celebrate 100 years of Latvian statehood.