Latvia’s Russians mark 70 years since Soviet ‘victory’
Latvia's large Russian minority gathered in the capital Riga Saturday to mark 70 years since the end of World War II and to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
Thousands of ethnic-Russian Latvians of all ages converged on the Soviet Victory Monument to lay flowers while veterans proudly displayed their medals amid a heavy police presence.
Local media said up to 100,000 people were expected to attend during the course of the day.
Known as Victory Day to Russians, May 9 remains a divisive date in the Baltic state.
Accounting for a quarter of the two million-strong population, ethnic Russians see it as a celebration of the 1945 Nazi surrender to the Red Army in Berlin, but most ethnic Latvians see it as the start of a harsh 50-year Soviet occupation.
It is not a public holiday.
Latvians officially commemorated the victory over the Third Reich on May 8, when Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma attended a ceremony at the site of the former Salaspils concentration camp just outside Riga.
At Saturday’s celebration focused on the Soviet victory, former Latvian Communist Party leader Alfreds Rubiks was unapologetic about the celebrations.
“This is the day when my party and the soldiers of the Soviet Union liberated Latvia from fascism,” Rubiks told AFP.
“I object to attempts to rewrite history and rehabilitate the fascists,” said the former MEP who years earlier served jail time after trying to organise a Communist coup in freshly-independent Latvia.
The orange and black striped Ribbon of Saint George, which has become a controversial symbol of support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as well as for fallen Soviet soldiers, was pinned to the breasts of many attendees including Oksana and Ramon from the resort town of Jurmala.
“My grandparents died in the Ravensbruck and Salaspils concentration camps so as a Jew I am grateful to the Russian soldiers,” Oksana said.
Roman — wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin — told AFP: “I am a Putin fan. He hasn’t done anything at all in Ukraine. That’s all the work of the USA.”
Caught between Russia and Germany, more than 100,000 Latvians fought on both sides during the war.
The controversy generated on May 9 is matched each year on March 16 when veterans parade through central Riga commemorating members of the Latvian Legion, a combat division of Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS.