Bonfires and gatherings remember bloody Baltic events of 1991

Juris Kaža
4 min readJan 20, 2020

Bonfires were lit and public gatherings held in the Latvian capital Riga January 20th to commemorate Soviet attempts at repressing independence movements in Latvia and Lithuania in 1991 that saw 20 people killed by Soviet forces in both countries.

The annual commemoration of the so-called “Days of the Barricades” recalls the building of improvised barricades of heavy farm equipment, trucks and building materials to seal off important buildings like Latvian Radio and the current Latvian parliament building, then the first freely-elected Latvian Supreme Council under the Soviets. The barricades mainly in Riga’s Old Town went up after a call by the pro-independence Latvian Popular Front following the killing of 14 people by Soviet soldiers in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius early on January 13, 1991.

Latvian Minster of Justice Jānis Bordāns lays flowers on a permanent memorial stone to those killed in a Soviet crackdown on Latvia's independence movement on January 20, 1991. Photo by Juris Kaža

Latvian Prime Minister Krišjanis Kariņš, Defense Minister Artis Pabriks and Ināra Mūrniece, the chairperson of the Latvian Parliament or Saeima were among official who took torches from an honor guard of junior members of the Latvian Home Guard to light a symbolic bonfire in Riga’s central Dom Square to mark the day when five people were killed in Riga on January 20 29 years ago.

Four people, two Soviet policemen loyal to the independence movement, Andris Slapiņš, a well know ethnographic filmmaker-cameraman and a high school student passer-by were killed by Soviet special police (OMON) bullets in downtown Riga park. The OMON stormed the pro-independence Latvian Ministry of Interior that faces the Bastejkalns park where flowers are laid on memorial stones to the dead January 20 each year. “Pro-independence” institutions existed in the formally Soviet republic after Latvia declared independence on May 4, 1990, but the country remained under defacto control from Moscow.

Kariņš and other Latvian officials also laid flowers in Bastejkalns park and at the Freedom Monument — a tall structure topped by the figure of “Mother Latvia”. Parts of the monument were hit and scarred by some rounds in a hail of tracer fire recorded on video during the shooting by the Interior Ministry.

In addition to those killed in Bastejkalns, Gvīdo Zvaigzne, another cameraman was shot there and died later, and a driver for a state company was killed by OMON…

Juris Kaža

A freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia who has covered the country and region for 20 years. Speak native Latvian and English, fluent Swedish and German.