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[page 18]



Wholesale corruption and utter stupidity of the government, shortages of food and disgust with the conduct of war, oppression and subordination of the non-Russians - these were some of the reasons for discontent throughout Russia. In the beginning of March (old style: end of February) strikes and demonstrations started in Petrograd, and workers clashed with the police. On March 11 troops fired upon the crowds, but the next day the same troops mutinied and joined the demonstrations. On March 15 Czar Nicholas abdicated in favor of his brother Michael. However, Michael also abdicated the following day.

Russia was now loosely governed by two competing governments: 1) a Provisional Government established by liberals and moderates of the Duma (parliament); 2) the Petrograd Soviet (council) of Workers’ Deputies, dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. Socialist Revolutionaries was a leftist party of the peasants. The leftist party of the workers, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, had split into Lenin’s Bolsheviks and Plekhanov’s Mensheviks. Lenin advocated immediate revolution by workers and peasants, led by a small elite of professional revolutionaries - the Bolsheviks. Mensheviks favored a loosely organized mass party, and a very gradual transition to a rule by the workers and peasants. They thought that an intermediate stage of a rule by the middle class was necessary. There were only two Bolsheviks in the first Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, one of them was the Latvian Pēteris Stučka[1].

[page 19]

The revolution at first had no leaders, no organization, and no clear-cut purpose. Soviets were established in all major cities. The revolution in Rīga was peaceful as compared to 1905. Instead of being in the forefront of the struggle as in 1905, Riga now received a finished product - revolution - from Petrograd[2]. Joy was mixed with anxiety: will the new government be able to keep the Germans out of Rīga? Furthermore, the new leaders of the Provisional Government were known as Russian chauvinists. Consequently, would Latvians be really better off under the new government?

Of course, the Germans were delighted with the collapse of Czar’s government. It was something the Germans had worked for with perseverance. Since the beginning of the war a special bureau for a Russian revolution had been set up in Berlin[3]. German money had been used to finance various Russian revolutionary activities. However, the abdication of the Czar was not sufficient to take Russia out of the war. The Provisional Government attempted to carry on the war as before. The Petrograd Soviet appealed to the peoples of the whole world on behalf of peace and weakened the discipline of the army by taking away most of the officers’ rights, yet it did not advocate a unilateral peace with Germany. Lenin, however, who was in exile in Switzerland, announced that he was for immediate peace, regardless of what the rest of the Allies would do. Consequently, the German General Staff was happy to provide Lenin and his supporters with a train through Germany to Sweden, and from Sweden Lenin proceeded through Finland to Petrograd, arriving on April 16. The revolution now had a leader. Lenin published his “April Theses” which called for a struggle against the Provisional Government, all power to the Soviets, nationalization of all land, state control of all production, and fraternization with the German soldiers so as to prepare a revolution in Germany and the rest of the world[4]. He ruled out any reconciliation between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and proposed to change the name of the Bolshevik Party to “Communist Party”[5].


Latvia was administered by Provincial Territorial Councils for Courland, Vidzeme, and Latgale[6], sanctioned by the Provisional Government. As early as March representatives of the Councils [page 20] asked the Provisional Government for a territorial autonomy for Latvia, but were turned down[7]. However, a very limited autonomy was granted in July[8].

The Latvian Rifles were inundated by propaganda, mostly from Bolsheviks. A third of the original enthusiastic volunteers had been lost in the Christmas Battle. The replacements were of much poorer quality, less nationalistic and more ready to follow any leader who would promise a pie in the sky. The Bolsheviks claimed that the German Baltic barons had conspired to establish the Latvian Rifles so that the youth of Latvia could be bled to death by the German army[9], and that the losses of the Christmas Battle were due to the corruption of those in high places. During fraternization the Germans published a newspaper in Russian in which they tried to persuade the Latvians and Russians that only England and France would benefit from the continuation of the war[10].

During this period it was customary to hold all kinds of congresses and conferences of delegates from various groups. The first assembly of the delegates of the Latvian Rifle Regiments (both officers and enlisted men) was held on March 26 (13), and it demanded an autonomous Latvia as part of a democratic Russian republic and declared readiness to fight external and internal enemies (meaning Germans and the Czar’s government)[11] [12]. The first official congress of the Latvian Rifles took place on April 9-11 (March 27-29). Despite the efforts of several Bolshevik delegates to steer them away from nationalism, to create a discord between the officers and the enlisted men, and to convince them to follow Lenin’s line of fraternization with the Germans, the first congress stuck to the position of the first assembly: war with the Germans until conclusion of a peace without contributions or annexations (i.e., liberation of Courland from German occupation), autonomy for Latvia, unity of officers and enlisted men for common goals[13] [14]. The Russian army was disintegrating; officers were killed daily. Compared to the Russians the Latvian Rifles still maintained exemplary discipline.

However, the Bolshevik minority was better organized than the various nationalist groups. Latvians were amply represented in the Russian Bolshevik party. To some oppressed Latvians Marxism was attractive as a philosophy which promised liberation from all masters; and since the masters oppressing Latvians were aliens (German barons and Russian bureaucracy) the adversity was intensified. The theory of Marxism was enticing. No one had yet put it into practice, [page 21] and thus no one knew that the appealing theory is transformed into a nightmare if applied to the real world. Latvian Bolsheviks had been staunch supporters of Lenin even before the war and before his return to Petrograd, and often cast the deciding votes in favor of Lenin at the various party congresses abroad[15]. The Bolshevik propaganda bore fruit at the second congress of the Latvian Rifles, May 25-30 (12-17), at which the delegates adopted Bolshevik resolutions (for fraternization with Germans, no confidence in the Provisional Government, all power to the Soviets), elected an executive committee with a Bolshevik majority, and sent a telegram of greetings to Lenin[16] [17].

The nationalists were appalled. Lenin was suspected to have German ties and financing. Why did the Rifles send greetings only to Lenin, why not directly to German Kaiser Wilhelm?[18] [19]. An opposition organization, the National Association of Latvian Soldiers, was founded by Colonel Kārlis Goppers, Aleksanders Plensners, Arturs Kroders, and others[20] [21]. And yet most of the Rifles followed the Bolshevik leaders. Lenin promised self-determination, including the right of secession, for the various nationalities[22] while Kerensky’s Provisional Government would not even let Latgale and Vidzeme (the two Latvian regions not occupied by Germans) unite into one Russian province with a common administration[23]. The losses of the Christmas Battle were blamed on treason and corruption in the leadership of the army, and the Provisional Government was supported by this leadership, while the Bolsheviks were opposed. The failure of the Christmas Battle showed that Courland could not be regained by Latvian forces alone. Yet the Bolsheviks offered a hope for reunification with Courland through a world revolution: peace in the world and self-determination for all peoples would be a natural consequence if all governments were taken over by workers and peasants[24]. By such arguments the road to Courland, to personal freedom, to peace, and to a paradise on earth was mapped out by Bolshevik leaders. And the Rifles, thirsting for vengeance for the brothers lost in the Blizzard of Souls, were willing listeners.

One could now see strange sights at the front: Latvians and Germans meeting in the no-man’s land, exchanging cigarettes and discussing the war. Of course, it was in the German interest to promote the breakdown of discipline in the opposing army. In August the Germans felt that the time had come for a safe and easy attack upon Rīga. The German troops which had been contaminated by [page 22] fraternization were exchanged with troops from the Western Front, and an offensive began on September 1 (August 19). The Russian l2th Army, weakened by Bolshevik propaganda, collapsed and fled in panic, plundering, robbing, raping, and murdering along the way - Latvia is not Russia, so the simple Russian soldier avenged his defeat by the alien German soldiers by plundering this alien Latvian land. The 640,000 of the l2th Army would have been surrounded and captured, had it not been for the 2nd Latvian Rifle Brigade which among the general panic held its position and even counterattacked[25]. Ironically, the Latvians died so that the Russians could plunder Rīga before escape. The 5th Regiment, commanded by Colonel Jukums Vācietis, lost 80% of its officers and 67% of enlisted men in a 26 hour stubborn stand against a German elite division, outnumbered six to one[26]. All of the survivors received the Cross of St.George, the first time in the 300 year history of the medal that an entire regiment was decorated at the same time[27]. Of course, later the incompetent Russian generals claimed all credit for the extrication of the 12th Army.

Rīga was captured by the Germans on September 3 (August 21). The front stabilized in northern Latvia and remained stationary until February of 1918. New thousands of Latvian refugees were added to those already in Russia, the total has been estimated at 850,000[28].


In July a Latvian National Political Conference of delegates from various organizations (including the Rifles) declared that Latvia should have the full right of self-determination as a political, autonomous unit within a Russian democratic republic[29], but such demands were ignored by the provisional Government. However, Latvia was not the only one trying to escape from the prison of nations. In September a Congress of Russia’s Nationalities was convened in Kiev. The Congress demanded the establishment of Russia as a confederation of autonomous republics[30], [31], [32]. Yet Kerensky’s Provisional Government, a day before the closing of the Congress, arrogantly declared that Russia must remain a united republic[33].

While the Latvians were openly asking only for autonomy within a federated Russia, the idea of complete independence, once embraced only by a few extreme idealists, became the goal of most [page 23] Latvian leaders. Both nationalist and Bolshevik newspapers advocated independence since May[34]. The British consulate in Moscow was approached in September to sound them out on the idea of an independent Latvia. The British were sympathetic but emphasized that Germany must be defeated first; therefore, it was necessary to have a strong Russia which was not weakened by secessions[35].

Latvia’s quest for independence looked hopeless. A large fraction of her population was scattered all over Russia as refugees. The front divided Latvia into two parts, and each part was occupied by large numbers of alien troops, German and Russian. Latvia was probably in the worst position of all Russian nationalities to expect independence. Germany considered both direct annexation of Courland and Lithuania and also their establishment as puppet states under German dominance[36] [37]. In either case Courland would have become colonized by German war veterans who were to be rewarded with land[38] [39]. The Kaiser came to Rīga to inspect his new conquest[40]. It seemed that Germany would finally succeed in the subjugation of the east shores of the Baltic, started seven hundred years ago under the guise of crusades. The Russian army was ready to disperse.


An unsuccessful uprising by workers and soldiers against the Provisional Government in Petrograd took place in July. In September General Kornilov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, attempted to march upon Petrograd to banish the Soviet and to reorganize the Provisional Government. However, his troops refused to fight the Red Guards, a volunteer force of armed factory workers who were under Bolshevik influence. After the collapse of Kornilov’s counterrevolution the Red Guards retained their weapons which helped Bolsheviks a few weeks later to gain power. Since Latvian factories with their workers had been evacuated to various Russian cities in advance of German occupation, some purely Latvian Red Guard units were formed in several of those cities, including Petrograd, Moscow, Kharkov, etc.

The United States of America entered World War I on the side of the Allies in April. The Western Allies pressed the Provisional Government to continue the war on the Eastern Front since they [page 24] were afraid that they would not be able to withstand the Germans on the Western Front if the Germans would be allowed to concentrate all their forces on that single front. However, by autumn the Provisional Government had very little influence upon the army, the conduct of war, or the administration of Russia.

[1] Ģērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, p.143.

[2] A.Ezergailis, The 1917 Revolution in Latvia (Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 1974), p.13.

[3] A.Moorehead, The Russian Revolution (Perennial Library, Harper & Row, New York, 1965), p.117.

[4] Ibid., p.188.

[5] Chamberlin, vol.I, p.118.

[6] Bilmanis, pp.180-1.

[7] Kroders, p.197.

[8] Bilmanis, p.281.

[9] Kroders, p.204.

[10] Ibid., p. 202.

[11] Porietis, p.311.

[12] Ģērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, p.169.

[13] Ibid., p.170.

[14] Porietis, p.312.

[15] L.Shapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1971), p.97, 99, 141 and 152.

[16] Porietis, p.313.

[17] Ģērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, pp.190-5.

[18] Ibid., p.199.

[19] Porietis, p.327.

[20] Plensners, p.150.

[21] Kroders, p. 209.

[22] Shapiro, pp.224-5.

[23] Ģērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, p.158.

[24] Ibid., pp.182-3.

[25] Ibid., pp.229-238.

[26] Porietis, p.336.

[27] V.Šteins, Latviešu Sarkano Strēlnieku Cīņu Ceļš (The Route of the Red Latvian Rifle Campaigns, in Latvian) (Publisher Liesma, Rīga, 1977), p.41.

[28] Ģērmanis, OberstVācietis…, p.67.

[29] S.W.Page, The Formation of the Baltic States (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1959), pp.65-6.

[30] A.Klīve, Brīvā Latvija (Free Latvia, in Latvian) (Grāmatu Draugs, Brooklyn, 1969), pp.204-7.

[31] Kroders, p.198.

[32] Ģērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, p.249.

[33] Klīve, p.206.

[34] Ģērmanis, Oberst Vācietis…, pp.158-9.

[35] Klīve, p.222.

[36] A.Strazhas, The Land Oberost and Its Place in Germany’s Ostpolitik, in Vardys, Misiunas, op. cit., p.43 and pp.59-60.

[37] Page, pp.38-40 and pp.98-109.

[38] Bilmanis, pp.300-5.

[39] G.von Rauch, The Baltic States (U. California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1974), p.44.

[40] A.Brigadere, Dzelzs Dūre (Iron Fist, in Latvian) (Tilts, Minneapolis, 1968), pp.50-2.

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