Thursday, August 31, 2023

Environmental Protest Triggered Rise of Latvian Independence Movement

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Aug. 29 – Environmental protests across the Russian Federation and especially in its non-Russian autonomies has led many to recall that similar protests in the former Soviet republics and occupied Baltic countries in the 1970s and 1980s helped trigger the rise of independence movements there.

            The way in which this happened in Estonia is quite well known – for a discussion, see -- but the process by which environmental protests in Latvia contributed to the rise of the national movement in Latvia is much less so. Now, however, that has been corrected.

            In an article for The Beet which has been carried by the Meduza news agency, journalist Katya Balaban describes in some detail the ways in which “the fight to save the Daugava River’s natural riches [in fact] kick-started Latvia’s independence movement” (

            After Latvia was re-occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, Moscow made plans to build three large dams and reservoirs on the Daugava, a plan that would alter both the local ecosystem and the landscape of Latvia itself. Many wrote letters of protest even at the end of the 1950s to the authorities but to little avail.

            But as the project went forward in the 1970s and 1980s, Latvians began making pilgrimages to areas which would soon be flooded in an action that Latvian historianMartins Mintaurs calls “a silent protest.” Indeed, pictures of what would soon disappearance became the equivalent of flying the banned Latvian national flag (

            According to Balaban, “the only ‘compensation’ for these losses that Latvia’s intelligentsia managed to attain were large-scale archaeological surveys carried out on the territory of the future reservoirs.” But these covered only about 15 percent of the area that was slated to be flooded.

            Then, in October 1986, the Latvian literary newspaper Literatura un Maksla published an article by journalist Dainis Ivans and water specialist Artur Snips which questioned the entire project and described the negative impact it would have on the country as a whole ( un M_ksla, Nr.42 (17.10.1986).pdf ).

            “The day after the article’s publication,” Ivans says, “my apartment turned into the headquarters of the resistance” which included petitions signed by as many as 30,000 people against the Soviet project (

            Because the damming of the Daugava would affect Belarus as well, members of the Belarusian intelligentsia also got involved. And then, Ivans continues, “an Eastern Europe-wide movement began. Estonians, Lithuanians, Slovakians and Hungarians began coming to me to ‘learn from our experience.’”

            Balaban recounts what happened next: “Two months after the article came out, the authorities tried to stop the protest wave by banning not only publications about the construction of the Daugavpils HPP but also any mention of the word “Daugava” itself. “It reached the point of absurdity.”

            For example, Ivans recalls, “The June 17 Plant was ordered to stop producing a line of waffles that had a blue wrapper with the word ‘Daugava’ printed on it,” Īvāns recalled. Then in December 1987, the Latvian National History Museum organized an exhibit on the Daugava only to have it shut down by Moscow on the same day it opened.

“To circumvent the censorship, musicians started singing about the river during concerts,” Balaban says, and Ivans adds that “the word ‘Daugava’ became like a password.” And then, “in May 1987, students from both Latvian and Belarusian universities traveled down the Daugava in boats with signs in support of preserving the river.”

According to Ivans, ““Standing up for the Daugava meant the same thing as standing up for an independent Latvia. Many people know that the fight against the Daugavpils HPP was the start of our revolution … In defending the Daugava, people came to the realization that it was possible to stand up against the Soviet authorities.”  

Then, in November 1987, Moscow decided to cancel the dam and reservoir project on the Daugava; and four years later, Latvia recovered its independence.

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