Thousands of Latvians marched to Latvia's Statue of Liberty in Riga Sunday and laid flowers in memory of their countrymen deported by the Soviet secret police in 1941, according to reports reaching Latvian 'emigr'es in the West. One estimate said 5,000 people marched with huge crowds watching along Riga's streets. The demonstration in the Soviet Baltic republic was the largest known peaceful, non-Communist political gathering in the history of the Soviet Union, according to Janis Trapans, head of the Latvian Division of Radio Free Europe in Munich, West Germany, which closely monitored Sunday's events.
Soviet Latvian police didn't interfere with the demonstration, which was called by the unofficial human rights group Helsinki '86, formed last year in the port city of Liepaja by a group of Latvian workers from various walks of life.
The police behavior is a remarkable departure from previous Soviet practice in Moscow, where much smaller groups of demonstrators have been dispersed, arrested, or beaten in front of Western television crews. Riga police also did little to stop a spontaneous march April 19 by a few hundred youths who shouted nationalist slogans and danced around the Statue of Liberty.
Another remarkable aspect of the Riga events, analysts say, was that the Soviet Latvian authorities never officially banned the march and used relatively mild methods to harass and discourage its organizers.
Sunday's march was preceded by a public meeting and speeches at a park near the Statue of Liberty, erected during the 1930s with public contributions in memory of Latvians who died fighting Germans and Communists to gain national independence. Speakers included former political prisoners and Latvian dissidents who called for an end to official Russification policies and for the release of Gunars Astra, a Latvian human rights activist, and others still held in prison on political charges, 'emigr'e sources said.
The sources in Europe, and here in Sweden, said their information came from telephone conversations with people in Riga late Sunday night. Western tourists reportedly made video tapes and took still photos of the event, which was also apparently filmed by Latvian TV and the Soviet secret police.
The sources said the march was led by Helsinki '86 representatives Rolands Silaraups and Eva Bitenieks, who wore a Latvian folk costume.
The marchers carried a banner with the words ``In Memory of the Victims of June 14.'' Some 15,000 Latvians were deported in cattle cars to Siberia the night of June 13-14, 1941, less than a year after Joseph Stalin seized and incorporated the Baltic nation, and its neighbors Estonia and Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. Most of the deportees perished, but some returned to Latvia in the mid-1950s, after the death of Stalin.
Some marches also wore sashes with the phrase ``For Fatherland and Freedom.'' The same phrase is inscribed in the Statue of Liberty in central Riga.
The groundswell of nationalist sentiment appeared in the wake of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's calls for openess and reform. Even the official Latvian press has published a number of bold articles discussing the national question and the supression of the Stalinist past. Tourists coming back from Riga have said that the volume of nationalist graffiti compared to earlier years indicates the city is in a state of simmering revolt.