Freedom Monument – a national symbol of Riga and Latvia

Freedom Monument – a national symbol of Riga and Latvia
Kaspars Garda, Rīga 2014
Una Griškeviča
29-10-2013 A+ A-
During this week, 125th anniversary of the excellent Latvian sculptor Kārlis Zāle will be celebrated while holding diverse cultural events. Therefore, on October 28, a memorial service dedicated to Kārlis Zāle will be held at The Cemetery of Heroes together with the presentation of the latest book „Freedom Monument” („Brīvības piemineklis”). In fact, Kārlis Zāle particularly deserves his awards and gratitude for his achievements in Latvian culture as he is the sculptor of Freedom Monument and The Cemetary of Heroes. It’s, indeed, a great reason to look up the three stars of Freedom Monument and honor the great artist.

A piece of history

One might think – don’t we know everything about The Freedom Monument which rises above the Riga roofs at the very central location of this city? It’s never too much to do some research, for instance, there is said on „Wikipedia” page that this monument is 42 metres high made from grey and red granite, travertine, ferroconcrete and copper. The construction building was dedicated to soldiers who died at the Freedom battles. Currently the monument has a symbolic meaning of Latvian statehood, independence and freedom.

 

The monument composition is created from thirteen sculptures and low reliefs representing various scenes from Latvian history and culture. The monument is made from four-cornered monolith forms which narrows on the top of the monument and goes to a nineteen-metres high obelisk. On the top of it, a statue of a young woman holding three golden starts in her arms is set.

The idea of building a monument dedicated to Freedom battles arose in 1922 when that time prime minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics required to develop regulations for building the „memorial column”. After various competitions, Kārlis Zāle was chosen for this work with a project named „Mirdzi kā zvaigzne!” („Bright as a star!”). The construction works were started on November 18, 1931, granted by people’s donations. The monument was established on November 18, 1935, on the 17th anniversary of The Republic of Latvia.

 

In fact, Kārlis Zāle had to experience various political influences and resistance from his colleagues while building the monument, it is said in „Trīs zvaigznes” („Three stars”), a book written by Valdis Rūmnieks and Andrejs Migla. However, all went well- despite all the authorities and problems, Freedom Monument now rises in the Riga centre.

Surviving through demolishings and renovations

As Latvia became a part of USSR after WWII, there were some thoughts of demolishing Freedom Monument.

They say that Soviet sculptor Vera Muhina was the one who insisted on keeping the monument telling that it has a great artistic value, and demolishing the monument would mean an offence to Latvian people.

Indeed, the monument was not demolished, but its symbolic meaning changed towards the Soviet-ish ideology. Despite all factors, for Latvian people it was still a symbol for independence. In 1987, around 5000 people took part at protests organized by „Helsinki-86” movement against Soviet regime. People took loads of flowers by the Freedom Monument honoring the victims of mass deportations.

Unfortunately, documents that confirm the plans to destroy the monument, are no longer available. Possibly, some documents are still saved as classified information in Russian archives. Until that, historians have to deal with spoken evidences about those events. The first attempt to pull down Freedom Monument was made in 1945 when the representatives of Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic proposed to renew the statue of Peter the Great.

Renovating the statue of Peter the Great would automatically mean demolishing Freedom Monument considering the fact that earlier, Peter the Great „stood” just a few metres away from where Freedom Monument is now located. Although it's not exactly clear how the plans went, Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina was present at the meeting where decision about Freedom Monument was made, that is what her son says. Mukhina insisted on keeping it, as demolishing the monument would mean Latvian people lose a great artistic value.

However, there are no real evidence that this really happened.

In spring of 1963, authorities of Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic were determined to blow up the monument, however, it never happened. It was decided that by doing it the pressure in society would grow only bigger. Then again, there are no formal evidences of those decisions. In Soviet times, there were loads of interpretations related mostly to that time propaganda. For instance, that three stars of the monument held by The Motherland Russia were Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It was even said that Freedom Monument was built after WWII to honor Stalin, the great heroe of Soviet Union, who rescued Latvia from enemies. Though, the softened version of this appeared in the encyclopedia issued in 1988 saying that the monument was built to celebrate freedom from German barons and Russian czar.

 

The monument was renovated repeatedly - twice in Soviet times (1962 and 1981), after Latvia declared independence, the monument was restored in 1998 - 2001 using donated fundings. So, it was reestablished on July 24, 2001. During the renovation, three stars were gilded, the monument's base was restored in addition to several other renovation works. Later, it turned out that the wrong renovation technique had been used in order to gild the stars, unfortunately, there was some damage done, but in 2006, three stars were repaired one more time.

Lady Regina's stories

Regina is responsible for Freedom Monument's maintenance. She has worked there for the seventh year in order to make everything bright and clean. Regina has received good words from Riga mayor too. „It's an honorary work, taking care of Riga symbol, but at the same time, it's just work,” she says. Her duties include cleaning the monument's base from autumn leaves and winter snow. She also arranges flowers brought by Riga people and guests of various foreign delegations.

 


„Sometimes we collect around thirty bags full of faded flowers after the big events such as Song and Dance Celebration,” says Regina adding that, for example, birds fancy corn crowns a lot.

„The birds used to hide from people under those flowers while picking the grains from the leftover crowns. Basically, corns were left unripped all over the place.”

In autumn, when there are loads of leaves on the ground, Regina has lots of work to do to clean it all away. The hardest part are the wet ones glued on the asphalt: she gets rid of them only by scraping them off. Winter is no better either. They're allowed to clean the snow away from the monument's base, but no sands or salt is allowed for use as it might damage the granite or travertine. „Once, workers had to clean the snow off, but, to make it easier, they wanted to use a crowbar. Oh, I told them some heavy words back then..”

Regina also collects ribbons from the flower crowns left by delegations. A part of the collection is now seen at the Honorary Room, it's a place with the heavy doors inside the Freedom Monument. „Whe even have ribbons from flowers that people from China delegation and Japanese emperor brought.” Regina also shows a big guest book which is a very special thing. Every guest who visits Honorary Room leaves a signature on the book.
„I wonder who put this bookmark - a small wowen ribbon with ornaments from Lielvārde belt- at the front page?” she asks rhetorically and removes it to the next unwritten page where it's supposed to be. Regina also tells that there are thoughts of improving Honorary Room, but only if the funding is enough. „Honorary Room is closed for tourists. Because one can never know what can happen. We don't allow climbing up the Monument stairs either.” (However, our photographer Kaspars Garda got the chance to get there, so, we can offer some nice sightseeing photos taken from the top stairs. - edit.).

 


When asked about the people met next to the Freedom Monument (wedding guests, tourists, etc.), Regina says that she has seen various situations. „But, please, don't call the monument Milda! I know people are used to call it like that but, still, it's not right. This monument is the symbol of our nation!” she exclaims emotionally.

„There are some elderly who take a hat off soon before they have reached the monument, or even get on their knees...it's very touching.”


Also young people come and bring some flowers. Regina once helped a guy to arrange his bouquet. „I think, he had went abroad to earn a living. We had a talk, and he said he's happy about all the improvements in Latvian culture and other fields as well.” Mostly Russian newly-weds take photos near the Freedom Monument. „I suppose, Latvians know many other beautiful places they would like to document at their wedding day.”

Tourists often like to sit on the monument stairs in order to have a snack or take some picture. „Then I tell them it's not appropriate to do so in Latvia. Freedom Monument is actually a sacred place for us. In the end of the day, they are only guests visiting our country, they have to respect our values.” Though, British guys don't make so many troubles they used to, she adds.

„Apparently, those who had to pay their fines for an inappropriate behavior next to the monument warned others. Besides, police is present all the time, so it's much better at this point.” Once, there was this other guy who acted quite aggressively telling that the statue of Peter the Great will be restored soon, no matter what. Regīna does not have anything to do with these people, and, in general, the environment next to Freedom Monument is peaceful.

 

 

At the end of our tour, Lady Regina shows us some special places around the monument. For example, a group of sculpture where Kārlis Zāle immortalized himself in one of the characters. „You see those two holes in its shoulder? Those are from the shooting in 1991 during the Barricades,” tells our guide also adding that some damage from WWII is done to the monument. „From time to time, people ask why someone just does not fill up the holes. But it's not that easy, the same as pits on the asphalt,” tells Regina. She has one more big duty ahead. It's arranging the flowers on November 18 when Latvia celebrates its independence again.

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