It’s been a landmark in Riga for close to a century. She’s a symbol of Latvia’s freedom and independence. And she’s affectionately known as Milda.
While the Old Town is what many tourists come to explore and experience, a short walk outside and you can see a bit of Latvian history, literally towering over you. And if you time it well, watch a change of guard done with such precision, it’s an attraction all by itself.
The Freedom Monument
It towers over the city, sitting between Old Town and Central Riga. It was built in 1935 to honour soldiers who lost their lives during the Latvian War of Independence between 1918 and 1920. Designed by Karlis Zale, money for its construction came from public donations.
As your eyes gaze towards the sky, you can’t help but notice and admire Milda, named after the Baltic goddess of love, courtship, friendship and freedom. She holds three stars meant to symbolise the three regions of Latvia including Vidzeme, Kurzeme and Latgale. Walk closer to the monument and the inscription, ‘For Fatherland and Freedom are etched on the base.
A bit of history
Today, it serves as the venue for public gatherings and official government ceremonies. However, things were far different when the USSR occupied the country in 1940. While they originally intended to demolish the monument, better sense prevailed, thanks in part to a certain Soviet sculptor by the name of Vera Mukhina who saw value in it. Instead, they outlawed gatherings around the monument, while also disbanding the guard of honour which had been in existence since the unveiling of the monument.
Surprisingly, in 1963, the issue of demolition again came up. However, this time round, the Soviet authorities dismissed the thought fearing that it would cause further tension among Latvians. Instead, they attempted to rewrite the symbolism of the three stars as symbols of the three Baltic States. It was their own way of trying to legitimise their control of the satellite states that now fell within the boundaries of the USSR. However, as far as Latvians were concerned, it remained a symbol of national independence.
Winds of change
Then, when Mikhail Gorbachev, the then leader of the Soviet Union came up with his political slogan of perestroika and glasnost, it wasn’t long before the general population put it to test. Sure enough, on the 14th of June 1987, more than 5,000 people gathered to lay flowers at the monument. This only galvanised them to renew the movement for full independence, which was finally achieved three years later with Latvian independence.
Once independence had been achieved, the guard of honour comprising members of the Staff Battalion of the National Armed Forces, was once again deployed at the foot of the monument. Thankfully, they continue to both thrill visitors and keep a memory of a difficult chapter in their history alive.