How does Soviet flame in Daugavpils keep on burning?

Latvian Radio reported May 20 from Daugavpils where – despite the removal of the main Soviet-era monument in the city – an 'eternal flame' continues to burn at another site closely linked to the historical role of the Red Army.

An eternal flame, similar to the one in Moscow, burns at the memorial to Soviet soldiers who died in World War II in Dubrovina Park, Daugavpils. In reality it has proven less than eternal. The flame of the monument, built 40 years ago when Latvia was still under Soviet occupation, was extinguished in 1991, shortly after the restoration of Latvia's independence.

After that, for 20 years, it was lit only a couple of times a year, including on May 9, marked by some of the Russian minority as 'Victory Day' but unpopular with the remainder of the population.

An organization named "Let's revive the eternal fire" was created 12 years ago and collected funds for re-lighting the flame. Later, the gas cylinder system that fed the flame was replaced with a capacious gas reservoir underground.


Information in the local media shows that the gas system reconstruction project was financed by the Russian embassy in Latvia together with one of the largest liquefied gas importers in the Baltics: "Intergaz", owned by Russian oligarch Rashid Sardarov.

But who owns the memorial to Soviet soldiers, and who pays for the gas for the eternal flame?

"The legal ownership of the memorial itself has not been established, the municipality does not own it," said the representative of the Daugavpils municipality Nataļa Ivanova. "That memorial is located on municipal land, so the municipality manages the adjacent territory. The municipality manages the adjacent territory in the same way as the rest of the park – they mow the grass, rake the leaves. But the memorial itself is under the care of the Brothers' Graves Committee."

The Chairman of the Board of the Brothers' Graves Committee, Arnis Āboltiņš, said that, on behalf of the Ministry of Defense, the Committee is responsible for military burial grounds across Latvia.

But Āboltiņš denied any other kind of connection with the Dubrovina Park memorial: "Of course not. We do not enter into any contracts for care and maintenance. They themselves do not know what is happening on their land, in their property. The connection has been closed somehow. We have not entered into any contract."

In essence then, no-one seems to be responsible for the memorial and its flame. Since there is no owner, there is also no one with whom a formal maintenance contract has been concluded.

Latvian Radio decided to investigate claims the Daugavpils branch of the Latvian Russian society takes care of the eternal flame and visited the society's office in the center of the city, which, judging by the inscriptions in Russian, shares premises with several other organizations, including the Latvian Russian Union political party and pressure groups such as the Russian School Protection Staff, the Daugavpils Association of Fighters of the Anti-Hitler Coalition and others.

On the afternoon of May 9, the door of the association is locked, but someone can be heard inside playing the guitar and singing, and other people's voices can also be heard. It was not possible to meet with the representatives of the society either on May 9 or a few days later.

Dmitrijs Ribņikovs, head of the Daugavpils branch of the Russian society, did not respond to text messages. Another official of the association is Daugavpils City Council member Aleksejs Vasiļjevs. He refused to engage in any detailed conversation with Latvian Radio when approached at a council meeting, even threatening to call security.

Latvijas Radio was interested in Russian donations, because before the start of the war in Ukraine, various Moscow organizations paid large sums of money to the Daugavpils Society. Judging by the data of the annual report, in 2020 this amounted to 44,000 euros, and in 2021 it rose to 48,000. It made up the lion's share of all the society's income.

After the start of the war, Russian donations did not appear in the accounts again, but the society's total annual income did not decrease significantly.

It should be noted here that the Russian society of Latvia has more than ten chapters throughout the country, but only the Daugavpils chapter is so rich, even entering the list of one hundred wealthiest societies in Latvia.

The State Security Service (VDD) confirmed that the activities of the association "Daugavpils branch of the Latvian Russian society" have been on the service's radar for a long time. Taking into account the specifics of the service's work, the VDD refrained from further comments related to this association.

How much does the eternal flame cost to keep alight in Daugavpils? Back in 2019, a local portal wrote about five to six thousand euros a year. According to the publicly available annual reports of the association, Tatjana Ždanoka, the leader of the Russian Union of Latvia, has been among the most generous donors for many years. She has donated six to seven thousand euros a year to the eternal flame and other activities of the association – equivalent to around one tenth of her European Parliament salary.

If nobody owns the Soviet army memorial in Daugavpils, then who has the right to turn off the gas burner – or indeed to keep it on? The Brothers' Grave Committee believes that it belongs to the municipality.

Meanwhile, the Daugavpils City Council states that this is beyond their decision-making remit and invoked the Latvian-Russian intergovernmental agreement on the preservation of monuments and graves. The head of the municipality believes that the flame should remain, as it is part of the memorial ensemble.  For now it appears the flame will continue to burn – without casting much light on who is responsible for it.

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