The girl who passed around tea on the Barricades in 1991

In January 1991, people took to the streets of Baltic capitals and erected makeshift barricades around strategic locations to defend them against Soviet troops wanting to crush the Baltic nations' independence drive. 

Baiba Koemeca is a cultural coordinator now working as a teacher of Latvian and Latvian literature. She was just eleven years old during the 1991 barricades and vividly remembers making tea for the participants. Baiba says that with the passing of time it has become difficult to tell her personal memories and collective memories apart. 

Timeline of the barricades (1991)

January 1 - OMON special forces take over the Press House

January 10 - Pro-Soviet Interfront calls on Latvian government to resign

January 12 - Mikhail Gorbachev promises armed forces won't be used in Rīga

January 13 - Soviet tanks attack Lithuanian TV, radio, telegraph, killing 14

January 13 - National awakening figure Dainis Īvāns calls people to flock to Doma square to build barricades

January 13 - The Pan-Latvian Manifestation of some 500,000 takes place by the Daugava river

January 16 - Roberts Mūrnieks is shot by the Mangaļu bridge

January 20 - 100,000 gather in Moscow to express their support for the Baltics

January 20 - OMON attacks the Interior Ministry, killing five people, including two camera operators and a schoolboy

January 21 - Gorbunovs goes to Moscow to hold talks with Gorbachev

January 25 - Funeral of the victims. Most of the participants head home.

What were you doing in January 1991?

I was eleven years old so I can say that, on the one hand, these memories were my own and I remembered them. On the other hand, as 30 years have passed now, I feel that these are no longer my own but rather collective memories. I can't tell where my memories end and Latvian popular memories start. I think it's similar with different historical events, with the Second World War and the experiences in Siberia. People who've gone through both can't tell which memories are their own and which ones are collective. In 1991, I was in Rīga visiting my grandmother.

She belonged to a generation that expected change eagerly. She had suffered during the Soviet era. She belonged to the era of independent Latvia. She was born during the interbellum and lived through the horrors of the Second World War. She saw change as salvation. That's why I was very close to all the events. But I must say [my grandmother] wasn't your "go-to patriot" wearing Auseklis signs hidden underneath. She also liked Santa Clauses and bright Snow Whites, and she bought me paper flower wreaths for Midsummer. At the same time, she was among the people who liked to stress that we'll have a country of our own now. Everyone felt it and knew that it'll come to pass. I was in Rīga. I recall there being a terrible freeze. They made me wear woolen breeches and three jackets and a padded coat, with awful gloves and a scarft. And then, tea was made. 

What was it like in your family? Did your parents or your grandmother talk to you about the occupation of Latvia?

Up to 1988, while we were living in the Soviet era, no one spoke about it. When things slowly started changing, perhaps they did, but if so, I don't remember it. I know I was sent back to Ogre in 1991, saying it's unwise to stay in Rīga as one couldn't predict how the situation would develop. I was one of the few children who didn't go to school for a couple of days, perhaps everyone was worried it could escalate into a military conflict. I think that they did talk to me about it, but I don't remember it. I didn't have an understanding about it all. But if we're talking about the time of the Barricades, I do remember being told why we're participating. 

What did you know about the Barricades and how did you look at the situation?

I think I didn't have a conception about the events at the time. I have developed one right now, in hindsight. I know what happened, and that's why it's difficult for me to picture myself in 1991. I was simply taken there as a child. We'll be going there as there are people protecting Rīga. They're cold as it's freezing outside. In 1991 no-one had much money, meaning those people too didn't have any money, and they were standing out there in the cold and therefore our task was to help them, to make them tea, bring them pastries and make sandwiches. I think that's what I was told about, about the human aspect, not so much the patriotic one and what it means to the country and what it could mean politically, and how it could influence us as human beings. I think that the survival aspect of it all was underlined in a greater manner back then. 

What are your memories of January 1991?

My grandmother was living in [Rīga's] Sarkandaugava neighborhood. I was living there in 1991, we were making tea in a huge thermos, which I recall even now, it was a blue one with red flowers, quite "Latvian". And grandmother had bought pastries, as she didn't make her own. I wanted these pastries very much, and she told me no. That I shouldn't eat them, that we'll be bringing them to people who need help. And for me it seemed very unfair, as they wouldn't buy me pastries before as we didn't have money but now we'd bring them to others. Then we made sausage sandwiches. I don't know where they'd obtained sausages, as we didn't have sausages in our diet as there was none to have. Instead we had strange sausages made from soy. We made the food and then took the No. 5 Tram to the National Theater. We stepped outside and went straight to Old Rīga by the Saeima building.

There were the reinforced concrete blocks they had taken there for the Barricades, and there was a truck standing there, a classical one [with an open bed]. There was a man sitting inside with an ushanka-hat and a mustache like a toothbrush, and he was smoking. He had opened the window and was smoking, and it was dead cold outside! And grandmother told me: "It's here we'll be handing out the tea." At the moment it seemed strange to me. We were going somewhere, someone was smoking and grandmother was telling me to open the thermos. But the man was very happy about it. But I, an eleven-year-old, something of a teen already, was very shy to give some uncle tea and a pastry. It seemed completely stupid. Why did we have to do this? He wasn't asking for it. Then we went to the Doma Square, but I didn't have any special feelings about it, no experience of compassion. We were going to help as people were cold there and they had to eat more. 

Did you go several times or just once?

I think there were several, but I remember this one the best as it was the first. Grandma definitely went again. My father stood at the barricades, he was defending the TV tower. We didn't visit him. My parents are divorced, and back then I didn't even know he was there. I only learned about it when I was older. I thought, that's interesting, why didn't we go to the TV building? But maybe it was difficult to go there. There was only a single trolley line serving the location. I don't know. Perhaps there were other reasons why we didn't go. I would have preferred visiting someone I knew. But I recall the terrible cold. I don't know whether it really was, but I think back then it was very, very cold outside. 

Do you recall the gunfire in Old Rīga? Or had you been sent to Ogre already?

I was sent to Ogre afterwards. As concerns the gunfire, I do recall it. Mom was working as a hospital housekeeper at the Stradiņš Hospital. She was working at the intensive care room and she had to sterilize the breathing apparatuses. We usually went home at about 10 p.m., and that day we had arranged to meet with grandma by the Freedom Monument. She was to give us something, I don't recall what, sour cream or something. It was very late and I called grandma from the hospital, saying we won't be meeting that day as it was very late and that we'd be leaving later. So it happened. Then we went home, we were living in Ķengarags at the time so we took the No. 15 trolley and turned on the TV when we got home.

And I remember this. "Mom, look, they're showing a movie!" I said. And they were showing the Interior Ministry where there was gunfire, they were showing it live. Somehow, I remember it very vividly, that there were bullets tracing through the screen. And mom came saying: "Wait. This is happening now!" There was a live broadcast logo showing there, a pixelated cube. We realized then that by cancelling the meeting we had avoided potentially grave consequences. From that point I have always remembered not to try to force things, ever. There's a reason for that. I think they sent me to Ogre afterwards. I think the government asked to mind one's children, but there were few children who were sent somewhere in my social circle. This is what I remember, but I think many have similar memories about bringing others tea. I am quite sure about this. 

Do you recall anything of the August coup d'etat? 

I recall watching television. Everyone was watching the Panorāma news show back then. I recall seeing OMON invading the TV studio. Nothing more. It was August, and I was away from it all in Saulkrasti.

Do you think the Barricades and the events in August changed your life? What changed for you with the change of the regime? 

I have always been happy to have been born in 1980. I think that if you can experience the changing of an era within your lifetime, it gives a lot to you as a person. You can compare between the eras, and it's better now. I recall the 1990s with the change of currency. I remember vividly that you could buy a Snickers bar for 200 repšiki and the shock it caused me to have my piggybank reduced to nothing. I had a wad of roubles (or I thought so) and it came to nothing. I remember that you could buy something at the kiosk and then you went with your old money and they wouldn't accept it. I think it was the only time in my life where having food in your fridge was not a given.

Mom worked a lot, and grandma did too. But I can no longer eat boiled potatoes with herring, sour cream with herring. We had an aunt living in the countryside. My brother would go every Sunday to get sour cream and herring from her. Coming home from school, we were told either "boil the potatoes", "the potatoes are ready", or "the potatoes are on the bed", depending on how much time mom had. "Eat it with herring and sour cream." So that's a time I have tied to not having enough nutrition, as we had no money. But at one point it all became better very quickly. I also recall that there were some people who kept stressing that there had been no need to change power as it had been much better before. That everything was there for the taking, if you were in the right place you could get everything. It seems I wasn't a child of parents who were in the right place. 

I think it was difficult to get clothing in the 1990s as well.

I always wanted to be like everybody else. I never wanted to be different. I don't recall missing any clothes, maybe I didn't have the need to stand out. In the 1990s the first thrift shops started appearing, and until then you could have something to wear. I was studying at the 25th Secondary school. I think we had only one classmate who received packages from abroad. We also had something, mom had a friend living in Germany, but "on the Russian side". She sent us something, but it was capitalist stuff and I didn't want it. How would I, a decent post-Soviet citizens, carry a backpack in pink! I know they bought me a classic backpack in blue at Bērnu pasaule. I was very happy to have it. Everyone has their own personality. I had my own reasons not to want to stand out with my overachiever image. I was tall. I stood out with this, and I didn't want anything more. But mom did. She liked not being like everyone else. I remember grandma, the other grandma always saying that my mother was walking around like a scarecrow. She had a bright jacket when no-one had those. Everyone looked at her on the street. It was a bright blue jacket with pink ornaments, but not many people liked it. No use standing out!

What's your current take on the meaning of the barricades in the history of Latvia and the way we are now?

I would very much like to be able to say it was 100% worth the effort and what the Latvians did for us to have a better life has been seen as worthwhile and fulfilled. Perhaps it's self-evident, that if you didn't have anything and are suddenly given all the opportunities, you can't tell them apart. You take everything and throw away all the old stuff and buy new things. I think that's the biggest problem why we haven't got it as good as we could now. When I reflect upon education, about the way it could have been, and upon the level of everyday culture and mutual understanding, including in politics, it seems that when you're given everything you feel as if before a full plate and you grab mouthfuls and handfuls and stuff it in your mouth and ears without ever being full.

I'd never want the Soviet era back. I lived through a few years of it and my parents had to grow up in it, but there were some things that we should have changed somewhat and keep, and keep them wisely. It would have provided a more stable basis for the further development of the country. That's what I think. And now, working at school and seeing many children each day, I think to myself: "You're lacking the discipline I had. You have so much freedom and you're so frustrated by having so much freedom!" To be free, we need order, and whatever you call it, it's discipline in the basis of it. I don't think that it's right for us all to be friends on all levels and in all job posts. We don't differentiate between tu and vous, we're all "tu", we're buddies and that's cool. It doesn't help. It doesn't help the children too.

Do they lack authorities?

They do. You can see it clearly in children. They have a mom and dad and the friends of mom and dad. They're all buddies and communicate on equal terms between themselves. It seems nice, until when a child doesn't understand anymore that they should talk to an adult differently. That it's not right for them to address teachers saying: "Hey, you! What's up?" And they don't understand. They say: "I talk to everyone that way. My family talks that way." It seems to me that... well. I don't think Latvia is unique in this regard. I think that in the countries behind the Iron curtain, which suddenly got it all, it all went similarly and that the feeling is similar.

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