Saturday, May 31, 2014

Latvia: The Political Kickball

Geographically situated between two great empires, the Russian and German respectively, the Baltic region (collectively Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) became a political football tossed back and forth over centuries. As previously noted, the Germans settled the area as merchants and clergymen. The Russians dominated the political turf and also settled the region.

The Russian empire relied on seaports and industry to replenish the Tsar’s coffers. It is estimated that the pre-WWI contributions of this region totaled a combined 37.6 million rubles annually. (It is difficult to translate USD today because of the abandoned gold standard and different economic conditions). Russian interests expanded to the Far East. The Boxer Rebellion (1900) in China was brought to a close in part due to a contribution of Russian troops. Continued occupation of the Manchurian providence secured an interest in trans-railways that would eventually shorten the Trans-Siberian Railroad. This was short lived. 

European Empires prior to World War I

Domestic unrest soon led to demonstrations. Exploited factory workers, previously starving peasants, along with Father Gapon (an Orthodox priest appointed by Nicholas II) of St. Petersburg, marched on the Tsar’s Winter Palace, in a peaceable manner, on January 9th 1905 (Bloody Sunday). The ensuing massacre resulted in widespread strikes throughout the city.

On January 13th 1905, Riga factory workers marched as a show of support. The response was death at the hands of Russian police. Forty workers were killed, hundreds were wounded. This fanned the flames for Lenin’s supporters. They preached the overthrow of the Tsarist regime and its allies: the German Baltic land squires.
unpaved road in Latvian country
Russia was on the precipice of an all-out revolution. Latvian socialists had been driven underground by Russian persecution. The Riga strike of 1898 would have marked Nicholas Dozenberg’s 16th year alive – an impressionable age. Socialist political leaders and newspaper editors for Daily News (Deenas Lapa) were deported to central Russia. Mahjas Weesis (1856-1910) was left to fill the void for the paper’s thirsty peasant and rising middle class Latvian readers. German-inspired Marxism prospered in Russia under the newly organized Russian Workmen’s Social-Democrat Party (RWSDP) – an alliance between peasant and worker classes. The focus was narrow; namely the interests of Russian workmen were promoted. The party sought to export a Russian-manufactured philosophy, and did so with infamous zeal. Autonomous labor movements in Finland, the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia were disregarded by the RWSDP.

In London, the 1903 Central Committee meeting of the RWSDP was dominated by Lenin. The result was a split: the now infamous Bolshevik (“men of the majority”) and lesser known Menshevik (“men of the minority”). Bolsheviks touted a violent “means to an end” countenance that sparked movements across Europe, including Latvia. Followers of Lenin’s Bolshevism contested the right-wing Socialist Party (Latvia), breaking from them in December 1905. Political wrangling continued till the First World War and with this mass exodus came the hope of a better future. 

Ship Manifest of S.S. Norge
May 16 1904
Political upheaval and persecution contributed to a large number of Jews and displaced Europeans immigrating to the United States. From 1904-1907, it is believed that up to 100,000 people left for the US each year. Nicholas Dozenberg was in the first wave of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island on May 16th 1904. He was 21 years old. He left behind parents, siblings and familiar surrounding. His political ideology had been forged on the frontlines of a Russian political war. Due to his thick accent, Dozenberg was documented by the porter as “Dasenberg, Nicolaj.” He traveled aboard the “Norge,” a passenger ship that sank only a month later. (Translate the page from Danish for an account of the sinking.) It seems that Nicholas had impeccable timing. His passage across the Atlantic was one of many examples to come. Then again, charismatic people have a sense of timing and live “ahead of the curve.” And so it was for Nicholas.

Trinity Lutheran Church
Roxbury, Boston, MA

 He quickly settled into the established Latvian community Roxbury, in Boston, MA, where his older sister and brother-in-law Ernest Braunfeld had established their family. He enthusiastically joined organizers with the fledgling Communist movement. In the early years, a majority of the immigrant participants populating the labor class lacked acculturation. 

A quick study of Nicholas’s contemporaries include carpenters, laborers, machinists, seamstress, housekeepers and the like.

At the age of 24, he married a young Latvian immigrant, Katherine A. Peagle, in the Trinity Lutheran Church, which still stands in Boston. Despite his Lutheran training and baptism, it is not apparent that he continued practicing his faith. In 1911, he became a Naturalized Citizen of his new homeland. I can only imagine the anticipation, a palpable zeal he must have felt for his cause, the chance to pursue his vision for a changed world that would reconize the rightful place of the labor class man.

Sources: A History of Latvia, by Alfred Bilmanis, copyright 1951, by Princeton University Press

Further reading on the web:
The 1905 Revolution in Latvia
"The Revolution in the Baltic Provinces of Russia"

copyright 2014

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