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When Milda joins Europe

2014 is a year of many significant numbers for the euro area. First, on 1 January it will be fifteen years since the introduction of the cashless euro and twelve years since the introduction of the euro notes and coins; twelve is so important as it is the number of stars on the European flag. Another key number is 18. Why ? Because the euro area is now to gain a new member: Latvia.

2-euro coin [1]

2-euro coin

Latvia will therefore be the second Baltic country after Estonia, and the sixth country signing the 2003 Athens Treaty to join the euro, after Cyprus, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia. So on 1 January 2014 Latvians will be able to exchange their Latvian lats at a fixed exchange rate of 1 euro = LVL 0.702804. These euro coins are made in Germany, in Stuttgart, at the Staatliche Münzen Baden-Württemberg. The national face of the coins has been displayed on the Latvijas Banka website since 2006. It comprises three different designs: the 1, 2 and 5 cent coins show part of the Latvian coat of arms, the 10, 20 and 50 cent coins bear the full coat of arms and the 1 and 2 euro coins depict Milda. But who is this Milda ?

Statue of Milda [2]

Statue of Milda

This lady is of crucial importance in the history of Latvia. Milda is the affectionate nickname of the statue surmounting the Freedom Monument in Riga, erected in honour of the soldiers killed in the war of independence. That war took place in 1918 and 1920. The history of Latvia as a republic therefore begins in 1920, but the region is obviously much older. Baltic peoples were living there as far back as 3000 BC. Latvia declared independence following several centuries of Russian domination. In fact, the Great Northern War extended the territory of the Russian empire to the Baltic countries in 1710. Following that conquest, a statue of Tsar Peter the Great was erected in Riga. The Russian empire, already weakened by the 1905 Revolution and the First World War, collapsed in 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized power. That enabled the German army to occupy Latvia until the armistice was signed on 11 November. Seven days after that, Latvia declared independence. However, a month later the Bolsheviks took power and proclaimed the Soviet Republic of Latvia. The battle to gain independence from Russian influence was to last almost two years. The Treaty of Riga ended the conflict on 11 August 1920, creating the Latvian Republic.

Freedom Monument [3]

Freedom Monument

Gradually, there came the idea of erecting a monument in honour of the soldiers who died for their country’s independence. The idea was supported in particular by the Prime Minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics, who organised a competition in 1922. An initial winning design was chosen, but then abandoned owing to the anger of 57 other artists. In 1923 a new competition was organised with two potential winners, but following disagreements among the jury the idea was dropped. In 1929 a final competition resulted in the sculptor Kārlis Zāle being awarded the honour of creating the statue, the monument being designed by the architect Ernests Štālbergs. Bas-reliefs at the base of the monument trace the history of independence. The monument was erected in Riga on the exact spot where the statue of Peter the Great, the symbol of Russian domination, used to stand. The work was funded by private donations, beginning in November 1931 and ending in 1935. The monument is 42 metres high and weighs around 2,500 tonnes. Milda is therefore a symbol of Latvia’s freedom and was chosen by the Latvijas Banka to be depicted on the 5 lat coin in the inter-war years.

The German-Soviet Pact of 1939 changed everything, with a secret agreement on the fate of Latvia and Estonia, “destined” to form part of the USSR. After Germany entered the war, the USSR forced the Baltic countries to sign a mutual assistance treaty enabling the Soviets to set up military bases there. After the Germans entered Paris in June 1940, the USSR invaded the Baltic countries, imposed the Communist regime and organised elections which led to the proclamation of the Socialist Republic of Latvia. However, the German army invaded Riga in July 1941. The plan was to use Latvia as a future German colony. The exterminations carried out by the Nazis and Soviets in Latvia took a very heavy toll, wiping out almost a quarter of the population. The end of the Second World War resulted in occupation by the USSR, despite a short-lived resistance. A policy of russification prevailed in the country from 1959 under Krushchev, particularly concerning the language, education, etc. There were plans to demolish the Freedom Monument and replace it with the old statute of Peter the Great, but no action was taken. Moscow banned the laying of flowers in the colours of the national flag around the monument, on penalty of deportation to Siberia. A statue of Lenin facing east was erected beside the monument, with Lenin looking towards the west. The Soviets proposed a reinterpretation of the monument: the three stars represented the three Baltic States held aloft by Mother Russia, which meant that it was erected to thank Stalin for liberating the Baltic people. However, Milda remains a symbol of freedom and opposition for the Latvians. Some brave people defied the ban and wore the old 5 lat coins as badges on 18 November, the anniversary of independence.

500 lats banknote [4]

500 lats banknote

The arrival of Gorbachev in 1985 ushered in a degree of freedom and the Singing Revolution. The Freedom Monument formed the starting point of that revolution following a demonstration by the Helsinki-86 group in memory of the 1940 deportations. More demonstrations followed and repression began. Pro-independence parties were established and Latvians joined the demonstrations in ever-increasing numbers. There was even a human chain organised on the anniversary of the German-Soviet Pact on 23 August 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, free elections were held, and were won by the Latvian Popular Front. The decision on independence triggered a military response by the USSR, notably the occupation of Riga by Russian tanks on 20 January 1991. The tanks were forced back by the people. With the collapse of the USSR, Latvia regained its status as an independent republic. When the lat was restored, Milda was no longer depicted on the coins but adorns the largest denomination banknote: the 500 lat.

For Latvians, Milda is thus the obvious choice for the image on the 1 and 2 euro coins. The original plan was to show the whole monument, but the design did not meet the ECB criteria because the monument was too large, so that it became unrecognisable.

Baptiste Cuvelier
Museum Guide