The Unfinished Story of Latvia's Abrene
The Latvian parliament (Saeima) in Riga has the coats of arms of all Latvian lands, including Abrene. The city belongs to Latgale, the eastern part of Latvia. In the Middle Ages, the east of Latgale, where Abrene is located, was the scene of the struggle between the Germans of the Livonian Order and the Republic of Pskov, and when Pskov came under the control of Moscow, the battles between the knights and Muscovy began. But this city and its surroundings are no longer part of Latvia. It is now called Pytalovo, Pskov Oblast of the Russian Federation. The Russian name Pytalovo is derived from the Latvian: "pie Talava" – "near Talava".
Talava was a Latgalian principality that was conquered by the Germans in the 13th century and failed to hold on to under pressure from Moscow. The border has been stable there since the 16th century. After the First World War, the Russian Empire ceased to exist, and Latvia managed to seize the moment. In the war against the White Guards, the remnants of German troops in the Baltic States, and the Bolsheviks, it won its independence.
In January 1920, the Latvians, together with the Poles, liberated the capital of Latgale, Daugavpils, and, in cooperation with the Estonians and local anti-Bolshevik rebels, occupied Abrene. Bolshevik Russia asked for peace. On August 11, a peace treaty was signed in Riga between Soviet Russia and Latvia.
The treaty stated that Russia renounced "for eternal time the sovereign rights that belonged to Russia over Latvia and its people." The border was drawn along the former front line, so Pitalovo became part of the Republic of Latvia. From 1925 Pytalovo was called Jaunlatgale - New Latgale, and from 1935 Abrene. It was the center of the county, to which a part of the Latgale lands of the Ludza county was annexed.
Life was the same as in the rest of independent Latvia during this period. According to the 1935 census, the population was about one hundred thousand people, forty percent of them Russians. Unlike other areas of the former Pskov province and Russia that were "ennobled" by the Soviet government, Russians here had the opportunity to go to church, engage in entrepreneurship, and no one forced them to work on a collective farm.
Russians Never Let Go of "Theirs"
By the early 1930s, Bolshevik Russia was preparing a communist coup in Latvia. The Russian Bolsheviks could not forgive Latvia for gaining independence. They were also preparing a world communist revolution. For Latvia, Moscow had cadres of Latvian Red Riflemen ready. For a long time, they were the main organized armed force of the Bolsheviks, the core of the state authorities and the punitive body of the Cheka.
Moscow managed to form a certain circle of sympathizers in Abrene. The delegation of the fictitious People's Saeima to the session of the USSR Supreme Soviet on August 2-6, 1940, which curtailed Latvia's independence, included the Abrene communist underground member Dergach. In July 1941, the German occupation of Latvia began. The retreat of German troops in August 1944 meant the return of Soviet rule and the beginning of the removal of Abrene from Latvia.
How Abrene Became Pytalovo
The story of Abrene's transformation into Pytalovo and its transfer to the RSFSR has several interesting aspects. Whereas the transfer of Taganrog from Ukraine to the RSFSR in 1925 was formalized only by the USSR Central Executive Committee's Resolution "On the Settlement of Borders," with Abrene, legality was imitated. On August 12, 1944, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR adopted a decision "On the Accession of Vyshgorod, Kachanov, and Tolkovo Counties to the RSFSR."
After that, the Presidium of the USSR, by a decree of August 23, 1944, which established the Pskov Oblast, approved these changes "in response to numerous requests from residents" and the request of the Supreme Soviet of the LSSR. We can see an imitation of "Soviet legality" in the form of "own will."
In addition, at that time, the possibility of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin creating a number of "independent" socialist satellites from the Baltic states was not yet ruled out. The "decision" of the leaders of Soviet Latvia to abandon these areas occurred even before the creation of the region to which they were included. It is symbolic that the territories were named after the counties of the Russian Empire. For the Russian imperialists in communist camouflage, it was a reconquista, the return of Russian lands.
The decision was opposed by local people. Delegations of Abren Russians traveled to Daugavpils and to Riga, to the government of the Latvian SSR, asking them to leave their land in the Latvian SSR. Local communist activists sent letters to the leaders of the USSR in vain.
Abrene suffered the tragedy of "Sovietization." Leading party and Soviet cadres were sent from the RSFSR, and local leaders either moved to the Latvian SSR or were dismissed. Collectivization was carried out. On March 1, 1950, by order of the USSR Minister of the Interior Sergei Kruglov, "1415 kulaks, bandits, and nationalists" were deported from the Abrensky Krai to the Krasnoyarsk Krai in Siberia.
For Russians, there is a thesis that Pytalovo was taken away as punishment "for the crimes of the Latvian Nazis against the Russian-speaking population during the Nazi occupation."
To Give Up Abrene Is to Get NATO
When Latvia regained its independence, Abrene was remembered. There were legal grounds for returning the city. After all, independent Latvia emerged as the successor not to the LSSR, but to Latvia occupied by Moscow in 1940. Therefore, there was a return to the old system of treaties. Among them was the 1920 Riga Treaty with Russia, which recognized Abrene as Latvian.
However, the main task for the Latvian people was to restore independence and withdraw former Soviet, and by 1992, Russian troops. After the occupation of 1940, Latvia knew that Russia's predatory nature would not allow anyone to be released from its influence. Therefore, joining NATO was not only a sign of Latvia's civilizational choice, but also a guarantee of its security.
At the same time, the Alliance noted that countries that have territorial disputes with countries outside of it cannot be admitted. At that time, Riga made a political decision to "forget about Abrene." Latvia became a NATO member in April 2004. The situation was not an empty blackmail, as evidenced by the words of former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga: "When joining international structures that guarantee Latvia's independence, security and development, we must accept the realities that have developed in Europe – including the fact that Abrene or Pitalovo is no longer controlled by the Latvian state."
The final relinquishment of this territory took place after the conclusion of the border agreement with Russia in 2007 and caused resistance in Latvia. A group of Saeima deputies filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court of Latvia claiming that the agreement was inconsistent with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence of Latvia. The Constitutional Court found the claim unfounded, on the grounds that the Declaration of Independence does not mention Abrene as an integral part of the Latvian territory.
In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who measures everyone by himself, decided that Latvia would return Abrene at all costs. He rudely said that they would get ears from a dead donkey, not Pytalovo. And then, in the course of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, he announced the "accession of new territories and their inclusion in the Constitution of the Russian Federation." Putin, who believes that Russia is allowed to do anything, has actually set a precedent. If Russia expands, it can also shrink. Who knows, maybe Pytalovo-Abrene will have a different fate than just being a depressed Russian province.