Elizabeth Celms. “Voices of a Revolution: Julijs Celms and the Latvian Social Democrats”

Philospher Teodors Celms – circa 1922

A small, blond, seven-year-old boy with his father’s eyes cautiously peeked from behind the satin curtains of the National Theater in Riga. It was a cloudy fall night with the sharp crispness of an early Baltic winter in the air. At approximately 18:00 on November 18, 1918, the little eavesdropper watched as his father, only a few feet away, stood proudly with eight of his fellow social democrats and 30 members of the People’s Council to declare the Republic of Latvia as an independent state.

Earlier that evening, Jūlījs Celms, a Latvian Social Democrat and member of Saeima, had told his son, Aleksandrs – my grandfather, that if he promised to be very quiet and behave, he could share the stage – from behind the curtain of course – with Latvia’s most revered political figures during this historic moment. So the little boy kept as quiet as a mouse while he witnessed his father participate in one of the most triumphant moments of Latvia’s history.

Jūlījs Celms, my great grandfather, was a Social Democrat, a political journalist and editor and an honored military hero who received the Lačpleša Ordenis for defending his country during the historic Berdmont Battle. His life was filled with as much triumph as despair, as much wealth as suffering, and it ended as quickly as it took ablaze.

Shortly after the 1905 Revolution, Jūlījs, his wife and their newborn daughter, Laima, joined the exodus of nearly 8,000 Baltic revolutionaries sent into exile. As an editor of Cīņa, the Latvian Social Democrat newspaper, and as one of the most active members of his party, there was no way that Jūlījs could conceal his political beliefs. Along with fellow Social Democrats Jānis Rainis and Pēteris Stučka, Jūlījs and his family were forced to leave Latvia.

Jūlijs Celms, far right, with his brothers

The refugee family first left for Helsinki, where Jūlījs continued to edit Cīņa under the pseudonym “Almokrats” until he moved to Moscow in 1909. In Moscow, he became actively involved with the local exiled Latvian community and continued to utilize his political experience to fuel the social democrat movement abroad.

Keeping the surname “Almokrats”, Jūlījs edited the Latvian newspaper Laika Balss until he returned with his family to Riga in 1918. He was one of the many exiles that helped keep Latvia updated with the latest news and progress in the workers’ revolution in Russia.

I remember the first time that I came to Latvia in 1993. Only a few hours after we got off the plane, my uncle drove us to Brāļu Kapi where Jūlījs is buried. As I walked through that cemetery, I felt an aura of eternal heroism, patriotism and the tranquil silence that can only be found in the presence of those now resting in peace. I remember that we walked in complete silence and in complete respect. In the very middle of the cemetery, directly under the eyes of Māte Mara, we found the stone bearing the name Jūlījs Celms. As I placed the flowers on Jūlījs’ gravestone, not knowing a thing about him at the time, I realized that he must have been very important.

Jūlījs returned to Riga from Moscow to join the growing activity among the Latvian Social Democrats in 1918. On the evening of November 17, 1918, a large meeting was held at Jaunias Teātris where the Social Democrats voted to join the National Union and participate in the declaration of independence. According to Kalninš, the decision to join the National Union was influenced by the persuasive arguments from himself, Julijs and a few other Social Democrats.

“At Jaunais Teātris, four of our speakers; Pauls Kalninš, Jūlījs Celms, Fricis Menders, and I made clear why the Latvian workers must stand for the establishment of the free and democratic Latvian Republic.”

November 18, 1918. The Proclamation of Latvia’s Independence at Jaunais Teatris. Taken From Bruno Kalnins’ Vēl Cīņa Nav Gala p.200

After this significant decision was made, the group began planning for the creation of the People’s Council of Latvia.

At approximately 18:00 on November 18, 1918, Jūlījs Celms stood proudly with eight of his fellow social democrats and 30 members of the People’s Council to declare the Republic of Latvia as an independent state.

Brūno Kalninš recalls the historic night in his memoir:
“Around 4:00 p.m., we started to assemble in the theater. The day was cloudy and dark. In the theater we gathered behind the stage. In the middle of the stage was a table with flowers for the People’s Council. The public greeted us with applause. Who were these people, who filled the theater hall and three balconies? They were the active workers of eight parties and Latvia’s educated with their families. There were few proletariats because the proclamation happened on a workday. Everything developed in a big hurry and we did not have the time nor the possibility to spread news about the proclamation in the work places.”

In another memoir, Brūno Kalninš quotes Paul Kalninš reading the LSDSP fraction of the declaration:
“Today, on November 18, 1918, Latvia’s democratic members unite and announce the founding of an independent Latvia. Also we, LSDSP members, find this moment necessary to promote an independent government in the development of a free Latvia. In the independent Latvia we don’t yet have a goal, but only the means for the attainment of our goals. Like earlier, like now, we stand for international Socialist foundations. Her and similarly our goal is the union of the free people of the Socialist republic.”

Čakste pins the Lāčplēša medal on Jūlijs – 1921

Around 20:00, the act of proclamation came to a finish and the participants called out in celebration.

One of the most valuable artifacts from Jūlījs’ life that our family covets is his Lačpleša Ordenis signed by Jānis Čakste. The paper certificate is mounted and framed in my grandmother’s bedroom. The corners of the blue card are wrinkled and torn, but the writing is still legible. Above the certificate is a photograph of Čakste pinning the medal onto Jūlījs’ military jacket as he stands in a respectful salute. In 1921, Jūlījs’ was awarded this distinguished honor for his valiant courage and strength when defending Riga from the Germans in the October 1919 Bermondt Battle.

According to Kalninš, lead by Jūlījs’ orders, on October 9th, the LSDSP sent out a general call to arms of the citizens by both mouth and newspaper. Under Jūlījs’ editorship of Sociāldemokrāts, the LSDSP was able to rally hundreds of residents to join the defense of their city through the paper.

“On that same day, Sociāldemokrāts printed a leading article, inviting the Latvian workers and landless peasants to join in the battle for life and death against the enemies of Latvia’s freedom. The article concluded with the slogan: ‘Do not show the Bermondt soldiers any mercy!’

On the 13th of October, the LSDSP Riga committee let out their own well-known leaflet ‘To your weapons!’ and invited all of Riga’s workers who were able to carry weapons, without delay, to fall into army lines.”

Jūlijs with Lāčplēša medal – 1921

After the LSDSP called to arms the workers of Riga, citizens united with soldiers to fight. For weeks the Latvian nationalists defended their city with all their strength and valor. In the end, they were victorious. After receiving the Lačpleša Ordenis for his role in the battle, Jūlījs was revered not only as a prominent political leader, but as a military hero.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s Jūlījs Celms and his family lived richly. Since Jūlījs was a member of Saeima, the family resided in Riga, but they summered at their country house, which was once a German manor that had nearly been destroyed by the First World War. Jūlījs restored the house in 1922 and bought a farm with more than 50 hectars of land on Abgulda Lake about 20 kilometers outside of Dobele. Jūlījs named the farm Abgulda, after the lake.

After restoration, the house was as beautiful and elegant as the land itself and hosted a decade of wonderful memories for the Celms family. Jūlījs shared the glamorous life of an esteemed politician and military hero. There were grand balls, elaborate dinners with Latvia’s most recognized intellectuals and politicians and endless summer nights spent with family and friends.

Like so many Latvians of the time, Jūlījs caught the fever of good living that flourished throughout the years of independence. It was a lifestyle of elegance, excess and celebration that symbolized what America later coined “the roaring twenties.” If only it could have lasted longer. Twelve years after this grand life style began, it was all gone.

Lāčplēša military award signed by Čakste - 1921

Nineteen thirty-four was a year of change – dramatic change. In 1934, Kārlis Ulmanis, a former neighbor and acquaintance of Jūlījs Celms, arrested many influential members of the LSDSP for fear that their Socialist leanings would jeopardize his authoritarian government. He arrested around 2,000 Social Democrats. Jūlījs Celms was one of these men.

Like so many others, Jūlījs left his life of affluence and splendor suddenly. On May 15, 1934, he was whisked away from it all and sent to the Riga Central Prison where he waited for his conviction. On November 27, Jūlījs was convicted in the Riga court and sentenced to four months in prison. His sentence was reduced to three months because he was a war veteran and had received the Lačpleša military award. The official charge of his arrest was for the possession of illegal weapons.

The Celms family sits on the steps of the manor house. – circa 1921 (Julijs Celms, far left)

For the Celms family, 1934 marked the end of an era. They lost the core of their family, they lost Abgulda and soon, with the coming of World War One, they would lose each other.

As quickly as they had appeared, the summer nights of masquerades, lazy picnics on the lake and dinner parties disappeared. It was the end of an era and soon would be the end of a life. In May of 1935, just a few months after being let out of jail, Jūlījs Celms died of appendicitis.

As one of the strongest parties in Latvia, the Social Democrats had a significant influence on the Latvian National Council during the dawning days of independence in 1917 and 1918. What in the beginning was a working class struggle against the autocracy unexpectedly developed into the pursuit of national sovereignty during the final years of war.

In a way, the proletarian ideals of a Latvia free of bourgeoisie rule that Cīņa had promoted and longed after for 13 years were achieved through independence. And Jūlījs himself played a small part in this.

Last photo taken of Jūlijs – 1934

  • Latvijas Sociāldemokrātiska Strādnieku Partija. Cīņa. Moscow: Mar. 1904-Dec. 1945.
  • Dienas Lapa. Riga: Jan. 1887- Dec. 1905
  • Kalninš, Brūno. Vēl Cīņa Nav Gala. Great Britain: Memento, 1983.
  • Johnson, Van Edward. “Social Democracy and the Latvian Revolutionary Movement, 1900-1914.” Master’s Thesis, University of Washington 1974.
  • Ezergailis, Andrew. The 1917 Revolution in Latvia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.
  • Kalninš, Brūno. Latvijas Sociāldemokrātijas 50 Gadi. Vasteras: LSDSP Arzemju Komitejas Izdevums Stokholma, 1956.
  • Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century. “Jānis Rainis.” New York 1984 v.3 : 140-141

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