RIGA, Latvia (AP) — With flowers and torches, Latvians on Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of building barricades across the country to defend against Soviet attempts to quash the small Baltic nation's quest for independence.
Hundreds of people gathered in Riga's old town, where white-striped burgundy Latvian flags flapped from buildings and on rooftops of the freezing capital. They huddled next to bonfires at Cathedral Square and outside Parliament, where in 1991 sandbags were erected to ward off a feared attack by Soviet troops.
This time Latvian soldiers marched beside people holding torches and waving flags in the snowy afternoon.
In 1991, more than 15,000 people across the country participated in erecting barricades, including former policeman Renars Zalais, who was wounded in an attack by elite Soviet commandos against the Latvian Interior Ministry. He said the real barricades "were the Latvian people themselves" who helped guarantee the country's independence, which it gained later that year.
Led by Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma, officials and lawmakers, Latvians laid wreaths at the central Freedom Monument during Wednesday's solemn celebration.
Some Latvians are wary of a new perceived threat as neighboring Russia has been increasing its military presence in the region — and violating Baltic airspace — since it annexed Crimea in 2014.
Andris Vitolins, an artist who painted slogans on barricades and buildings as a teenager, says he would not hesitate to protect his country again.
"If we had a situation right now that we had to protect our country, I would come and join ... We have such a crazy neighbor (Russia), it would be just like defending your house or your apartment," he told The Associated Press. "If anyone wants to break in, then there is no other way but to fight."
Wednesday's gathering was part of a series of events this year in the three Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to commemorate the end in 1991 of nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation.
Associated Press writer Matti Huuhtanen, who reported on the events in Riga in 1991 for the AP, contributed to this story from Helsinki.