Kārlis Ulmanis

President of Latvia, 1936-1940



Kārlis Ulmanis was born on 4 September 1877 in Pikšas farmstead, Udze parish, Dobele district. He received the basic education in Bērmuiža Elementary School, then in Alexander School in the city of Jelgava, and in the Jelgava Non-classical Secondary School. In 1896, he quit the Jelgava Non-classical Secondary School and went to East Prussia to study at Tapiava (currently Gvardeysk) Dairy Farm School. In 1897, he worked as a dairy farm manager at Krāsotāju Street, Riga. In 1902, he held dairy farm courses in Bērmuiža jointly with J. Bergs. From 1902 to 1903, he studied at the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich, Switzerland. Between 1903 and 1905, he studied agriculture in the Agricultural School of Leipzig University, holding several dairy course programs in Latvia at the same time.      


On 21 December 1905, he was arrested and put in prison in Pskov for his taking part in the revolution of 1905. He was released from prison in 1906 and then migrated to New York (USA) in 1907. He was studying agriculture in a number of US-based college-type schools, and he became an economic business manager and a lector in Nebraska University. When amnesty for the revolutionaries of 1905 was announced in Russia in March 1913, K. Ulmanis returned to Latvia and worked as an agronomist in the Baltic Farmers’ Association in Valmiera, as an instructor in the Riga Central Committee of Agriculture and as an editor of the Baltic Farmers Association magazine „Zeme” („Land”) within the period from 1914 to 1916. In 1916, he was elected to the Committee for Baltic Latvian refugees support as a Member of Board. In March 1917, he was elected to the Vidzeme Temporary Land Council and as an interim Deputy Commissioner of the Vidzeme province in April. He took part in the foundation of the Latvian Farmers Union.     


On 17 November 1918, he was elected Prime Minister of the Latvian People’s Council. On November 18, the Latvian People’s Council entrusted him to set up the government. He took the office of Minister of Agriculture from November 18 to December 19. He took a position of Prime Minister from 19 November 1918 to 13 July 1919. In January 1919, a part of the provisional government headed by K. Ulmanis emigrated. In order to safeguard the statehood of Latvia, they appealed for support to governments of Denmark, Sweden, and Estonia. 


He was the Minister of Agriculture within the period from July 14 to September 4, 1919 and subsequently the Prime Minister from 14 July 1919 to 8 December 1919. In September 1919, an assassination attempt against K. Ulmanis failed. He was the Minister of Defence from 16 October 1919 to 11 June 1920, and he was the Prime Minister and the Minister of Security from 9 December 1919 to 11 June 1920.    


On 11 April 1920, the second assassination attempt against K. Ulmanis followed. From 12 June 1920 to 18 June 1921, he was the Prime Minister again. On 27 April 1921, he was assaulted again for the third time. On 18 June 1922, the Cultural Fund was established on the initiative of K. Ulmanis. On 28 February 1925, he was awarded the Order of Three Stars, class I. 


From 24 September 1925 to 6 May 1926, he was the Prime Minister. From 7 May to 18 December 1926, he was the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Between 27 March and 5 December 1931 and between 17 March and 15 May 1934, he was the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was the Prime Minister from 18 May 1934 to 20 June 1940. On 15 May 1934, K. Ulmanis organized a coup. The period of his authoritarian power began in Latvia since that time. On 11 April 1934, he took over the position of State President and Prime Minister and declared himself as the Leader of the people. 



In 1937, he established the Motherland Prize. He was honoured with the higher-class award – Order of Three Stars on 11 August 1938.   


On 21 July 1940, he devolved the leader’s power on A. Kirhenšteins. On 22 July 1940, he was deported to USSR. He got to Moscow on 23 June 1940.


Within the period from 29 July 1940 to May 1941, he was in exile and resided in a specially prepared mansion in the city of Voroshilovsk. On 4 July 1941, Soviet Power arrested K. Ulmanis for his counter-revolutionary activity against the international Communist movement and put him to the internal prison of the National Security Bureau in Ordzhonikidze region. On 8 September 1942, he was delivered to Krasnovodsk, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, where he was hospitalized to prison hospital on 14 September 1942.He died in the Krasnovodsk prison on 20 September 1942. According to witnesses, he was buried in the Krasnovodsk cemetery.  



The fourth President of the Republic of Latvia, Kārlis Ulmanis, was born on 4 September 1877 in an isolated farmstead Udzes Pikšas pertaining to Bērzes parish of Jelgava district, which was managed by his father Indriķis and the father’s wife, Lizette. He received the basic education in Bērmuižas Elementary School, then in Alexander School in the city of Jelgava, and in Jelgava Non-classical Secondary School, which he quit in 1896. In the same year, he went to East Prussia to study at Tapiava Dairy Farm School. In 1897, he worked as a dairy farm manager in Riga. In 1902, he held dairy farm courses in Bērmuiža jointly with J. Bergs.       


From 1902 to 1903, he studied at Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich, Switzerland. Within the period from 1903 to 1905, he studied agriculture in the Agricultural School of Leipzig University, holding several dairy course programs in Latvia at the same time.      


Kārlis Ulmanis was involved into the revolution of 1905. On 21 December 1905, in response to his subversive speeches and articles supporting Latvian school, Mr. Ulmanis was imprisoned and had to stay in Pskov prison for some time. He was released from prison in 1906. In 1907, years in exile in Germany and USA followed, where he studied agriculture in a few U.S. college type educational institutions. Due to hard work, he managed to become an economic business manager and a lecturer of Nebraska University. 


In March 1913, Russia announced amnesty for the revolutionaries of 1905. Early in summer on returning to Latvia, Mr. Ulmanis worked as an agronomist for the Baltic Agricultural Association in Valmiera and as an instructor for Riga Agricultural Central Committee. From 1914 to 1916, he worked as editor for „Zeme” (“Land”) magazine published by the Baltic Agricultural Association. In 1916, he was elected to the Committee for Baltic Latvian refugees support as a Member of Board. In March 1917, he was elected to the Vidzeme Provisional Land Council and the interim Deputy Commissioner of the Vidzeme province in April. He took part in the foundation of the Latvian Farmers Union, the largest political party at that time. 


On 17 November 1918, he was elected the Prime Minister of the People’s Council of Latvia. On 18 November 1918, he became the first Prime Minister of Latvia. Until 1940, he occupied this position 5 times in total.



He was also the Minister of Foreign Affairs or was acting for the Minister four times; he was the Minister of Defence once the Minister of Supply and Agriculture a few times. Mr. Ulmanis was a politician with an outstanding talent. However, he was mainly interested in home policy, support of domestic life, and promotion of the people’s prosperity. As regards foreign policy, he was most interested in trade agreements and establishment of the Baltic Entente. He would still read envoys’ reports and wrote aptly notes on the margin.  


Mr. Ulmanis’ ideal was purely Latvian, essentially agricultural, independent, and economically secured neutral Latvia. Mr. Ulmanis was an ardent patriot and he wanted to make Latvia, where a quarter of the population were non-Latvians, a true Latvian country.  


However, the first 20 years of Latvia’s independence brought disappointment to K. Ulmanis and the feeling of being outcast in spite of intense political activities. In his address on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Latvia’s independence on 18 November 1938, Mr. Ulmanis said: „The very first years after the termination of the fight for freedom were full of work, energy, and achievements. However, other times set in then – with disagreements, squabbles, futile disputes, and useless talks. Noble ideals began to fade away, and one-day bills and calculations threatened to take root instead so that foreigners could say such words about us later: having cured the wounds of war, you got stuck in a rut of everyday life and you were still missing something despite you had managed to achieve some successes. You lacked a rock-solid will and a purposeful, goal-oriented organization." It seems that such ideas urged Kārlis Ulmanis as the Prime Minster acting jointly with Jānis Balodis, Minister of Defence, to venture upon suspension of the Satversme and the activities of the Saeima (Parliament) on 15 May 1934. 


It was a staged coup, establishment of an authoritarian regime and autocracy, which was probably due to lack of democratic traditions in new countries and the general surge of nationalism in Europe - similar coups were staged in the past by Antanas Smetona in Lithuania and Konstantin Päts in Estonia. According to the assessment of his contemporaries, Mr. Ulmanis was not so much a thinker as a doer, who relied on his intuition. He was never apt to push-and-drag policy, and he was a gifted politician featuring iron will, huge energy, faculties of an organizer, fanatic love of labour, modesty in personal life, and deep and true patriotism. 


He never got married, he was unpretentious in everyday life, he dressed simply, and he ate plain food; he was interested neither in money nor in property. He donated a large part of his income to his party and to charitable purposes later. However, according to observers, Mr Ulmanis’ work and successes raised his self-esteem largely and perhaps even created certain arrogance and self-righteousness. He became ever more confident that it was ordained by fate to make him leader of the Latvian people and the ruler of Latvia. The main motto of the dictatorship was „Unity, Leadership, Latvianness”. He seemed to decide everything all by himself, and he paid almost no attention to advisers and did not listen to any advice unless he sought advice himself. At the same time, he would always listen to other people’s considerations before he took any decision, but he expected absolute trust and reliance on him in process of implementing a decision after it was taken.Mr. Ulmanis had great sense of superiority and he showed strong dislike for competitors. He ruled Latvia with the assistance of the Cabinet, whose members had been selected by himself.  


During the Ulmanis’ dictatorship, indisputable progress in agriculture and in the field of state farms establishment was made. Still, while striving to help people and provide a better future for them, Mr. Ulmanis had actually deprived them of the right of independent choice, largely subordinated private households to state control, and partially transformed into the state economy. Even more considerable achievements were made in the field of education and culture, because activity of the Culture Fund intensified, „Friendly Appeal” was established, the Agricultural Academy, the Latvian Institute of History, and Motherland Prize were founded.



As regards the achievements, the following could be emphasized: construction of the Brethren Cemetery was finished; a large number of monumental buildings and monuments was erected, especially school buildings in province (even 94 new school buildings per year were opened during the boom). At that time, the Ķegums hydroelectric power plant and new railways were opened and a more intensive development of local resources like peat and limestone started; revival and upgrading of agriculture took place; export was expanded, and the finance and monetary resources were quite stable.   


In parallel, some restrictions on democracy took place as well; there was a prominent exacerbation of national policy even in the field of economy; however, there was also the undisputable national upheaval and growth of idealism in the public proceedings sector. There was also the cult of leadership that sometimes took an unattractive form of subjectivism and authoritarianism. Ulmanis could certainly be criticized for lack of activity in foreign policy. Within the six years of his leadership, he never left Latvia neither in a diplomatic mission nor in a private trip. Moreover, Ulmanis’ government paid little attention to national defence.


K. Ulmanis resolved the unpleasant issue of National Electoral Affairs on 12 March 1936 just by through the decision of the Cabinet to take the President's post in his hands, too. Now he had become the sole ruler - the head of government, the President, and the supreme commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and the Land Guards. The law passed on 12 March 1936 stated that Ulmanis as Prime Minister would perform the President’s duties until the Satversme (Constitution) reforms have been put through as provided for in Declaration of 18 May 1934, and, should he be unable to perform the office of President when being on vacation or for some other reason, it would be performed by Minister of Defence Jānis Balodis. This law also abolished all the existing laws as far as they specified a different procedure of President Office performance. It is therefore not surprising that after three years that Mr. Ulmanis had already spent in the President's office, nothing really happened, and he calmly kept this position, ignoring the fact that the tenure of President had expired. 


In accordance with the law passed on 23 April 1940, which took effect on 15 May 1940, Kārlis Ulmanis took over the absolute power in Latvia. Now he was the supreme leader not only of Armed Forces but also of all the National Defence, having taken over all the manpower and material resources. He was the only person, who could decide the fate of Latvia – although, with the knowledge of the National Defence Council established on 9 April 1940. The dictatorship, foreign and military policy lead by the President of Latvia had weakened Latvia’s ability to resist in an extremely challenging international situation, and, after the Soviet ultimatum of 16 June 1940, Mr. Ulmanis did not give an order to fight against the Red Army and submitted to the occupying authority.   


On 17 June 1940, Mr. Ulmanis gave up his position of the Prime Minister only and stayed on as President of the country, counting on some kind of cooperation with the new order and as low number of human victims as possible. Mr. Ulmanis’ activity in those landmark days was not evaluated unambiguously, and discussions on his guiding motifs and possible alternatives will still continue.   


On 22 July 1940, Kārlis Ulmanis was deported to Moscow and then to Voroshilovsk (currently Stavropol) in North Caucasus, where he lived in the grip of poverty until 22 June 1941, when the German fascists invaded the Soviet Union. Then he was subject to preventive detention and was brought to Makhachkala near the Caspian Sea with the fascists approaching Caucasus. When the Nazis forced into Caucasus in September 1942, he was transported across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk (Turkmenistan) jointly with other prisoners or refugees. The final stage of Kārlis Ulmanis’ life and activity is still wrapped in a shroud of mystery. Possible burial place is the Old Cemetery in Krasnovodsk, where former prisoners are buried whereas the actual place of burial is still unknown.