The European Latvian Youth Association (ELJA) – History and Importance

Ģirts Zēgners

Following the occupation of Latvia, Latvian exiles were dispersed across the continents. In the early 1950s young Latvians in the USA, Canada and Western Europe, and later in Australia and to a lesser extent South America, founded their own organisations to guard against the risk of assimilation into the local community, and to meet on a regular basis to discuss their common and varying problems. These young Latvians formed an extensive and powerful network to maintain mutual contact, exchange ideas and collaborate across seas and continents. From the late 1950s onwards, the new “global Latvians” started to establish personal contacts with their contemporaries all over the world. Starting in 1968, young Latvians from across the globe would meet at a succession of 11 World Latvian Youth Congresses, which were attended by up to 500 participants   each from the non-communist world.

Despite the prevailing authoritarian trends within conservative society, youth organisations became an established part of Latvian society in exile. In their approach towards the Soviet regime and the powers-that-be in Latvia, their combat tactics and strategies differed from those of the Latvian refugee generation, which frequently resulted in disagreements and even conflicts with the central organisations founded by the older generation in exile.

On the other hand, despite many efforts of Soviet institutions (including the KGB) from the 1960s onwards, they did not succeed in influencing the anti-communist orientation of the European Latvian Youth Association (ELJA) or to turn it into an organisation loyal to the Soviet regime.

After the start of the Awakening during the mid-1980s, the first World Youth Congress, where Latvian youth in exile and their contemporaries from Latvia could freely meet and debate the issues of the day took place in 1989 in Finland. Unfortunately, after 40 years in exile, along with its fellow exiled youth organisations, now consisting of the second generation of Latvians born in exile, as an organised force ELJA was unable to influence the Latvian youth movement and secure a corresponding foothold within it.

However, many former ELJA members occupied notable positions in the political and social life of the renewed Republic of Latvia. After moving to Latvia from the various countries they lived in, they joined up to form an organisation ELJA50 in which over 100 former members of ELJA continued the work they had begun in exile, participating in public life and influencing the work of governmental and non-governmental organisations in the establishment of the democratic Latvian state.