In January 1991, Latvia, which had declared independence from the Soviet Union in the previous year, was attacked by pro-Soviet forces, notably the OMON of Riga. The events that took place between 13 and 27 January 1991, are known as "The Barricades" - because of barricades built for the defense of strategic objectives (mainly in the capital city of Riga and nearby Ulbroka, as well as Kuldīga and Liepāja). At least 7 people were killed, and a total of 15,611 people have registered themselves as participants of the Barricades.
During World War II Latvia had been incorporated into the USSR. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika policies, hoping to salvage the failing Soviet economy. The reforms also lessened restrictions on political freedom in the Soviet Union. This led to unintended consequences as problems within the Soviet Union and crimes of the Soviet regime, previously kept secret and denied by the government, were exposed, causing public dissatisfaction, further deepened by the war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl disaster. Massive demonstrations against the Soviet regime began. In Latvia an independence movement was set up. The supporters of independence - the Popular Front of Latvia, the Latvian Green Party and the Latvian National Independence Movement - won elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR, on 18 March 1990 and formed the Popular Front of Latvia faction, leaving the pro-Soviet Equal Rights faction in opposition.
On 4 May 1990, the Supreme Soviet, which afterwards became known as the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia, declared the restoration of independence of Latvia and began secession from the Soviet Union. The USSR didn't recognize these actions as they were considered contrary to the Soviet federal and republican constitutions. Consequently tension in relations between Latvia and the Soviet Union and between the independence movement and pro-Soviet forces, such as the International Front of the Working People of Latvia (Interfront) and the Communist Party of Latvia, along with its All-Latvian Public Rescue Committee, grew. In late 1990, the Soviet Union called for a new Union Treaty, which Latvian government officials refused to sign, and in addition the Popular Front began to gather signatures against the new Union Treaty on 27 November 1990. By 17 December 1990 1 002 829 signatures had been gathered. The pro-Soviet forces tried to provoke violence and seize power in Latvia. A series of bombings occurred in December 1990, Marshal of the Soviet Union Dmitry Yazov admitted that the military was responsible for the first four bombings, perpetrators of the other bombings remain unknown, the pro-Communist press of the time blamed Latvian nationalists.
The government of the Soviet Union and other pro-Soviet groups threatened that a state of emergency would be established which would grant unlimited authority in Latvia to President Gorbachev and military force would be used to "implement order in the Baltic Republics". At the time Soviet troops, OMON units and KGB forces were stationed in Latvia. On 23 December 1990 a large combat group of KGB was exposed in Jūrmala. It was rumored at the time that there would be a coup and a dictatorship would be established. Foreign minister of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze seemingly confirmed this when he resigned on 20 December 1990, stating that a dictatorship was coming.
On 11 December 1990, the Popular Front released an announcement stating that there was no need for a climate of fear and hysteria in what was dubbed hour X - the unlimited authority of the president - would come and every person should be ready to consider what they would do if that happened. The Popular Front also said what should be done until the hour X and afterwards, if Soviet forces were successful. These plans called for acts to show support for independence, attract the attention of international society and join volunteer guard units. Reasoning with Russians in Latvia explaining to them, especially military officers, that the ideas of the Popular Front are similar to those of Russian democrats. An effort to protect the economy and ensure information circulation should also be made. In case of Soviet control being successfully established, this plan called for a campaign of civil disobedience - ignoring any orders and requests of the Soviet authorities, as well as any Soviet elections and referendums, also to undermine the Soviet economy by going on strike and by following the absurdly elaborate Soviet manufacturing instructions in order to paralyse production, helping the independence movement to continue its work illegally and helping its supporters to get involved in the work of the Soviet institutions. Finally, carefully documenting any crimes Soviet forces might commit during the state of emergency.
On 2 January 1991 the OMON seized the Preses Nams (English: Press House), the national printing house of Latvia and attacked Criminal police officers who were documenting the event. The Supreme council held session in which it was reported that the manager of the Preses Nams was being held hostage, while other workers, although physically and psychologically abused, apparently were allowed to leave the printing house. The Supreme council officially recognised taking of the printing house as an illegal act of the Communist Party of Latvia. Popular front organised protest and Communist party building. The printing house was partly paralysed as it continued to print only pro-Soviet press. On 4 January the OMON seized the telephone exchange in Vecmīlgrāvis, it is speculated that it was because the telephone lines the OMON were using were cut off. Thereafter, the OMON seized the ministry of internal affairs but the phone wasn't cut off for fear that the OMON would attack the international telephone exchange. Contrary to OMON officer claims Boris Karlovich Pugo and Mikhail Gorbachev both claimed they were not informed of this attack. Meanwhile, the Soviet military was on the move - that same day an intelligence unit arrived in Riga.
On 11 January, the Military Council of the Baltic Military District was held. It decided to arm Soviet officers and cadets with machine guns. Open movement of Soviet troops and armored vehicles were seen in the streets of Riga. Several meetings by both pro-independence and pro-Soviet movements were held on 10 January Interfront held a meeting calling on the government of Latvia to resign. Some 50,000 people participated and tried to break into the Cabinet of Ministers building after being asked to do so by military personnel. On 11 January, the Soviet military launched an attack on Latvia's neighbour, Lithuania.
On 12 January, the Popular Front announced nationwide demonstrations to be held on 13 January in support of Latvia's lawfully elected government and the guarding of strategic objectives. The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR called the Soviet government to withdraw its military forces from the Baltic States. Leaders of the Latvian government met with Gorbachev who gave assurances that force would not be used. That night the Popular Front, after learning that Soviet forces in Lithuania had attacked the Vilnius TV Tower and killed 13 civilians, called on people to gather for the defense of strategic objectives. Due to a united effort of the Baltic states to regain their independence in the previous years of the singing revolution, an attack on one of them was perceived as an attack on all of them.
At 4:45 on 13 January, an announcement from the Popular Front was broadcast by Latvian radio calling people to gather in Riga Cathedral square. At 12:00 noon the Supreme Council session on defense issues was held. At 14.00 the Popular Front's demonstration began, around 700,000 people had gathered, Soviet helicopters dropped leaflets with warnings over the crowd at this point. The Popular Front called on people to build barricades. The Supreme council held another session after the demonstration, the MPs were asked to stay at the Supreme council overnight. The evening session issued a call for Soviet soldiers asking them to disobey orders concerning the use of force against civilians. As night came, following orders from the government, agricultural and construction machines and trucks full of logs arrived in Riga to build barricades. Barricades were also built in Liepāja and Kuldīga.
On 14 January, the Soviet military demanded that Latvian laws be repealed. The OMON attacked Brasa and Vecmilgrāvis bridges. 17 cars were burned during the day. On the night of 15 January the OMON twice attacked the Riga branch of the Minsk Militia Academy. Later that day 10,000 people gathered for an Interfront meeting, where an All-Latvian Public Rescue Committee declared that it was taking over power in Latvia. This announcement was broadcast in the Soviet media.
On 16 January, the supreme council organised MPs to stay overnight at the supreme council building to ensure a quorum in case of need. At 4:45 pm, in another attack on Vecmilgrāvis bridge, Roberts Mūrnieks was killed - becoming the first fatality at the barricades. Two other people were also injured. At 6:30 pm the OMON attacked Brasa bridge, injuring one person. Another bombing took place at 8:45 pm.
On 17 January, the alarm was sounded at the Barricades, the strike committee of the Communist Party of Latvia declared that fascism was being reborn in Latvia. A delegation of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR visited Riga. Upon its return to Moscow, the delegation reported that Latvia was in favour of the establishment of unlimited authority of the USSR president.
On 18 January the Supreme Soviet decided to form a national self-defense committee. The Popular Front withdrew its call to protect the barricades.
On 19 January, the funeral of Roberts Mūrnieks turned into a demonstration. That night the OMON arrested and beat up five members of a volunteer guard unit.
On 20 January, about 100,000 people gathered in Moscow to show their support for the Baltic states, calling on Soviet officials to resign in connection with the events in Vilnius. That evening turned out to be the deadliest at the Barricades after the OMON and other unidentified combat groups attacked the Latvian Interior Ministry. Two policemen, a schoolboy, and a cameraman were killed. Another cameraman died later of his injuries. Four Bauska policemen were injured, as were five participants of the barricades, a Hungarian journalist, and a Russian journalist. It was noted that the attackers also suffered casualties. After the battle, the OMON moved into the Latvian communist party building.
On 21 January, the Supreme council called on youths to apply for a job in the Interior ministry system. Gorbunov left for Moscow to meet with Gorbachev to discuss the situation in Latvia. On 22 January, Pugo denied that he had ordered an attack on the interior ministry. Another person was killed on the barricades.
On 24 January, the Council of ministers established a public safety department to guard the barricades.
On 25 January, after the funeral of the 20 January victims, most defenders of the barricades went home.
On 13 January, following the Popular Front's calls to build barricades, people gathered in Riga. Part of this crowd gathered in Riga Cathedral Square as the Popular Front had asked in its morning announcement. Others gathered after the midday demonstration. They included work colleagues and students. Some were organised by their employers and alma maters. Many families arrived, including women, the elderly and children. By that time most were already morally prepared that something could happen. People had arrived from all over the country. Trucks, engineering vehicles and agricultural machinery were brought into the city to block streets. Trucks were loaded with construction and demolition waste, logs and other cargo. Large concrete blocks, walls, wire obstacles and other materials were also used. The building work begun on the evening of 13 January and took about three hours. The main objects of strategic interest were the Supreme Council buildings (Old town near St. James's Cathedral), the Council of Ministers (City center near the Nativity of Christ Cathedral), Latvian Television (Zaķusala), Latvian Radio (Old town near Riga Cathedral), the International Telephone exchange offices (City center), Ulbroka radio and bridges. Barricades were largely perceived as a form of nonviolent resistance, people being ready to form a human shield. However, many people did arm themselves, using whatever was available, ranging from pieces of metal to specially crafted shields and civil defence supplies. Some had also prepared Molotov cocktails, but these were confiscated to ensure fire safety. The Latvian militia was armed with sub-machine guns and handguns. The Latvian government was later criticized for not providing weapons. These they had, as was evidenced after the OMON seized the Ministry of Interior and removed a considerable number of weapons (it was asserted that there were 200 firearms in the ministry). By the 20 January, the government also urged the transfer of control of the barricades to government forces. This was seen by some as disaffection with the whole idea. This opinion was enforced when part of the barricades were demolished after the government took control of them.
Care was taken to record the events, not only for accounting purposes and personal keepsakes, but also to show the world what was happening. About 300 foreign journalists worked in Riga at the time. The Latvian government ensured that the foreign press was provided with constant updates. People also watched satellite television - some say that reports on the Gulf War helped to destroy belief in the myth of superiority of the Soviet armed forces,which was a result of Soviet propaganda. Many strategic objects were important mainly for the transfer of information. This would ensure that if the Soviets did launch an attack, the Latvian forces could hold these locations long enough to inform the rest of the world. The international telephone exchange was important to maintain connections with both foreign countries and other parts of the USSR. An often noted example is Lithuania. It was partly cut off from the rest of the world after the Soviet attack. Foreign calls to Lithuania were transferred through Riga. Latvian radio and television worked day and night to broadcast throughout the time of the barricades.
Radio played an important part in life on the barricades. It was used to organize eating and sleeping arrangements, calling people together (e.g. students from the same university), for the various meetings. Artists were invited to entertain people. Foresters were asked to provide firewood for the bonfires that were widely used by the people manning the barricades. Food and drink was provided by a number of public institutions. Many well-wishers provided knit socks and gloves as well as refreshments. Places to sleep were often hard to find - schools were used where possible. Many people either slept at the barricades or went home. Some people experienced exacerbation of their health problems which was not helped by the winter climate, exhaustion and stress. First Aid points were setup with additional medical supplies and equipment, some were based on existing locations. Beds were installed in a number and had teams based on doctors from local hospitals. Shifts were formed by daily routine - people who went to their job, studies or home were replaced by people who returned to the barricades after their daily duties. Most workers who had been on the barricades later received their usual salary regardless of if they had or hadn't been to work. Prime minister Ivars Godmanis regularly held meetings with commanders of individual barricades, the Popular Front also participated to discuss tactics. It was decided to enforce protection of the most important objectives by assigning militia to their defense. The supplies for the barricades were coordinated by the Popular Front. The individual barricades were organised by regions. Thus, people from Vidzeme were assigned to barricades overseen by the Vidzeme suburb chapter of the Popular Front. The pro-Soviet forces tried to infiltrate barricades for sabotage. Rumors were spread that attacks were planned.
The actual barricades stayed on the streets of Riga for a long time; for example, those at the Supreme Soviet were removed only in the autumn of 1992. Soviet forces continued to harass Latvia - several Latvian border posts were attacked in the summer and during the Soviet coup attempt of 1991 several strategic objectives guarded during the barricade phase were seized.
Major attacks were carried out by the OMON of Riga, however another combat unit was seen during the attack on the Ministry of Interior Affairs. It has been speculated that this unit was Alpha Group which had been seen in action during the attack on Vilnius. In an interview with film director Juris Podnieks, an OMON officer stated that originally it was planned to attack Riga, not Vilnius. At the last moment, a week before the attack on Vilnius, the plan was suddenly changed. He also claimed that the OMON of Rīga was so well prepared that there was no need for the Soviet military, which was present in Rīga at the time, to engage. The OMON did not act on their own - after the Preses Nams was seized the OMON claimed that high officials of the Soviet government - Boris Karlovich Pugo and Mikhail Gorbachev knew about the attack, however both denied their involvement and the Supreme Council blamed the Communist Party of Latvia. In December before the events, the Popular Front, in its instructions for X hour, asserted that a coup was planned by the "Soyuz" group of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR MPs. Dimitry Yuzhkov admitted that the Soviet military was responsible for the first bombings, however no one claimed responsibility for the rest of the bombings, which the communist press blamed on Latvian nationalists. On the basis of these and subsequent events, several OMON officers were tried, although many of them were not convicted, the Communist Party of Latvia, Interfront, the All-Latvian Public Rescue Committee and a few related organizations were banned by parliament for the attempted coup d'état, and two leaders of CPL and ALPRC were tried for treason. 
Viktor Alksnis transplanted a large number of the Baltic OMON forces to the Transnistrian territory of Moldova in support of the separatist regime there, where Vladimir Antyufeyev, commander of the Riga OMON forces, took on the role of Minister of Security initially under an assumed name (Vladimir Shevstov), a post he still holds. It is unlikely at this point that the OMON will be brought to trial.
In 1995, a support fund for 'Participants of the Barricades of 1991' was created. The fund is for the families of victims. It also gathers information on participants. In 2001 the fund created the 'Museum of the Barricades of 1991' to make historical materials it had gathered available to the public. 20 January is the commemoration day of Participants of the Barricades, on this day as well as on 18 November, 4 May and 21 August, participants of the barricades are awarded commemorative medals, This award was established by the fund of 'Participants of the Barricades of 1991' in 1996. Since 1999 it is awarded by the state for those who had shown courage and unselfishness during the Barricades. The Barricades are also commemorated by numerous monuments in Latvia.