Arriving in Bernāti in 1924, The First President of Latvia Jānis Čakste expressed joy at the fresh air of the sea area and said: “There must be a resort here!” Two years later, a memorial sign was installed here, in which these words were engraved.
In 2013, the memorial site was landscaped by installing a comfortable staircase with two viewing platforms and benches.
The first President of the Republic of Latvia (1922–1927), the first Chairman of the People’s Council (1918–1920), the first President of the Constitutional Assembly of the Republic of Latvia (1920–1922), an outstanding lawyer and specialist in international law, a freelance professor at the University of Latvia and a doctor of law at the university, a person with a bright mind, a firm stand and a kind smile.
Jānis Čakste and his childhood
Jānis Kristaps Čakste was born in Rundāle area in “Čaksti-Zirņi” house in a family of prosperous farmers, for whom his son’s education had been one of the priorities for personal development. Little Jānis, under the guidance of a governor, learned all the basic skills, as well as additionally studied French, music, and theater. He started school at Anna Elementary School in Jelgava but finished his studies in German at Jelgava Men’s Grammar School.
Jānis Čakste and the foreign languages
After graduating from the grammar school, the young man knew five foreign languages – Latin, Ancient Greek, German, French and Russian. At that time, mostly Latvian young people studied at Terbata University, but Jānis Čakste already chose a different path during school, deliberately studied Russian and received higher education at the Faculty of Law of Moscow University, it was the citadel of liberal legal thought of the Russian Empire then.
Jānis Čakste and the Latvian language
It was forbidden to speak Latvian in educational institutions at that time, but Jānis Čakste, together with his schoolmates, formed a group of compatriots who gathered in the evenings in his apartment in order to develop knowledge of history and the Latvian language. During his studies, he organized the social life of Latvian students, met a young Latvian man, Krišjānis Valdemārs, who was the ideal of a public political figure for Jānis. The Latvian society “Austrums” was founded, which sustained the Latvian spirit.
Janis Čakste and the Justice
After his studies, he returned to Jelgava and began working as a secretary of the Prosecutor’s Office of the Kurzeme Province and an assistant to the lawyer Andrejs Stērste. He gained success in civil cases, peasant lawsuits against the property owners. At the same time, he participated in various societies, including the “Jelgava Red Cross Committee”, the Jelgava Latvian Society, the Jelgava Agricultural Society, and the Kurzeme Beekeeping Society. He helped to solve problems and defended the rights of the Latvian people as he could.
Jānis Čakste and the publishing
It is interesting that the future president was also the publisher and editor of the weekly newspaper “Tēvija”, which defended the interests of Latvian peasants and fought against the privileges of the Baltic nobility of the German origin, until 1906. At that time, it was the most read publication in Kurzeme and Vidzeme. As he was a representative of the intellectual elite of his time, J. Čakste purposefully formed public opinion and spoke about the autonomy of Latvia.
Janis Čakste and his family
At the age of 32, Jānis Čakste married Justīne Vesere, who was a like minded person and helper in all his efforts. The native home “Auči” became the center of the Latvian intellectuals in Jelgava. He had a large family with 9 children – 5 sons and 4 daughters. The father loved his children but did not spoil them. “Learn and gain knowledge, it’s a possession that no one can take away from you,” Čakste said. Family values were important to him. He was aware of the importance of such strong families for the whole of Latvia, thus Jānis Čakste had once even addressed Latvian women to increase the number of Latvians, because if there were six children in each Latvian family, the number of Latvian residents in one generation could increase from 2.5 to 7.5 million.
Jānis Čakste and apples
He was close to work in the countryside throughout his life – he devoted himself to beekeeping and farming in his spare time in “Auči” and one spring together with his children he planted 1000 apple trees . Unfortunately, during the war, both the garden and the houses were destroyed. In 2019, in honor of the birthday of the first president, a new apple variety “Čakstes Auči” was created – a late summer variety with large red fruits.
Jānis Čakste and the song festival
In 1885, the Russian government banned the song festival. The Russification was very active, and the national holiday was banned. Thanks to the initiative of Jānis Čakste, cunningly under the pretext of the anniversary of the annexation of Kurzeme to Russia and the anniversary of Tsarina Catherine, it was agreed that the IV General Latvian Song and Music Festival would take place in Jelgava. He was the chief of the committee for this festival. Trains from Riga to Jelgava ran for free and the boat ran along the Lielupe river to Jūrmala. J. Čakste himself accommodated the presenters and chief conductors in his own house. It was a grandiose event held in a pavilion which was specially built for this purpose. At that time, it was the largest wooden structure in the world, which could accommodate 5000 singers and 25,000 listeners. In comparison, arena “Rīga” has 14,000 seats for spectators. There was no state funding, so it was wise to build from borrowed timber, demolishing the building after the festival was over and returning the materials. There were other obstacles, such as the rainy weather, due to which water leaked through the roof, so J. Čakste got a roof tarpaper with which to hit a proper roof over night. Censorship forbade the singing of “Dievs svētī Latviju”, however, it was sung and presented as a Latvian prayer. The expenses of the event exceeded the available budget, and Jānis Čakste covered the losses out of his own pocket by selling a house in Jelgava. He won the recognition and love of those around him by organizing this event.
Jānis Čakste and the prison
Active social activity allowed Čakste to develop a political career. He became a city councillor in Jelgava, and later – one of the seven representatives of Kurzeme in the Parliament of Russia– the State Duma. As a parliamentarian, he upheld that all citizens should have equal rights before the law. The Tsar dismissed the city council two months later and Čakste signed a protest manifesto together with other councillors in Vyborg, calling for no taxes to be paid and soldiers not to be given to the army until a new council was convened. Čakste and others were sentenced to 3 months in prison and barred from holding public positions in the Russian Empire.
Jānis Čakste and refugees
At the beginning of the First World War, the German army occupied the entire territory of the Kurzeme province. Jānis Čakste and his family fled to Tartu. There he was elected as the leader of the Central Committee for the Latvian Refugees Supplies. Legal scholars believe that with the establishment of Latvian Riflemen battalions, the activities of this organization were the first practical steps towards the autonomy of Latvia.
Janis Čakste and writing
During his refugee time in Stockholm until the February Revolution of 1917, he wrote and published a pamphlet in German entitled “Latvians and their Latvia: The Voice of a Latvian” (Die Letten und ihre Latwija: Eine lettische Stimme) on Latvian autonomy efforts within the liberal and constitutional Russia and against the historical rights which were claimed by the Baltic German nobility.
Jānis Čakste and Latvia’s independence
After the tsar’s overthrow, various ideas about the future of Latvia were floating in the air. In the autumn of 1917, the interim Latvian National Council began to function in Valka. Čakste worked in its foreign affairs department and warned western countries about plans for the Baltic annexation of The Germans. The day before the establishment of the State of Latvia, Jānis Čakste was elected as the chairman of the Latvian parliament – Tautas padome. Soon he went to Paris and London to defend the interests of the newly established state and encourage its international recognition. Contemporaries have pointed out that the political process of state-building would be unthinkable without the J. Čakste. On May 1, 1921, at the meeting of the first people’s elected parliament – The Constitutional Assembly – Jānis Čakste was elected as its president. He led the work of the legislature and was the head of the state and represented the country internationally. Čakste’s main political activities gained the self-determination, growth, and prosperity for the Latvian people among other free European nations. On November 14, 1922, the First Saeima elected the first President in the history of Latvia. He was the only candidate and was elected to office by a great unanimity. Thanks to his excellent law education, Čakste had a strong understanding of state law. As the president, he did not interfere in the work of parties, maintained political neutrality, and tried to unite them for joint work for the benefit of Latvia. Contemporaries admit that he was a reliable guardian of the rule of law, the guardian of the democratic Constitution.
Jānis Čakste and the foundation of the university
Čakste was also active in the academic field and supported the establishment of a national higher education institution, now the University of Latvia. Already as the president, he urged Latvian students with the words of K. Valdemārs “Bring your knowledge to the nation to build a powerful Latvia!”
Jānis Čakste and democracy
It is known that the main principle written by Jānis Čakste was: “To want what you can, to be able to do what you want.” The combination of moderation and evolution with consistent following the democratic values made him a model representative of liberal democracy with a distinct objectivity and calmness, practical parliamentary and negotiating skills and ingenuity, with the ability to perceive and unite different thoughts. With Latvian self-confidence, tolerance and justice, Jānis Čakste has promoted the loyalty of different classes and minorities to the State of Latvia.
Janis Čakste and Jungfraujoha
His name is included in the list of 100 of the world’s most important freedom fighters in the Freedom Hall on the Swiss mountain Jungfraujoch.
Jānis Čakste and his neighbour
Kārlis Skalbe in his work “Mazās piezīmes”: “When I move to the countryside for the summer, I go out for a walk and meet a neighbor who is ploughing or harrowing in the field. He stops the horse, we sit down on the boundaryline and talk about everything what bothers us,” he once said.
His prominent position was accompanied by a certain official coolness. But it was immediately broken, reviving the air with a light joke, and encouraging everyone with a king smile.
Čakste was the man I have most often seen smiling. Maybe he had to smile due to his high position, maybe it was not easy all the time, he was already an old man who could wish peace. Once, on a large reception, when he stood in the middle of the White Hall, greeting everyone, I said to him: “Aren’t you very exhausted after these representations, Mr. President?” “You know, sometimes it’s easier to chop a pile firewood,” he replied and laughed!”
Jānis Čakste and the 21st century
The house “Auči” offers to see and get to know more about his work and family, which for generations has been scattered throughout the vast world. And we can each think over in Bernāti, “Auči”, in our own apple orchards or wherever we are about the fact that in the 21st century, the good qualities of Jānis Čakste are also relevant and highly valued – justice and honesty, determination and farsightedness in increasing the well-being of one’s own people and land, love of work, ability to lead people for the common good, taking responsibility, family values and goodness. Likewise, the ideals he has set – freedom, independence, and democracy – are just as fragile, important and must be safeguarded.
Sources: The memorial museum of Jānis Čakste in Auči
Collection of commemorative articles “Jānis Čakste”, Jumava, 2019; www.periodika.lv