From child refugee to president: Latvia's Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Lyse Doucet talks to remarkable women across the globe about their role in the democratic system. In this first programme, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent hears the extraordinary life story of Vaira Vike-Freiberga. She became president of Latvia in 1999, just eight months after returning to the country she had left at the age of seven. “I was elected on the 17th of June, which I thought was a nice date, because that’s the date in which 1940 the Soviet Army crossed our borders and invaded us,” she tells Lyse. “I said to myself: ‘Now we are getting an exile as a president returning and recovering the country, as it were’.”

Vaira Vike-Freiberga talks to Lyse Doucet in the first episode of the new series of Her Story Made History. You can listen to it now on BBC Sounds:

The little girl who fled from war-torn Latvia spent more than 50 years in exile – but soon after returning she became president.

Not only that, Vaira Vike-Freiberga became the first female head of a former Soviet bloc state.

“My parents never let me forget that I am Latvian,” she told the BBC.

The Baltic state was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War Two.

She has vivid memories of that chaotic time, especially 1944, when Russian troops – the communist Red Army – marched back into Latvia.

“I was impressed by the ones with the red flags and the fists. So at one point, as one of them marched by, I raised my fist in the air and shouted ‘hurrah!’,” she says.

“At that point I saw my mother lean against the lamppost, absolutely stricken, with tears streaming down her cheeks, saying ‘Please, child, don’t do that. This is a very sad day for Latvia’.”

Full interview:

Photo: Riga, 1942: Vaira aged five – she soon became a refugee, Private Photo Archive