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The death of a legend

For Latvia, Vija Artmane was more than an actress. She was a role model, a cultural icon, and a prodigy of the silver screen. Atmane, who passed away on Oct. 11 after a prolonged battle with illness, was a symbol of Latvian culture worldwide. Within days of her death, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent his condolences to Artmane's family and fans. The gesture revealed just how much Artmane contributed to culture in the 20th century.

Thousands came out to pay their final respects to the actress at the public funeral on Oct. 15. Police arrived at the scene to help keep order as mourners formed long lines outside of the Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga. The funeral drew some high-profile attendants, including Latvian President Valdis Zatlers, Culture Minister Helena Demakova, and Children and Family Affairs Minister Ainars Bastiks, representing the prime minister. Members of the Latvian Parliament, famous actors, film and theater directors, artists and representatives of the Russian and Lithuanian embassies in Riga also came to pay their respects.

Artmane was widely recognized as one of the great contributors to Latvian culture. She has received numerous prizes and medals for her contribution to culture, including the title of "national actress of Latvia," given out by the Soviet regime in 1969. In 1987, she received the Lilita Berzina Prize, which was later followed by the Berta Rumniece Prize in 1996. In 2003 she received a special Theatre Prize from the Ministry of Culture for her long-standing contribution to Latvian culture. Artmane led a socially active life. In the Soviet Union, she was a deputy and member of the Peace Council. She had been the chairman and an active member of the Latvian Theater Union since 1950, as well as a member of the Union of Latvian Filmmakers.

Born in 1929 in the Tukums region of central Latvia, Artmane grew up on a farm working as a shepherd. In 1946, she moved to Riga and began studying at the Daile Theater Second Studio, where she worked as the leading star of the acting troupe 50 years. She left Daile in 1998 and went to work at Riga New Theater for the next two years. She worked on a number of groundbreaking Latvian plays during her time at the theater alongside another legend of the Latvian stage, director Eduards Smiļģis. Some of the most famous plays she worked on include "Indulis and Ārija" and "Ilja Muromietis" by famous Latvian writer Rainis, "Pygmalion" by G.B. Shaw, "Dead Souls" by Nikolai Gogol, "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet" by Shakespeare, "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy, and "Vaidelote" by Aspazija. Artmane was already recognized as a star in Latvia when she skyrocketed to international fame in 1963 by taking the lead role of Sonya in the popular film "Rodnaya Krov."

From there, she went on to play a number of prominent roles throughout the next three decades, including roles as Veda Kong in the popular science fiction film "Tumannost' Andromedy" (1967), as Empress Catherine the Great in the historical drama "Yemelyan Pugachyov" (1978), and as Julia Lamber in the film "Teātris" (1978). Artmane also appeared as herself in a documentary on her life entitled Conversation with the Queen (1980) which was produced at the Riga Film Studio.