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Kalniņš was one of the leading figures of the social-democratic youth movement in interwar Latvia, and an elected member of the Saeima (parliament). As a key social-democratic activist, he was arrested and exiled to Sweden as a result of the authoritariancoup d'état by Kārlis Ulmanis in 1934.
After World War II he lived in Sweden, where he wrote several books on Baltic and Russian history and helped re-form the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party in exile. Although his later writings were critical of the Soviet régime in his homeland, many Latvians could not forgive him for his collaboration with the Soviets in 1940–41.