07 April 2009

Do Latvians have a navel?

Gravely ill and suffering from the economic collapse -- dead broke and feeling somewhat like the Man in the Holocene -- I've not blogged during a period in which Latvia has been featured in the world media as "Europe's sickest country."

I was commissioned to write a brief condensation of the history of Latvia, my work on the first draft falling, par hasard, between two of our most important national holidays -- November 11th and November 18th. The celebration on the 11th -- Bear Slayer's Day -- dates to 1919, when Bermondt-Avalov's forces were driven from the left bank of Rīga by the swelling ranks of Latvian volunteers and British and French warships. November 18th is our national day. In 1918 -- a year before that victory -- the independent Republic of Latvia was proclaimed in the National Theater (then the Second Municipal or Russian Theater). This being the 90th anniversary of that proclamation (of which event there is only a single photo -- a freshly released documentary film on the subject is entitled The Only Photograph), this November was suffused with more patriotism than is usual (this site -- in Latvian, English, and Russian -- has a calendar of events as well as a wealth of articles and links).

I wrote about the meaning of Bear Slayer's Day last autumn. This year, between translating a cantata (Beļskis' and Kulakovs' Vēstules uz bruģa, released on DVD with English subtitles this week -- also a patriotic endeavor), a couple of hefty art books, the program for the Latvian pavilion in Gothenburg, the yearbook of the House of Language and an annual report on corruption -- and condensing several centuries of history and a few more of prehistory into twenty-five pages -- I find time only for tired debates so dismal I won't link to them here. With a host of ideas swooping down into my swirling head, however, I thought I'd sketch a few fleeting half-formed thoughts before they flew away.

I did go to the bridge that spans the Daugava to mark the rainy 20th anniversary of the founding of the Popular Front. The demographics and politics down here being what they are, it was a somewhat sad event, the police shouting at us to get out of the road in Russian (for an instant, the only difference between now and then was the replacement of "comrades" with "ladies and gentlemen," the thickness of the traffic and the lack of Ladas therein). Finally the bridge was closed as several hundred people cradled oil lamps and shielded candles in honor of the occasion. Nearly inaudibly, a choir sang what has become the Latgallian hymn -- "Skaidra volūda."

In Anna Rancāne's poem, set to music by Eugeņs Karūdznīks, language is as clear as water from a spring. The wood sings, stone exults, the corncrake calls, grain ripens, fire crackles, the dog barks -- and the fatherland speaks to us as they do, as clearly as water at its source. Despite its being wildly popular from the Third Awakening of the late 1980s, some still mistake it for a folk song -- its language is as clear as spring water in terms of sound, at least to the Latvian ear (though it is in Latgallian). As Knuts Skujenieks once pointed out to me, no Latvian poet has ever attained the clarity of the dainas and few have even come close. Though many translators have tried their hand at the dainas -- even Jerome Rothenberg -- the goose-flesh they can conjure are as elusive as corncrakes. Rancāne's poem echoes folk songs:

Grieze grieza rudzīšos,
Paipaliņa kārkliņos.

Grieze rudzus briedināja,

Paipaliņa kāsināja.

The corncrake (grīze in Latgallian, grieze in Latvian; the verb griezt means both "to cut" and "to shriek," the bird taking its name from the latter meaning, dainas usually using both senses), is a bird most often heard but not seen, associated with the ripening of rye. Without an understanding of the relations between corncrakes, grain, and even dogs, the sense of the song falters. Latvian speakers can avail themselves of resources like Elina Kūla-Braže's marvelous Putnu dienas, in which 25 of the most notable birds in Latvian folklore fly between God's gardens and Hell (the adventures of the corncrake being especially interesting). As a matter of fact, you can now search and access more than 200 000 dainas from your mobile phone. But -- if you've never seen rye ripening and never heard a corncrake call, you will still be at a loss.

On to the fatherland. "Skaidra volūda" is clearly, at least superficially, as "primordialist" as can be, to use a term scholars of nationalism like Anthony D. Smith, the author of The Ethnic Origins of Nations, would employ; it could be a perfect illustration of the nationalist view in contrast to the perennialist, modernist, and post-modernist takes as summarized here, for example. Smith concludes: "None of these formulations seems to be satisfactory. History is no sweetshop in which its children may 'pick and mix'; but neither is it an unchanging essence or succession of superimposed strata." In the riveting Warwick Debates ("The nation: real or imagined?"), Smith identifies three problems with the modernist theories: their generality, their materialism, and -- "most crucial, since it stems from their commitment to modernism, the idea that nations and nationalisms are the product of modernisation."
What this systematically overlooks is the persistence of ethnic ties and cultural sentiments in many parts of the world, and their continuing significance for large numbers of people. Eric Hobsbawm, indeed, goes so far as to deny any connection between the popular 'Proto-national' communities that he analyses and subsequent political nationalisms.
Introducing an approach he terms "ethno-symbolic," it is here that Smith parts company with his teacher, Ernest Gellner:
This is exactly where I disagree. Modern political nationalisms cannot be understood without reference to these earlier ethnic ties and memories, and, in some cases, to pre-modern ethnic identities and communities. I do not wish to assert that every modern nation must be founded on some antecedent ethnic ties, let alone a definite ethnic community; but many such nations have been and are based on these ties, including the first nations in the West - France, England, Castile, Holland, Sweden - and they acted as models and Pioneers of the idea of the 'nation' for others. And when we dig deeper, we shall find an ethnic component in many national communities since - whether the nation was formed slowly or was the outcome of a more concerted project of 'nation-building'.
Smith's opening statement is entitled "Nations and their pasts." In his response -- "Do nations have navels?" -- Gellner wanders into our part of the world:
There are very, very clear cases of modernism in a sense being true. I mean, take the Estonians. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they didn't even have a name for themselves. They were just referred to as people who lived on the land as opposed to German or Swedish burghers and aristocrats and Russian administrators. They had no ethnonym. They were just a category without any ethnic self-consciousness. Since then they've been brilliantly successful in creating a vibrant culture. This is obviously very much alive in the Ethnographic Museum in Tartu, which has one object for every ten Estonians and there are only a million of them. (The Museum has a collection of 100,000 ethnographic objects). Estonian culture is obviously in no danger although they make a fuss about the Russian minority they've inherited from the Soviet system. It's a very vital and vibrant culture, but, it was created by the kind of modernist process which I then generalise for nationalism and nations in general. And if that kind of account is accepted for some, then the exceptions which are credited to other nations are redundant.
Later in his response, Gellner says that "the Estonians created nationalism ex nihilo in the course of the nineteenth century." Gellner passed away prior to the planned third lecture. Smith offered "Memory and modernity:
reflections on Ernest Gellner's theory of nationalism" in his stead. Though it's unavailable at the London School of Economics ASEN site without a password, Tamil nationalists offer it here.
I could quibble here, and say that the issue was not whether the Estonians created nationalism ex nihilo in the nineteenth century, but whether the Estonian nation was created by the Estonian nationalists ex nihilo. And while we would both agree that Estonian nationalism, indeed any nationalism, was modern, where Ernest and I would differ is whether the nations that nationalism creates are wholly modern creations ex nihilo.


Now here lies the rub. If we pursue the analogy, we recall that God created Adam, fashioning his body and then breathing life into it. Not even the most megalomaniac nationalist has claimed quite that power. They have, of course, seen themselves as awakeners; but the body of the nation merely slumbered, it was not without life. Should we confer on nationalists that divine power, to create ex nihilo?

Of course, Ernest wants to confer that power through nationalism ultimately on modernity, on the growth society, on industrialism and its cultural prerequisites. For Ernest, the genealogy of the nation is located in the requirements of modernity, not the heritage of pre-modern pasts. Ernest is claiming that nations have no parents, no pedigree, except the needs of modern society. Those needs can only be met by a mass, public, literate, specialised and academy-supervised culture, a 'high culture', preferably in a specific language which allows context-free communication. A 'high culture' is the only cement for a modern, mobile, industrial society; and this is the only kind of society open to us today.

For Ernest, the world was irreversibly transformed by a cluster of economic and scientific changes since the seventeenth century. Traditional agro-literate societies were increasingly replaced by growth-oriented, mobile, industrial societies. The rise of high cultures and nations is a consequence of the mobility and anonymity of modern society and of the semantic, non-physical nature of modern work. Today what really matters is not kingship or land or faith, but education into and membership of a high culture community, that is, a nation.
Smith observes that "the Estonians did have a navel after all" -- the Kalevipoeg, as the Finns had the Kalevala.
Both epics traced the descent of the Finns and Estonians to Iron Age culture-communities, and thereby provided these dispossessed and subject peoples with a sense of their dignity through native ancestry and an ancient and heroic ethnic past. In this way, they confirmed the worldwide belief in the virtues of national geneologies. To dismiss this by attributing it to the ubiquitous influence of nationalism again begs the question of why so many people have been mobilised on the basis of this particular belief in the genealogy of nations. Besides, nationalists have usually managed to find some historical antecedents for their nations-to-be, albeit often embellished and exaggerated, and this suggests that there are mechanisms at work which ensure some connection and even continuity between the modern nation and one or more pasts.
Smith goes on to discuss "high" culture, key to Gellner's theory:
In an interesting section of Nations and Nationalism, Ernest contrasts the 'high' culture of modern societies with the 'low' cultures of agro-literate societies. A 'high' culture, as we have seen, is a literate, sophisticated culture, serviced by specialised educational personnel and taught formally in mass, public, standardised and academy-supervised institutions of learning. It is a highly cultivated or 'garden' culture. A 'low' culture, by contrast, is wild, spontaneous, undirected and unsupervised. These are the cultures that readily spring up, unbidden, in societies where the great mass of the population are food-producers servicing the needs of tiny specialised elites - clerisies, aristocracies, merchants and the like - who are almost completely cut off socially and culturally from the peasant masses. In such a society, there is neither need nor room for nations and nationalisms, since the many 'low' cultures of the peasants are local and 'almost invisible'. Thus, in agro-literate societies, in Ernest's words: 'Culture tends to be branded either horizontally (by social caste), or vertically, to define very small local communities'.

Now, for Ernest, all these 'low' cultures are doomed. They are cut off, like so many umbilical cords, because they are simply irrelevant in an impersonal, mobile modern society. If they are remembered at all, it is only through some symbols, in the same way that navels remind us of our origins. Nationalism, Ernest claims, is basically a product of modernity. It is, he says, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low Cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases the totality, of the Population ... it is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomized individuals, held together above all by a shared Culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro- groups themselves. That is what really happens.

Nothing could be clearer. The many, old 'low' cultures vanish. They are replaced by a single, new 'high' culture, or 'nation'. This is the true meaning of nationalism.

But there are two problems here, of which Ernest was well aware. Some 'low' cultures are not severed. Instead, they become 'high' cultures. The Finns and the Estonians clearly fall into this category, as do many of the cultures of the other smaller, subject peoples of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The other problem is that certain old elite cultures become 'high' cultures. The literary cultures of the Jews, the Armenians and the Greeks clearly fall under this heading, as do several of the cultures of Western peoples like the Catalans, Scots and French. Awareness of the difficulties posed for modernism by both these problems is an important source of its ambivalence.

How do 'low' cultures become 'high' cultures? Why does Estonian win out over German, Swedish and Russian cultures in Estonia, and Finnish over Swedish and Russian cultures in Finland? Both these cultures were local, popular, largely confined to the peasants, at least at first. Why do these 'Ruritanians' become conscious of their local folk cultures and seek to turn what were 'low' cultures into 'high' ones for the nation-to-be?

Or were they really such 'low' cultures? And is the contrast between 'low' and 'high' cultures as sharp as Ernest alleges? In the case of Estonia, we know of Estonian language religious texts during the Reformation; and certainly by the seventeenth century, with the establishment of the University of Tartu and later Forselius' school system, the basis of a literate Estonian culture emerged a century and a half before the arrival of the Romantic movement in the Baltic states in the mid-nineteenth century.
Nihil ex nihilo is Smith's conclusion. No primordialist he, however -- he stresses the fact that "that pre-modern ethnies are not nations"... but "what they do have, and what they bequeath, albeit selectively, to modern nations, is a fund of myths, symbols, values and shared memories, some distinctive customs and traditions, a general location, and sometimes a proper name. Without these shared memories and traditions, myths and symbols, the basis for creating a nation is tenuous and the task herculean."
So: to paraphrase Rousseau, a nation must have a navel, and if they have not got one, we must start by inventing one. And it is because nations have navels, and because those navels, and the memories and traditions, myths and symbols they represent, mean so much to the people that have them, that we are so unlikely to see the early transcendence of nations and nationalism.
I've quoted Smith at such length (though I do hope readers will read the Warwick Debates and the Memorial Lecture in full!) because anyone familiar with political and historical discourse in Latvia will immediately call to mind many a local specific that sheds light upon, and/or is illuminated by, Smith's ethno-symbolic approach. Gellner's remarks about the Estonians ("They were just referred to as people who lived on the land...") echo Pastor Brasche's response to the Young Latvians, for instance; he called them a Jung-Bauernstand -- a peasant class without a past (see this Wikipedia article about the movement, which has remained curiously intact since I wrote it). Smith again:
What 1 am arguing here is that most modern languages and cultures are not 'invented': they are connected to, and often continuous with, much older cultures which the modernising nationalists adapt and standardise. By Ernest's criteria, many of these older languages and cultures were 'high' cultures. But, even where they were 'low' (or 'lower'), spontaneous, popular cultures, they could become the basis for a subsequent 'high culture'. Ernest hints at this when he speaks of Ruritanians in the metropolis of megalomania who, faced with the problems of labour migration and bureaucracy, soon come to understand the difference between dealing with a co-national, 'one understanding and sympathising with their culture, and someone hostile to it. This very concrete experience taught them to be aware of their culture, and to love it (or, indeed, to wish to be rid of it).' In other words, it is the old 'low' culture to which they cling, or not, as the case may be. And it is the old 'low' culture which, far from being cut off and thrown away, will soon become the modern 'high' taught culture, albeit for several hundred thousands or millions of people.
These processes stand out prominently in Latvian history since Krišjānis Valdemārs -- assimilation and resistance to it, the interplay of continuity and discontinuity, and the creation of a "high culture" on the basis of a "low culture," as well as the exaltation of the "low culture" and its reshaping to meet expectations of what a "national culture" ought to look like (according to this German or that Russian, or diverse ideologues, dreamers and fantasists of our own), not rarely grotesquely.

The photograph is from a gallery at Delfi of events marking Bear Slayer's Day.

18 December 2008

Baby, Bathwater, Books

My parents crossed the ocean to begin their new life in the New World with only four crates. Three of those crates held books. Much of my father's library --which continued to grow even after his death, the last volumes he had subscribed to still arriving -- lines the walls here in Daugavpils now, the core of my own collection.

Latvian publishing was astonishingly continuous; frail pamphlets were published in the d. p. camps even before the war's end. High quality reappeared remarkably quickly -- the monthly
Laiks boasted a full color reproduction of a Lūdolfs Liberts painting as the frontispiece of its inaugural issue in April 1946, when nearly all Latvians in the West were still destitute refugees. Helmārs Rudzītis, the publisher, wrote in his preface of how those fleeing the Soviet advance had to abandon their libraries -- "God only knows who is leafing through our beloved books now." Rudzītis observed that the odd book that had been carried westward was held to be almost holy, the words pored over again and again.

Even in those straitened circumstances, Latvians swiftly set about building a publishing industry in exile. Benjamiņš Jēgers' bibliography of Latvian publications published outside Latvia 1940-1960 fills two thick volumes. Books were seen as vital to national survival. The nation had been born in books -- we date the Awakening to the publication of
Dziesmiņas latviešu valodai pārtulkotas in 1856, Alunāns' translations of poetry proving that Latvian is more than a tongue for churchmen and peasants (the peasants getting their due as the study of folklore took off).

When the 300th anniversary of the Latvian book was marked in 1885, 3000 books had been published in Latvian -- 85% of them since 1863. From 1585 to 1918 -- 12 500. In independent Latvia, between 1919 and 1929 alone, nearly the number of titles had been issued
in a single decade as had been since Petrus Canisius' catechism (the first known Latvian book) appeared in Vilnius in 1585. Between 1919 and 1939, 26 754 titles were published. In terms of titles per capita, Latvia ranked second in Europe, after Denmark.

There were 166 publishing houses when the Soviets invaded in 1940 -- these were reduced to one, the State Publishing House (later Liesma, which was then joined by other state-controlled entities like that of the Academy of Sciences, Zinātne). In addition to being subject to censorship and other restrictions (something that began during Ulmanis' dictatorship), publishing became a vehicle for Russification -- by 1964, 37,5% of the books published in Latvia were in Russian, and half of the titles published in Latvian were translations from Russian.

I remember a prominent diaspora Latvian (who hoped to be received as an elder statesman here) addressing the Writers' Union during the economic... transition I suppose it was, though trying to describe the early 1990s here to anyone who didn't experience them is like trying to explain a wilderness of pain in a parallel universe through which one stumbles in the dark. The would-be statesman basically said -- you're free, so what are you waiting for... write!

This is not the place to contemplate the legacy of the captive mind or the ravages of laissez-faire à l'orientale, though. Latvia had faced devastation before (though life was different in 1920, wasn't it, when academics from as far away as China returned to Rīga to build the University... this Christmas, as a sign of an opposite process, 17 worship services will be held in Latvian in Ireland, from Galway to Limerick).

In 1920, too, there were politicians who wanted to nip support for culture in the bud. They had to face Aspazija in the Constituent Assembly, though. Latvian publishing between the wars depended upon strong state support.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvian publishing slowly but steadily revived -- 1387 titles in 1991, 1509 in 1992, 1614 in 1993... of late, around 2500 Latvian titles are published each year. There was no drop after the crisis of 1998. Many of these books are irredeemable trash, to be sure. Then there are publishers like Neputns and the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art.

The Government's and the Saeima's decision (Parliament practically rubber-stamp by now, though the "Green Peasants" seem to be losing their enthusiasm for the coalition, the "moderate" "Russian party" eagerly angling to replace them) to try to squeeze blood out of a stone by increasing the VAT on books
more than fourfold is criminal. It is spit in the face of those who brought this nation into being and those who keep it alive. It is a sadistic crime, as the cash the Government hopes to collect amounts to no more than a pittance, comparatively.

In an open letter to the President, the writer and publisher Inese Zandere writes that children (whose numbers in Latvia have at last begun to rise, if slowly) are being thrown out with the bathwater in which our Government is trying to wash itself. The photo above was taken outside Parliament Thursday morning (by Reinis Oliņš for Apollo, where there is a photo gallery... you can also see how dark it is here at this time of year... that's morning, really). Slogans included "Latvia wants to read in Latvian," "down with the dictatorship of those who do not read," and "a tax on books is a tax on the mind."

Among our neighbors -- VAT on books in Estonia is 5% (0% on approved textbooks -- yes, Latvia's new 21% rate will apply to textbooks also!). Finland -- 8%. Sweden -- 6%. Poland -- zero (it's zero in Britain and Ireland, too).

How dark it is. Gustavs Strenga suggests a simplified crisis plan -- why don't we just arrest those that can read (except those in the coalition and their supporters) and shoot them, or place them in internment camps... before dread March comes and they try to make trouble?

Ikars Kubliņš notes that little demonstrations like yesterday's mean nothing. The ruling clique sips coffee and enjoys the show from the Saeima windows. Kubliņš, like some others of late, is wondering aloud about our pain threshold -- looking at the Greeks or the Thais, it's impossible not to.

But that's another topic I will try to address in the coming days. For today, I simply want to emphasize what darkness emanates from this Saeima -- del no, per li denar, vi si fa ita. (Inferno XXI: 42 -- "No into Yes for money there is changed"). Since some in Government were so offended by being called a "gang," I would like to go further -- this coalition consists of shameless creatures who belong in Malebolge dragging us into eternal night. I say that in the name of everyone I have known who cared as much about books as they did about their crust.

You're free, so what are you waiting for? But we're not free -- and we won't be until we finally free ourselves, for real this time. Baby, bathwater -- cart, horse?

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12 December 2008

Under the Latvian Yoke

Under the weather and still struggling with my history text, I haven't had the time or strength to blog in these most blogospherical of days-- but I can't let the latest nails in the coffin of the Latvian nation pass without brief comment.

The Saeima ("the strongest Parliament in Europe" -- so our PM dares to call this completely discredited assembly) was in session for ca. 20 hours, until 4.30 this morning, mostly debating the rescue package upon which IMF and other neighborly help is contingent ("the fiscal restructuring program is one of the most credible that we have seen," Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg said).

The photo is of a newsstand yesterday; the front pages of Latvia's major papers were identical -- obsequies for the Latvian press, 1822-2009. Having done all it could to weaken public television (commercial TV is now suffused with dreck direct from Russia, in Russian -- even fresh films about the glorious Red Army), the Government decided to deliver a few more death blows to Latvian culture: quadrupling the VAT on books and newspapers and slashing the budget for state radio and TV to the point where only skeletons could remain. (Unlike book publishers, the press has since been given a slight reprieve -- VAT will only be doubled, like for baby food... yes, baby food; VAT will also be doubled on medicine).

A capital gains tax? Can't have that until 2010 -- businesses have business plans, you see, and our brilliant minigarchs and biznismeny have already worked things out through next year. Publishers don't have business plans, it seems -- not in the eyes of the ruling gang (the PM was compared to the leader of a brigade of racketeers last night... our comically inept Min. of Finance Atis Slakteris got compared to Mr. Bean [the Bloomberg interview has mostly disappeared from the 'Net, but the second link at Wiki still works...]; the politesse of our Parliament appears to be slipping...).

No other Parliament in Europe could have passed such a package, PM Godmanis proudly said. Former FM Pabriks agrees, but without the pride -- where else in Europe do you stay up all night to adopt plans you haven't discussed with business, labor, or society at large and end up forcing the poor and the middle class to shoulder the entire burden of a high-flying fake economy you smashed into the ground?

Māris Matrevics has written an article in Diena about how the massive VAT increase on books means quite literally taking an axe to the Latvian language. The realities of publishing in Latvia are simple. Maybe a million and a half potential readers (the rest of the Latvian population doesn't read in Latvian). An average printing of only 1200. I could add a lot of detail to this, for instance on how readership shrank because the people who read books were pauperized -- but the point is that the margins in the book biz are tiny and few are in it for the money.

The VAT increase, from 5% to 21%, would bring in maybe half a million lats. Only maybe -- because some publishers are certain to go under and book sales are certain to drop. Is it worth snuffing Latvian for half a million? You couldn't tax Maseratis and Hummers instead? (No, but we are doubling the tax on public transportation...)

I'll leave Saprge in her original Latgallian: Dreiž ar latvīšu volūdu byus taipat kai ar latgalīšu volūdu - bez raidiejumu latgaliski radejā i televizejā, bez regularys informacejis latgaliski presē, bez raksteibys vuiceišonuos školā i bez latgalīšu gruomotu skaiteituoju. Kod vysi latvīši byus sovys volūdys analfabeti, navajadzēs ni latvīšu avīžu, ni latvīšu radejis, ni latvīšu televizejis. That is not what this nation-state is supposed to be.

It's time to stop pretending or hoping that this coalition and its shadowy masters aren't intentionally choking off essential communication in this country, whether by absurdist means or more sinister censorship, as in the case of the horizontal time code (Tovarishch Kleckins continues to head the National Radio and Television Council, delighted by the Russian programming).

When I first got here and taught at the University in Rīga (winter 1991/92), a colleague told me she had gotten the impression that the destruction of the education system in Latvia was purposeful. It's easier to manage "democracy" that way.

Some years ago a wag came up with this condensation of Latvian history: "Latvia -- under the German yoke... Latvia -- under the Polish yoke... Latvia -- under the Russian yoke... Latvia -- under the Latvian yoke..."

When the famed theater director Alvis Hermanis refused to attend the ceremony where he was to receive the Order of Three Stars a year ago, he noted that he didn't doubt that Latvia would one day be as rich as Western Europe, sooner rather than later. But we've gone morally bankrupt in the meantime, ruining the window of opportunity we've had. Accepting the Diena annual award, Hermanis observed that nothing is left of Latvia other than the Latvian language... or what's left of it.

It seems the regime is hell-bent on killing that, too -- it's not part of their business project, and can even hinder it. In the meantime, the underbelly Matrevics alludes to swells. Without books, we will end up with nothing but a degraded, degrading Russo-Anglo-Latvian pidgin tongue spoken by functionally illiterate mankurts. Many already don't know what free speech is -- simply because they have nothing to say.

The folklorist Janīna Kursīte said last night that dark deeds are done in the dark. She and others in the Civic Union began to sing ("Bēdu manu, lielu bēdu...") to keep the Government from pushing the administrative reform through at three in the morning. The Singing Revolution brought down the Soviet Union here -- but singing won't be enough to bring down the remarkable array of gravediggers running this country today, I'm afraid. They lie to our faces, and nothing matters to them but power and lucre.

, speaking on the tenth anniversary of independence, in 1928: "Latvieši, sargājiet demokrātisko valsts iekārtu, jo līdz ar to bojā ies neatkarīgā nacionālā valsts!" ("Latvians, guard your democratic system, for if you lose it the independent nation-state will also be lost.") Six years later Ulmanis destroyed our democracy -- and six years after that, Rainis' prophecy came true. The Fatherlanders and other "patriotic" scoundrels helping to murder our nation can twist and shout and whine about Russkies all they like -- Latvians are actually experts at killing themselves.

Photo: Kristians Putniņš, Diena.

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23 November 2008

Pieveriet savas pākstis!

The image at left -- of the "father of the dainas" as he appears on the LVL 100 banknote, altered -- is from Latvijas Avīze. Like other media here, the paper is discussing the latest antics of the ruling gang (oops Government) and its security services -- attempts to muzzle an academic and a musician for rumor-mongering with regard to the grave economic situation and its possible effects on our national currency. Today's Diena headline was "A joke or criticism of the Government can land you in jail" -- the Ventspils lecturer actually ended up in the cooler for a couple of days.

Juris Kaža has started a new blog -- Free Speech Emergency in Latvia. Aleks at All About Latvia has two posts -- "Devaluation Pronouncements" and "D-word can cost you." Veiko Spolītis provides a brief history of the Government's official pronouncements. Edward Hugh's Latvia Economy Watch continues to offer in-depth articles on the crisis.

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Prémio Dardos

J. Otto Pohl of Otto's Random Thoughts has awarded Marginalia the Prémio Dardos or "Best Blog Darts Thinker Award." Snowed under with work (and actual snow, today) -- I'm late with a condensed history of Latvia because I keep revising it -- I wasn't even able to finish a post on the 90th anniversary of Latvia's proclamation of independence (soon, soon). But the Dardos rules ask for acceptance (I accept -- thanks, Otto) and for passing Darts along to 15 others. Otto is parceling his out slowly, so I will do the same.

I now have 42 blogs in my "Blogs of Note" list at right (the list both shrinks and expands, but subtly and almost imperceptibly so) and all are worth checking out for one reason or another, whether they're primarily personal like at the end of the world (formerly Allergic to Whiskey) or collective efforts at unseemly provocation like Drink-soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War. Speaking of the unseemly, I removed both La Russophobe and Da Russophile from my list a while back -- I try to link to diverse views, but the level of bile in the blogosphere is such that I will no longer list sites venomously employing supposedly cutesy disinformative devices like the term "eSStonia" or veering into barely concealed nacionālā naida kurināšana.

Here are five blogs deserving of Darts:

A Step At A Time -- David McDuff's site has long been an indispensable compendium of information on "the world’s present troubles as a continuation of the old common struggle with tyranny and oppression." David's take is unique, and the blog not rarely includes original translations of news you would only find elsewhere with great difficulty.

-- "Political Ukraine laid bare. For those who care." Taras' Moscowcentrism-free explorations of the vortices of Ukrainian politics are... dizzying.

Blue, Black and White Alert -- An extremely well written blog by an Estonian-American living in Estonia. Comes complete with acerbic wit laced with the Yuleland pragmatism of Fenno-Ogres and crypto-Baltic black humor.

Veiko Spolītis' Baltic -- If Taras' political Ukraine is dizzying, Veiko's political Latvia is... depressing, but not devoid of hope: "The choice is simple - to reform the post-Soviet education, political and economic structures or to become a murky dependency relying on the Russian oil and mineral resources transit commissions."

Neeka's Backlog -- The blogosphere's gold standard for blending the personal and political. With exceptional photographs, too.

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24 October 2008

As Time Goes By

Rick: "If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?" Sam: "What? My watch stopped." Flying to Stockholm from Rīga in 1993 was flying from one world to another, from the Wild East to -- civilization, overfed? Back then, the New York Times had dubbed the Latvian capital "the Casablanca of the North."

You arrive in Sweden before you leave, because of the time zone. If it's September '93 in Rīga, it's also '39; an Ulmanis becomes President on the strength of his surname in a country where the historical clock had stopped in 1940 (it didn't really stop, of course, except in some country of the mind). The early 1990s were a time of "fundamental things" for me -- of long summers in Semigallia, without plumbing, without electricity, without the Web (I had a huge manual typewriter that had doubtless served various organs of repression; Vonnegut, ever so popular here, wasn't fiction -- the twin lightning bolts of the SS a common character, shift).

My mother, visiting from Canada, brought her mother's list of the serial numbers of the typewriters they'd lost in the war ("That they are brown and soft, /And liable to melt as snow") -- grandmother ran a secretarial school in a building that by the 'Nineties held a pritons, a den of iniquity. "We lived in the street of parades" -- Bear Slayer's Street, the cobblestones come as ballast from Sweden, still there, the name restored (what names weren't restored -- Vadoņa, Aizsargu [the Great Leader and his Guard]). My repatriation to a country of the mind. Mother said that Latvijas Radio couldn't replicate the sound of the ice breaking in the Daugava until somebody realized that amplifying the sound of salt being rubbed against a table resembled it. "Alchemical broth." A kiss is just a kiss. For heat, you go to the forest. Fire rites. Fundamental things.

When I got here, no one had ever heard of Mark Rothko -- even the few surviving Jews were astounded by the lucrative fame of their son. Today the highest habitable point in town is the Rothko Bar (that tall hotel used to have a radiation readout rather than a clock above the door). I haven't been up there yet. Fama, in of itself ("no picture is made to endure nor to live with / but it is made to sell and sell quickly") -- you will be assimilated, as they say. A "Latvian artist" who never knew Latvia. Is the Pale a country of the mind, too? Desperately seeking some connection to the city of his birth, point to what might be ice floes -- surely his childhood memories meant something, the river's city (which turns its back upon the river, really, the levee hiding the flow). After a winter here ("null winters do sear such and more") the breaking of the ice begins to mean something. Under the lucre, actual riches -- a Matisse for every pot, and then. Nowadays almost no one remembers Vīdzirkste. His crossing paths with the erstwhile Marcus Rothkowitz in New York is as likely as Lenin and Rainis meeting up at the Cabaret Voltaire. Swiss artists all, no?

Back in '93, as a short-lived international secretary of the Writers' Union, I was in Sweden for the opening of the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators on Gotland. Fifteen years later, that Centre has a filius philosophorum -- the House of Language in Ventspils. What time is it in Gothenburg? I have no watch (the last one I had was stolen in a Warsaw train station while I slept), and if you try to call me, my phone is either turned off or I find myself outside of the zone (I'm transferring the number from the Castle to myself). Keeping time, time, time /In a sort of Runic rhyme... Ventspils -- Andra, Ieva, Iveta -- organized the focus on Latvia at the Göteborg Book Fair, and look how far we've come!

My first worry was -- pop, wir sind modern, aber nicht verwestlicht? I hadn't been out of the country for years. The more "Western" Latvia gets, the harder it is to perceive the difference between a functional society and this gorgeously dysfunctional one. But look how far we've come! I spent two summers in Sweden as a child, at Ladvik, and my little nationalist soul was severely disturbed by the fact that most Swedes had never heard of Lettland. On a clear day you can see across the water, but the Iron Curtain came between.

I had a terrific time -- I saw people I haven't seen in more than three decades (Gods, I's old), like Juris Rozītis. To place what exile was, read Juris' thesis. The photo above (by Ilmārs Znotiņš) is of the Latvian pavilion at the fair, which attracted over a hundred thousand visitors and more than a thousand journalists (it is, by any measure, one of the largest cultural events in Northern Europe). One of the highlights was an exhibition of books in Latvian published in Sweden after the war. I have many of them, from Papa (here an echo of an obscure poem by Uldis -- never mind). How we misunderestimate the exodus?

Existentially, we are no better off, Gunilla Forsén said when I asked her how it was to live in what was, comparatively, at least, Paradise -- back then, in the 'Nineties. One doesn't understand what Paradise is until one talks to students. What was the difference between eking out an existence here and the sort of opportunity every Swede has? How much of that comes down to national wealth, quite simply?

What of it comes down to rights, rights we were almost always denied? Lars Peter Fredén, the first Western diplomat to be stationed in Latvia, even before the occupation was brought to an end, spoke at Gothenburg of realizing how Swedes are barely acquainted with tragedy. When the Estonia sank, more died a tragic death than had since the 1700s -- can one ever bridge that gap, Latvians losing perhaps a third of the population in the First World War and a similar swathe in the Second?

Johan Öberg, who moderated one of the panels I was on, brought up a fun fact -- Rīga was once the largest city in Sweden. In Latvian, we still use the phrase "like in the Swedish era" -- when we're doing well, it's kā zviedru laikos. One can parse the hard reality -- it wasn't necessarily as pretty as we paint it -- but one need only look at schooling to realize why the phrase persists; among the concrete attempts to extend peasants' rights, Swedish rule meant bulding schools, and forcing the Baltic barons to provide the means for universal education. When the Russians came, these reforms were rolled back.

Here we are, here we are. 2008. How does the Swedish right to cross private property actually work in Latvia? Me live by lake, me build wall -- and fuck you. Swedes still read -- do we?

The Latvian pavilion was a cardboard reflection of the new National Library, finally being built.

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16 October 2008

Pēteris pameta pili

After more than two years of translating, writing, and editing for the President of Latvia (two Presidents: Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and her successor), I left the Castle today. I will still do work for the Chancery on contract, but I am no longer an employee. Now I can say what I really think! Just kidding...

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06 September 2008

The Populist Firing Squad

This week, exploiting public outrage at the brutal murder of a girl by her father, Gaidis Bērziņš and Mareks Segliņš, Latvia's Minister of Justice and Interior Minister, mused publically about restoring the death penalty in Latvia, Segliņš suggesting that we could possibly hold a referendum on the matter.

Arguments on whether or not there should be a death penalty are one thing (as you might guess, I am strongly opposed). The core of the sly imbecility here, however, is another matter entirely—capital punishment is outlawed in Europe (except in Belarus, which is “the last outpost of tyranny,” and Kazakhstan, which is mostly in Central Asia). Abolitionism is not just fundamental to the EU, it is also a basic principle and a principal priority of the Council of Europe, to which we’ve belonged for over thirteen years. The CoE is a much larger and broader structure than the EU is, with 47 members. Even Russia, that beacon of brutality, has instituted a moratorium on capital punishment. The European Convention on Human Rights requires its complete abolition, even for crimes committed in wartime.

The idea of reinstating the death penalty is thus completely out of the question. These politicians (one a law professor!), speaking as cabinet ministers and not as private individuals, have deliberately chosen to inflame Latvians’ baser instincts and disregard reality. The world-view of Jānis Šmits, the proudly intolerant human rights guru quoted in the Deutsche Presse-Agentur article—that tolerance is “a new secular paradigm” artificially forced upon us by Europe—is part and parcel of this. Trawling the scuzzy bottoms of Latvian Internet fora, what’s striking is how unutterably uneducated in civics Letts are (one study showed that we are about as enlightened as Bulgarians in this regard). The typical reactions often include the mantra “Brussels is telling us what to do.” For most, Europe is still elsewhere… and that is, of course, a self-fulfilling belief. Many people don’t see Latvia as part of this legal system and a contributor to it— which Latvia is, legal scholars like Ziemele, Levits and Ušacka being significant at a European level—but instead think and act like boorish, brain-dead dwarfs in some dispossessed chukhnya.

And the wardens of this chukhnya, our ever so sparkling political elite, continue to lead us off into a politics that recalls the title of Ferlinghetti’s book of verse, Unfair Arguments with Existence. Let’s all indulge in a national debate about something that’s totally impossible! But why not? It works in everything else in our politics—instead of working constructively to integrate Russophones, we get the "nationalist" tirades of the bigots Dobelis and Tabūns. In place of badly needed education reform, we prefer to traipse about mouthing piffle about our imminent “knowledge-based society.” Nary an opportunity goes by in which we don’t tell the world about our “shared democratic values”—our lack thereof nearly fully externalized by now (we’d be Scandinavia if it wasn’t for them Russkies!).

Messrs. Segliņš and Bērziņš choose to pander to tumsonība ("obscurantism," benighted ignorance). Since there’s not an election coming up, this desire must run really deep. What’s especially revolting to me is the waste of time. We’ll soon have had two decades of independence, but it seems that we’ve become “more European” mainly by replacing our Žiguļi with BMWs—second-hand for the pilchard-eaters, nice and shiny for the elite. We haven’t even learned to drive, what with the fewest cars and most road accidents per capita in Europe.

The photograph of a 1913 execution in Mexico is from the Library of Congress.

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17 August 2008

Latvia and Georgia

In the deluge of press on the war in the Caucasus and its background, not a few articles refer to Baltic and Central/Eastern European sympathy for Georgia, now and then with understanding (of varying depth, usually shallow) and sometimes with dismissive patter about "American puppets" suffering from "Russophobia." As I've often suggested before, for instance in my review of Edward Lucas' The New Cold War, a phobia is a "persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous" (American Heritage); there is nothing irrational or abnormal about the Baltic fear of our huge, imperialistic neighbor. There is no avoiding it -- geographically, historically, culturally, politically and economically, we are on the frontier.

In the map that serves as the frontispiece of Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, (which I purchased, oddly enough, in Damascus), the line dividing "Western civilization" from "the Orthodox world" runs through Ukraine but to the east of Latvia. In reality, despite our Euro-Atlantic integration -- that line should run through Latvia, too. Latgallia, the comparatively impoverished eastern region in which I live, was the only part of the country to vote against joining the EU. On New Year's Eve, not a few fireworks go off at 11 P.M. -- midnight Moscow time. Cable TV and radio broadcasts are almost entirely in Russian. Euronews is Yevronoose, but most of those watching get their information from Russia's state-controlled TV. Sipping some of what was on offer the other night, as Russia's "triumphant" invasion continued, I had to pull the plug. As Andrei Illarionov writes in his "Thirteen Conclusions about the War": "The degree of manipulation of public opinion, and the speed with which the society was brought to mass hysteria, are clear evidence of the regime’s 'achievements', and pose an undeniable and unprecedented danger to the Russian society."

Stretched similes abound, to 1938 and 1968 -- some worth reading -- but most of the reactions that try to address the Baltic and Polish response lack meat. Even in terms of rather recent history -- how quickly we forget! At New Kosova Report, which has published some interesting articles on why Ossetia and Kosovo should not be equated, I came across this article from Time, 28 January 1991.

Shaking their fists defiantly, protesters last week massed at the government house in Tbilisi, capital of the Georgian republic, chanting, "Lithuania! Lithuania! Lithuania!" For this fiercely independent nation of 5.4 million in the Caucasus, the troubles in the Baltics far to the north seemed alarmingly near. Georgians had already felt the Kremlin's determination to keep the union intact, when Soviet paratroopers armed with sharpened spades brutally dispersed a nationalist demonstration in April 1989, killing 20 people. Just as the Baltic states showed support in that hour of crisis, Georgians embraced the tragedy in Vilnius last week as if it were their own.

The photograph in this post is of a work by Jūlijs Straume, an artist renowned for his textiles; I thought I would avoid the photos of carnage one can find everywhere these days. Long resident in Georgia and an avid researcher in Georgian traditions, he was also the first Latvian envoy to the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia, proclaimed in the same year the Baltic states declared their independence. The Baltics, with all our tragedy, had better luck -- like Belarus, which also declared its independence ninety years ago, Georgia was crushed before it could enjoy the two decades of nation-building we did. Twenty years, sullied by our own descent into authoritarianism and blighted by the shadows of the approaching war, might not seem like much -- but our parents and grandparents remembered being free. The maps I grew up with in America almost always bore the note that the United States and most Western countries did not recognize the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by the USSR. The fervent hope that we would regain our independence seemed to be an absurd dream to many even at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The maps had no such note for Georgia, Belarus, or Ukraine -- though Georgia did have some success in achieving diplomatic recognition for its doomed Republic, fate and Stalin dictated otherwise.

But the emotional intimacy some of us feel isn't merely rooted in our republics having been born at the same time -- as close relatives in that our politics were Western, the black sheep joining the Bolsheviks -- or even in the relations between the popular fronts that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union that Lt. Col. Putin calls a catastrophe. The intimacy comes not only of the Russian subjugation we suffered -- it springs from the knowledge that subjugation wrought, which can indeed color our views but also gives us insight others lack. Even now, as Georgia is raped, one Jean Matouck can write of a Russia "which is recovering and which obviously has no desire other to develop and enrich itself with dignity [sic]."

Another Time article, from 1993, recalls Foreign Minister Kozyrev's rants about the "near abroad," that twilight zone to which the Kremlin -- and not a few European politicians -- would have confined us... and to which M. Matouck would condemn Ukraine and Georgia by denying them Euro-Atlantic integration. That use of the word "dignity" recalls Hitler's rants about the humiliation of Versailles. Bullies are not dignified, as a rule, and Matouck's contention that Russia "had every indication of becoming powerful again without being aggressive" unless provoked exhibits a stunning ignorance of Russian thinking, not to mention a blithe disregard for the right of free nations to chart a course not hobbled by deference to the wounded pride of the prison house of nations.

I am not arguing against prudence -- I'm arguing for it. I don't doubt that Misha poked the bear; Saakashvili is not my idea of an urbane diplomat. Nonetheless, anyone paying any attention to the relations between the Baltic states and Russia must know that Russia can perceive most anything not in line with its incessantly refried falsifications of history and its increasingly fascistic imperial ambitions as a "provocation." Its current Ambassador to NATO talked about invading Estonia in response to the removal of an offensive statue to a cemetery, after all. No need to poke the bear -- let the statues the occupiers erected stay where they are, I say.

And yet -- the ground beneath these symbols can recall The Night of the Living Dead. It is all well and good to let bygones be bygones -- but not by denying our history or betraying our friends. The Western European refrains that paint us as stuck in the mud of the war don't take the zombies into account. "Europe has moved on." Indeed it has -- but Russia has not. Its Stalinist mythology underpins the foundation of the empire it is trying to restore, the pilings sunk in soil soaked with 19th C concepts. One needn't poke the bear -- but one mustn't pretend it is a tame creature.

Writing about another victim of Russian aggression, Chechnya, nearly a decade ago, Mel Huang contrasted the views of secondary school graduates from Estonian-language and Russian-language schools, observing that "the comments from the Russian-speaking graduates seem horrific and brutal, but if one watches Russian TV, one sees that this very much represents normal public opinion in the country." One can say the same today -- and one would have to include the local Russian-language media in Latvia, which inspires demonstrations like this one, by Russophones in Rīga supporting the Kremlin.

A few years ago I watched a documentary about the art of Jūlijs Straume. People like Nino Yakubidze, who heads the Georgian Association in Latvia, have worked hard to develop relations between Rīga and Tbilisi, where there is a Latvian Association. Cooperation between NGOs, scholarships, art, books about the ties between Georgians and Latvians... but these days Nino Yakubidze has to talk about death and Russian disinformation instead.

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14 August 2008

Latvia Strongly Supports Georgia

The strong statement on Russia's invasion of Georgia by the heads of state of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland has been followed by a vote in the Saeima, Latvia's Parliament. The Saeima voted this evening for a very harsh resolution condemning Russia for its aggression against Georgia -- a resolution with teeth (thanks primarily to Sandra Kalniete, one of the leaders of the Popular Front in the Singing Revolution, a writer and diplomat with extensive EU experience). Among other things, it calls upon our Government to continue to push for Georgian NATO accession, to ask that the EU reevaluate the EU-Russian partnership (including visa restrictions), and to ask NATO to strengthen security and security guarantees for Russia's neighbors. It also asks for clarity in future EU expansion, so that those countries implementing reforms know the score (and urges visa liberalization for candidate countries).

SC (Harmony Center), the ostensibly "moderate" coterie of pro-Moscow MPs, walked out and did not participate in the debates, leaving a handful of PCTVL radicals who have vowed to defend Abkhazian and Ossetian interests as the only MPs opposed, making inane arguments ("in the current economy we must think of our own people first" rather than antagonize innocent Moscow) whilst amendments giving the resolution its teeth passed with large majorities.

Considering the fact that the parties in power and New Era rarely agree on anything, the unity in this special session was remarkable (despite some sniping). The vote was 64-4 with 1 abstention. Bravo!

The photograph is from the demonstration in support of Georgia that took place in Latvia's capital on Monday -- more photos are available at Apollo, whence I filched this one.

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04 August 2008

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the first translation of Russian literature I ever read. Skipping lunch, I hoarded my allowance to acquire the rest of Solzhenitsyn's oeuvre in English, at a dismal chain bookstore in an aging suburban shopping mall. The bearded, long-haired clerk, a Trot stranded among the Harlequins, tried to disabuse me of my anti-Communist convictions. Aleksandr Isayevich's disdain for materialism was what most attracted me in adolescence. Looking back -- and one can't do that, unfortunately, without choking on the anachronistic vagaries of his Slavophilia, touched upon in the New York Times obituary -- I know I'll have to go back and reread him. The older English translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita captured me back then, too, and again later, in the much finer Latvian translation by the poet Ojārs Vācietis... but rereading it not so long ago, I was struck by how many levels in that novel opened only upon living here, or after catching the merest fading shadow of the collapsed imperium. To be transported to "Matryona's House" from middle class American suburbia by literary magic was wondrous. It must read so very differently in a hovel in the hamlet of Slutišķi, called "Latvia's Siberia" because used as a Siberian backdrop in a soap opera... or in any nearby backwater, filtered through the dark, dense foliage of the stories here, innumerable individual histoires, lives direct or overheard, the tangible sense of tragedy hovering over abandoned farmsteads and unmarked graves, the trenches of the First World War still visible in the forest -- the place colored by the reading, the reading to be colored by place. To listen to those who suffered is often to hear

Gradually it became clear to me that the line separating good from evil runs not between states, not between classes, and not between parties -- it runs through the heart of each and every one of us, and through all human hearts. This line is not stationary. It shifts and moves with the passing of the years. Even in hearts enveloped in evil, it maintains a small bridgehead of good. And even the most virtuous heart harbors an uprooted corner of evil.

R.I.P., Aleksandr Isayevich.

The photograph of Solzhenitsyn as an inmate is from a biographical sketch at Vēsture sauc.

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03 August 2008

The Hottest Day of the Year

A partial solar eclipse on Lammas was followed by the hottest day of the year on Saturday (not that this part of the world gets to resemble the Sahara -- the mercury reached 28° C in Rīga... but we find that insufferable).

Yesterday was also the day our citizens were given the chance to vote to amend the Satversme, Latvia's Constitution, to allow the people to sack the Saeima, our Parliament.

The powers that be mostly urged people to stay home rather than vote for or against these changes -- a technique that is not exactly redolent of democratic convictions. Summer in Latvia is short and sweet, not conducive to traipsing to polling stations -- many people head for the countryside on the limited number of balmy weekends. Still, with 995 of 998 precincts reporting, 608 202 persons voted in favor of the amendments, 18 831 against.

That means, however, that the "servants of the people," as our Members of Parliament so love to describe themselves, can relax and return to misrule unhindered -- for the referendum to be valid, at least half of Latvia's eligible voters would need to vote in favor of the changes. The 40,14% garnered is insufficient.

Veiko Spolītis looks at some politicians' views on the referendum here.

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29 July 2008

"I rode into the hamlet on a white horse..."

So bragged Vasiliy Kononov, the convicted war criminal whose appeal to the European Court of Human Rights was successful. Vilhelm Konnander has written about the recent decision at Global Voices, where I've responded (primarily with extracts from the dissents; the judgment [4:3] and the dissents are available as a .doc file here and are very much worth reading).

The Kononov case has dragged on for years. Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze has a retrospective that includes fresh commentary from judges and prosecutors (in Latvian).

From what I wrote at soc.culture.baltics some years ago:

First, a brief précis of Kononov's crimes. He was the commander and organizer of a group of eighteen Red Partisans in a brigade called the "Little Boat" in the territory of occupied Latvia and Belarus. He organized and planned a mission of revenge at Mazo Batu sādža (the hamlet of Mazie Bati) near Ludza in May 1944, in response to a German military unit's destruction of a Red Partisan group commanded by Chugunov in February. Dressed in German uniforms, Kononov's group entered the hamlet on 27 May, when its inhabitants were preparing to celebrate the Pentecost. They divided into smaller groups and broke into the houses. One Modest Krupnikov begged them not to shoot him in front of his young son. They ordered Krupnikov to run into the woods and shot him there, gravely wounding him and leaving him to bleed to death. His cries for help were heard into the night, but the inhabitants were too afraid to give him aid. Another group broke into the home of Meikul Krupnik. Krupnik was in the sauna. They dragged him and another man from the sauna to the house, stole weapons, shot the men and Krupnik's mother, then torched the house. Krupnik's pregnant wife attempted to flee. They threw her into the burning house, where she was burned to death together with the two men and Krupnik's mother. They visited two other houses, robbing and killing. In total, they murdered nine civilians, burning six of them (including three women, one of whom was pregnant).

[The information in the above summary is from the rejection of Kononov's appeal by the Senate of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Latvia, 28 September 2004.]

I hope Latvia will appeal the flawed ECHR decision to the Grand Chamber, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recommended.

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22 June 2008

Wolf One-Eye

As this blog has a number of Lithuanian readers of late, I thought I'd post a poster for a Latvian literary event that will be taking place in Vilnius on Wednesday the 25th. I won't be able to make it -- but I highly recommend Wolf One-Eye by Juris Kronbergs. I saw a performance of the piece in Rīga a few years ago. If you're in Vilnius -- don't miss it!

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