Fire and Night (II -- The Nature of the Dark Knight)
Except for the street in which I live, all of the north-south streets in the eldritch district of Daugavpils where I make my home are named after cities -- Warsaw, Kaunas, Ventspils, Dobele, Jelgava, Hrodna, Tukums, Liepāja, Valka (after which come Labor Street and Beyond-the-City Street, even as "the Chemistry" is now beyond the Beyond...).
Names in what is still in some sense "Eastern Europe" (though the center of Europe is arguably near the village of Purnuškės, geographically, not so very far down the road -- note that it hosts "the world's largest sculpture made out of TV sets, now partially collapsed") are notoriously riddled with a politics as unbreathable as our history; the best known Latvian example would be that of Brīvības iela, Freedom Street, in the capital -- it has borne the names of Lenin, Hitler, and Alexander II.
A dreary street in Rīga has gone from the cosmonauts to Dzhokhar Dudayev, the late Chechen leader, to the fury of many and to the inspiration of National Bolsheviks and others with a fondness for spray paint (the Natsbols have decorated my district with the name of Stalin -- СТАЛИН, the "A" circled for anarchy... don't ask them to reconcile these concepts; a clear conception is not their strong suit).
My street, between Warsaw and Kaunas Streets and formerly Vilnius Street (the various names of which city also unfailingly lead to somebody's apoplexy -- just as the many names of Daugavpils do) was renamed after Andrejs Pumpurs in the interbellum. Pumpurs wrote the epic poem Lāčplēsis. Arthur Cropley, who has translated the work into English, quotes the folklorist and literary critic Jāzeps Rudzītis: “there is no other work in Latvian literature whose story has penetrated mass consciousness as deeply or resounded as richly in literature and art as The Bearslayer.” In politics, too -- when the Bank of Latvia issued a silver coin to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of "the time of the barricades," the image chosen was that of the Bearslayer brought forward in time. 11 November 1919, the night the combined Russian and German forces under Bermondt-Avalov were driven from the outskirts of Rīga (in many ways the day when the Latvian nation-state was really born), is still marked as Bearslayer's Day.
Andrejs Pumpurs lived around the corner from our house, traveling as far afield as China in his work as a quartermaster for the Tsar's army. In addition to Lāčplēsis, he penned poems like "Austrums un Rietrums" ("East and West”):
Austrums laida brīvas tautas
Saules zemi piepildīt,
Tiesības tām bija ļautas
Pašām sevi pārvaldīt.
"The East freed nations to attain the land of the sun. They were granted the right to self-rule.”
Rietrums viņas sagaidīja,
Ķēdes rokā turēdams,
Verdzībā tās ieslodzīja,
"The West awaited them bearing chains in its hands, locking them into slavery and introducing serfdom..."
Arī mūsu latvju tauta
Cietusi caur Rietrumu --
Kamēr vēl neilgi glābta
Tika tā caur Austrumu.
"Our Latvian nation also suffered due to the West -- until only recently it was rescued by the East."
The historian Arveds Švābe used "Austrums un Rietrums" to illustrate his appraisal of Valdemārs' Slavophilia, pointing out that not only Russian writers and thinkers like Dostoevsky and Tyutchev were carried away by the promise of Russia saving Europe from materialism and atheism -- some of the Young Latvians were as well.
I don't know much about Estonian history, but Stanley Page in The Formation of the Baltic States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959) quotes a letter by Jakobson to Koidula: "From the Russians we have nothing to fear. Whatever we bear from them is but one-tenth the burden of Germans we drag on our backs." The letter is from 1870 -- the same year the above poem by Pumpurs was written -- and the line echoes Valdemārs' dictum, "the Russian kulak cannot be as dangerous as the Germans' nails of flint." Page writes that though some Estonian writers were profoundly influenced by Russian literature (Tamm and Tammsaare), "Estonian disenchantment with Russia grew rapidly in the wake of Russification. If, prior to 1914, the disillusionment did not result in a concerted nationalist striving, it is because, as in Latvia, the class struggle divided the nation."
But regarding Pumpurs' "Austrums un Rietrums" and the transformation of Pumpurs' myth by Rainis, I would direct the Latvian reader to Jānis Rudzītis, whose little "essay with a tendency," "The Ethnicity of the Dark Knight" (in vol. XVII of Rainis' Raksti in the 1965 Ziemeļblāzma edition) ties together various strands of thought on the Russia-facing face. The Dark Knight in Rainis' Uguns un nakts (Fire and Night) derives, of course, from Pumpurs' Lāčplēsis, in which epic that sinister figure is indisputably, obviously German (Lielus pulkus bruņenieku / Alberts bija atvedis /Atkal Rīgā un no jauna / Kaŗu uzsākt rīkojās. / Viņa pulkā tagad radās / Ar kāds tumšais bruņenieks, / Kuŗš daudz gadus vācu zemē / Laupīdams bij dzīvojis...).
Media of a particular complexion have recently taken to pointing to these 19th C Russophiles, with Pravda publishing Yuri Klitsenko's article on "the Image of Crusaders in Latvian culture" ("You, German, son of demon, why have you come to our land?") and Aleksandr Gurin, writing for the website of Latvia's "Russian party," ZaPCHEL, striving to suggest that the Slavophilia of the First Awakening could make a comeback. In "Pirmās latviešu Atmodas varonis uzstājās par krievu skolām" ("The hero of the first Latvian National Awakening supported Russian schools"), Gurin suggests that Russia's economic resurgence will allow it to catch up with the West in a couple of decades, possibly seducing Latvia once again.
Gurin's perspective exhibits a stunning ignorance of the factors that have affected Latvia's shifting faces. His sweeping view of Latvian-Russian relations conveniently omits what Latvians have suffered from the East -- the Dark Knight ceases to be a symbol of the German already in Rainis' Fire and Night. The Russia many of the Young Latvians looked to was to be free (Pumpurs, for instance, participated in secret meetings of the Narodnaya Volya), just as the key to the "Free Latvia in a Free Russia" for which the Riflemen would later fight was freedom and democracy.
Akurāters, an almost clairvoyant writer and revolutionary (1876-1937), reflected on his notes from the 1905 Revolution in 1924 (the passages below were censored during the occupation, probably in 1946; the censors had to evaluate the "level of danger" for works in sealed collections). My rough translation:
"Gallows, castles and prisons. Lo, damned dark Russia!...
"A country where the lungs of the citizens have never breathed freely and openly, where every thought must rot in the brain, where millions and millions of bright, genial thoughts cannot be expressed but only rot, where everything that is beautiful is crushed before its time and ends up in graveyards. Yes, nowhere but in graveyards.
"How strange it is that rereading my notes now, in 1924, I must bear witness to the same. With its last revolution in 1918, Russia has not moved forward by a hair's breadth. Only backwards, it seems."
Jānis Rudzītis, a remarkably astute critic, examines the history of the Dark Knight in performances of Rainis' Fire and Night -- indeed, the Knight traditionally appears in the garb of a German Crusader. He's been seen as symbolizing blind instinct, capitalism, etc. The Baltic Germans detested both Rainis and the play, and during the Nazi occupation Rudzītis had a conversation with a censor who says "we well know what Latvians mean by the Dark Knight."
Rudzītis asks -- "But do we?" The usual portrayal simply does not gel with Rainis' text:
Es nāku no tatāriem,
Visas zemes tie min zirgu pakaviem,
Tā tevi un latvjus es samīšu
Un gaismas pils gaismu dzēsīšu!
"I come from the Tatars, / They trample all lands beneath their horses' feet, / And so shall I trample you and the Latvians / And extinguish the light in the castle of light!"
Rainis, not at all a bigot (he was instrumental in founding Latvia's Belarusian schools and did not even hate the Baltic Germans, though he despised their reactionary politics), does not mean that the Dark Knight is an ethnic Tatar. He means that the figure represents the threat from the East.
So it is that Rainis, who appeared on a commemorative Soviet ruble and was lionized by the Soviets, is providing an antithesis -- ex oriente obscuritas -- for Pumpurs' thesis, ex oriente lux, Rudzītis writes. Pumpurs, he says, had been intoxicated by the narcotic of Slavophilia, whilst Rainis was a creature of Western culture who was very well aware of the darkness that prevailed in Russia, having been exiled to Slobodsk from 1899 to 1902.
Rudzītis notes Rainis' 1908 article, published in the Russian press in 1910, "Latyshi," in which Rainis compares the literacy rates in the Baltic Provinces (on average, 76%) to the rates in Russia proper (on average, 30%). Perhaps the cutting off of Lāčplēsis' ear can even be seen as symbolizing the splitting off of Latgola from the Latvian nation by banning the Latin alphabet in 1865, Rudzītis notes.
Rudzītis' view is not just speculation -- it is confirmed by a conversation between Jānis Kārkliņš and Rainis in the 1920s. Asked how "I come from the Tatars" can be reconciled with performances in which the Dark Knight appears in Teutonic garb, Rainis answered that the Latvian nation was then most gravely threatened from the East (the play was written in 1903 and 1904, but revised as late as 1907). To evade censorship, he masked the character as "coming from the Tatars," which the people would easily understand as symbolizing the brutal power in the East and the mercenary mentality.
Thus the Dark Knight is transformed from a symbol of nationality to a symbol of benighted barbarity even before 1905. It is a sign of Rainis' spiritual intelligence and Rudzītis' acumen that the riddle -- what is the ethnicity of the Knight? -- has no answer. Rudzītis writes that Knight's
passport might say:
"Ethnicity -- Unknown.
Profession -- Russian imperialist."
Gospodin Gurin would do well to recall the Lermontov and ask what has changed:
Прощай, немытая Россия,
Страна рабов, страна господ,
И вы, мундиры голубы,
И ты, им преданный народ.
("Forever you, the unwashed Russia! / The land of slaves, the land of lords: / And you, the blue-uniformed ushers, / And people who worship them as gods." [Translation by Yevgeny Bonver])
The photograph of our street -- Andreja Pumpura iela -- was taken last autumn.