25 January 2007


Another matter will probably be "put in order and forgotten" soon, to use former Prime Minister Māris Gailis' words to describe the likely outcome of the debate in the Saeima, Latvia's parliament, on whether to sign the Border Agreement with the Russian Federation and drop the declaration emphasizing the Republic of Latvia's legal continuity, the which declaration was and is completely unacceptable to Russia.

Except for the rightists in For Fatherland and Freedom, the governing coalition, the President, and "the Russian parties" in the opposition are determined to "put things in order" pragmatically, whilst the center-right New Era and the "Fatherlanders" are convinced that the Border Agreement does not sufficiently guarantee continuity (one of the sacred cows of Lettish politics, reflected in Latvia's well-known refusal to automatically grant blanket citizenship to those who settled here during the occupation and their descendants). New Era is determined to force a popular referendum on the issue (which, according to some, is required by the Satversme, Latvia's constitution). A small crowd is demonstrating outside parliament as I write... I will try to blog about this brouhaha as events continue to unfold, time permitting. A good article on the background of this issue, by Vladimir Socor, is available at the Jamestown Foundation site. I wrote most of the Wikipedia article on the holy calf in question, the Abrene District, last winter (I'm taking a "Wikibreak," revolted by the tenor of the edit wars, so I'm linking to the last version I feel comfortable putting my name to).

Putting things in order is always, er, orderly, and my personal view of "putting things behind us" and looking to the future is... is ambivalent, I guess? My ears prick up instinctively at the word "forget," however, and readers of this blog know that I have some trouble with letting bygones be bygones if amnesia is required. Yesterday a friend of mine, my wife and I drove northward on the suddenly icy roads of Latgola (the Italianate winter hath ended, and the buds of the lilacs in their blackness doth promise a bleak spring) (empty roads, mostly -- much of the population is in Ireland, and many of those who aren't haven't the money for gas) to a village (if that -- a few crumbling houses, a khrushchovka, a half-empty shop and austere bar) that bears the charming name of Naudaskalns, Money Hill. My friend's a journalist, and the purpose of the drive was an interview with Leontīns Vizulis, who recently celebrated his seventieth birthday (in Latvia, where men die young, that's old). Vizuļa kungs is a peasant, as he says. Like many a Latvian peasant, he has countless books piled unto the sagging ceiling of his Soviet flat, a truly remarkable erudition, a lively intellect, a fine education, and a keen sense of the virtues. Now that the nation is no longer agrarian -- something laissez-faire accomplished with the scary speed communism was incapable of even before "the stagnation" -- his breed will surely be rare.

Leontīns Vizulis was and is the chairman of a fledgling association of people from Abrene -- abrenieši. When a state "puts things in order," it has a sad tendency to forget real people and real places, methinks. Māris Gailis, stellar yachtsman that he is, couldn't fork over a thousand lati to Vizuļa kunga proto-NGO when he was Premier. People like Vizuļa kungs are inconvenient -- we are, after all, marching headlong into the gloriously globalized world, what with the fastest growing economy in Europe. Word has it that the Border Agreement is important to those pandering Latvian dairy products. Maybe it's the truckers, or the sprat canneries. More likely, it's gas or the gray economy.

The town of Abrene didn't exist until the region became a part of newborn Latvia -- it was a train station, a strategically important railway junction, and some shacks. Forty-five Latvian soldiers died to capture it. Vizuļa kungs is a realist -- there is no way Russia will give back the land it stole in 1944, and the abrenieši don't even want it back, or not at the moment. They are happy on this side of the border, many having fled to the Latvian SSR when the chekists would drag the kulaks from their houses, strip them naked, and drench them with water. The abrenieši have modest demands -- recognition of their history, compensation for their farms (land is compensated for -- by Latvia, not Russia, but buildings are... forgotten), and an easing of visa regulations and costs for those who would like to tend their family graves. Some people call Vizuļa kungs an extremist. He hands you carefully made drafts of the lost county's seal he commissioned, the proportions precise, with annotations referencing heraldic commissions, and he struggles to publish books on paper of the quality of Soviet toilet paper, that rarity, containing scholarly articles and reminiscences and advertisements from companies not as afraid of inconvenient folk as the government is, and so willing to offer a few lati to people who won't forget. Letters from the association to the powers that be often go unanswered. Many of the people fleeing Abrene ended up in Balvi, five kilometers north of Naudaskalns. It is one of the poorest areas in Latvia, a town burned down by the retreating Nazi forces.

People rebuild. Don't ask them to forget.

The photograph of Abrene in the interbellum is from the official website of Pytalovo. Many photos from that period are captioned with that undead term, "
Буржуазной республики" -- "of the bourgeois republic." It was "the bourgeois republic" that constructed the town, including its then-modern schools.

17 January 2007

Some Musings on Monuments

The Russian Duma is threatening to take "decisive steps" if Estonia goes ahead with plans to move the bronze Soviet soldier from the center of Tallinn. Itching for Eestimaa, a fine blog on matters Estonian, provides rambunctious debate, and Vladimir Socor offers his trusty incisive commentary at Eurasia Daily Monitor. So I'll slip away to ponder a piemineklis closer to home, pictured above (the photograph is from last winter, when the lilacs did not bud in January), and die Denkmale of Latvia.

Someone once told me that Ljubljana has the distinction of being the only capital city in the world without a single statue of a military figure -- true or not, that sounds blissful somehow. Latvia, with its complex history, is interestingly devoid of faces on its currency -- the coins have cows, salmon, and other non-human creatures on them (well, if one doesn't count Sprīdītis, a fairy tale figure made famous by Anna Brigadere), the banknotes scenes of our "river of fate," the Daugava, an ancient farmhouse, and parts of the mystical Lielvārde belt. The only historical figure to appear on our paper money (not counting whomever Milda, the model for the "folk maiden" who appeared on the silver coins in the interbellum and reappears on the Ls 500 note, a note normal people almost never see, might have been) is a person no one could possibly gripe about -- Krišjānis Barons, "the father of the dainas," collector of folk songs, on the Ls 100 note.

If our currency is almost antiseptically politics-free, it is not so with statues or, er, anything else -- I already remarked upon the battle of the street names a bit, but monuments are even heavier. A businessman has taken to restoring the souvenirs of tsarist glory out of his own pocket -- that of Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, for example. He also restored Peter the Great. The trouble is that most people really don't want to see Peter the Great. As Arnolds Spekke, still the most elegant historiographer Latvia has so far produced in English, suggested -- those called "Great" by the Russians greatly thickened the darkness here. A well-known traveler's account describes Livonia after the passage of Peter's troops -- no cock crowed, and no dog barked. Then there are those who would like to see Peter astride his mount again -- the statue made a brief, nocturnal appearance during the recent "pink-red" interlude in Rīga's municipal government, when the members of a new, stunted generation of Russo-Soviet imperialists swarmed it most delightedly.

And so on, and so on -- a statue of Kārlis Ulmanis was finally erected, largely due to the largesse of right-wing Latvians in the Baltic State of Australia. Some would question why a democracy needs to build a statue to a dictator, but people of a certain nationalist persuasion need not reason why. The statue of Konstantīns Čakste, a heroic democrat who stood firm against both the Soviets and the Nazis, has not yet materialized -- he's slated to fill the empty spot where Lenin stood, in Freedom (formerly also Alexander, Hitler, Lenin) Boulevard.

But I digress. To Dubrovin's Garden. That is a park, whence the image. It was the first park in Daugavpils, not counting Nevsky (now Pumpurs) Square (where there was a cathedral... but that was blown up without warning in the night, 17/18 November 1969, by the Soviets; it's now been "replaced" by a rather garish little replica). You follow Rīga Street to the river to get to it -- take note of the granite that decorates the pedestrian mall; some of it was taken from the gravestones in the Jewish cemetery the Soviets bulldozed in the 1970s.

This monument is a gravesite -- these were the first Soviet soldiers to die when "liberating" Daugavpils. In reality, the corpses may not be there. Their resting place was moved due to road construction, and it's rumored that those doing the moving didn't really bother with the bodies. Dubrovin's Garden was a place of entertainment -- it contained the cinema my mother went to as a girl and other "attractions." It was created by the city's greatest mayor, Pavel Dubrovin, in 1882 -- Dubrovin organized the first fire brigade, the first Gymnasium for females, the first bank, and the first modern market during his tenure, 1876-1890. On the other hand, he also received a medal for suppressing the January Uprising...

The park is a place everybody who lived here before the occupation remembers as the most thrilling place of their childhood. Hungarian lilacs, American walnut, a small arena, and the best ice cream in town. The placement of a rather hideous tomb in such a place is deemed inappropriate by many -- in fact, it is said that the relatives of at least one of the soldiers ostensibly buried there tried to get his remains returned. Soviet ideas on how to memorialize a war they were devoted to distorting were (are!) inflexible, however. On "Victory Day," a diminishing crowd of homines sovietici usually gathers at Slavas skvērs (where there is another monument I'll discuss another time), and heads for the eternal flame in Dubrovin's Garden (the flame ceased to be eternal when the gas prices first rose sharply, fifteen years ago -- but it turns eternal for special occasions). An oversized Lenin (reportedly dressed for Siberia but rejected by a Siberian city as too ugly; Daugavpils said "we'll take it!") used to stare down upon Unity Square nearby -- the last Lenin in Latvia to fall (he was felled in the dead of night, like the Nevsky Cathedral, to discourage protest). In the early 1990s, the more brainwashed babushki would part from the crowd to throw red tulips at his vacant pedestal, whilst the others streamed to the tomb to listen to clergymen and a gloomy Russian Air Force band churning out dirges. The priests would flee when lesser mortals began to give nostalgic and vaguely seditious speeches concerning the diabolical élite and the price of "overseas" bananas.

Politics, and especially local politics, being what they are, nobody would dare to move the tomb for fear of causing offense (and sparking another round of accusations about those dastardly Letts exhuming the sainted anti-fascists, which demagoguery doesn't really require a spark -- it burns like peat). Civilized people respect graves, and I expect the Legionnaires' and Germans' (and Turks' -- there are some!) headstones here to stand unmolested -- they don't, of course, and wrecking cemeteries is something of a local sport for some, whether that means spray-painting swastikas on Jewish memorials or toppling the crosses in the forlorn corner of the Great Graves devoted to Latvian patriots.

"Victory monuments" are a different thing, however, and the Soviets blurred the lines between tombs and triumphal monuments as best they could. Red Army dead were intentionally buried in Latvia's most sacred cemetery, for example -- the cemetery for those who fell in the Latvian War of Liberation. Most of Latvia's monuments were defaced or destroyed during the occupation. It is notable, too, that the very Soviet symbolism at the tomb in Dubrovin's Garden has been replaced -- the red stars morphed into Orthodox crosses, and I doubt very much whether anybody inquired whether the departed or their survivors desired that.

Perhaps a freaky form of post-modernism will arrive someday; one that allows Kārlis Ulmanis to mount Pyotr's horse ("When a Parisian woman stumbled in front of Peter the Great's horse during his visit in 1717 and scissored her legs to try to avoid the horses' hooves, the czar was overheard remarking, 'The gates of Paradise are open.'") without the sponge of meaning being too soaked to mop up everybody's personal or historical horror. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you, tomorrow -- you're always a day away. (Grace Jones)

Part of this post was condensed from my part of an earlier debate at soc.culture.baltics in Usenet.

14 January 2007

Auseklis Baušķenieks, 1910 - 2007

One of the leading figures of Latvian avant-garde painting, Auseklis Baušķenieks, died on Saturday at the age of ninety-six. He was attracted to visual art as a student of architecture at the University of Latvia in the 1930s and graduated from the Academy of Arts in 1942. After serving in the Latvian Legion and being held as a prisoner of war by the English, French, and Americans, he returned to Latvia in 1946. His first individual exhibition was in 1975. The target of Auseklis Baušķenieks' works, subjected to a warm but acerbic irony often suffused with strong, sad social commentary, quickly switched from homo sovieticus to consumerism and our troubled transitional democracy once independence was restored -- in "Pikets" ("The Picket," 1993), for example, the sign says "yes to us"... the banner behind it, "no to those and these." The painting above, entitled "Māte Eiropa" ("Mother Europe"), is from the Latvian Artists' Society -- other works by Baušķenieks can be found at his pages there and at Mans's Gallery. Auseklis' son Ingus Baušķenieks founded the then underground music group Dzeltenie pastnieki in the 1980s ("The Yellow Postmen" -- under the Soviets, the color of mailboxes was blue... the postal color is again yellow); the group still exists (a track can be heard here).

Labels: , , , ,

12 January 2007

The Barricades

Sixteen years ago yesterday, while the world's attention was focused on the impending beginning of Operation Desert Storm, what Lithuanians and many Latvians euphemistically call "the January Events" began -- Soviet troops captured various buildings throughout Lithuania and armored columns began to move towards Vilnius, where unarmed citizens gathered at the TV Tower to defend the democratically elected government that had proclaimed the restoration of Lithuania's independence. Vytautas Landsbergis, the head of state, tried to contact Gorbachev three times -- without success. In the wee hours of 13 January, 110 people were injured and 14 were killed as the Soviets attempted to take the Tower by force.

In Rīga, between half a million and seven hundred thousand people (out of a total population of just over two and a half million in Latvia, Soviet military personnel and colonists included) gathered on the right bank of the Daugava whilst timber and heavy machinery were brought into the city for the construction of the Barricades. Latvians, and they counted among their number not a few people from Latvia's ethnic minorities, rose to the defense of the Republic despite the bloodshed in Vilnius. The journalist Bens Latkovskis, among others, has observed that there are two years of which the Latvian nation can be proud -- 1919, when Latvians of all political persuasions and walks of life (
minus hardcore Bolsheviks and reactionaries) united against the German and Russian forces under Bermondt-Avalov, and 1991, when ordinary people from all over Latvia gathered on the Barricades to defend "your freedom and ours," as some of the banners had it in both Latvian and Russian. A chronology of the events in English and photos are available here. 11 November 1919, when Bermondt-Avalov's soldiers were driven from the outskirts of Rīga, is still marked in Latvia as the Day of the Bear Slayer. Appropriately enough, the commemorative coin issued to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Barricades last year brings the Bear Slayer to "the January Events" -- the fires on the averse of the coin, around which the participants warmed themselves in that chill winter, are remembered by a bonfire at the Rīga TV Tower every year.

The photograph, from the Memorial Fund for Participants of the Barricades, shows the Council of Ministers being surrounded by crowds of defenders. The statue of Lenin was chopped down that August, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed.

Labels: , , ,