25 January 2007

Borderlands

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.

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