28 April 2007

Pēters Jānis Vecrumba -- An Interview

Inspired by the ongoing series of interviews with bloggers launched by Siberian Light, I've decided to try my hand at interviewing here. My first subject is not a blogger but Pēters Jānis Vecrumba, who with his wife Silvija created and maintains latvians.com, one of the oldest, biggest, and best Latvian-related sites on the Web.

Since you explain your background and the inception of your site in detail, we can pretty much dispense with the "why did you start doing this" type of stuff. My first question, then, is -- what do you read online that's relevant to Latvia? What do you think of Latvia's English-language "Web presence"? What do you hope for and/or fear?

My online Latvia reading is mostly for current news--mainly Google, from which I prepare our mailer. I've also come to rely on our more senior New York Latvian Choir members (who have better political connections and longer perspectives than I!) for their weekly digest of online news and analysis as part of rehearsal coffee break!

My fear?

I'm gravely worried about Latvia's English-language web presence. Duluth, Minnesota is reading about Latvian glorification of "convicted at Nuremberg" Waffen SS in their local newspaper's web site fed directly from Pravda's wire service. Then you have the constant reporting on Latvia's apartheid-like oppression of its Russian minority. And where is the news feed reflecting the truth coming from? Nowhere. Given Russia's continuing (unopposed and one-sided) success at painting Latvia as a recalcitrant xeno-Russophobic neo-Nazi state ungrateful for its liberation from Hitler, I don't expect Latvia's image to improve any time soon.

In the not too distant future, Latvia's current independence will eclipse in years that of the first republic. And how will Latvia be perceived after two decades of independence? Let's not be complacent that those who "know the facts" are "on Latvia's side." The only opinion that counts is majority opinion. We need to worry less about painting Latvia as an attractive tourist destination and more about what is thought of Latvia and the Latvians. Otherwise Latvia will be nothing but a recalcitrant xeno-Russophobic neo-Nazi state ungrateful for its liberation from Hitler--but a great place for a stag party.

My hope is for the reconciliation of Latvian-Jewish relations.

When I read Frank Gordon's account of the "good years," I am reminded of my mother's own stories--she's 95 now--of growing up in the countryside, where the Jewish dry-goods salesman who came by each week with his cart would slip her and her sister some candies. Or, later as an adult, shopping in Riga and being pulled into a store to be sold the perfect shoe or hat. Stories told not with stereotyping, but with affection.

For myself, growing up, Seder dinner with my Jewish friends was a profound and moving experience--as we read the scripture and prayed for the release of our people from bondage, who better in the modern day to understand the biblical Jewish struggle than a Latvian whose homeland was lost under Soviet subjugation? And through that prayer, to mutually give thanks for our freedom, to affirm our commitment to remain ever vigilant in defending it, and to acknowledge our duty to defend freedom for all those too weak to defend themselves?

I am not an expert on the current state of Latvian-Jewish relations. My impression, however, is that we remain at an impasse: while Latvia has acknowledged the participation of Latvians in the Holocaust, what remains is an uneasy truce with undertones that each side is ignoring the other's loss--the inevitable result of both sides claiming they were victims in WWII. Riding to one's death in packed cattle cars. Being gassed and mass-cremated. Being force-marched to some Arctic camp to die on the way there and have your corpse lie in a ditch for months until the ground softened enough for the bulldozers to dig mass graves. Holocaust and gulag--both paths to death. Hitler's targeting of and means of inflicting genocide on the Jews define the Holocaust as uniquely and unspeakably evil. But genocide itself is far too familiar an occurrence, even today.

One should not judge a people by their "collaborators." Yet, standing in her very presence, I heard the honorable Elizabeth Holtzman declare: "All Latvians are Nazis." This portrayal of Latvians has not changed since that condemnation uttered over three decades ago. The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. denounces all Balts for complicity in the Holocaust: "They knew what was happening." (It's one of the exhibit signs, on its own pedestal; I apologize that the quote likely isn't quite exact--photographs weren't permitted and I didn't expect to need pen and paper.)

My mother certainly heard rumors--but when people have already lived through a year of brutal Soviet occupation witnessing those around them disappear without explanation, people learn that to not ask too many questions is to increase their chances of surviving to tomorrow.

In my mother's post office in Talsi (she ran it under a Soviet-installed incompetent) they worked with armed Red Army infantry standing at their backs as they were forced to listen in and report on all conversations. The Soviets replaced Latvian workers who disappeared with Jews. The only reason I was ever born was because one of those Jewish replacements warned my mother not to go home the day the rest of the family was deported to Siberia--an overheard conversation. It's patently ludicrous to suggest the Jews were Stalin's collaborators--everyone was just trying to stay alive until tomorrow. But one can see where the Nazi propagandists--invading Latvia only a week after the mass deportations occurred--could find opportunity to further their anti-Semitic purposes. Stalin put the Jews squarely in the sights of the Nazi propagandists. And what do we hear of this today, or of the thousands of Jews Stalin deported to Siberia to their deaths? Absolutely nothing.

Nazi propagandists used Soviet atrocities to their advantage; Soviets used Nazi atrocities to theirs. After the war, Soviet denunciation of Eastern European activists as Nazis was a common ploy--including manufacturing evidence to convict those who had fled abroad. Nor were the Soviets above blaming Nazis for their own atrocities--it took well over half a century for Russia to admit the Katyn massacre was of Soviet, not Nazi, doing.

Yes, the Nazis found Latvian collaborators. Yes, the Nazis and their collaborators committed unspeakably horrific acts. Yet many Latvians fought the Nazis and risked their lives trying to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. My own father-in-law, then a teenager, sent to warn a close family friend of the Nazis, found her decapitated. The questions must be asked. Which Latvians chose to be collaborators and why? Did Latvians really stand idly by as Jews were slaughtered? How did the Nazis and Soviets both use each other's atrocities to their propagandist advantage? Finally, can we really insist that a year of occupation under Stalin had absolutely no effect on the events which followed?

Anti-Semitism was not a part of Latvian culture. Stereotypes, undoubtedly. Hate? No. Looking for anti-Semitism in Latvia's past during her first independence as the explanation for Latvian collaboration in the Holocaust may be expedient, but it avoids the hard questions. An open and honest examination of the Holocaust in Latvia would be of immeasurable value. The implicit postulation that Hitler's Latvian collaborators were all anti-Semites to begin with dangerously ignores the dynamics of how and why individuals are turned to commit genocide. I trust that someday, perhaps another fifty years from now, we will be prepared to ask honest questions, to be receptive to the honest answers, and will finally arrive at a reconciliation born of understanding and celebrating the similarities, not differences, of peoples, their values, and their experiences.

For myself, Liz Holtzman's condemnation that I and the entire world I grew up in were nothing but Nazis to be hunted down denies the lessons of the Holocaust. Depersonalization is the first step to hatred, not the first step to reconciliation. Every time I remember her words, as now, I relive the palpable pain and anguish she inflicted. All those who would insist that only certain lessons must be learned from the Holocaust and that they must only be taught in a certain way doom us to repeat the tragedy. Genocidal hate is not simple. The Holocaust is not just about anti-Semitism--mankind is truly indiscriminate and evil in its capacity to hate. As I said, we only have to check the news to confirm genocide afflicts us today. If we are truly committed to learn from the Holocaust and to apply those lessons to eliminate genocide by understanding and preventing the hatred which feeds it, I believe there is no better place to start than the Holocaust in Latvia. And we must start soon--while the few who can speak of their experiences are still with us.

That surely painful voyage of introspection still awaits Latvia.

You're a Wikipedian. Judging from your devotion to matters Transnistrian, you tend to look at "post-Soviet" questions in a broader context. You have tagged your user page with "this user refutes post-Soviet Stalinist propaganda." Why did you choose this tag? Who's a Stalinist?

Stalin's propaganda is more alive today than any time since Stalin himself: from the British tourist brochure more than a decade after Latvian independence replaying the myth that the Freedom Monument was built to thank Stalin--its three stars the Baltic states, to the Duma passing resolutions to remind Latvia that its joining the Soviet Union was completely legal, to the renegade Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic insisting its enforcement of Stalin's invented Russian-Cyrillic Moldovan is returning the Romanian language to its roots. The issue is not Stalinist lies as they apply to Latvia or the Baltics. The issue is that Russia, the frozen conflict zone territories, et al. increasingly use Stalinism as the framework defining their (stated) view of the world and as the mechanism by which they interact with the world. For example, Russia denounces the Baltics for smuggling arms to Georgia, an obvious lie—which tells you that Russia is smuggling arms to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Accusing others of what you're doing is a classic Stalinist tactic.

A related issue is that, as an underling once said of Stalin, he always made sure he had a solid lie to stand on. Stalinist propaganda is characterized by its masterful blending of truths and blatant lies into a seamless, cohesive--yet utterly false--reality. Unless you know, you can't tell where the truth stops and the lies start. And those lies are now spreading faster than ever. One only has to look to the new global community, the Internet, to see that it is not some cabal of anti-Latvian neo-Stalinist Russians parroting Stalin's propaganda; rather, it's people from all countries and all walks of life. To watch Pravda's lies spread instantly across the globe at the speed of light today would make Stalin weep with joy.

And so the reason for my Wikipedia user page tag: the increasingly quixotic quest to prevent the birth of new Stalinists. And who is a Stalinist today? Anyone who recites the propaganda, whether or not they are Russian, whether or not they know it is a lie. For Latvia, the threat is not that Russia is increasingly Stalinist. The threat is that in Duluth, Minnesota and across the globe, Latvia is losing the battle as a new generation of albeit unwitting and self-unaware Stalinists is born.

How would you define the relationship between the USSR and Russia? Do you see the Russian Federation as heir to the Soviet Union? The sole heir? What do you say to those who see the USSR as having been as inimical to the Russian nation as it was to the other nations in the USSR?

It is a relationship of convenience. If you take ownership of all your predecessor's possessions and insist they came by everything legally (even though they didn't), you aren't obligated to give anything back or to apologize for it being taken in the first place.

"Heir" can be taken many different ways. Legal heir. Cultural heir. Political heir. I would like to see Russia simply as Russia. But when Russia rehabilitates the Soviet anthem with only a few changes in the lyrics, when it rehabilitates Felix Dzerzhinsky's (founder of the dreaded and murderous Cheka) bust to its place of honor in the Moscow Police's headquarters' courtyard (in 2005), it is Russia itself that increasingly defines itself as heir to Soviet power and might. If the Germans rehabilitated a bust of Goebbels in the center of Berlin, there would be international outrage. In Russia? It's just another day.

Sole heir? No. There is Belarus. Despite the "contentiousness" of the relationship, through Lukashenko, Belarus says and does all the things Russia wants to say and do--allowing Russia to play the "moderating" influence. There is the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, aka Transnistria, a strip of Moldovan territory--the bulk of Moldova's industrial assets--held by a regime led by a Lenin devotee (complete with goatee) privatizing Moldovan assets into the hands of Russian oligarchs, kept in power by Russian military and economic support (estimated at over a billion dollars in energy subsidies alone)--where the Russians insist they are simply a peace keeping force ostensibly keeping the murderous Moldovans at bay. Most notably, the PMR is home to Vladimir Antyufeyev, security minister and alleged power behind the throne, formerly head of the Rīga OMON who shot freedom demonstrators--the entire Baltic OMON forces having been transplanted to the PMR en masse by Viktors Alksnis.

Russia finds itself flush with oil and gas revenues and holding its hand on the energy tap to an increasingly dependent Europe--we should not underestimate her reach, influence, or naked ambition. After all, even a former chancellor of Germany went to work for the Russian oil industry--an instrument of Russian energy thuggery where its near-abroad are concerned.

To those who "see the USSR as having been as inimical to the Russian nation as it was to the other nations in the USSR," where does this contention lead? That Latvia has no right to complain because it was treated "no worse" than anyone else? The proposition that "Russians suffered too" does nothing to ameliorate Russian suffering—it only shields Russia from its moral obligation to admit to and redress Soviet crimes.

What do you think of the Border Agreement? The future of Latvian-Russian relations?

Placating the schoolyard bully is rarely a formula for reconciliation. Going back to my earlier example of Duluth, middle America will be reading that "the obstinate Latvians have finally come to their senses thanks to the noble and unyielding stance of Russia--Latvia's capitulation only recognizes the facts and confirms that Latvia's continued attempts to rewrite history are a baseless and vile slander of Russia and the great Soviet anti-fascist struggle."

Moreover, I believe the Border Agreement is unconstitutional in its manner of execution. Regardless of the bogus "elections" that brought the first Soviet Latvian parliament to power, scholars have maintained that the petition to join the Soviet Union was unconstitutional, therefore null and void. That is because any change in sovereignty over Latvian territory would have required a constitutional change--which required a majority plebiscite for ratification. Today, we have Latvia's parliament set to agree to annex part of Latvia to Russia. Annex part of Latvia, all of Latvia--there's no constitutional difference. The moment the Saeima approves the treaty, it nullifies the "constitutional" argument that Latvia's annexation to the Soviet Union was illegal. Russia and the Stalinists will have a field day.

With regard to relations, I agree with Putin in one regard only, which is that the greatest geopolitical calamity of the twentieth century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not that it was ultimately dissolved, but that the attempted putsch unnaturally accelerated that process. While the central Soviet finally acknowledged the illegality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the premature collapse of the Union terminated negotiations which would have led to the central Soviet acknowledging the illegal occupation of the Baltics.

In their failed attempt to preserve the Soviet Union, the protagonists did succeed in one thing: they stemmed the catharsis of Stalinism. The Soviet Union had barely begun its journey toward openness and freedom--a journey which could have eventually exorcised Stalinism. Instead, in Russia today we find a “democracy” where authoritarianism is confused with strength and Stalinism with certitude—where each now grows like a cancer.

There can be nothing characterized as true "relations" born of trust and respect between Latvia and Russia until Russia acknowledges the atrocities of its Soviet past. Just as in WWII, the Baltics are again the touchstone by which to judge the true nature of geopolitical intent. Until Russia confesses, it will continue to be an international thug on the outside trying to get in to sit at the table of civilized nations.

One of the things I focus on at my blog is "letting bygones be bygones" and the dynamics of that -- for instance, in my most recent post on LPP, I noted that Ledyaev praises Šlesers & Co. for being the only politicians who want to throw away the history books. Both of us are against erasing history -- but what do you think is the difference between "getting over it," "moving on," and erasure? How should Latvia and Latvians (including Latvians abroad) move on?

Until Russia acknowledges that the Soviet Union's invasion was an unprovoked act of aggression "justified" on a pack of lies, Latvians will not move on. Every Russian pronouncement that Latvians by being anti-Soviet are anti-"anti-Fascist" and therefore Nazis, every Russian pronouncement that Latvians are ungrateful for their liberation from Hitler, every Russian pronouncement of thanks to its heroes--sending flowers to retired Red Army comfortable in their Riga apartment who say of the Latvians deported to Siberia that they "deserved it, they were all spies"--rips the scab off the wound and makes it bleed anew.

It is not the Latvians who are guilty of not moving on. It is Russia's geopolitical self-glorification which it regularly heaps upon Latvia, with a zest and zeal which can only be called sadistic, which keeps Latvians rooted to the past. (And one can always count on a new round of ritualistic patriotic Latvia-floggings to herald the Russian election season.) When Russia denies the truth, it lies. When Russia denies the past, it revisits it upon its victims. When Russia denies atrocities, it re-inflicts them. Throwing away the history books only joins and validates Russia in her dance of denial. Latvians waited half a century for Soviet occupation to crumble. I fail to understand the rush to tango with Russia. Do Šlesers & Co. have a business deal they are trying to broker? Then again, perhaps I understand all too well.

When you are in Latvia, do you feel as Latvian as you do in New York? Who's closer to most Latvians, in your experience -- the Russian next door, or a diaspora Latvian? What do you think of relations between Latvian-Americans and Latvians in Latvia? Is a "Western Latvian" a different animal?

Simple questions with a complex answers. When it comes to Latvians other than family...

When you are in Latvia, do you feel as Latvian as you do in New York? -- When I turn on the TV in our apartment in Rīga and experience the airwaves in Latvian, I no longer feel like an island of Latvianness. Latvianness surrounds me. Yet, growing up in the diaspora as I did, knowing every Latvian I knew as long as I could remember--where "Latvian" and "family" were synonymous and interchangeable in every sense, I've also learned that I cannot simply project those expectations and obligations onto this new community of Latvians in which I now find myself. And so, the Latvianness which surrounds me are strangers, not "family," to me, and so I remain an island of Latvianness. Until Latvia's freedom, I had known only one home. Now that I know two, both--and neither--are completely home.

Who's closer to most Latvians, in your experience -- the Russian next door, or a diaspora Latvian? -- When it comes to my mother being targeted as an elderly person who should be cheated out of her money by, for example, slipping a rotten cabbage into her shopping bag instead of the fresh one she pointed to, more often than not it's a Latvian that's behind the store counter. The need to lie and cheat to survive does not discriminate in its eventual corruption of morality. Stripping away the nationalist versus apartheid rhetoric, there's more in common than different. The Latvian and the Russian next door share largely the same experience; more importantly, they now share the same choices: I have met Russians who make wonderful Latvians; I have met Latvians who make miserable Latvians--no one can decide for you what kind of person you are or whether you truly value your homeland; only you can decide and then demonstrate your decision through your actions. Case in point: Latvians passing laws to drop sugar import tariffs so they can increase their business profits as they doom Latvian sugar beets to rot in the fields are the worst of Latvians. What is unethical and illegal elsewhere apparently constitutes savvy business practices in Latvia.

What do you think of relations between Latvian-Americans and Latvians in Latvia? -- Individually good, but on the whole I still detect a certain undercurrent of resentment against and disrespect toward diaspora Latvians who "lived the good life" while Latvians at home suffered under Soviet rule. (I can only say that when food ran short in the DP camps, authorities told my parents they’d have to learn to eat grass.) I think this will pass as more accurate understanding of the outside world arises out of the increasing interchange of Latvians between Latvia and the diaspora.

Is a "Western Latvian" a different animal? -- Of course! Looking at the wave of Latvians who were adults at the time they were swept into the diaspora during WWII, they are nearly all gone, many never living to see their homeland free again. And who are we, who are their children? We of the first generation grown up in exile are living time capsules of the first independent Latvia, cultural clones by necessity of circumstance of our parents before us: their hopes, their dreams, their history, their accomplishments, their customs, and their language. When I speak with my Australian cousin in English, she sounds Aussie and I sound American. When we speak in Latvian, it's in the identical Latvian of our parents and grandparents from the rolling hills of Vidzeme. And we are the Latvians of the first republic.

What do you think of the recent "Third Wave" of emigrants? Of the distance between them and the refugees and their descendants? How is this distance best bridged?

Here in New York, at least, it's a welcome addition of youth and vitality--centers of Latvian activity which had grown quiet as the wave of WWII has passed away and their progeny scattered have taken on new vitality.

For the Latvian leaving Latvia, that very act—now experiencing the world at large--is their bridge to the Latvian communities they enter abroad. Earlier I had spoken of diasporic Latvian communities as family. We await these new emigrants at the other end of the bridge, extend our welcome, and embrace them into our family. More than half a century later, for all our assimilation into America, or wherever our parents may have fled to start a new life, the shared commonality of experience that binds Latvians in the diaspora is our Latvianness.

Back to Wikipedia -- I've noted that the Latvian Vikipēdija is a lot smaller than the Estonian version, not to mention the Lithuanian version. What does this say about Latvians, if anything?

I would venture that Latvians tend to be parochial in their interests--parochial not in any derogatory sense, only "close to home." Personally, I too would have less than zero motivation to write a Latvian article, say, about the origins of coffee. For what purpose? It's not a sign of apathy, only an acknowledgement of higher priorities. There are a lot more Latvian things one can (and should) be doing.

Do you feel that there is a conflict between Latvia's close relationship to the United States and its being European?

I see the closeness of the U.S.-Latvian relationship more as striking a balance of sorts to the antagonism of the Russian-Latvian relationship. With those two defining the extremes, Latvia's associations with and within Europe are free to naturally fall somewhere in the middle--especially as Europe as a whole becomes more skeptical of Russian geopolitical ambitions. Latvia's size compels it to pursue diplomacy on a "win-win" basis--it should use its inability to threaten to its advantage, to position itself as a neutral and enabling party where possible. Latvia has no other option; it isn't in the position to practice punitive diplomacy on the scale of the large countries: threatening to embargo its exports of sprats to nation-states with whose policies Latvia disagrees is likely to have limited effect.

On a longer term scale, refusals to recognize Latvia’s annexation into the Soviet Union aside, history has demonstrated the expendability of the Baltics where the "great powers" are concerned. This knowledge is part of Latvia’s historical DNA, informing and reinforcing an understanding that Latvia must always, first and foremost, be self-reliant. So, with respect to the U.S., close but not "too close."

What can we expect from latvians.com in the next year?

We will continue our journey to understand and explore Latvia, particularly in its first independence. What was it about Latvia that our parents brought with them into exile that engendered their fierce, unremitting, and inspiring defense of their culture and heritage? If only we could see Latvia as they did, through their eyes... and we can, to some reasonable degree, by exploring contemporary accounts of Latvia.

We've focused on English-language materials to reach the widest audience. More recently, however, we've been adding Latvian materials, for example, the Freedom Monument Committee's book "Brīvības Piemineklis," and the catalog of the First Latvian Arts and Crafts Exhibition. Those (and others) are in various stages of translation to make them more accessible.

Our plans also include expanding our "Exile Experience" section, from sharing our own pictures and hopefully travelogues from the upcoming Indianapolis Song and Dance Festival to adding more historical materials, particularly publications which came out of the DP camps. In fact, we're working on republishing an UNRRA book about the Seedorf Baltic DP Camp. (The U.N. has requested a copy for their archives when we're done!)

With major upgrades to our content management capabilities and recently moving our web site development to a larger server, we're hoping to accelerate the addition of new materials over the coming year and to further increase the value of our site as a unique resource to those wishing to learn more about Latvia.

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