Today is Baltic Unity Day, when Latvians and Lithuanians mark the defeat of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword by the Samogitians and Semigallians in the Battle of Saule, 22 September 1236. Equinox greetings to pagans everywhere! Saule means “sun” in both Latvian and Lithuanian (saulė) -- the idea of a "battle near the sun” was surrealistically inspiring to me in boyhood (visions of steeds galloping through solar flares). The heathen victory moved artists and poets from the national romantics of the 19th C to today's "pagan metal" band Skyforger, which has a song about the battle that makes use of the early 20th C poet Vilis Plūdonis' lyrics. Jānis Juškevičs published a detailed military study in 1926, available online in Latvian. "Mārasvalsts (Mary's Land, the statelet of the northern Crusaders) stood at the edge of the abyss, and a small strike would have destroyed it. But our ancestors were incapable of national thought..."
But on to another Terra Mariana, Latgallia -- Mōras zeme, Latgola. At nine this morning Latgallian activists will gather at the entrance to the University of Latvia's main building to demand regional language status for the Latgallian language (considered a dialect by most linguists), led by Mareks Gabrišs of the Latgallian Students' Center. Vysi latgalīši aicinōti jimt piketā akteivu daleibu! I'll hide behind Max Weinreich's formulation as to whether it's a language or not: "A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot." The announcement of the picket has provoked 687 comments so far at Delfi, the Internet portal that attracts the most wags and jackbooted sputterers -- that's a lot of comments, a density usually reserved for what gets a bigot's goat. Plenty of bigotry in evidence, as always -- čangaļi vs. čiuļi (the first is the somewhat derogatory term for Latgallians, the second the somewhat derogatory term for non-Latgallian Latvians -- čangalis is often used as nigga is by American blacks).
I've lived in Latgallia since 1992 and my mother grew up here, but I'm not Latgallian -- ditto for my wife, who was born here and whose mother was born here. A fervent čangalis would call us čiuļi, and it's interesting to peruse the 1930s Daugavpils "Latvian" (i.e., čiuļu) paper for some insight into the friction -- Latgallia (impoverished, Catholic, Russified, uneducated and rather drunk) resented the "Balts" (snooty, self-righteous, Germanized, Lutheran, exploitative). One hilarious argument is a complaint about the Ludza teachers' association offering a concert in which songs were sung in "bad" Latvian -- i.e., Latgallian. The teachers pointed out that this supposedly "bad" Latvian was actually Italian! The Latgallian newspaper Drywa once offered this line: "Shall we let the Lutheran wolf devour our lambs?"
Language in Latvia is heavily politicized, and the "Latgallian question" has always been suffused with politics. Long separated from the rest of Latvia (Inflanty, its name a Polish corruption of Livland, was long under Polish rule and then a part of Vitebsk guberniya, not included in the Baltic Provinces), Latgallia was subject to Russification long before the rest of Latvia was and more harshly so. I've some notes on some of this stuff here.
A friend of mine was a major Latgallian activist in the 1980s, but swerved a bit and put it aside when the Black Colonel began to take an interest. As some of the comments at Delfi suggest, Latgallian separatism is seen as dangerous because subtracting the Latgallians from the Latvians increases the weight of the Russians. Russophones are often at least as "pro-Latgallian" as Latgallians (for instance here [RU, LV]), whilst most Latgallians are quite comfortable in Latvian. A survey in Rēzekne showed that most there, in the heart of Latgallia, Latgallians included, don't consider Latgallian a language.
On the other hand, Latvian paranoia about "separatism" is often as absurd as bigotry towards Latgallians is ugly. When not tinged with intolerance, it boils down to this -- "we're so small, we shouldn't be divided against ourselves." The trouble with that formulation is that "ourselves" ought to include our diverse elements. I had the good fortune to study under the late Dr. Jāzeps Lelis for a few weeks -- a great linguist and Latgallian, he noted that Latvians say that Latgallian speech and literary Latgallian (it is indeed standardized) are no more than a dialect of the language spoken in the rest of Latvia. If meant to mean that we are one people and speak the same language, no Latgallian would object. But as soon as Latvians meet this "dialect" cheek to cheek, especially in its printed form, they immediately shout that it is incomprehensible and harmful to national unity.
On Baltic Unity Day, I would suggest a meditation on what unity means, in this sense: sameness and homogenization aren't exact synonyms of unity. I can offer qualified support to the demonstrators in Rīga because I think Latgallian ought to be taught -- dialects are part of the living language and Latgallian is one of our language's roots, and a thick one at that. But the Language Law already stipulates that "the Latvian State ensures the preservation, protection and development of the Latgallian literary language as a historical variant of the Latvian language." Making that work requires constructive labor rather than pickets -- the fact is that almost no qualified Latgallian teachers would be available even if Latgallian were declared an official language tomorrow.
I took the photo in Alejas iela here in Daugavpils (Daugpiļs in Latgallian), the second largest city in Latvia and the largest in Latgallia. It's not snowing yet, but the beauty of autumn fills me with dread?