11 November 2007

Bear Slayer's Day

The banner above and below, shown courtesy of the Schwind Collection, is perhaps the only surviving example of a West Russian Volunteer Army flag and is said to have been Bermondt-Avalov's personal standard. Though the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed on 18 November 1918, the declaration of independence was soon followed by war -- there were at one point three governments (Ulmanis' Republic, Niedra's puppet government, and Stučka's Soviet Latvia).

The greatest threat to the young Republic came in the autumn of 1919, when Bermondt-Avalov attempted to use German and Russian forces to overthrow the Latvian and Estonian governments with the intent of restoring the Baltic provinces within a renewed Russian Empire, offering the Germans land and Russian citizenship and restoring the privileges of the Baltic German nobility. The combined threat of Russian reactionaries and feudal Germans united Latvians left and right at last, as the proclamation of 1918 had not.

The West Russian Volunteer Army took the upper left bank in Rīga and shelled the core of the city until it was turned back by the fledgling Latvian Army -- support from British and French warships being the decisive factor -- on 11 November 1919, which we call Lāčplēša diena, Bear Slayer's Day -- it remains the main military holiday, when we remember everyone who fought for a free Latvia in all wars. Later that November, Latvia declared war on Germany. The ranks of the Latvian Army swelled, and Bermondt-Avalov's once proud troops were driven into East Prussia in a disorganized retreat, setting fires and looting whilst harried by the Balts.

Sadly, surveys reflect the ignorance of history the occupation -- and a failure to teach Latvian history as a separate subject since the restoration of the Republic -- wrought; a poll taken last year showed that a mere 8% of those surveyed could explain why we fly our flag today.

Uldis Bērziņš has a remarkable book-length cycle of poems devoted to the "Bermontiāde" and what could truly be called the birth of the nation -- Daugavmala (The Daugava's Edge). I've been working on a translation of that complex text, which is written from various perspectives and at times anachronistic, and present the draft of a section addressed to the Germans here.


he dreamt of the Kremlin
your lord and master
and of the Caucasus
but you yourself you wanted
only to stay with us
as a farmer then you came
to plant and plow
and smoke your pipe
and watch your children goofing off
but oh how quickly your dream grew dark!
the commander bites his nails
and the soldier bites his nails
but such a bright beginning it had been with bayonets
and helmets yet the end is
taking flight in brackish water in mucous fear he lost his voice
dropping his gun look
Bermondt flees see across the heath his sooty boots are full of blood his feet stink of empty trenches he sways across the Lielupe to cross the soggy roads of Semigallia and damns the rain in Lithuania, fleeing -- with arson under his arm he runs, and a stolen goblet stowed beneath the coach-box -- home, go home, Saxon man!
be gone, Prussian and Swabian! take care that your balls don't drop out, cradle them in your hand to keep them,
for in this country thou shalt neither
thresh nor grind
nor plant a garden
nor carve a single monument
don’t dare look back

snakes grow in our country
this isn’t a land but a pit
to throttle you
from its every hummock
bile and poison ooze
go seek friends in some other country
for I have the heart of a snake

The poem is © Uldis Bērziņš: Daugavmala. Rīga: Nordik, 1999 -- translation mine, permitted; the flag is shown by permission of the Schwind Collection and is for sale (at 7200 USD) here. Aleks points out that there are awesome photos of the Bermontiāde here.

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