20 December 2007

Borderlands (V)

Though one won't feel the light returning for a while -- it's the nigrum nigrius nigro here now, or Clayton Eshleman's "alchemical broth," pale incandescent snowflakes having long ago replaced the last, even less luminous neon hammers and sickles in what was Red Army Street for half a century -- this winter's solstice (so far muddy, verdigris) will be remembered as the day that many a border disappeared. Over All the Obscene Boundaries, Lawrence Ferlinghetti once titled a book of his poems. Here -- from the Iron Curtain and between the countries held captive behind it -- they truly were obscene. Here is an article with some reflections by Sandra Kalniete.

Latvia signed away a swathe of its territory (in yellow on the map) this week, exchanging the ratification documents of the Border Agreement with Russia -- the last act in a tragedy I tried to chronicle in four parts (I, II, III, IV). Though most of us will be celebrating one of the most palpable aspects of "returning to Europe" -- freedom of movement is as tangible as inflation -- let's take time out to raise a glass in recognition of the sorrow of those who've lost their lands forever. It's a loss for all of us, except for those politicians who haven't a share in the real. A song from the area, sung in Latgallian, can be heard here.

And then -- let's celebrate! I wasn't here until after the worst was over -- my first Soviet visa was issued in the final fizzle of the USSR, obtained in Berlin. What it means to be from a small nation -- the Latvian Consul, who issued a Latvian visa with a number in the low teens that no official ever saw because the Latvian border barely existed, invited me and a friend to celebrate the 18th of November, Latvia's Independence Day, at his villa in Dahlem. The anthem blared from scratchy vinyl. Der Spiegel described the Baltics as hopeless Soviet provinces where deluded dreamers desired to become part of the West. A filthy train, its Rīga car doubtless still staffed by KGB informers, bore us eastward. The change of gauge at Białystok (men lazily kicking the wheels out from under us, arc lamps). The brief transit through Soviet Belarus, still filmic, Jurassic, faceless creatures unscrewing the panels to look for contraband or stowaways and depriving babushki of the money they'd earned abroad.

Belarus is still on the other side. Last year I danced with a girl who had to be gone by midnight, like Cinderella. But the border between Latvia and Lithuania is fairly erased at last, for all practical purposes. Between the wars, border towns like Subate languished, Poland and Lithuania locked in conflict -- even postal relations between the two were as bitter as wormwood.


coming back into this
country I am ignorant of
& tired of being foreign to
everywhere, in a way as in she is in
a way -- back in after the brief curve through Belarus --
the border-guards asking not for passports but whether we have them
-- will be border by November --
remembering Irby, I am a citizen of that state that is a haziness in the air
& long for that color that is the eye of love like a body for its clouds
between cars for a smoke a man gestures at the frozen fields & says vot,
your America, your Plains --


ate apples fall, ābolu gads, apple year,
till could hardly stomach them --

apple eaten

at dawn down the bright law the Gypsies made
forbids them to sow,
keeps them moving

to youthen this cessant Europe

I have come to stay at the stalk of
where it pushes up still pale from the bloodied ground

here Lith. the earthen smitten,
the generations

come put their mind to it,
as their mind came from it

some stones say are
or aren't, past
oblivion some thing you know
about stone or the hair in the trees that mean you

can't go back, a matter of how much it hurts
not to, lost in the hands

I traveled in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia illegally, without a visa, because the sudden fall of the empire left a breathing space for some.

Then a flood of other memories -- the crying, screaming people removed from buses once their status was noticed. The waiting room for foreigners in the Lviv train station -- packed; "we're all foreigners now." The buses that ran to Warsaw from Daugavpils every Wednesday, full of "Polish riders"; there are almost as many ethnic Poles as there are Latvians in Daugavpils, and Poles would pack the aisle with Soviet goods to sell in the "Russian Market" in Warsaw, just as traders from Warsaw would head for Berlin. They used their earnings to set up some of the first decent businesses here.

Not being able to get to the platform at the station in Daugavpils -- this was a border zone, and one needed a passport to kiss someone departing on a train. Bicycling to Zarasai -- the smell of ink and the cost of a new passport when the pages were filled -- and the other side different how?

At the summer solstice, when Latvians wander from farmstead to farmstead singing and demanding drink, wandering into Lithuania at dawn -- the border guards at least as drunk as we were, urgently calling Vilnius because I then had an American passport with the stamp given to children, a weird tattoo -- citizen of Latvia.

The Kazakh who set himself on fire in Daugavpils because he couldn't get residency and couldn't provide for his family.

The bar that was in neither Latvia nor Lithuania. "The Queen of Between."

Standing in subzero temperatures for hours whilst guards fished for bribes -- have you any alcohol, precious metals, cigarettes?

For me it was merely exotic, often romantic. For most here it was prolonged incarceration, and then an incessantly demeaning process. "Use your American passport -- it's easier." Once I allowed my US PP to expire, I got a slight taste of that -- but I never had to eat it. Show the money, and see the bills rubbed between the fingers to see that the ink doesn't come off. Where are you going, Untermensch, and why.

Let's kiss it goodbye.

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05 December 2007

The Horizontal Time Code

After three years and three days at the helm of Latvia's Government, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis (left) at long last submitted his resignation. This length of time in office may not seem so long to some in other countries -- but it's actually the longest term ever served in that office in the history of the Republic of Latvia (with the exception of Ulmanis' fourth and last term... but that was lengthened only by a coup less than two months into the "Leader's" fatal administration, which became a dictatorship in 1934). Kalvītis liked to call himself "the guarantor of stability," so let's call it an era... in the hope that it's over.

The symbol of the era, besides the bloated face of the man himself, will probably be etched into historical memory by Lagzdiņa žests -- "Lagzdiņš's gesture" (right); MP Jānis Lagzdiņš of Kalvītis' ruling People's Pa
rty showed the people what the political élite thinks of them after Parliament chose the new President (originally picked at a secret meeting in the Rīga Zoo), gesturing from the windows at the crowd gathered below (he later explained that the gesture was directed at an old army buddy). We're not a trusting people, and there has been a widening gap between the rulers and the ruled ever since independence was restored (one recalls another "gesture" -- Birkavs' use of reņģēdāji, "eaters of pilchard," to refer to the poor and powerless -- I think of that one often because not a few old women are lined up for the stinking, rotten variety at the market, and it's not for their cats)... but Kalvītis' three years in power have been marked by a nihilistic cynicism unmatched even by the most extreme Latvian standards. Trust in every institution, from the courts to the post office, has collapsed. Easy credit, inflation, and emigration to greener pastures have soared.

The Prime Minister's departure is accompanied by one of the saddest and most revealing scandals ever -- the sudden postponement by LTV, national television, of a documentary about Vladimir Putin, the guarantor of stability next door. "The cassette broke" -- or, to be specific, there was a problem with the horizontal taimkods. Or there was a problem with the translation. Well, the obvious truth will out -- surprise, surprise: the documentary was pulled because it was offensive to the realm of Lt. Col. Putin, and therefore potentially threatening to the successful completion of the very last phase of the Border Agreement (the exchange of documents, tentatively scheduled for December 18th).

Kalvītis' misrule has led to the "moderate" "Russian party," Harmony Center, becoming the most popular grouping in the opinion polls (which doesn't mean that much -- with our sixty-odd parties [none of them with real grass-roots support except perhaps for the aging Fatherlanders /part of Kalvītis' coalition/, who showed their truly patriotic wing who's boss a week ago by rejecting the decent candidate for leadership] -- "popularity" in Latvia is measured in the teens even for the most popular list, if that). Harmony Center has given us Ābrams Kleckins, Chair of the National Radio and Television Council. "There is no propaganda in Russia," quoth Kleckins. According to this august expert in journalism (who trained many of our journalists at the University), pulling the movie wasn't censorship -- after all, there are many Russian voters here, so we ought to avoid influencing Vova's campaign.

We would then become a guberniya, I guess. The trumpets of Russian joy are everywhere these days -- H.E. Ambassador Kalyuzhny, known for his Soviet delight in trying to order a free press around (and for his Stalinist distortions of history), has even been talking about free gas for Latvia!

Aleks at All About Latvia writes more of our betweenness. The trouble is, of course, that you can't be between real democracy and managed democracy. A coalition run from the shadows by shadowy oligarchs, like Kalvītis', prevents us from knowing where our country is going (other than to Ireland).

Kleckins has announced a new "analytical" program for LTV -- like Globuss was in occupied oops I mean Soviet Latvia (wouldn't want to offend the neighbors or lower turnout in flourishing Chechnya, where it was a very democratic 99,5%). The aim would be to reduce the pesky sensationalism of Latvian journalists, it seems. Positivism, anyone? Ulmanis loved Dale Carnegie...

What's positive? Well, we're not in Russia yet. There was an outcry. Kalvītis is leaving. People go sing songs to defend the rule of law, despite the snow. Kalvītis is leaving. Long live Kalvītis! Voter turnout is still very high. (The era is not over.) Kalvītis is leaving. Ardievu, Cūkmen!

The title is taken from an editorial by the filmmaker Laila Pakalniņa. The photos, of unknown provenance, are from this site, devoted to cynical Lettish humor (it's better in Latvian).

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03 December 2007

The Revolution Devours Its Own Children

Die Revolution ist wie Saturn, sie frißt ihre eignen Kinder. -- Georg Büchner, Dantons Tod

Among the ca. 70 000 Latvians killed in the Soviet Union seventy years ago were many fervent and prominent Bolsheviks, ranging from the creator of Dalstroy, Eduards Bērziņš, to the "perpetual dissident" Linards Laicens. The author of remarkable love lyrics like Ho-Tai, Laicens, "who could only be in eternal opposition," became a diehard Red in independent Latvia, departing for the Soviet Union after various stints in prison. Uldis Ģērmanis describes his sorry fate with style (and error) in Zili stikli, zaļi ledi (Blue Glass, Green Ice, an account of Ģērmanis' visit to occupied Latvia to research the Riflemen) -- Laicens' ashes were scattered in the unclaimed remains section of the Don cemetery in Moscow. Ģērmanis wonders whether he thought of his earlier "bourgeois" convictions (the author of what may be the first detailed demand for the Republic, Laicens repudiates his "errors" in an essay that can be found in his 1959 collected works -- collected minus his nationalistic writings, of course, though the poet had been "rehabilitated" during the Thaw).

Another victim was Gustavs Klucis, a pioneer of political photo montage and a leader of the Constructivist avant-garde. More of his work can be seen here; additional biographical information in English can be found here. The director Pēteris Krilovs is about to release a film entitled Nepareizais latvietis (The Wrong Latvian). A trailer for the film -- in English -- can be viewed here.

In Latvian, here is a text entitled "Latvieši - Staļina upuri un bendes" -- "Latvians -- Stalin's victims and executioners."

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02 December 2007

The First Sunday in December

Whilst Russians stream to the polls to elect Putin's rubber-stamp Duma (including Russian citizens in Rīga and Daugavpils, where there are long lines at the Embassy and Consulate), Latvia marks Remembrance Day for the Victims of Genocide Against the Latvian People by the Totalitarian Communist Régime. Today's day of mourning is devoted to those Latvians who were murdered in the Soviet Union, repression reaching a peak in the winter of 1937/38.

As many as 200 000 Latvians lived in the USSR after World War One -- primarily settlers from the 19th C and refugees from the First World War. There were numerous Latvian schools, newspapers, and cultural institutions. Seventy years ago, at least 70 000 were "liquidated." Repression actually began much earlier in Leningrad, and some who were deported remained incarcerated decades later.

The photograph by Ojārs Lūsis shows one of the first illegal demonstrations marking the horrors of Stalinism -- the laying of flowers at the Freedom Monument in Rīga on 23 August 1987 (the date the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was concluded, its secret protocol providing for the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states). About 200 participants were arrested. In June that year, the deportations were marked with black flags (Alfrēds Rubiks, the hardliner who today heads one of the parties in the popular pro-Russian Harmony Center list, shouted that people with black-and-white television sets would think they were seeing the Latvian flag, then forbidden). An article on the repression of Latvians in Russia is here, in Latvian. In English, here
is a fascinating article about one of the remaining Latvian communities in Siberia today.

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