25 March 2008


Flags with black tassels hang in heavy snow today, fifty-nine years after Operation Прибой -- "the Surf." The document at left is a report by Major General Spasenko, dated 31 March 1949, on the success of the operation: from 25 March to 30 March 1949, 30 629 families were deported from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- a total of 90 844 persons, comprising 24 630 men, 40 688 women, and 25 526 children.

This map shows the approximate percentages of the population deported from Latvia by locality -- the darkest areas are civil parishes that lost more than 10% of their inhabitants, the red areas 6-10%. The yellow areas lost less than 2%. Roughly, the areas that lost a higher share were the most Latvian areas, ethnically -- it's not possible to determine the proportions of deportees in relation to the total population by ethnicity in 1949 (as can be done with regard to the 1941 deportations) because there was no census during the period of drastic Russification (there is no data between the census taken during the German occupation, in 1943, and the census of 1959).

In sheer numbers, however, 41 084 ethnic Latvians, 772 Russians, 4 Germans, and 1114 others were deported in 1949. By the census of 1959, ethnic Latvians made up only 62% of the population. The percentage of ethnic Russians had meanwhile risen to 26,6% (556 400 ethnic Russians in 1959; there were 207 003 ethnic Russians in Latvia in 1943, about eight out of ten of them in the eastern region of Latgallia -- mostly yellow on the map).

The 1949 deportations ostensibly targeted "kulaks and nationalist families." One was a member of a "nationalist family" if a relative had resisted the occupation, for example. Kulaks -- "the rural bourgeoisie" -- were defined using prewar statistics, despite the fact that many people had lost their land or livestock in the intervening decade. Some supposed kulaks possessed no land at all. Complaints from the Gulag were met with a standard NKVD response: "you (your mother or your father) possessed a kulak farm in 1939."

In hundreds of cases, children were deported alone, without their families. When they reached sixteen years of age, they were assigned the status of deportees.

The status of those not defined as kulaks was shifted retroactively with no charges being brought -- in the summer of 1949, special sessions simply declared their permanent resettlement and the confiscation of their property, without trial.

From 1955, people were allowed to return to Latvia, but incrementally -- Jānis Riekstiņš, Senior Researcher at Latvia's National Archives, compares the process to chopping off the tail of a dog, piece by piece. About 12% of the deportees had perished. Those who returned were required to sign documents agreeing not to return to their place of residence.

Latvia's relative birthrate, which had been ca. 75% prior to the occupation, had fallen to 40-45% in 1946 and never recovered.

The map is from this site, which includes facsimiles of other documents and information on ongoing research (in Latvian).

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21 March 2008

The Rite of Spring

I did not grok Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (performed here by Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Dance Theater) until I experienced Latvia’s spring in primitive austerity, in the early 1990s. Our dachas have no plumbing and no electricity. Before becoming a slave to cyberspace, subject to the elements more directly than I was ever before or since, I understood more of what the season means here – after stewing in boreal darkness all winter (something I still can’t deal with very well – it’s very dark here for a very long time), the augurs of spring take on an explicitly magical quality, whether that is the feeble sun gaining enough strength to warm the cheek again or returning to an angle where it strikes the wall with a shaft of light for the first time in months, longer each day, palpably so, birdsong again as snows alternate with thaws, the blades of the tulips, the crocus, and then the erotic fury of flowering trees and lilacs and blossoming roses as we climb toward what is still the main holiday here, summer solstice (even Līgo night already tinged with the knowledge that the days are getting shorter).

These coming months are so lovely that they can even seem illusory (Alberts Bels’ story in which the trees haul up their green sails in summer, whilst humans raise their illusions?), like the mystical twilight of woodlands in June, something I first saw in Sweden – the pale woods of puberty making sense of childhood dances in which the girls joined hands and the boys passed beneath the arches of their arms: Caur sidraba birzi gāju, ne zariņu nenolauzu – "Through a silver bosk I went, without breaking off a single twig."

I’ve begun translating a book about Latvia’s woodlands by Imants Ziedonis, one of our finest poets, and his son Rimants Ziedonis, a remarkable writer in his own right – the book is a guide to our forests, suffused with history and mythology (nearly half of Latvia is forested).

Over coffee, I skimmed the news and read Timothy Garton Ash’s commentary about Tibet in the Guardian. Many of the comments to Ash’s sober piece could act as emetics, but the one that struck me this morning included this tidbit: "Do not limit Tibetans to Tibet. Minorities in reality have been all over China. Stop talking about Tibet needing its own place. Migration is a natural process for every single ethnicity in the world. I personally enjoy being a Mongolian out in the U.S. We are nomads. So are Tibetans. Even the Tibetans and Mongols out here in the West need our identities. So the world is our home, but we will never ever lose the feeling of our own ethnicity, no matter what language we speak, what food we eat, what religion we decide to follow." (Italics mine.)

That is a sublime condensation of a take on ethnos – or is it really nationality? – that not a few people actually hold to, or have found. Perhaps we'll all be metrosexuals in the next life?

Identity is indeed complex, and few places on earth are ethnically homogeneous. But the idiotic pretense that there are not basic bonds between peoples and their languages, lands, beliefs, cultures and even cuisines is especially illuminating when taken to the extreme this commentator takes it to. A gutted identity would then act as a marker – why and how?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, ecology and nationalism in Latvia long ago joined hands. Politically and culturally, land was the major mover – the tens of thousands of landless Latvians, casualties of Tsarist policies, were the Bolshevik base -- whilst the agrarian reform brought about by Social Democrats and the Farmers’ Union was the basis for Latvia’s stability between the wars. After centuries of dispossession, a large swathe of the population got something to call its own. Whether this was economically brilliant or not is actually secondary; the redistributed lands were returned to those who owned them prior to 1940 in the early 1990s.

Rimants Ziedonis wrote re SIA Latviya & Co. long ago – he railed against the Russian-dominated consumerist nightmare that is dragging us into a tawdry globalist Europe, in essence. When Alvis Hermanis, our foremost genius of the theater, refuses to accept this country’s highest decoration, the Order of Three Stars, we should take heed: "Everything has been turned upside down at an ethical level. I do not doubt that Latvia will reach the standard of living of 'old' Europe sooner or later – but does that mean we have to lose all of those spiritual goods along the way? I think that this is very, very dangerous."

Alvis Hermanis declared the Republic of Latvia to be morally bankrupt. I’ll try to be more kind and say that we’re on the verge of bankrupcy. This is mostly because the political elite lives in a world of its own.

The Tibet Support Group (founded by MP Juris Sinka, who died in Lhasa -- a rightist with moral stature that dwarfs that of most of the MPs in this Parliament) is still collecting signatures for its letter to China... does it really take so long to get those of your own caucus among "the hundred wise ones" in that spiffy room to sign?

Where is our land now? Who owns it? How does one make the leap from a command economy into the ravages of an insane globalization -- one that is obviously amok in the West? Why should one apply what is a failure in the West to our country? How can one possibly preserve moral values if neoliberalism has been essentially murderous? Why does "reentering Europe" seem to entail dropping most everything that is ours?

Another take is to pretend that one cannot discuss these things because Latvians were so downtrodden and deprived that one can’t (morally) object to so-called "Western civilization," as in consumerism, filthy lucre, and vacuum cleaners for all.

And so again to the spring – this just isn’t so. There is no objective reason for Latvia’s repetition of the mistakes made in the "free world." The real core of the Third Awakening was not about getting plasma TVs and Humvees. It was about freedom in its deepest sense, which is what Latvian nationalism in a deeper sense has always looked to – Miķelis Valters mostly gets into Kant and Hegel, not kickshaws.
The fundament of the Republic was rural. It remains so – and this applies even to the city.

Gary Peach for AP: "Maija Krumina [sic], who lives in a village near Valmiera in northern Latvia, said rural residents have switched to survival mode. Many have stopped going to stores and instead are relying on their own livestock for milk, eggs and pork. What they don't consume, they sell to one another.

Back in the early 1990s, a few students would supply the entire dormitory with food – the students would take up a collection, getting bus tickets for those with relatives who actually produced food. Real food from real people – unimaginable these days, isn’t it?

Words always covered everything, lovingly, precisely, poetically – which words have we lost? How do you diddle the clitoris of spring?

The pic is by Nikolai Roerich, a set design for Stravinsky's Весна священная; Roerich is intimately tied to Riga, and one of the most beautiful places in Latvia is the Roerich room at the National Museum of Art. For information on the ties between Tibet and Latvia, see "
Tibeta – tās problēmas vēsturiskā izcelšanās, rezonanse starptautiskajā sabiedrībā un Latvijas – Tibetas saikne.

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07 March 2008

Baltic (Dis?) Unity

All three Baltic states become nonagenarians this year -- of course, actual independence did not immediately follow the formal births of our republics in 1918; wars of independence did... and more than half a century of our young countries' lives was spent under occupation. We fly each others' flags on our independence days, and Latvia's and Estonia's Presidents were joined by Poland's President in Vilnius on 16 February, another sign of how different Central/Northern, formerly "Eastern" Europe is today, considering how terrible Polish-Lithuanian relations were between the wars. December saw the borders between us effectively disappear. Ruslanas at Lituanica and Giustino at Itching for Eestimaa have radically different takes on Baltic unity or the lack thereof. I was recently interviewed by Lithuanian National Radio and Bernardinai.lt on the subject; my view is closer to Ruslanas'. An excerpt from the English version of the interview with Milda Bagdonaitė:
As President Zatlers said at the ceremonies in Vilnius, we feel very close to Lithuanians – almost as if your successes and difficulties were our own. Emotionally, I think we are very positive towards each other. We call you brāļu tauta, our brother people. We joke about each other, of course – but we do so as brothers and sisters, I hope!

This is especially true with regard to Lithuanians – Estonians are not “Balts” in terms of language or culture, of course, though there is considerable overlap in Latvia. Linguists joke that Latvian is bad Lithuanian spoken with an Estonian accent. Just as there is considerable Finno-Ugric influence in Latvia, and many points in common in our histories (e.g., the centuries of German domination – but the Latvian Association in Rīga, which was the cradle of Latvian nationalism, was actually founded as a committee to help Estonians suffering from famine, and the Estonians’ Võidupüha – their Victory Day – is our Heroes’ Remembrance Day, marking the defeat of the Germans by both Estonians and Latvians at Cēsis in 1919).

Baltic Unity Day for Lithuanians and Latvians, in the narrower sense of “the Balts” and excluding our northern cousins, marks a far earlier date – the victory at the Battle of Saule – Saulės mūšis – on 22 September 1236. Being between (and we are between in oh so many ways!), Latvians can and should celebrate both of these anniversaries. I do.

Rainis, Latvia's greatest writer and a leader of the Social Democrats, was among those who backed a joint Lithuanian-Latvian Republic. Felikss Cielēns, another Social Democratic leader, argued against it on the basis that the Lithuanian level of literacy and education was comparatively low at the time. Rainis responded on 8 October 1916 (my translation):
He ["T." -- Traubergs?] ought to know that the Latvian nation is a democratic nation; that the nationalities question is a question for the nation and so a question for social democracy. If we want -- or, more precisely, if I want (since I'm the only person wanting, so far) to join with the Lithuanians to work together for national autonomy together, then I want this as a social democrat, standing on the foundation of social democracy, i.e. the foundation of the nation; not as a cosmopolitan fantasist but as an international realist. T. and you don't want Latvians to be mixed with the dark Lithuanians to arrive at an average literacy rate of 52%. Neither do I. But both our nations are one, by blood. Even a poor and foolish brother is still a brother. And a joint Latvian-Lithuanian nation would truly be incomparably stronger than us alone. Do you also want to push away half a million Latgalians,because they're uneducated? If we only count the educated, how many will there be? A couple of thousand. We'll educate the Lithuanians! I want a great politics, a whole nation, not a handful of intellectuals whose works evaporate in speeches. Here I must compliment your beloved wife: her instinct in favor of the Lithuanians has determined a better course than that mind of yours that I hold in such high regard. Our comrades the social democrats have forgotten how to think with their hearts, but where the heart doesn't help thinking, the mind alone becomes minuscule, and all its thoughts and determinations are merely trivial. So our official party has descended to bureaucracy and betrayal -- but we want a great politics: to make the Latvian nation greater, to gather our brothers; we want to liberate both branches of our nation, and then to join in the great struggle for the freedom of all nations.
Rainis was a brilliant poet but a dismal politician (an
d the situation has changed dramatically, of course -- it was Lithuania that led the Baltic independence movement) -- and yet I think that the sort of idealism expressed by Ruslanas is one of our major deficits today. The photograph above (filched from the Jēkabpils Municipal Library) is of the Baltic Way, when two million people joined hands to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that led to the occupation.

Asked what areas we can cooperate in, I responded:
The main thing I would emphasize in answer to this is that we must insist upon looking history in the face, and often we can do that together. Russia has not faced its history. If there is a vital reason for Baltic unity, that’s it – all three of our countries are still treated as the “near abroad,” and even NATO and EU membership did not change that. All three of us are still subjected to a campaign of disinformation and a propaganda war sponsored by the Kremlin and receiving a ready ear in certain circles in “the West.”

Patriotism is never a substitute for history. If we insist that others look history in the face, wrinkles included – then we have to look at our wrinkles also. Balts are not angels, and Russians are not demonic. We should be frank about our authoritarian regimes between the wars, and we should look closely at the complexities in our histories, including collaboration, xenophobia, and the darker corners of our nationalism.

Disunity -- such as Latvia's Parliament's dragging its feet when it came to supporting Estonia against Russian pressure last year -- is partly a failure to realize that idealism and practicality need to go together. People turned out to support Estonia in Vilnius and Rīga (as in the photo below, taken in Liv Square in Latvia's capital -- it's from Kojinshugi, who wrote what I still consider one of the best summaries of what happened last spring).

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