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! 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):
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.
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 (and 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).
Labels: baltic states, estonia, history, latvia, lithuania, politics, russia