Latvia and Georgia
In the map that serves as the frontispiece of Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, (which I purchased, oddly enough, in Damascus), the line dividing "Western civilization" from "the Orthodox world" runs through Ukraine but to the east of Latvia. In reality, despite our Euro-Atlantic integration -- that line should run through Latvia, too. Latgallia, the comparatively impoverished eastern region in which I live, was the only part of the country to vote against joining the EU. On New Year's Eve, not a few fireworks go off at 11 P.M. -- midnight Moscow time. Cable TV and radio broadcasts are almost entirely in Russian. Euronews is Yevronoose, but most of those watching get their information from Russia's state-controlled TV. Sipping some of what was on offer the other night, as Russia's "triumphant" invasion continued, I had to pull the plug. As Andrei Illarionov writes in his "Thirteen Conclusions about the War": "The degree of manipulation of public opinion, and the speed with which the society was brought to mass hysteria, are clear evidence of the regime’s 'achievements', and pose an undeniable and unprecedented danger to the Russian society."
Stretched similes abound, to 1938 and 1968 -- some worth reading -- but most of the reactions that try to address the Baltic and Polish response lack meat. Even in terms of rather recent history -- how quickly we forget! At New Kosova Report, which has published some interesting articles on why Ossetia and Kosovo should not be equated, I came across this article from Time, 28 January 1991.
Shaking their fists defiantly, protesters last week massed at the government house in Tbilisi, capital of the Georgian republic, chanting, "Lithuania! Lithuania! Lithuania!" For this fiercely independent nation of 5.4 million in the Caucasus, the troubles in the Baltics far to the north seemed alarmingly near. Georgians had already felt the Kremlin's determination to keep the union intact, when Soviet paratroopers armed with sharpened spades brutally dispersed a nationalist demonstration in April 1989, killing 20 people. Just as the Baltic states showed support in that hour of crisis, Georgians embraced the tragedy in Vilnius last week as if it were their own.
The photograph in this post is of a work by Jūlijs Straume, an artist renowned for his textiles; I thought I would avoid the photos of carnage one can find everywhere these days. Long resident in Georgia and an avid researcher in Georgian traditions, he was also the first Latvian envoy to the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia, proclaimed in the same year the Baltic states declared their independence. The Baltics, with all our tragedy, had better luck -- like Belarus, which also declared its independence ninety years ago, Georgia was crushed before it could enjoy the two decades of nation-building we did. Twenty years, sullied by our own descent into authoritarianism and blighted by the shadows of the approaching war, might not seem like much -- but our parents and grandparents remembered being free. The maps I grew up with in America almost always bore the note that the United States and most Western countries did not recognize the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by the USSR. The fervent hope that we would regain our independence seemed to be an absurd dream to many even at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The maps had no such note for Georgia, Belarus, or Ukraine -- though Georgia did have some success in achieving diplomatic recognition for its doomed Republic, fate and Stalin dictated otherwise.
But the emotional intimacy some of us feel isn't merely rooted in our republics having been born at the same time -- as close relatives in that our politics were Western, the black sheep joining the Bolsheviks -- or even in the relations between the popular fronts that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union that Lt. Col. Putin calls a catastrophe. The intimacy comes not only of the Russian subjugation we suffered -- it springs from the knowledge that subjugation wrought, which can indeed color our views but also gives us insight others lack. Even now, as Georgia is raped, one Jean Matouck can write of a Russia "which is recovering and which obviously has no desire other to develop and enrich itself with dignity [sic]."
Another Time article, from 1993, recalls Foreign Minister Kozyrev's rants about the "near abroad," that twilight zone to which the Kremlin -- and not a few European politicians -- would have confined us... and to which M. Matouck would condemn Ukraine and Georgia by denying them Euro-Atlantic integration. That use of the word "dignity" recalls Hitler's rants about the humiliation of Versailles. Bullies are not dignified, as a rule, and Matouck's contention that Russia "had every indication of becoming powerful again without being aggressive" unless provoked exhibits a stunning ignorance of Russian thinking, not to mention a blithe disregard for the right of free nations to chart a course not hobbled by deference to the wounded pride of the prison house of nations.
I am not arguing against prudence -- I'm arguing for it. I don't doubt that Misha poked the bear; Saakashvili is not my idea of an urbane diplomat. Nonetheless, anyone paying any attention to the relations between the Baltic states and Russia must know that Russia can perceive most anything not in line with its incessantly refried falsifications of history and its increasingly fascistic imperial ambitions as a "provocation." Its current Ambassador to NATO talked about invading Estonia in response to the removal of an offensive statue to a cemetery, after all. No need to poke the bear -- let the statues the occupiers erected stay where they are, I say.
And yet -- the ground beneath these symbols can recall The Night of the Living Dead. It is all well and good to let bygones be bygones -- but not by denying our history or betraying our friends. The Western European refrains that paint us as stuck in the mud of the war don't take the zombies into account. "Europe has moved on." Indeed it has -- but Russia has not. Its Stalinist mythology underpins the foundation of the empire it is trying to restore, the pilings sunk in soil soaked with 19th C concepts. One needn't poke the bear -- but one mustn't pretend it is a tame creature.
Writing about another victim of Russian aggression, Chechnya, nearly a decade ago, Mel Huang contrasted the views of secondary school graduates from Estonian-language and Russian-language schools, observing that "the comments from the Russian-speaking graduates seem horrific and brutal, but if one watches Russian TV, one sees that this very much represents normal public opinion in the country." One can say the same today -- and one would have to include the local Russian-language media in Latvia, which inspires demonstrations like this one, by Russophones in Rīga supporting the Kremlin.
A few years ago I watched a documentary about the art of Jūlijs Straume. People like Nino Yakubidze, who heads the Georgian Association in Latvia, have worked hard to develop relations between Rīga and Tbilisi, where there is a Latvian Association. Cooperation between NGOs, scholarships, art, books about the ties between Georgians and Latvians... but these days Nino Yakubidze has to talk about death and Russian disinformation instead.