18 December 2008

Baby, Bathwater, Books

My parents crossed the ocean to begin their new life in the New World with only four crates. Three of those crates held books. Much of my father's library --which continued to grow even after his death, the last volumes he had subscribed to still arriving -- lines the walls here in Daugavpils now, the core of my own collection.

Latvian publishing was astonishingly continuous; frail pamphlets were published in the d. p. camps even before the war's end. High quality reappeared remarkably quickly -- the monthly
Laiks boasted a full color reproduction of a Lūdolfs Liberts painting as the frontispiece of its inaugural issue in April 1946, when nearly all Latvians in the West were still destitute refugees. Helmārs Rudzītis, the publisher, wrote in his preface of how those fleeing the Soviet advance had to abandon their libraries -- "God only knows who is leafing through our beloved books now." Rudzītis observed that the odd book that had been carried westward was held to be almost holy, the words pored over again and again.

Even in those straitened circumstances, Latvians swiftly set about building a publishing industry in exile. Benjamiņš Jēgers' bibliography of Latvian publications published outside Latvia 1940-1960 fills two thick volumes. Books were seen as vital to national survival. The nation had been born in books -- we date the Awakening to the publication of
Dziesmiņas latviešu valodai pārtulkotas in 1856, Alunāns' translations of poetry proving that Latvian is more than a tongue for churchmen and peasants (the peasants getting their due as the study of folklore took off).

When the 300th anniversary of the Latvian book was marked in 1885, 3000 books had been published in Latvian -- 85% of them since 1863. From 1585 to 1918 -- 12 500. In independent Latvia, between 1919 and 1929 alone, nearly the number of titles had been issued
in a single decade as had been since Petrus Canisius' catechism (the first known Latvian book) appeared in Vilnius in 1585. Between 1919 and 1939, 26 754 titles were published. In terms of titles per capita, Latvia ranked second in Europe, after Denmark.

There were 166 publishing houses when the Soviets invaded in 1940 -- these were reduced to one, the State Publishing House (later Liesma, which was then joined by other state-controlled entities like that of the Academy of Sciences, Zinātne). In addition to being subject to censorship and other restrictions (something that began during Ulmanis' dictatorship), publishing became a vehicle for Russification -- by 1964, 37,5% of the books published in Latvia were in Russian, and half of the titles published in Latvian were translations from Russian.

I remember a prominent diaspora Latvian (who hoped to be received as an elder statesman here) addressing the Writers' Union during the economic... transition I suppose it was, though trying to describe the early 1990s here to anyone who didn't experience them is like trying to explain a wilderness of pain in a parallel universe through which one stumbles in the dark. The would-be statesman basically said -- you're free, so what are you waiting for... write!

This is not the place to contemplate the legacy of the captive mind or the ravages of laissez-faire à l'orientale, though. Latvia had faced devastation before (though life was different in 1920, wasn't it, when academics from as far away as China returned to Rīga to build the University... this Christmas, as a sign of an opposite process, 17 worship services will be held in Latvian in Ireland, from Galway to Limerick).

In 1920, too, there were politicians who wanted to nip support for culture in the bud. They had to face Aspazija in the Constituent Assembly, though. Latvian publishing between the wars depended upon strong state support.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvian publishing slowly but steadily revived -- 1387 titles in 1991, 1509 in 1992, 1614 in 1993... of late, around 2500 Latvian titles are published each year. There was no drop after the crisis of 1998. Many of these books are irredeemable trash, to be sure. Then there are publishers like Neputns and the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art.

The Government's and the Saeima's decision (Parliament practically rubber-stamp by now, though the "Green Peasants" seem to be losing their enthusiasm for the coalition, the "moderate" "Russian party" eagerly angling to replace them) to try to squeeze blood out of a stone by increasing the VAT on books
more than fourfold is criminal. It is spit in the face of those who brought this nation into being and those who keep it alive. It is a sadistic crime, as the cash the Government hopes to collect amounts to no more than a pittance, comparatively.

In an open letter to the President, the writer and publisher Inese Zandere writes that children (whose numbers in Latvia have at last begun to rise, if slowly) are being thrown out with the bathwater in which our Government is trying to wash itself. The photo above was taken outside Parliament Thursday morning (by Reinis Oliņš for Apollo, where there is a photo gallery... you can also see how dark it is here at this time of year... that's morning, really). Slogans included "Latvia wants to read in Latvian," "down with the dictatorship of those who do not read," and "a tax on books is a tax on the mind."

Among our neighbors -- VAT on books in Estonia is 5% (0% on approved textbooks -- yes, Latvia's new 21% rate will apply to textbooks also!). Finland -- 8%. Sweden -- 6%. Poland -- zero (it's zero in Britain and Ireland, too).

How dark it is. Gustavs Strenga suggests a simplified crisis plan -- why don't we just arrest those that can read (except those in the coalition and their supporters) and shoot them, or place them in internment camps... before dread March comes and they try to make trouble?

Ikars Kubliņš notes that little demonstrations like yesterday's mean nothing. The ruling clique sips coffee and enjoys the show from the Saeima windows. Kubliņš, like some others of late, is wondering aloud about our pain threshold -- looking at the Greeks or the Thais, it's impossible not to.

But that's another topic I will try to address in the coming days. For today, I simply want to emphasize what darkness emanates from this Saeima -- del no, per li denar, vi si fa ita. (Inferno XXI: 42 -- "No into Yes for money there is changed"). Since some in Government were so offended by being called a "gang," I would like to go further -- this coalition consists of shameless creatures who belong in Malebolge dragging us into eternal night. I say that in the name of everyone I have known who cared as much about books as they did about their crust.

You're free, so what are you waiting for? But we're not free -- and we won't be until we finally free ourselves, for real this time. Baby, bathwater -- cart, horse?

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12 December 2008

Under the Latvian Yoke

Under the weather and still struggling with my history text, I haven't had the time or strength to blog in these most blogospherical of days-- but I can't let the latest nails in the coffin of the Latvian nation pass without brief comment.

The Saeima ("the strongest Parliament in Europe" -- so our PM dares to call this completely discredited assembly) was in session for ca. 20 hours, until 4.30 this morning, mostly debating the rescue package upon which IMF and other neighborly help is contingent ("the fiscal restructuring program is one of the most credible that we have seen," Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg said).

The photo is of a newsstand yesterday; the front pages of Latvia's major papers were identical -- obsequies for the Latvian press, 1822-2009. Having done all it could to weaken public television (commercial TV is now suffused with dreck direct from Russia, in Russian -- even fresh films about the glorious Red Army), the Government decided to deliver a few more death blows to Latvian culture: quadrupling the VAT on books and newspapers and slashing the budget for state radio and TV to the point where only skeletons could remain. (Unlike book publishers, the press has since been given a slight reprieve -- VAT will only be doubled, like for baby food... yes, baby food; VAT will also be doubled on medicine).

A capital gains tax? Can't have that until 2010 -- businesses have business plans, you see, and our brilliant minigarchs and biznismeny have already worked things out through next year. Publishers don't have business plans, it seems -- not in the eyes of the ruling gang (the PM was compared to the leader of a brigade of racketeers last night... our comically inept Min. of Finance Atis Slakteris got compared to Mr. Bean [the Bloomberg interview has mostly disappeared from the 'Net, but the second link at Wiki still works...]; the politesse of our Parliament appears to be slipping...).

No other Parliament in Europe could have passed such a package, PM Godmanis proudly said. Former FM Pabriks agrees, but without the pride -- where else in Europe do you stay up all night to adopt plans you haven't discussed with business, labor, or society at large and end up forcing the poor and the middle class to shoulder the entire burden of a high-flying fake economy you smashed into the ground?

Māris Matrevics has written an article in Diena about how the massive VAT increase on books means quite literally taking an axe to the Latvian language. The realities of publishing in Latvia are simple. Maybe a million and a half potential readers (the rest of the Latvian population doesn't read in Latvian). An average printing of only 1200. I could add a lot of detail to this, for instance on how readership shrank because the people who read books were pauperized -- but the point is that the margins in the book biz are tiny and few are in it for the money.

The VAT increase, from 5% to 21%, would bring in maybe half a million lats. Only maybe -- because some publishers are certain to go under and book sales are certain to drop. Is it worth snuffing Latvian for half a million? You couldn't tax Maseratis and Hummers instead? (No, but we are doubling the tax on public transportation...)

I'll leave Saprge in her original Latgallian: Dreiž ar latvīšu volūdu byus taipat kai ar latgalīšu volūdu - bez raidiejumu latgaliski radejā i televizejā, bez regularys informacejis latgaliski presē, bez raksteibys vuiceišonuos školā i bez latgalīšu gruomotu skaiteituoju. Kod vysi latvīši byus sovys volūdys analfabeti, navajadzēs ni latvīšu avīžu, ni latvīšu radejis, ni latvīšu televizejis. That is not what this nation-state is supposed to be.

It's time to stop pretending or hoping that this coalition and its shadowy masters aren't intentionally choking off essential communication in this country, whether by absurdist means or more sinister censorship, as in the case of the horizontal time code (Tovarishch Kleckins continues to head the National Radio and Television Council, delighted by the Russian programming).

When I first got here and taught at the University in Rīga (winter 1991/92), a colleague told me she had gotten the impression that the destruction of the education system in Latvia was purposeful. It's easier to manage "democracy" that way.

Some years ago a wag came up with this condensation of Latvian history: "Latvia -- under the German yoke... Latvia -- under the Polish yoke... Latvia -- under the Russian yoke... Latvia -- under the Latvian yoke..."

When the famed theater director Alvis Hermanis refused to attend the ceremony where he was to receive the Order of Three Stars a year ago, he noted that he didn't doubt that Latvia would one day be as rich as Western Europe, sooner rather than later. But we've gone morally bankrupt in the meantime, ruining the window of opportunity we've had. Accepting the Diena annual award, Hermanis observed that nothing is left of Latvia other than the Latvian language... or what's left of it.

It seems the regime is hell-bent on killing that, too -- it's not part of their business project, and can even hinder it. In the meantime, the underbelly Matrevics alludes to swells. Without books, we will end up with nothing but a degraded, degrading Russo-Anglo-Latvian pidgin tongue spoken by functionally illiterate mankurts. Many already don't know what free speech is -- simply because they have nothing to say.

The folklorist Janīna Kursīte said last night that dark deeds are done in the dark. She and others in the Civic Union began to sing ("Bēdu manu, lielu bēdu...") to keep the Government from pushing the administrative reform through at three in the morning. The Singing Revolution brought down the Soviet Union here -- but singing won't be enough to bring down the remarkable array of gravediggers running this country today, I'm afraid. They lie to our faces, and nothing matters to them but power and lucre.

, speaking on the tenth anniversary of independence, in 1928: "Latvieši, sargājiet demokrātisko valsts iekārtu, jo līdz ar to bojā ies neatkarīgā nacionālā valsts!" ("Latvians, guard your democratic system, for if you lose it the independent nation-state will also be lost.") Six years later Ulmanis destroyed our democracy -- and six years after that, Rainis' prophecy came true. The Fatherlanders and other "patriotic" scoundrels helping to murder our nation can twist and shout and whine about Russkies all they like -- Latvians are actually experts at killing themselves.

Photo: Kristians Putniņš, Diena.

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