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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16 May 2007

Aleksejs Tapiņš -- An Interview

This is the second of a series of interviews inspired by the series at Siberian Light. My victim this time is Aleksejs Tapiņš, who runs the most prominent English-language Latvian blog, All About Latvia.

Unlike with Pēters Jānis Vecrumba, who has his history at his site, we don't know much about you. Tell us who you are.

I'm a 30-year-old Latvian citizen, a product of a mixed marriage
between a Russian woman and a Latvian man. I came to the U.S. to study
back in 1997. Graduated. Got married. Went to do some graduate work at
Michigan State University in 2001. Graduated. Got divorced. The
marriage resulted in a beautiful son, so I moved closer to her and my
son in the state of Indiana, where I currently live. Until very
recently, I worked at a local newspaper as a reporter.

Aleksej, when we spoke on Skype, my Transylvanian friend said that you sounded very American. One of the interesting things about you is that you now have three identities -- Latvian, Russian, American. How do you deal with that?

It's a constant fight. Depending where I am or what the question is,
each of these identities rears its head.

I consider myself a Latvian, but not in a sense of pure ethnicity. I
think you, Peteris, use the word Lett to describe the ethnicity. My
father is a Latvian, but I've never learned any folk songs when
growing up. Since my family life has been dominated by my Russian
mother, it's the Russian language that became my native language. I
consider myself a Latvian in the sense that I love my country and I
want life there to improve.

The Russian identity appears to be separated from Russia proper. I've
been to Russia twice in my entire life, both times on schools trips as
the Soviet Union was falling apart. My Russian identity may show
itself through the language or the accent, battling with my Latvian
identity for world domination.

The American identity shows up when it comes to solving problems and
identifying solutions to those problems.

Why do you blog?

I started blogging in March 2003. At that time, there were very few
sites devoted to Latvia in English. And I was tired of explaining to
people that Latvia was not part of Russia. You have to understand that
in 2003, Latvia was not a member of the European Union or Nato.

Since then, of course, motivation for blogging has evolved. At one
point, it's become a search for my own identity. Who am I? Am I
Russian/Latvian/American? I tried answering my own questions in hopes
to show what some Russian-speaking people in Latvia may be going

Now, the main goal is to inform English-speaking people about what's
going on in Latvia through my eyes, but, once I arrive to Latvia after
10 years, it will become an eye-witness account of Latvian life.

You're "coming home" soon. Does it feel like you're coming home?

I'm feeling the whole spectrum of emotions: from anticipation to fear.
This period will be the longest period I will spend in Latvia since I
left the country in 1997. It's exciting and frightening at the same
time. I realize that things have changed; places have changed; people
have changed. And in a way, home the way I remember will remain only
in my memory. However, I feel a strong connection to the country. So
in a way, yes, it is like coming home.

When you write about Estonia, you obviously support Estonia. Is there any conflict with your "Russian side"?

No, none really. Even if I don't consider that it was mostly
Russian-speaking teens looting, I would condemn any kind of
hooliganism, especially in a country like Estonia. I don't care about
the causes, I don't care about the motivation. It doesn't justify the
public disorder we've seen a couple of weeks ago.

What became visible more and more is how the Russian government
operates the propaganda machine; how hearsay is presented as facts;
how wrong key elements of previous stories get repeated again and
again; how most journalists from Russia absolutely have no integrity
to stand on.

So, no. No conflict with my Russian side. I only had a couple of
typical heated arguments with some of my Russian speaking friends, who
don't get it. But that's nothing new.

You're a journalist. Do you believe in objectivity?

Absolutely. I believe in objectivity. I believe all voices are
important in the marketplace of ideas. Of course, some ideas get there
through twisted or exaggerated facts.

I also believe in a thing called truth. For example, if someone had
said the earth was flat, but the other person said the earth was
round, the latter view would get most coverage because it's the truth
based on evidence. Now there are some things we cannot know, but it
doesn't hurt to question. So objectivity to me doesn't mean pure
stenography; it means analysis and presentation of evidence to the

With Estonia one can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that majority
of those young people on the streets of Tallinn were ethnic Russians:
the police numbers suggest that. One can hear them chanting "Russia,
Russia" on the streets of Estonian capital. And one can draw the
conclusions of their allegiance. No pretext of discriminated Russian
minorities, no public relations shtick can cover that truth.

What are your hopes and fears with regard to Latvian-Russian relations, within Latvia?

The hope is that Russia will treat its neighbors not as a sphere of
influence through natural resources or propaganda, but rather as an
equal partner. That will include Latvia. And I also hope that Latvian
politicians will be able to stand up to Russia. In other words, I hope
for peaceful co-existence, pipe-dream though it may be.

What can we expect from All About Latvia this year?

Plans are many, but there's never enough time and resources. Either at
the end of this year, or probably in the beginning of the next year,
I'm hoping to start a weekly podcast with news about Latvia with some
guests and music.

I'm also planning to start a Russian-language blog on livejournal.com
to debunk the myths about Latvia in the Russian press both inside and
outside of Latvia, but that's really like putting a stick into the
beehive. So for now, it's just an idea.

Since I'm moving from Midwestern United States to Latvia, I hope
readers, who continue to visit the blog, will find more revealing
reportages about life in Latvia.

Welcome home, Aleks!

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