26 August 2006

Letting Bygones Be Bygones

The White Swan
Originally uploaded by Pēteris Cedriņš.
Boris Yeltsin, quoted by MosNews: “What occupation, please explain it to me? I beg you to exclude this word from your language, television, newspapers, magazines. Exclude the word occupation, and you will improve our mutual relations. I am absolutely sure about it. By mentioning the word occupation, you annoy Russian people who have nothing to do with it.”

What language did the occupiers speak, exactly? Where is the Kremlin? From which direction did the tanks come? To which country were Latvian citizens deported?

Whilst I have the deepest respect for Borya and believe he deserved the Order of Three Stars, presented to him by our President this week, this text (and its subtext) deserves a bit of scrutiny. This blog began with an argument with Cynic that touched upon this issue. Within Cynic's response to my first post at this blog, there was: "Occupation is not a fact, but a legal interpretation of the set of material facts and just a one of several possible at that."

The so-called British Helsinki Human Rights Group wholeheartedly agrees, in its accustomed disingenuous manner: "In 1991, when Latvia seceded from the Soviet Union which then itself was dissolved, the pre-war constitution of Latvia was re-established. This was in keeping with the official myth that the country had been 'occupied' by the Soviet Union in the meantime, a myth propagated by the presence of a 'Museum of Occupation' in Riga. (There is also a similar one in Tallinn.) In reality, of course, Latvia was not occupied by the Soviet Union but instead incorporated into it."

Myth? Interpretation? "Incorporation" -- i.e., illegal annexation -- took place during the occupation, after invasion. One can look at what Pravda wrote regarding the seizure of Austria, in its April 11, 1938 edition -- exactly what that Soviet organ complained of in Austria took place in Latvia two years later under the Soviets: mass arrests, a demagogic campaign, etc. As Pravda commented: "To occupy militarily a country, impose a satrap viceroy, police and gendarmery, introduce an occupation army 300,000 men strong, and then arrange for 'a free declaration of will'... is indeed a most ignominious comedy." Pravda expressed similar sentiments regarding the Italian occupation of Albania. (See Albert N. Tarulis, Soviet Policy Toward the Baltic States 1918-1940. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1959.)

Both Borya and the BHHRG seem to have a serious problem distinguishing between nationality and ethnicity. Nobody is trying to annoy ethnic Russians. Not a few ethnic Russians suffered due to the occupation -- Melety Kallistratov, whose former home is now the Russian community center here in Daugavpils, is an example; a member of every parliament prior to Ulmanis' dictatorship, he was shot in the prison pictured. In interbellum Latvia, he spoke Russian in parliament.

Latvia's "Russian community" issued a strong protest with regard to Borya's award -- his acceptance constituted "a second betrayal" in the view of many of Latvia's Russian NGOs (the first being his recognition of independence). He abandoned them in a foreign country, it seems. As Askolds Rodins pointed out in Diena, this phrase is telling -- whatever happened to the deep, broad roots they claim?

I suppose my problem with this brouhaha can be distilled like so: people who deny history have a very sad tendency to repeat it, as the saying goes. I willingly recognize that many Latvians were gung-ho Soviets. Many of the ethnic Latvians who participated in the occupation, however, were never Latvian citizens -- they left when Latvia became independent, and returned with the occupiers a couple of decades later. Not a few of the ethnic Latvians installed in leading positions during the occupation had been russified to a greater or lesser degree; many spoke little or no Latvian.

Latvia in 1939/40 was not democratic, to be sure -- it was under an authoritarian regime. That regime didn't kill anybody, however -- unlike many countries in Eastern Europe, Latvia passed no anti-Jewish laws and introduced no numerus clausus. Unlike our more "enlightened" neighbors, Latvia took in Jews fleeing the Nazis.

The Russian Ambassador to Rīga has lately been urging a tabula rasa -- let us drop talk of the occupation. What is a tabula rasa, exactly? Does the German Ambassador to Prague claim that Czechoslovakia was not invaded? Does Germany suggest that the Nazi regime is forgivable because of the beauties of industrialization? Hitler built the Autobahn, eh?

Let bygones be bygones -- sure. No problem! But nations must face their histories. Latvia would never have been revived -- had it not existed. The revival has many an aspect I do not relish -- this is not a happy country. On the other hand, there are encouraging signs -- fifteen years ago, only about one in five of those who were not ethnic Latvians, but lived in Latvia, could speak Latvian. Today, more than half can. Maybe the rest may finally arrive, and stop behaving as conquerors?

To let bygones be bygones, truly -- there can be no tabula rasa. Too much was erased, or liquidated. Balts retained the desire to be free, however. The memory cannot be deleted -- we stopped being an ahistorical people in the 19th C, see.

The photograph is of one of the prisons in Daugavpils, "the White Swan." Kallistratov was murdered in the courtyard.


Blogger Frank Partisan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

28 August, 2006 02:03  
Blogger Frank Partisan said...

A very balanced post. Written as if you are watching Latvia from the sky.

28 August, 2006 02:06  
Blogger jams o donnell said...

Great post Peteris. Sadly the tabula rasa does not quite work. While there is big difference from living there (the past that is) one must look it straight in the eye if there is going to be any hope of moving on. Pushing it under the carpet does not help.

29 August, 2006 22:13  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks, Ren and Jams. Two things have appeared in the press since -- a pleasing article on how the leading Russian historians do accept the fact of occupation, based on archival evidence... and a typical rant from the Russian Foreign Ministry on how border agreements will not be signed with Latvia or Estonia until we drop our "revanchist pretensions." Since we don't have any of them things, they's kinda difficult to drop...


30 August, 2006 14:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

History should not be erased, of course, I agree completely with that.

At the same time, unfortunately many Latvians sill tag ethnic Russians residing in Latvia as "occupiers", even people born there, and this does not help much. Is repairing the social fracture dear to anyone? If yes, Latvians could quit calling people they live with "occupiers", and Russians could start to understand that Latvians are mainly trying to preserve their tauta, which is fully understandable.

22 January, 2007 21:53  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for your comment, Kaptur (and sorry I didn't notice it until now).

The easiest way to repair the social fracture is for Russophones to learn and use Latvian and for those who are not citizens to naturalize.

It is a two way street, of course, but the traffic isn't balanced in both directions.

I don't know too many Latvians who use the term "occupiers" or "colonists" to refer to ethnic Russians; many ethnic Russians were here before the occupation or are citizens by descent.

Ethnicity is not really the issue -- I wrote a comment related to this at Neeka's Backlog recently.

The vast majority of ethnic Russians in Latvia (and a majority of those from other minorities, most of whom are Russophones -- though a much smaller majority) doesn't recognize the fact that Latvia was occupied.

In essence, I think that as long as so many Russians act like aliens (in terms of language use and their different historical and political views), the social fracture will persist.

Latvians could certainly be more welcoming, and not a few Latvian politicians contribute to the fracture by making rash statements. The same is true with Russophone politicians, however, and probably to a greater degree -- Aleksandr Gilman, for example, calls Latvia a concentration camp and considers the restoration of independence a tragedy.

It's rather as Simmu Tiik said of the relations between Estonia and Russia recently: "Estonian-Russian relations are a bit like a forest. In the top of the trees there are high winds, but at ground level the ants are busy doing many practical positive things."

30 January, 2007 10:12  

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