22 June 2007

Heroes' Remembrance Day

Tomorrow night, 23 June, Latvia's most important holiday begins -- midsummer, which leads to a slight leap in our dreary birthrate nine months later. Līgo, līgo! (Or, here among the Latgallians -- Ļeigū, ļeigū!). Solstice singing is of the essence, so if you cannot be in Latvia or join Latvians abroad for the celebration, I recommend Radio Oira for authentic folk music and Latgolys Radeja for the sounds of this region -- both are excellent and available online. Don't forget the beer!

Tomorrow is also Võidupüha for our northern neighbors, the Estonians -- Victory Day. The very same victory, which took place in 1919 near the Latvian town of Cēsis (Võnnu in Estonian, Wenden in German), is marked in Latvia today as Varoņu piemiņas diena, Heroes' Remembrance Day. It's not an official holiday, in part because today is also the anniversary of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Provoked by Giustino's post on "Latvianization," I decided to read and reread various memoirs and histories about the Battles of Cēsis (they're plural in Latvian because there were actually two) and that turbulent period, from the relevant parts of Edgars Andersons' mammoth history of Latvia 1914-1920 to Uldis Ģērmanis' popular history (or collection of fairy tales, the unkind would say) -- from Balodis, Butulis, Bīlmanis... Klāns, Grimm, von Rauch and Gen. Mārtiņš Peniķis to various letters and documents and reminiscences like those of the great Social Democrat Brūno Kalniņš. Needless to say, I got distracted and dislogotracted (pace George Quasha)... I also ended up meditating upon how different physical books are from a hypertext when it comes to such sensual digging and the weighing of different views. It's not just that their physicality is a spur to the art of memory -- it's a matter of form and depth, lost to most who rely upon Google. Whether in an officer's leatherbound memoirs or that cheaply printed Gedenkbuch published in 1939, Die Baltische Landeswehr, "time picks up the savor of the merely actual" (pace Gerrit Lansing).

I discovered yesterday evening that the copy of Vor den Toren Europas 1918-1920 I inherited from my father still bears the chthonic odor of the basement where he would read into the night, despite his having died more than three decades ago. In Stanley Page's tendentious The Formation of the Baltic States, the errors and ambiguities are lightly underlined in pencil. The Gedenkbuch that collects articles from the Landeswehrverein was printed in Rīga just before the Baltic Germans who authored it were coercively resettled. Old letters that served as bookmarks float to the floor. It isn't just that the Internet when it comes to Latvian history is as poor as a serf of the Fietinghofs (that expression refers to the barons of Alūksne, who treated their animals better than they did the peasantry) -- it's how one dances with books, roving and delving, reshelving, touching the finger to the tongue. Though I adore and am addicted to the Internet -- I would rather my mind resembled a library than looked like cyberspace. "Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season"... but what's drier than the Web? The ink was never even wet. Cyberspace isn't only everywhere -- it's nowhere.

The first photograph, filched from a fine gallery of images that the Estonian Embassy offers online, was taken in the Cēsis Museum of History and Art. It's a telegram published by Līdums, printed in Valka -- Walk in German, the town was once the seat of the Livonian Landtag and became the cradle of Latvian independence during the First World War, when refugees arriving from other parts of Latvia included many of the nationalists' leading intellectuals. The Provisional National Council was formed there on 17 November 1917. Taken by the Germans in February 1918 and by the Bolsheviks in December 1918 (Fabriciuss, a leading Red: "We will not surrender Valka -- we'll build barricades out of bourgeois bodies"), Valka was liberated by the Estonians and Finnish volunteers on Candlemas 1919. In July 1920, the town was divided between Estonia and Latvia by the British Envoy, Col. S.G. Tallents, and so it remains today -- Valga in Estonia, pop. 14 055, and Valka in Latvia, pop. 6547. An interesting article on the peculiarities of the division can be found here.

Confused? Okay, a bit of background. The telegram Līdums published is an announcement of the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Latvia, which took place on 18 November 1918. Estonia, which had not suffered in the First World War to the degree Latvia had (Latvia had lost 37% of its population, for example), had declared the Republic of Estonia independent on 24 February -- German troops entered Tallinn the next day, however. After Germany's defeat in November, Estonia was invaded by the Bolsheviks, and so the Estonian War of Independence began. As the Wikipedia article says: "By the end of February 1919, the Red Army had been expelled from all of the territory of Estonia. Estonian troops also advanced into northern Latvia."

The situation in Latvia was far more complex (isn't it always?). The Estonians, with the support of the British, were able to repel the Bolsheviks at the gates of Tallinn. Latvia in 1919, however, had three governments. By May, Kārlis Ulmanis' provisional government was confined to a ship, the steamer Saratov, anchored off Liepāja under British protection. The poet, fabulist and polemicist Kārlis Skalbe called it "the Republic on the Water." Most of Latvia was in the hands of Pēteris Stučka's Bolsheviks. The Baltic German Landeswehr and the Iron Division installed a puppet government under the pastor and writer Andrievs Niedra. General Rüdiger von der Goltz had a grand dream -- destroying the Reds, restoring the old feudal order, and starting World War One all over again, with the help of a monarchist Russia and its loyal Germans. His "last battle against England," attended by bizarre castles in the darkling clouds like the United Baltic Duchy, ended in a rout.

Tossing open books upon the tables, bed, and window-sills, it strikes me again how little we have that's written sine ira et studio. But then that's juicy -- Wikipedia's fabled NPOV will give you no sense of those camps in that time. Books do, from the Fraktur to the futurism of the early Bolsheviks. The thin paper during the wars, the nods of approval from the authorities overseeing the displaced persons camps (DPs were called dieva putniņi by Letts -- "the little birds of god"). My parents sailed to America with only four crates of belongings -- three contained my father's books. These and the volumes he collected in exile until his death in 1976 sailed back to the fatherland he never saw free again (after my mother's death four and a half years ago). Most were printed abroad, when historiography in Latvia was the drone of Stalin's helpers. Balodis' history, originally written in Swedish, was published by a theater during the Awakening here. Spekke's Outline, still the most elegant overview of Latvian history in English, has just been reissued by Jumava. Habent sua fata libelli, it was written in Italian in Rome 1940-43, after the Russians seized our Embassy; the English edition first appeared in Stockholm in 1951, all of this work done by desperate men and women relying upon the offices of such friends as Alfred C. Bossom, MP, Chairman of the Anglo-Baltic Society in London, for funds. The pages of my edition are brittle, dark yellow. Paper little better than newsprint. People without a country, attempting to rescue its history.

The wheel could not be turned back, so many writing of the barons and the reactionaries say -- no, it couldn't be and wasn't, but do we still think of this wheel as rolling towards progress, leaving a line? To General von der Goltz, most every Latvian was a Bolshevik (just as every Balt is a "Fascist" to many a Russian today) -- the center-right American-educated Ulmanis, who would later be dictator, was a "half-Bolshevik." The Reverend Niedra would end up the pastor of a German congregation in East Prussia, now Kaliningrad oblast', writing his Memoirs of a Traitor to the Nation -- a painful position for a man who was essentially a Latvian patriot (he did return to Rīga to die, during the Nazi phase of the occupation). Stučka would end up giving birth to that fabulous animal called Soviet law (Vishinsky: "I do not believe in abstract justice").

Spekke includes reviews of his Outline in his memoirs (memoirs that studiously avoid a discussion of Ulmanis' dictatorship, when he was the Ambassador to Fascist Italy) -- a Swedish reviewer (praising his book vs. Bīlmanis', published at about the same time) observed that it wasn't the Latvians who defeated the Bolsheviks. If we look at the victory that we celebrate today, that would seem to be quite true. Major General Ernst Põdder defeated the Germans, local and imperial, with 5990 infantrymen, 1430 of them Latvians (N.B., there are other figures, but I'm the furthest thing from a military historian there is, and such detail is outside my purview), 22 cannon and 2 armored trains. Many of the Latvians were lightly armed barefoot schoolboys. General Balodis stood aside -- he was in the precarious position of remaining loyal to Ulmanis whilst under the command of the Landeswehr. Ulmanis' primary co-conspirator in the 1934 Putsch, he had Colonel Jansons' ultimatum (threatening to consider his troops, the core of the infant Latvian National Army, allies of the Germans) excised from history books and cancelled Heroes' Remembrance Day.

The second photograph in this post is of the Victory Monument in Cēsis. To some of the Latvians who mark this day (our flag seems solitary here in Dvinsk), this is the day when the bad dreams of the Baltic German nobility were finally defeated. Seven hundred years of slavery came to a bloody end. Such oversimplifications! The Latvian Institute: "This victory is traditionally regarded as the triumph of the idea of an independent Latvian state over the principles of power embodied by the Germans in the Baltic." In reality, von der Goltz and his minions did not give up -- they would regroup, and the worst elements of the Russian Empire and the Baltic German nobility would beseige Rīga. They would be defeated on Bear Slayer's Day, 11 November 1919 -- and by then it really was the Latvian people doing the fighting, left and right. The nation was finally born.

How was it possible for the Germans and Russian Whites to regroup? Well, the third photograph is of the Estonian School in Jugla, a Rīga suburb, where the Strazdumuiža Truce was signed. The Estonians, with British and Latvian help, routed the Germans today, eighty-eight years ago. This wasn't in the interests of the Entente, however. Essentially, the Allies (and especially the Americans) were not interested in the Wilsonian self-determination of peoples -- they were interested in using the Baltics and the Baltic Germans to defeat the Bolsheviks and restore stability, i.e., the Tsarist Empire. Though the Estonians could have captured Rīga, they were prevented from doing so by the British, French, and Americans.

The Latvian schoolboys, some of them still barefoot, entered Rīga, led by the principal officers riding their pale horses. The Saratov soon sailed for the capital. The Landeswehr was placed under the command of the man who would become Alexander of Tunis. The barefoot boys initiated no terror in a city that had suffered both the Red and the White horrors, bodies left to rot in the streets for a sign. When the church-bells rang in November, the sweet dreams of the idealists came true, and even if they soon soured -- what we remember today was glorious then.

Suhkrutükk commented chez Justin: "Baltic solidarity is a very new thing. It's mainly with the roots going to [the 1980s]." But that is pure bullshit. The cradle of Latvian nationalism, what we call Māmuļa, was born of the organization, let's call it an early NGO, that provided Estonian famine victims with relief, in 1868 -- Palīdzības biedrība priekš trūkumu ciezdamiem igauņiem: "The Society to Aid Estonians Suffering from Destitution." The contract between the Estonians and the Latvians in our wars of liberation was the enduring one.

With the Lithuanians, we have a Baltic Unity Day -- the anniversary of the Battle of Saule. Today and tomorrow are, or ought to be, the time we mark the historic intimacy of Letts and Esths, not a few of whom were in the same country for a very long time -- Livonia. Here you can watch a video of a demonstration in support of Estonia, 8 May 2007. It would be sad and shabby to leave our ties to the far right, methinks. It didn't start out that way, and it isn't that way. But sometimes, clearing the books off the bed, I think we leave our entire history to the right. Maybe even our entire being. 'Tis tragic.

The old photograph of the Victory Monument is from the collection of Jānis Bahmanis. Like most monuments in Latvia and Estonia, the column was destroyed by the Russians -- who now complain about the supposed desecration of their monuments, which doesn't take place. The Cēsis monument has since been re-erected.

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Blogger J. Otto Pohl said...

An excellent article. I do agree that the physicality of libraries gives them a more authentically historical feel than the internet. I think used bookstores are great for the same reason.

22 June, 2007 20:12  
Blogger Estonia in World Media (Rus) said...

entertaining. great source library

22 June, 2007 23:18  
Blogger Giustino said...

Excellent post. Using the Time Archives -- which you have referenced -- I went back and looked at these identifying names -- Baltic, Nordic.

Finland was described as Baltic -- with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- until October 1939, when it first is mentioned as a "Nordic state."


23 June, 2007 04:41  
Blogger Taras said...


As a Ukrainian with an avid interest in U.S. foreign policy, I always envied the formal non-recognition status accorded by Washington to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries.

Until the Bolsheviks took over in the early 1920s, Ukraine had enjoyed an interlude of independence. Yet Washington showed little interest in the subject as it re-established diplomatic ties with Moscow in 1933 amid Ukraine’s genocidal famine, the Holodomor. History is hard...

I’m proud of the progress your country has made. A lot has changed in Latvia since my last visit in July 1990:)

23 June, 2007 12:59  
Blogger Jens-Olaf said...

Peteris, you are filling the gap. Even for Estonia it is hard to find reliable internet resources on history. I am still struggling with the year 1934.

24 June, 2007 16:11  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments!

25 June, 2007 11:50  
Blogger Edward Hugh said...

Hello Peteris,

"which leads to a slight leap in our dreary birthrate nine months later."

Well I certainly hope that this year it's a rather bigger leap, since you are obviously going to need it.

I was alerted to the existence of this blog by Randy McDonald (we collaborate on a blog called Demography Matters), and I just thought I'd draw your attention to a post I have just put up on A Fistful of Euros about your current economic situation and the demographically driven backdrop. I have a much longer and more technical economic piece on the same topic on Global Economy Matters.

Cheers, good luck and good hunting,


26 June, 2007 15:36  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks, Edward! I'd already noticed your fine piece and forwarded it to many people in the wee hours of this morning!

26 June, 2007 15:43  
Blogger stockholm slender said...

Such a great post - I must confess that Latvia has been a bit of a closed book to me, unlike Estonia, but it is seems to be another example of amazing staying power in this predatory world of great power politics...

30 June, 2007 20:29  
Blogger Unknown said...

Other than agreeing wholeheartedly that your article was interesting, informative, etc. I'm so glad you didn't forget the beer! I've long heard that Aldaris, which is so sought after here in the states, probably because it's one of the few Latvian beers you can get your hands on, is hardly one of Latvia's best. My relatives definitely have a preference for Piebalgas.

And, so glad you were distracted by George Quasha, his axial stones--how incredibly neat, ingenious!!


05 July, 2007 19:21  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Paldies, Irēna! Uldis, the national beer expert, is violently against Aldaris and so am I. Their stuff is too sterile, thin and "Scandinavian" for the Latvian palate. My personal favorite is Užavas -- but when that can't be found (and it's a small brewery determined to stay small)... Bauskas, Tērvetes. More body. Even Piebalgas, Cēsu is better. Aldaris actually makes the Carlsberg here these days, and their products are more and more... well, just your generic eurobeer.

05 July, 2007 21:26  
Blogger xolang said...

Very good!
Was the border between Latvia and Estonia, which de jure never existed before 1918/1920, drawn solely based upon ethnicity/language?

13 August, 2008 12:09  
Anonymous Louis Vuitton said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments!

19 May, 2010 10:48  

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