25 February 2008

Dithyrambs for Dictators

There's a cute Facebook group called Dictators Who Kiss Children in Front of Cameras. Jānis Bērziņš at Reveries has a verbal gold watch for Fidel.

In that spirit, I invite you to view an argument about every Latvian's favorite dictator, Kārlis Ulmanis (the photo above -- why does a democracy erect a monument to a dictator in the center of its capital? -- is by Gatis Dieziņš [AFI]). An excerpt:

Some remarks on my supposed “obsession” with Ulmanis. The Republic of Latvia has a short history—fourteen years as a democracy, six as a dictatorship, and not yet seventeen since the restoration of democracy. The occupation, though it did involve numerous Latvians, was not the work of Latvians. Since I live in the Republic, it is naturally important to me to consider how and why the system failed in 1934—at the hands of Latvians.

As Felikss says, “the spirit of Ulmanis still lives.” So does the spirit of Salazar in Portugal, say—he also did a lot of great things. I would note that neither Estonia nor Lithuania are as obsessed with their dictators as we are with ours (of course, theirs were actually less dictatorial, preserving some forms the Ulmanists would have seen as less “modern” than ours—Päts did introduce a new constitution, for example, a promise Ulmanis did not keep).

“The spirit of Ulmanis” definitely does live, mixed with the spirit of Soviet totalitarianism. We could see it in Kalvītis as the “guarantor of stability,” in Joachim Siegerist’s campaign based upon the return of the relics of the Vadonis to Latvia, in Ziedonis Čevers’ Saimnieks, in Repše as Saulvedis, in Šķēle’s suggestion that we need a man like Pinochet, in the belief that the Satversme can be changed lickety-split if it’s inconvenient to those in power, and—most importantly—in the disdain for, and ignorance of, democratic norms. A large part of the population will keep waiting for the man on the white horse, and as long as they’re waiting we’ll stew in nihilistic apathy and watch Estonia overtake Portugal.

More here.

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Blogger Giustino said...

Didn't Ulmanis ask for a pension in Switzerland from the Soviets? Wouldn't that negate a need for an Ulmanis statue in Riga?

28 February, 2008 19:01  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

What's your source for that, Giustino? Ulmanis refused to leave, saying that he would stay with his people. Whether he really thought he would be able to remain in some capacity and when he thought it is another question -- he seems to have imagined himself as necessary to the Soviets.

According to Magnus Ilmjärv, Ulmanis' Farmers' Union received money from the Soviets. There's a gloss on Ilmjärv's research (in English) here (Mel Huang's article is still available, too, here). Note that Estonians' attachment to Päts is equated with Latvia's Ulmanis cult: "For many Estonians, defacing Pats is like denigrating Washington for Americans, De Gaulle for the French or Lajos Kossuth for the Hungarians."

Ilmjärv's claim re the money was disputed by Latvian historians, and according to Viesturs Sprūde, the relationship between Ulmanis and the Soviets was not as close as it was between the Estonian and Lithuanian authoritarians and Moscow. Erkki Bahovski also writes about these matters, available in Latvian here.

29 February, 2008 11:41  
Blogger Giustino said...

"For many Estonians, defacing Pats is like denigrating Washington for Americans, De Gaulle for the French or Lajos Kossuth for the Hungarians."

For segments of the older generation perhaps, as well as the exile community. The Estonian House in New York still had his portrait on the wall up until a few years ago.

Mel's article was also written at a time when it was still taboo to suggest that the pre-war governments had done anything wrong. All that went wrong was blamed on Moscow.

I think discussion of history has become more open in recent years. When Savisaar and Villu Reiljan tried to get Rüütel reinstated as president through the electoral college, even though Ilves was the popular favorite, protestors were holding up photos of Päts and Laidoner outside of parliament -- insinuating that Savisaar and Reiljan were selling out Estonia to Russian interests, like Päts and Laidoner.

29 February, 2008 12:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>I would note that neither Estonia nor Lithuania are as obsessed with their dictators as we are with ours (of course, theirs were actually less dictatorial,

The Lithuanian one was actually more dictatorial, not less. The Smetona regime was both more brutal (it did execute a few communist leaders, and peasant riots of 1935 were suppressed rather nastily) and generally closer to the fascist model.

Overall, though, I would agree that honouring a criminal (and yes, organising a coup and detaining opponents without trial are serious crimes) with a monument is not something we should have done.

>>and as long as they’re waiting we’ll stew in nihilistic apathy and watch Estonia overtake Portugal.

Ah, our already-traditional lack of confidence and envy of the Northern neighbour. The truth is, Estonia and Latvia are likely to overtake Portugal within a few years of each other at most.

29 February, 2008 20:06  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for your comments, Snork.

The Jumava history of the 20th C says this: "Latvia in the time of Ulmanis was characterized by a distinctly anti-democratic government. The May 15th regime was the most authoritarian in the Baltics and possibly in all of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, it was virtually the only dictatorship in Europe that retained no formal elected representation whatsoever." Though other regimes were far more brutal, the actual structures were less autocratic.

Re envy of Estonia -- I think anybody comparing the two countries would say that Estonia is far more successful. One can't measure an economy solely in terms of GDP. Estonia invested in education and R&D -- Latvia did not. Estonia has decent governance -- Latvia does not. Estonia's migration problem and productivity are not nearly as bad.

01 March, 2008 09:34  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

01 March, 2008 09:42  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Need more coffee... I mean, of course, that anybody making a comparison would say that Estonia is far more successful.

01 March, 2008 09:44  
Blogger Veiko Spolitis said...

I've been thinkıng about the similarities and differences in Ulmanis & Paets cults. Both EST and LAT nations were formed out of farmers - both wannabe leaders (vadonis) were born on coutryside - but Riga was metropolis with a strong socialdemocratic movement (there were not as numerous lıberal folks ın EST and LIT).Therefore I argue that sınce 1920's Latvian burguoisy/citizenry had to assert itself vis-a-vis Social democracy, and the latter was lulled in by USSR utopian promises and business deals, the LEADER cult served the purpose of uniting the ''REAL Latvian patriots'' against tracherous socialists.

If we look back on 1934 coup d' etat raison d' etre, then official reason among many other things was given by Paets&Ulmanis - preventing VAPSID and PERKONKRUSTS from making coup (how ironic:).
In reality ıt served Ulmanis the purpose to lock up all his political opponents (mostly communists and socialists), while Paets dealt wıth VAPSID and carried on with constitutional reforms (formation of upper council in addition to Riigikogu), and creation of Ombudsman office (!)

Also, NOT A SMALL DETAIL, but Estonians found remains of Paets in the cemetry of Psyhiatric hospital in Russia (its a thriller and there is even movie during the USSR occupation devoted to this story) brought him to Tallinn Metsakalmistu and re-burried - END OF THE MYTH:)

There are no remains, the myth happily lives on!! Even his nephew and later president Guntis Ulmanis does not ddo anything to find remains of his famous uncle... and put the dot on i. It is not surprising after all, because I heard stories that Guntis switched to Ulmanis family name only ın late 1980's (facts have to be proved, but I heard the stories about his work in Salaspils local cooperative)... taada nu ir latvija:)

01 March, 2008 11:35  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response, Pēteri. The Ulmanis regime did get rid of any semblance of democratic representation, but I don't think this is sufficient to call it the most authoritarian in the region. After all, both the Nazi Germany and the USSR had "parliaments" and held "elections" on the regular basis, but we surely cannot call their governments more liberal than the one of Ulmanis. On the other hand, a slight exaggeration of the Ulmanis' nastiness is, to my mind, preferrable to the kind of Ulmanis-worship that seemed to be so pervasive in the early 1990s (with those omnipresent quotes on the Latvian butter and bacon exports of the mid-30s - I wonder if the book you are quoting mentions it too).

This is hardly improtant, though - I do agree that a desire for "a strong hand", coupled with some nostalgic wish for a return to the romantic nationalism of the old days is not something that the country needs.

As for Estonia - yes, the standards of governance do seem to be higher there. Point taken on R&D, too. But there are signs that Latvian migration and productivity problems that you mentioned are actually abating - producer price and unemployment indices are moving in the right direction. And the current trend for Estonia looks worse (the Latvian one can also get bad, of course). Besides, Estonia seems to have a bigger problem with respect to its Russian minority. So on the balance, I think we are even, more or less.

01 March, 2008 20:21  
Blogger Giustino said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

02 March, 2008 13:20  
Blogger Giustino said...

Besides, Estonia seems to have a bigger problem with respect to its Russian minority.

Four years ago I would have said the same thing about Latvia during the school reforms.

The problem in Estonia is about grand narratives. In the east European WWII narrative, the communists are the criminals and the local nationality -- Estonians, Poles Hungarians -- are the victims.

In the Russian WWII narrative, the Nazis and their collaborators are the criminals, the Russians are the victims, and the Red Army is the hero.

There will never be any 'coming to terms' here. There will only be an agreement to disagree. Americans never came to terms with Vietnam. They just got tired of fighting about Jane Fonda.

02 March, 2008 13:25  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks Veiko, Snork, and Justin for your comments -- many of the things you are bringing up deserve posts of their own!

02 March, 2008 20:19  
Blogger ARK said...

Another fine post.

I remember Šķēle as a glaring modern example of a wannabe strongman in search of a willing state. At the time, I never really understood how he managed to snag so many Letts in his thrall. Didn't recall the Pinochet comment, but that fits.

Whatever happened to Ziedonis anyway?

04 March, 2008 08:40  

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