On a book censured before being read

  • 2005-02-16
  • Interview by Aaron Eglitis
The recent publication of a new book on Latvia's 20th century history, compiled by a commission of five historians, has created a wave of debate and controversy in the Russian community. The fact that President Vaira Vike-Freiberga presented a copy to Russian President Vladimir Putin only intensified emotions surrounding the book, which Russia's Foreign Ministry promptly derided. Historian Aivars Stranga, one of the book's authors and a prominent scholar on Jews in Latvia, sat down this week with The Baltic Times and spoke about compiling the edition.

Much of the controversy surrounding the newly released book "Latvia's History in the 20th Century," has focused on the WWII Salaspils camp, whether it was a death camp or a concentration camp.

With Salaspils we made one mistake 's I am totally convinced of that. On one page of the book, Antonijs Zunda said that it was a concentration camp, and that is totally correct. However, on another page he said it was a prison, which is also correct from an official viewpoint. Now we are preparing the English edition, and thank God that Pauls Raudseps [opinion page editor of Diena] has agreed to translate it. He criticized the book in his review, so we have worked for two weeks day and night to improve the English book, to add sources and footnotes concerning things like Russian intelligence. In this book we will say very frankly that it was a concentration camp, not a death camp. There were never gas chambers and ovens and so on and so on. It would be total blasphemy to compare it with Auschwitz, where people died 's as I heard from Raul Hilberg, the longest period of survival [in Auschwitz] was two weeks after arrival.

I am not going to vindicate Salaspils, but the majority of people left, although they left in very bad condition.

Are there any other parts of the book that have been criticized?

I wrote a chapter about art before the war. I included in the list of people who promoted Latvia's culture Oskars Stroks, who was famous for the tango. He was from Daugavpils, and he was Jewish. His tangos were sung all over Eastern Europe. The aim of writing this chapter about culture 's and I was surprised when some Russian officials said this chapter was ethnocentric 's was to show the numbers of minorities that contributed to the development of our art. In the English addition we add even more. We also added information about the role of American Christians in bringing basketball here, some Russian emigrants who developed ballet, and the history of art. It is multicultural.

But as every book, it is open to criticism if this criticism is constructive. I totally accepted Pauls Raudseps' criticism because the aim of his review was to create something more interesting and improved.

How was this book created, and why was it presented now?

It was an accident that created two repercussions. On one side the book became famous and people bought it; on the other it has created a near scandal in relations with Russia.

This book was envisioned two years ago, when we received an invitation from the American Democracy Foundation to write something for Russians. In reality we had no aim to translate this book into Latvian 's we wanted to write for Russians and to encourage them to learn Latvian history from a different aspect, not from books that very often come from Russia.

Later the publishing house Jumava said it looked interesting and asked why not publish it in Latvian. The book was written for the average Russian, so we decided from the beginning not to add notes for every sentence. Who wants to go to the archive and look up footnotes? The aim was to create a popular history, and now we are criticized for not having footnotes.

This book has nearly sold out in the Russian print addition. In the Latvian book we changed nothing. This became a financial success. In English this book will have footnotes for only the most important things 's like Salaspils, the deportations and the invasions.

How were the historians chosen for this book?

The book was just the result of funding from the Democracy Foundation and the Latvian Embassy in Moscow. They invited some people who could write this. I would never write about the 1950s or 1960s, but I can write about something else. Had there been more time to write the book, perhaps it would have been longer. But as you know, it's always a question of how long a book should be. In English the book might be 500 pages. We will add a modern bibliography.

What happened with your decision to go to Moscow and present the book?

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs devoted what I would say was a lot of attention to me. On the third of February, the Russian-language paper Vesti Segodnya published a huge article called "Stranga Non Grata," and the article was based on an explanation from the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs. They considered my remarks on the ninth of May. I disagreed with the president's decision to go.

That was my first great crime. My second was what I said about President Vladimir Putin. I came from Latgale, from a multicultural family. I am proud that I probably know Russian culture better than 99 percent of Russian bureaucrats. I can recount from memory the first page of "War and Peace." I said they should recognize the Russian occupation in 1940 and 1945, and secondly, from my viewpoint, President Putin is moving toward a semi-dictatorship.

My grandmother came from Russia in the first World War. I have nothing against the Russians as people. I just wanted to write books, not be involved in politics.

On Russian television the book was attacked shortly after it was released for what was written about Salaspils. If it had been written differently would there still have been criticism?

Had he [Zunda] not made that mistake, they would attack from another aspect. They don't recognize the occupation. I was told that there was an article in Vesti Segodnya that said half a million [Jews in Latvia] were killed. Half a million! Sometimes people misuse tragedy. If you measure the size, can you imagine half a million graves. At the time there were just 300,000 people in Riga because it was a small city, and many had fled.