The Staprans affair

  • 2006-10-18
  • By Paul Morton

THE ARTIST INTERROGATED: For three years accusations of plagiarism have troubled painter and playwright Raimonds Staprans.

RIGA - At 11 a.m. on Oct. 11, Raimonds Staprans arrived at the Latvian Museum of Art, where a retrospective of his work had been running for almost a month, for an interview. Before he left, he found himself imploring a court representative not to take his paintings away. The day before, Staprans had been in Paris, where he says he received a call from an insistent journalist who wanted to meet him when he arrived back in the country.

After an exhausting push-and-pull, Staprans agreed to come to the museum. The curator, the journalist said, wanted to see him.
"I got there and I met the curator and she said, 'I'm so glad to see you, but I'm surprised to see you,'" he says. But the journalist was there, and they went into the exhibition with a photographer.
The man didn't bother asking him about his artwork, but had some random questions about politics, "how I felt about Russian and Latvian relations and all these various things."

Then someone appeared with a court summons, calling for the confiscation of all the paintings in the museum. A plagiarism case, now three years old, was coming back to haunt Staprans.
It was an old case that had upset Latvia's literary community, had drawn fault lines between the so-called Riga intelligentsia and the intelligentsia of the countryside. It was, as some noted, the first case of its kind in Latvia.
Staprans had written a play, which had employed, as one of its sources, a memoir written by Skadrite Gailite, a writer from Jekabpils. Gailite had sued him for an "unauthorized use of sources" and won. Since that ruling, in November 2003, Staprans, who disagreed with several elements of court procedure, had refused to pay the 10,000 lats (14,405 euros) the court held he owed. Now someone had found a novel and certainly noticeable way to collect the sum.

"I told the man, 'I am in the middle of an interview, could you wait?'" But the interviewer said his work was done.
"There's no way to prove it," Staprans says, "but I really suspect he was a front man to get me into the museum."
Staprans didn't own any of the paintings in the exhibit. Some were part of the museum's collection, some were owned by Staprans' daughter, Alda Staprans-Mednis, and some were from private collections in Latvia. None could be confiscated and Staprans went home. The next day, an article about the incident appeared in the Latvian daily Diena, amid a rush of features in the Latvian media celebrating Staprans' exhibit and his 80th birthday, which was on Oct. 13.

Staprans emigrated to the United States after World War II and eventually settled in San Francisco where he made a considerable name for himself as a California painter. His abstract, bright-colored depictions of fruits and females feels like a happy, West Coast oasis at the Latvian Museum of Art, which is known for its dark historical canvases. Painting is not how Staprans connects with his homeland.

"My connection with Latvia is through my plays," he says. He had produced his work for small Latvian emigre communities abroad, and, more recently, in Latvia itself. Except for a few hundred dollars in royalties he had earned when one of his plays was rerun on television, writing never earned him any money.
Gailite's book "…And Then Came the Destroyer" covered her life from her birth in 1940 until the post-Soviet years. Staprans took one incident from the book, which he calls, a little insensitively, "trite," about a relationship Gailite's mother had with a KGB officer for "2.5 percent" of his play, "The Destroyer."

"I used some of the material, snippets of the plot and some sentences from the memoir," citing everything, he says. Staprans took some artistic liberties with the material turning one "hero" into a "snake." When the play was published in a Latvian emigre journal, he acknowledged Gailite's book as a source.

But Gailite, when she obtained a copy, was unhappy enough to sue. She hired a lawyer, Aloizs Vaznis, who happened to be Latvia's last Soviet-era Interior Minister. The case was held in Riga in 2003, when Staprans was in San Francisco, undergoing surgery for a melanoma. Besides the 10,000 lat sum, a small production of the play set to open in Riga was halted by the court.
He says the case was held in violation of Latvian law, which states that a man must be tried where he lives, which, in his case, would be San Francisco. (Staprans spends an average of one month of the year in Latvia. His daughter, an ad executive, keeps an apartment in Riga and a summer house in Jurmala.) He was unable to appeal the decision, he claims, because he wasn't notified of the ruling until May 2004, five months past the 30-day deadline.
He also doesn't see what he did wrong in the first place.

"In the United States and the rest of the civilized world, (my procedure was) quite proper," he says. "Here they say, 'We are an independent nation, and we can interpret the rules as we see fit.'"

Gailite, reached by phone in Jekabpils, has long had heart troubles, and says she started writing "…And Then Came the Destroyer," against her doctor's orders. Her health problems have followed her through today and the case has been a considerable burden. "It's been two years of torture," she says. "I've asked God, 'What did I do to deserve this?'" She claims that she didn't know about the incident at the Latvian Museum of Art until she read about it in Diena. (Vaznis, her lawyer, also told The Baltic Times that he hadn't known about the incident until he read it in the newspaper.)

Her concerns, she says, are more ethical than legal. It's unclear if she is more upset by the liberties Staprans took with the details of her life than with any actual questions of plagiarism. "The case is closed and the 10,000 lat amount is on Raimonds Staprans' conscience," she says. Two of Gailites' most important literary advocates, Mara Zalite and Valdis Rumnieks, declined to comment.

At one point in the past few years, Staprans-Mednis, Staprans' daughter, approached Gailite with a possible compromise, a payment of 5,000 lats and the agreement that both Staprans and Gailite would publicly maintain their respective positions on the case.

Gailite says she declined the offer on the advice of her lawyer.
And thus an impasse. "My father is the kind of person who won't admit he was wrong if he has a 100 percent conviction that he did nothing wrong," Staprans-Mednis says. "I stand by him, especially because it looks to me that he did nothing wrong."
Now, as the case has reached a new, bizarre level, with an attempted raid on the Latvian Museum of Art, it has left some apparent scars on Staprans as well.

"People ask, 'Why don't you move back to Latvia?' I say, 'Because the court system is completely corrupt.'"