On the brink of extinction

  • 2000-06-29
  • By Laimons Juris G and S. Rungis
Ten years later: Latvians in the ruins of the Soviet Empire - under or on top of the rubble? Laimons Juris G and S. Rungis investigate.

I felt the loss as if it had been a part of my own body that had been burned off. When we heard, my mother and I both wept," with her eyes lowered, Karina voices the gut reaction of hundreds of thousands of Latvians when news of the devastating fire swept through the country. Somewhere during the night, between May 26 and May 27, arsonists violated the boundaries of Latvian Open-air Museum on the shore of Lake Jugla just outside Riga. There they incinerated the Kurzeme section. Why this vulgar, obscene crime? And why such a sweeping, powerful, visceral response to what was a group of old peasant buildings, now turned to a barren field of ash?

Action and reaction - both perpetrators and mourners guided by a deep instinct - the instinctive strike at the taproot and the instinctive, collective recoil to the attack. It is less interesting to analyze the motives - the base instinct - that drove the arsonists that night. The Banality of Evil, Natural-born Killers and all that, ad nauseam. Their end is actually rather simple. For over seven decades, the museum has been a sanctuary for the spirit of the Latvian people. Assault its beloved grounds and you deliver a blow to the people and what they hold sacred. There could be some fairly obvious suspects interested in disenfranchising the Latvians and their will to survive as a self-determining nation.

Yes. Sacred seems more compelling, more complex, less cheap than the thrill of seeing values go up in flames. Sacred means inviolable - something that needs to be protected, something that needs to be investigated.

This means heading out one week after the conflagration to the Gada Tirgus, a gathering of 217 craftsmen and 122 guilds from around Latvia. This arts and crafts fair has been held on the museum grounds the first weekend of June for the past thirty years. Sure enough, on June 3 and 4 we watch the museum personnel, undaunted by their loss, welcome seventeen thousand visitors through their gates.

During the Soviet occupation, with political dominance entrenched, Moscow began a massive push toward homogenizing all occupied countries into one, culturally and linguistically Russian-dominated territory. During the half century of systematic cultural genocide, for Latvians this fair was a symbolic and physical retreat from the pressure.

The Gada Tirgus was intended to be the premier exposition where rural artisans and craftsmen traditionally would bring the crme de la crme of their year's production.

Their Labors of Love: work done for the sake of enjoyment rather than for material rewards. When was the last time you got a minute to do that? This fair was widely recognized as a yearly opportunity for Latvians to remember and rejoice in the living beauty of their ancient mysteries of craft. Amber, clay, silver, iron, oak, birch, linen, wool, willow - wrought and transformed by masters into uncommon objects for everyday use by what is called the Common Man.

But let's backtrack. What is this open-air museum? Scene of the crime - home of the fair? Open-air museums first appear in Sweden during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century. As with any revolution it had its victories and its very real victims. On the side of the losers - the agrarians. With this era began the erosion of the family farm.

This cohesive economic and social unit, with its emphasis on the extended family and self-sufficiency, began to unravel and lose ground. This model of human organization, at least in the industrialized nations, is on the brink of extinction. In Switzerland, Alpine families shielded in their traditional mountain retreats and actually living in their traditional ways, are paid to do just that. The Swiss government safeguards these households by subsidizing their continued existence. Elsewhere, more often than not, instead of alarm, the attitude of the media and the public is one of shallow, sunny nostalgia; to the point where a hundred years after the beginning of the end, USA Today is able to announce the imminent disappearance of both the family farm and the drive-in-movie theater from the American landscape, in one and the same breath. As if both weighed-in about the same on the scales of historical and cultural significance!

The first open-air museum

Back in 1890-91, the director of Sweden's Nordiske Museum, spurred on by the sign of the times, created the first open-air museum on Stockholm's Djurgarden (a peninsula reserved for park land and cultural center) called Skansen. He inspired the Swedes to gather and preserve some of the best examples of rural Swedish architecture.

Here the Swedes observed the holy days and traditional ways. They marked the turning of the great and eternal wheel of the seasons passing. This helped them to understand the continuity of their place in the scheme of things by dancing and singing the ancestral way. Here they were allowed to celebrate the pleasure in handiwork that the headlong rush into mechanization was wresting away from craftsmen, as more and more of these humans were sucked in, only to disappear into the pool of laborers demanded by the vast juggernaut that became known as the Industrial Revolution.

In a sense these museums served the same dual purpose a zoo serves. On the one hand, they preserve and protect for posterity species on the brink of extinction. On the other hand, they allow visitors a voyeuristic glimpse of a slice of ecosystem from which they really departed some time ago - in which they can no longer fully participate - like Adam and Eve outside the gates of Paradise.

Latvia's open-air museum

Swept up by this movement, Latvian architect Pauls Kundzins initiated the planning of an open-air museum on the outskirts of Riga in 1924. A brilliant and persistent man, he saw his vision fulfilled when in 1928 his first building, a prize 18th century threshing barn, rolled in; transported piece by precious piece from the northeastern Vidzeme region of Latvia. More than a hundred structures - including fishing huts, a church, and the workshops of blacksmiths and potters and weavers, a windmill - were lovingly sheltered and restored on 70 hectares of lakefront. They were filled with over four thousand original artifacts, implements used in the rites of life of the indigenous Latvian.

Latvians themselves recognize four distinct regions within their lands - each possessing well-defined characteristics. Cherished for its individuality, each of these four regions is represented by an entire homestead in the museum. The Kurzeme homestead was destroyed. The authors of the book "Maja (Home)", which analyzes Latvians' relationship to their dwelling places, have this to say: "After studying scientific research, the observations of laymen, historical evidence as well as folklore, it becomes clear from the layout and construction of the traditional Latvian homestead [which is in harmony with its natural surroundings] that this is our spiritual center."

Spengler in his "The Decay of the West" observes: "The house is the purest manifestation of national identity ever found. The basic form of the house is deeply felt, it develops naturally over time, taking into account laws of nature; it is self-contained, it possesses a kind of inner necessity just as a nautilus shell, as a beehive, as a bird's nest. The soul of man and the soul of the house is the same. The form of the house changes together with the national identity: once the type of the house vanishes the nation becomes extinct; peasant houses, if compared to the speed with which all other art forms have changed, are eternal, as eternal as the peasant himself - immune to the changes surrounding it." Is Spengler implying that somehow these types of dwellings seem to exist outside of secular time and space? Do they represent the point where the divine intersects and informs the mundane?

Soviet section for museum?

Latvia's open-air museum, Brivdabas Muzejs, can be reached from Riga taking the main thoroughfare, Brivibas street, north out of town. Immediately past the peaceful Lake Jugla , to the right you will spy what looks like a ruin on the side of the road. This used to be a Soviet-era cafŽ, erected at the entrance to the museum. On closer inspection, carefully negotiating through the rubble and ruin, shattered glass, twisted metal, various and sundry hunks and chunks of unidentifiable matter one can enter the remains of yet another architectural symbol. Perhaps it needs to also be preserved - intact - not removing one barred window (in a cafŽ?) - go figure; not erasing one lewd graffiti. Perhaps one shouldn't investigate the underground chambers, where the incessant sound of running water from some broken subterranean pipe sends a particularly delicious creep up the spine - alone. And what's that behind the cafŽ? Lordy! Looks like the motel from hell. Visions of cafŽ habituŽs, satiated with their mind-numbing daily dose of vodka, dance through our heads on their way to carnal release with a comrade. Or maybe it's just a meat locker. Either way, we do spy condoms lying about. Archeologists and anthropologists must be called in for an expert opinion. But even amateurs can re-cognize a soviet architectural masterpiece.

Museums or not, and talk of sacred this and sacred that, as we walk the road through the whispering pines into the heart of the museum, we hear their mournful message - the Latvian nation is on the brink of extinction.

We can't rely on the trees, even though Latvians claim they can talk with stones and trees - or used to anyway. We pick up The Baltic Times' June 8-14 issue a few days later - there in the press, black on white, an announcement - the results of researchers: "Statistical data by the Latvian Development Agency shows that within 160 years there will not be a solitary Latvian left standing on Latvia's soil." End of quote, but not end of issue. We gathered some vital information at the Gada Tirgus. Perhaps the meek and the mild shall inherit the earth after all, to spite the statistics. Tune in for the next installment, "Sex, Lies and Russian-language Videotapes - the lure of mass kulture," when we take a look at the results of the longest hangover in the history of mankind.