I was standing near the department store "Centrs" in Riga one summer day when something roared by. I turned to look and it was a bearded man on a huge motorcycle with dark glasses wearing a bandana on his head. On the back of his vest were the words "Blackhawks, Latvia".
It flashed through my mind that this local and probably harmless version of an outlaw biker was the furthest thing from the Latvia that I was taught about in exile Saturday school in Boston, Massachusetts in the early 1960s. It was not the Latvia that one of my teachers back then, Arturs Liepkalns, was preparing us 12- and 13-year-olds for. That was a world of milkmaids singing folk songs, idealistic poets, national statesmen and heroes; not bikers, hard rock stars and rap groups calling themselves "Fuck Art".
And that was only the good or at least amusing part of where reality went completely off the Latvian Saturday School track.
It occurred to me that Latvia, in the summer of 2000, indeed Latvia since 1991, was pretty remote from the virtual future Latvia built up in the minds of a whole exile generation. It simply wasn't, isn't and probably won't ever be what we were taught to expect, to hope and struggle for.
OK, the first few years, you can make allowances for. But after a while, the sleazy, incompetent, inferiority-complex-blossomed-into-arrogant know-nothing style of running things, at least at the governmental level, becomes tiresome and damned irritating. The ignorance, drunken helplessness, sullen passivity and psychological squalor of a substantial part of the population does not exactly brighten the "civil society" side of things, either. Many of those who have made money use TV reruns of "Dallas" as a literal guide for spending it and as a handbook in business ethics. Underneath the facade, Latvia is too often a pretty sordid and sorry sight.
What the governing institutions lack in corruption they often make up for in ineptitude. Once some aspect of Latvian administration manages to avoid both, it is forced into some new form of bizarre behavior by the legislative Goon Show that is called the Saeima. The Child Protection Law that practically denied the children of single parents or divorcees the right to travel was but one example. Thankfully it has been revised.
Another case in point is the requirement that all vehicles owned by legal entities - as opposed to physical persons - can only be taken out of the country with a notarized power of attorney. This means that there will be hundreds of thousands of lats of business generated for the country's secret special interest group - notaries public - from the pockets of trucking companies, other companies with fleets of service cars, and anyone who has bought a car on a leasing arrangement and left title to the vehicle with a bank.
These may sound like petty matters, but it is the massive level of petty, seemingly incurable stupidity that makes Latvia in 2000 a demoralizing place.
On July 17, following a public uproar, Prime Minister Andris Berzins called the whole baboon pride back for a special session to undo its own mess. Typical Latvia, ten years after...
All this raises the interesting question of what the whole post-war Latvian exile identity was all about.
I go back to Arturs Liepkalns, a stern and true Latvian patriot of those times and also a remarkable example of the American dream come true, as someone who probably never wanted to be American, at least in the way most Latvians of his generation saw becoming American. His generation was, in its own way, a "Greatest Generation" for surviving war and exile and running most things Latvian for my generation (the Baby Boomers) and still another generation (those who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s).
Based on what my memory presents as facts, Arturs spent his late teenage years drafted into the Latvian Legion by the German occupation authorities, wallowing in the trenches and experiencing the horrors of the Eastern Front instead of going to teachers' college as he had planned. He survived and ran the gamut of POW camp, DP (Displaced Person) camp and emigration to the U.S., where he married a Latvian woman who already had two small children, and became a rather successful business executive. So successful, in fact, that he was among the first in the Boston area Latvian community to get a negative badge of success - a heart attack before the age of 40. That must have been in the early 1960s.
While raising his family, conducting his career at a slightly less hectic pace, and working - so it seemed - day and night for the Latvian community, Arturs started studying for an education degree. Sometimes he used Latvian Saturday school classes as a laboratory for some of his academic subjects. Once this led to comic results. The boys in my brother's class deliberately gave absurd answers to one of his research questionnaires. With sincere shock and concern, Arturs wrote in an article in Laiks that Latvian kids (this was the late 1960s, I believe) had such a poor grasp of Latvian that they wrote that roosters brayed, pigs barked and sheep whinnied. In truth, they had a good enough grasp of their parent's tongue to write just that and had many readers rolling on the floor laughing their heads off.
But that is a mere aside. About 10 years later, Arturs was made director of the Latvian Gymnasium (high school) in Muenster, Germany. It was the only full-time, Latvian-language school supported by a democratic government anywhere in the world. Arturs, who gave up teachers' college for a freezing trench, had made it to the top of the free world's Latvian educational establish - he was running the "castle of light" in Muenster.
But that was not the end of the story, merely the end of Arturs' business career in the U.S. and the attainment of one of his life goals. At some point Arturs also became religious - he may have always been so, but it was not apparent when I knew him as my Saturday school teacher. So Arturs started studying theology. He must have been past 50 then and already in Muenster. After leaving the Gymnasium, he was ordained a Lutheran minister and took over one of the "heavy" Latvian congregations in the Chicago area and was even appointed Dean of the Latvian Lutheran Church in Exile, if I'm not mistaken.
So what has the life of this Latvian man been so far, if not the American dream that goals can be achieved, obstacles overcome and ideals served?
Arturs and I have not been in touch for many years. I believe he is still going strong - semi-retired from his third successful career in the clergy (after businessman and educator) and traveling as often to Latvia as circumstances allow (teenage grandchildren, a wife suffering multiple sclerosis for several decades).
That he comes to Latvia is a sign that he still believes, and his belief was what, despite cynical joking back then, inspired me and my generation.
But what are we to make of this "greatest generation's" heritage when we actually try "going back" (an illogical term for those born and raised in the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Britain or Australia) and see how different things are from the virtual reality of Saturday school? Take away the somewhat impressive macroeconomics, the rapidly changing face of Riga and other towns, the "Golden Arches" here and there, the disappearance of Zhiguli and Zaporozets from city streets and major highways, and underneath is still a seriously warped and wounded society. Whether it will ever catch up with and be able to cope with the 21st century world is still an open question. My guess is that the odds are a very close 50-50.
One returnee, an American-trained physician roughly my age, was shocked by the level of superstition and witlessness: "Where were the psychics, the healers, the dowsers and the astrologers? Our parents never told us people in Latvia believed this stuff. It must have appeared after the war."
I often feel a strange familiarity in much of the street-level behavior I have seen in Riga. People casually and carelessly strolling or staggering into traffic, hanging on street corners, lounging or sauntering in parks, the ever-present beer bottle in hand, the totally shameless intrusions into strangers' personal space in queues and other crowded situations, and so on. Then I realized - these were the same behaviors and vibes one gets in a depressed black ghetto. This is Harlem or South Bronx street life - Baltic style, fortunately without the Uzis.
I don't want to sound racist here and say that a significant number of Latvians are like ghetto blacks and that that is something inherently bad. Rather, the part of the black population that lives the ghetto street person's life is, like many Latvians, totally deprived of self-esteem and hope. In the case of black Americans, the root cause is slavery and racism, and in the case of Latvia, it is 50 years of Soviet rule. This explains, but does not justify, the "ghetto behavior" of some black Americans and some Latvians.
My guess is that about 30 percent of the population of Latvia is "ghettoized" and probably beyond redemption, quite sullenly content to live in a haze of semi-ignorance, wounded pride interlaced with an inferiority complex, self-pity and passive resignation occasionally obliterated by alcohol or solvent abuse.
For any society, there is a critical mass of degeneracy at which the society self-destructs or spirals into a long, agonizing stagnation characteristic, perhaps, of Third World tribes subjected to intolerable culture shocks. I am not sure that Latvia has reached this critical mass, but I have a feeling that it is dangerously close to it.
While the American black community is doing a fair job of pulling itself up and out of the post-slavery syndrome, this cannot be said of the Latvian "homo post-sovieticus." There is no comparable Latvian pride movement. There is nothing like the part of the Black Pride movement that said: "Sure, it is great to have an African heritage, but the most important thing is to break out of despair, self-pity and self-destruction, something no one else can do for you, not even with lots of money." As a Polish-born producer for a British television organization, who has visited post-socialist Poland often since leaving 15 years ago, said: "It's not the economics, it's the mentality."
The most vehement Latvian nationalists are hardly appealing to this kind of pride and self-esteem. They are taking a hard stance of historical truth - the collective responsibility of Russia and Russians for most of Latvia's misery in the past 60 years - and using it to raise completely unrealistic expectations for the future and to make populist political demands they must know cannot be met. The "civilian occupation" will not end with the voluntary (or even voluntary with a hard sell to "volunteer") emigration of nearly a million Russians. Nor will these Russians russify and absorb the thin Latvian majority. Something else will happen instead. It won't be the peace and love-each-other integration either, but more like an uneasy but cordial coexistence of communities for a couple of generations until nationality morphs into some completely new element of individual existence and collective interaction.
It might happen by the 2050s, when the last people who lived as adults for any part of the Soviet occupation start to die off, or perhaps earlier, driven by the forces of globalization, cyberspace and other influences redefining nationality in a virtually borderless world. There is, indeed, a quaint obsolescence to classic exile Latvian nationalism, even to my own national pride, my part in melting- pot America that drove me to strive to excel. "Real" Latvian nationalism today is heavily laced with an emphasis on the victimization of Latvians, on the commemoration of mourning and suffering, which is not in and of itself a bad thing. It is an important theme for the Jews, whose victimization came close to complete extermination. And certainly their mourning, and that of Armenians, Tibetans, Rwandans, Albanians and other victimized peoples is not to be cynically mocked. But at the same time it must be remembered that tens of thousands of European Jews, still staggering from the Holocaust, built the nation of Israel. They did not sit in their ancestral desert rending their garments and pouring ashes on their heads.
Suffering will earn sympathy and induce shock, but it bears few other fruits. Contemporary Latvians will not be rewarded by the outside world for the mid-scale historical injustices they have suffered. Even if some of the hopelessly overextended organs of international "justice" (aid organizations and the like) were presented with Latvia's "case," they would probably dismiss it. There are far too many people and tribes in the world today living in exile, under bushes or roofs of sticks, with bark or beetles as their only food. Against this background, a country whose capital city suffers daily traffic jams from large numbers of Western automobiles does not have a serious problem.
Latvia also has household television ownership that rivals that of many Western countries, so that the choruses bemoaning Latvia's fate can be seen as symptoms of ignorance and blindness to events in the world around them. Latvians demand the world's attention, but seem to have paid little attention to the world, even when given the opportunity.
The latest example is the bizarre expression of public opinion that led to 22 percent of the country's voters signing petitions calling for a referendum to ban the privatization of the national energy utility, Latvenergo, and to forbid it to pledge any of its assets in order to raise capital. A closer examination of the reasons for this suggests that it was, in effect, a vote of no-confidence in the government and the present ruling elite. But to the world, the referendum petition will be seen as a signal that Latvian public opinion is shifting back toward state socialism again. This was reinforced by the protests against the privatization of the Kemeri spa. Instead of demanding that a new private owner be found after the current one apparently breached covenants of the privatization terms, the protestors were asking that Kemeri be kept as public property.
You cannot believe the government to be incurably corrupt and at the same time ensure that the government will be the perpetual owner of the country's largest and strategically very important enterprise - except in Latvia. And that is one of those exceptions that, rather than distinguishing Latvia, ranks it among nations of limited rationality.
I expected a renewed Latvia and Latvians to move much faster, not necessarily in unison, but in close step (not deliberately tripping each other), toward self-evident goals like efficient government and markets, an open and fair society, and rapid, intelligent adaptation (not blind mimicry) of Western methods, values and institutions that, in the 50-year contest that was the Cold War, proved incontestably superior. I did not expect the muddle, the corruption, the ignorance that makes Latvia a psychologically often uncomfortable and disconcerting place.
Perhaps independence was regained at a bad historical cusp. National independence and sovereignty in the early 20th century sense are pretty much dead. The developed world, the cutting edge world that I always believed Latvians should be part of, has moved beyond these notions or transformed them into subordinate components of a new world order. Even so, the society and institutions of Latvia, both in 1991 and still in 2000, seem not quite able to grasp even what these old values should mean to them. They have perversely fallen behind that which is becoming obsolete. By the time they realize how they should be using their national freedom, it will be too late. Latvia will be like a sorcerer's apprentice after the age of magic has passed - misusing, with sweated brow, that which nobody really needs to work for them anymore.
I still have a tentative dream, more like a distant phantom, that Latvia will become a modestly prosperous, civilized and free society, networked with and transforming along with the rest of the 21st century's global village. But my exile Latvian faith - nurtured by the likes of Arturs Liepkalns, my parents and scores of others in Latvian exile communities around the world - has hit the rocks. I also see a good chance that Latvia - by its own stubborn misdoing - will become roadkill along the track of the many nations and peoples that do grasp what is going on and how to act accordingly. I won't be blamed for it and I don't have to be around to see it. I did my part for "the cause" and also to point out Latvia's errors and failings after the cause was won.
So where does that leave me and maybe other of similar background and experience? Strange and painful as it may be, it is perhaps time to consider molting the exile nationalist shell. Our evolution seems not to have matched that of the rest of our Latvian species. And we all have another side, the talents and abilities that carried us to where we are. For some of us, like the Liepkalns of our parents' generation, it was the unconscious fulfillment of "the American dream." Maybe it is wrong to blame the many who did not "return" (one or two generations later), but only to note that they never made an effort that would have convinced many of them not to.
The day is approaching when I will feel few rationally justifiable regrets for leaving a Latvia that doesn't match the bright hologram painted on my consciousness by exile-Latvian nationalism. I am still not sure whether this is the cumulative experience of five years of living here (hardly in squalor, I must say), or some form of transition society fatigue. But I do still have options, or the possibility to make them. Most Latvians don't have options because they believe and want to believe that they don't. That just might be the important difference.
Juris Kaza is a Latvian-American journalist who has spent the past five years working for the Latvian business daily Dienas Bizness. Before moving to Latvia, he lived in Sweden for 13 years and in Germany for 6 years.