Unknown Latvia

  • 2011-11-09
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

Riga – the Civilization of Nobody written by Riga-based Lithuanian philosopher Arvydas Juozaitis.

VILNIUS - In October, philosopher Arvydas Juozaitis, 55, had meetings (the last meeting was in the Army Officers’ Club in Vilnius on Oct. 28) with potential readers of his new Lithuanian-language book Riga – the Civilization of Nobody, issued by the Vilnius-based Alma Littera publishing house. The book about present day Latvia’s politics, culture and demographics as well as about its history, shocked Lithuania because Lithuanians realized that they know nothing about Latvia. They tended to think about the linguistically and culturally close Latvia as a similar country to Lithuania, but the problems and political life of Latvia are very different, according to Juozaitis, who has lived in Riga since 2009. He learned the Latvian language and enthusiastically speaks about his love of Latvia on every occasion, though he remains critical about some aspects of Latvia’s political life.

On Nov. 23, in Tallinn, Juozaitis will receive an award from the Baltic Assembly, an organization of the three Baltic States’ Parliaments, for his book about Latvia. In the past Juozaitis was an athlete. In 1976 he won bronze in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Montreal Olympics. In 1988, he was one of the initiators of the nationwide Sajudis movement, which lead Lithuania to re-establishment of its independence in 1990. Juozaitis, who has never been a member of a political party, has always had a little bit original position, which slightly differed from the Lithuanian mainstream.

At the beginning of the Sajudis movement, he was more radically anti-Soviet than the rest of Sajudis’ leadership. Later, when the Sajudis leadership became radically anti-communist, Juozaitis, contradicting the political mainstream sentiment, expressed his support for Algirdas Brazauskas, who had a communist past, though later the situation forced Brazauskas to support independence and democracy. Now Juozaitis is a euroskeptic.

Juozaitis is a talented speaker in front of big crowds and has some features of a superstar. Some years ago, writer Jurga Ivanauskaite, when she was still alive, described Juozaitis as the identical twin brother of Kevin Costner. Indeed, Juozaitis’ facial features and his build seems to look similar to the American movie actor.

He held the most emotional meeting with the public about his book in the Writers’ Club in Vilnius in the middle of October. The club was overcrowded with intellectuals. Only standing room was left for those who came exactly at the beginning of the presentation of the book. The majority of the gathered public had either not yet read the book, or just started to read it. Their faces showed their astonishment when Juozaitis spoke.

“Why did I call the book the ‘civilization of nobody?’ I got this idea when I was finishing the book. We should call the situation as it is, though it is difficult for us to understand the problems of Latvia,” Juozaitis said, adding that only 20 years remain, according to his opinion, for the Latvian national civilization to exist, due to ethnic tensions and a low birth rate in Latvia, as well as to the economic mass emigration of young people from Latvia.

“Some 20,000 children are born in Latvia per year, while 37,000 are born in Lithuania. Some 30,000 Latvians die per year. There will be completely different books written after 20 years. One-tenth of Latvians have emigrated. The Lithuanian situation with its emigration is similar. If Latvia will fall, we’ll be next,” Juozaitis said.

“He learned the Latvian language in order to write this book,” Vaiva Alisankiene, who is the editor at Alma Littera publishing house, said about Juozaitis. She participated in his book’s presentation at the Writers’ Club. “The book opens for us a completely unknown country. We don’t have too many books about our neighbors. It seems that Lithuanians are more interested in Hollywood, Syria and Libya. After reading this book, I understood that I knew nothing about Latvia. I only knew that we have almost the same language. We cannot realize that the Latvians live in a different geopolitical area and their problems are different,” Alisankiene said.

During the book’s presentation, Juozaitis demonstrated videos on a big screen: half-naked Latvians of the political party “All for Latvia!” demonstrating in cold weather conditions near the Latvian parliament against the signing of Latvia’s treaty with Russia. The treaty gave some of Latvia’s eastern territory to Russia (the slight territorial shrinkage of Latvia was made by the Soviets, and Latvia was initially reluctant to agree with it after it re-established its independence in 1991).

“They represent modern nationalism. The biggest Latvian daily also represents the same trend. They are not afraid of this word,” Juozaitis said, adding that the Latvian nationalists received 13 percent in the recent parliamentary election, getting 14 seats in parliament and are a part of the new ruling coalition. The word “nationalism” is used only in negative terms in Lithuania and there are no nationalist newspapers in Lithuania, not counting small Polish-language newspapers promoting Polish nationalism.

Juozaitis said that Latvians found their national identity in their folk songs and dances. He said that the daily life for Latvians stops when the Song Festivals are held. “Lithuanian intellectuals are rather ironic about our Song Festivals, as caravans of cars move from Vilnius to Palanga [a Lithuanian sea resort] during Lithuanian Song Festivals [in Vilnius],” Juozaitis said, adding that the Russians in Latvia have their own ‘song festivals’ on May 9, and showed slides of Latvia’s Russians celebrating the Soviet victory day in WWII. “There were 400,000 of them this year and their figures are growing. The radicalization of Latvian and Russian youth is going on,” Juozaitis said. Only up to 2,000 Russians gather to celebrate May 9 in the cemetery of Soviet soldiers in Vilnius.

Juozaitis also showed an angry video clip made by Latvia’s Russians protesting against the introduction of more Latvian language in Russian schools. “Now 60 percent of subjects are taught in the Latvian language in Russian schools and these schools are still called Russian schools,” Juozaitis said, pointing out that the Lithuanian government’s attempt to introduce just some symbolic lectures in the Lithuanian language, on Lithuania-related topics during geography, history and civic lessons in Slavic schools, is complicated due to “the Southern neighbor” (Juozaitis described Poland in this way), though, he said, the Polish demonstrations in Vilnius are nothing in comparison with Russian demonstrations which were held in Riga. “The Latvian government building was besieged for two years,” Juozaitis said.

Juozaitis said that in 1991, 80 percent of Latvia’s residents and 90 percent of Lithuania’s residents were in favor of their countries’ independence. He said that divisions in Latvia started when Latvians (like Estonians and unlike Lithuanians) decided not to give citizenship automatically to those Slavs who arrived during the Soviet occupation. He said that in recent years, many times more Russians in Latvia take Russian citizenship than seek Latvian citizenship. Juozaitis said that one of the initiators of the idea to call a referendum on the Russian language as the second state language in Latvia (the signatures in favor of such a referendum are being collected from Nov. 1-30) is the former editor of the Russian-version of the newspaper Atmoda (1989-1992), which was in favor of Latvian independence.

Kazys Almenas, a specialist of nuclear technologies and re-emigre from the U.S. to Lithuania, participating in the meeting, talked of his impressions about Riga. “I visited Riga in the Soviet era. It was a paler city than Vilnius and I was astonished that I heard only the Russian language during the three days there. Now the situation looks better to me: I even heard beggars asking for money in the Latvian language,” Almenas said. “Yes, now 42 percent of Riga’s inhabitants are Latvians,” Juozaitis responded.

He said that the situation in Latvian culture is tragic. “IMF dictates the cutting of financing in Latvia,” Juozaitis said (on Nov. 4, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite spoke again against the idea of borrowing from the IMF for Lithuania). Juozaitis pointed out that there are five cultural weeklies in Lithuania and no such weeklies in Latvia, although he said that “Latvia is not unique in this sense” - there are no weeklies on cultural issues in Estonia, Finland or Sweden as well. He described the Latvian theater as “infantile in comparison with Lithuanian theater.” He said that Latvian theater directors love “the national mysticism.” Juozaitis also said that “political life in Latvia is much more theatrical than in Lithuania.”

During the presentation of his book, Juozaitis expressed his disappointment about the disagreements between Lithuania and Latvia. On Nov. 4, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics visited Vilnius and could not say when the Latvian parliament will ratify the Lithuanian-Latvian agreement on the sea border between both states, which was signed more than a decade ago (Lithuania has ratified it). Juozaitis spoke in favor of the creation of a Lithuanian-Latvian parliamentary body, instead of the Baltic Assembly. He said that the Estonians and Finns already created their duet. Juozaitis even spoke in favor of the introduction of a single Lithuanian-Latvian currency, which he proposed to call the baltas (“the Balt”). He said that closer ties with Poland would be catastrophic for Lithuania because even Poland’s intellectuals cannot understand “why the monument to Jozef Pilsudski will never be built in Vilnius.”  

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