Latvia and Latvians A People and a State in Ideas, Images and Symbols

  • 2013-02-20
  • Review of content presented by Edgars Kariks

Authors: Ausma Cimdina, Deniss Hanovs, Mara Grudule, Pauls Daija, Ojars Lams, Valdis Teraudkalns, Ina Druviete, Silvija Radzobe, Ella Buceniece, Zane Radzobe, Vladislavs Volkovs, Edite Tisheizere
Compiled by Ausma Cimdina and Deniss Hanovs (2011)

The purpose of this collection has not been to overview the historical developments for the 20-year period following the renewal of independence, but more so focusing on specific spiritual and intellectual aspects of life - its ideas, images, and symbols which, since the period of National Awakening in the mid 19th century, but especially at the beginning of the 20th century, have consciously or unconsciously created the ideological foundations for the nation and the state. Latvia and the Latvian dimension as it has been realized and recorded through its various symbols has become the subject for reflection through the looking glass of literature, theater, art, religion, language and language politics.

This is a unique and far-reaching bilingual historical-literary publication. Through each of their distinctive aspects of language usage it is possible to share the views of the twelve authors presenting this discerning study on the Latvian dimension through the framework of recorded memory and scholarly discipline. Each writer has crafted an individual narrative from a viewpoint - as if looking back from a secure and well-established future… which today we recognize as the here and now.

There is a common wisdom that to know another person’s language is to know something of their soul. Language is more than a means of communication.  As Ina Druviete contends, it is indeed a true foundation of statehood. It is not just the means by which we explain and share that which we experience, but it is a specifically encoded vehicle for the expression of our particular shared culture and values.

Pauls Daija points out that in the Latvian space of the 18th century, Patriotism in its many and varied guises (depending on who was running the state) was a recurrent motif for localized unification and encouraged obedience; and that in the foundations of Latvian language literary expression from the period of the Enlightenment, Gottfried Friedrich Stender (1714-1790) was indeed perhaps the first catalytic force in bringing to the surface the changes in perception of identity and self among the indigenous people of the land.

Mara Grudule takes another vector in her study and synthesizes aspects of the various symbols of Fate as reflected by the Baltic Germans through their literature – the literature of a community slowly sinking like the great and mythical Atlantis, as the indigenous people – the Latvians – commence their ascension with the assertion of their identity, language and culture. Maybe all of this emanates from the as yet insufficiently explored cerebral literary space in the submerged castle at Lake Burtnieks. This sinking of the status quo and emergence of the new is alluded to in Herbert von Hoehner’s reminiscent and emotional 1940s novel Der graue Reiter (The Grey Rider).

We then observe through the learned research of Valdis Teraudkalns how the early 20th century was a time in which further attempts at the exclusion of German culture from Terra Latviensis were taking place… most significantly with the intent of Latvianizing the Lutheran religion. Teraudkalns sees this partially as a reaction to the searchings by the Christian faith itself to find a contextual relevance in late 19th and early twentieth century Europe. Attempts were made by the church to accommodate itself to the various local majority cultures thus impacting on the relationship between Christianity and Nationalism. A policy of deliberate exclusion of all German cultural elements from the
Lutheran religious service and their replacement by sturdy Latvian values and realia very nearly became a fait accompli.

Vladislavs Volkovs explores another tangent on this same issue of resident foreign cultures in his sourcings on the attempts by the minority Russian culture to better establish itself as an autonomous culture during the years 1918-1940… through the investigation and implementation of the legal instrumentalities for guaranteeing individual and collective rights, and in addressing the questions of ethnic tolerance through pro-active public debate.

Latvian Womanhood as a contrast to Womanliness is reviewed in great detail by Ella Buceniece… not so much from any comparative emancipatory or suffragette-style struggle in the patriarchal society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but more as an indelible assertion of the female identity as a natural occurrence – raising also the issue of tolerance for the different and also in the ongoing discussion and dialogue on the established and classical role of the Latvian woman in society… with particular reflection on the circumstances during the authoritarian regime years of Prime Minister Karlis Ulmanis from 1934 until 1940.

It was Karlis Krisjanis Ulmanis (1793 – 1871) who remarked that, “The character of a people is built by its history.”

Deniss Hanovs and Silvija Radzobe each take a telescopic view back through time to the July 1934 state-managed mass spectacular Song of Renewal and the attempted accelerated legitimizing of the authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Ulmanis - all within three months of coming to power - and in the attempt at defining the date May 15, 1934 as the End of History! Allusions have been made to a similarity of attempt at mass spectacle organizing and apotheosis as recently as the year 2009 by a well-known party leader and parliamentarian now humbly reduced by the voting intelligence of the nation and serving out his time as a deputy in the loyal opposition.

Hanovs, in his well-informed and comparative proffering, identifies similar mass spectacles throughout Europe in the 1930s and highlights the May 8, 1938 State Visit by Adolf Hitler to Benito Mussolini’s subservient Rome. Silvija Radzobe makes equal comparison from the East and reveals directly related precedents and influences upon the producer of the July 1934 events in Riga’s Esplanade from the mass spectacles in the post-revolutionary Petrograd of 1917.

Advancing forward through time - and rehabilitated history - Edite Tisheizer provides some significant and authoritative auscultations on the life and creative output of Child-of-Exile and theater director/playwright Banuta Rubess… from the fast-reverse and fast-forward aspects of Tango Lugano – with its three-dimensional clash of cultures to Mrs. Benjamina: Tips for Modern Living… a hypothesis on a possible alternative history and instantaneous time and dimension travel all in one - from Emilija Benjamina’s self-directed life of affluence in Riga to a self-directed no compromise demise among the remains and effluence of Latvian humanity on its last rail trip into Siberian exile.

Zane Radzobe picks up on the time travel concept and focuses her critical discussion on the work of contemporary theater director Alvis Hermanis as he continues to ‘confront Shakespeare’ and allows his audiences to wallow in their own internal memories and conceptions of the year 1968… as it was understood and recorded in the West and how it may have been perceived through the abstractly narcotic haze of censorship and ignorance in Soviet-occupied Riga… at least until the actual invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact forces on August 20, 1968. The Sounds of Silence in the title of Hermanis’ oeuvre refers to that concert tour to Riga by Simon and Garfunkel that never eventuated because it had never been planned… raising the intriguing question: can a concert which was never planned not happen? This of course sets the stage for revealing insights into the concept of alternative history. The Sounds of Silence referred to in the title of this work may equally be considered as a Song – not of Renewal as from 1934, but as a Song without Words – as a silent act of remembrance.

From the allusion to alternative memories from 1968, we then jump ahead to a period of five days (Piecas dienas) in 1974 when a fictional American tourist group visits Riga. Ojars Lams guides us through a literary expose of ‘what-might-have-been’ a set of real scenarios as crafted by the unashamedly polemic and verbally disgruntled exile Latvian writer Anslavs Eglitis – the literary portraitist “with the fiery look of a national idealist in his eyes”. A tame sample of his wrathful language may be observed in this physiognomic portrayal:

… his insipid servile smile troubled me from the first time I saw him. The applicant for the position of street sweeper (setnieks) looked crookedly through his brow, not into the face of his conversational partner but sideways and down. From his broad, porous, notably asymmetric face, there protruded a lower grimaced mouth with big lips. Not Negro-like thick and strong but raggedly thin, in which any smile would have great difficulty in sustaining itself, always transforming itself into an obtuse blown up as-if-always-offended feature.

This work also serves as a literary personal catharsis in which vividly descriptive language counterpoints with dialogue as a framework for West meets East on location in various obvious settings;

… Not much could be seen of the sand itself. It was covered by a great density of naked and half-naked bodies. Not like in the good old days – here and there amongst the tanned… in couples or in groups – but now side by side as a never-ending hot sweating heap of bodies…

But now, that was not by any means a description of the contents of a tin of Latvian Shprotij in some good Baltic Maslo. The next few sentences of his novel elaborate Mr. Eglitis’ complete personal lexicon of invective aimed at all of the non-Latvian Soviet imported community.

Ausma Cimdina’s study on the perception of a national hero: Andrejs Pumpurs and Lacplesis Beyond Literary Space, reveals Lacplesis (Bearslayer) as a symbol and as an emblematic image – as an attribute of a national state in the military and patriotic field; in geographic and cultural topography, and later also as a brand in industry. In Soviet occupied Latvia of the 1950s – 1990s, the most powerful connotations relate to a model kolkhoz – the well-known agrarian company “Lacplesis” and of a beer brewed and named in honor of the national hero.

This is a far cry from Banuta Rubess’ exile fantasy portrayal in Heroica of Lacplesis as leader of the New Gods Jaundievi and who is lovingly called Lacitis – as an affectionate diminution of Bear.

In returning to Ina Druviete’s contention that language is indeed a true foundation of statehood – that specially encoded vehicle for the expression of our shared culture - I conclude with a quote (and a cautious warning) from the pontifications of that cantankerous old Latvian Grammarian in Banuta Rubess’s play Heroica:

All one needs to know is the nominative. We are, all of us, in our souls nominative. We are forgiven our neuroses in the subjective center of a statement. May the overbearing accusatives come! And those cranky old clauses! The nominative is a Nirvana for the nerves! And as our ancestors used to say: “I am here, I’ll be here. But buttons on trousers I’ll not sew!   Sleep, baby sleep” … Or something like that.