Latvia's retreating glaciers

  • 2001-01-11
  • Ojars Kalnins
I was not in Latvia 10,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated, but
I can imagine what this place must have looked like. No doubt quite a
mess. Glaciers have a way of destroying, transforming and scarring
the landscape that leaves a mark for a long time. And yet, the
remarkable thing about a post-glacierized piece of land is how so
much comes back to life after the ice retreats.

Sure, some plants and animals are lost forever, but new ones also
come into existence. And sooner or later, once the death-grip of the
continental ice blanket has receded, everything begins to bristle and
teem with life again.

As a Latvian born in Germany and raised in the United States, I have
always tried to comprehend the impact of the Soviet occupation here.
While working in Washington for 15 years representing Latvia in
various capacities, it started to dawn on me. And now that I have
completed my first 12 months as a permanent resident, it has become
eminently clear. This country has just come out from under a glacier

For 50 years, from 1940 until 1990, Latvia was frozen in place and
time by the Cold War and crushed by the massive weight of a Soviet
ideological and political glacier. Ten years ago that glacier finally
receded, the ice has retreated, and Latvia is coming back to life

But it is not the same Latvia that existed before the glacier came.
The war, the occupation and the Sovietization all took a heavy price,
destroying lives, property and the social fabric. The Karlis Ulmanis
era in Latvia, like the earlier Czarist, Swedish, Livonian and
Couronian eras, is now a part of history.

And yet it is this very history - a succession of military and
political glaciers sweeping over this land in regular intervals over
the last millennium - that makes Latvia such a fascinating place for
me today.

As a Latvian who was fated to spend most of his early life outside of
Latvia, I am stunned by the incredible resilience of my people.
Despite everything that has happened over the last 1,000 years, we
are still singing the same folks songs, still drawn to that same
midsummer bonfire and still talking to each other in our own language.

Of course, we use that language to argue and accuse more often than
to sing, but then, what else is new? Bickering seems as much a
national Latvian trait as choral singing. So does building and
rebuilding, changing and rearranging.

The Latvian experience, as Uldis Germanis' book of that title
describes it, has been one of constant conflict between local and
foreign, traditional and transitional, rural and urban, old and new.
And somehow both polarities have always found a way to coexist in
Latvia. Perhaps that is the secret of our survival.

The French claim that the more things change, the more they stay the
same. In Latvia, the old patterns of development and growth (and
sometimes destruction) through conflict and competing interests
continue. It's the "same as it ever was," as the group Talking Heads
once sang. Just the names and players have changed.

The Latvian countryside is still the repository of ancient Latvian
traditions. Riga is still a multinational magnet for foreign
investment, commerce and culture. Ventspils remains an industrial
power in the great tradition of the Duchy of Courland. It's just that
each of these pillars of Latvia's identity over the last millennium
is now undergoing another transitional phase.

Latvia is not only coming out of the communist deep freeze, it is
returning to a suddenly superheated world. And I don't mean global

Latvia is entering a white hot Information Age, where technology is
developing faster than society's ability to fully understand and
harness it. The problems many critics like to point out in Latvia -
corruption, organized crime, a runaway bureaucracy, economic
disparity - are global problems.

We have not reinvented the wheel here, and like every post-glacial,
post-communist country that has been mismanaged for 50 years, we've
got a lot of physical, political, mental and spiritual rubble to
clear. Any time you take something from the deep freeze and put it
into an oven you risk cracking it. Latvia has its share of cracks.

In a recent article (TBT #229, Oct. 19-25), journalist Juris Kaza
expressed deep disappointment over the fact that Latvia today - ten
years since independence - is not the Latvia he hoped it would be. He
suggested that many of us former exile Latvians were sold a bill of
goods in Latvian Saturday schools in the West. I never doubted that.

The idyllic exile Latvian vision of pre-WW II Latvia is as far
removed from the reality of Latvia today as was the ideologically
cynical Soviet version of it. Latvia never was what the Soviets
claimed and never can be what our parents knew.

But the Latvia that seems to have so sadly fatigued Juris Kaza is, in
his words, a singularly "sordid and sorry sight." It is a country of
"ignorance, drunken helplessness, sullen passivity and psychological
squalor," not to mention "sleaze, incompetence and ineptitude."

Just repeating Kaza's litany of criticism gets me depressed, so I'll
just summarise with Kaza's conclusion that "there is a critical mass
of degeneracy at which the society self-destructs." Kaza is not sure
whether Latvia has reached this critical mass, "but I have a feeling
that it is dangerously close to it."

I disagree. As the old story goes, a pessimist sees the glass
half-empty, while the optimist sees it half-full. Kaza sees all that
is dying in this country. I tend to notice that which is coming to

Life beats death every time. And the kind of life that awaits the
successors of the survivors of one more Latvian ice age will be very
different from that which Kaza sees on the streets of Riga and
Daugavpils today.

When I think about the future of Latvia's 2.3 million inhabitants, I
don't identify them by nationality. I categorize them by attitude. I
see three groups. Those who are lost and frozen in the past, those
who have been freeze-dried and left to fend with the present, and
those who can't wait to get to the future.

Kaza's survey of attitudes in Latvia was taken on the streets, where
the lost and frozen tend to proliferate. He should listen to what the
kids are saying in the schools. The kids that I have spoken to this
year in Jelgava, Valmiera, Dundaga and Limbazi are all thinking about
the future. Their future. Latvia's future.

They are bright, curious, enthusiastic and patriotic. They like
Renars Kaupers and Vaira Vike-Freiberga. They run active student
governments, play a major role in shaping the personality and
programs of their local schools, and know the Internet like the backs
of their hands.

Not only will they inherit the Latvia that awaits us 20 years from
now, they are already starting to shape it. Some may question the
folkloric authenticity of a pretty Latvian girl in traditional folk
dress performing at a song festival with a mobile phone clipped to
her waist. But the fact that she even wants to wear that folk dress
(and still use her phone) says something about the Latvia of the

There is a place in cyberspace for a healthy national identity, and
the high school kids I meet throughout Latvia are developing their
own understanding of both.

Those in Latvia's society who recognize that they have a stake in
Latvia's future are already doing something about it. In early
November, over 200 women entrepreneurs representing Latvia's most
successful companies held a conference in Riga's Congress Hall.

If Juris Kaza was looking for evidence of initiative, competence,
intelligence, creativity and brilliant management in Latvia, he
should have gone there.

He would have met the best and brightest minds in the country, doing
real things that are making a positive difference in the lives of
people who live here.

The drunks and street thugs that Kaza uses to symbolize Latvia today
are all male. Yet women have always played the central role in
Latvian culture. Women have been the caretakers of the Latvian
language, culture, traditions - and surviving the male population -
after each invasion, war and occupation for the last 800 years.

But for the first time in Latvian history, women now have a chance to
run more than the family homestead. They are running businesses,
ministries, newspapers, parties, ad agencies, auto dealerships and
non-governmental organizations. And doing it very well.

I recently met two young women from Riga who have developed a
magazine, media center and world-`view that is on the cutting edge of
the cyberspace information explosion. It turns out their new Re Lab
media center is better known in the vast global cyber network of
"intercultural jammers" than they are here in Riga. Their publication
and home page, called Acoustic.Space, has put Riga in the heart of a
worldwide hive of electronic activity.

We often talk about making Riga a regional center again. These women
have already made it a global cybercenter. They are not just thinking
about the future. They are the future.

A problem approaches solution the moment you stop dwelling on what is
wrong and start doing something to make it right. Those frozen in the
past or present can only see what is wrong. Latvia's young women,
like the kids in the schools and the girls at Re Lab, have a stake in
the future and believe they know how to make things right.

Latvia is entering a 21st century where all the traditional ground
rules and boundaries have long since changed. Anytime you apply old
standards to new problems, you get a mismeasurement. Anytime you fail
to plan ahead, you get left behind. Rather than curse the glacier and
what it has wrought, we should be looking at the new world the sun
has brought to life.

What do we need to do in this new world, given the new rules, the
amazing technology and wealth of information that has been put before
us? What types of economic and social policies should we be pursuing
in order to make maximum use of these new opportunities?

During the last 10 years we have watched the glacier recede and have
gone about picking up the rubble in the best way we knew how. This is
an important task and must be continued. But we should simultaneously
be thinking into the future.

Where do we want Latvia to be 20 years from now? 30? Is there
anything we can plan, start and implement today that will have a
long-term impact and bring about the results we desire? What can a
medium-sized country (not unlike Ireland) with a given set of
resources and options do to find a prosperous and secure place in the
global community?

These issues are not being discussed in the streets of Riga, but they
are increasingly becoming a major topic of conversation in Latvian
schools, institutions and organizations.

It's always fun to ridicule inept and corrupt politicians as Kaza
does, and Latvia has surely demonstrated its equality with European
Union countries in this regard. I'll match Latvia's political
scandals with any in Great Britain, Belgium, Italy or France. The
Latvian parliament is indeed one of the least trusted institutions in

But as I recall from my days in Washington, the members of the U.S.
Congress are not exactly America's most beloved public servants
either. Name one country in the world where at least some
parliamentarians aren't viewed as crooks.

And yet I have also seen Latvian politicians cross party lines, put
aside economic interests and talk about what really needs to be done
to secure Latvia's future. After arriving in Riga in January to head
the Latvian Institute, I was invited to join an ad hoc brainstorming
group that was trying to develop a long-term vision for Latvia's
political, economic and social future.

The group included politicians from three different parties,
scientists, sociologists, economists and businessmen. What amazed and
impressed me, was the fact that they were indeed thinking about the
future. Not the next election. Not the next budget. Not whether the
hours we were talking together would increase their profits or not.

The resultant report, called "From Vision to Action," will not
immediately solve all the problems that depress Juris Kaza, but it
does address those active people in Latvia who have a clear stake in
the future. It gets them thinking about where Latvia is going, where
it can fit in a globalized world, and what life could be like in this
country 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

I hope that Juris Kaza gets over his bout with transition society
fatigue and sticks around Latvia a little while longer. He may be in
for a pleasant surprise. Glaciers retreat slowly and those of us
caught in the aftermath have to walk through a lot of muck and rubble.

But following right behind us is another generation that is already
picking up the pieces, planting the seeds and building the Latvia of
the future. These are the people I came to Latvia to work with. They
are the reason I'm staying.