by Rita Laima
When I was a young woman, I ventured from America to my ancestral homeland, Latvia, hoping to recognize the country my grandparents and the exile Latvian community had described to me in glowing terms. In 1980, Latvia and its neighbors to the north and south, Estonia and Lithuania, were Soviet satellite republics; Jimmy Carter was U.S. president; and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” was playing at the top of the charts, along with Blondie. I was studying art in New York City, where the AIDS epidemic was about to explode. The sound of punk rock and throbbing disco music filled Manhattan’s downtown clubs. By 1980, singer Patti Smith and her companion photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, once scrappy, struggling artists who lived near my school, were well on their way to becoming American cultural icons. Liberalism and Americans’ acceptance of multi-culturalism were on the rise. I had grown up in a bicultural environment and didn’t mind explaining to my fellow Americans where Latvia was.
Brought up to despise communism, the Soviet Union, and Russian imperialism, for me Latvia was an imprint, a blurry image in my brain, a map I had memorized at Latvian school, the pathos of a patriotic poem, the mood of a sad orphan or war song. I knew quite a lot but, in truth, very little. Latvia was an abstraction.
In the years leading up to my first trip abroad, New York had become my cultural mecca. The twin towers of the World Trade Center twinkled at night over lower Manhattan; I loved seeing them from various viewpoints in the city and from my home in New Jersey. To me they were like two sentries flanking Lady Liberty at the mouth of the Hudson River, protecting our democracy and freedom, which at the time I nearly took for granted. For hundreds of thousands of European economic migrants and political refugees, New York had been their port of entry and their gateway to a better life; I was sure the magnificent site of Manhattan’s soaring skyscrapers had filled them with awe, trepidation, and hope. Their multitudes included Latvian refugees who had fled the advance of the Red Army into Latvia at the end of World War II and were now seeking a home away from home. Many Latvians, including my family, settled in the New York area. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s there were enough Latvians in New York to fill Carnegie or Alice Tully Hall. The Latvian community in exile believed that one day the USSR would collapse and everyone would go home.
My youth in the Jersey suburbs was happy and secure, but eventually I outgrew the comfortable cocoon. After a year of pen-palling with the son of a famous writer in Soviet-occupied Latvia, I bought a ticket to my ancestral country. Or rather to the USSR: one could not fly directly to Latvia from New York. In 1980 the Latvia of my grandparents’ rosy youth no longer existed. To get to Riga, Latvia’s capital, one had to fly via Moscow or take an equally complicated route via Helsinki, Finland. I chose the latter, because Moscow scared me. It was the seat of much evil if my father’s stories about World War II and the “Russian devils” were true.
I took the MS Georg Ots across the chilly Gulf of Finland, crossing the Soviet border in Tallinn, Estonia under the dark, cold gaze of a Soviet customs official who spoke only Russian. After a night of fitful sleep on a train called the Chaika bound for Minsk in Belarus, I disembarked in Riga. I considered myself lucky to have made it that far: nobody in Tallinn had spoken English, and I was weighed down by a large purse, a gigantic backpack, and an enormous suitcase full of warm clothes and presents for my relatives. Cell phones were nonexistent. Luckily, in Riga I was welcomed by a small crowd of relatives – my uncles, aunts, and cousins. I took my first steps in the fatherland. It was a chilly morning, and Riga was bathed in a cold light. The sun was scurrying away. Latvia was a country of the north, of “white nights” in the summer and short, dark days in winter. As we made our way to the Soviet “Intourist” hotel, I looked around. The city of my grandparents’ youth, which before the war was known as “Paris of the North,” looked uninviting. The first signs of communism and the Russian occupation were coming into focus: drab store fronts, clunky Soviet automobiles, the sound of Russian, which drowned out my mother tongue, and the presence of the Soviet (read Russian) military.
By the end of my month-long stay, I had fallen in love with Riga and many of the people I met. In spite of the ugly manifestations of Latvia’s military and ideological occupation, my compatriots radiated warm hospitality, and I could sense an undercurrent of astonishing creative activity. I visited ceramicist Pēteris Martinsons, painters Līga Purmale and Miervaldis Polis, and other Latvian artists; they were anything but Homo Sovieticus. Kind, gracious, and talented, they inspired me. They let me believe that the human spirit and creativity could survive and burn like a candle of light, though perhaps not openly, even in the darkest of times, even in a state as repressive as the Soviet Union. Creativity was a means of survival.
Just to hear Latvian around me was a thrill, and everywhere I looked, I recognized examples and vestiges of our nation’s rich, unique history. Monuments to writers whose work I had grown up reading, Jānis Rainis (1865-1929) and Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1862-1908), beckoned as if to say, “Welcome home!” The famous Latvian Freedom Monument – “Mother Latvia” – was still standing, although Brīvības (“Freedom”) Boulevard was now Lenin Street, and other streets had lost their pre-war names: Marx (formerly Gertrude’s) Street, Engels (formerly Stabu) Street, Suvorova (formerly Marijas)… The Soviets were supplanting our history.
Quickly, I noticed that the Latvian Freedom Monument, a memorial to the heroes of the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920) paid for with private donations and unveiled in 1935, was shunned by passersby. Cables ensnared it, and as trolleybuses pulled up to the curb, I could feel the ground vibrate. “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?…” The words of Bob Dylan’s song, which I had grown up listening to, came to mind. If Latvians were worried about their beloved monument, they could only express their fears in secret. Latvian patriotism was a crime in the “proletarian internationalist” USSR. Riga had survived two world wars, but the wear and tear of Soviet neglect was showing. The “White House” (National Opera), where my uncle Jāzeps Lindbergs was a conductor, looked run-down, as did most of Riga’s lovely turn-of-the-century buildings. The stench of urine, smashed exquisite tiles, and broken windows and mailboxes in the lobbies of Riga’s fabulous art nouveau buildings were reminders that the Soviets had money for the military but not much else.
By the end of October it became clear that the Soviet authorities did not want me around anymore; I was no longer welcome in a state characterized by lies, spies, and, to my mind, bizarre propaganda. After all, I was a descendant of Latvian “bourgeois nationalists” and had been raised under the American “imperialist, capitalist regime”; my ideas, if I was voicing them, could be contagious. But even as I was packing and shedding tears, I knew that I would be returning. Beneath the grimy soot of Soviet neglect lay a city of architectural gems and historical treasures; beneath the portrait of a rugged, macho proletariat were many kind, intelligent people. Riga (founded in 1201) and Latvia were rich with stories of wars, plagues, fires, genocide, deportations, and stubborn survival. My nation’s history was rather terrible but also remarkable. It was a history of fantastic resilience, which I had already witnessed in America: I had grown up surrounded by selfless, hard-working Latvians who strove to keep their language and culture alive.
My first trip to Latvia left such a deep impression on me that I returned a year later, and by the end of 1982 I was petitioning the Soviet authorities to extend my visa: I was engaged to a “Soviet” Latvian and wished to live in Latvia. Why not? I would remain in Latvia for seventeen years, the most difficult, illuminating, and memorable period of my life so far. Going from a comfortable, secure existence on the outskirts of a vibrant American city that epitomized freedom and diversity to life in a “police state” that resembled George Orwell’s 1984 would be a shock to my senses.
In that state, the “police” – or rather secret police – wanted something of me. For the first three years of my life in Soviet-occupied Latvia my husband and I were summoned, separately, to talks with KGB operatives. The subjects varied, and I was never sure what these shady characters wanted. No explicit offers to cooperate with the Soviet spy apparatus were made, yet these mandatory visits were uncomfortable, intimidating, and infuriating. Perhaps that was all they wanted – to intimidate us. At home we would receive strange phone calls at various times of the day, the same ghostly voice asking to speak to my husband and then hanging up. I didn’t let it get to me. Unsure of why an American like me would want to live in the USSR, the KGB harassed me in various subtle ways. I was told to stay away from a young writers’ seminar, and my request to study at the Latvian Art Academy fell on deaf ears.
Once a hub of international trade, Latvia was cut off from the West in many ways. The coastline of beautiful Kurzeme was heavily guarded and patrolled, the sand regularly combed to make sure no footprints led to the sea and escape to Sweden. If I wanted to, I could leave Latvia, but my fellow Latvians’ travels were restricted to the Soviet Union. One had to be on good terms with the Soviet authorities to travel to countries within the Warsaw Pact, but travel to the Free World was almost unheard of. The defections to the West of Soviet artists like Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Andrei Tarkovsky, and our own Gidon Kremer were proof that the Soviet Union was a prison state, and Soviet citizens were a captive people. The movements in Latvia of tourists from abroad was carefully monitored; there were severe travel restrictions. After all, there were many Soviet military installations throughout Latvia, and communist paranoia was rampant. There were many areas that were even off-limits to local inhabitants, such as the Kurzeme coast. I was only able to swim in the Baltic Sea after independence.
Soviet propaganda and disinformation about history, the state, the economy, society, and the rest of the world were hammered out on a daily basis. The contrast between Soviet lies and reality triggered a culture of black humor. Latvians were avid book readers, and beloved poets like Imants Ziedonis, Ojārs Vācietis, Vizma Belševica, and others had a way with words, a way of sharing implicit truths. The elderly remembered the war, the occupations, and the contrast in the way of life before and after the war. Those keen on preserving Latvian history passed their stories down to their children. In the USSR, truth was stranger than fiction, and most Latvians quietly mocked the Soviet slogans glorifying communism.
In the Soviet command economy there was no real estate market; goods and services, as well as living space, were distributed to citizens by state officials. This system produced a culture of nepotism and corruption. As a young couple we did not have the option of renting a little place of our own. In fact, my sister-in-law, her husband, and their baby had to move in with my mother-in-law for us to have a place to live. My mother-in-law lived in a tiny apartment that afforded little privacy for a couple. My husband had grown up there sharing two rooms with five people. The communal apartment system was miserable; in many situations Latvians were forced to co-habit with their country’s Russian occupiers. The beautiful art nouveau building that we lived in consisted solely of communal apartments. Gradually, the walls of our tiny apartment would close in on me. By 1987 my nerves were shot, and I was suffering from full-blown depression.
In spite of the daily absence of running water in our apartment on the last floor, for a while I enjoyed living in Old Riga. Majestic St. Mary’s, also known as Riga or Dome Cathedral, which dated back to the 13th century, met my gaze each day. Almost as old as the Dome, St. Peter’s Church, which was nearly destroyed during World War II, was just up the street. These and other centuries-old buildings inspired me to believe that this dark age would pass like previous dark ages in this part of the world. We were on the dark side of the Moon, but the Moon revolved…
Food shortages persisted until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and problems like tainted tap water and the lack of most goods that Americans took for granted (good coffee, pantyhose, attractive shoes and clothes, medicine, hygiene and beauty products, etc.) grated on everyone’s nerves. Like the people around me, I became used to this; I adjusted to the Soviet “seeker’s” lifestyle, always looking, always hoping, sometimes scoring (mandarins in winter, rubber boots in the spring). The Soviet economy was “stagnating,” and I knew how life in a cage with no hope in sight could affect one’s mental state. Alcoholism and child abuse were rampant, especially in the countryside, judging from stories I heard and scenes I witnessed.
Our son was born in 1984 in a hospital that reeked of feces, urine, and old blood. Riga First Hospital, founded in 1803, seemed more like a prison that I couldn’t wait to escape from. The unsanitary conditions had lead to an outbreak of staph infections. Luckily, our baby was spared. My unsmiling obstetrician had hardened herself to the disgusting conditions at the hospital.
It was difficult to get used to the sense of cultural isolation. Obviously, my peers in communist Latvia had grown up differently than me. They were spoon-fed Soviet ideology from first grade; however, being Latvian, many had been able to resist. (Latvians were stubborn, and they could still recall their freedom and national heroes.) Sadly, many were inured to the system they were born in, and it affected their decisions and way of life. Corruption and embezzlement at the expense of the state were long-term problems.
No one around me recognized my cultural references. That being said, I discovered artists, musicians, and writers I didn’t know existed: Nikolai Rerikh, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Gustavs Klucis, Zinaida Serebriakova… In order to avoid feeling completely isolated, I tuned into a radio station from Warsaw that played music that sounded contemporary to my ears. Soviet popular culture and music seemed cheesy and sappy: the varieté programs on TV and the exaggerated vocals of singers of Latvian and Russian light (“estrādes”) music left me cold. Yet other discoveries warmed and thrilled me: indoor and outdoor theater; local artists and artisans; Latvian literature; the folk music revival; and the many people who, within the confines of the Soviet totalitarian state, tried by various means to preserve our identity, monuments, architecture, and culture against the tide of Russification.
Of all the ugly manifestations of the Soviet occupation, it was the Soviet policy of Russification that I founded the most egregious. Through uncontrolled immigration from Russia, the construction of high-rise apartment buildings to accomodate this influx, mandatory Russian in school for all Latvian children, the nightly children’s program on TV in Russian, compulsory military service in the Soviet (Russian) armed forces, and the dominant role of the Russian language in matters of the state were clear signs that Moscow was actively and purposefully Russifying Latvia. By the 1980s Latvia was clearly the weak link in the “chain” of Baltic States, as Russian speakers continued to stream in, counting on jobs in Soviet manufacturing plants, apartments, and a higher standard of living than in Russia. The seat of the Soviet Baltic Military District, which included the territory of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Kaliningrad, was in Riga, and Russian officers were part of daily life in Riga. They were members of a large nomenklatura or privileged class that was first in line for apartments, automobiles, and other “deficit” goods and services.
I dealt with Russian chauvinism in my own way, stubbornly repeating that I did not speak Russian to the Russians I encountered on the street and in stores. They looked at me as if I was stupid. Some, always women, called me a fascist; others referred to my mother tongue as the language of dogs. Their bully mentality was scary, and I cringed when I saw and heard Latvians meekly respond to these bullies in Russian. But who was I to judge? I had a ticket out of this prison – my American passport.
My country and people had suffered terrible losses during the war, and the prolonged Soviet occupation prevented healing. Muzzled by fear of state reprisal, people could not openly commemorate the victims of the Soviet and Nazi occupations. The deportations of the Balts to Siberia in 1941 and 1949 were never mentioned, nor was there any mention of the Holocaust, in which Latvia lost its historic Jewish population. In the Soviet era, everyone knew Rumbula as the car and car parts market. But in Latvian history Rumbula stood for the massacre of some 25,000 Jews in late 1941. Many Latvian cultural and political figures were blacklisted by the Soviets. Those who incurred the wrath of the Soviet authorities were ostracized and silenced. Our national monuments of culture and history were endangered by neglect, including the Freedom Monument in Riga, the Great Cemetery (Lielie kapi), and the Cemetery of the Brothers, where many of our heroes from the War of Independence were interred. In January 1983 my fiancé and I risked our future together by trekking out to Forest Cemetery to lay a wreath at the foot of the monument to Latvia’s (first) Foreign Minister Zigfrīds Anne Meierovics (1887-1925), a champion of Baltic unity and cooperation. The Soviets bulldozed some monuments, yet others remained standing, visited by a few brave individuals.
While I vanished behind the Iron Curtain, life in the West, which the Soviets despised, went on. New musicians and artists came on the scene, but with no access to western media, it was hard for me to keep track. Only after independence would I discover groups like Guns n’ Roses, Nirvana, Massive Attack, Metallica, etc. I lost touch with American popular culture.
In January 1981 US President Ronald Reagan took office; in 1987 he deemed the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” In that year the first cracks in the Soviet Union’s iron plates began to appear. On “our” (Soviet) side of the curtain, miraculous changes began to take place. Under Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s official Soviet policies of perestroika and glasnost, intended to “let off steam,” the Balts felt encouraged to speak up. And speak and act up they did. It proved impossible to stem the gusher of grievances that welled up from my nation’s repressed soul: the victims of the murderous regime whose fates had been silenced; the “Forest Brothers’” or Latvian partisans’ tragic war of resistance; the stolen infrastructure; the unabating pollution of our air and waterways; the rising tide of Russian immigration; the hazing of Latvian conscripts in the Soviet army; the desecration of our holy sites… Forced to remain silent for decades, Balts could no longer bite their tongues.
From the first commemoration of victims of Soviet communist terror on June 14, 1987 at the Freedom Monument to the so-called Barricades of January 1991, I was blessed to witness the “awakening” of my nation from what could be likened to a state-induced coma. When the Soviet Union collapsed in August 1991 after an unsuccessful coup in Moscow, the miracle of Latvia’s freedom was ours.
As I end my synopsis of the great experience of having lived in my ancestral homeland Latvia at a very important juncture in its history, I reflect on the passage of time and what has changed since Soviet Russian tanks rumbled out of Latvia 22 years ago in 1994. I left Latvia in 1999 to take a break. I ended up staying longer than I had anticipated. Five months after the birth of my third son, Islamic terrorists brought down the World Trade Center close to where we were living. Terrorism took on a whole new meaning. The world was changing yet again. Far from Latvia, I continued to follow developments there, worrying about the corruption, poverty, emigration, and lack of lustration that were impeding complete rehabilitation from the toxicity of the Soviet era. I discovered literature on the Holocaust in Latvia, which led to further questions about the war, the Soviet and Nazi occupations, and my people’s various roles in them. As I experienced tumultuous times in my personal life, I fixed my gaze on Russia, Latvia’s enormous neighbor to the east. My concerns about Russia’s influence on the Latvian economy and its political stability grew into anxiety. I left Latvia at a time when it was preparing to join the European Union and NATO; today these alliances are under threat both from within and without. Ex-KGB operative Vladimir Putin’s Russia has come back with a vengeance; in 2008 it annexed a part of Georgia; in 2014 it grabbed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and is waging war in eastern Ukraine. Russia is in effect encircling the Baltic states with military forces: troops, tanks, planes, submarines, and nuclear missiles. Russia has meddled in European affairs, elections, and stability and may even have altered the course of the U.S. presidential election.
My ancestral homeland Latvia lies on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. My sons and my grandchildren live there. The Latvian language, once endangered under the Soviet regime, has regained control. However, linguistic and ethnic tensions remain on account of the large Russian-speaking population, which was introduced after the war to colonize Latvia. I realize there is much toxic debris – the detritus of Latvia’s tragic history in the 20th century – to wash away. Latvia has much to offer: a unique history that is evident in the architecture and culture; a beautiful, relatively unspoiled countryside; a flourishing cultural scene; fantastic cuisine. I try to focus on Latvia’s accomplishments and its good people while warily following Russia’s movements.
Estonian poet Ivar Ivask, born in Riga in 1927, wrote: “Our elegies sing chiefly of survival. They lived too richly just to have us die.” In my youth I was exposed to Latvian dainas and folk songs, proverbs, riddles, legends, tales, poetry, music, and art. In spite of never-ending hardship, our ancestors led a rich spiritual life and left us a precious cultural legacy. My time in Latvia opened my eyes to its deep history, often dark and brutal, which we must preserve and work to unsnarl. It is hard to quench a spiritual fire. It burns in even the darkest of times.
Header image – The author and her “bestie” Laura, a Latvian-American, at the New York Public Library in 1977
Rita Laima is a Latvian-American writer, translator, and artist. A mother of four children, she lives in Maryland with her partner. Her memoir of life in Soviet-occupied Latvia will be published in 2017.
© Deep Baltic 2016. All rights reserved.
Like what Deep Baltic does? Please consider making a monthly donation – help support our writers and in-depth coverage of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Find out more at our Patreon page.