Imagining the Nation: History, Modernity, and Revolution in Latvia

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Every epoch produces its own notions of social change, and the post-Communist societies of East Europe are no exception. Imagining the Nation explores the fate of contemporary Latvia, a small country with a big story that is relevant for anyone wishing to better understand the nature of post-Communist transitions.

As Latvia and other former Soviet-bloc countries seek to rebuild and transform their societies, what is the central dynamic at work? In Imagining the Nation, Daina ...

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Overview

Every epoch produces its own notions of social change, and the post-Communist societies of East Europe are no exception. Imagining the Nation explores the fate of contemporary Latvia, a small country with a big story that is relevant for anyone wishing to better understand the nature of post-Communist transitions.

As Latvia and other former Soviet-bloc countries seek to rebuild and transform their societies, what is the central dynamic at work? In Imagining the Nation, Daina Stukuls Eglitis finds that in virtually all aspects of life the guiding sentiment among Latvians has been a desire for normality in the wake of the "deformations" that marked the half-century of Soviet rule. In seeking to return to normality, many people look to the West for models; others look back in time to the period of Latvian independence from 1918 to 1940 before the years of Soviet domination. Ultimately, the changes in Latvia and other East European countries are closely tied to a vital reimagining of the past, as the logic of progress long associated with "revolution" is amalgamated with nostalgia for what is gone. The radiant utopias of revolution give way to widely shared aspirations for a return to the normal in politics, place names, private property, and even gender relations.

Eglitis draws upon published and unpublished documents, campaign posters, maps, and monuments, as well as interviews with Latvians from all walks of life. The resulting picture of life in contemporary Latvia offers fresh perspective on a dilemma facing millions throughout the post-Communist world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This book makes a significant, groundbreaking contribution to the study of Soviet and post-Soviet societies.”

—Walter C. Clemens, Jr., Slavic Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271022031
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Series: Post-Communist Cultural Studies
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Daina Eglitis is Assistant Professor of Sociology at George Washington University.

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Imagining the Nation

History, Modernity, and Revolution in Latvia


By Diana Stukuls Eglitis

The Pennsylvania State University Press

Copyright © 2002 The Pennsylvania State University.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-271-02203-5


(Re) Constructing Normality in Post-Communism

Eighteen years ago on this day A boat came ashore on the Daugava. Out of the boat climbed an honorable old man, Holding in his arms a tiny boy, With a youthful gait he strode to the castle And brought me this fateful tiding: This small boy take as your son, Raise him as your heir.

An honorable old man was Vaidelots And he said: he found in the depths of the woods This odd human child Suckling at the milky breasts of a mother bear. He said the boy was fated by the gods To become in time a hero of the nation, Before whose word alone would tremble All future persecutors of the nation!

—Lielvardis, adopted father of the Bearslayer

The Bearslayer: Myth, Memory, and Modernization

The Bearslayer (Lacplesis) is a mythic hero of ancient Latvian lore, whose story was put to paper by Latvia's first epic poet, Andrejs Pumpurs, in 1888. The epic integrates many of the themes that dominate both Latvian literature andhistory in the twentieth century: an ambivalence and distrust toward Christian religion, which is imported rather than indigenous; a devotion to nature and the natural world; a central place for song in the maintenance and protection of the nation; a fierce desire to defend the nation from subjugation by outsiders; and a veneration of the countryside, particularly in contrast to a suspicion about the big city, which is perceived to be the product and haven of outsiders.

Though the Bearslayer is not linked to Christian religion, he is a quasi-religious figure. The Bearslayer is reminded at points in the story that his I Mother Latvia represented on the Freedom Monument in downtown Riga fate is to fight and sacrifice for his nation, another strand of the religious theme, though the "religion" is the nation rather than Christianity. He is also, like the figure of Christ, a man unlike others: born of a mother bear, he inherited a bear's strength and a bear's ears, which are the locus of his strength. When he falls in battle with the enemy, the nation awaits his resurrection from the depths of the Daugava River. From the beginning of the story, when the Bearslayer earns his name by killing a bear who attacks his adopted father, he demonstrates his heroism and strength in the service of others.

Though the original Bearslayer epic was published in 1888 and a play by the Latvian writer Janis Rainis, Fire and Night, based on the story, appeared in 1905, the hero is still relevant in the twenty-first century. Indeed, representations of the Bearslayer abound, particularly in Riga (which, ironically, did not occupy a place of great favor in Pumpurs's epic): there one can stroll down Lacplesis Street, drink a Lacplesis beer, and examine the figure of the Bearslayer on the south side of the Freedom Monument. In the interwar period (1918-1940), the Lacplesis Order was a military decoration of highest regard. This award has been renewed in the post-Communist period. In 1988, fully one hundred years after Pumpurs's epic appeared, the rock opera Lacplesis opened to great acclaim, and a physical representation, Karlis Jansons's interwar statue of the Bearslayer, broken and decapitated, was unearthed in the city of Jelgava after decades beneath the soil. Dainis Ivans, an important figure in the opposition movement of the late 1980s, wrote of the statue: "With flowers in place of his severed head, without legs, but with the handle of the sword in his hand, with strength in his muscles and heart, which had survived destruction, he spoke to an unthinkable wonder of resurrection." Ivans, in fact, called 1988 "the year of the Bearslayer." That same year, on Lacplesa diena (Bearslayer Day, November 11), the interwar Latvian flag was raised over Riga Castle for the first time since the Soviet occupation. During the demonstrations of the period of opposition, signs could be seen in crowds calling for the removal of kangari from posts of power: the word comes from a character in the epic, Kangars, who betrays his nation for personal gain.

As Pumpurs's epic comes to a close, the Bearslayer and the Dark Knight, a mythical soldier in the army of Bishop Alberts from the German lands, are locked in battle at the edge of the Daugava. Seeking to deprive him of his strength, the Dark Knight severs the hero's ears with his sword. As they struggle, the Bearslayer and his nemesis tumble into the river. The Bearslayer, however, is not dead "to his nation." He continues his epic battle to overcome the Dark Knight beneath the "mourning river waves." The story ends unfinished, and the fate of the nation that the Bearslayer both protects and represents is uncertain:

From time to time the sailors, Traveling the Daugava, See two men at midnight Battling on the steep shore; At that moment, in the ruins of the castle, A dim light is reflected, Two men locked in battle Reach the very shore, Until from that shore they finally ramble into the water's depths; A woeful scream echoes from the castle, The light is extinguished— That is the Bearslayer that struggles With the enemy still,— Laimdota looks from the castle, And waits for the victory.The sailors believe, that someday The Bearslayer will Hurl down his enemy alone, drowning him in the whirlpool. Then a new time will arrive for the nation, Then it will be free!

In 1986, the Daugava again became the site of a struggle that, while not itself of epic proportions, was a catalyst in the mass Latvian mobilization against Soviet power, which ended in the defeat of the Soviet regime in Latvia and arguably contributed to the collapse of the empire itself, an epic conclusion to be sure. The struggle began with an article in the progressive weekly newspaper Literatura un maksla (Literature and art): the piece, written by the journalist Dainis Ivans and the engineer Arturs Snips, was a critique of Soviet plans to build a hydroelectric station (HES) on the Daugava River in southeastern Latvia. The writers deplored the lack of expertise and bureaucratic incompetence of those responsible for the project, suggesting that the damming of the Daugava would flood the surrounding arable land and forests and worsen pollution problems. The writers also invoked the spirit of Latvian national consciousness, reiterating the significance of the Daugava in Latvian culture, and writing that "we cannot allow technicians to determine single-handedly the future of our common home, our river of destiny." The protection of the Daugava also finds echoes in the epic of the Bearslayer, in which the genesis of the river is described: in the story, the Daugava is dug by the creatures—birds and animals—on the order of the god of thunder. Though the devil tries to reroute the river into a bottomless pit, the river is saved by the intervention of thunder, who drives the devil away.

In the weeks following the publication of the article on the Daugavpils HES, letters beating more than thirty thousand signatures in defense of the Daugava poured into the offices of Literatura un maksla. The authors of the piece also received letters, a handful of which Ivans quoted in his book: "I think that I could not live if the campaign to stop the construction of the HES failed. None of my personal problems have hurt as does the fate of the Daugava," and "I was anguished, I thought that the nation had fully lost its self-respect and any rights to defend the Daugava. I too am gathering signatures for its protection, though it is sometimes difficult to bear this hopeless road." Ivans and Snips were invited across the country to make their case against the HES. While the public responded with letters and meetings, the Latvian Council of Ministers responded by creating a commission to study the Daugavpils HES project. In January 1987, the commission returned a negative evaluation of the project, questioning its economic and ecological feasibility. In November of the same year, the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) Council of Ministers, noting that the impact on the ecosystem had been improperly assessed, halted construction of the Daugavpils HES.

The power of the issue of the Daugavpils HES to mobilize a hitherto politically passive population in a context that was still far from risk free for those who challenged the regime highlights one of the paradoxes that colored social change in Latvia. On the one hand, the mobilization around the issue marked the genesis of an independent and expanded civil society and the assertion of civic power. On the other hand, it also highlighted the power of the nation and culture in shaping the civic project, for a significant part of the mobilizational power of the issue lay in its relationship to precisely those two elements. That the Daugava was not just a river, but a national icon, was understood by those who initiated the campaign as well: in a 1991 interview, Ivans commented: "At the time that I wrote about the building of the Daugavpils HES, [about] the permanence of the catastrophic consequences [of this], I understood that this problem is political and that it touched my homeland's economics, history, culture."

The period of mass opposition in Latvia, which lasted from the mobilization around the Daugavpils HES issue through the achievement of independence in August 1991, was a dramatic demonstration of the population's desire for fundamental change. From the protests of thousands of Latvians for the historical recognition of events like the Soviet deportations of 1940, to the Baltic Way, a human chain of pro-independence demonstrators that stretched from Tallinn, Estonia, through Latvia, to Vilnius, Lithuania, the sentiment in favor of a radical break from the Soviet order reached through the populations of these states.

Like the break with the USSR, Latvia's illegal annexation into the Soviet Union in 1940 had, at least initially, taken place with little bloodshed. After two decades of independence, the first period of statehood in its history, in 1939 the USSR presented Latvia with an ultimatum demanding that Latvia's government permit the Soviet army to base troops on Latvian soil, ostensibly for the purpose of mutual protection. Following in the path of Estonia, the Latvian government agreed to the terms. By this time, Russia and Germany had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The agreement contained a secret protocol that provided for the division of the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania) and Poland between the signatories: Latvia, together with Estonia and later Lithuania, was to go to the USSR, and, in June 1940, it did. In the middle of that month, the Soviet government presented the Baltic states with demands that they submit to the transformation of their governments as stipulated by the Soviets. It must have been relatively clear that the intention of this transformation was to pull the Baltic states decisively into the Soviet sphere: on July 2, 1940, Soviet Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov indicated to the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs that he "must finally confront reality and understand that all the small states will have to disappear." Molotov continued that "your Lithuania, and the other Baltic states ... will have to be incorporated into the glorious family of Soviet Republics. Consequently, you should from now on prepare the Lithuanian people for the introduction of the Soviet system, which will sooner or later prevail in all of Europe."

Fearing that resistance would be futile, particularly with thousands of Soviet troops already on their soil as the result of earlier pacts providing for the USSR's establishment of military bases on Baltic territory, the governments capitulated. In July the new governments, elected from a single slate of Communist candidates by voters compelled to participate in the balloting, requested "admission" to the USSR, decisively ending the independent existence of the Baltics. By this point, rivers of blood poured from the heart of the Baltic states, as the Soviets sought to brutalize the population into submission with arrests, deportations, and killings. By some estimates, during this "year of terror" (baigais gads), which stretched from mid-1940 through mid-1941, Latvia lost more than 40,000 inhabitants to deportations and executions. Toward the end of this period, from June 15 through June 27, 1941, eight hundred twenty-four cattle wagons packed well beyond capacity with about 15,600 people left Latvia by rail for the Russian interior.

The end of independent existence in 1940 did not end the widely shared desire of indigenous populations for self-determination, a desire that remained vital fully half a century after occupation. The ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the USSR in 1985 signaled the beginning of a process that would open the doors to the manifestation of the desire of the Baltic populations (and others) for fundamental change in the social order.

What happened in this region of the world has been called revolution in both popular and theoretical literature, though the term is often paired with adjectives like "velvet" and "gentle." In the Baltics, the events are popularly called the singing revolutions. Although they had powerful domestic and international effects like earlier revolutions, these qualifying adjectives suggest that the events that transpired in the Eastern European and Soviet space were not revolutions in the style of the great revolutions: they were largely without both the utopias and the violence that permeated earlier revolutions, like those in Russia and France.

Furthermore, there was not a particular ideological model for the construction of society in the wake of the death of the old order, aside from the often-repeated but vague aspirations for an open society, democracy, markets, civil society, and, more generally, "normality." Part of the challenge of post-Communist societies, then, was not just to realize the institution of a new social order, but to construct models of what that social order should be and to endow that social order with meaning. This point is nicely highlighted by the editors of a history volume on the periods of opposition and early independence in Latvia:

In this period [1991-93], Latvia had again become an independent country with an internationally recognized government. It turned out, however, that Latvian society was not ready to turn this freedom, for which it had fought actively for many years and gained suddenly, into goal-oriented practice and constructive politics. In other words, when the outer "shell" of independence was to be filled with appropriate practical content, it became obvious that the "legacy" of the Soviet period—the institutional system of government, basic social values, political self-understanding, governing skills, and political culture—did not meet the needs of the new situation. During this time, there was a clash of different, more or less contrasting, opinions, and only gradually did views crystallize on the goals toward which the renewed Latvia should move in terms of building the country's system of government, economy, and society and constructing the orientation of its foreign policy.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Imagining the Nation by Diana Stukuls Eglitis. Copyright © 2002 by The Pennsylvania State University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
List of Illustrations
1 (Re)Constructing Normality in post-Communism 1
2 From Opposition to Independence: Social Movements in Latvia, 1986-1991 22
3 Normalizing Politics and Politicizing Normality 63
4 Transforming Boundaries: Space, Place, and Normality 129
5 (Re)Constructing Gender in Post-Communism 186
6 Transformation and Normalization: A Conclusion to the Study 225
Notes 235
Bibliography 251
Index 259
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