The growing importance of Latvia’s Occupation Museum

When the Occupation Museum was established 20 years ago, most people in Latvia and even more abroad assumed that it was a short-term measure, a way for the people of Latvia who had suffered so much under the Soviet occupation to remember and unite. 

But in fact, the Occupation Museum is more important now than it was when it was established, and it will be more important 20 years from now than it is today. There are three reasons for what may seem to some a counter-intuitive conclusion.

Today, 20 years later, the share of the population of Latvia that can remember the Soviet past on the basis of direct personal experience is much smaller. Few under 30 can recall what it was like, and even those a little older have few memories of the very worst times of the occupation.

Indeed, it is probably the case that the share of Latvians who can remember personally is now only about 60 percent, a significant share but one far smaller than a generation ago. That makes the Museum even more important now than it was when it was created because almost four out of ten Latvians is at risk of forgetting

First, there has been generational change. When the museum was opened, perhaps 95 percent of the Latvian population had personal memories about what the Soviet Union did when it illegally occupied Latvia and remained its illegitimate ruler for nearly 50 years. They did not need to be told by anyone about much that had happened although even they did not know the full extent of the horrors of those years. And they certainly needed a place where they could come together and remember. That is what the Occupation Museum meant for them at that time.

If we look out 20 more years, to 2033, the situation will be even worse. Then, the share of Latvians who will have a living memory of the horrors of the occupation will be smaller still, perhaps no more than 20 percent.  Unless there is a place like the Occupation Museum to focus the attention of all the people of Latvia and the world, it will be difficult if not impossible to keep the memory of what is a central fact of life for the nation.

Already too many Latvians have forgotten that unless they maintain the principle of state continuity from 1920, their current and future status is at great risk.  Many Latvian laws would be illegitimate if the population were to decide that Latvia did not continue under the occupation but was re-created in 1991.  That is why the non-recognition policy of the United States and other Western countries not only was but is of continuing and indeed growing importance.

Second, there has been a geopolitical change.  In 1993, when the Occupation Museum was created, the president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, was supporter of the independence of Latvia having signed an agreement recognizing Latvia’s rights in that regard on January 13, 1991; and the West was intensely interested in integrating Latvia and her two Baltic neighbors into institutions like NATO and the European Union.  As a result, Latvia was in a remarkably privileged position, something it had not been in before.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically.  Russia is headed by a man who regrets the end of the Soviet Union and who has defended Stalin’s actions against Finland and the Baltic countries, and the West, having gone through an “end of history” moment, appears to feel that Latvia and her neighbors have now received all they deserve and do not need the kind of attention and support they were given earlier.  That is not a happy situation for Latvia to be in, and the Occupation Museum is a reminder of exactly why.

No one can predict the geopolitics of 2033, but the likelihood is that Latvia will face even more challenges from a decaying but revisionist Moscow-centric state and that it will have to do so with even less support from the West than it has now. That is not a necessary outcome, but it is critically important that Latvians understand the risk so that they can act in ways that will allow history to proceed in another direction. The Occupation Museum is a critical adjunct for this effort.

And third, and this is far and away the most important, there is a growing mankurtization of Latvia.  The term may be unfamiliar to some, but the phenomenon is all too real. In his classic novel, “A Day Longer than an Age,” Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov talks about mankurts, a special class of slaves who are created when their conquerors deprive them of their memories about the past. Without such memories, he says, whole nations just like individuals cannot have a future because without a clear understanding of their pasts, they are condemned to live in an eternal present. In that situation, they cease to be who they were and are easily controlled by others.

The explosive growth of the mass media and international communications has had many positive consequences, but it has undermined traditional identities. At the very least, it has transformed them.  And nowhere is this danger greater than in Latvia. One of Latvia’s greatest strengths, its welcoming attitude and openness to others, is becoming its greatest weakness, as these others exploit that openness to change what it means to be Latvian in ways that subvert the nation and allow others to dominate it.

Twenty years ago, that did not seem to be an immediate risk. Now, however, it is so obvious that no one concerned about Latvia and Latvians can afford to ignore. And 20 years from now, unless major step are taken to protect and defend the national memory, the situation will be even worse. The Occupation Museum represents one of the most important of these, and I am delighted to add my words of praise to an institution that is only growing in importance with each passing year.