Someone once said that understanding another person’s nationalism is almost impossible. This is especially true on national days, when the fireworks, parades and pomp all serve to make foreigners feel unwelcome.
This is because an event where a particular group celebrates its unique virtues and achievements is, in effect, telling outsiders to get lost. And because the outsider has few shared experiences with the revelers, he or she may wonder what all the fuss is about.
Others may even feel offended by all the jubilation—many Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians think the "discovery" of their countries by whites is something to cry, rather than sing, about.
Every Nov. 18, Latvians celebrate their independence day. Officially, this commemorates the occasion in 1918 when a group of patriots declared Latvia free of Russia after centuries of foreign domination. But foreign observers, and a few local skeptics, may wonder why this is relevant today. After all, Latvia is a small, almost unknown piece of real estate in an off-Broadway part of Europe. Most of its people struggle to get by, while the political elite seems more interested in making itself rich. With almost half its population composed of non-Latvians, it is uncertain that there will even be a Latvia in a few decades.
All of these criticisms are valid comments about a country with plenty of problems. However, scratching the surface a little reveals that there are good reasons for Latvians to give a rousing cheer on Nov. 18. And beyond the patriotic emotions that will stir in local hearts, the fact of this small nation being independent is something positive for the rest of the world as well.
For a start, some comparisons show that what appear to be problems today are actually vast improvements on how things were in the old days. Just 10 years ago, shops were empty, people were hungry and an air of gray depression permeated every corner of life. A system that punished truth-telling ensured that corruption and environmental devastation were hidden. And because lying was a requirement for living a peaceful life, many people ended up psychologically damaged.
Today, Latvia is a country with a functioning market economy, a free press and democratically elected political institutions. Unlike, for example, the former East Germany (or for that matter Western Europe which after World War II got billions of dollars in aid), Latvians have created their new society with only a modest amount of foreign help. The successes are mostly down to their own hard work and willingness to change.
Similarly, what appears to be a serious problem with its ethnic minorities is actually a triumph considering the difficulties that have been overcome. Ten years ago, with the population split almost 50-50 between Latvians and Russian speakers, with agonizing political and economic change looming, who would have imagined the peaceful co-existence that characterizes Latvia today?
Apart from Nov. 18, patriotic feelings are unleashed the most at the world ice hockey championships held every spring. This year, an inspired win over Russia by the Latvian team saw thousands of young people singing and dancing in the streets of Rīga, decked out in maroon and white scarves, jerseys and face paint. But while everyone enjoyed this victory over the "old enemy," the fans cheered just as hard for the team members who are of Russian or Ukrainian descent as they did for the Latvians. And plenty of ethnic minority members in Riga joined the celebrations, too.
And every Nov. 18, increasing numbers of Russian speakers gather to enjoy the big fireworks display over the Daugava River in Rīga. Increasingly, ethnic minorities are learning the Latvian language and feeling far more at home in, and loyal toward, Latvia, than to their original countries. Latvians who were antagonistic toward these minorities, who mostly settled during the Soviet occupation, have come to accept that they will not be leaving, and that constructive dialogue is the way forward.
To have achieved such peaceful cohabitation despite severe economic difficulties and rapid change is admirable. To nurture a sense of common nationhood between the various groups, something which seems to be slowly happening, is a great achievement that can serve as a lesson to the world.
Of course, Latvia is not an island either physically or politically. The next few years are going to see it surrender a lot of sovereignty, voluntarily this time, to the European Union and NATO. A shrinking world means that English is increasingly spoken, and Latvian teenagers know as many techno tunes as they do folk songs.
But in the midst of this, there is reason to be grateful that there are still small nations around. If biodiversity is the key to keeping the planet ecologically healthy, then cultural diversity is what keeps the human spirit alive—and makes life a lot more interesting.
The Latvian language is both ancient and beautiful, the tongue of one of the world’s richest folklore traditions. The architecture of Riga and other cities is a mixture of styles from a variety of nations and eras that is unique in Europe. In the years to come, Latvians are going to draw on deep traditions of folk art, and a highly developed aesthetic sense, to have a serious impact on world fashion, design and marketing.
All of this is worth preserving—and celebrating.
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