Toronto: Capital of the Latvian exile community

In Latvian terms, Toronto and the surrounding area is big. Even almost 15 years after the restoration of Latvia’s independence and the downsizing evident in so many communities in the Latvian diaspora, the size and activity of the Toronto community is impressive.

Check out the events calendar in Toronto Ziņas ( and there will hardly be a weekend when a special event isn’t happening. Then there’s the stuff you don’t see.

Centrs is the centre

Life in the Toronto Latvian community revolves around “Centrs,” or the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre as it is officially called. Centrs is a sprawling complex purchased in 1979 for more than CAD 6 million and is the largest such Latvian facility in the West. It houses one of the largest Latvian libraries outside of Latvia, a children’s library, a playground, a book store, the Toronto Latvian Credit Union (with assets of more than CAD 39 million), classrooms, rooms for use by scouts and guides, a restaurant and bar called Umurkumurs (serving beer from Latvia), a number of Latvian fraternity and sorority rooms, offices of the Latvian National Federation in Canada, and—since the older and much smaller Daugavas Vanagu house was sold—offices of the weekly newspaper Latvija Amerikā and the veterans and relief organization Daugavas Vanagi. Chef Ingo Karkliņš heads acclaimed catering crew. They prepare food for the many Latvian and non-Latvian individuals and groups who rent facilities at the centre. Sunday morning brunches are popular throughout the fall and winter season. Attendance rarely dips below 100.

The large hall at Centrs can hold more than 300 people and has hosted many a Latvian politician since the Third Awakening in Latvia, as well as banquets for presidents Guntis Ulmanis and Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who lived and studied in Toronto before moving to Montreal.

The fate of the older Latviešu Nams (Latvian House) in downtown Toronto is still up in the air and could be sold. It is home to one of two Latvian pensioner groups and the Toronto Latvian High School.

Four Latvian congregations can be found in Toronto, five if you count the Dievturi, followers of pre-Christian Latvian mythology. The two largest congregations are the Lutheran St. John’s and St. Andrew’s parishes, each with approximately 1,000 members. The much smaller Austrumu parish has less than 200 members. The Catholic congregation is even smaller. St. John’s is served by Dean Fritz Kristbergs. He is helped by the Rev. Anita Gaide, who also serves the Austrumu congregation. The Rev. Ilze Kuplena-Ewart is resident at St. Andrew’s.

Both St. John’s and St. Andrew’s congregations have their own churches. St. John’s church is modernist and located in a prestigious residential area of mid-Toronto. St. Andrew’s shares a historic church in downtown Toronto with an Estonian congregation.

All four congregations have country properties. The two largest are Sidrabene (St. Andrew’s), near Milton 45 minutes west of Toronto, and Saulaine (St. John’s), near Barrie an hour north of Toronto. Both host summer camps for children and are home to dozens of cottagers. Some live in Saulaine year round. The Austrumu congregation has a smaller property, Tālava, near Saulaine, while the Catholics head up to Mežciems farther north near Bracebridge. Come Jāņi, the midsummer festival, many Toronto-area Latvians head to these properties to celebrate.

Three Latvian heritage language schools operate in Toronto. Two of them are elementary schools. The Toronto Latvian School Valodiņa holds classes on Friday nights while the Toronto Latvian Society Saturday School (known just as Sestdienas skola) convenes, of course, on Saturday mornings. Although the numbers are down and Latvian language skills are weaker than in earlier years, between the two they have more than 100 students. Both use facilities at the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre. The Toronto Latvian Folk High School with 30 students meets on Friday nights at Latviešu Nams.

The cultural scene

On the cultural scene, the Toronto Latvian community includes the Toronto Latviešu Biedrība, the artists’ collective LATVIS, the artisans “Daiļamatnieku savienība,” and the folk dance groups Diždancis, led for many years by Zigurds Miezītis, and Daugaviņa, as well as the offshoots Dižais Dancis for older dancers and Mēnestiņš. Choirs include Dzirksts, directed by Vizma Maksiņa; Zīle, directed by Arvīds Purvs directing; ensembles from St. John’s and St. Andrew’s churches, and Daugavas Vanagi men’s choir. The Toronto Latvian Concert Association has for many years offered classical concerts which in recent years have featured artists from Latvia. Notable Toronto area writers, all women, include Indra Gubiņa, Ingrīda Vīksne, Velta Toma and Aina Zemdega. Linda Maruta Kronbergs and Maia Ķuze are visible in the local contemporary music scene.

Toronto has been home to all 12 Canadian Latvian Song Festivals. The first one was held in 1953 while the most recent one was held in 2004 and included the debut of “Eslingena,” a popular musical set in a post-war Displaced Persons camp. A large portion of the cast was from the Toronto area. The next song festival in 2008 however, will be held in Hamilton, 70 kilometers southwest of Toronto. In earlier years, the Latvian community participated in Caravan, hosting a pavilion in the heyday of this popular multicultural festival.

In a rural setting near Woodbridge is Kristus Dārzs, an old age home and long-term care facility with 100 beds. Most residents are Latvian but the facility has had difficulty filling staff positions with Latvians. Canadian immigration and labour laws have prevented Kristus Dārzs from bringing qualified staff from Latvia.

Toronto area Latvians who have gained wider prominence in Canada include composer Tālivaldis Keniņš; pianist Arturs Ozoliņš; Olgerts Kupcis, former president of Ontario Hydro, one of the largest public utility companies in the world; E. N. Legdziņš, chief operating officer of First Canadian Funds; Brunis Rubess, former president of Volkswagen Canada; Georgs Benjamins, founder of the now defunct Benjamin Film Labs; Rhodes scholars Baņuta Rubesa and Zinta Zommere; hockey author Andrew Podnieks; landscape photographer Jānis Kraulis; Ivars Tauriņš, founder and director of Tafelmusik Chamber Choir; music critic John Tērauds; freelance writers Kaspars Dzegūze and Māra Gulēns (also editor of Toronto Ziņas), and radio news commentator Dzintars Cers. The numerous Latvian professors in Toronto-area universities include Rhodes scholar and historian Modris Ekšteins. He is the author of the critically acclaimed books Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age and Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Birth of the Modern Age.

In 1997, lawyer Sarmīte Bulte was the first Latvian elected to Canada’s House of Commons as a Liberal member of Parliament for the Toronto riding of Parkdale–High Park. She was re-elected in 2000 and 2004 but was defeated in the January 2006 federal elections as the Liberal Party lost power to the Conservatives. A high profile woman in the Liberal Caucus, Sam, as she is known by her colleagues, was parliamentary secretary to both the Minister of Industry (for Women Entrepreneurs) and the Minister of Canadian Heritage as well as the chair of the Ontario Liberal Caucus.

On the culinary scene, entrepreneur Ojārs Kness-Knezinskis is owner of Ein-Stein, a popular downtown pub catering to University of Toronto students. It is a popular hangout for younger Latvians. Andris Grīnbergs is the current owner of Kristapsons. His smoked salmon is rated highly by local food critics. Toronto resident Mārtiņš Vagners runs what is arguably Canada’s smallest winery, Dom Vagners, as a hobby. It is located in one of Ontario’s wine-producing regions near the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Arrival in Canada

The bulk of Latvians in Canada and the Toronto area arrived from Displaced Person camps in Germany after World War II. The 1941 census lists 975 Canadians of Latvian descent. Toronto was home of Honourary Consul R.N. Bryson, who hosted Latvian Independence Day ceremonies attended by a handful of so-called “Old Latvian” families who had emigrated from Latvia prior to the war. They helped the first post-war “DPs” settle in.

By 2001, according to Statistics Canada, the number of Latvians in Canada was 22,615 (including 13,730 who listed multiple ethnic backgrounds) although only 4,750 listed Latvian as the language spoken most commonly at home. Of those, 14,575 lived in Ontario and 7,870 were concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area or Metropolitan Toronto with another 570 in nearby Oshawa. An additional 1,230 lived in Hamilton, the second largest Latvian community in Canada, whose members often attend Toronto events less than an hour’s drive away. The next largest Latvian community in Ontario is in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, with 835 Latvians living 450 kilometers northeast of Toronto. Congregations in both communities own churches and the Hamilton Latvian Society has a Latvian House. Smaller Latvian communities in southern Ontario include Kitchener-Waterloo, London and St. Catherines, but their numbers are shrinking.

Most post-war Latvian refugees arrived in Canada by ship in Halifax at Pier 21, Canada’s Ellis Island. Most then traveled by train to Ontario where they were contracted as farm labourers, household servants, lumberjacks and hospital workers. Others went to northern Ontario and Québec mining communities in Rouyn-Noranda, Timmins, Kapuskasing and mill towns Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury. After completing their contracts, many moved to Toronto where a number found construction jobs in its booming economy. Toronto continued to attract Latvian immigrants from Europe well into the late 1950s. Some migrated from Montréal in the 1960s as separatist sentiment and violence in Québec left many uneasy.

The foundations of the Latvian community in Toronto were laid in the 1950s as congregations and various organizations were established. The community boomed, the immigrants bought houses, gained a measure of affluence and their children, a new generation of post-war émigré baby boomers grew up swelling the ranks of Latvian schools, summer camps and confirmation classes.

Culture wars

In the mid- to late-1970s the peace and quiet of the Toronto community was shattered by the so-called “kultūras sakaru” question. A younger group of professionals challenged the “better dead than red” mentality of the establishment led by the Daugavas Vanagi and the Latvian National Federation in Canada (Latviešu nacionālā apvienība Kanādā, or LNAK), which was headed by its long-term president Tālivaldis Kronbergs. They started traveling to Soviet-occupied Latvia and maneuvered around the KGB to open up links with Latvia’s cultural intelligentsia. Five Toronto area activists led by Guntis Liepiņš formed Dardedze. They hosted artists and musicians from Latvia and showed films produced in Latvia.

The ensuing battles were fierce and included vitriolic attacks in the Latvian media, anonymous middle-of-the-night telephone calls and heated debates in public forums and fraternal organizations. The schism sparked the creation of the Latvian Arts Trust Society (LATS), which sponsored alternative cultural programs, and the Toronto Latvian School Valodiņa, which provided an alternative to Sestdienas skola, whose teaching and curriculum at that time were rooted in pre-war Latvia. Unlike other Latvian colonies, Toronto’s was big enough to support what almost amounted to two communities.

The wars carried on with the establishment of the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre. The need to find an alternative to the cramped quarters of the Latvian House was identified by LNAK as early as 1974. The new initiative was headed by Valdis Liepiņš and others who were either active kultūras sakarnieki or sympathetic to them. As a result, the move by the community to spacious quarters for many took on ideological undertones.

Toronto joins independence struggle

Latvia’s Third Awakening in the late 1980s interrupted Toronto’s tribal feuds as attention shifted to the homeland and supporting the restoration of Latvia’s independence. Ironically, both sides played a key role and ended up working together.

The LNAK under its political leaders Tālivaldis Kronbergs, Linards Lukss, Pēteris Vasariņš and Elma Mināte had cultivated political contacts in Ottawa, ensuring that the government of Canada continued to refuse to recognize the illegal occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union. In the mid-1980s, their campaign shifted to human rights and the observation of the Helsinki Accords. By the late 1980s a new generation of post-war activists and successful, media-savvy and politically connected professionals took over. They included Guntis Siliņš, Alberts Upeslācis, Viesturs Zariņš (author of this article), Jānis Eichmanis, Pēteris Brauns in Ottawa and Roberts Dambergs in Halifax. They worked the media and ensured that doors in Ottawa and provincial capitals were kept open. Most worked closely with Valdis Liepiņš, Voldemārs Gulēns and other kultūras sakarnieķi who founded the Toronto support group for the Latvian Popular Front (Latvijas Tautas fronte, or LTF) and had built up close contacts with Latvia’s cultural figures and intelligentsia who had moved into leadership positions in the drive for independence.

In April 1989 the Toronto support group sponsored and organized a three-day summit on the shores of the frozen St. Lawrence River in Gananoque, three hours east of Toronto. It was attended by 23 leaders of the LTF from Latvia and 100 activists from North America, including several from LNAK. The summit hammered out further Popular Front strategies and solidified support from groups in North America. It paved the path for a series of high-level visits from the provisional leadership in Latvia to Canada and meetings with the Canadian government and media.

On January 22, 2001, a day after Soviet OMON troops attacked the Ministry of the Interior in Rīga and killed five, Latvian Vice President Dainis Ivāns, who happened to be in Washington, D.C., was flown into Ottawa and, accompanied by LNAK President Siliņš and political advisor Eichmanis, attended high-level meetings with Canadian government officials. That night Canada’s parliament called an emergency session on the Baltic question and after three hours of all-party debate unanimously adopted sanctions against the Soviet Union. No other parliament in the world took such a decisive step.

In late August 2001 after the putsch in Moscow collapsed, Canada was one of the first countries to recognize the newly restored independence of the Baltic states. LNAK President Zariņš and Dambergs joined an official Canadian delegation headed by senior Cabinet Minister Michael Wilson on a whirlwind tour that took them to Vilnius, Rīga and Tallinn to witness signing of the renewal of diplomatic relations with Canada.

In the 1990s the Toronto community shifted its support for Latvia from the political realm to include broad-based humanitarian aid efforts, shipping a large number of containers with medical equipment, supplies, clothes and even food to Latvian hospitals, old-age homes, schools and orphanages. These efforts were lead by Alberts Upeslācis, Jānis Lūsis, Arvēds Celms, Bruno Logins, Inga Zariņš, Kaspars Tūters, Silvija Janušons and others.

Following Latvia’s renewal of independence, former LNAK President Siliņš moved to Ottawa and was appointed honourary consul general before Latvia established a full-time diplomatic mission. Eduards Upenieks served as honorary consul in Toronto during the 1970s and 1980s. Mārcis Ešmits filled that role between 2001-2003. He was followed by Imants Purvs.

Former LNAK activist Eichmanis became chief of staff to Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis after which he moved on to Latvia’s diplomatic service, first as counselor in Washington during Latvia’s drive to join the NATO defense alliance and then as ambassador in Athens. He was then appointed Latvia’s ambassador to NATO in Brussels.

A new phenomenon for the Toronto Latvian community is the influx of recent immigrants from Latvia. Said to number more than 200, they are predominantly young and include students and nannies as well as families. Among recent arrivals are women but only a few men who have married local Latvians or even Canadians. Some are visible and active in the Latvian community. Most tend to stay on the periphery. Their situation is not helped by many older Latvians who view the newcomers with distrust and question their motives coming to Canada. Immigrants from Latvia also include non-Latvians who become part of the Russian community in the Toronto area.

Today, like other Latvian communities in the West, Toronto is struggling to redefine itself to ensure that it can survive and continue to meet the needs of its members. Unlike other Latvian communities, its size and assets ensure that Toronto will be a viable community longer than others.


The cast of the musical “Eslingena” reprises the theme song at the end of a performance during the 2004 Latvian Song and Dance Festival in Canada. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

Visbiežāk dzirdamais vārds Rionovā – ‘bija’

Jaunavu biedrība

Jaunavu biedrība Rionovas latviešu kolonijā 1895.gadā.

Latvieši Brazīlijā ieceļojuši dažādos laikos un dažādu motīvu vadīti. Kaut arī pirmie jūras braucēji no Latvijas teritorijas apmeklēja Brazīliju jau hercoga Jēkaba laikos, par nopietnu izceļošanu uz Brazīliju kā kustību var runāt sākot ar 90. gadiem. Ne tikai latvieši šajā laikā pameta dzimteni un devās nezināmajā, cerot atrast sev labāku, brīvāku, pārtikušāku dzīvi. Eiropā notika lielas pārmaiņas – radās jauns saimniekošanas un dzīves veids.

Strauji auga iedzīvotāju skaits, attīstoties tehnikai, radās darbaspēka pārpalikums, kas savukārt veicināja migrāciju. Laikā no 1815-1915 Eiropu atstāja ap 50 miljonu cilvēku. Šīs norises skāra arī Baltiju. Jau 19. gs. 50. gados latvieši sāka izceļot uz Iekškrievijas guberņām cerībā iegūt savā īpašumā zemi. Daļa kolonistu, sevišķi Novgorodas un Ufas guberņā, tomēr nebija apmierināti un 90.gados pāremigrēja uz Brazīliju.

Par Brazīliju kā iespējamo latviešu izceļošanas vietu, kur īstenotos sensenais latvieša sapnis par zemi un brīvību, iestājās Kārlis Balodis (1864–1931), luterāņu mācītājs un vēlāk tautsaimnieks, un Pēteris Zālīte (1864–1939), filozofs. Viņi apceļoja Brazīliju 1888-1889 un latviešu avīzēs publicēja rakstus par lielo iespēju zemi Brazīliju – brīvu, auglīgu, mazapdzīvotu zemi ar siltu klimatu, izdevīgiem ieceļošanas noteikumiem, izklāstot pārdrošu plānu – visas latviešu tautas pārcelšanu uz Brazīliju. P.Zālīte 1890.gadā izdeva brošūru Brazīlija, sevišķi Dienvidus Brazīlija, kur pievilcīgās krāsās iztēloja dzīvi Santakatarīnas pavalstī. Liela loma latviešu izceļošanā bija Brazīlijas valdības aģentiem, kas vervēja izceļotājus visā Eiropā, solot tiem brīvu ceļu un zemi. Par tādu kļuva arī K.Balodis, Rīgā atvērot emigrācijas aģentūru, kaut arī viņam nebija izdevies panākt cerētos atvieglojumus no Brazīlijas valdības. Viņš brīdināja no apmešanās Sanpaulo provincē, jo bija vienojies ar Brazīlijas varas iestādēm par Santakatarīnas pavalsts kolonizēšanu:

Sao Paulo klimats ziemeļeiropiešiem vienmēr vēl par karstu; tiem tur nav iespējams ilgāku laiku grūti strādāt. Arī ar veselību nestāv nemaz tik labi; pērn karstajā laikā, piemēram, tur atgadījās dzeltenā drudža epidēmija, kas ne tik vien ostas pilsētā Santosā, bet arī tālāk par veselīgiem izdaudzinātos Sao Paulo kalnu līdzenumos nolaupīja daudz cilvēku dzīvības. Kampinas apkārtnē vien no 30 000 cilv. nomira 2000 ar dzelteno drudzi. Derīgas ziemeļeiropiešiem vienīgi Santa Katarinas un Rio Grande do Sul provinces, tāpēc ka tās jau vēsākas un veselīgākas; bet turp drīkstētu tik tāds doties, kam pašam tik daudz, ka var ieņemt koloniju; tur daudz lētāki zeme dabonama nekā Sao Paulā.

Interesanti, ka apmēram 15 gadus vēlāk cits latvietis Jānis Gūtmanis, Sanpaulo pavalsts kolonizācijas veicinātājs, aģitējis par apmešanos šajā pavalstī, norādot uz Santakarīnas pavalsts trūkumiem.

1890.g. 7.aprīlī K.Baloža vadībā ar kuģi no Rīgas uz Lībeku izbrauca pirmās 25 ģimenes (pārsvarā luterāņi, Rīgas cementa fabrikas strādnieki). Interesantas ir J.Iņķa 1898.g. laikrakstā Mājas Viesis publicētās atmiņas par izceļotājiem Rīgas ostā:

Pirmais izceļotāju bars, kurš uz vācu pasažieru tvaikoņa atrazdamies, jūsmīgi atvadījās no Daugavmalā stāvošā milzīgā ļaužu pulka, kungi ar gardibenām galvā un zelta pulksteņiem pie krūtīm, dāmas ar cimdiem un saules sardziņiem rokās, šis bars gan maz izskatījās pēc kolonistu biedrības, kas nolīdīs Brazīlijas mūža mežus.

Lībekā pēc pārsēšanās lielākā kuģī sākās mēnesi ilgs ceļojums pāri Atlantijas okeānam uz Lagunas ostu Santakatarinas pavalstī Brazīlijas dienvidos. No Lagunas uz Orleānu tikai nesen bija uzbūvēts dzelzceļš, bet nākamo ceļa posmu līdz izredzētai apmešanās vietai, Rionovas (tulk. no portugāļu valodas – Jaunupe) kolonijai, nācās mērot kājām.

Viens no pirmajiem kolonistiem, bijušais jūrnieks Jānis Zariņš, drīz pēc nākamo dzīves vietas sasniegšanas 1890.g. 7.augustā to jūsmīgi aprakstījis vēstulē draugam Ventspilī:

Bet šeitan, jaukajā dabas dārzā, baudi lielāko brīvību pilniem malkiem, netraucēts ne no kādas nepareizas varas. Tātad šimbrīžam esmu ļoti mierā ar savu tagadējo būšanu, jo blakus visam jaukumam un brīvībai, šeitan arī atrodās ļoti daudz vēl neattīstījušies bagātības avoši, kurus, ja tiem kādus tūkstošus naudas – un arī daudz maz enerģiskas darbības – pieliktu, varētu dēvēt par neizsmeļamiem, tātad tikai dūšīgi uz priekšu. Kā šim brīžam domāju, tad savu vērību vairāk gribu piegriezt zemkopībai un arī andelei, zināms, tikai ar kādām maz lietām, jo priekš plašāka uzsākuma trūkst tas – spožais. Par zemes nomaksu bēda ir tā mazākā, jo par 6 gadiem tak jau būs iespējams tos 400 rubļus aizmaksāt… No plēsīgiem zvēriem, čūskām un mežoņiem ne to mazāko vēl neesmu redzējis un, kā cerams, tad arī nedabūs redzēt, jo šejienes meži pa daļai jau ir apdzīvoti. Gan iegādāju dūšīgu plinti un revolveri, bet ar tiem neko vēl neesmu darījis, kaut gan tie stāv kā bruņiniekam pie gultas pakārti… Un, ja kādureiz arī Tev sāktu nepatikt Krievijas “pareizie uzskati”, un Tu būtu piekusis cīnoties uz bangojošo jūru, tad atminies savu draugu Dienvidus Amerikas jaukajos kalnos, kur censīgā valsts vēl ir tikai pumpurītī, kas jo īsā laikā var uzplaukt par rozi, pie kuras arī latviešu tauta kā spīdoša lapiņa varētu līdz daiļoties vēlākos laikos… Drīzumā šeit sagaidam nākam latvju mācītos dēlus – un arī labu daļu zemkopu – no Vitebskas guberņā aizgājušiem latviešiem. Šīs ziņas tikai, lūdzu, kur nevietā neizpaust, jo tā tiklab Tev, kā arī pārnācējiem varētu diezgan kaitēt.

Taču tikai pusgadu vēlāk, 1891.g. 26 februārī vēstules tonis ir mainījies:

Tagad mācos arī drusku portugāliski, gribu pētīt un pārliecināties, vai turpmāki arī ir latviešiem šurp nākt ieteicams. Šim brīžam, kam pasaules dzīve patīk, nedodu padomu šurp nākt, viss vēl ir ļoti maziņš, ļoti neattīstīts.

Daudzi kolonisti, arī vadoņi, tomēr drīz vien koloniju pameta. Rionovā palika tikai 4 ģimenes, to skaitā rīdzinieka baptista Jāņa Aruma ģimene. Viņš aicināja savas draudzes piederīgos uz Rionovu, atspēkojot negatīvos rakstus Latvijas presē par Brazīlijas dzīvi. 1891.g. jūlijā Rionovā ieradās nākamā ieceļotāju grupa (5 ģimenes – Frišenbrūderi, Malvesi, Oši, Bažuļi, Aleksandrs Grīnfelds), novembrī – Simsons un Neilands, bet decembrī vēl 25 ģimenes, lielākoties izbraucēji no Pārdaugavas un Daugavgrīvas baptistu draudzēm (Karpi, Kļaviņi, Bankoviči). 1892.g. Rionovas kolonijā dzīvojuši aptuveni 200–250 latviešu. Vieni iedzīvojās labāk, citi – mazāk veiksmīgi. Zināma nozīme ieceļošanas gadalaikam. Izdevīgākais laiks ieceļošanai Brazīlijā bija turienes rudens – aprīlis un maijs, kad uzreiz varēja ķerties pie līdumu sagatavošanas nākamā gada ražai. Viens no pirmajiem ieceļotājiem Juris Bankovičs, kas sasniedza Rionovu Ziemassvētkos, pašā Brazīlijas vasaras karstumā, teicis: “Labāki tur (Latvijā) būtu akmeni uz akmeņa krāvis, nekā braucis uz Brazīliju”. Taču pēc dažiem gadiem viņš priecājies, ka izvēlējies Brazīliju. Kopumā apstākļi mūža mežā izrādījās daudz smagāki nekā cerēts, neskatoties uz to, ka kolonijas valde pirmajā gadā pārtiku un pirmās nepieciešamības lietas deva par brīvu ar noteikumu, ka to atmaksās vēlāk. Daži tomēr bija sapratuši, ka par to atdot nevajadzēs, iedzīvojās lielos parādos, bet, nespēdami tos nomaksāt, slepus koloniju atstāja. Sākuma grūtības laikrakstā Mājas Viesis labi aprakstījis 25 gadus vecais baptistu mācītājs J.Iņķis (vēlāk pazīstams kā viens no 20.gadu izceļošanas iedvesmotājiem), kurš 1897–1899 uzturējās Brazīlijas latviešu kolonijās. Laikraksta 1898.g. 4.novembra numurā Iņķis rakstīja:

Bet visgrūtākais mēdz būt maizes jautājums. Tas arī šeitan uzstājas ar visu savu nopietnību. Bez gada laika jaunie kolonisti no zemes nekādu augļu nevar saņemt. Tamdēļ maize jāpērk… Pārtikas vielas par dārgu vajadzēja likt pievest uz zirgēzeļu mugurām. Sapņotā paradīze nu bija pārvērtusies par nepanesamu moku vietu. Cietās kādu laiku, cietās, ir laidās prom jaunie kolonisti, uz kuru pusi katrs, cits atpakaļ uz tēviju, cits uz kādu no Brazīlijas pilsētām, atstādami uz vietas kādus retus, kuri aizceļot īstenībā nespēja, jebšu būtu arī gribējuši.

Tomēr 1947.gadā, jau pēc 2. izceļotāju viļņa 1920.gadu sākumā pārciestajām pirmo gadu briesmām Vārpas kolonijā, kas prasīja gandrīz 200 bērnu un vecāku cilvēku dzīvības, viņš pavisam citādi vērtējis rionoviešu apstākļus beigās:

Rionovas apstākļus, pat sākuma posmā, nedrīkstētu saukt par grūtiem. Tikai pāris kilometru atstatu no šaursliežu dzelzceļa piestātnes Orleānas, kura atrodas emigrantu pajumte un vairākas bodis, sākās paredzētais latviešu ciems: zaļoksnīgs mežs, auglīga zeme, dzidri ūdeņi, veselīgs gaiss. Kolonizācijas biedrība pārdod zemi par dzimtu, ļoti lēti, uz ilgākiem pēcmaksas termiņiem, turklāt aizdod uz parāda produktus pēc izvēles, ko un cik, pirmā gada pārtikai, lai mazturīgam ienācējam nebūtu jāiet maizi pelnīt, aizkavējot darbu savā paša jaunsaimniecībā. Aizdevums bez procentiem, ar atmaksu pēc vairākiem gadiem.

Par iespējām Brazīlijā nedaudz vēlāk sāka pastiprināti interesēties latvieši no Novgorodas guberņas. Viņus neatturēja arī tas, ka Brazīlijas valdība vairs neapmaksāja ceļa izdevumus, tādēļ daudzi bija spiesti tērēt līdzekļus, kas sākotnēji bija paredzēti jaunas dzīves uzsākšanai Brazīlijā. Vairums ieceļotāju no Krievijas guberņām neprata nevienu svešvalodu. “Pārbraukuši pār robežu Vācijā, tie bija tikpat ka mēmi”, rakstīja J.Iņķis. “Novgorodas kolonisti bija stipra cilts, norūdīti ļaudis, kas grūtībām ceļa negrieza un pirmajiem pionieriem, rīdzeniekiem, ne ar ko nepalika pakaļ ne laicīgi, ne garīgi.”

Saimnieciskā dzīve Rionovā pamazām tomēr nokārtojās. Jau sākuma laikā latviešu saimniecības stipri atšķīrās no brazīliešu mājokļiem:

Mežam cauri izgājuši, ieraugām atkal klaju, līkumainu ieleju mūsu priekšā. Bet nu ir ēkas savādākas. Koka mājiņas ar šķindeļu jumtiem, pat stikla logi dažā spīd. Dzīvojamai ēkai apkārt sēta, kas atšķir istabas priekšu no ganībām. Līdz šim redzējām būdas ar dubļiem un sivēnu mātēm durvju priekšā, bet nu aiz vārtiņiem rozes zied. No mājām mums dveš pretī kaut kas sen redzēts un pazīstams. Tā ir latviešu Rionova. Te dzīvo mūsu tautieši. Te viņi ir pūlējušies un strādājuši, mežus līduši un mājas cēluši, ceļu taisījuši un tiltus būvējuši, tur aklajā mežā, kur tikai pērtiķi auroja un pa zariem kāpelēja, ienācēju cilvēku apbrīnodami, tagad atrodam ļaužu iedzīvi: zaļas lopu ganības, ar sētām aptaisītas, dārzus ar apelsiņu un firziķu kokiem, laukus ar kukuruziem un cukura niedrēm apdēstītus. Zināms, visi nebūs vienādi iedzīvojušies. Dažam gadījusies neauglīgāka zeme, dažs kavēts darbā caur slimībām, caur darba nemācēšanu. Lai nu kā kuram gājis, tomēr gandrīz it visi teicas labāk maizi paēduši, nekā tēvijā. Izgulēties arī varot dabūt, cik tikai vēlas. Mājas, lielākas vai mazākas, visas no koka. Katrs saimnieks ir centies ierīkot vairāk istabu. Vismaz divām telpām vajaga būt – ēdamai un guļamai. Pēc tāda iekārtojuma ir centušies, it īpaši bijušie pilsētnieki. Kukņa pa brazīliešu parašai mēdz būt šķirta no dzīvojamās ēkas. Labums tur, ka dūmi nespiežas istabā. Par istabas sildīšanu vēl nav gādāts, kamdēļ arī skursteņu neredz nevienai mājai. Drebinājas gan salnas laikā, īpaši vakaros un rītos, sedzas ar lakatiem, bet tikko saule uzlec, aukstums izzūd un saule spiež kā daždien Eiropas vasarā; tad atkal visiem strādniekiem svārki nost. Istabas iekšpuse visai vienkārša. Nekrāsots galds un tādi pat beņķi sēdēšanai. Krēsls ar atzveltni reta lieta. Nav bijis vaļas par dzīvokļa ērtību un glītumu rūpēties. Un taču kāda starpība starp šo un cittautiešu kolonistu dzīvokļiem. Še ir grīda un griesti, tur sēdi uz klona un skaties jumta lapās. Īstā brazīlieša būdā, vārdu sakot, nav nekā. Ēd, guļ un sēž uz zemes.

1900.g. pēc divu mēnešu ceļojuma Rionovu sasniedza baptistu sludinātājs Aleksandrs Kļaviņš, kurš drīz sāka sūtīt garus aprakstus par šo koloniju Latvijas avīzēm, kas tagad lasāma kā lieliska laikmeta liecība:

Brazīlijā iedzīvojas ātri, bet ar lielām grūtībām un tie vien ir še laimīgi, kuri ir gatavi paši visu pastrādāt, jo par naudu še cilvēku grūti dabūt un paņem kādu brazīlieti vai mori, tie it nekā nepastrādā… Latviešu meitas, kas grib kalpot, dabūn pilsētās pie brazīliešu kungiem labas vietas un pelna 15 rbļ. par mēnesi. Gājēji netiek izdzīti. Brazīlijā kungs un kalps strādā tik lēni, cik vien var un arvien vēl saka “laika diezgan”. Jaunekļi, kuri kādu amatu prot, tiek drīz pie naudas. Še Rio Novā ir dažādi amatnieki, bet skrodera un kurpnieka vēl nav.

Lidija Andermane–Kārkls (dz. 1901 Līgatnes “Skudrukalnos”, Brazīlijā ieceļoja ar vecākiem 5 gadu vecumā), baptistu sludinātāja un Rionovas skolotāja Kārļa Andermaņa meita, atcerējās mazliet vēlāku laiku:

Mājās gatavojām paši daudz ko dzīvei vajadzīgu. No Latvijas bija līdzi bildes, drēbes, apavi. Kad tos novalkāja, bija žēl, ka nav tādu, kā Latvijā. Vecpaps uztaisīja stelles. Māte (Emīlija, dz. Kancberga, no Pitraga – B.T.) auda guļamos deķus. Sapervēja vilnas dzijas. Mums pašiem bija savas aitas. Deķi bija strīpaini, īsti latviešu deķi. Mans vecpaps Ansis Andermanis prata dažādus koka darbus, spēlēja vijoli un harmoniju. Rionovā bija slavens koris, vairāk gan dziedāja baptistu dziesmas. Tautas dziesmas nedziedāja… Dzīve drīz kļuva viegla, jo pārtikas pietika visiem – gan lopiem, gan cilvēkiem, varējām to arī pārdot. Mana māte ārstēja slimos ar aukstiem un karstiem ūdeņiem, zālēm viņa neticēja. Tāpat arī ārstēja ar augiem un zaļumiem, ar kompresēm. Māte bija svētdienas skolas skolotāja.

Lielu vērību kolonisti veltīja garīgās dzīves kopšanai. Jau 1892.g. tika dibināta Rionovas latviešu baptistu draudze, kurā bija 75 pieaugušie (zināmi gandrīz visi pirmās draudzes locekļu vārdi), un svētdienas skola (pirmie skolotāji – Jānis Neilands, Kārlis Mačs, Jūle Balode). Tā kā sākumā dzīve bija materiāli ierobežota, svarīgi bija atrast mācītāju, kurš vienlaicīgi spētu pildīt arī skolotāja pienākumus. Skolu varēja atvērt tikai 1900.g. Pirmie skolotāji nāca no Latvijas – Vilis Butlers, Aleksandrs Kļaviņš, vēlāk K.Andermanis. Savā laikā Rionovas skola tika atzīta par labāko ārzemnieku koloniju skolu visā pavalstī. Vairāki Rionovas kolonisti – A.Kļaviņš, J.Netenbergs, F. un V.Leimaņi, R.Iņķis, P.Zālītis –  mācījās Portoalegres garīgajā seminārā un vēlāk aktīvi darbojās baptistu draudzēs. Kā 1900.g. rakstījis skolotājs V.Butlers, te, augot materiālai labklājībai, bija iespējams pastāvēt vairākām biedrībām – “dziedātāju, misiones un lauksaimniecības; arī biblioteka ir ierīkota”. Tomēr ne jau tikai biedrību darbs un kora dziedāšana vien aizpildīja latviešu brīvo laiku. Kāds kolonists 1898.g., uzsvērdams baptistu draudzes nodibināšanas nozīmi garīgā klimata veidošanā, rakstījis laikrakstam Mājas Viesis:

Lai īsti saprastu starpību starp tagadni un pagātni, tad vajaga domās aizklīst 6 gadus atpakaļ, kad mēs kā jauni kolonisti ielīdām savās būdiņās, krūtīs nesdami cēlas svabadības jūtas. No dzelzceļa vilciena izkāpjot, sastapām dažus te jau agrāk ieceļojušus baptistus ar kanniņām pie sāniem, kuras tie priecīgi sniedza paziņām pretī – teikdami: še, brālīt, tas ir mūsu dzeramais. Brālītis, iemetis špurgu, saviebās no kam jau var saprast, kas pasniegtais dzēriens, un ka baudījums pieder pie garīgajiem. Pasniedzis kanniņu atpakaļ, saņemdams vēl piebilda: “Bez tā (kašasa – no cukura niedru sulas izgatavota brandvīna, kas tāds pats brālis kā Latvijā pagatavotais rudzītis) te nevar iztikt tik siltā klimatā”. Te nu, vairākiem kopā esot, pēc laicīgo vajadzību apmierināšanas, nebija visai grūti uzcelt baznīciņu un nodibināt draudzi, kura sev sprauda to mērķi būt kā pilsēta kalnā, t.i., dzīvot priekšzīmīgi starp brazīliešiem, ziedēt kā balta lilijas puķe un ar to piegriezt sevim ievērību, lai tie, redzēdami mūsu labos darbus, arī mācītos mūs cienīt. Lai pašu starpā ietu kā iedams, ārējiem apstākļiem jāir stipriem un spožiem.

Kad 1892.g. jūlijā un augustā ieradās vēl viena grupa, Rionovā zemes pietrūka, jo vienā pusē bija vācu, otrā – itāliešu ciems. Jauno ieceļotāju grupai, kurā bija gan luterāņi, gan baptisti, nācās dibināt jaunas kolonijas. Rionovas tuvumā izveidojās Oratorija (1892), bet 70 km tālāk –  Mailūzija (1893). Taču lauksaimniecībai nelabvēlīgu apstākļu dēļ tās nepastāvēja ilgi, tāpat kā citas mazākas latviešu kolonijas Santakatarīnā (Žakvase, Rio Branko (Pontakomprida), Cimmermaņa zeme, Brīdertāle u.c.). Izvēloties šo pavalsti par pirmo apmešanās vietu, netika ņemta vērā ne zemes auglība, ne nošķirtība no apdzīvotām vietām un ceļu trūkums, kas vēlāk arī noveda pie koloniju panīkuma. To sekmēja arī nestabilais iekšpolitikas stāvoklis (monarhistu sacelšanās 1893–1894 un zemnieku nemieri 1902–1916), kas sagrāva tikko izveidotās saimniecības, rekvizējot mājlopus un pārtiku. Savu lomu spēlēja latviešiem tik raksturīgās savstarpējas nesaskaņas. Lai tās aizmirstu, mācītājs J.Iņķis piedāvāja oriģinālu veidu – sadedzināt draudzes protokolus!

Rionova kā latviešu kolonija pastāvēja vēl ilgi. Tikai 1969.g. pēc 77 gadu darbības tika likvidēta latviešu draudze. Līdz 1939.g. te dzīvojis Samuels Aurass (dz. 1933 Rionovā), kurš pastāstīja, ka līdz 9 gadu vecumam runājis tikai latviski, bet portugāļu valodu iemācījies tikai tad, kad vajadzējis sākt iet skolā. Saistoši lasīt viņa bērnības atmiņas par sadzīvi vecāku mājās 1930. gados:

Dzīvojām īstā lauku mājā. Vecāki līda līdumus un iekopa laukus. Audzēja pupiņas, batātes un cukurniedras… Mans paps Vācijā bija izmācījies par mēbeļgaldnieku, tāpēc varēja mums visas vajadzīgās mēbeles izgatavot pats. Katrā mājā bija slinkumkrēsls (šūpuļkrēsls – B.T.). Turējām bites, ierīkojām puķu dobes un augļu dārzu. Gan skaistumam, gan iztikai.

Vēl kāds Rionovas kolonijā 1930.g. dzimis latvietis Ziedonis Frišenbrūders, ko satapām Brazīlijas iekšzemē Urubisijā, pārsteidza mūs, skaidrā latviešu valodā noskaitīdams tautas dziesmu: “Kaut man būtu tā naudiņa, Kas guļ jūras dibenā; Es nopirktu Rīgas pili. Ar visiem vāciešiem.”

Lielākas un mazākas latviešu, galvenokārt baptistu grupas sekoja cita citai līdz pat Pirmā pasaules kara sākumam. Latviešu skaits Brazīlijā ievērojami palielinājās pēc 1905.-1907.g. revolūcijas sakāves, kad daudzi tur meklēja patvērumu. Liela daļa 1905.g. bēgļu atšķīrās no pirmajiem ieceļotājiem ar izteikti sociāldemokrātiskiem uzskatiem un tika nievīgi saukti par “sarkanajiem”.

2001.g. apmeklējām Rionovas kolonijas vietu. Mūsu ceļvedis bija tur dzimušais latvietis Arvīds Puriņš. Kad atvadījāmies pēc divu dienu kopīga intensīva darba, sapratām, ka bez viņa nemaz nebūtu vērts tur braukt! Kurš cits gan vairs zinātu parādīt, kur pastaigājies luterāņu spoks (tik vien pārsteigumā vēl spējam pajautāt, vai bijis arī baptistu spoks…), kur baznīcēni mazgājuši Brazīlijas sarkanajos mālos sabristās kājas pirms iešanas dievnamā, kur atrodas jau gandrīz izzudusī latviešu kapsēta, kurš kalns vēl līdz šai baltai dienai nes Puriņkalna vārdu. Rionovā dzīvo vairs tikai divi latvieši – māsa un brālis Kļaviņi, vecos laikos nodēvēti par Meža Kļaviņiem, lai varētu atšķirt no vairākām citām Brazīlijas Kļaviņu ģimenēm. Visbiežāk dzirdamais vārds šeit – “bija”. Ir savāda sajūta būt šeit, daudzu sabrukušu cerību vietā pēc 110 gadiem. Upīte, kas devusi kolonijai vārdu, ir tik tikko samanāma. Tās krastos vien “pēdējais mohikānis” Puriņš spēja kā no grāmatas skaitīt te reiz dzīvojušo latviešu ģimeņu vārdus. No ēkām saglabājies vairs nav itin nekas, ar pūlēm iekopto lauku vietā jau atkal sazēlis mežs.

Rionovas jaunieši

Rionovas jaunieši pagājušā gadsimta 20-tos gados. No kreisās puses: Pauls Aleksandrs Klaviņš, Zelma Kļaviņa, Lidija Andermane un Emīls Andermanis.

Tamuža ar Puriņu

Raksta autore Brigita Tamuža 2001.gadā intervē Rionovā dzimušo un augušo Arvīdu Puriņu vietā, kur kādreiz bijusi Rionovas baznīca.

4,000 kilometers and 100 years removed

Folklore group Varavīksne

Members of the folklore group Varavīksne and other Augšbebri residents pose after a performance of the play “Skroderdienas Silmačos.” (Photo by Gundega Krakopa)

In the late 19th century the Russian czar encouraged the settling of virgin lands. At that time Latvia was on the border of the Russian empire, and from 1894-1914 Latvians established approximately 200 settlements in Siberia. At the time, more than 200,000 Latvians lived scattered throughout Russian territories east of present-day Latvia.

Most of the settlers were landless peasants, tenants, servants or craftsmen. This was the only opportunity for them to finally own their own land and work it as they wished, instead of continuing to serve the German landowners in Latvia.

The 1920s and 1930s were a particularly successful time for the Latvian settlements in Russia. Many Latvians owned workshops or large, well-tended farms with modern agricultural technology. Some even owned dairies.

During the 1933-1934 academic year there were 119 Latvian schools in Russia, 17 of which were secondary schools. Until 1935 there were also several publishing houses, publishing newspapers and books exclusively in the Latvian language.

The founding of the Augšbebri colony

The Latvian settlement named Augšbebri was founded in 1897. Emigrants from Latvia toiled to clear fields and tend crops in the area beyond the Irtysh River. They built houses and lived on individual farms, as they had done in Latvia. Finally they were free to tend their own lands, grow their own crops and cattle, and build their own houses. The villagers still refer to those as the good old times.

Josef Stalin began the forced collectivization of Russian lands in 1927. As a result, many Latvian owners of successful individual farms were driven onto kolkhozes (collective farms), and all they owned was deemed common property.

Latvian schools, clubs and libraries were closed. The people were forced to speak and write in Russian—a language that the Latvians had not always needed to learn before then. Many Latvian settlements were liquidated or flooded with other ethnic groups.

Today Augšbebri—called Babrauka by the locals—consists of one long street with approximately 60 houses. Of the 200 or so inhabitants, 116 (according to a 1997 poll) consider themselves Latvian. These are descendants of the Kupsis, Vērnieks, Kalniņš, Barons, Otaņķis, Pumpurs, Leja, Līksnis, Varpa, Ņezduļķis, Smilga and Auzis families. The rest of the inhabitants are of German and Estonian heritage, as well as a few Russian families.

Learning their forefathers’ language

In 1989, as the atmoda (National Awakening) was beginning in Latvia, several enthusiasts, supported by the Latvian Foundation and the Latvian Ministry of Education, established the Latvian Education Mission, the goal of which was to select and send teachers from Latvia to the Latvian settlements in Russia. After a period of 50 years, the teaching of the Latvian language in Russia had finally been resumed.

For three years—until the summer of 1992—teachers from Latvia taught in Arhlatviešu village in the Bashkir Republic (Bashkiria), in Rižkova and Augšbebri in western Siberia, and in Lejas Bulāna in eastern Siberia. Dace Dombrovska was the teacher of Latvian language and traditions in Augšbebri during this time.

After an interruption of several years, the Latvian Education Mission in Russia was resumed again in 1998, this time financed by the World Federation of Free Latvians and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church Outside of Latvia, as well as the Latvian embassy in Russia. Teachers were again sent to Arhlatviešu village in the Bashkiria, Augšbebri in Omsk District and Lejas Bulāna in Krasnoyarsk Territory to teach the Latvian language.

After more than a century of their parents’ and grandparents’ emigration, the older Latvian generations in Russia still speak in a beautiful Latvian tongue with a slightly old-fashioned sound to it, especially heard in grammatical forms such as irād (is) and navād (is not). Surprisingly, these people, who have been born and have lived their entire lives in Siberia, speak Russian with a noticeable accent.

The people of Augšbebri use words borrowed from Russian when they speak Latvian, such as napitoks (a drink), boļņica (a hospital) and boļšaks (a highway). Many of these were new objects or ideas that did not exist at the time when the first Latvians settled in Siberia, and therefore new terminology had to be developed. The easiest route was to take the appropriate word from Russian and adapt it to Latvian pronunciation.

Unfortunately, the passing of the Latvian language from one generation to the next has now come to an end. At best, children and young people today only understand Latvian, but do not speak it. There are only a few families in the village in which the parents speak Latvian with their children. Therefore, the children now study Latvian as a foreign language.

Since 1998 the students in grades 1-4 at the Augšbebri school—a total of about 10 children—study Latvian as an elective subject. The parents’ attitude is generally positive, and as a result almost all of the children attend Latvian lessons.

Older children and teenagers (who go to school at the secondary school in Martyushevo, 12 kilometers from Augšbebri) study Latvian in the afternoons at the village clubhouse. Adults attend lessons in the evenings. In addition to language lessons, the teachers from Latvia have also directed drama clubs and offered lessons in the English language and psychology.

Thanks to various publishing houses in Latvia and other supporters and patrons, Augšbebri currently has a fairly extensive collection of learning materials and video films in Latvian, as well as a small library. The Augšbebri Latvian Club has also obtained a television, VCR, stereo, photocopier and computer with help from the Latvian State Culture Capital Foundation. In the autumn of 1999 the Augšbebri Latvian Club was the best-equipped clubhouse in all of Omsk District.

A peculiar phenomenon of Augšbebri is that since the beginning, many members of other ethnic groups who have married into or otherwise emigrated to the village have learned the Latvian language.

Two identities, languages and traditions

Today two identities coexist in Augšbebri: the Latvian identity, and the Russian, or Siberian, identity. The majority of the inhabitants of Augšbebri consider themselves to be Latvian and even act insulted if someone tries to call them Russian.

But at the same time their way of life is distinctly Siberian. Tall fences and gates divide their houses and outbuildings from the street. In the courtyards behind the fences, boardwalks save their shoes from the mud. The gardens stretch behind the yard and outbuildings.

Most of the buildings are made of logs from the surrounding taiga. Moss is stuffed into the spaces between the logs. Houses are heated with firewood, which is also hauled in from the taiga. It seems that the taiga provides for all of the villagers’ needs: there they pick berries and mushrooms, hunt birds, gather branches from which to dry meat, and fish in its rivers. Especially in recent years, while Russia is experiencing great economic problems, timber and other wood materials from the forest are also an important source of income.

There are only a few state-run jobs in the village: one saleswoman, a couple of workers in the clubhouse and school, a mailwoman and a doctor’s assistant. But even the “lucky” ones, who receive a supposedly regular salary (many are not paid on time), are not able to cover all of their expenses. For example, in 1999 a bus ticket to Omsk and back cost USD 6, but a teacher’s monthly salary was only USD 30.

The kolkhoz still exists, and many of the villagers work there. Wages, though, have not been paid for years. Sometimes workers do get paid, but in noodles or rubber boots, instead of money.

The only way people earn real money is by working in the forests. Retirees are considered the most secure, because they at least receive a regular pension.

The difficult economic situation in the village causes many social problems. Adequate health care is not available, if at all. Even basic medications, vitamins and vaccinations are lacking. Only very few families are able to provide a post-secondary education for their children in Omsk or some other large city. The limited opportunities to live a meaningful life have driven many to alcoholism.

Life in Augšbebri is not easy. Russia’s economic and social troubles directly affect everybody, including villagers. For example, since there is no money for road repairs, the roads leading to Augšbebri are practically impassable during spring and autumn, and there is no bridge across the Irtysh River, providing direct access to the city of Tara. As a result, Augšbebri is isolated from the rest of the world for at least half of the year.

Hardly anyone in Augšbebri owns an automobile – there are only about 10 in the whole village. A popular mode of transportation to reach the nearby villages of Martyushevo (a distance of 10 km), Kurzemes Ozolciems (12 km) and Yegorovka (20 km), as well as Tara (40 km), is the motorcycle. Horse-pulled sleighs are used in the winter. Teams of horses and wagons wait outside the clubhouse on election day.

The only form of public transportation connecting Augšbebri to the outside world is the bus, which is scheduled to make a stop on the highway going towards Tara in the mornings, and another stop on the way back in the evenings. But in reality, the bus only runs about three to four months a year due to poor road conditions—in autumn the road becomes in impassable mass of mud, and in winter it is covered with a thick layer of snow. Waiting at the bus stop, one never knows whether the bus will come today or not.

The Irtysh River separates Augšbebri from the nearest village, but it cannot be crossed for approximately three months of the year, while the ice melts in the spring and forms in the autumn. During these times the villagers have no access to a doctor, because there is no doctor on their side of the river. Although a first aid post in the village stocks vaccinations, the only real urgent care is in Tara. Several villagers have been born in an automobile or on the ferry en route to Tara.

A couple of villages lie even beyond Augšbebri, but beyond them the great taiga stretches to the Arctic Ocean.

Songs and dances

Despite the harsh environment, difficult work and Russia’s economic problems, the inhabitants of Augšbebri have not lost the sparkle in their eyes, the joy in their hearts or their knowledge of songs and dances. One encounters humor, songs, dances and games at every turn.

At the onset of winter, when fields of snow reach as far as the eye can see and the thermometer sinks to minus 30-40 degrees Celsius, the villagers are finally able to relax. The short summer was filled with constant, hard work in order to provide firewood, hay, berries, mushrooms and vegetables. Finally in winter the villagers can sit peacefully and nibble pine nuts, watch television, spin wool and knit socks. Winter is also the time to rest and celebrate.

Augšbebri celebrates all of the holidays: Christmas and the New Year, as well as those same holidays a second time according to the old Russian calendar; the Soviet holidays of Army Day, Womens’ Day and Victory Day on May 9; Easter and Jāņi (the summer solstice). Recently the villagers have also begun to observe Nov. 18 (Latvian Independence Day), and they even hold a Valentine’s Day dance.

All holidays are celebrated in the clubhouse, which is also where the folklore group Varavīksne holds its weekly rehearsals. The group sings traditional Latvian folk songs and dances old-time dances, many of which have long been forgotten in Latvia. But the group also learns songs in Russian for regional choir competitions and other performances in Tara. No one in Augšbebri can read music or play a musical instrument, except for “Varavīksne” member Valentīna Šilova, who learned to play the bayan (a type of button accordion) by ear.

Relatives and friends remember each others’ birthdays and celebrate by setting the table with delicacies from the forest and their gardens: bird cherry compote, various jams and jellies, sauerkraut, marinated mushrooms, potatoes, fish, and many pork and beef dishes.

Moonshine also helps the merriment. Made from sugar or bread, the home-made drink is usually around 70 percent alcohol, and is diluted to 40-50 percent before being served.

Preserving their faith for 50 years

Despite having endured more than 70 years of atheism, there are still people in Augšbebri who listen to, speak to and believe in God. Augšbebri has no minister and no church, so women of the older generation take turns hosting prayer meetings every Sunday. Until recently these services still took place in Latvian, but Russian has become their main language since several younger people have joined the group of believers. The songs, though, are still sung in Latvian. Lately the villagers have established contact with Baptist congregations in Tara and elsewhere in Omsk District. The local minister or Baptist missionaries from the United States now visit the village a few times a year.

Between Latvian and Siberia

A group from Latvia (photojournalist Uldis Briedis and documentary film maker and historian Ingvars Leitis) first visited the Latvian colonies in Siberia in 1975. They also visited Augšbebri and Kurzemes Ozolciems (12 kilometers from Augšbebri) in order to meet with the descendants of the 19th century emigrants and to tell about them back in Latvia.

Inga Utena (the director of the Latvian TV program “Spiets”) and Māris Jurgensons (cameraman of the TV program “Labvakar”) visited Augšbebri in 1990. The following spring members of the Kalniņš family from Siberia took part in a “Spiets” program about families of singers.

The Augšbebri folklore group, led by Olga and Pēteris Vakenguts, traveled to Latvia for the first time in 1991 to take part in the Baltica festival in Latvia. The theme of their performance was wedding traditions, and they surprised many Rigans with their knowledge of the Latvian language and ancient melodies.

Roberts Ķīlis, a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at Cambridge University, lived in Augšbebri from November 1996 to September 1997 to gather data for his dissertation. While observing the everyday life and learning the history of the village, he discovered many facts that even the villagers themselves had not known, for example, that 1997 marked the 100-year anniversary of the settlement at Augšbebri. Thanks to Ķīlis’ initiative, a wide-ranging anniversary celebration was organized.

More active contact between Augšbebri and Latvia has taken place recently. A group from Juris Podnieks’ film studio visited the village in July 1997. Imants Daudišs (the Latvian ambassador to Russia) and Lauma Vlasova (the Republic of Latvia’s attaché on diaspora issues in Russia) visited in February 1999. “Baltie berzi”, a men’s choir from Valmiera visited Augšbebri in the summer of 2000. Many villagers also traveled to Latvia. Varavīksne went to Latvia again and participated in the 1998 and 2001 song festivals. In recent years, a family from Augšbebri is invited to participate in a 3×3 family camp in Latvia every summer.

One village in Siberia

The Latvian Ministry of Culture financed a filming expedition to the former Augšbebri, now Bobrovka, in the summer of 1997. The premier of the resulting film, “One Village in Siberia,” took place at the clubhouse in Augšbebri in late 2000. The film shows all aspects of life in the village—everyday work, households, free time, joys and sorrows—and also shows the villagers expressing themselves about the past, present and future. A feeling of respect, awe and love towards their hardy countrymen, who have been separated from their ethnic homeland for so long, emanates from the filmmakers throughout the film. In 2001 “One Village in Siberia” producer Vaira Strautniece received the “Lielais Kristaps” Latvian National Film Festival jury award for extensive research into the fate of the nation.

(Translated by Amanda Jātniece)

A girl of Augšbebri

Nastja Vlasova, a girl who lives in Augšbebri, is learning Latvian. (Photo by Gundega Krakopa)

Alberts Benke

Alberts Benke is the best known craftsman in Augšbebri and the surrounding area. From wood he has crafted many houses, decorations for homes, gates, chairs and other furniture. (Photo by Vaira Strautniece)