Coming to terms with Latvians from Latvia

Latvian T-shirt

Illustration by Andris Straumanis

I first heard the term “LL” sometime in the early 1990s, not long after Latvia regained its independence. Back then the label simply indicated a fact of provenance and was yet to become a slur—a ghost yet to become spook. Latvijas latvietis: a Latvian from Latvia. A Latvian Latvian. A Latvian squared.

The LLs initially appeared as guest counselors at our summer camp in the Catskills of upstate New York, wearing thin gray socks with grandpa sandals, crudely cut-off jeans and flimsy short-sleeved button-down shirts—a full decade before the look became trendy on the hipster streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They acted pretty strangely, too. I recall one burly buzz-cut LL, with a penchant for sleeveless undershirts and shiny track pants, telling us why he never brushed his teeth. He hadn’t begun brushing them as a child, he explained, and since it was the act of scraping layers of plaque off your teeth that made all the difference, there was no way of making up for lost time. (I ran into this fuzzy logician years later at a bar in Rīga. He was working for the Ministry of Economics. Read into this as much as you like.)

These LLs seemed like an odd bunch to us, no doubt, and we took great pleasure in laughing about their foreign ways. But I know they got an equally big kick out of us campers. They enjoyed our funny and seemingly incongruous attempts to speak Latvian: es iešu apsēdēties and es tev redzēšu vēlāk and beidz pirdēt! They snickered at our sugary adolescent diets, founded on bags of chewy Starburst, packets of crackling Fizz Wiz and tins of orange powdered Tang. And since most of them hailed from the Latvian countryside, they were surely amused by our suburban American attempts to “get back to nature”: sitting around a campfire just yards from our cabins, obsessively spraying our sweatshirts with Off! and toasting jumbo marshmallows while bemoaning the horrible lack of chocolate and graham crackers. There was, as yet, no antagonism, merely a mutual feeling of good humor at the other’s expense—a force that has held together entire communities for millennia (see Strasbourg, France; Brussels, Belgium; Queens, New York) .

But then something changed. Perhaps it was because Latvians from Latvia began arriving in greater number, and their presence became too powerful to be appropriated by sheer mirth or bemused geniality. Or maybe it was because the Latvian-American community had not taken stock of how far it had come, or where it was going, and was unable to deal with the onslaught of people suddenly arriving from the lost homeland, which had not just been found, but was now totally in your face, looking for a job, a place to live and correcting your grammar. 

The change was that Latvians from Latvia became something to be feared. And, as everybody knows, the best way to deal with your fears is to demonize them. “LLs.” “Those goddamn LLs.” “LLs showed up at the camp and started drinking and getting in everyone’s face.” “LLs came up to Gaŗezers, punched some kid in the nose and started a brawl.” “LLs crashed the party and picked a fight with the Mexican wedding next door.” These things all happened, of course, and many LLs seemed intent on nothing else but provoking scorn from the Latvian-American community. However, the sheer contempt with which the new arrivals were treated seemed strangely reminiscent of something else: the antagonism reserved for the Communists back in the 1980s. It was almost like an aversion to the LLs had replaced the hatred for the Russians.

In fact, this wasn’t far from the truth. What seemed to be scorned most about the new arrivals was precisely their supposed lack of Latvianness and their total embrace of Russianness, or Sovietness. They cursed in Russian; they drank Russian vodka; they told jokes with Russian punch lines; they sang Russian songs when they got drunk; many of them looked like caricatures of Russian gangsters from the movies. Some even had Russian-sounding names, like Vitālijs and Igors and Oļegs. They weren’t like us—“real” Latvians. We had preserved the true Latvianness, whisked it away from the homeland during the war like the Holy Grail. These people were but fading shadows of a lost legacy. What had developed was the classic post-immigrant scenario, the “us vs. them” that signals a new phase in the life of every diaspora community, one that begins with the independence of the homeland and the inevitable meeting with the first wave of new emigrants.

Another reason for the ambivalent reception of Latvians from Latvia—one that lies deeper and, perhaps, closer to the truth—was that they didn’t conform to our idea of what Latvians should have been like. After fifty years of reading pastoral novels like Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš‘s Baltā grāmata and Edvarts Virza’s Straumēni, we half expected the Latvians to arrive straight from the idyllic pastures where they herded glossy brown cows with a switch of birch, clad in leather moccasins, billowing white cloaks and woven ethnographic belts whose intricate designs concealed the secrets of the universe. We wanted them to come and reaffirm our faith in the ancient wisdom of the four-line dainas, to remind us that the great throbbing power of Latvian nature—which streamed up through the oak trees, electrified the mist in the primeval forests, and made the mossy boulders vibrate with primordial energy—was still very much alive. Instead they made a beeline for Chinatown and stocked up on cheap electronics, bootleg cassettes and fake perfume. It just wasn’t what we had imagined.

Back then, I don’t remember spending much time engaged in LL-bashing. Perhaps I was too busy enjoying other aspects of being a Latvian-American: waking up in hotel bathtubs at congresses and song festivals; trying to figure out how to get a picnic table to float in a lake; and musing, with my friends, about what Latvian folksong we’d teach to Neil Young if we ever met him. The Latvian-American experience was rich and diverse enough to accommodate a wide range of activities, of which cultivating a loathing for LLs was merely one small element—a telling one, but nonetheless small.

Years later, when I moved to Rīga after college, I had forgotten all about the notion of the LL. But then something somebody said about avoiding soap at all costs, because it clogs the pores and isn’t as good for your skin as a bath of chamomile tea, recalled to me my earlier bemusement at the quaintly bizarre ways of Latvians from Latvia, so different from my own American habits.

“Oh, you LLs, with your herbal tea remedies and berry infusions and bandages made of weeds!” I’d say, chuckling. “What century do you think this is?”

We’d all laugh, my friends would call me a brand-worshipping, trend-obsessed AL, and the joke stuck. The term had been stripped of all contempt and once again stood for what it was: a initialism that merely denoted a difference between Latvians from Latvians and Amerikas latvieši, American Latvians. A friendly rivalry between two leagues: the LLs and the ALs. The great international Latvian all-star game.

At home, as part of our regular domestic banter, my Latvia-born wife and I fleshed out the image of the LL, which no longer simply stood for someone from Latvia but now indicated a special breed or species of local, as in “today I saw a bunch of big-time LLs down in Vecrīga.” LLs were the men in socks and sandals, black leather vests and mustaches. LLs were the guys who worn white linen pants, tight-fitting pastel t-shirts, flashy jewelry and pointy leather shoes, which they kicked out from side to side when they sauntered down the street, clutching the obligatory man-purse. LLs were the callers who spent hours on public radio chattering about how to clean your house with nothing but lemons, baking soda and vinegar; the amount of strawberries to eat every summer to amass enough iron for winter (four kilograms); and how rubbing cucumbers on your face was great for moisturizing your skin. LLs were the parents who packed their children into scarves and hats even in June, for fear of subjecting them to a killer breeze. It was all in good fun, and was often countered by my wife with jokes about the families of stereotypical ALs spotted coming out of downtown hotels (girls in flip-flops, pajama pants and bulky sweatshirts; boys in full-out college sports gear; fathers in blue blazers and khakis; mothers in amber jewelry).

But as the years went by, and my freelance work in Rīga seemed to falter both financially and professionally, my joking changed its tune. I wasn’t making much money, and felt that the people I did work for weren’t giving me the degree of respect I thought I deserved. Like most people in their late twenties, I began to question whether my career, or lack thereof, was going in the right direction. Unable to buck up the courage to pursue options that did seem like possible alternatives, I got frustrated. This frustration came to rest on the Latvians from Latvia whom I worked for, via e-mail, from my desk at home.

“These damn LLs,” I’d complain to my wife. “Why can’t they ever say ‘thank you’ or ‘good job’ when you work your ass off for them? Could they possibly be a little less cold and unappreciative, a little less LL?”

I had soon developed my own personal image of the LL, which I would loudly declaim to anyone unlucky enough to listen. Tellingly, the bulk of this conception centered on people who wouldn’t answer my e-mails, give me praise or pay me on time. I falsely believed that things like this never happened back in the States—land of the free compliments and home of the brave big check—and that only Latvia was hopelessly mired in an utter lack of tact and a total subservience to cronyism. This didn’t conform to what I imagined was true professionalism, which, I believed, was the defining feature of the adult world.

I now realize that becoming an adult is nothing like I imagined it to be, and professionalism is just an idyllic fantasy. You work hard, for inadequate pay, and get little respect from your peers―—that is what it means to be a grownup, no matter where you live. Perhaps these things are merely magnified in Latvia, where the layers of polish have been wiped off the surface of life and things are revealed for what they are. Luckily, I soon discovered the ancient panacea for the malaise of adulthood: having children. Now I don’t have time to harp on injuries and injustices, imagined or otherwise, nor do I care much anymore. The unanswered e-mails, the late payments, the terse responses—all of these simply fade into the din of Lightning McQueen roaring on the laptop in the other room.

On recent trips back to the States I haven’t hear much about the LLs. When I prompt my friends, the only information I get is that some work in the moving business upstate, and others are teachers at the local Latvian schools and daycare centers, which their own kids attend alongside children of parents born in the U.S. Many of them have lived in the U.S. for so long that they know less about life in Rīga than those Latvian-Americans who regularly travel back and forth. Others have married Americans and are now living quietly in the suburbs near where I grew up. In fact, the last time I drove through my old hometown, my wife heard the guy behind the counter at the local pizzeria speaking Russian. He was originally from Moscow. They struck up a conversation about the ways of the East and the ways of the West. He used the distinctions “we” and “you,” meaning “you Latvians”—my wife and I—and “we Americans”: the guys from Moscow who now owned the shop. I spent my childhood around the corner, scribbling “Ruck Fussia” in the margins of notebooks. Things are all mixed up now. Our old fantasies are fading. I guess we’re all growing up.

15 thoughts on “Coming to terms with Latvians from Latvia

  1. I loved reading this article. I have but one request from Mr. Kalnins – should he meet or know of an LL who received packages from an AL and did not let the sender know so therefore a thank you note is completely out of the question, please ask the receiver “What’s up with that?” I need to understand. Liels paldies, Marija

  2. Wow – Rihards it feels the same in England. Perhaps my father and his friends who came to live in the UK in 1947 showed us the best of Latvian culture which I used to be proud to show to my English friends. My recent experience of LL’s was at our Musu Maja for midsummers celebration. Urinating on the public roads, vandaliising the club house my father and his friends helped to build, police and ambulances for the violence, alcohol abuse. My good memories will always stay with me, But I am not proud to be connected with LL’s of this generation. I have just said goodbye to some visitors from Latvia whom we treated like our family, I found them both rude and ungrateful. Never again will I welcome this generation of LL’s to my home.

  3. Sarakstos un piedalos diskusijas ar latviesiem no vairakam zemem. Mes katrs pienakam pie saviem sledzieniem par Latviju caur personigam pieredzem. Neko labu nesagaidisim ja turpinasim visparinet par musu tautu. Jasaprot ka Latvija nav vairs izoleta no parejas pasaules un diemzel tagad ari trimdas latviesiem janorij padomja ruktas zales ka musu tauta piedzivoja 50 gadus. Vienigais glabins ir tureties pie musu tautas valsts valodas. Neuztraucies parak daudz par nepieklajibu un citam negativam ipasibam. Kur ir rakstits kad latvietim pret citu latvieti jauztur neapsaubamu cienu. Jo atrak nometisim iedomigos uzskatus jo atrak spesim sadzivot. Daudz ko spejam piedot jo personigas ipashibas atkarajas no audzinashanas bet uzdot savu valst valodu ir nepienemams.

  4. All ‘sovietized’ Eastern Europeans deserve the chance to advance and grow like the rest of the world did while they were held captive for 50+years. It will take a generation or more. Do you recall Latvia in 1992 – when I toured the country then, it was as if time had just stopped after WWII. Repairs where needed everywhere. No flush toilets. No hot water most of the time. No secure electricity. Much of what the (AL) Latvian’s from the 1930’s valued – and we AL’s value today – had been dismantled. Latvia deserves another 50 years to westernize after the rape that happened. Engaging LL’s is one good way to stamp out the soviet crud that remains. Not that it is easy.

  5. Nicely written with great insight. If this line of understanding is to be furthered Rihards and others, should be aware that the generation before his finds very much the same issues. The younger ALs or LLs, seem to this older AL, as indifferent, while the older LLs are just different. Where indifferent means I don’t care and different means why should you care! Welcome to maturity Rihard – it becomes easier to bear after 40.

  6. Interesting article and I agree on most points but I’ve never heard the expression “LL” or “AL”. must be a generational thing. why do I feel that LLs are always trying to take advantage of you?

  7. This article emphasizes the fact that all of us need to respect people of other countries and also those who dress, think, act different from us. I was surprised when visiting Latvia in 2004 that I met two people who insisted that they consider me, a Latvian-Canadian, of the same status as an LL, with the same rights. Specifically now, it’s important to treat people of Russian origin in Latvia the same as Latvians – let’s forgive the bad things that were done to us and let the two build a new Latvia together. I’d like to see comments from other people.

  8. Thanks for a great article! In my younger days, I would seek out many LLs just out of curiosity – I found that they are just like every level of society in the US. Some are very polite, civilized and others – swindlers, drunks. It takes all kinds. I did marry an LL, and am very happy I did!

  9. great article, very interesting comments. I agree with Jani, when my LL cousin came to the States to visit, her atitude is best described as “buy me, show me, give me”. Never so much as a thank you. She was in her fifties and retired with enough money to travel to the states and Europe. (More than we had).I have no living family left in the states, but no interest, after that experience, of connecting with my numerous relatives in Latvia. A shame really. Perhaps it is the Russian influence.

  10. I guess what diaspora Latvians sometimes fail to realise is that their societies are fairly homogeneous compared to the diversity found in Latvia. Whereas in Melbourne it was almost abnormal not to be a university-educated card-carrying fraternity/sorority member or a diehard folkdancer/chorister/basketball-player, in Latvia I was confronted with the whole gamut of creeds, classes and professions (including Latvian porno directors and incredibly lame LL pickpockets!). Yes, there are very Soviet-era behaviours in LV (even, unfortunately, in the post-1991 generation), but also plenty of people that wouldn’t be out of place in my diaspora community. Stereotyping has its uses, but can also be annoying. One of my pet peeves is the way some LL’s lump all ‘ārzemju latvieši’ together; Aussie Latvians sometimes undeservedly get tarred with the same brush as some of the more brash and arrogant American Latvians. Diaspora communities may interally be more homogeneous than not, but there are important differences between diasporas in different countries.

  11. As far as people of Russian origin in Latvia go, I have no qualms with respecting them if some sensitivity is shown towards Latvian as an official language and the historical experience of its pre-occupation inhabitants: i.e. no automatic assumption that I must speak and understand Russian and subscribe to an uncritical view of Soviet-Union-as-liberator-and-developer-of-Latvia-as-rural-Nazi-sympathising-backwater. I have worked with a number of Russians with a pro-Latvia(n) mentality (and who take more care with their Latvian than their ethnic Latvian colleagues!), but, sadly, I am generally still generally confronted with imperialist attitudes. As a Latvian, I feel that I have taken more than a few steps towards establishing harmonious ethnic relations, but I don’t feel much willingness to engage in respectful relations coming from the other side. If anything, Putin’s Russia is encouraging intransigence. Post-colonial kow-towing or a misplaced postmodern liberalism practised by Latvians isn’t going to improve matters. More self-confidence, a stronger sense of identity and pro-active, not defensive national pride among Latvians is sorely needed.

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