Happy anniversary to Latvians Online!

When I was a boy growing up on the west side of Chicago in the 1950s, Latvia was an enchanted and bewitched land, far, far away. It was enchanted in the memories of my refugee parents and bewitched by the spectre of communism that had descended over it. But most of all, it seemed far, far away. Travel was difficult, contacts were sparse and information was limited. The Latvians of the world were divided into two categories: us and them. Those over there and us over here.

It wasn’t the Iron Curtain alone that divided us. It was access to information. Latvians in the West had free access to information about the entire world, but knew very little about what was really happening in Latvia. Latvians in Latvia knew their country like the back of a shackled hand, but knew very little about what was happening elsewhere in the world. (Or in the apartment next door.)

It is now 2001, Latvia is free again and celebrates the 10th anniversary of its restored independence. But it isn’t independence alone that has changed Latvia and Latvians. Latvia’s legendary Foreign Minister Zigfrīds Meierovics moved mountains to get Latvia recognised internationally in the early 1920s, but what makes his achievement so remarkable today is that he did it without e-mail, the Web, CNN, PowerPoint and real-time electronic bank transfers.

Latvia today is part of a 24-hour, non-stop, information-encased globalised world where time and distance take on totally new meanings. When the Wall came down and the telecommunication satellites went up, the information divide between Latvians here and Latvians there was finally breached. Every Latvian, anywhere in the world, could visit Latvia any time he or she chose. And those who couldn’t get to it physically could access it in countless other ways.

Today Latvians anywhere can come and go, read what they want, listen to what they choose, and attend what they please. Many of those who were "here" are now over "there," and vice versa. The "us" and "them" of 10 years ago are now working side-by-side in Rīga, New York, Liepāja, Washington, Cēsis, Chicago, Rēzekne and Kalamazoo. (As well as Prague, Brussels, Lisbon and Ottawa.)

I know young Latvians born in Rīga and Jelgava who have degrees from Stanford, the University of Texas and St. Olaf College in Minnesota; today they work for the Foreign Ministry,  Latvian political parties and Rīga-based businesses. I know others born and raised in New York, Chicago and Silver Springs, Md., who run businesses, international organisations and state agencies in Rīga. Some from over "there" (in the diaspora) have spent more time over "here" (in Latvia), than those who were born here. Yet all are in some way involved with Latvia, doing Latvian things in a Latvian way. Increasingly, we seem to be becoming a real "we." Location no longer divides us; being Latvian simply unites us.

Thanks to Latvians Online this feeling of "we-ness" now has a fertile place to grow and develop in cyberspace as well. You have become a virtual town hall for a truly global Latvian community. Forgive my Chicago prejudice, but to me the emergence of Latvians Online in 2000 is comparable to the acquisition of Gaŗezers in the 1960s. It was a visionary decision that brought Latvians together, not only to play, but to exchange ideas, information and energy. For me, Latvians Online is the cyber-Gaŗezers of the 21st Century, minus the bonfires and the Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. (Thank goodness for the latter.)

By providing articles, commentaries, reviews, news and debates in English, Latvians Online not only draws a broader spectrum of Latvians from around the world (especially those who feel it, but can’t speak it), it also brings the non-Latvian (English-speaking) world into the global Latvian community.

Increasingly the people, government, organisations and businesses of Latvia are creating Web pages, communicating in English and making contact with the world. Institutions like the Latvian Institute were created to provide information about Latvia and help Latvians engage with the world. Regardless of which end of the political spectrum we find ourselves on, we all seem to agree that progress is possible and problems are solvable through dialogue and increased understanding. Understanding requires information and exchange. Latvians Online has made a major contribution to Latvia in both areas.

In speeches to foreign audiences I’ve often described Latvia as a piece of land on the shores of the Baltic Sea. But it’s also a state a mind that knows no geographic boundaries. When composer Lolita Ritmane wins an Emmy in Hollywood, the people of Latvia share in the pride. When violinist Baiba Skride wins first prize in Brussels, Latvians in Cleveland cheer.

At the end of the 19th Century, Latvians took their first step toward real statehood by creating the Latvian Society in Rīga. It was a place where Latvians could go to make friends, share art, music, theatre and literature, and discuss the issues of the day. That eventually led to the establishment of an independent Latvian state. Thanks to Latvians Online we now have a global "biedrības nams" that allows us to share our Latvian feelings and ideas from anywhere in the world. That should help ensure that Latvia—as a state, or simply as a state of mind—survives and thrives.

Congratulations on your one-year anniversary!

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