Latvia’s retreating glaciers

I was not in Latvia 10,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated, but I can imagine what this place must have looked like. No doubt quite a mess.

Glaciers have a way of destroying, transforming and scarring the landscape that leaves a mark for a long time. And yet, the remarkable thing about a post-glacierized piece of land is how so much comes back to life after the ice retreats. Sure, some plants and animals are lost forever, but new ones also come into existence. And sooner or later, once the death-grip of the continental ice blanket has receded, everything begins to bristle and teem with life again.

As a Latvian born in Germany and raised in the United States I have always tried to comprehend the impact of the Soviet occupation here. While working in Washington for 15 years representing Latvia in various capacities, it started to dawn on me. And now that I have completed my first 12 months as a permanent resident, it has become eminently clear. This country has just come out from under a glacier again.

For 50 years, from 1940 until 1990, Latvia was frozen in place and time by the Cold War and crushed by the massive weight of a Soviet ideological and political glacier. Ten years ago that glacier finally receded, the ice has retreated and Latvia is coming back to life again. But it is not the same Latvia that existed before the glacier came. The war, the occupation and Sovietization all took a heavy price, destroying lives, property and the social fabric. The Kārlis Ulmanis era in Latvia, like the earlier Czarist, Swedish, Livonian and Couronian eras, is now a part of history.

And yet, it is this very history—a succession of military and political glaciers sweeping over this land in regular intervals over the last millenium—that makes Latvia such a fascinating place for me today. As a Latvian who was fated to spend most of his early life outside of Latvia, I am stunned by the incredible resiliency of my people. Despite everything that has happened over the last 1,000 years, we are still singing the same folks songs, still drawn to that same midsummer’s bonfire and still talking to each other in our own language.

Of course, we use that language to argue and accuse more often then to sing, but then, what else is new? Bickering seems as much a national Latvian trait as choral singing. So does building and rebuilding, changing and rearranging. The Latvian experience, as Uldis Germanis’ book of that title describes it, has been one of constant conflict between local and foreign, traditional and transitional, rural and urban, old and new. And somehow both polarities have always found a way to coexist in Latvia. Perhaps that is the secret of our survival.

The French claim that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Latvia, the old patterns of development, growth (and sometimes destruction) through conflict and competing interests continues. It’s the "same as it ever was," as The Talking Heads once sang. Just the names and players have changed.

The Latvian countryside is still the repository of ancient Latvian traditions, Rīga is still a multinational magnet for foreign investment, commerce and culture, and Ventspils remains an industrial power in the great tradition of the Duchy of Courland. It’s just that each of these pillars of Latvia’s identity over the last millennium is now undergoing another transitional phase. Latvia is not only coming out of the communist deep freeze, it is returning to a suddenly superheated world. And I don’t mean global warming.

Latvia is entering a white hot Information Age, where technology is developing faster than society’s ability to fully understand and harness it. The problems many critics like to point out in Latvia—corruption, organised crime, runaway bureaucracy, economic disparity—are global problems. We have not reinvented the wheel here, and like every post-glacial, post-communist, for-50-years-Soviet mismanaged country, we’ve got a lot of physical, political, mental and spiritual rubble to clear. Anytime you take something from the deep freeze and put it into an oven, you risk cracking it. Latvia has its share of cracks.

In a recent article, journalist Juris Kaža expressed deep disappointment over the fact that Latvia today—ten years since independence—is not the Latvia he hoped it would be. He suggested that many of us former exile Latvians were sold a bill of goods in Latvian Saturday schools in the West. I never doubted that. The idyllic exile Latvian vision of pre-WWII Latvia is as far removed from the reality of Latvia today as was the ideologically cynical Soviet version of it. Latvia never was what the Soviets claimed and never can be what our parents knew.

But the Latvia that seems to have so sadly fatigued Juris Kaža is, in his words, a singularly "sordid and sorry sight." It is a country of "ignorance, drunken helplessness, sullen passivity and psychological squalor," not to mention "sleaze, incompetence and ineptitude." Just repeating Kaža’s litany of criticisms gets me depressed, so I’ll just summarise with Kaža’s conclusion that "there is a critical mass of degeneracy at which the society self-destructs." Kaža is not sure whether Latvia has reached this critical mass, "but I have a feeling that it is dangerously close to it."

I disagree. As the old story goes, a pessimist sees the glass half empty, while the optimist sees it half full. Kaža sees all that is dying in this country. I tend to notice that which is coming to life. Life beats death every time. And the kind of life that awaits the successors of the survivors of one more Latvian ice age will be very different from that which Kaža sees on the streets of Rīga and Daugavpils today.

When I think about the future of Latvia’s 2.3 million inhabitants, I don’t identify them by nationality. I categorise them by attitude. I see three groups: those who are lost and frozen in the past, those who have been freeze-dried and left to fend with the present, and those who can’t wait to get to the future. Kaža’s survey of attitudes in Latvia was taken on the streets, where the lost and frozen tend to proliferate. He should listen to what the kids are saying in the schools. The kids that I have spoken to this year in Jelgava, Valmiera, Dundaga and Limbaži are all thinking about the future. Their future. Latvia’s future.

They are bright, curious, enthusiastic and patriotic. They like Renars Kaupers and Vaira Vike-Freiberga. They run active student governments, play a major role in shaping the personality and programs of their local schools, and know the Internet like the backs of their hands. Not only will they inherit the Latvia that awaits us 20 years from now, they are already starting to shape it. Some may question the folkloric authenticity of a pretty Latvian girl in traditional folk dress performing at a song festival with a mobile phone clipped to her waist. But the fact that she even wants to wear that folk dress (and still use her phone) says something about the Latvia of the future. There is a place in cyberspace for a healthy national identity, and the high school kids I meet throughout Latvia are developing their own understanding of both.

Those in Latvia’s society that recognise that they have a stake in Latvia’s future, are already doing something about it. In early November more than 200 women entrepreneurs representing Latvia’s most successful companies held a conference in Rīga’s Congress Hall. If Juris Kaža was looking for evidence of initiative, competence, intelligence, creativity and brilliant management in Latvia, he should have come there. He would have met the best and brightest minds in the country, doing real things that are making a positive difference in the lives of people who live here.

The drunks and street thugs that Kaža uses to symbolise Latvia today are all male. Yet women have always played the central role in Latvian culture. Women have been the caretakers of the Latvian language, culture, traditions—and surviving male population—after each invasion, war and occupation for the last 800 years. But for the first time in Latvian history, women now have a chance to run more than the family homestead. They are running businesses, ministries, newspapers, parties, ad agencies, auto dealerships and nongovernmental organisations. And doing it very well.

I recently met two young women from Rīga who have developed a magazine, media center and worldview that is on the cutting edge of the cyberspace information explosion. It turns out their Re-Lab new media centre is better known in the vast global cyber network of "intercultural jammers" than they are right here in Rīga. Their publication and home page, called Acoustic.Space, has put Rīga in the heart of a worldwide bee hive of electronic activity. We often talk about making Rīga a regional center again. These women have already made it a global cybercenter. They are not just thinking about the future. They are the future.

A problem approaches solution the moment you stop dwelling on what is wrong and start doing something to make it right. Those frozen in the past or present can only see what is wrong. Latvia’s young women, like the kids in the schools and the girls at Re-Lab, have a stake in the future and believe they know how to make things right.

Latvia is entering a 21st century where all the traditional ground rules and boundaries have long changed. Anytime you apply old standards to new problems, you get a mismeasurement. Anytime you fail to plan ahead, you get left behind. Rather than curse the glacier and what it has wrought, we should be looking at the new world that the sun has brought to life. What do we need to do in this new world, given the new rules, the amazing technology and wealth of information that has been put before us? What types of economic and social policies should we be pursuing in order to make maximum use of these new opportunities?

During the last 10 years we have watched the glacier recede and have gone about picking up the rubble in the best way we knew how. This is an important task and must be continued. But we should simultaneously be thinking into the future. Where do we want Latvia to be 20 years from now? Thirty? Is there anything we can plan, start and implement today that will have a long-term impact and bring about the results we desire? What can a medium-sized country (not unlike Ireland), with a given set of resources and options, do to find a prosperous and secure place in the global community?

These issues are not being discussed in the streets of Rīga, but they are increasingly becoming a major topic of conversation in Latvian schools, institutions and organisations.

It’s always fun to ridicule inept and corrupt politicians as Kaža does, and Latvia has surely demonstrated its equality with European Union countries in this regard. I’ll match Latvia’s political scandals with any in Great Britain, Belgium, Italy or France. The Latvian Parliament is indeed one of the least trusted institutions in Latvia, but as I recall from my days in Washington, the members of the U.S. Congress weren’t exactly America’s most beloved public servants either. Name one country in the world where at least some parliamentarians aren’t viewed as crooks.

And yet I have also seen Latvian politicians cross party lines, put aside economic interests and talk about what really needs to be done to secure Latvia’s future. After arriving in Rīga in January to head the Latvian Institute, I was invited to join an ad hoc brainstorming group that was trying to develop a long term vision for Latvia’s political, economic and social future. The group included politicians from three different parties, scientists, sociologists, economists and businessmen. What amazed and impressed me, was the fact that they were indeed thinking about the future. Not the next election. Not the next budget. Not whether the hours we were talking together would increase their profits or not.

The resultant report, called From Vision to Action, will not immediately solve all the problems that depress Juris Kaža, but it does address those active people in Latvia who have a clear stake in the future. It gets them thinking about where Latvia is going, where it can fit in a globalized world, and what life could be like in this country 10, 20 and 30 years from now.

I hope that Juris Kaža gets over his bout with transition society fatigue and sticks around Latvia a little while longer. He may be in for a pleasant surprise. Glaciers retreat slowly and those of us caught in the aftermath have to walk through a lot of muck and rubble. But following right behind us is another generation that is already picking up the pieces, planting the seeds and building the Latvia of the future. These are the people I came to Latvia to work with. They are the reason I’m staying.

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