Let those in Latvia decide Nov. 18 meaning

To me, the meaning of Latvia’s Independence Day today is very different to what is was when I was growing up.

As a child of post-war Latvian refugees I too attended “Saturday School” where we learnt about Latvian language, culture and our heritage. It was our duty to attend—we were the future.  We had to keep alive the idea that Latvia could again regain its independence and be a free, independent nation.

Year after year, our elders would at the time of Nov. 18 retell the stories of how Latvia regained its independence in the post-World War I period and how, in the following years, people would celebrate the day. We would each go and place flowers and candles at the feet of a large photo of “Milda” (Latvia’s Freedom Monument). We would listen to recordings of the ringing bells of Rīga’s cathedrals and churches.

As a child I would look forward to the celebrations as we would each get a tub of ice cream to mark the event. But I could not help but feel that for the adults and our elders the day was always tainted with sadness.

In those days, the marking of Independence Day had some sort of personal meaning. Even though I was born and raised in Australia, had never been to Latvia and only knew of the place through what I had learnt at language school and through the stories of my grandparents, I felt personally touched, personally responsible, for making sure that in spite of it all the day would be marked and not forgotten. In my late teens (before Latvia regained its independence) I would attend the events, filled with a sort of nationalistic pride, thinking that we must never forget the dream and that we must ensure that Latvia does regain what it once had.

Today, now that Latvia has regained its independence, the meaning of Independence Day as it used to be seems somewhat redundant. The flame has been handed back to those living in Latvia. The job of the diaspora is done.

No longer do I have a personal sense of duty that the day must be marked and remembered. It has been a number of years since I attended one of the official ceremonies held every year at the Latvian House. It’s not that I have forgotten Latvia or that I am Latvian. I have travelled to Latvia five times and keep in contact with relatives there. I still consider myself part of the Latvian community as many of my closest friends are Latvian and I am married to a person of Latvian heritage. It’s just that since Latvia regained its independence, the celebrations of Nov. 18 hold little or no meaning to me.

In some ways I have fallen to the fate of my fellow Latvian emigres and their descendants. Ever since Latvia regained its independence we are forced to re-invent ourselves—our reason for collective existence—as well as the meaning of Nov. 18. It could be said that Nov. 18 can finally become a true celebration as Latvia is now generally regarded as a free and thriving democracy.

And if we have handed back the flame, is it not up to now up to the people of Latvia to define the true meaning of Nov. 18?  Who is to say that Latvia’s independence needs to be celebrated on Nov. 18? Maybe the date should be changed to some time in August when Latvia regained its independence and the world community recognised that it had done so. Either way, it is not up to those outside of Latvia to decide.

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