“Saturday’s already May 1,” my mother said as she peered at the Laiks calendar in the kitchen. “Hmm,” I replied as I scooped up another forkful of her delicious potato salad. “That’s when the big celebration is in Rīga.” I had stopped by my parents’ house to drop off the latest copies of Diena, to update them on the news of Latvia’s hockey team in the world championship and to grab a quick bite to eat.
“Of course,” my mother said. “It’s May Day.”
No, I reminded her, that’s when Latvia and nine other countries officially join the European Union.
And it was then that the irony struck me. For five decades it had been May Day (or Labor Day), a time for displaying socialist solidarity and to praise the likes of Vladimir Lenin and, back in the 1940s and 1950s, Joseph Stalin. How fitting that this day of commemoration, born in the labor movement of 19th century America only to become one of the biggest annual events for the Soviet Union, should now mark what may be Latvia’s final break with its recent past.
This year it will be the key date in a weeklong and countrywide celebration titled “Mēs Eiropā.”
For my mother, thought of the date brought back a memory from 1941, when she was a high school student in Rīga. The Soviets were in power and on May 1 that meant she and her classmates had to march. Had to march.
It was cold that year, she remembered. Students congregated in Doma laukums in the Old City, waiting for their parade to begin. They were to carry garlands of paper flowers from the square across the Daugava River by way of the pontoon bridge that used to span the water.
Along the way, in a small gesture of resistance to the Soviet regime, some boys “lost” their flowers and ended up getting scolded by their teachers.
This was just one of many memories of that era that I’ve heard from her over the years.
In the coming days, we’ll no doubt read newspaper stories about how Latvia and many of the other countries joining the European Union are “returning” to Europe.
In this new era, there won’t be forced parades, although there will be slogans and posters and flag-waving and other Europropaganda meant to sell the idea of a united Europe 25 nations strong. Resistance to EU membership, a constant theme over the past several years, will continue as well. In Latvia, some eiroskeptiķi (Euroskeptics) have gone as far as equating the voluntary membership in the EU with the forced incorporation into the Soviet Union. It’s a ridiculous comparison, of course, but reflects a healthy doubting of membership in anything. Latvians have every cause to be wary.
We can only hope that as a member of the EU, Latvia will find the benefits outweighing the costs. Reports of rising prices—or the fear of rising prices that leads to shortages that leads to rising prices—already are being heard. But so are reports of potential new investment in the Latvian economy and of new opportunities especially for Latvian youth.
As Latvians look back on May 1 in the future, perhaps they’ll tell their children and grandchildren about the big celebrations scheduled in Rīga and elsewhere, about the day their country became a part of the EU. Hopefully, they will look back on this May 1 as a positive day, a day when things changed for the better.
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