Nov. 18 isn’t, and shouldn’t be, obsolete

As a Latvian child growing up in Sydney, my recollection of Nov. 18 each year was of a sombre and solemn occasion: a memorial service, a reception, some speeches, some songs; Latvians of various ages (the average getting progressively older, as each year passed) gathering around the flag—a scene repeated in Latvian halls around Australia.

I was taught that “this was our national day.” But it struck me as quite different from the way that the Aussies around me celebrated Australia Day, because they did just that: they celebrated.  (Well, most of them did. The Aborigines didn’t, but I didn’t know that then.)

The Latvians didn’t celebrate. Back in those days (my recall would date from about 1970)—and at least until Latvia again declared independence in 1991—the exiled Latvians in Sydney would commemorate what had been, not celebrate what was.

And the commemoration would be solemn and stoic and sad. Sure, there would be some grand words of hope and aspiration, spoken usually by the men in suits who addressed the annual gatherings at Latvian House. But I am not sure how much those words were really believed, by those who spoke them or by those who listened. The hope expressed was for Latvia to someday be independent and self-governing again, but it had been half a century since it had been thus…and for such a very short time. I don’t know if any of the kids listening to the speeches, like me, really believed it would happen again. Then, as we grew older and began to understand the political forces at work in Europe and the world, to this general scepticism was added the more specific realization of exactly how difficult it would be. We did not see how it could happen, or what could possibly shift the monolith that was then the U.S.S.R.

Of course, happily, in August 1991 we were proven wrong.

But until then, to me the annual Nov. 18 commemoration was an example of what I sometimes call the “frozen culture” syndrome. We expat kids were taught a “frozen culture” by our parents and teachers. Having little or no access to Soviet Latvia and the cultural lives of its citizens, pre-war Latvia was all they knew and all they could teach us about. Of course, their knowledge and teaching dated back hundreds of years, so there was no shortage of material, but they taught us about the Latvia they remembered, the Latvia they had left in the mid 1940s. For many exiled communities around the world, most of the anniversaries were sad ones. Most of the memorable dates in the calendar were occasions of grief and loss: June 14, March 6, etc. Even Nov. 18, once a joyous independence day, had been overshadowed by what came after.

Given that Latvia is again self-governing, does that make Nov. 18 obsolete as an anniversary?  We have a new independence day in August, so what is the point of Nov. 18 these days?

Pure history, for one thing. As a lover and great respecter of the power and lessons of history, I want my children to know the story of the little northern nation that produced their mother and her forebears, just as they should know the story of the Australian country families that produced their dad. And Nov. 18 is an integral part of that story, a crucial signpost on the ancient timeline of Latvian history.

While it no longer has the sad resonance that it once did—and has been superseded, in a literal sense, by the “current” independence achieved in August 1991—Nov. 18 remains a seminal day in Latvian history. Such historical markers are important, to allow us to pause, consider, think about life and our place in the world. So, I will teach my kids about the tiny window of self-rule that Latvia enjoyed for a few short years early in the 20th century and about what happened to cut this time short. It is part of the story that will explain to them why and how their maternal grandparents found themselves in, of all places, Australia (!), half a world away from their hometowns.

What else? A reminder of what Latvians can do when they put their mind to it. A reminder of what was achieved by a tiny people, against the odds, back in 1918.

Finally, a chance to think and share ideas. I have noticed that the speeches made on Nov. 18 these past few years are different. They tend to be about what Latvia is now and what we want it to become. They look forward, not back. They explore ideas about the role of people like us—the communities of emigrants and exiles—in Latvia’s future and the contribution that we can usefully make, if we want to.

Nov. 18 once mattered a great deal. I think it still does, but in different ways. We shouldn’t just discard a date that matters, forget simply because history has moved on. It will always do that, but we must recognise what is worth remembering—and make sure we remember it.

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