It’s a lot like the mood of many Latvians today, facing rapid change in all spheres of life. Artis Pabriks and Aldis Pūrs’ book shows us that the “challenges of change” have been many, and difficult, over the past century. One is left quite aghast at the range of shocks that have faced Latvia over this time, and the difficulties yet to face.
The tone for the text is quite adequately set by the cover. This is a serious work of scholarship, part of a series of academic “snapshots” of postcommunist countries. It is one of the few in the series actually written by citizens of the country under study. What makes this book interesting for Latvian readers is that it is a collaboration between a scholar originating from Latvia and another from the diaspora.
The characterisation of the authors in the preface was curious. Pūrs is offered to the reader as “cynical and irreverent,” scion of the Latvian emigre community, characterised as an environment of “intense conservatism and nationalism.” Postmodern titbits on Latvian identity scattered in the text would have to be pure Pūrs. Pabriks is proferred to the reader as a “liberal republican,” words to me very evocative of American politics.
It was pleasantly refreshing to read a dispassionate perspective, yet written by “insiders” to the Latvian scene. Too much written by Latvians about themselves and Latvia is highly charged with bias and emotion. Although one could never purport to be entirely objective, the authors are well-effaced in the writing, leaving readers to breathe a sigh of relief, weigh up the evidence presented and make their own conclusions. Bravo to the authors for raising discussion of “alternative concepts of Latvianness” and those strained state-citizen relationships in contemporary Latvia.
Historical transformations in Latvia are surveyed since the time of first national awakening in the 1850s, with a focus on the period commencing with the second awakening, beginning in the mid-1980s. The reader is informed of developments up until the close of the 20th century.
The end product is a well-woven mesh of history, politics, economics and foreign policy analysis. Overall, here is a sweeping panorama that importantly places changes in Latvia in a wider context, avoiding the nationalistic provincialism of many an emigre history.
The main problem with panoramas is that some portions of the text can become over-packed with information. The introductory chapter was a heady brew in this respect. The rapid march of social and political movements over a century was conveyed in a measured, clear but rather sterile prose style, which did go some way to alienating a general reader like me, although the narrative came alive for me where it painted a picture of people’s lives and social conditions, such as the section on Latvia between the wars. Generally, however, the book is a mine of facts, not a field of flowery phrases or a sea of emotion.
Intriguing were summaries on contemporary issues, such as foreign policy, giving some indication of the motives behind attitudes of some foreign states toward Latvia, and discussing how Latvians can envision their future (for instance, former Latvian ambassador the United States Ojars Kalniņš’ “Amber Gateway” conception of Latvia’s place in its region). The work remaining to be done by Latvians themselves is highlighted. Criticism of recent governments is tempered by muted concluding calls for further development of civil society; for the public, not the state or international organisations, to be more loudly heard in debates over Latvia’s future.
Latvia: The Challenges of Change is a handy general introduction to contemporary Latvia, though primarily for foreign scholars of the region and its particularities. Nevertheless it is a useful reference work and appraisal of the immediate postcommunist period for other readers. And it is a bridge to much more besides. The book is very positive is its copious list of references and impressive bibliography (including Internet sites), as well as a handy chronology for those who want it short and sweet.
Much as its cover attests, Latvia: The Challenges of Change is not a sparkling, rollicking narrative, not a light read by any means. Latvians might say that “not all is gold that shimmers,” but then not all that doesn’t is to be avoided.
Latvia: The Challenges of Change
Artis Pabriks and Aldis Pūrs
London: Routledge, 2001
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