We, the neurotic

As Independence Day approaches again, familiar patriotic sounds are filling Rīga’s chilly air. Flags snap in the drizzle, politicians dust off speeches, and fireworks get tested for another whiz-bang extravaganza on the Daugava.

However, every year this author’s brain makes some other, subversive noises. For as much as I love the frolicking festivities, enjoy belting out some Fatherland-loving fanfares, the party always strikes me as being a bit odd. Not boring by any means, just slightly off the wall.

A few examples may serve to illustrate the whacky nature of the celebrations. Firstly, the last couple of November 18ths have witnessed military parades through the capital. Now there’s nothing wrong with a bit of khaki pomp and circumstance, but you have to realise that Latvia’s armed forces probably couldn’t repel a few determined Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking at their door—and wouldn’t have made much of a fist of it in centuries gone by either. Apart from the Latvian Riflemen whose feats eight decades ago are the reason for the event (or their Lenin-defending Red cousins, who are not PC today), the young men of this country have never been good at beating off the rapists and pillagers.

The date itself is also a worry. In case nobody has noticed, thanks to the collaboration of singing patriots manning barricades in Rīga and some heroically stupid generals in Moscow, Latvia has been independent for the last decade. But you wouldn’t know it from November 18, which commemorates deeds in 1918 that are alive only to a few old men. The tenth anniversary of Aug. 21, 1991, when Latvia broke free from the Soviet Union, was marked this year by overwhelming apathy: a few television documentaries and a coincidental Russian rock concert in the Old Town. Traditions borne of faint memories are preferable to the realities of an independent country.

Then there is the matter of Death. For me, November 18 usually starts at an inhumanly early, hungover hour when my student fraternity marches to the Brothers Cemetery to lay flowers at the graves of those who fought the War To End All Wars. A week earlier, on Soldiers’ Remembrance Day, the whole country troops to the graveside to pay the same respects. Also squeezed into November is the Day of Remembrance of the Deceased, when people visit their nearest and dearest who have shuffled off the mortal coil. Granted, Latvians have always considered late autumn as the time to appease spirits walking the Earth, but does it have to be done three times? Is this fascination with the afterlife a sign of a healthy, forward looking society? May the ghosts strike me down, but I think not.

Yes, November 18 makes me think that Latvians are a tad loopy, an impression not undone by what happens on the other 364 days. However, I recently came across something that makes me think that we are not alone.

In a book called Fifty Years of Europe: An Album, veteran travel writer Jan Morris presents anecdotes, descriptions and reflections from half a century of cris-crossing the Continent. She does not neglect her native Wales or its people, whom she considers to be, well, a bit screwed up. The following quote is a sample of her psychoanalysis:

Politically unsure of themselves, conditioned by centuries of scorn and subjection, the Welsh still seem to doubt their ability to run their own affairs. Years ago I defined the Four Torments of Wales, like the curses of a Celtic fairy tale, and the older I got the more I realised that I was myself a victim of them all. There was the Torment of the Confused Identity—when was a Welshman not a Welshman; were some more Welsh than others? There was the Torment of the Torn Tongue—the anxieties of a society ripped apart by love, contempt, longing for or rejection of its native language and culture. There was the Torment of the Two Peoples—the ambivalence of the Anglo-Welsh relationship, bittersweet, love-hate, never altogether frank. And behind these conscious malaises there was the more elemental angst which was the Torment of Dispossession—the yearning, profound and ineradicable, for a nation’s own inviolable place in the world. These are neuroses, every one, but I suspect that, mutatis mutandis, they are common to patriots in all the minority nations of Europe.

Whatever mutatis mutandis means (they didn’t teach Latin where I went to school), this passage strikes me as being very applicable to the Latvians. Although there may be big differences of history, tradition and temperament between ourselves and the Welsh, I think we go through the same mental agonies.

Let’s consider first the torn tongues and two peoples, interlinked conditions that are central to Latvia’s future development. On the surface, most Latvians have accepted the fact that almost half their country’s population are Russian, by descent and language. Inside, however, there is a gigantic collective maladjustment to the situation.

Today, this comes out in some weird contradictions. On the one hand, the more liberal (and dominant) wing of Latvian politics accepts that the Russians are here to stay, and that the best way to integrate them is to get them speaking Latvian. Ordinary Latvians seem to agree, grumbling about the immigrants who have lived here for 50 years and don’t speak a word of the local language.

And yet, when they come face to face with a Russian, most Latvians will quickly switch over to the Russian language.

Perhaps this is due to a general tendency to avoid conflict, which may have served well in keeping the peace through the past 10 years of jarring political and economic change. It could be the pride small nations take in being multilingual.

However, I think it has more to do with an inward looking, exclusionist way of seeing at the world. Big language groups such as the English, French and Russians are only too happy to have outsiders join their fold—and have often used force to get them to do so. Latvians, however, prefer to live alone. Traditionally living in isolated farmsteads, they can hardly stand each other, let alone strangers. So even though their birth rate is catastrophically low, even though they are almost a minority in their own land, they still resist assimilating the only population group that can keep them alive.

Nothing is more pedantic than a Latvian defending his language. Even when someone clearly expresses themselves, they will jump onto tiny grammatical errors to paint the speaker as virtually illiterate. Currently, some foreign Latvians are campaigning for the reintroduction of an obscure diacritical mark under the letter "r" that they claim the Soviets abolished in the 1950s. In the meantime, life is rolling over these linguistic niceties: for e-mailing and mobile phone messaging, the squiggles and loops are fast disappearing altogether. For the young, English is making inroads at least as deep as Russian ever did into the everyday vocabulary. What was once "kruta" is now "cool." Davai! Okay.

This hapless rejection of foreign influences is sometimes comically masochistic. I remember sitting at a table with three inebriated Latvians who were all chanting that the Russians should go back to where they came from. I put forward the obvious fact that the gene pool of Latvians is thoroughly mixed with Scandinavian, German, and Slavic blood, which they all agreed was true. In fact, the trio then confessed that each of their mothers is Russian, but the Russkies had still better damn well get out…

All of this is the result of centuries of foreign domination. Latvians have been fiercely successful in simply surviving, in not going the way of the Baltic-speaking Old Prussians and other small languages. But they have stayed alive only by simultaneously making compromises with the invaders, and at the same time keeping their inner world to themselves. The result is a great deal of confusion about how they should react towards the world.

Dispossession and confused identity are also two sides to the same coin. Not for nothing one of the most beloved songs of diaspora Latvians is "Zeme, zeme" (sung, incidentally, to the melody of a Jewish folk song): Land, land, what is the land, If you don’ t have real freedom? / Freedom, freedom, what is freedom, If you don’t have your own land?

In Latvian, the words for land and country are the same—zeme—and the struggle for both has been closely linked throughout history. Under German barons and Soviet commissars, Latvians have resented their occupants as much for kicking them off their few acres of soil as for imposing foreign political institutions.

The foreign overlords have also prevented them from being themselves. Latvians have won gold medals at Olympics, played crucial roles in history-changing battles, sung in world-famous opera companies, but usually under someone else’s flag. As a result, as anyone who has identified themselves as a Latvian when travelling abroad will know, the world doesn’t seem to know a thing about us, except maybe for a few sound bites from negative news reports.

There is something touching about the way Latvians cling to the few moments when they are in the limelight. Every spring, the world ice hockey championships cause thousands of young people to go berserk when their team is playing. Asked why they are donning face paint in national colours and singing in the streets, they usually reply, "Because it’s the only game we’ re good at." This inferiority complex translates into emigration. I have talked to numerous youngsters planning to marry, study or work overseas because, they say, "This country doesn’t have anything."

We can hope that Latvia will one day be known for other things besides war criminals and ethnic troubles. In the Soviet Union, the small Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic punched above its weight, producing musicians, sportsmen, chocolates, sprats and radios that were and still are household names over one sixth of the Earth’s surface. Given time, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be repeated in the West, but in the meantime there will be more pained soul-searching.

Still, small nations probably don’t have a monopoly on nervous nail biting. For all their legendary self-confidence, Americans have been doing a lot of navel-gazing after certain recent events. The Germans are completely mixed up about their history. The French like big military parades on Bastille Day, even though their war record is possibly even worse than the Latvians’. And let’s not even get into the murky depths of the Russian Soul…

Perhaps the joy of Independence Day is about being with your very own crazy people.

2 thoughts on “We, the neurotic

  1. Who said that Prussian is dead? It is alive again and people speaks it. We descendents understand how important it is to learn it again.

  2. I appreciate your article with its tongue in cheek humour. It is true that Latvia has never been strong enough to defend itself on its own but has fought very bravely in both world wars. As you mention the Latvian Riflemen in ww1 and in the Waffen SS in ww2 where they were more decorated than any other foreign unit.
    Latvias history has been tragic with foreign domination,deportation and mass refugee exodus. They still face the after effects of 50years of Russification and now further population loss to Ireland etc.
    Let them bask in their well earned sentiment.
    By the way, I agree that the only way to deal with the Russian problem is to assimilate them. Dont be so polite, insist on speaking in Latvian, after all they are in Latvia, not Russia. They will soon learn.

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