Es Esmu Latvija

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Latvian Flag circa 1918

Now that 2018 has passed and gone, I thought it would be an appropriate time to reflect on last year being the official celebration of the Latvian centenary of independence. “Latvija 100,” as it is known, refers to the notion that Latvia has been an established country since 1918. Yet, like any interesting story, the tales of Latvia’s coming-of-age is ridden with a diverse historical narrative that still yearns for a nuanced explanation and intentional reflection. It is a story not just detailing a completed past but a story that continues to live on today and will hopefully do so long into the future.

This has been a post I’ve wanted to cover for a while but one that I have also wanted to let digest as I’ve discovered more and more about this country every day. Here is the gist of my understanding of the significance of “Latvija 100” and how it affects me. I hope I can help explain (at least a little) to readers what this celebration might mean for Latvians and also, others while we all continue to learn more about this beautiful Baltic country.

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Why was Latvia created?

World War I was an event that majorly affected Latvians and led to statehood. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, a coalition of politicians came together under shared goals. These included asking for the removal of occupational forces and the recognition of an independent Latvia. However, it took much time and effort for such determinations to materialize. After the German collapse in early November 1918, an opportunity was seized and on November 18, 1918 the independence of the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed and the Latvian Provisional Government was established.

However, the story does not end here. A few days after this hailed November 18th date, Soviet Russia engaged in a military campaign aimed at recapturing its westward provinces. The War of Independence officially commenced as Latvia had to fight for their newly established statehood. Latvians fought together with the remains of the German army against the Soviet Red forces for the majority of the next two years. Eventually, the peace treaty between Latvia and Russia was signed on August 11, 1920, finalizing the War of Independence and leading to the Soviet government renouncing all claims to Latvia.

The early 1920’s included a great period of economic boom and democratic fervor. Latvia joined international trade with both the West and East. By the 1930’s the quality of life in Latvia was comparable to other developed European countries like Denmark and Finland.

What about WWII and the Nazi occupation?

Latvia’s period of growth and independence was interrupted as they were folded into the WWII political deals created between two totalitarian regimes, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Like the other Baltic states, Latvia was assigned to the control of the U.S.S.R. in 1939.  Then, in June 1940, Latvia was invaded and occupied by the Red Army. After Latvia was annexed into the Soviet Union, a period known as the “Year of Terror” commenced. In the first year of Soviet occupation between some 35,000 Latvians were deported to eastern portions of the U.S.S.R., with 15,000 deported between just two days in June 1941. Many of these individuals were sent to prison camps (gulogs) in Siberia.

During the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. (July 1941 – October 1944) Latvia was considered a province of Germany. Latvians were recruited into German military units. The ensuing Nazi occupation led to much bloodshed as Latvian Jews numbering between 65,000 and 75,000 were killed. Many other Western European Jews were shipped to Latvia awaiting their death as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

What about the Soviet occupation?

The first postwar decade proved particularly difficult for Latvia as they again were taken into Soviet control and Stalinism was immediately reinstated. Political repression accompanied socioeconomic change while Latvia underwent extreme Russification. There were several waves of mass deportation. Again, thousands upon thousands of native Baltic people were sent to northern Russia and Siberia, most notably in connection with the U.S.S.R’s campaign to collectivize agriculture. Latvia received numerous immigrants from Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union. Russian language dominated both public and private life.

These cultural distinctions lasted until the pending collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. As instability increased, all three Baltic countries protested their inclusion in the U.S.S.R. by forming a chain of people holding hands and singing, stretching 600 km from Tallinn, Estonia through Riga and down to Vilnius, Lithuania. This was a symbolic demonstration of the Baltic people’s united will for independence. On May 4, 1990, the Latvian legislature passed a declaration restoring the independence of the Republic of Latvia. However, Moscow and the U.S.S.R. military circles could not come to terms with the plans to reinstate Latvia’s statehood. Finally in 1991, Latvia’s full independence was recognized by Russia. Following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Latvia moved towards their own foreign policy goals including entering into NATO and the European Union.

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Propaganda exhibit at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

How is this celebrated today?

Like the birth of any nation, making Latvia into a country took a lot of sacrifice and arduous work. For this reason Latvia decided to create a State Centenary program that would actually stretch across the course of five years – from 2017 to 2021. Over these five years, Latvia has aimed to proclaim their independence with a celebration of their freedom. After all, there is much to be recognized. Never has Latvia had such a long period of growth and independence as what they have to this date. Independence for this country is exhibited in its day-to-day.

Just two months ago, on November 18th, 2018, Latvia’s Independence Day was hailed around the world. The holiday program defined the event as one of accomplishment and recognition through worldwide extravaganzas that were to “encourage each and every person living in Latvia to contribute their ingenuity and good deeds as gifts to our nation.”  I was excited to be right in Riga for that weekend, but was equally overjoyed to see the events that occurred back home in North America, including a Latvian gala in Minnesota and a patriotic display at Niagara Falls.

On the holiday I felt overjoyed to be part of the festivities. Through my experience of living here this year I feel I have done my best to adopt the lifestyle, culture, and language of Latvians. I have tried to learn and understand the difficulties that the Latvian people have faced, especially the past century-long fight for independence. In part because I live here now but because I also come from a democratic society, I could celebrate the salience of democracy and the benefits of what it has brought to this country.  

As for the specific day of November 18th, the city was filled with open exhibits commemorating the event, a grandiose military parade, and spectacular fireworks. My secondary school celebrated the day before with a traditional dance festival, folk-song concert, and birthday cake feast!

 

To stand in the crowds cheering for NATO forces walking the streets and contemplate art commemorated for the event will always be a fond memory in my mind. I would say that this year has generally been one of opening-up for this country. I have seen an embrace of history and identity like nothing I have ever experienced. I am certainly thankful to have been here this year to witness it all.

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American troops fly a Latvian flag during NATO military parade

What does this mean for you?

During my journey this year I oftentimes have had people question how I’ve benefited from coming to Riga for a year. They want to know how being here has changed me and they ask how my stories might have relevance to their own lives. I oftentimes start off by explaining that living somewhere where a society has to embrace their long and harried history everyday is incredibly self-reflective. I say that keeping this in mind changes how I choose to interact in the communities I am part of. That this intentionality in relationship is something we can decide is worth the effort it takes to improve our connections.

So next time that someone asks me, “how is this relevant?,” I hope my tales from this year can demonstrate how salient history actually is. It isn’t just the old, musty tales we read in a book about a country’s past, but is the truth-filled experience of people who are still alive. When I get to talk to a taxi driver or a teacher colleague about what they have lived and grown-up in, I understand that a different past-reality is really not too far away from us all. In fact, it is grappled with everyday through the places and people I encounter.

The “Latvija 100” celebration is one that I have merely stumbled upon in my coincidence of living in this country this year, but it is a coincidence that has changed me. The November 18th day was one of patriotism, but my experience this year is one of empathy. No matter the importance of a national holiday like this one is, I strive to create a kinship with myself and my community day after day. I feel a solidarity with the people here in a way that is indescribable. I want to understand them, I cheer for them, I love them. For I, too, am a part of Latvia. For now on, I will now always chant the cheer, “Es esmu Latvija, I am Latvia.”

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Flag displayed in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Riga, LV

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