30 years later I still cringe at the name of Chernobyl

They say it was a beautiful spring day. What did I do on April 26, 1986? Since it was a Saturday, I must have gone to school in the morning (we used to have school on Saturdays) and then had a weekend to enjoy. I was 12 years old and did not worry about too many things.

But the following weeks and months became the one of the most sad and scary memories of my childhood. Latvia does not border Ukraine but we are not far. People had no idea that 1000 km away we just had the worst nuclear accident in history. A product of severely flawed Soviet-era reactor design combined with human error.Nobody was telling us, the citizens of USSR, anything. Only few days later the first official news started coming through.

Everyone was shocked and worried. I started hearing words like “terrible accident, Ukraine, nuclear plant, Chernobyl, radiation, radioactive cloud, radioactive rain, polluted environment, tragedy, emergency, victims…” There was lots of fear and frustration because the official news in the media was so censored and even false that people did not believe it. Everyone realized it must be much worse than the official version. People were also angry but felt powerless.

One of my friends who grew up in Ukraine, still gets very emotional when she speaks about those events. The annual parade in Kiev on May 1, the Worker’s Day, did not get cancelled. Even though the authorities knew what had happened and how the radiation had spread. Chernobyl is only 135 km (88 miles) from Kiev and thousands of children and youth and adults were parading through the city streets, singing, holding signs of Soviet leaders while everything was covered in invisible radioactive dust.

In childhood I had heard so much about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I had horrible pictures of Chernobyl in my mind. Only much later we saw some images of the actual blown-up reactor.  I had never thought about radioactive clouds but the wind blows where it wants and it blew the poisonous particles across large part of Eastern and Northern Europe. I remember being told not to pick wild mushrooms and berries in the woods.

But the greatest fear was very personal. There was a massive forced mobilization of men into military service to go and contain the contamination and clean up the area. Especially young men with construction skills (the average age of those later called “liquidators” was between 30-40) and my dad worked in construction. Mom was indignant at the thought and I was scared and dad must have been worried. I don’t know how aware were my younger brothers. Eventually he was not mobilized. I have never asked but most likely he was exempt because of family and three young children.

I know other men, though, who were forced to go. My stepdad was one of those ‘unlucky’ ones. He had tried to avoid it but the Soviet army truck drove up to their home and soldiers loaded the “unwilling ones” in. They had to take off their civilian clothes and put on uniforms and travel to Ukraine. He spent 6 months in the worst affected region not so far from the epicenter. Since this clean-up crew was now ‘officially’ in the army, they were guarded by other soldiers to make sure people did not desert. And their ‘protective gear’ was rubber gloves and simple face mask.

My stepdad has already passed away from cancer. Not doubt his health and peace of heart were destroyed by the Chernobyl. Nobody knows the actual number of immediate victims and those who died later. The numbers are big and they vary but it is not about the numbers. What we remember is an overwhelming tragedy, people’s sacrifice and bravery and also terrible injustice.

Therefore I can never place April 26, 1986 in the spring. In my subconscious mind it is a very dark dark time.

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Liquidator pushes a baby in a carriage who was found during the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1986

Saka, ka esot bijusi jauka pavasara diena. Ko todien darīju? Neatceros. Tā kā 1986. gada 26. aprīlis bija sestdiena, drošvien gāju uz skolu, un pēc tam priecājos par nedēļas nogales brīvdienām. 12 gadu vecumā nav daudz rūpju.

Taču nākamās nedēļas un pat mēnešus atceros kā vienu lielu, melnu mākoni. Atceros, kā pieaugušie sāka runāt par “briesmīgu avāriju, Černobiļu, atomreaktoru, radiāciju, ārkārtas stāvokli, radioaktīvu lietu” un tā tālāk. Atceros tās bailes un uztraukumu, jo bija skaidrs, ka oficiālās valsts ziņas nesaka visu vai pat melo. Tātad patiesība bija daudz briesmīgāka, ja jau slēpj. Cilvēki bija dusmīgi, un reizē jutās bezspēcīgi.

Kāda man pazīstama sieviete no Ukrainas joprojām nevar runāt par to dienu notikumiem bez dusmām un sāpēm. Kaut vai par 1. maija, Darbaļaužu dienas, gājienu Kijevā, kas netika atcelts, lai gan valdība zināja, kas noticis 135 km attālumā. Tūkstošiem cilvēku – bērni, jaunieši, pieaugušie – priecīgā gājienā ar dziesmām un plakātiem, kas pārklāti ar neredzamo radioaktīvo putekļu kārtu.

Vēl atceros, kā tika apspriests radioaktīvais mākonis un indīgais lietus. Toreiz domāju, kāpēc vējam japūš to tieši uz ziemeļiem pāri Latvijai uz Skandināvijas pusi. Kāpēc nevar to aizpūst kaut kur citur. Un kā lai tagad zin, vai var lasīt tās sēnes un ogas mežā. Un kas man tagad līs uz galvas? Visas tās sarunas likās kā murgs vai šausmene. Bērnībā biju redzējusi japāņu multeni par Hirošimu un Nagasaki, kas man neļāva naktīs gulēt.

Bet vislielākās bailes bija par tēti. Ka tikai nepaņem viņu tajā piespiedu mobilizācijas vilnī, jo viņš strādāja kolhoza celtnieku brigādē. Tieši vajadzīgais vecums un vajadzīgā profesija. (Lasīju, ka lielākā daļa avārijas seku likvidētāju bija vecumā no 30 līdz 40 gadiem. Vidēji 34 gadi.) Mamma bija kareivīgi noskaņota… nekad to nepieļaušot. Mēs taču esam trīsbērnu ģimene. Man bija bail. Neatceros, bet drošvien arī tētis bija satraucies. Beigās vinu nepaņēma. Varbūt tiešām to trīs bērnu dēļ.

Bet citiem ‘nepaveicās’. Pēc gadiem dzirdēju patēva stāstus par šo piespiedu mobilizāciju. Armijas auto vienkārši atbrauca uz viņu mājām Līgo vakarā, jo zināja, kur ‘slapstošos’ latviešus tajā vakarā atrast. Iesauktie vīri pat mēģinājuši mukt, bet kur aizskriesi. Atdod civilās drēbes un velc armijas formu. Viņš nostrādāja avārikas seku likvidēšanas zonā 6 mēnešus. Tā kā oficiāli šie strādnieki skaitījās karavīri, tad tika citu karavīru uzmanīti, lai nebēgtu. Esot bijuši gumijas zābaki, gumijas cimdi, sejas maskas… un nekā cita īpašai aizsardzībai.

Mans patēvs jau aizgājis mūžībā. Ar vēzi un veselu slimību sarakstu. Nav šaubu, ka Černobiļa sagandēja gan veselību, gan dvēseles mieru. Viņš nespēja piedot šo netaisnību, un tuviniekiem bija bieži jādzird šie stāsti. Statistika par upuriem ir nepilnīga, bet par skaitļiem es nedomāju. Es domāju par šo briesmīgo nelaimi, par cilvēku pašaizliedzību un drosmi. Domāju arī par tiem, kuri kaut vai ne no brīvas gribas, bet tomēr upurēja savas veselības un pat dzīvības, lai šo indi savāktu. Domāju arī par lielo netaisnību.

Tāpēc man vienmēr liekas, ka tas nenotika pavasarī. Jo manā zemapziņā tas palicis kā drūms, drūms laiks.

 

Growing up in the Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors

Often people ask me what was it like to grow up in Soviet Union? What kind of childhood I had and how did it compare to the way they imagined it. They want to know the story behind the story.

Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Wall”. Of course, there was a literal wall in Berlin and largely our borders were impenetrable but mostly it was an invisible but powerful barrier of different kind. Not physical, but ideological one. Like looking at each other through the Looking Glass where the reality appears very different. If not the reality itself, then certainly the definition and meaning of things.

Even children’s stories revealed this. In the USSR, we often had our own versions of famous Western novels. I am sure that some critics would argue but to me one of those ‘revised copies’ was a Soviet fairy tale called “Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors” by Vitali Gubarev which was also made into a popular children’s movie. A Soviet answer to “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll

The plot of each story is different but the main idea remains the same – reality is distorted on the other side. In Lewis Carroll’s story, the main character Alice experienced weird and illogical and confusing things in the strange chess world of power inside the looking glass. But the heroes of the Soviet story, Olya and her mirror image Yalo, were not confused. They saw things clearly. They discovered a world of evil and exploitation and greed and they overcame all the challenges because they came from the “best country in the world” and they were brave little “pioneers”. (Pioneers – a communist youth organization in the USSR. We wore red scarfs which symbolized the Soviet flag)

The evil powers were three plotting characters who wanted to overthrow the king. Their names were spelled backwards (actually in the kingdom everyone’s name was spelled backwards) but they were Kite, Snake and Toad. I saw the movie many times and I quickly figured out that they must be the Western capitalists, imperialists and exploiters.

In the story, Olya and Yalo saved a boy named Friend. He was what you would call a political prisoner because he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for refusing to make the crooked mirrors. The mirrors are everywhere and they show you thin if you are fat, young if you are old, smart if you are stupid and so on. So, the whole kingdom is based on lies and people are turned into either hypocrites or slaves.

I loved the story and I enjoyed the movie. I wanted to be a brave little pioneer like these girls and I wanted to rid the world of all evil and greed and lies.

Then as I was getting older, I started to realize that our own country was full of crooked mirrors and people were making them (think media, education, official history, even literature and art) and people were made to accept the distorted ‘truth’. You did not dare to disagree and those who did… well, they were silenced, sidelined or exiled.

One day the Looking Glass came crashing down. The longer the distance of time the more I start to feel – did I live in a movie? Was it real?

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Photos from the movie “Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors” (USSR)

“Son of Saul” is hard to watch but so worth it

There are good movies and then there are special movies. There are stories and then there are powerful stories. I love movies that tell a good story and engage my emotions and imagination. A good story draws you in and helps you to relate to the main characters. It helps you to try to imagine yourself in their shoes.

“Son of Saul” (2015), movie made in Hungary, is a heartbreaking story. Sometimes we may think – why another movie about the Holocaust? We know the history, we know the suffering, we know the banality of this evil. What else can we say about this evil? What else needs to be said that has not been said already?

I must say that “Son of Saul” moved me more than most movies about the Holocaust. It follows two days in the life of Saul, a Hungarian Jew, who is forced to work as Sonderkommando. These were prisoners in extermination camps like Auschwitz who were made to dispose of the bodies. Saul tries to give a proper Jewish burial to a young nameless boy who could be his son.

What makes this story different from others? Many things. The soundtrack is haunting – there is no music but only the every day sounds of the camp. People, shovels, doors, prayers, screams, commands, whispers. Also there is no melodrama. The camera blurs the background where you can see the indescribable things but the focus is on the faces of main characters. It is a beautiful and unforgettable portrait of one guy trying to keep his humanity in this hell.

Saul is trying to survive but more than anything he is trying to survive as a person. He is desperately trying to hold on to something higher and deeper and eternal. He is fighting to keep his soul and not caring anymore if he loses his body. Looking in his face, I try to imagine his thoughts.

I like that the director found native speakers (sorry but I often don’t get convinced by an American or British actor) and all the characters speak in their own languages. Hungarian, German, Russian, Polish… I don’t know what it is about the language but it is such a part of who we are. There is a scene in the movie where a German SS officer who is deciding whether to keep Saul alive or not, says, “Hungarian is such a nice language.” The paradox of evil – to like the language and maybe even the culture but to kill the people who belong to that culture and language.

It is more than just a story about the Holocaust and I find it very relevant.

For me it is difficult to relate to Oscar Schindler or Władysław Szpilman but here I felt I could put myself in the time and place. Saul could be anyone. Saul is anyone and everyone. He could be speaking Latvian or Armenian or Rwandan or Arabic or Farsi or Hebrew or Rohingya… son of men.

 

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Images from the movie “Son of Saul”

 

 

Our renewed attraction to “greatness”

One leader has promised to make “Russia Great Again”, one businessman has vowed to make “America Great Again” and others in Europe and elsewhere are declaring the same. Then there are those of us who have never been so “great” and just want to keep our countries the way they are. Or keep our countries… period.

These days we talk a lot about nationalism, populism and all kinds of other “-isms”. I am not an expert in anthropology, sociology or political science. I write this blog simply as a person who expresses my own views. This time I write as a citizen of European nation and also as a Christian who wants to engage other Christians in a deeper conversation and reflection about these issues.

Honestly, I think we will soon have to nominate Adolf Hitler as the Time Magazine ‘Person of the Year’. It does not matter if in Europe, America, Asia or Africa – someone gets compared to him. I think Hitler would be very proud that he has such a monopoly on the ugly side of nationalism (I say it sarcastically). Calling people the modern day version of ‘Hitler’ or using the words ‘Nazi’ and “fascist” has become the norm.

Sometimes it makes me want to explode. For two main reasons. Firstly, much of the time people don’t even know what they are talking about. Nationalism and racist ‘national socialism’ of Hitler’s Germany is not one and the same. And I don’t like when people get insulted and demonized. Also, you have to understand what ‘fascism’ is as a form of governance and ideology to use the term properly (I don’t even understand it fully).

Secondly, by putting all this emphasis on Hitler we avoid talking about many other historical figures or national and community leaders (including our own) who were excessively nationalistic. It is easy to point all our fingers at Hitler and scratch our heads trying to understand how could Germans follow him. I scratch my head and think how could any of us follow such leaders and such ideas.But we have and we do and we will if we are not careful and self-critical.

I agree with Rosemary Caudwell (UK), a lawyer specialising in EU law, including three years in the European Commission in Brussels, and her definition of unhealthy nationalism. “We live our lives in the context of a particular nation or region, and it is natural to have a sense of belonging to that nation, and a desire that it should flourish. When that attachment is linked with a sense of cultural superiority, with hostility to those outside the particular national group, whether they are minorities within the nation or neighbouring countries, or even a lack of solidarity or compassion, then it is excessive nationalism.”

Let’s highlight the words ‘cultural superiority’, ‘hostility’ and ‘lack of solidarity or compassion’. Most of us have an immediate negative reaction and if we believe in an absolute moral truth, we will agree that these ideas are simply wrong and bad. Still, if we are honest and humble enough, we will admit that often we live it out or are dangerously close to living them out.

Do you want to know what kind of “greatness” bothers me the most? The kind that says “Everything good comes from us and everything bad comes from them.” The kind that says “They will respect us again which means they will be afraid of us again.” The kind that says “We are more special than others. We have a special destiny.” The kind that says “If you don’t agree with us, you are against us.” The kind that says “We don’t care what others think about us. We don’t care if they don’t like us.”

As a Christian, I believe that anything that promotes a sense of superiority, hostility and lack of compassion or solidarity, is not “great”. It is the exact opposite!

There are never ending debates about how these kind of ideas become popular. Is it the leaders who influence the people and tell them what to think? Is it the people who influence the leaders and tell them what to say? Is it the media who get used and manipulated by one or the other or both? To me it is like debating which come first – the chicken or the egg.

I think that these ideas are always around. They are always hovering in the shadows. It is a part of our human brokenness and we are all prone to it. But they will not take root and bear any fruit if there is no fertile ground. These beliefs and attitudes are always looking for a fertile ground and people who will cultivate it.

We need to take a hard look at our communities and nations. Where is the fertile ground for this excessive kind of nationalism. Then ask the difficult questions – why is it so fertile? I hear many explanations – people are so angry; people feel so victimized and powerless; familiar life is changing too fast; this or that nation feels disrespected and humiliated; nations feel threatened… the list of reasons goes on.

I cannot help but think of the time in history when Jesus explained the principles of God’s Kingdom to people who had all these things. If anybody could feel angry, victimized, powerless, humiliated and threatened, it was the nation of Israel. And in the end Jesus was rejected by its leaders because he challenged their sense of “cultural superiority, hostility and lack of compassion.

The book of John records this revealing conversation. “What are we accomplishing?” the religious and civil leaders asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” So, they decided that Jesus was the biggest threat to their national security and also his way was not the way to restoring their “greatness” or the “greatness” of their nation.

So, what are we trying to accomplish? I hope that we don’t become fertile ground for idolatrous ideas which God so strongly opposes. I hope that we want our nations to be more humble and self-critical, more friendly and more compassionate. I hope that we want our communities and nations to flourish but never at the expense of someone else.

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Discussing these questions with a group of students from Myanmar

Viens vadonis sola, ka padarīs Krieviju “atkal varenu”. Viens biznesmenis sola, ka padarīs Ameriku “atkal varenu”. Politiķi un vadītāji Eiropā un cituviet dod līdzīgus solījumus saviem vēlētājiem. Kaut kur pa vidu ir pārējie, kas nekad nav bijuši “vareni”, un grib vienkārši savas valstis tādas, kādas tās ir. Vai arī vienkārši grib savas valstis.

Šodien mēs daudz diskutējam par tādām tēmām kā nacionālisms, populisms un visādi citi “-ismi”. Neesmu eksperte ne antropoloģijā, ne socioloģijā, ne politikas zinātnē. Blogā paužu savas personīgās domas un uzskatus, un šajā reizē rakstu kā vienas Eiropas valsts pilsone, un kā kristiete, kura grib iesaistīt šajā diskusijā un pārdomās arī citus kristiešus Latvijā un ārpus tās.

Teikšu godīgi. Man liekas, ka drīz būs jāpiešķir žurnāla “Time” Gada Cilvēka nosaukums Ādolfam Hitleram. Kur vien griezies, kāds tiek ar viņu salīdzināts gan Eiropā, gan Amerikā, gan Āzijā, gan Āfrikā. Pats Hitlers drošvien ļoti lepotos, ka viņam tāds monopols uz nacionālisma ļaunāko izpausmi (atvainojos par sarkasmu). Kur tik netiek atrasti mūsdienu “Hitleri”, un apzīmēti “nacisti” vai “fašisti”.

Reizēm liekas, es tūlīt zaudēšu savaldību. Divu iemeslu dēļ. Pirmkārt, vairākumā gadījumu cilvēki nesaprot, ko paši runā. Nacionālisms un ‘nacionālais sociālisms’, ko praktizēja Vācija Hitlera vadībā, nav viens un tas pats. Turklāt man nepatīk, ka cilvēki tiek tādā veidā demonizēti. (Neciešu karikatūras ar ūsiņām.) Manuprāt, daudziem nav arī zināšanu un izpratnes, kāda ideoloģija un valsts pārvaldes forma ir ‘fašisms’ (es pati to izprotu diezgan pavirši).

Otrkārt, veltot visu uzmanību Hitleram, mēs izvairāmies no sarunām un pārdomām par daudziem citiem tautu vadītājiem, varoņiem, politiķiem, kustību vadītājiem (arī savējiem), kuri praktizēja pārmērīgu nacionālismu un rasismu. Ir viegli norādīt uz Hitleru kā kaut kādu etalonu, un tad mēģināt saprast, kā izglītotie un civilizētie un kristietībā sakņotie vācieši varēja viņam sekot. Taču es mēģinu saprast, kā jebkurš no mums spēj sekot šādiem vadoņiem un šādām idejām. Bet mēs esam sekojuši, un sekojam, un sekosim, ja nebūsim paškritiski.

Es gribu citēt Rozmariju Kadvelu no Lielbritānijas, ES likumdošanas eksperti ar pieredzi darbā Eiropas Komisijā Briselē. Man patīk viņas definīcija nacionālisma negatīvajām izpausmēm. “Mēs visi dzīvojam kādas konkrētas nācijas vai reģiona kontekstā, un tas ir dabiski, ka jūtamies piederīgi savai nācijai, un vēlamies, lai tā plauktu. Taču, ja šī piederība tiek saistīta ar sajūtu, ka tava kultūra ir pārāka, ar naidīgumu pret tiem, kas nepieder tavai nācijai, vienalga vai tās ir mazākumtautības valsts iekšienē vai kaimiņvalstis, vai arī trūkst solidaritātes un līdzcietības, tad ir izveidojies pārlieku liels nacionālisms.”

Iezīmēšu vārdus “kultūras pārākuma sajūta… naidīgums… līdzcietības trūkums.” Lielākajai daļai ir skaidrs, ka tās ir negatīvas lietas. Turklāt, ja mēs ticam absolūtai morāles patiesībai, tad šīs attieksmes un izpausmes ir vienkārši sliktas. Diemžēl mums jābūt godīgiem un atklātiem un jāatzīst, ka pārāk bieži dzīvojam ar šādu attieksmi, vai arī esam tai bīstami tuvu.

Ziniet, kāda “varenība” man nav pieņemama? Tāda, kas saka “Viss labais nāk no mums, un viss sliktais nāk no viņiem.” Tāda, kas saka “Viņi mūs atkal cienīs, jo atkal no mums baidīsies.” Tāda, kas saka “Mēs esam īpaši. Mums ir savs īpašais liktenis.” Tāda, kas saka “Ja tu mums nepiekrīti, tu esi nostājies pret mums.” Tāda, kas saka “Mums vienalga, ko citi par mums domā.”

Mans kristietes uzskats ir, ka jebkura ideja, kas veicina sava pārākuma sajūtu, naidīgumu un līdzcietības trūkumu, nav “varena”. Tieši pretēji!

Nebeidzas debates par iemesliem, kāpēc šīs idejas kļūst atkal populāras. Vai vainīgi ir vadītāji un politiķi, kuri ietekmē tautu, un saka, kas tai jādomā? Vai vainīga ir tauta, kas ietekmē vadītājus un saka, kas tiem jārunā? Vai vainīgi ir masu mediji, kas cenšas izpatikt gan vieniem, gan otriem? Man tas atgādina prātošanu par to, kas radās pirmais – vista vai ola.

Manuprāt, šīs idejas vienmēr pastāv. Tās var paiet malā, bet kaut kur ēnā un tumsā lidināsies. Tā ir cilvēces salauztības sastāvdaļa, un mums visiem var būt uz to nosliece. Bet šīs negatīvās nacionālisma idejas neiesakņosies un nenesīs augļus, ja nebūs auglīgas augsnes. Šādi uzskati vienmēr meklēs auglīgu zemi, un cilvēkus, kuri to kultivēs.

Mums jābūt ļoti paškritiskiem. Kur ir auglīgā augsne šīm idejām manā tautā, manā valstī? Un jāuzdod vēl viens svarīgs jautājums – kāpēc šī augsne ir auglīga? Kāpēc cilvēku sirdis un prāti to visu tik labprāt pieņem? Ir daudz un dažādi skaidrojumi. Cilvēki ir novesti dusmu stāvoklī; cilvēki jūtas kā bezspēcīgi upuri; viss ierastais un pazīstamais tik strauji mainās; tautām liekas, ka citas tautas tās neciena un pazemo; tautām ir bail… tie ir tikai daži no iemesliem.

Man prātā nāk Jēzus dzīves laiks un viņa laikabiedri. Jēzus skaidroja Dieva Valstības principus cilvēkiem, kuriem bija visi no šiem iemesliem. Ja kāds varēja teikt, ka jūtas dusmīgs, bezspēcīgs, pazemots, apdraudēts, tad tā bija Izraēla tauta. Taču tautas vadītāji noraidīja un ienīda Jēzu, jo viņš izaicināja viņu “pārākuma sajūtu, naidīgumu un līdzcietības trūkumu.”

Jāņa grāmatā ir pierakstīta vienreizēja saruna. “Ko mēs ar to visu panāksim?”, sprieda tautas vadītāji. “Šis cilvēks rāda tik daudz zīmes. Ja mēs ļausim viņam tā turpināt, tad visi sāks viņam ticēt, un tad nāks romieši un atņems gan mūsu templi, gan mūsu nāciju.” Tā viņi nolēma, ka Jēzus ir vislielākais drauds nācijas drošībai, un viņa piedāvātais ceļš galīgi neatbilst viņu priekšstatiem par “varenību”.

Ko mēs ar to visu panāksim? Es ceru, ka mēs nekļūsim par auglīgu augsni idejām, kas Dievam nav pieņemamas. Idejas, kas nāciju vai ko citu dara par elku. Es ceru, ka mūsu tautas kļūs arvien pazemīgākas un paškritiskākas, arvien draudzīgākas un arvien līdzcietīgākas. Es ceru, ka mūsu saviedrība plauks un zels, bet nekad uz kāda cita rēķina.