I will admit that I have never been keen on using the word “patriot” or “patriotism” because it is, firstly, overused, secondly, misused, and, thirdly, abused in so many ways by many powers throughout history. Still, it is unavoidable for me to wrestle with this concept and phenomenon. For example, I think of the description “patriot” in the juxtaposition of the war in Ukraine, which has shaken many countries and societies, including Latvia, and how “patriotism” is propagated in Putin’s Russia. Another juxtaposition is much more personal – the complicated, painful history of Latvia in the 20th century and my grandmother’s life as a vivid illustration. She passed away this September at 99 years of age. She was the last of her siblings and outlived most of her first cousins and closest friends. Her whole life has run parallel with the fate of her nation, and she was definitely a patriot.
Last week we celebrated the Independence Day of Latvia. To be precise, on November 18, 1918 People’s Council of Latvia proclaimed the Republic of Latvia, but the actual independence was achieved during the Latvian War for Independence. This year Latvia celebrated the 104th anniversary of the country’s proclamation. I was working that day at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, welcoming many visitors who came to see the new exposition. Many of them just wanted to get warm after watching the military parade. Others brought their children to learn important lessons of history – the meaning and value of freedom, the loss of sovereignty, and the people’s resolve to restore our independent state. It was an emotionally charged day, but my highlight was a conversation with one young boy. He was 10-11 years old and, judging from his questions and interest, was raised in a patriotic family. During the first Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940, many people experienced different kinds of repressions. I mentioned how ethnic Russians in Latvia were arrested more than other minorities. When I asked, “why the Soviet regime especially repressed Latvian Russians?” the little boy was quick to answer. He said, “Because they loved Latvia!”
His answer brought tears to my eyes and made me think of my grandmother. During the guided tours at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, I sometimes mention personal details of my family’s history. Born in 1923, my grandmother grew up in a big family that owned a large farm, and everyone had to work hard. Also, she was raised to appreciate the dreams and the achievements of national self-determination. She lived through WWII and three occupations – Soviet, Nazi, and Soviet again. After the war, she joined the resistance by supporting the National partisans by providing them with food, and shelter and drawing anti-Soviet posters. When the Soviet secret services started suspecting her involvement, she left her newborn son with her parents and went into hiding. In 1948 her parents and her grandmother were deported to Siberia near the city of Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. Just because they were wealthy landowners who were resisting collectivization. The parents were able to return after many years, but her grandmother died and was buried in exile. One of my grandmother’s brothers Toms was also arrested and sentenced to a Soviet forced-labor camp. He did not survive. At the end of the war, the whole family attempted to flee from the returning Soviet army, but only her older brothers managed to get two spaces in a small fishing boat. The rest of the family watched them leave, not knowing if they made it safely across the Baltic Sea to Sweden. They did. Eventually one of them, Juris, settled in Sweden, but the oldest brother Mikelis started a new life in Ireland.
Of course, her family had lost all their property and their farm. Life had scattered them, and my grandmother moved to Riga with the goal of “disappearing” in the big city. During my early childhood, we lived together with my grandmother. She had a very strong personality as the matriarch of the family. At the same time, she was traumatized by the Soviet regime, and I never heard much about this family history. The deportation of my grandmother’s parents was a taboo topic, the national symbols of independent Latvia were hidden from grandchildren. Her general dislike for the Russian speakers was never explained and the uncles in Sweden and Ireland were some exotic relatives in my eyes. I never thought about the pain of being separated from their loved ones and their beloved country.
During the late 1980s, when things started to change and the so-called Iron Curtain was crumbling, I got to know my grandmother from a completely different angle. Until then, I knew that my grandmother loved her family and was always trying to support us. She loved gardening and was creating beauty all around her. She loved God and was very devoted to her fellowship – Āgenskalna baptist church in Riga. She loved her friends and relatives and was always socializing and going places. Suddenly I witnessed and realized that she had another great love – Latvia! All her patriotism, energy, creativity, faith, hope, trauma, pain, and anger came bursting out. When we did not see her for days and weeks, I knew where to find her – at the Freedom Monument. She was there day and night, protesting, demonstrating, with her self-made posters. We still have some of these posters as a precious memory of the inheritance she has left us. I can only imagine how painful it was for her to think of all the compromises she had made with the Soviet regime to protect herself and her loved ones from further repression. I think it was also what made her so angry, focused and determined.
Therefore, in many ways when I think of Latvia, I think of my grandmother. I think of the neverending task and challenge to protect human life, dignity, free will, integrity, common good, freedom, respect, and love for one another in a diverse society. If your understanding is similar to mine, sure, you can call me a patriot of Latvia!