Am I my brother’s keeper?

Thursday, November 30, in Riga was cold, wet and windy. In the evening my friend Bella and I went to the Freedom Monument to help light the candles and prepare the space for a special Holocaust memorial. The official start was to be an hour later and the volunteers were busy getting things organized. I said a quick ‘hello and thank you’ to Lolita Tomsone, one of the main organizers and the director of Žanis Lipke Memorial.

Later a group of us came back to light more candles and to support the message that this beautiful alley of small lights stood for. What did it stand for? That “we remember” and that “we mourn”. On November 30 and December 8, 1941, the people of Latvia experienced the biggest mass killings in our country’s history. 25,000 Jewish men, women and children from Riga ghetto were forced to walk miles to Rumbula forest just outside the city limits where they were brutally shot and buried in large pits, dug by Soviet prisoners-of-war. Another thousand of German Jews were sent to these graves straight from their train.

I stood at the Freedom Monument, reading its famous inscription “For fatherland and freedom”. These people who were murdered in 1941 had helped to build this monument. This was also the land of their fathers and this was also their freedom  but denied and destroyed. I tried to imagine that dreary day 76 years ago. November usually has the most miserable weather  and it makes life feel harsh and depressing. What would it feel like to walk those miles down the familiar and beloved streets? Through the city which is your home… watched by other people who are your neighbors and compatriots. Do you make eye-contact with them or not?

You may read my reflections and think, “Why is it so important to you, Latvians, now? This happened 76 years ago when most of you were not even born. Isn’t there already so much of Holocaust remembrance around the world?” See, the thing is that we have our own reckoning with the past. To many ‘outsiders’ or newcomers we may seem like a nation with more memorial days than celebration ones but we are still learning to grieve together.

What do I mean by grieving together? I mean the solidarity in grief that the loss of freedom and statehood of Latvia in 1940 (occupied by the USSR) and then in 1941 (occupied by Nazi Germany) destroyed our community and changed it completely. The solidarity in grief that all suffering counts the same. People sent to Siberian labor camps by the Soviets and people sent to their graves in Rumbula by the Nazis did not deserve any of it.

But there is another crucial element to this history lesson. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German Lutheran pastor wrote a famous poem. It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There is an unforgettable conversation from the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Genesis, God talks to Cain after Cain has killed his brother Abel and hidden the fact. When God asked where Abel was, Cain answered: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He did admit that Abel was his brother, though.

I think one of the most painful things in our histories are not the murders themselves but the denial of brotherhood. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? Who is my fellow citizen who has the same rights and dignity?

We know that these age old questions are still being asked today. Are the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean our brothers? Are the immigrants our brothers? Are the people with opposing political views our brothers? Are the people with different skin colour our brothers? Are the sexually abused women and girls our sisters? Are the people sold in slave markets our brothers and sisters? If we are Christians, are the Muslims who are fleeing from war and violence our brothers? If we are Muslims, are the Christians persecuted and killed by extremist groups our brothers? If we are Bamar Buddhists, are the Rohingyas in Myanmar our brothers?

We need to get this right. So that future generations don’t need to light thousands and thousands of candles…

Latvian:

Vai es esmu sava brāļa sargs?

30. novembris Rīgā bija auksts, slapjš un vējains. Vārdu sakot, draņķīgs laiks. Vakarā mēs ar draudzeni Bellu devāmies pie Brīvības pieminekļa, lai palīdzētu aizdedzināt sveces un sagatavot vietu Rumbulas akciju piemiņas vakaram. Līdz oficiālajam sākumam bija atlikusi stunda, un brīvprātīgie palīgi bija aizņemti ar kārtošanu. Īsi sasveicinājos ar Lolitu Tomsoni, Žaņa Lipkes memoriāla direktori un vienu no pasākuma galvenajām organizētājām, un ķēros pie šķiltavām un svecēm.

Vēlāk mēs ar citu draugu kompāniju atgriezāmies, jo arī viņi vēlējās gan iededzināt sveces, gan atbalstīt šī piemiņas vakara vēstījumu. Kāds tas ir? Ka “mēs atceramies” un “mums sāp”! Vai tas ir vajadzīgs? Pietiks ar Marģera Vestermaņa atbildi:

“Mīļie,

Esmu piedzīvojis Rumbulas un Biķernieku šausmas, kur gāja bojā visi mani mīļie, visa mana ebreju pasaule. 75 gadus esmu gaidījis, lai Latvijas sabiedrība teiktu, tie arī ir mūsējie. Esmu laimīgs, ka gara mūža galā esmu šo brīņišķīgo brīdi sagaidījis.

Paldies Jums visiem labiem cilvēkiem. Cik labi apzināties, ka esam visi kopā.

Dr.hist.Marģers Vestermanis, viens no nedaudzajiem holokaustā izdzīvojušiem.”

Stāvēju pie pieminekļa un skatījos uz vārdiem “Tēvzemei un brīvībai”. Latvija taču bija šo ebreju ģimeņu tēvzeme, un šeit bija viņu brīvība, līdz tas viss tika atņemts un iznīcināts. Tad es pakustināju savus nosalušos pirkstus ar domu, ka jau drīz būšu siltumā. Kāds laiks bija tajā drausmīgajā dienā 1941. gadā? Drošvien arī draņķīgs. Novembris taču vienmēr ir visnožēlojamākais, viss tik tukšs un pelēks.  Kā būtu iet tajā garajā nāves gājienā pa sev tik pazīstamajām un mīļajām Rīgas ielām? Cauri Rīgai, savai pilsētai? Un, ko darīt, ieraugot pazīstamas sejas? Vai viņi uzsmaida, vai novērš acis, vai raud?

Nesaprotu, kā vēl var rasties jautājumi vai iebildumi, vai ebreju piemiņas vakarus jārīko pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Vai tad šis piemineklis nav visas Latvijas un tās vēstures simbols? Ja jau Māte Latvija, tad māte visiem saviem bērniem. Bet mēs vēl mācāmies sērot kopā, nesalīdzinot un nešķirojot ciešanas. Par Sibīriju, par Rumbulu

Nāk prātā vēsturiskā patiesība, ko tik spēcīgi atgādināja vācu luterāņu mācītājs Martins Nīmellers (1892-1984), kritizējot vācu intelektuāļu/luterāņu gļēvumu Hitlera varas laikā:

Vispirms viņi atnāca pēc komunistiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju komunists. Tad viņi atnāca pēc arodbiedrībām, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju arodbiedrībā. Tad viņi atnāca pēc ebrejiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju ebrejs. Tad viņi atnāca pēc manis, bet tikmēr vairs nebija palicis neviens, kas kaut ko teiktu.

Citās versijās Nīmellers min arī katoļus, Jefovas lieciniekus, utt.

Ebreju Bībelē pašā cilvēces stāsta sākumā ir viena neaizmirstama saruna. Kains ir nositis savu brāli Ābelu, un Dievs viņam jautā, kur ir tavs brālis. Kains atbild: “Es nezinu! Vai es sava brāļa sargs?”

Vismaz Kains nenoliedz, ka Ābels bija viņa brālis. Man liekas, ka vislielākās ciešanas mūsu vēsturēs izraisa nevis pašas slepkavības, bet tas, ka mēs noliedzam vai aizliedzam brālību. Kurš ir mans brālis? Mana māsa? Kurš ir mans kaimiņš? Kurš ir mans tuvākais? Kurš ir mans līdzpilsonis ar tādām pašām tiesībām?

Šis mūžsenais jautājums paceļas atkal un atkal. Vai bēgļi, kuri slīkst Vidusjūrā, ir mūsu brāļi un māsas? Imigranti? Citas rases cilvēki? Politiskie pretinieki? Vai seksuālu vardarbību cietušas sievietes un meitenes ir mūsu māsas? Vai cilvēki, kurus pārdod mūsdienu vergu tirgos, ir mūsu brāļi? Ja tu esi kristietis, vai musulmaņi, kurš bēg no kara un vardarbības savā zemē, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi musulmanis, vai kristieši, kurus vajā un nogalina radikāli ekstrēmisti, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi birmietis un budists Mjanmā, vai Rohindžas ir tavi brāļi?

Mums ir jāatbild šis jautājums. Lai nākamajām paaudzēm nevajadzētu dedzināt tūkstošiem sveču…

What is it to be?

99 years… old or young? There is a popular Latvian song about Latvia being too big to hug or cover with your blanket as you would for a loved one but it is too small to go alone in the big wide world. Similar metaphor can be used for these 99 years we celebrated yesterday (November 18, 1918 was the proclamation day for independent state of Latvia). It is not a very long time in history or for a country and we still have the generation that was born around the time of first independence (my grandmother is only 5 years younger than our country).

The celebrations have been many, the speeches were long, the anthem has been sung countless times, the flags were everywhere and the fireworks great as ususal. And for the first time I put a tiny flag on my coat. I have often had reservations about this little gesture because I am against the arrogant kind of nationalism and I don’t support the idea that patriotism or the love for your country and your people is best expressed through symbols like flag, anthem, costumes, etc. I don’t want to look at people and think, “Look, he or she is wearing it. So, we are on the same team.”

I want to see how people think, talk, act and live every day and then hopefully we are on the same team. For the same reason, as a Christian,  I have chosen not wear a cross around my neck even though I don’t mind when other people wear it. I hope to be identified as a follower of Jesus not for the symbols and crosses and doctrines, but for trying to walk the talk which is always counter intuitive and deeply challenging to my ways.

The idea of Latvia and the real Latvia does not always match and sometimes it contradicts itself. And while our country is preparing to celebrate the big 100 next year, we are at some kind of crossroads again. There are many things happening locally and globally and some trends are simply dangerous. Again and again the big nations want to settle their differences and satisfy their interests at the expense of small ones. Again and again the powerful and wealthy are getting more power and wealth. Again and again the ordinary people fall for empty populist promises and go in circles.  Again we ‘fortify’ our ethnic or national or religious identities to exclude those whom we don’t understand, like or are afraid of and so easily move away from universal human values and actually our religious ones (which is the greatest tragedy).

Latvia is watching and Latvia is learning (I hope we are!!!). More than ever we need to reflect deeply but act fast. On one hand we are still deciding on the future story since we had a long and painful interruption that lasted 50 years and changed us profoundly. And we cannot turn back in time and find the perfect moment or the magic key because it simply does not exist. On the other hand we can be very grateful and proud of what we have achieved and how blessed we are with what we have. It is not because we are better or deserve more than people in Yemen or Somalia or Myanmar or Venezuela or North Korea. There are many reasons why we have what we have and some of them we had no control over but we should not take anything for granted.

Yesterday I was watching on TV the ecumenical church service which takes place every Independence Day.  There was obviously an older crowd and at first I thought, “why are there so many old people? is it because we, the younger ones, did not want to get up early on Saturday morning? or we find these kind of services too formal and boring?” But then I saw the tears when one old man was singing the song “Bless this land, Father” and this prayer suddenly hit me. The older generation knows the difference. They know what it is like to “live on your knees” and to be able “stand up” again and help others to stand up. They know what it is like to hide your national flag or other symbols in the attic or hide the Bible and other books which are simply too dangerous for totalitarian systems.

Yes, Latvia is a very small place in the big wide world and many things we cannot control ourselves but we do have control of what kind of story we would like.  What is it to be? I want it to be a story that will never make me ashamed to put the tiny flag on my coat.

Latvian:

99 gadi… veca vai jauna? Gluži kā U. Stabulnieka/M. Zālītes dziesmā, kas mums tik tuva, mīļa un saprotama. Latvija ir par lielu, lai paņemtu klēpī un apmīļotu, bet par mazu, lai laistu vienu pasaules plašajos ceļos. Tāpat Latvija ir par vecu, lai teiktu, ka tā vēl neko nezin, nav piedzīvojusi, sasniegusi, sapratusi un vēl jāpadzīvo, lai kļūtu gudrāka un labāka. Bet par jaunu, lai teiktu, kā tā ir savu ideju piepildījusi. 99 gadi nav nekas cilvēces vēsturē, arī valsts pastāvēšanā. Mēs esam salīdzinoši ‘jauna’ valsts (ja atskaita tos 50 padomju gadus, tad vispār), un mūsu vidū vēl ir ap Latvijas valsts izveidošanas laiku dzimušie. Arī mana vecmamma ir tikai 5 gadus jaunāka par Latvijas valsti.

Svinības jau iet uz beigām, runas norunātas (gan vērtīgās, gan tukšās), himna nodziedāta pie katras izdevības, karogi visapkārt, un ugunis izšautas gaisā. Un šogad es pirmoreiz piespraudu mazo lentīti pie mēteļa. Mani vienmēr kaut kas bremzēja, jo tik ļoti nepatīk augstprātīgs nacionālisms (tāds, kurš cenšas sevi pacelt augstāk par citiem), un man nav pieņemama ideja, ka savu patriotismu, tātad mīlestību uz dzimteni un tās cilvēkiem, vislabāk izrādīt ar simboliem, karogiem, himnām, tautas tērpiem, utt. Es negribu piederēt kaut kādam “mēs – latvieši” klubam, kur viens otru atpazīst pēc ārējām piederības zīmēm… re, savējais no mūsu komandas!

Svarīgi, kā cilvēki domā, runā, rīkojas un dzīvo katru dienu, un tad es spriedīšu, vai esam vienā komandā. Gluži tāpat man kā kristietei nav gribējies kārt krustiņu kaklā, kaut gan nav pretenziju, ka citi to valkā. Dažiem tie krustiņi izskatās tik stilīgi, ka man arī uzreiz sagribas. Bet vissvarīgāk, vai mana dzīve vismaz mazliet atbilst tam, kā iedomājos Jēzus sekotājus. Mūs neatšķirs pēc krustiņiem, Bībelēm, zivtiņām uz auto, ticības mācības skolās, bet ievēros, ja cilvēks ņem nopietni iešanu pret ‘straumi’ un varas, vardarbības un mantkārības sistēmām.

Mana ideja par Latviju bieži neatbilst reālajai Latvijai (protams, ka ideālas valsts vispār nav), un šķiet, ne man vienīgajai ir sajūta, ka, gatavojoties simtgadei, mēs gan svinam svētkus, gan stāvam krustcelēs. Ko tālāk?  Šobrīd pasaulē tik daudz lokālu un globālu pārmaiņu. Turklāt tas notiek strauji, un tāda maza valsts kā Latvija maz spēj ietekmēt tendences vai risināt globālās krīzes, piemēram, vides piesārņotību un alkatīgo dzīšanos pēc dabas resursiem. Atkal un atkal lielās un spēcīgās valstis risina savas domstarpības un rūpējas par savām interesēm uz mazo valstu rēķina. Atkal un atkal varenie un bagātie sagrābj vēl vairāk varas un bagātības. Atkal un atkal ‘vienkāršie’ ļaudis balso par balamutēm populistiem un tukšiem solījumiem. Atkal mēs veidojam savus etniskos, nacionālos un reliģiskos cietokšņus, lai izslēgtu tos, kuri mums nepatīk vai no kuriem mums bail, un pārsteidzoši viegli atsakāmies no vispārpieņemtajām cilvēciskajām vērtībām un arī savām reliģiskajām vērtībām (kas ir pats traģiskākais).

Latvija vēro, un Latvija mācās (es ceru!!!). Cik ļoti mums nepieciešams pārdomāt dziļi, bet rīkoties ātri! Mēs nevaram atgriezties kaut kādā brīnīšķīgā pagātnē un atrast to īsto  laimes atslēdziņu, jo tāda neeksistē. Mēs varam būt pateicīgi un lepni par saviem sasniegumiem un svētībām, ko esam saņēmuši. Taču nedomāt, ka paši sevī esam labāki par tautām Jemenā, Somālijā, Mjanmā, Irākā, Venecuēlā vai Ziemeļkorejā, un ka mums tas viss vienkārši pienākas. Paši zinām garo stāstu, kāpēc mums tagad ir laba, mierīga, pārtikusi un droša dzīve, kaut daudzas lietas bijušas ārpus mūsu kontroles. Tas nav nekas pašsaprotams.

Svētku dienā es ieslēdzu TV, un redzēju pašas beigas ekumēniskajam dievkalpojumam Doma baznīcā. Pirmais, kas iekrita acīs, bija sirmās galvas, un vēl visi bija tik uzkrītoši nopietni. Mēs, latvieši, tiešām no malas izskatāmies drūmi, un nezinātājs varētu padomāt, ka tur bija sēru dievkalpojums. Bet ne par to šoreiz. Es sev jautāju, kāpēc uz tādiem oficiāliem pasākumiem iet veci cilvēki un tik maz jaunieši. Man pašai negribas celties brīvdienās tik agri, un varbūt tas viss liekas tik formāli un garlaicīgi. Bet tad ievēroju sirmo ļaužu sejas un asaras acīs, dziedot dziesmu “Svētī, Kungs, šo mūsu zemi”, un man bija kārtējais belziens pa pieri.

Viņi taču zin, kas mūsu Latvija nav pašsaprotama! Viņi zin, ko nozīmē dzīvot “nospiestam uz ceļiem” un atkal piecelties un palīdzēt piecelties citiem. Viņi zin, ko nozīmē slēpt šo karogu un totalitārai sistēmai bīstamās grāmatas kā Bībeli, u.c.,  mājas bēniņos vai zem grīdas.

Jā, Latvija ir maza, un globālā līmenī mums maza teikšana, bet savu stāstu gan veidojam paši. Kāds tas būs turpmāk? Es vēlos, lai tas ir tāds, kas man nekad neliks kaunēties par mazo karodziņu pie mēteļa.

 

Martin Luther, Krišjānis Barons and my claim to fame

My parents could not pick the day I was born but my mom was always very proud of the date – October 31. She used to tell me that I was born on the same day as Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923), one of the most influential people in forming Latvian national identity and shaping cultural history. He is considered the “father of Latvian folksongs” to honour his work in collecting, researching and preserving this cultural heritage. A wise looking man with long white beard and glasses… I used to look at his image and wonder what kind of wisdom he would impart if we had met.  I felt that my mom’s pride about the special date was supposed to inspire and encourage me to learn, to explore, to gain knowledge and then pass it on.

The example was set… Be intelligent and visionary!

I was born when the USSR still existed and my family were not particularly religious (except my grandmother). Scientific atheism was the official “faith” and certainly there were no celebrations for significant religious events. Like Reformation Day which also happens to be on October 31. I had never heard of it even though the skyline of any Latvian city is dominated by churches, especially Lutheran ones. Even many non-church people like to think of themselves as “Protestants”.

Today, Oct. 31, 2017 was the 500th anniversary of Reformation movement. I learned about the Reformation and 95 Thesis and Martin Luther much later and there is still so much I wish I knew. It does not matter if Luther actually nailed his thesis to the church door in Wittenberg or mailed them, the fact is that these thoughts, questions, critical analysis, challenge to the institutions and powers-to-be spread like a wildfire and continue to impact all of us today. Especially in Europe. I have a feeling that, just like me, many of us still have no clue what actually happened and why is it such a big deal?!

Certainly Luther’s challenge to the highest civil and religious authorities of his day continues to inspire those who struggle against corrupt power systems and those who claim to hold “the keys to eternity”: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

 

The example was set… Be courageous and always seek and speak the truth!

It really is a big deal if we get it. Today we had another discussion in our university where my professor shared his passion and also deep frustration that Reformation is still undervalued and underestimated. Certainly Martin Luther was no Jesus when it comes to changing hearts and minds and some of his views, especially in later life, are very controversial. Many of his views I do not share. But history is made by imperfect people since perfect people simply do not exist.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, and vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness.”

The example is set… Be just, compassionate and above all loving person!

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Lustration and flushing out the Soviet poison for good

I belong to two generations. One is Gen X – Nirvana, grunge, MTV, alienated youth, indie, The Cure, flannel shirts, cynicism… I am also generation between two worlds, two truths, past disconnected from future. Born in the USSR but becoming an adult in free and independent Latvia.

The feature photo was taken at a former Soviet military facility in western Latvia which used to have many Soviet army bases. The small village of Irbene had one of the top secret facilities, used for listening in on military conversations and spying on NATO countries during the Cold War years. It had huge antennas. Now it is a tourist destination, offering tours in the underground tunnels (which are very long and eerie) and the abandoned laboratories.

A quote by a local astronomer, “It is possible to film a horror movie here called Frankenstein and the KGB, and nobody would need to spend anything on creating the movie set.” Precisely! I felt like I was in one of those movies, except the depressing feeling of familiarity. The faded Soviet star used to be bright red, the warning in Russian used to instill fear, the secret facilities and weapons were meant for the enemies which we were told hated us.

For Western tourists this can be an interesting discovery, for me it is a stark reminder. These secret facilities do not pose a threat anymore but what is the legacy left behind. We can re-paint and re-use but we cannot afford to whitewash.

When talking about our Soviet past, experience and system, people use words like ‘poison’ or ‘cancer’ that infiltrated the individual and collective psyche. Often the outsiders point out things which don’t take long to notice in Latvia. One of the symptoms of this lingering poison is inability or unwillingness to trust. The Soviet system like any other totalitarian regime was built on very twisted human relationships – where people spied on each other,  where friends betrayed friends, where colleagues reported things to authorities. Where you walked the party line to succeed. Where you silenced your conscience or starved your mind. Where you lived a double life – one in public and another at home.

Those who were born in already free Latvia carry very little of this residue but they still feel it. Feel it in their parents, grandparents, older teachers, government, society at large. And they question louder and  louder why are we they way we are? Why aren’t we more trusting, more open to new people, experiences and cultures? Why aren’t we more transparent, willing to take responsibility, ready to take make decisions? Why do we have historic  topics which we avoid or shut down? Something is still holding us back, something is still bending our necks, something is still casting its shadow.

I was a little child but even I remember the manipulation and hypocrisy and propaganda. I remember how it looks, how it sounds and how it feels. It acts arrogant, self-righteous, aggressive (very aggressive); it glorifies military might above everything else.  It always has “us vs them” world, it has many enemies, it punishes those who dare to disagree. It creates its own reality. And it never repents and never admits any guilt… never.

Latvia is not this world anymore but our healing is still in process. Restoring personal and national dignity, respect and justice takes time but time does not heal all the wounds. We don’t have the luxury to wait decades until “the old people from the old system” die and then all will be well. I don’t believe that. I believe that we have to be very intentional and active in exposing this ‘sickness’ and ‘shame’ that still infects us. We need deeper lustration and talk openly about the broken relationships.  Bravely and humbly condemn, repent for the things people did to each other because the whitewash never holds… and then our dignity and respect for ourselves and each other can be restored.

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Helpful or harmful to talk about painful national past?

This is a common and valid question. When do the wounds, losses and memories from time ago truly become things of the past? When does it heal and hurt no more? When does dwelling on the past become harmful and we get stuck in it? Increasingly many people in my global circle of friends are reflecting on these issues.

I was giving a lecture on principles of reconciliation and one Swiss student in Latvia asked me, “Why do we need to talk about these tragic things that people and nations have done to each other? Doesn’t this just stir the pain and keep it alive? Doesn’t it actually harm good relations and infect the present situation?” Again a very good question most often coming from the youth who are 25 and under. When I was 18 or 20, I would have asked the same thing as I often felt that the older generations talked too much about the past. I only had the future to worry about.

In my case, with time and experiences around the world came a desire to see the bigger picture and also a realization that actually we do inherit national memories from the generations before us. We claim that it is “not our problem” and that we are “not responsible”. But we look at the reality around us and see that ‘yesterday’ still has a strong effect on ‘today’. And then we start to take ‘tomorrow’ more seriously because it cannot be taken for granted.

I use the word ‘yesterday’ because in this part of the world we live in very young nations. I don’t mean cultures or ethnic identities because there is long history here but many of our republics are celebrating 100 year anniversaries. Republic of Latvia is preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary on November 18, 2018 and Estonia on February 24, 2018. Lithuania has a much longer history of statehood but on February 16, 2018 it will celebrate 100th anniversary of the Restoration of the State.

100 years is not a very long time. I did not know it when I was a teenager but I understand it now because my grandmother is only 5 years younger than the Republic of Latvia. And her generation is still around with their memories and stories and things to teach and pass on. In this life span there have been exciting highs of free society, high achievements, big dreams and deep despair of war, bloodshed, holocaust, ethnic cleansing. 50 of those years Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania have been occupied by a Soviet regime and forced to live under a system which was foreign and destructive. Not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally and socially.

Metaphorically speaking, we still feel this Soviet system poison in our ‘veins’ and we need to flush it out if we want to be healthy. How? Part of it is calling things their real names. For example, the Soviet times taught people not to trust anyone and how to become hypocrites. Saying one thing but thinking another and then doing something else entirely. The private and public lives often did not match but everyone knew it and pretended. The system was good at pretending. And we still find it hard to trust anyone and we still struggle with lots of corruption because our psyche has been so corrupted.

Another thing we need to flush out is “us” and “them” mentality. Again, the Soviets were masters of this art and they had good disciples. “International” by name but “chauvinist” by nature. And history was so politicized and used for propaganda and brainwashing that we actually could not have an honest truth seeking, grieving, forgiving, apologizing and reconciling.

So, you see we are dealing with questions which should have been addressed before but were delayed. The first step in any reconciliation process is truth seeking. If there is a conflict, pain or resentment, it is a given that something happened. What happened? Why did it happen? How did it effect people? This part of the homework is super hard. Many people want to skip over it completely. One journalist asked, “Can we have reconciliation first and then try to find out the truth?” Sorry to disappoint but it is not possible. That would be called “avoiding the topic” or “sweeping things under the carpet”. And that is exactly what most people and societies do because it seems much easier.

(I am not talking about situations where there is real violence and war and brutal conflict. Of course, you first need to have a ceasefire and stop killing each other and let things calm down before you can even address these deep issues. The basic need is always to preserve people’s lives and take care of their basic need like food, shelter and safety. You do not hold Truth and Reconciliation Committees in a battle zone.)

Last week I wrote about a Reconciliation event in Riga. There I had a conversation with a Latvian whose ethnic background is Russian. He is 21 years old and he was completely convinced that “if we truly want to have better relations with each other, we need to start by apologizing. If we only come together and talk about the facts but take no personal responsibility, we will get nowhere. When we come together, we need to ask each other for forgiveness.”

He wants a good and long future for Latvia and all people in Latvia and for those who will come to live here. So do I. The same for Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians… and you can add your country to the list. This is exactly why we need deep and honest reflections about ‘yesterday’ if we desire a good ‘today’ and better ‘tomorrow’. And start apologizing and forgiving where needed.

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Spring time in Rīga (photos from personal archive)

 

More than a Wikipedia fact in postcard from Latvia

Do you have a wish list of influential people you would like to meet? High on my list is Vaclav Havel. I wish I could have met him as his prophetic wisdom is on my mind …

This goes out to everyone flirting with authoritative regimes and ideas where truth does not matter, where freedoms can be traded for economic stability and security, where all the problems is someone else’ fault and the rest of the world is threatening place to be isolated from. I wish I could transport you back in time to Latvia on May 4, 1990… There are some hard and painful lessons learned that Latvians can teach!

Today is a national holiday in Latvia. We celebrate and remember the events of May 4 in 1990 as the anniversary of Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia which was adopted by the Supreme Soviet of Latvian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic)

It sounds like a paragraph from Wikipedia but for millions of people from Europe it means something profound, life changing and universally important. It also means the experiences and lessons of the past, the realities and understanding of the present and the dreams and challenges of the future.

Talking about the past, one of our common and real experiences was living in a ‘post-truth’ and often ‘invented truth’ world. I want to quote Vaclav Havel from his famous essay The Power of the Powerless: “Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”

Even the name – Latvia Soviet Socialist Republic. This was not real ‘republic’ with freedom, democracy and the rule of law. This was not real ‘socialism’ where social justice actually means something. And it certainly was not ‘soviet’ which literally should mean that it is the council of the people.

Another experience of this past is again well-expressed by Havel: “The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and  to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life.”

On May 4, 1990 there was such a wide-spread and irreversible feeling that people are tired of living this pseudo-life. There was a large crowd gathering for demonstration and support but it was not anonymous anymore. Each face had a name, each voice mattered, each person felt important realizing that freedom and regained dignity is possible. This truly was the power of the powerless.

These experiences define who I am today. Even though I was very young and don’t remember details, it has a direct link to how I view the world.  We call the year 2016 as the year of ‘post truth’. It is tragic and dangerous and many other adjectives I could add. Havel wisely wrote that “Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt against an enforced position, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility. In other words, it is clearly a moral act, not only because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not self-serving.”

Truth is not self-serving. It answers to a higher master and it serves a higher purpose and it calls everyone to personal responsibility. And this where the future challenge lies – we succumb again and again to pseudo-life, pseudo-justice, pseudo-plurality and other convenient lies.

Today in Latvia we remember where we were and who we were and we talk about where we are and who we are now. And we reflect on where we want to be and how to get there.

Celebrate with us! With love from Rīga

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Latvian:

Šoreiz es netulkošu burtiski, bet pārstāstīšu galveno domu, jo šis ieraksts latviešiem nozīmē pavisam kaut ko citu, kā maniem draugiem un lasītājiem ārzemēs. Mani turpina iedvesmot Vaclavs Havels un viņa pravietiskie vārdi un pasaules redzējums. Plauktā ir viņa grāmatas angļu valodā, un man nav pie rokas latviskais tulkojums (gan jau kāds ir iztulkojis), un pašai nav laika un spēju izdarīt to pienācīgi labi. Tāpēc Havela tiešos citātus lasiet pirmajā daļā.

Es gribēju uzrakstīt kaut ko par 4. maiju, un ko tas nozīmē šodien un tagad. Un tad sāku domāt, cik tā ir tik svarīga un joprojām aktuāla vēstures mācību stunda šodienas sabiedrībai visā pasaulē.

Parasti manu blogu lasa līdzīgi domājošie (kā jau tas mūsdienās pieņemts, mēs lasām to, kas mums glāsta pa spalvai, bet negribam lasīt to, kas izaicina vai aicina paraudzīties no cita skatu punkta), bet mans dialogs jeb saruna ir ar tiem, kuri domā savādāk. Man gribētos, lai šo rakstu izlasa tie, kuri flirtē ar autoratīviem režīmiem, kuri gaida “īsto glābēju” vai “stingro roku”, kas visu sakārtos un atgriezīs vecos labos laikus. Kuri ir gatavi pievērt acis uz patiesības un faktu nomelnošanu un uz vārdu un jēdzienu devalvāciju. Kuri ir gatavi apmainīt brīvību pret ekonomisko ‘labklājību’ un stabilitāti.

Tie vecie labie laiki ir pasaule, kurā var izlikties, jo tā ir norma, un visi izliekas, ka neviens neizliekas. Pasaule, kurā pie visa vienmēr vainīgs kāds cits, un nevienam nav jāuzņemas personīga atbildība. Vecie labie laiki, kuros ārpasaule liekas nedroša un bīstama vieta, no kuras vajag izolēties.

Es vēlētos ielikt manus sarunas biedrus laika mašīnā un atgriezties Latvijā 1990. gada 4. maijā, lai ļautu izjust un piedzīvot to, ko nozīmē atteikties no šādas pseido-dzīves, pseido-patiesības, pseido-drošības un pseido-brīvības. Šie ‘vecie labie laiki’ (jeb Padomju Savienības variantā ‘jaunie labie laiki’) tika Latvijai uzspiesti ar varu, bet cilvēki ar laiku pielāgojās, lai varētu izdzīvot.

Tā mēs izdzīvojām, bet pienāca brīdis, kad ar to bija stipri par maz. Cilvēks nav radīts tādai dzīvei, kaut gan viņš ir spējīgs tā dzīvot. Par to Havels rakstīja sava slavenajā esejā “Nespēcīgo spēks” (The Power of the Powerless). Katrs ir spējīgs kļūt par daļu no anonīmā pūļa, kas vienkārši peld līdzi dzīves straumei.

1990. gada 4. maijā arī bija liels pūlis, bet tas vairs nebija anonīms. Katram cilvēkam bija sava seja, gaidpilna, cerību pilna, un katram bija ko teikt, un katrs būtu gatavs balsot. Es biju skolniece un daudzas nianses neatceros, bet atceros to, ka šo dienu iezīmēja pavisam cita realitāte. It kā tu aizgāji gulēt vienā pasaulē, bet pamodies pavisam citā.

Un pilnīgi skaidrs, ka tajos ‘vecajos labajos laikos’ es nevēlos atgriezties, un nevienam neiesaku. Un esmu gatava brīdināt pa labi un pa kreisi, ka līdzīgus ‘jaunos labos laikus’ arī nevienam nenovēlu. Ne Eiropā, ne Amerikā, ne citos kontinentos… nekur un nevienam.

Priecīgus 4. maija svētkus! Ar sveicieniem no Rīgas

 

 

 

 

An inspiring day at the cemetery

Some may consider it morbid but Latvians like their cemeteries. Of course, not all Latvians and there is an ongoing debate why we pay so much attention to our grave sites and what does it say about our psyche and values and so forth. Even though things are changing, most people still choose to be buried in the ground (or their families choose it for them).

My mom passed away a few years ago and she is buried in one of the largest cemeteries in Riga. You can get lost there easily. It is so huge. When I was a child, I used to be scared of this place. In Latvia,  cemeteries are usually in the woods. It makes sense since we love our woods and find them the most peaceful and refreshing places. But to a child it felt like a dark and sad forest full of graves and dead people. I thought to myself, “This is where old people end up. Therefore I don’t want to become old.” Now somehow my mom being there makes it more hospitable 🙂 and she was no even that old.

Yesterday we had a big clean-up day in Latvia or call it our annual national “spring cleaning”. It usually takes place in April and people spend one Saturday raking leaves, collecting rubbish, cutting trees, cleaning parks and riversides and other places. I just read on the news that we had a record number of the sites and a record number of participants, in spite of wind and rain.

I joined a crew in the Great Cemetery of Riga which is actually a Memorial park. During the Soviet days the grave sites and chapels and the monuments were left to decay. There was too much of the old “capitalist” and “nationalist” past to remind us of how things used to be. I remember as a child walking by and looking at the chapels. I thought to myself that they must have been very rich people. But we were not supposed to think about rich people, right?

Yesterday I was reminded of things that are too important to forget. For example, the fact that Latvia has always been a multi-cultural place and our culture has been enriched by so many ethnic, religious, linguistic and other social groups. I read inscriptions in German, Russian, English and Latvian. There were pastors and statesmen, architects and actors, writers and educators, soldiers and city mayors…

There were burial sites of many famous and important people in our history who dreamed of Latvia as an independent nation when it was still a part of Russian Empire and who devoted their lives to see this dream come true. People who helped to develop the modern day Latvian language, who collected our folk songs and poems, who helped to build our beautiful country. I think of how their lives continue to impact us even today.

There is something profound about the tradition to write inscriptions on the tombstone which somehow describes the person or something this person would have said to us. Have you ever been asked what you would like to be written on your tombstone?

People had written things like “Treu bis dem Tod” (Faithful to the death)  but my favorite was “Auf wiedersehen” (See you again). Following the week of Easter, I thought it very appropriate someone inscribed this reminder that our lives matter so much more than just ‘here and now’. They matter now and for eternity…

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Spring at the Riga Great Cemetery (photo from internet)