Communicative memory through three or four generations of family

I love browsing through my grandmother’s photo albums, especially, searching for visual glimpses of her life before or during World War II, before and during the Soviet, then Nazi and then again Soviet regime. There are not many photos to find.. First of all, they were a simple farming family who did not have many photographers around their village. Secondly, the war, deportation of her parents to Siberia, confiscation of their family farm, scattering of family to all corners of Latvia and Lithuania, hiding in the post-war years… I am amazed that there are any photos left at all.

This is possibly the last photo of my great-grandparents Jānis and Margaret (sitting in the middle) and their eldest son Miķelis (on the far left) enjoying life, family and friends at their farm in Butinge, Lithuania. This territory belonged to Latvia until 1921 therefore most of the local population in surrounding area were Latvians. The photo could be taken circa 1942-1943. In the autumn of 1944 their village was again taken over by the Soviet troupes. In 1944 two of my grandmother’s brothers, including Miķelis, crossed the Baltic Sea as refugees and in 1948 my great-grandparents and great-great-grandmother (who was well into her 90-ties) were arrested and deported to Irkutsk region in Russia.

They were allowed to return to Latvia only in 1957, few years after Joseph Stalin’s death. They had nowhere to go since the farm was confiscated, except move from place to place to stay with their children who themselves were struggling to find places to live. Plus, anyone, who had been deported, carried the sentence of “enemy of the state” for the rest of their lives, making it very difficult to re-settle. You were discriminated and marked (as if with leprosy in Jesus times) and some avoided you for fear of the regime.

For anyone who follows the science of memory politics, social, collective and cultural memory, etc, you may be familiar with Aleida Assmann and her well-known  thesis about communicative memory which is limited to the recent past. “It evokes personal and autobiographical memories, and is characterized by a short term (80 to 110 years), from three to four generations. Due to its informal character, it does not require expertise on the part of those who transmit it.”

Here is my family. Almost 80 years since this photo was taken. Three to four generations that are connected with a particular memory, a particular story and this story tells of a very deep trauma. There is the first generation – my grandmother, her siblings, her parents – who experienced it first-hand. Often if the experience has been very traumatic, this generation becomes the “silent” generation, focusing on survival. In our family, this would be my grandmother’s generation. But there was an added layer of trauma – in the Soviet Union they were not allowed to talk about it. These memories were simply “erased” from public memory and official history because they did not match the ideology of the regime. When the memory is repressed, there is no chance for healing.

Then there is second generation which grows up with these “silent” parents. Even though my grandmother has never been the silent type, she was afraid to tell many details of her past to her children and grandchildren. Not until Latvia started shaking off the totalitarian Soviet regime and became an independent country again. Suddenly there was a flood of stories. Being the fourth generation in this chain of communicative memory, I now regret that I did not ask more questions before my grandmother’s memory got badly damaged by old age and before my mom passed away from cancer.

Recently I got a stark reminder how deeply this trauma still affects the older generation of Latvian society. My grandmother is the most cheerful, positive person I know but she started to complain about bad nightmares which she could never remember the next day. Only word she kept repeating was “mud” and “wading through mud”. One morning while I was staying with her few weeks ago, she woke up from another one of those nightmares. Only this time she could remember it and described it to me in vivid detail.

She dreamed of being arrested and taken from her home, loaded into an open truck together with a large group of other women (she told me there were no children and nobody had luggage) and driven through Siberian taiga. When I asked her what time of the year it was in her dream, she replied: “Oh, it was late autumn. There was no snow on the ground but there was mud everywhere. Very deep mud. The truck kept getting stuck in the mud and we had to wade through this mud. It was horrible.” And she kept repeating: “They were taking us to the death camp. They were going to kills us there and we knew that this was our last journey.”

The thing is… my grandmother herself was never deported (someone had warned her and she went into hiding). Her parents were and so were many of her neighbors and friends. This was a collective trauma which affected so many families in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In Latvia alone, on March 25, 1949, approximately 43 000 people were arrested and deported to Siberia. It took 31 train cars to transport them on the long journey across Russia.

I asked grandmother why she thinks she has these nightmares about camps in Siberia if she was never there. Her reply: “No, I was not there with my parents, but I have suffered as much. I have lived in hiding, I have slept in the forests… Those were terrible times.”

When I think I know something, I learn how much I don’t know. Only to realize that healing takes a long, long time and even at the age of 95, this repressed trauma can haunt. And to realize that these communicative memories remind me why we have to be on constant guard against any kind of totalitarian ideology and system. Left wing, right wing, atheist, religious, etc. … I don’t care. Anything that decides who is “in” and who is “out”, who lives if they obey and who dies if they disobey. (I plan to write a separate post on how I see the danger and deception of totalitarian  “seeds”)

Meanwhile my grandmother holds onto these words: “He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

The surreal reality called Putin’s Russia

Why call it ‘surreal’ when it is very real and even dear to millions of people? It continues to look and feel surreal to me ‘on the outside looking in’ or ‘looking over the neighbor’s fence’. Metaphorically speaking.

This week I watched a documentary “Putin’s witnesses” by an exiled Ukrainian/Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky who now lives in Latvia (which actually makes me very proud that Latvia now is a haven for Russian dissidents but also makes me very sad that people are forced to leave their true home).  The story focuses on what happens right after Boris Yelcin, the president of Russia, on December 31, 1999 in a televised address to the Russian nation announces that he is stepping down as the president and has chosen a successor – Vladimir Putin. Putin then started as the interim president but already three months later won the official presidential elections and has been ruling Russia ever since.

It is also surreal to think back on that New Year’s Eve. The grandiose 2000! The world was celebrating the start of the millennium as turning some page in a magic book. Some were scared, especially many of my American friends expecting the infamous Y2K with stockpiled shelves, but most were euphoric to be a part of this history. (Actually I don’t remember much from that night.) Meanwhile in Moscow, Boris Yelcin and subsequently Vladimir Putin were making their own history.

Mansky has made a very personal film and things are seen through the lenses of his family. I guess I should not be surprised by the family’s reaction on that New Year’s Eve because they had a much clearer picture on the tragedy of this political decision. Still I was struck by Mansky’s wife Natalya commenting on camera: “I am horrified. We got the strong hand now which so many people want. Will see how the screws will start tightening! This is horrible. What will happen to us now. (…) The world is shaken. It will be afraid of us again.”

Another powerful scene is Mansky’s youngest daughter in the bathtub, holding her breath under the water. She is a shy kid who does not want to be filmed but more importantly – she has picked up the stress and anxiety of her family. And she tries to defy or push it away. But you cannot hold your breath for very long.

Of course, the world reacted with suspicion and shock that a KGB officer could become the president of newly democratic Russia. I remember my own shock was the return of the Soviet anthem. Yes, the lyrics were changed to reflect Russian patriotism but the melody was the same. For everyone still remembering this song about the might and eternal glory of Soviet Union, the real message behind the change was not lost.

The documentary reminded of another surreal aspect of bringing back this Soviet past through the national anthem. How it gets blended with more enduring symbol – the church bells! The choir was obviously made to sound like a church choir and the church bells were to give the whole thing a sense of “sacredness” and “eternity”. How in the world do you glorify the Soviet regime side by side with the traditions of the Russian orthodox church which the Soviet regime tried to completely annihilate!

I pulled off my shelf some books on contemporary Russia, realizing how tragically relevant are Mansky’s personal reflections in the film. Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was assassinated in 2006, wrote in her book “Putin’s Russia” (2004): “We want to go on living in freedom. We want our children to be free and our grandchildren to be born free. (…) This is why we long for a thaw in the immediate future, but we alone can change Russia’s political climate. To wait for another thaw to drift our way from the Kremlin, as happened under Gorbachev, is foolish and unrealistic, and neither is the West going to help.”

Another very insightful book is Peter Pomerantsev’sNothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” (2014) about his time working in Russian media. “It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom, but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”

Doing it step by step while well-meaning filmmakers film for history’s sake, while technocrats drink champagne after a successful campaign for someone who will later remove or even kill them, while people are dancing in the streets because they are recovering some national pride. These kind of modern ‘chimera’ states mutate incompatible truths and make you believe that it is desirable and that you are seeing more clearly than before.

So the “normal” in Russia continues but to me it looks like holding breath underwater. And one day you have to come up from this “reality” to start breathing normally again.

In the church this side of the barricades

In January expect a real winter in Latvia. Icy sidewalks, snow piles, slush, messy driving… this time of the year I walk the streets of Riga watching every step and practicing good balance.

January with its cold temperatures is also a month that brings memories from 1991. Every year Latvia commemorates January 20 and The Time of the Barricades. It was one of the most tense and dangerous periods during mostly peaceful transition from the Soviet regime to a democratic and free Latvia. There was a real threat that Soviet regime would use military force to stop these changes by taking over strategic buildings and institutions – TV, Radio, Parliament – in the capital city of Riga and other regional centers. People in Latvia quickly mobilized to protect those institutions by building barricades.

The awaiting for confrontation lasted January 13 – 27. Thousands of people participated in taking turns on the barricades. My dad and his whole group of work colleagues took position at the TV tower in Riga, and I went to visit him there a few times, bringing food and hot tea. Actually in our family, mom was usually the one who went to demonstrations and protests and took more risks. Dad reminds me how mom and I had gone to Riga immediately after hearing on the radio that the barricades need to be built. I remember walking around the center of the city, amazed at all the big trucks and bulldozers that came out of nowhere and the huge concrete blocks being pulled, pushed, lifted and piled on.

It was a very cold January and people started small bonfires on the streets. Those became more than meeting places to get warm, rest and exchange the latest news. I remember people sitting around those bonfires singing and praying. At the same time the church buildings were  open for shelter and refreshments.

Memories are an interesting phenomenon. What we remember and how we remember! One of my favorite theologians, Miroslav Volf, in his book “The End of Memory” writes about collective memories as “sacred bonfires” which people gather around. It symbolizes the strong bonds and identity created by shared experience. The Time of the Barricades was certainly one of those collectively shared experiences which I remember as a highly spiritual time. I mentioned the church buildings being used as kind of headquarters and many of us had never spent so much time inside a church

I was just a teenager and certainly not religious. Still, I joined thousands of others in realizing that we need a higher hope against all odds (honestly, those barricades could not have stopped a serious attack). The churches had people praying but more significantly I remember feeling the streets were the church. The bonfires was where the fellowship took place and the shared food was like the Eucharist. Everyone was sharing what they had and there was no difference in social status, ethnic background or religious affiliation.

Two weekends ago I was sitting in one of those churches that were so central in the Time of the Barricades. Dome Cathedral was hosting a special commemoration concert and it was packed. Not as packed as it was at times in 1991, but the emotions of many, especially elderly people, were visible. I was moved by the beauty of music and lights, but mostly I was moved by memories. And I cried.

And afterwards I was deeply touched by some of the overheard conversations. People commented how easily we take something for granted or become ungrateful. On the other hand, I was thinking how much the church struggles to remain the prophetic voice and to be out there on the streets when the system changes and the brutal persecution stops. How in peace times the church retreats from the public sphere and  tends to focus on individualistic spirituality!

One of the songs that night was “Prayer”, a very popular song during the days of national awakening and transition. It ends with words:

Let us walk through ages toward the unknown times,
Give us strength, give us courage, give us one mind, Father!

 

 

Smells Like Old Spirit

China! Have no idea how to write it down without rambling … but something deeply troubles me and there is no easy way around or out of it. It troubles me a lot, it creates a huge challenge and also brings a certain sense of helplessness.

In the West, we are very worried about the rise of authoritarianism in many places around the world, including in our midst. But there is another large elephant in the room – what about about the dilemma and conundrum of our dealings with the Communist government in China? The system and power which reminds the Chinese people who is in charge and plans to stay in charge and tells the rest of the world “Stay out of it if you want our business”. And, oh, we want and need that business.

If you are an American reading my blog, this has nothing to do with the current trade wars between the US and China because you may have noticed that the human rights, liberty and democracy question is not even on the table. All we hear is talk of money and superpower competition. If you are an Asian, you have your own strong opinions which I am familiar with after having lived in Southeast Asia for many years. It is always difficult to be the smaller and weaker neighbor next to a regional hegemony and world superpower. Just ask the people in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc…

Remember Francis Fukuyama and his famous (or by now infamous?) 1989 thesis of The End of History? Well, this “end” is turning into the “same old, same old”. My personal strong emotions and reflections come from the fact that I still remember my childhood and the life in the USSR – a totally oppressive and repressive system – and for those  who know what it smells, tastes and feels like, there is a strong aversion to these kinds of manifestations of power, manipulation, abuse and denial of freedom.

I also remember the propaganda and how hard the Soviet regime tried to manufacture a pretty image of a happy society. especially to the outside world. And I sense such a familiar spirit when I think of China  and when I watch how carefully and masterfully it manufactures and lobbies its image around the world  as the most “peace loving, truthful, pragmatic, benevolent, long-term thinking, secure, wealth producing and well-wishing” government. There are too many cracks in this facade.

And through those cracks, if we care to know and look carefully, we know that all is not what it seems. But these days we have to look hard because we don’t hear these stories in our media. Every once in a while there may be an article about the oppression of ethnic Uighur, a primarily Muslim group in Xinjiang province. We can read the reports about “re-education” camps and massive abuses of human rights. Or we can read the stories about the escalating crackdown on personal religious freedom and religious groups . In case it has completely escaped your attention, read this article by the Washington Post.

It has nothing to do with my personal Chinese friends whom I love and cherish. It has nothing to do with the amazing culture, history, cuisine, hard work, entrepreneurship and simply amazing people and the beautiful country of China. I have been privileged to visit it and have my claim of having walked on the Great Wall. And I certainly hope to return because there is so much more to see and to learn.

But what about those things that the Chinese government does not want the rest of the world to see? Working very hard to keep this poster image and somehow succeeding. What about the proponents of the ‘liberalism’ theory of international relations which proposes that the Western liberal values will get planted and automatically bring fruit in places like China through closer ties, trade and co-operation? Is it really working out??? I wish it was. I am no expert on Chinese politics but from what I can hear, read and sense, instead of the liberal values gaining momentum, the system is cracking down and making another hard effort to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world that exchanging your freedom, including your faith convictions, for some kind of national security, financial gain and state control is a perfectly good way for the future.

Last night I went to hear a lecture by an American historian Stephen Kotkin and few things he said triggered this post because it reminded why many things in our Western approach to Chinese “capitalist” communism does not sit well with me. The most important question is always the personal one – even if my government will not criticize and speak out against these massive human rights abuses, I do have a voice. Small and insignificant but a voice.

After the lecture I had two short conversations and one person used the example of a woodpecker – how it keeps pecking and pecking and pecking until the branch or even the whole tree is hollow enough to come down. I would like to borrow this metaphor. So, while churches are getting closed down, people jailed for all kinds of political, ideological and religious reasons and minority ethnic groups being “Sinicized” in China, we need to keep pecking and pecking… that it is not OK and that we refuse to accept it as the new ‘normal’.

 

Wrestling with the antisemitism of the past and of the present

I have wanted to write this for a while but kept postponing… and tried to understand why?! One of the simple explanations is that it is extremely difficult to write about national shame, inhumane ideologies, ordinary people with extraordinary hatred or indifference. It is difficult to say something about all of this without too many cliches, too much moralizing and too little personal reflection. But I will try to put my finger on a few very important and timely things…

November 30 is coming up and in Latvia it marks another remembrance day – the mass killings of Jewish people on November 30, 1941 in Rumbula forest near Riga. I don’t want to give the facts and statistics of how it happened or how many thousands got killed. There is plenty of information available online, plus I have written before how we as a society in Latvia are still in the process of talking about, reflecting upon and learning from these very painful and shameful events of our past.

In many ways here in Latvia we are on a very steep curve of learning and remembering while it seems that many people in Europe and around the world are on the downhill slope of unlearning and forgetting. Of course, not everyone in Latvia wants to know, to understand and to change their views or assumptions, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore it. There are more museums, more books, more media attention, more and more people who care to know.

This year we even have the first Latvian feature film about the Holocaust in Latvia which tells the true story of one amazing family, Lipke, in Riga who risked their lives to save more than 50 Latvian Jews during WWII. There were many others who were rescuers but Lipke family has their own unique story. (The English title of this new movie is “The Mover“.)

So, the movie is in the theaters, the remembrance day and lighting the candles at Freedom Monument takes place on November 30… meanwhile I turn on the news and watch programs about the rise of new kind of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere. It is on the far-right and the far-left and many shades of it in-between. And I ask myself what is going on?!

The experts – sociologists, psychologists, political analysts, historians, journalists, etc. – have their own wise explanations and we can easily find the research and survey data. But what does it tell me personally? For one, it tells that we live in a very fragile time filled with so much anxiety where many of the old mechanisms of dealing with insecurity, instability, rapid global technological and cultural change are being used. One of the classical methods is finding the scapegoat whom to blame for everything. “The Jew” is just so familiar and easy to revert to, but it can be “the Muslim”, “the Russian”, ” the immigrant”, “the black”, “the Mexican”, “the Christian”…

That is why I think antisemitism is also on the rise in those countries where the governing parties are very pro-Israel but very prejudiced against many different groups of people. In this sense any rise of nationalism is a rise of antisemitism. When we talk about ‘making our countries great again’ by which people often mean going back to some kind of ‘ideal’ past and ‘romanticized’ cultural identity we used to have, we are already on this downward slope. It is a whole package where it is very hard to pick and choose our prejudices for this kind of pride comes with strings attached.

The experts mention that many people would be classified as ‘antisemitic’ because they hate the policies of the current state of Israel, especially toward the Palestinian people. I do not support this hatred in any way. Still,  I understand a little bit about not liking a certain countries policies and the struggle to separate the issue. For example, I have many negative feelings and strong opinions about the current politics, ideologies and state of affairs in Russia and it is not easy for me to look at the Russian flag as something neutral or accept people who are very proudly Russian and nationalistic. I immediately start wondering if they support Putin or “Make Russia great again” which would put them in the ” other” camp. Some years ago I would have never imagined that my generation will have to have these inner struggles again of how to love the Russian people from our neighboring country while strongly opposing that country’s political direction.

I am very concerned that we forget so quickly… we forget the Holocaust, we forget Rwanda, we forget Cambodia, we forget the Apartheid.. We forget that every generation has their own ‘demons’ to face which often try to appear as the ‘angels’ or ‘idols’ of ethnic, religious, racial or national identity, infallibility, stability and self-protection…

As we continue to pray in our own brokenness: “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil…”

(The heading photo was taken at Riga Ghetto Museum and this exhibit tells the story of European Jews who were transported from various countries to  be shot and killed in Latvia)

Image result for teva nakts photos

Photo from “The Mover” (2018), a movie about the Holocaust in Latvia

 

Beating the swords into plowshares? One day…

Today is centennial Armistice Day in western Europe and around the world to mark the end of World War I (1914-1918). 100 years is quite the landmark! In Latvia November 11 is named after Lācplēsis who is a national, but fictional hero from an epic poem. He fought for freedom from the evil forces, in his case, the German knights.

100 years is long enough and personally I never met anyone who fought in this “war to end all wars”. But the scars are still visible. Cemeteries, monuments, battle fields… an unbelievable bloodshed and suffering. Around the area where I grew up and went to school, we would go on adventures to find the trenches from WWI. And there were many because there were many heavy battles fought along the front line which went through our area of Kekava and Daugmale.

Also, nearby on the river Daugava was a place called “the Island of Death” and just hearing its name gave me the shivers. We were taught the history of Latvian riflemen who fought on this small strip of land to stop German imperial army from crossing the river. This was also a place where chemical weapons had been used in a form of poisonous gas. The loss of life was heavy. What else can you call it but a place of death!

Today I think of the biblical vision of the day when God “shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) I have friends and family members who serve in the military, I know people who train for war, I know people who are war veterans and I think of them when I read a Scripture likes this. Obviously we are not there yet and sometimes we feel further from this prophetic vision then ever. I imagine that masses of people during WWI felt like the very end of times was upon them.

Little boys and girls like to play with swords. I liked to use sticks as swords and cut the heads of flowers in one swift move. It was a romantic notion of knights and honour and bravery. But now I am afraid to hold a real sword when I see it in someone’s collection. It is so sharp, so heavy and so real. It is certainly not to be toyed with.

When I think about WWI, it seems such an absurdity, evil and stupidity which led to so much suffering. Yes, it led also to Latvia gaining a nationhood and statehood which I can be grateful for, but the cost was so high. The Latvian riflemen who fought for freedom and independence for our nation are certainly our brave heroes. But how I wish it had not been necessary and how I wish they themselves could have enjoyed living in this free and beautiful Latvia.

So, this is a day of remembrance, day of heroes and day of somber gratitude!

rigas_bralu_kapi

Brother’s Cemetery in Rīga: a military cemetery and national monument

Why bother crossing this particular bridge on May 9

The usual parade of special dates. May 1, May 4, May 8, May 9…  The weather exceptionally beautiful and ‘woe is me’ for having to study and sit in lectures. Not that I care much about official events but glad to participate in smaller grassroots initiatives to give these days a personal meaning.

Every year in May I write about reconciliation and bridging of collective memories in Latvia. May 8 is the day to celebrate the end of war in Europe and May 9 is the day to  celebrate the start of peace through European unity. It is known as Europe Day even if many Europeans have no idea what it is and what it represents.

But my post today is about the other May 9. The one I choose not to celebrate. The one that most Latvians choose not to celebrate. The one that stirs much controversy and discussion ever year. The one celebrated on the other side of the river Daugava which divides our beautiful capital. The one where thousands of people gather at the Victory Monument built in Soviet era and during celebration proudly display the Soviet red star and old Soviet slogans. The one where you get a very strong “us” and “them” vibe.

The bridge I am standing on leads directly to this Victory monument and many many Latvians who don’t live on that side simply choose not cross it on May 9. During the day you will hear, “Stay away from there! Do not cross the river! Avoid it! Ignore it! Go around if you can! It is madness.” And so we continue every year. One group streams toward it and the other group keeps their distance as far as possible.

But I chose to go across this year. As I did last year. Why? It is hard to explain. Maybe I am simply that kind of person who likes to do the opposite of what I am told. The opposite of mainstream if you will. You may think it is idealistic but I know that I have to do something about it. That I have to get in the midst of it. That I have to try to understand how and why. Someone has said that “Holiness is walking toward the darkness”. I don’t mean to use religious or spiritual language to say that I am on the side of ‘light’ and the others are on the side ‘darkness’. I just know that for me personally this represents one of the most challenging things to experience without passing strong judgment.

I go and watch older people get emotional and carry photos of loved ones they lost in WWII. I can understand the pride about the sacrifice of forefather’s who fought against the Nazi regime and in the end prevailed. I can understand the younger generations listening to these family stories and feeling the same pride about their ancestors. I can understand the traditions and the importance of remembering.

But I cannot support the Soviet nostalgia, the glorification of those tragic WWII days as some kind of ‘holy days’ and some kind of ‘holy war’. I cannot accept the concept that this is main and only event for the majority of Russian community in Latvia to be united around. I can be inclusive of people’s memories but I cannot embrace the political overtones and agendas. There is an invisible line which I refuse to cross because of my values, beliefs and understanding of history.

Foreign friends visiting Rīga have asked me, “What is this? Why does Latvian government allow it? Why do you guys allow it?” Once I walked through these May 9 celebrations with an American friend and she actually got afraid and kept asking me how I felt about it.

How do I feel about it? I feel this bridge building will take a little longer (and, of course, it is directly connected to who and what and how long governs in Russia). I also feel hopeful because most of Latvian society lives and dreams and works and loves and makes friends outside these ‘Latvians’ and ‘Russians’ boxes…   but until we get rid of these divisions completely, we must keep crossing back and forth.