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.

DSCN4485

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.

DSCN4221

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

DSCN2511

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…

lielie-kapi-kapi-riga-47326219

Spring at the Riga Great Cemetery (photo from internet)

Irish way of turning Darkness into Light

For those who noticed that I took a little break from writing… there are times when you just have to give full attention to the people you are with, seize the moment and enjoy it. So, I had put the computer away. And who wants to be on computer when you are visiting the beautifully green and ancient land of Ireland?

Now back in Riga I reflect on my favorite thing to see in Dublin – the Book of Kells. Probably the most beautiful book I have ever seen is Ireland’s most precious cultural treasure. It continues to amaze every time I visit the exhibition at Trinity College Dublin. This handwritten copy of the four Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ which was completed around 800 AD is so beautifully decorated and hand painted that it continues to inspire artists and scientists on how the authors actually did it. Many of the illustrations are so microscopic and intricate.

Most academics believe that this ancient Latin manuscript was written in a monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland. It became the principal house of a large monastic confederation. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland. Most likely they brought the manuscript with them or produced parts of it in Kells.

The famous paintings include symbols of the evangelists Matthew as the Man, Mark as the Lion, Luke as the Calf and John as the Eagle, the opening words of the Gospels, the Virgin and Child and a portrait of Christ. The Chi Rho page which introduces Matthew’s account of the nativity is simply stunning and widely considered the most famous page in medieval art.

Some years ago I read a book “How The Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. His main thesis was that the tradition of monasteries, including Saint Columba  and the monks on the island of Iona where ancient manuscripts were gathered, copied and cared for, helped to preserve the cultural treasures of Europe and other parts of the world. I know one thing for sure – there was much more happening in the Middle Ages than what we were told in  school. When I was growing up in Latvia, we were still taught the Soviet/communist version of the world history. Of course, no mention of monks, monasteries or any positive contribution of religion to our cultures.

I am glad that the term ‘Dark Ages’ is not used anymore… because there is Light and Darkness in all ages. People and communities make choices and respond to the times they live in. Some choose to take what is not theirs and destroy what they have not built. But other choose to give away what they have received and build for the future generations to be blessed and to enjoy.

Hopefully we don’t have to save civilizations anymore but we do know that the choice between the Light and the Darkness is always with us… Thank you, the Irish, for reminding us of these timeless truths!

chi-rho-page

Chi Rho page (photos from internet)

Latvian:

Vispirms sveicieni tiem, kuri ievēroja, ka es pāris nedēļas ‘atpūtos’ no rakstīšanas… jā, ir reizes, kad vajag veltīt visu savu uzmanību mīļiem cilvēkiem, nepalaist garām kaut ko īpašu un to izbaudīt. Un kurš tad grib sēdēt pie datora, ciemojoties tik skaisti zaļajā un senatnīgajā Īrijā?

Tagad atpakaļ Rīgā es pārdomāju vienu no lietām, ko ir tiešām vērts redzēt Dublinā – Kellu grāmata (saukta arī Ķeltu vai Kēlu grāmata). Uzdrīkstos apgalvot, ka šis Īrijas nacionālais kultūras dārgums ir visskaistākā grāmata, ko esmu jebkad redzējusi. Tā glabājas Trinitijas koledžā pašā Dublinas centrā. Ar roku rakstītais manuskripts satur četrus Jaunās Derības evanģēlijus par Jēzus Kristus dzīvi un ir krāšņi un meistarīgi izrotāts ar miniatūrām un viduslaiku ornamentiem. Tas turpina iedvesmot māksliniekus un zinātniekus, kuri pēta, kā to vispār varēja tik smalki un mikroskopiski izveidot un uzzīmēt.

Kellu grāmatu datē ap 800. gadu, un tā ir rakstīta latīņu valodā. Lielākā daļa pētnieku uzskata, ka tā ir sarakstīta klosterī, kuru 6. gadsimtā Aijonas (Iona) salā, Skotijas rietumu piekrastē, nodibināja Sv. Kolumbs. 806.gadā salai kārtējo reizi uzbruka vikingi, un daudzi mūki tika nogalināti. Pārējie atrada aptvērumu Īrijā, jaunā klosterī Kellas ciemā. Visticamāk mūki šo manuskriptu atveda sev līdzi no Aijonas, vai arī tas tika pabeigts Kellā.

Slavenās ilustrācijas attēlo četru evnģēlistu simbolus. Matejs simbolizēts kā Cilvēks, Marks kā Lauva, Lūka kā Jērs un Jānis kā Ērglis. Katra evanģēlija ievadā ir skaisti zīmējumi. Gan Kristus portrets, gan Jaunava ar Bērnu ir ievērojami mākslas darbi. Viena no slavenākajām un visskaistāk ilustrētajām lappusēm skaitās Mateja evanģēlija ievads par Jezus piedzimšanu. Patiess viduslaiku šedevrs!

Pirms dažiem gadiem es lasīju Tomasa Keihila grāmatu “Kā īri izglāba civilizāciju” (How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill). Viņa galvenā tēze bija, ka viduslaiku klosteru un mūku tradīcija, tai skaitā Sv. Kolumbs un kopiena Aijonas salā, kur tika savākti, glabāti un pārkopēti neskaitāmi senlaiku manuskripti, palīdzēja izglābt šos Eiropas un Tuvo Austrumu kultūras dārgumus. Katrā ziņā viduslaikos bija daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā Apgaismība mums apgalvo. Un daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā man tika mācīts skolā Padomju Latvijā, kur par mūkiem, klosteriem un vispār par reliģijas pozitīvo ietekmi uz Eiropas kultūras attīstību netika minēts nekas. Jo tā laika vēstures versija uzsvēra, ka reliģija ir ‘tumsonība, varaskāre, vardarbība un turklāt meli, kuros dzīvo dumjās masas’.

Tas ir labi, ka vairs nav populāri lietot apzīmējumu ‘Tumšie viduslaiki’… jo visos laikos un laikmetos ir bijusi gan Gaisma, gan Tumsa. Cilvēki, kopienas un tautas izdara izvēles. Vieni izvēlas ņemt to, kas viņiem nepieder, un iznīcināt to, ko paši nav cēluši. Otri izvēlas dot citiem to labo, ko ir mantojuši un saņēmuši, un celt tālāk, lai nākamās paaudzes var dzīvot labāku dzīvi.

Cerams, ka mūsu paaaudzei nav jācīnās par civilizāciju saglabāšanu, tacu mēs zinām, ka izvēle starp Gaismu un Tumsu ir vienmēr mūsu priekšā… Paldies viduslaiku mūkiem Īrijā, ka viņi mums atgādina par šīm nemainīgajām patiesībām!

Lest we forget…

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke)

Beautiful October day and I am enjoying my morning coffee. Checking the news, Facebook, e-mails… thinking about something fun to do later in the day.

I was planning to write my weekly blog about something fun, too. I thought to myself – enough of these serious topics and challenges and problems and wars and suffering. Let us look at the blue sky, at the changing colours, at the birds and flowers and beautiful people! I know some amazing people who inspire, encourage and teach me the better ways. Or I could write about the incredible historic peace deal just made in Colombia which some years ago seemed impossible.

I cannot even turn on the TV because the destruction in Syria upsets too much. What is the point to know and to see how many people were killed today and how many homes were destroyed if I cannot stop those planes, drones, bombs and guns from my comfortable living room? Years later people will make movies and documentaries and write history books but I am part of the generation that made this history. What kind of history am I making? What can I change or impact or avert?

So, you see… I cannot get away from this serious stuff. What sparked it today was reading about the 75th commemoration of Babi Yar massacre. Babi Yar is a ravine in the Ukrainian capital Kiev and a site of massacres carried out by German forces and local collaborators. The most notorious and the best documented of these massacres took place from 29–30 September 1941, wherein 33,771 Jews were killed.

The fall is the time of the year when many of these WWII massacres took place in Central and Eastern Europe. I have visited some of these sites in Latvia. September, October, November, December… you could go from one commemoration to another. Too many to count and too many to visit.

There are many things these killing places have in common. Like the fact that the sites are either in the city or right on the outskirts. Usually in a wooded area or by the sea or in some ravine. The execution squads were looking at the landscape and choosing areas with natural ditches. How practical! Less digging and something to obstruct the view.

We, Latvians, love our woods but I look at these old trees in Biķernieki forest in Rīga or the dunes of Sķēde in Liepāja and I grieve even for them. Now I look with very different eyes. There was a time when I was not interested because of bad memories from my childhood. Growing up in the USSR, we had to participate in so many annual commemorations of WWII and hear so much propaganda that you became immune to it. Also, the facts of history and how they might apply to me today became meaningless because they were manipulated by those in power.

Therefore it is hard for some to understand why are we still so “obsessed” with WWII history. Time to move on, isn’t it? Time to look to future and not to the past? I agree with both but I also think that it is time to properly grieve for things that we were not allowed to know or to grieve over.

I look at the countless mass graves in Biķernieki forest (the headline photo… I really never knew how massive this site was) and I think to myself – these graves are no different from the ones on Rwanda or Bosnia or Iraq or other places. And how many new graves are dug today in some place that flashes across my TV screen?

“Lest we forget” also means “we should remember”…

dscn3892

The dunes of Šķēde, Liepāja (photos form personal archive)

By losing our neighbors we lose a part of ourselves

I continue to reflect on my recent trip to Ukraine. Particularly the city of Lutsk, the regional center of Volyn province. It is a very nice, slow paced city in northwestern part of Ukraine with very fascinating story. It has a beautiful old castle and lots of other interesting cultural, historical and architectural sights.

But there was a day when I got very sad. In fact I was grieving. We walked around the historical center of Lutsk and I realized what a multicultural and multi faith place it used to be. Many of the places of worship are still there but it is only a shadow of the former things. You can still feel and see the tragedy of the destructive wars of 20th century and the intentional neglect of the Soviet years.

There is a beautiful old Roman Catholic Cathedral named after St.Peter and St.Paul and built in the 17th century. It used to have a Jesuit college where education was free and conducted at a high level. Inside the church I saw many Polish names and later found out that in 1939, about 34% of the population of Lutsk city was Polish. After the war, the Soviet regime closed the church and later it was even the Museum of Atheism.

There is another church building, originally Lutheran. It was built in 1907 as the principal place of worship for the Germans living in Volyn. The church fell into decline as a result of the Second World War. Then for many decades it was used as an archive. (The Soviets were very practical when it came to using the church buildings. If not a museum for atheism or science, most became storehouses.)

And then I found the Great Synagogue, completed in 1629. Located in what used to be the Jewish quarter, it was the religious, educational and community centre of Lutsk. Again the tragedy which destroyed this community and this temple was the Second World War and the Holocaust. In 1939, the city’s population was 40% Jewish. In December 1941 the Łuck Ghetto was established. In August and September 1942, about 17,000 prisoners of the ghetto were killed. After the war the synagogue stood empty. Then came another practical Soviet idea –  it was reconstructed as a movie-house and a gym.

I was thinking about these tragedies and brutal Nazi and Soviet regimes, changing the fate of community and the face of the city completely. Old neighbors were gone and new neighbors moved in. I know that this is the story of so many places (too many) but somehow Lutsk really broke my heart.

It felt like there is still a big, open wound which needs healing and redemption and restoration. I believe as Ukraine is defining its national identity, the story of its rich multicultural and multi faith heritage needs to be told and reminded.

It has a lot of parallels with my own nation of Latvia and other places around the world which used to be much more multicultural before wars and conflicts that drive people out of their home. In the past or in the present.

I grieve. We all should.

dscn3831

The Great Synagogue of Lutsk. Currently a gym.

Latvian:

Joprojām ir daudz ko pārdomāt pēc nesenā brauciena uz Ukrainu. Īpaši par Lucku, Voliņas apgabala centru. Jauka, lēna, mierīga pilsēta Ukrainas rietumos, un tai ir ļoti interesants stāsts. Ir arī skaista, veca pils un daudz citu kultūras un vēstures pieminekļu.

Man tur bija visai neparasta diena. Diena, kurā pārņēma skumjas. Pat tādas kā sēras. Mēs ar vīru staigājām pa Luckas vecpilsētu, un es aptvēru, cik multikulturāla un multireliģiska bija šī pilsēta savā pirmskara dzīvē. Daudzi no dievnamiem vēl pastāv, bet no šīs raibās kopienas ir palikusi tikai ēna. Joprojām pāri kā neredzams palags ir pagājušā gadsimta karu sekas, un padomju laika apzināta vēstures aizmiršana.

Te stāv skaistā Sv.Pētera un Sv.Pāvila Romas Katoļu katedrāle, uzcelta ap 1630. gadu. Agrāk tur darbojās jezuītu dibināta koledža, kurā izglītība bija par brīvu, turklāt augstā līmenī. Uz katedrāles sienām ir daudz poļu vārdu un uzvārdu, un vēlāk uzzināju, ka vēl 1939. gadā apmēram 34% iedzivotāju bija poļu tautības. Pēckara gados padomju režīms aizslēdza draudzi, un pat izveidoja Ateisma muzeju.

Vēl stāv bijusī luterāņu baznīca. Celta 1907. gadā, lai kļūtu par galveno pulcēšanās un draudzes vietu Voliņas vāciešiem. Arī šis dievnams padomju laikos tika nolaists un izmantots kā arhīvs un noliktava. (Kā jau zinām, komunisti atrada ļoti praktisku pielietojumu šādām ēkām.)

Pavisam netālu es atradu tā saukto Lielo sinagogu. Pabeigta 1629. gadā, tā atradās bijušajā jūdu kvartālā, un kalpoja kā reliģijas, izglītības un kopienas centrs. Tā pati traģēdija – Otrais Pasaules karš un tad Holokausts – iznīcināja gan šo kopienu, gan šo pielūgsmes vietu. Pirms kara ap 40% pilsētas centra iedzīvotāju bija ebreji. 1941. gada decembrī tika izveidots Luckas geto, un nākamā gada augustā un septembrī apmēram 17,000 geto ieslodzīto tika nogalināti. Sinagoga stāvēja tukša, līdz padomju varai atkal radās ideja  tur ierīkot kino un sporta zāli. (Tagad tur ir fitnesa centrs.)

Es domāju par šo lielo traģēdiju, kas pilnībā pārmainīja gan pilsētas, gan kopienu seju. Agrākie kaimiņi tika padzīti vai iznīcināti,  jauni kaimiņi sāka dzīvot to vietā. Protams, ne jau Luckai vienīgajai tāds stāsts, bet nez kāpēc tas man šoreiz riktīgi aizķēra sirdi.

Tāda sajūta, ka šī dziļā rēta vēl stāv vaļā. Vēl nav pilnībā dziedināta un atjaunota šī pilsēta. Šobrīd, kad Ukraina un tās cilvēki tik strauji meklē savu nacionālo identitāti, šo stāstu par daudzajām kultūrām un ticībām un kopienām vajag stāstīt, atgādināt un iekļaut savējā.

Jo zaudējot savus kaimiņus, mēs visi zaudējām daļu no sevis pašiem.