I belong to two generations. Gen X – Nirvana, grunge, MTV, The Cure, flannel shirts, cynicism… but also a generation between two worlds and two truths. Born in the USSR, I became 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 and spying on NATO countries during the Cold War years. It had huge antennas. Now it is a tourist attraction, 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 amusing discovery. For me it is a stark reminder that these secret facilities do not pose a threat but leave a legacy. We can re-paint and re-use some buildings 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 they notice in Latvian society. One of the symptoms of this lingering ‘poison’ is an inability or unwillingness to trust others. The Soviet system like any other totalitarian regime was built on very twisted human relationships – where people spied on each other, friends betrayed friends, colleagues reported things to authorities. Where you walked the party line to succeed. Where you silenced your conscience. 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 even they can feel it. Feel it in their parents, grandparents, older teachers, government, society at large. And they question why are we they way we are? Why aren’t we more trusting, more open to new people and things? Why aren’t we more transparent, willing to take responsibility, ready to make bold decisions? Why do we have historic topics which we avoid? Something still holding us back, still bending our backs and 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 ‘poison’ and ‘shame’ that still affects us. We need a deep and honest lustration process and talk openly about our broken relationships. Bravely and humbly condemn what needs to be condemned, repent for what people did to each other because the whitewash never holds, forgive what needs to be forgiven… and then our dignity and respect for ourselves and each other can be restored.