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)

 

Time to bridge the chasm of dividing memories in my own nation… Latvia

Does time heal all wounds? Few months ago I was asked by an American how much more time we need in Latvia to bridge our ethnic and historical divides and to have a real sense of ‘one nation’. 30 years? 40 years? More? Wait a few decades when the older people will be gone and the personal memories will fade and the conflicting versions of history will cease or not be as painful?

And I shook my head, “No, I don’t want to wait  and see what happens.” What if nothing happens? What if the younger generations pick up the same hurts and stories and don’t want to hear the ‘other’ side? And what about my generation who grew up with one foot in the ‘past’ of the USSR and the other foot in the ‘present’ of free and democratic society? We were told that we can finally dream of a better future for Latvia and this is exactly what I have been doing.

In Latvia, May 9 is a tense and strange day. People either celebrate, remember, speak against or simply try to ignore it. Most of Europe commemorates  May 8 as the date when WWII ended in Europe but in most countries that used to be part of the USSR, May 9 is celebrated as Victory Day (to understand this better, follow the link), but for the Republic of Latvia it did not mark the end of WWII because the Nazi troops and regime were exchanged with the Soviet troops and regime which only ended in 1991. Because of our history, geography and people, we now have two days, two stories and two memories.

I cannot do justice to all nuances and complexities in such a short blog. For thousands of ethnic Russians (and Ukrainians, Belorussians and others), this is a very emotional and important memory which brings a lot of pride and gratefulness for the sacrifice of previous generations. Likewise for thousands and thousands of ethnic Latvians, an image of a Soviet soldier brings up pain, bitter memories and grievances over previous generations. Latvians simply stay away from May 9 commemorations.

So, here we are… and what can we do?! If you follow my blog, you know that I am a strong believer in restoration and reconciliation. Each generation has choices to make. We cannot change the past and we are also not responsible for everything that took place before our time. But we are responsible for today and tomorrow. My choice is healed, diverse, united and respectful society.

Lately I meet more and more people who make the same choice and do their part (often very personal and difficult) to build the bridges. I am a Latvian and I also carry some pain of my family who suffered under the Soviet regime. My great grandparents were arrested and sent to Siberia because, as landowners and farmers, they were the class enemy. I look at the few old photos which my grandmother received from them while they were living and doing hard labor in Irkutsk region, Russia and I get very emotional.

My great grandmother had lost her mind while in exile and as a little child I remember she used to swear in Russian. She used bad words like ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ and ‘fascist’. When I would repeat them, my parents scolded me but when I told them where I heard it, they went silent or tried to explain to me that granny was crazy. Later I understood that her fragile and broken mind remembered the names she had been called in Russia.

You see why my first introduction to Russian language was not a very positive one but it is not anymore. I can speak Russian, I learned it in school and I loved it because I could watch all my favorite cartoons and films in Russian and my parents could not use a ‘secret’ language anymore when talking about us, kids.

See, I have to do my own homework when I talk about this stuff. I am grateful for everyone who is doing it or has already completed. People who have listened, who have forgiven, who have apologized, who have accepted the “other” and who have moved on to the bridge. I think and I hope that I am on this bridge, too.

This week there was an event “8/9: Words crossing the gap of memories” at the Anglican Church in Riga organized to promote reconciliation. Reconciling our memories, our narratives, our communities, our people. There were prayers and Bible readings and two very personal speeches. One of them was quite extraordinary and I will translate few of the words here. It was written and read by Denis Hanov, a professor and Doctor of Humanities, a Latvian whose ethnicity is mixed Russian/Ukrainian and mother tongue is Russian.

He started by saying, “Tonight I will speak about things that I have been thinking about for a long time. More precisely, for 20 years I feel that I need to talk to be able to understand what is happening to me here, in this land, in Latvia.”

I hope to translate the whole speech in English and include it in another post, but let me conclude with his words, “Can pain form our future or is it possible to break it? Pain cannot be cancelled, cannot be forgotten and cannot be hidden, but it can be overcome. (…) Therefore tonight I decided, by my own initiative with encouragement of many friends and skepticism of others, to bury the pain of 20th century and to create my personal bridge to cross the gap. I will build this bridge according the the highest standards of safety – I will try to hear others and ask for forgiveness.”

And Denis did. He asked forgiveness and he asked to be heard.

I heard him and I hope that I will be heard, too. I don’t have time to wait 50 years. Latvia does not either.

To be continued…

Siberia

My great grandfather Jānis Kūda (bottom left) doing hard labor near Irkutsk, Russia around 1950

Latvian:

Vai laiks dziedina visas brūces? Pirms kāda laika man viens amerikānis jautāja, cik ilgs laiks vēl vajadzīgs, lai Latvijas sabiedrība tiktu pāri savām sāpēm un sašķeltībai. Paaudžu maiņa? 40 gadi? 50 gadi? Kad visi vecie nomirs, un visiem būs tikai vēsture, varbūt tā izbālēs, un vairs nevienam nesāpēs?

Man tas izklausījās briesmīgi. Es negribu gaidīt, man nav laika gaidīt, kas notiks. Ja nu nekas nenotiek? Ja nu nekas nemainās? Vai arī paliek sliktāk? Varbūt jaunā paaudze vienkārši pārmantos šos stāstus un sāpes un konfliktējošo skatu gan uz vēsturi, gan uz tagadni, gan nākotni. Un kā ir ar manu paaudzi? Kas uzaugām ar vienu kāju PSRS “pagātnē” un ar otru kāju Latvijas Republikas “tagadnē”. Kur beidzot varam sapņot par labākiem laikiem un labāku nākotni Latvijai un visiem cilvēkiem Latvijā. To es arī cenšos. Gan sapņot, gan darīt.

8. maijā Anglikāņu baznīcā Rīgā notika samierināšanai, nožēlai un piedošanai veltīts pasākums. “Atceroties 2. pasaules kara traģēdijas un piedzīvojot pretnostatītas atmiņas par to, meklēsim saprašanos un izlīgumu.  Pasākums krievu un latviešu valodās.” Bija lūgšanas, bija Bībeles lasījumi, un bija divas ļoti dziļas un personīgas runas. Un es nolēmu, ka vienu no šīm runām iekļaušu šajā blogā. To nevar sagriezt, to jālasa pilnībā. Tā ir uzruna no Denisa Hanova, RSU komunikāciju fakultātes profesora, kurš pats dzimis jauktā krievu/ukraiņu ģimenē, un kura dzimtā valoda ir krievu.

“Nožēla un cerība – Deniss Hanovs

Šovakar es teikšu to, par ko domāju jau vairākus gadus. Precīzāk, 20 gadu garumā es jūtu, ka man ir nepieciešams runāt, lai saprastu kas notiek ar mani šeit, šajā zemē, Latvijā.
Viss sācies ar to, ka es piedzimu 1977. gadā valstī, kura nedrīkstēja pastāvēt, jo bija varas spēļu, politiskā ārprāta, cilvēku bezspēcības, baiļu, moku, represiju, nodevības un akluma rezultāts. Es piedzimu Padomju Latvijā, kas tapa kā svešas varas projekts.
Tīņa vecumā vēlme studēt augstskolā izmeta mani ārā no Pļavnieku guļamrajona noslēgtās vides, no noapaļotās vienaldzības pret 20. gs. vēstures lūzumiem un to salauztajiem cilvēkiem.
Tā es atklāju ka par spīti tam, ka krievu kultūras šedevri ir kļuvuši par Eiropas kultūrmantojuma daļu, krievu valoda trolejbusā var pēkšņi likt kādai grumbainai sejai sarauties nepatikā, skumjās un tam var sekot dusmīga piebilde kas man nesaprotamā veidā ir saistīta ar manu tautību – krievs. Ilgstoši negribēju pieskarties šādai sejai un noskaidrot kāpēc cilvēkam var sāpēt, kad viņš dzird manu valodu. Neviens arī necentās man to skaidrot, klusēja vai vienkārši nezināja – nācās skaidrot pašam.
Vēlme noskaidrot citu sāpes un to cēloņus pati veidoja vidi, laiku un telpu, kas pavēra man durvis uz līdz šim nezināmo.
Latvijas Kultūras akadēmija – šauri klosteru gaiteņiem līdzīgi koridori, pavisam jauni studiju priekšmeti, savādāka Latvijas vēstures interpretācija un arī mana paša dalība sarunās, noklausoties stāstus, izlasot atmiņas, apmeklējot izstādes – tas viss lika man saprast, ka arī mana klātbūtne var būt sāpju avots. Mana un manas ģimenes klātbūtne var
sāpināt. Izrādās, ka sāpes ir pārmantojamas, tāpat kā vecas grāmatas, vēstules vai slimības.
Tad es sapratu, ka Čaikovska Oņegins vai Tolstoja Nataša sadzīvo ar sētnieku īstenoto stučīšanu, ar nāvi un mokām cietumu pagrabos, ar neaprakstāmiem vergu darbiem nometnēs, arī ar ilgstošām, klusām bailēm glabāt atmiņas par tuvākajiem, kuru līķi bija izmesti ceļā uz Sibīriju. Par to man atgādina tukšie koka vagoni dzelzceļa stacijās Latvijā, veco cilvēku klusās asaras vai pāris fotoattēli – viss kas palika pāri no iznīcinātas dzīves pirms 1940 gada.
Kāds man ar to visu sakars?
Netiešs, un pavisam tiešs – jo nakts vidū mājās iebrukušie zaldāti, NKVD virsnieki iznīcināja 20.gs. cilvēku atmiņas un sakropļoja dvēseles, krieviski izkliedzot pavēles, lamājoties, rakstot viltotus protokolus, liedzot brīvi domāt, cenzējot, bojājot zinātniskās karjeras, neļaujot izbraukt no valsts, publicēties. Kopš tā laika daudziem vārdi “krievs”, “krievu”, “Krievija” ir baiļu un naida sinonīmi. Man tas jāpieņem, jo tāda ir traumētas sabiedrības realitāte. Latvijā naktīs, cietumos, kolhozos, darba vietās, parkos, universitātē 1940. gadā un pēc tam vēl pusgadsimta garumā nāve, fiziska un psiholoģiska vardarbība runāja krievu valodā, mainīja ielu nosaukumus, aizliedza iepriekšējo topogrāfiju, aizvietojot to ar nevienam nepazīstamu un nevajadzīgu revolucionāru biogrāfijām.
Man ir jāpieņem, ka jauni cilvēki var drūmi atskatīties atpakaļ, kad dzird krievu valodu, jo viņi kļūdaini, bet droši zina, ka valoda un es esam līdzatbildīgi. Un man jādzīvo tālāk ar atziņu, ka 1940. gada Rīgas jūnija putekļos tie bija krievu tanki, kas atnesa krievu laikus, nevis padomju. Es varu ilgi stāstīt par 30. gadu atklātajiem procesiem Krievijā pret padomju opozīciju un GULAGA iemītnieku miljoniem, es varu rādīt studentiem “Saules nogurdinātos”, viss paliks pa vecam – sāpes būs klātesošas, tās veidos pagātni un tās būs saistītas ar manu klātbūtni Latvijā. Vai sāpes drīkst veidot nākotni, vai tās var pārtraukt? Sāpes noteikti nevar atcelt, nedrīkst aizmirst un nevar paslēpt, bet tās var pārvarēt.
Pārvarēt var tad, ja saproti, ka turpināt ciest nav jēgas, ka viss ir aizgājis, ka nav iespējams atgriezties pagātnē, kaut gan ļoti gribētos, lai saprastu ka es, mēs, mūsējie ir varoņi vai upuri, un citi tikai varmākas un noziedznieki. Šādā sadalījumā mēs apmānām paši sevi, meklējot vienkāršotus skaidrojumus šodienas sarežģītībai.
Tā mēs visi un es pats palikšu ieslodzīts 20. gadsimtā. nespēsim iet tālāk. Tā es nekad nesadzirdēšu Cita sāpes.
Bet es vēlos iet tālāk, man jāiet tālāk – pasaule ir sagatavojusi vēl daudzus skaistus mirkļus ko atminēt, atklāt, izstāstīt citiem. Tāpēc šovakar es, pēc paša iniciatīvas, bet ar vairāku draugu atbalstu, arī skepsi, nolēmu apglabāt 20. gs. sāpes un plaisu vietā veidot savu personīgo tiltu.
Es būvēšu savu tiltu atbilstoši visdrošākajiem celtniecības standartiem – es mēģināšu sadzirdēt citus un lūgt piedošanu.
Es pieņemu, apzinos, izdzīvoju un saprotu ebreju, latviešu, lietuviešu, poļu, romu un visu citu grupu, kopienu un atsevišķu cilvēku sāpes, sēras, skumjas, kas izēd dvēseles un saindē domas, kas bloķē skatu uz nākotni. Tālis Tisenkopfs, kura tekstus es apbrīnoju, ir rakstījis, ka vēl piecdesmit gadus viņa sirds būs ciet – mums nav tik daudz laika. Jāpasteidzas… No padomju varas vardarbības cietām mēs visi.
Ar šo runu es no sirds dziļumiem un ar cerību lūdzu piedot man, lūdzu pieņemt manu personīgu visdziļāko nožēlu par noziegumiem pret Latvijas cilvēkiem, kas mira, cieta, palika garīgi un fiziski sakropļoti, iztukšoti, vientuļi. Es neesmu vainīgs, bet es jūtu atbildību – morālu un pilsonisku – par padomju okupāciju un tās sekām. Es lūdzu piedot, es lūdzu pieņemt mani. Un es aicinu iet tālāk kopā, kopīgi sērojot par visiem aizgājušajiem, bet vienlaikus pieņemot visus, kas veido mūsu Latvijas sabiedrību, ar viņu atmiņām un emocijām, kurām ir tiesības pastāvēt daudzveidīgajā sabiedrībā, kurā brīvība ir visaugstākā vērtība. Es ticu, ka nožēla un žēlsirdība dara brīnumus, spēj pretoties naidam, dusmām un politiskām fantāzijām. Citēšu vienu 18. gadsimta tekstu: “Taisnīgums, ko pavada žēlsirdība, ir cēls.”
Tu šodien esi klāt, un dzirdēji manu lūgumu. Lūdzu neklusē, lūdzu sadzirdi, lūdzu runā ar mani.”

Es sadzirdēju, un arī man ir ko teikt. Turpinājums sekos nākamreiz…