My Minnesota diary: Indians and cowboys

Every writer needs a break. After a busy year of university studies, I was deflated. Emotionally and mentally. Who wants to write a blog after staring at the computer screen for days and weeks and months? After a one month hiatus ‘peaceroads’ is back… the world keeps spinning and there is too much happening to keep thoughts to myself (or for my poor husband to be the sounding board 🙂 ).

And let me start with ‘Minnesota diary’ since I am spending summer in the US, mostly in the beautiful Midwest. The name ‘Minnesota’ is based on the Dakota Sioux word “Mini sota“, the native name for the Minnesota River which means “cloudy water” or “sky-tinted water.” Many locations in Minnesota are derived from native American languages including Cree, Sioux and Dakota.

I must admit that on first visits I took it for granted. Well, just some strange American names! Minneapolis sounds cool and that’s it! Minnehaha… haha… But then I started to wonder about these names of streets, neighborhoods, counties while driving through cities. What a unique and interesting name is Minnetonka or Chippewa or Shakopee… where it comes from and what it means.

Quite obvious that these were not typical European/Scandinavian/Anglo names so common in the area. I figured it must be Native American heritage. Ever present even if the people whose language was used are marginalized.

I love maps. I have scoured the map of Minnesota, the land of thousand lakes, and find it so fascinating. And my eyes are always drawn to the Native American tribes and their territories. To me, a foreigner and visitor, this is like a movie. Reservations! The name always raises so many questions in my head. Reserved for what? Reserved from what?

Nowadays most Native Americans (78 %) live in urban centers, not on the reservations. But even in the cities I rarely meet someone from First Nations. My one ‘token’ friend is from the Lakota tribe with relatives in South Dakota and she has invited me to “powwow”, a traditional community gathering with food, dance and song. Sad to admit I still have not taken up this offer because the time is always too short.

Here is the thing… most of my American friends would be totally surprised to find out that I grew up with movies about the cowboys and the Indians. In USSR? In communist Latvia? Did they show American movies? No, these were made in East Germany and undoubtedly used as anti-American propaganda. Guess what?! In our movies Indians were always the good guys and the cowboys were the bad ones. The cowboys were greedy and powerful and wanted to rip off the Indians who were brave and honorable and oppressed.

And we wanted to be Indians! I wanted to be an Indian girl, my brother wanted to be an Indian boy and so did the other kids in our neighborhood. The justice was on the side of the Indians who were treated unjustly and we, the children, wanted justice. We would find bird feathers and put in our hair. Sometimes the shops would sell ‘Indian’ head covers with paper feathers and my brother was lucky to get one of those. I was so jealous…

Recently I had a conversation in Duluth, MN. I was describing some of the tensions and historic ethnic fault lines in Latvia and one young woman commented, “This sounds so strange and foreign to me to have these kind of historical grievances and prejudices between groups of people. Here in northern Minnesota we do not have anything like it.”  Not wanting to be the know-it-all but I had to point out the reservations, legacy of boarding schools and the general Native American experience. What if I asked them about grievances and prejudices? I have a feeling their answer would be quite different.

Do not mean to judge. Just to point out that we get so blindsided because of our cultural bubbles. The ‘other’ story and experience is out of sight and out of mind and simply ceases to be important. Or becomes a page in history book and makes for a good movie. Of course, today and yesterday is not black and white like American or East German movies where we were told two opposing versions who the bad and the good guys were. It is much more complicated but still relevant.

I read a thought provoking and challenging book “Rescuing The Gospel From The Cowboys: A Native American Expression Of The Jesus Way” by Richard Twiss (1954-2013), a minister and theologian from Lakota tribe. Sadly he passed away few years ago but left tremendous legacy for his people and for the whole church in America. One of his observations: “After hundreds of years of missionary efforts, an extremely low number of native people are actively engaged in a life of faith in Jesus and participation in some Christian tradition. This is largely reflective of Euro-American colonial cultural forms, expressions and worldview values.”

As a Lakota man who worshiped Creator and followed Jesus, he knew his stuff…

 

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.

Borders check more than our passports: Story about fault lines

On May 1, I woke up and felt like going to the cinema. Latvian cinema. This year we have many new movies – fiction, documentary, animation, TV, etc. – since 2018 celebrates 100 years of national statehood. Since these movies are also a gift to me as a Latvian citizen, I better go and support and enjoy.

I have seen a few but the documentary film D is for Division” (Wall) by director Dāvis Sīmanis impacted the most. The story of physical and mental boundaries or fault lines between present day Latvia, its Soviet past and its neighbor Russia as in ‘Putin’s Russia’. It hit emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. Because this story focuses on ‘today’. We cannot live in the past or the future. I have only the ‘now’ and what impact is my life having on the present and how does the present impact my future.

The film was very open and honest. The director talking about personal fears, anxieties, questions, observations, hopes… about personal and collective memories that divide… about injustices in the past and the present… about us.

In teaching and studies I often use the same symbols because they are so clear and visual – wall, bridge, wall, bridge. What are we building? What do we need most? What are we becoming? Walls separate into ‘us’ and ‘them’, divide, protect and exclude. Bridges connect two sides, provide meeting place, cross over and include. The documentary portrayed many walls and some bridges. Visible and invisible walls between Latvia and Russia, between ‘Homo soveticus’ and people who have shed the Soviet mindset and past (or at least try to shed it), between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, between different ways of practicing faith.

Even tough the film in Latvian is called the “Wall”, I see it as a bridge. For sure an attempt to build a bridge from ignorance to awareness, from indifference to responsibility and involvement.

Just a few observations about the different levels of fault lines. First, Latvia (as independent nation, as a member of European Union and NATO) and Russia (Putin’s version of it). The ‘wall’ has gone up high and it keeps going. Latvia would say that we have withdrawn our bridges for the time being. The movie also has great reflections about the life of ordinary people on both sides of the border.

The divisions between those who have moved on from our Soviet past and those who still live in it, miss it and maybe even dream about the return to ‘those glorious days’. There is one guy in the story, Beness Aijo, who dreams of Latvia becoming communist republic again and now fights in eastern Ukraine to see this ‘Soviet’ dream fulfilled there. Obviously these two groups live in different past, present and future. Both have their sacred memories as bonfires to gather around, to tell stories and to feel united. The clear message to the other side  – Do not dare to touch our bonfire!

Today on May 4, people in Latvia are gathering to celebrate our independence from the USSR/Soviet Union. Others, not as many but still a large group, will gather on May 9 to celebrate the victory in WWII but also to celebrate the former Soviet Union. Our collective memories clash and our visions of the present and the future diverge. The film obviously raises the questions and seeks the answers of how to live side by side and how to remember in a way that unites, not divides.

Last but not least. There are scenes from a Russian Orthodox monastery inside Russia where the paintings on the wall depict soldiers as heroes of the past and the present. During the film you see Jesus face on military flags. It is our Christian never ending story and shame that we ‘recruit’ God to be on our side  or that we ‘elect’ Jesus as our leader into the battle. I am glad nobody was sitting next to me as I was fidgeting in my seat and silently praying, “Jesus, forgive us! Forgives us all for we don’t know what we are doing.”

Go and see this film if they show it anywhere near you (with English subtitles, of course) and if you are interested in questions that are relevant not just to Eastern Europeans.

Thank you, Dāvis Sīmanis and the crew, for building this bridge through the camera lens!

Latvian:

Brīvdienā pamodos noskaņojumā, ka gribas aiziet uz kino. Uz latviešu kino. Galu galā jānovērtē tās Latvijas simtgades radošās dāvanas, kas domātas arī man. Un tā diena iesākās ar režisores Ināras Kolmanes “Billi” un beidzās ar Dāvja Sīmaņa dokumentālo stāstu “Mūris.

Un šoreiz mērķī trāpīja Mūris. Trāpīja emocijās, domās, aktualitātē un vispār. Daudzu iemeslu dēļ, bet viens no galvenajiem, ka filma stāsta par šodienu, par mums, par mani. “Latvija 100” ietvaros liels uzsvars likts uz notikumiem pagātnē, kad manis vēl nebija (protams, protams, ka tas ir svarīgi, un no pagātnes mēs gan iedvesmojamies, gan mācāmies). Nākotne man vēl nepieder, taču tagadne ir tepat, un tā ir manējā. Tikpat daudz cik tavējā, jūsējā, mūsējā.

Patika, ka stāsts ir atklāts un personīgs. Par to, ko redz neapbruņota acs, par bailēm, par neziņu, par satraukumu, par bezspēcības sajūtu, par sarežģītiem jautājumiem, par spriedzi un aizspriedumiem, par vientulību, par netaisnīgumu, par pagātnes un šodienas plaisām.

Darbā un studijās man tuva ir izlīguma un kolektīvo atmiņu tēma. Lasot lekcijas ir tik viegli un uzskatāmi izmantot šos simbolus – mūris, tilts, mūris, tilts. Ko mēs ceļam? Kas mums šobrīd vajadzīgs? Kas mēs esam? Mūris, kas atdala ‘savējos’ un ‘svešos’, norobežo, nelaiž iekšā, pasargā no reālām vai iedomātām briesmām, vai tilts, kas savieno divas puses, iekļauj, ļauj satikties, iet vienam pie otra, pat pāriet ‘otrā pusē’. Mūris var būt arī plaisa jeb dziļa aiza, ko nevar tik vienkārši pārlēkt, kā stāstā par Ronju, laupītāja meitu.

Filmā ir gan mūri un plaisas, gan tilti. Mentāli atķeksēju dažus redzamos un jūtamos ‘mūrus’ – starp Latviju un Putina Krieviju, starp Rīgu un pierobežu, starp Ansi Ataolu Bērziņu un Latvijas sabiedrību, starp Benesu Aijo un Latvijas valsti, starp kolektīvām atmiņām, starp ‘Homo soveticus’ un ‘ne-padomju’ cilvēkiem, starp manu kristietības izpratni un filmā dzirdēto un redzēto. Arī tilti tur bija vairāki. Pati filma, lai gan saucas “Mūris”, manuprāt, ir izcils tilts. Kaut vai no nezināšanas uz zināšanu, no vienaldzības uz iedziļināšanos.

Īsumā par dažiem attiecību līmeņiem.

Latvija un Krievija. Ko tur vēl teikt?! ‘Neredzamais’, bet draudīgais mūris ir izaudzis pamatīgs. Kā zinām, Latvijā teiktu, ka tas uzcelts vienpusīgi no Krievijas puses, un mēs tikai pacēlām jeb atvilkām savus tiltus uz doto brīdi. Un tagad esam spiesti celt nostiprinājumus savā mūra pusē.

Rīga un pierobeža. Varētu teikt arī Rīga un lauki. Latvija ir tik maza, bet tik viegli dzīvot savā ‘burbulī’ un nezināt, kas notiek citur. Kā tur izskatās, ko tur dara, ko tur jūt, kā tur vispār dzīvo. Es tagad rādu ar pirkstu pati uz sevi. Latgalē neesmu bijusi daudzus gadus (labi, man ir neliels attaisnojums, ka pēdējos 10 gadus dzīvoju ārpus Latvijas). Uz Krievijas vai Baltkrievijas robežas neesmu bijusi nekad. Jo parasti lidoju pāri robežām, nevis šķērsoju pa zemes ceļiem.

Filmas epizodes par Draudzības Kurgānu uz triju valstu robežas (Latvija, Krievija, Baltkrievija), un tur rīkotajām 4. maija un 9. maijā svinībām, bija izglītojošas. Cik tur daudz simbolikas! Abpus robežai tiek dejots un dziedāts, karogi vicināti, foto uzņemti, bet svētku saturs tik strīdīgs. Katrai pusei ir savs ‘svētais atmiņu ugunskurs’, ap kuru pulcēties, un viens otram atgādina – Pat nedomā aiztikt vai jaukt manu ugunskuru!

To pašu var attiecināt uz 9. maija svinībām Daugavpilī. Ja godīgi, bija grūti skatīties. Pamatīgi dīdījos krēslā. Visa tā nostalģija pēc ‘padomju’ laikiem, slavas dziesmas un  mazie bērni padomju karavīru formas tērpos. Cik tas viss ir pazīstams no bērnības, un cik ļoti gribas to visu aizmirst! Atceros, ka mans brālis arī saņēma dāvanā padomju jūrnieka formas tērpu, un cik viņš bija lepns. It sevišķi par savu plastmasas duncīti pie sāniem!

Par diviem filmas varoņiem Ansi Ataolu Bērziņu un Benesu Aijo (nē, es šeit nelieku vienlīdzības zīmi) es nevaru komentēt. Abi ir aktīvisti un patrioti, bet absolūti pretēji mērķi un līdzekļi. Atzīstos, neesmu padziļināti sekojusi viņu stāstiem, tikai no mediju virsrakstiem. Arī 2009. gada notikumu laikā biju tālu tālu prom no Latvijas. Galvenā sajūta, klausoties un skatoties viņu pieredzi un pārdomas, bija dziļas skumjas. Gan par vienu, gan par otru. Tāda vientulība. Pirms 10-15 gadiem mēs staigātu pa vienām un tām pašām ielām, varbūt sēdētu vienās kafejnīcās…

Šķiet, ka filmas viszīmīgākā epizode ir Adwards apbalvošanas ceremonija “Splendid Palace” zālē. Tie kadri vispār likās kā no citas realitātes. Mēģināju saprast, ko tas atgādina, un vienīgais, kas nāca prātā, bija filma “Bada spēles”. Par sabiedrības eliti, kas izklaidējas ar līdzpilsoņu ciešanām. Zāle pilna ar jauniem, enerģiskiem, radošiem, izglītotiem cilvēkiem, kuri bauda sava smagā darba augļus ar vīna glāzi rokās. Varētu teikt, te sēž Latvijas nākotne. Un uz skatuves tiek būvēts virtuālais tilts ar A.A.Bērziņu ar tehnoloģiju palīdzību, bet paliek sajūta, ka starp abām pusēm ir augsts mūris. Gan Ansis, gan Rīgas publika joko un smaida, bet kas notiek patiesībā? Kadra tuvplānā ieraudzīju kādu paziņu, un tagad gribas uzrakstīt un pajautāt, vai viņa atceras to momentu un savas izjūtas un domas. Izskatījās tāda apjukusi.

Tālāk… Ukrainā filmētos kadrus skatīties vienmēr ir grūti. Tās šāviņu un ložu rētas logos, ēkās, rotaļu laukumos. It kā viss jau reportāžās neskaitāmas reizes redzēts, bet šoreiz sāpināja vairāk. Un separātistu štābiņi viesnīcās, kurās vajadzētu gulēt tūristiem, nevis kaujiniekiem. Arī te vairs nav ko piebilst. Smagi.

Un vēl komentārs par reliģiju. Kristietībai pēc manas sapratnes un pārliecības vajadzētu būt visstiprākajam un drosmīgākajam tiltam, bet realitātē tas var būt vislielākais mūris. Kurā pusē ir Dievs? Uz kura karoga ir Jēzus? Ir viegli reaģēt uz sienas zīmējumiem krievu pareizticīgo klosterī Krievijā, kur attēloti pagātnes un mūsdienu karavīri gluži kā svētie mocekļi, kuriem Dievs dāvā īpašu aizsardzību un labvēlību. Var sašutumā grozīt galvu, ko es arī darīju (un atkal pamatīgi dīdījos). Klusībā teicu: “Jēzu, piedod! Piedod mums visiem! Mēs nezinām, ko mēs darām.” Jo mēs visi spējam tikpat pārliecināti likt Dievu savos kara karogos, kara saucienos. Saviem karavīriem ‘piezīmējam’ eņģeļu sargājošos spārnus.

Skatoties filmu, varētu domāt, ka folkloristi ir vislabākie tiltu būvētāji. Tur bija vērtīga un, manuprāt, patiesa doma, ka tikai pazīstot un cienot savu kultūru, mēs varam cienīt citas kultūras.

‘Soveticus’ nostalģijā dzīvojošie arī nejuta nekādas robežas starp valstīm. Viņi īpaši uzsvēra to, ka ir vienoti savā identitātē, ka ir internacionālisti. Tur bija tā simboliska tikšanās uz robežtiltiņa Draudzības Kurgānā. Ļoti gribējās ielīst Latvijas robežsargu ādā un uzzināt, ko viņi tajā brīdī jūt un domā?!

Un visam pa vidu vēl apcietinātie patvēruma meklētāji, no kuriem daudzi Latvijas valsts un sabiedrības acīs ir “nelegālie imigranti”, un bilde top jau pavisam skumīga.

Kā jau minēju, šī filma man liekas spēcīga ar savu aktualitāti. Par tagadni, kuru joprojām ietekmē pagātne, un kura veido mūsu nākotni. Kādu mēs vēlamies šo nākotni? Latvijā un Eiropā! Kā zemi ar dziļām plaisām pēc zemestrīces? Kā mazas feodālas karaļvalstis ar bieziem aizsargmūriem un paceļamiem tiltiem?

Ja pareizi sapratu filmas veidotājus, viņi izvēlas būt tiltu būvētāji. Ar kameru plecā un mikrofonu rokā. Bet, galvenais, ar acīm un ausīm vaļā. Gan fiziski šķērsojot robežas starp valstīm un cilvēkiem, gan savelkot kopā dažādus skatupunktus. Izklausās tik klišejiski, bet nekā gudrāka un vienkāršāka jau nav. Ja gribi saprast, ej, skaties un klausies! Ja negribi dzīvot mūros, ej, meklē patiesību, ceļu uz piedošanu un izlīgumu!

Paldies Dāvim Sīmanim un visai komandai par ieguldīto darbu, laiku un mums visiem uzdotajiem jautājumiem caur kameras aci! Atbildes jāmeklē kopīgi…

Enough of reliving Columbine again. And again. And again.

Where does it stop? How much more trauma, tragedy and loss of life from shooters with powerful guns can American teenagers, children, parents, grandparents, families, teachers, pastors, churches, the whole society take? I hope and pray and wish and plead that it stops at Parkland, Florida.

I will never forget April 20 of 1999 when the shooting at Columbine High School happened. I had just spent three months in the States visiting friends and family and one person very dear to me was a high school student at the time. Minnesota is far from Colorado but schools all over the country were holding vigils and grieving. It broke my heart and it is still one of the most harrowing images I can think of. Those two guys slowly walking through their school as if they were on a hunt. And here we are 18 years later and similar horror gets repeated again and again. And again.

I grew up with drills in the school. We learned how to hide under the tables, how to run to the basement, how to find shelter and how to put on a gas-mask in the fastest way possible. In the USSR this was not a practice for ‘active shooter’. This was a practice for ‘active nuclear weapon’ coming in. (Like you could really hide from a nuclear explosion!) I know that this may be a very bad analogy but it is the closest thing I have experienced that helps me to relate to the fear it brings in children. And when this fear gets cultivated year after year, it becomes the new normal. In those days the answer to nuclear threat was more nuclear weapons. We were on this race who will have the biggest stockpile and it was never big enough. The whole world could blow itself up and everyone felt less safe.

I would have never ever believed that American children and teenagers will have to grow up with school drills for ‘active shooters’. Again, there are two little boys in Minnesota whom I dearly love and I think of the time when they start going to school. What will be their ‘normal’?! This is the post-Columbine reality. Just like post 9/11 reality for me is the airport routine of security checks. No sharp things, no liquids, take your shoes off, take your electronics out. It was enough with one incident of someone trying to use a liquid to build explosives and I cannot carry water or any drink on board.

But here are people with powerful weapons built to inflict the biggest amount of damage who are thought to pose much less threat. My water bottle is obviously more dangerous than AR15 semi-automatic rifle. (I don’t mean to be sarcastic. I am actually dumbfounded.)

I am not joining the gun debate as such. I am not a gun owner, I am not an American citizen  (I do pay taxes in the US, though) and I have no right to vote on those issues (some may say that I have no right to voice my opinion then) but I do believe in common sense. And right now the truth speaks from the mouths of children. Like everyone else who has watched any interview with the survivors of Parkland shooting, I have been overwhelmed and more than impressed by the maturity, intelligence, focus, determination and eloquence of these students. They are right to ask though: “Why is it us who have to fight for this issue to have gun reform? Why is it us who have to march and protest?”

Jack Haimowitz, 18, a survivor of last week’s shooting said: “Before you put your pen to paper, stop and feel something.” He blames the people “who don’t want to come together. The people who don’t want to unify and to love each other.” Listen to what Jack has to say in this short video! It will only take 1 min of your life but this teenager says more in few words than many who have spoken and written on the issue of gun violence and reform.

“We sat in the these classes ready to learn and now we are standing in front of the world ready to teach.” (J.Haimowitz, Parkland, Fl)

May we learn! May America learn!

 

 

 

Platitudes of peace and unity in Korea and one Latvian’s view on it

The 2018 Winter Olympics are called “Peace games” but somehow this message does not stick easily. As my blog page tells, I am all for using every and any platform for peace building, common good, diplomacy, solidarity and sports is one of those forms of fun and entertainment which brings people together. Just like kicking the football will win you instant friends among children from any neighborhood around the world. I could tell so many stories from travels and work where sports was the bridge between cultures, even so called ‘enemies’.

But ‘peace’ is not abstract. It is not a word. It is a state well-being which involves many things. Truth, justice, forgiveness, freedom, choice among them.

And because of this I can assume that the message of these ‘peaceful’ Winter Olympic Games remains totally abstract for most people in North Korea who are supposed to be one of the main recipients and beneficiaries of this message. First of all, the games are not broadcast in North Korea, even with 22 North Korean athletes competing. This is easy to understand – why would the regime show people how South Korea can host such a world event and all the technical, economic and democratic achievements across the border?!

The North Korean people do not need spectacular ‘peace doves’ or over-used John Lennon songs like “Imagine” (I am sorry if you think it is one of the greatest ‘peace songs’ ever written, but I simply disagree with the lyrics and, to be honest, I am tired of it. If we really want universal ‘unity’ anthems, we need new songs to inspire our hearts and minds in this day and age.)

Another reason why all this makes me sad and angry is because I have seen it before. Growing up in the USSR, we were raised to believe that we live in the most peace loving nation in the world and that every other system is oppressive, racist and violent. I know what it’s like to live behind the ‘curtain’ and to be told lies about the life on the other side of it. Even worse, to be told lies about the life we ourselves were living. It is hard to accept that in 2018 there are millions of people who live in this kind of ‘cage’ and prison.

And the injustice continues. The gate keepers get to travel, to act like they care, to pretend they are interested in real peace for their people. The sister of Kim Jong-un gets to sit in the VIP box at the opening ceremony and I can only imagine how most of defectors from North Korea felt watching it. I know how I felt. We talk about ‘interests’ of our free nations or Kim Jong-un and his regimes ‘interests’ and I certainly worry about the tensions and nuclear weapons but what about the people of North Korea? What about the people of South Korea?

The North Korean athletes get to go to South Korea, they get to see and experience things that millions of other North Korean people cannot even dream about but they are still prisoner’s who are just let out for few days and they are on a very short and tight ‘leash’. You can already guess that there are more secret service staff than athletes. How many people are watching each athlete? Do you believe that North Korean athletes get to actually hang out with other athletes and form new friendships? Do you think the women on the united hockey team get to be left alone and freely talk? No way! Even without the staff or officials, they cannot talk freely because they are made to inform on each other.

Can you imagine how many ‘interviews’ and ‘reports’ they will have to give upon returning home? This totalitarian system of spying and informing on your colleagues, friends and family is one of the most painful scars that our nation of Latvia bears and we are still struggling to reconcile with this past. It has done something horrible to our collective and individual soul. And multiply it when you think about North Korea.

And what about South Korea? If you follow the surveys and research, you will see that the younger generation in South Korea has more reservations about the prospect of future ‘unification’ of two Koreas. The reasons are many but among them economic and financial. If the two Koreas will one day unite, the South will have to cover the bill and it will be trillions of dollars.

I believe that this ‘wall’ will fall in our life time but I also know that it will be only beginning of hard work toward reconciliation and unity. It is easy to win ‘war’, but it is very hard to win ‘peace’. Still, there is no alternative. The people of divided Korea need it and the rest of us will have to help but no more platitudes like “above us only sky… imagine all the people living for today”, please.

Season of Advent reminds us why universal declaration of human rights still matters

Universal declaration of human rights? United nations? International cooperation? International order? Preventing wars? Striving for peace? Respecting human dignity? It is almost 70 years since this declaration was proclaimed and yet it is hard to shake the impression that many people/nations/leaders could care less…

I look up at the calendar on my kitchen wall and there it is – December 10 as Human Rights Day. I go to Facebook and there it is again – you can click ‘Like’ or share it on your wall. (I did not share it since I did not like the design. Or maybe I am just tired of online activism where we post slogans, memes, famous quotes, provocative statements and anything else to “make this world a better place”. But here I am writing this blog. I guess at the end of the day it is still better to add my voice to issues I deeply care about.)

This Sunday is also a religious celebration of Second Advent. In the Christian tradition and calendar it is a time of waiting and preparation. Waiting for the Hope and Light of the world to be born in a seemingly hopeless and dark place and welcoming this coming with open heart and mind. We sing “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel” and we do it every year. Why keep saying it if we believe He has come already?  There are many theological reasons but one simple reason I can give is we need to remind ourselves what this life and this world is like without Him.

It is amazing how quickly we get used to the good news, things and good times and take it for granted. It is also amazing how quickly we can descend into hopelessness and darkness again.

For very long time now, we take Jesus of Nazareth and the way he transforms our human existence for granted. Nowadays we also take the Universal declaration of human rights for granted. We cannot imagine a world without these commonly accepted principles because most of us did not live before 1948 and during Second World War. We, at least the Westerners, are so used to speaking about our human rights that we think nothing of it.

But here I read the lines from the declaration’s preamble: “The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

(…) Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

Have we achieved and experienced the advent of this kind of world yet? Are all people free to speak their mind, practice their religion, free from fear and want? Are we, the peoples of United Nations, keeping our pledge? Do we even believe in this larger freedom? Do we still have common understanding and emphasize the word “common”? Or are we putting our trust in the world of “mine”? My country. My people. My rights.

The answer is obvious. Thus we are still waiting, still striving and longing…

“O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel”

 

 

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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