BALTIC BLOG: Latvia - where history is never in the past

By bne IntelliNews May 10, 2012

bne -

If you are a history buff, Latvia is paradise. This small country is obsessed with its history, and not in the castles-and-palaces heritage style of Western Europe; in Latvia, history is an omnipresent force underlying everything.

A quick glance at the calendar is all you need for evidence of this historical fetish: as well as Independence Day, there's Restored Independence Day, Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day and Soviet Holocaust Memorial Day, Constitution Adoption Day and plenty more, all of them demanding that you fly a flag from your house or face a fine from the flag inspectors.

But two days that don't appear on official calendars provide the best evidence of Latvia's historical obsession. On March 16, Russians go into an apoplexy about a parade in central Riga commemorating members of the Latvian Legion, a combat unit of the Waffen-SS. Then, two months later, with the predictability of a home-and-away fixture in some World Series of historical argument, the roles are reversed and Latvians decry the celebration of Soviet Victory Day on May 9 as providing all the evidence you'd ever need of how Russians regard 50 years of Soviet domination to be something less than a brutal occupation.

Latvia officially marked the end of World War II on May 8. A few hundred people including the president and prime minister gather at the main war cemetery and bow their heads. 24 hours later Russians flock in their tens of thousands to the massive Soviet Victory Monument.

This year's event was bigger than ever, with people of all ages laying flowers on a warm spring day while serenaded by children's choirs and admiring the medals of the veterans who for this day at least feel like they can wear them without the risk of being fined for displaying a banned symbol.

On the fringes of the crowd, pro-Russian political groups hand out leaflets in a furtive manner while television cameras sweep from side to side. In mid-morning one middle-aged man fainted, immediately running the risk of appearing on the evening news as the inevitable drunken Russian.

Youngsters with trendy haircuts wander around dressed in Soviet-era uniforms while talking on their mobiles. Wearing a uniform you have not earned the right to wear is something of questionable taste, but the veterans don't seem to object. "I believe I am the last generation who was taught the true history of the war by my parents," says Aleks, a 29-year-old Rigan. "I came here because I wanted to say thanks to the people who fought for us and to show our government what I think. I can't understand their attitude. How can they honour people who fought for the Nazis?"

An image of a Brezhnev-like veteran with more medals than Usain Bolt flickers onto the huge screen behind us, making Aleks even more animated. "How would the world look if Hitler had not been defeated? Would the world be free? Just give men like him dignity until the last one of them is dead. Then you can say what you want about history," he says.

Nevertheless, it's difficult to see how the presence of stalls selling "Cars 2" merchandise or gangster DVDs contribute to a dignified commemoration of the fallen. According to Olga Procevska, a doctoral student at the University of Latvia who has analysed the evolution of May 9 and its coverage in the press, the day has changed from a quiet memorial in the early 1990s to something much more political and commercial. Speaking at a lecture on May 7, she made an observation that is both light-hearted and profound. May 9 changed when the Shashlik stalls arrived: "If you feel like it, you can take your 100 grams of vodka in your pocket, but you can't take your own Shashlik," she said.

Two tram stops away from Victory Park on the other side of the River Daugava, a small group of elderly figures mull around the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Led by Uldis Freimanis, a notorious right-wing wacko with a penchant for badly-matched pieces of German field kit, they processed through the cobblestoned streets of the Old Town waving banners with atrocity photographs and various "send them home" type slogans. Scandinavian tourists looked on with equal parts amazement and horror.

As bne watched them pass, a group of people nearby began complaining that these Russians should be doing their thing on the other side of the river. "Hang on, they're Latvians..." one of them realised scratching his head. Russians heading the opposite way holding flowers mainly took no notice.

Caught between the opposing tides of history on May 9, the Latvian government adopted the classic strategy of wrapping itself in the flag. Not the Latvian flag in this case, but the reassuringly boring blue and gold of the EU, as May 9 also happens to be the birthday of the bloc. "To mark the occasion an eight-metres-wide and fourteen-metres-long flag is being unfurled by participants holding 1,000 blue balloons and twelve yellow umbrellas," says the Latvian foreign ministry.

All of which makes you realise that however divisive and unending the historical debates between Latvians and Russians might be, at least they aren't silly.

BALTIC BLOG: Latvia - where history is never in the past

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