“In other words, Ziedonis, knowingly or not, recognized that for a state to be free, its people must recognize a shared tradition and must be themselves free to build upon it.”
mants Ziedonis, the famed Latvian writer, was decorated as the National Poet of Soviet Latvia in 1977. This would seem to indicate Ziedonis’ complicity with Soviet ideals, or at least his disregard for the critical sentiment emanating from a select bastion in his home state. It might imply his acceptance of the status quo, so long as the trajectory of his career was preserved. Such a cursory take, however, is far from reality. Ziedonis, as a writer and as a man, coupled a zen-like introspective prowess with an unwavering commitment to his nation and to his means of expression. Through his uncompromising approach in the face of censorial authoritarianism, he provided an example of pride and self-knowledge from which his fellow Latvians and the world could learn.
Ziedonis, the Figure
Born in 1933, Ziedonis was—and remains—a Latvian poetic force. His first major publications were poetry collections and were written between 1961 and 1968. He published four, among them Motocikls (Motorcycle) and Es ieeju sevī (I Enter Myself), both works which dealt variably in both the tactile and the allegorical. If Motocikls presented the tactile, measurable world as experienced by a self to which that world arrived (at the speed of a motorcycle, the world perceived), Es ieeju sevī took the world and internalized it, turning experience inward. Ziedonis went on to publish more poetry collections, prose memoirs, and children’s fables. These included “Colorful Tales” (1973), for which he was awarded both the Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Children’s Literature, and the Epifānijas (Epiphanies, 1971, 1974, 1994), a triptych of metaphysical, lyrical, genreless prose actualized as 1-3-page bursts of beauty; his work encouraged self-efficacy and introspection and reflected the man’s own scrutinizing and direct nature. His works, as the Latvian-American writer Rita Laima remarks in her memoir, Skylarks and Rebels, surrounding her move to and experiences in Soviet Latvia in the 1980’s, granted Ziedonis “Rockstar status” in Latvia.
Yet Ziedonis, who died in 2013, is perhaps as well-known and celebrated in Latvia for his writing—which is still widely quoted and set to music—as he is for his dedication to the Latvian independence movement during the final decades of Soviet occupation. The historian Aldis Purs notes in his book, Baltic Facades: Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia Since 1945, that “Ziedonis managed to be chairman of the Soviet Latvian Writers’ Union [and] also…a veiled opponent of Soviet rule.”
He spoke, instead, of the value of one’s homeland and that homeland’s history and integrity.
While, of course, during the Soviet era—with its centralized censorship where one could not be a stupendously open critic of Soviet rule while remaining published and unpunished—Ziedonis, keeping his poetry and prose steeped in tactility, self-reflexivity, and metaphor, wed himself to causes which promoted a free Latvia. He did this not through fanged animosity toward the Soviet machine but, rather, through positive support of grassroots causes—the conclusion of which would mean a less-regulated, freer Latvia. These causes included the preservation of the environment’s “great trees” (dižkoki) with the Great Tree Liberation Group, cited by the Latvian Cultural Canon as one of the first environmental movements in Soviet Latvia, along with his championing of Latvian mythology and folklore. As Ziedonis was a Communist Party member, his support often amounted to criticism of policies and practices which stymied such causes, rather taking aim at the systemics inherent to the governance. He spoke, instead, of the value of one’s homeland and that homeland’s history and integrity.
Having aligned himself with these causes, Ziedonis was free to be patient (while remaining kinetic and experiential in his being and writing), allowing the practice of freedom in himself. This took place in his words, in his processes, in his deeds, as defined within the scope of himself, rather than as a matter of institutions which he could not control. All the while, he awaited the downfall and dissolution of the Soviets by their own hand. In other words, Ziedonis, knowingly or not, recognized that for a state to be free, its people must recognize a shared tradition and must be themselves free to build upon it.
Ziedonis was, to be sure, outspoken, but he understood nuance and chronology, and being outspoken never equated being hysterical. To be Latvian was, at first, to have a practical mindset. Ziedonis found free Latvia within himself and, in turn, hoped the Latvian people would do the same. As such, Ziedonis became almost a religious figure, a savior of sorts through his actions.
Storytelling, Self-Efficacy, (and Censorship)
Ziedonis’ aforementioned fascination with folklore speaks to another valuable exercise in the fashioning of a free Latvia. As the social scientist Lucien Ellington notes in Eastern Europe: An Introduction to the People, Lands, and Culture, Ziedonis “returned to the tradition of examining Latvia’s cultural roots.” In focusing on these roots, Ziedonis addressed what he, himself, recognized as a “cultural confusion” (as termed by Anatol Lieven, author of The Baltic Revolution) that had affected Latvia’s self-conception. “Latvians live along the line of confrontation between the East and West, occupying a space diffuse in the political, demographic, and philosophical sense; a space where the assessment and evaluation of our nation by the participants tends to be quite diplomatically evasive,” Ziedonis wrote.
In giving Latvians a culture to hold onto—present and past—Ziedonis defined both the Latvia that had existed prior to Soviet conquest, as well as a Latvia that was viable in current times, if only it were allowed to be. Purs, as such, remarks that Ziedonis’ “mashing together of folk concepts with biting descriptive commentary on societal ills in the seemingly innocuous form of children’s tales are triumphs of Latvian literature,” and many Latvians feel the same.
Ziedonis told stories; all else, as far as anyone could reasonably be concerned, was speculation. Despite their stringent censorship measures; despite their probable knowledge that Ziedonis supported ultimate Latvian independence; and even given his outspoken and frequent support of Latvian causes and sometimes controversial essays to this end, the Soviets never found reason to muzzle his work. Even—or especially—after his fame, Ziedonis’ work remained mystical, meditative, and reflective. Indeed, his exhortations that “work is the path to human happiness” and that “the fundamental thing is to be active” are ideas the Soviets themselves would have likely supported. This is true also of even his more provocative thoughts such as the following:
“Only your own people can go against your folk song. No one else can go against your folk song. For no one else will know how an orphan once stood by an apple tree. And what kind of ties have bound us since then.”
“Do you know how hard it is to fight your own roots? Do you know how hard it is to strike branches from a bud? I will have you one day. For now, I must have myself. Let me be!”
These views—when perceived politically—could be written off by censorial authorities as politically irrelevant, if not indeed co-optable by the central party. This, however, is an example of how a censorial nation fades: The mind cannot be controlled, and, insofar as individuals are awakened to their liberty, they will notice that which impinges it.
And it was frequently through Ziedonis that the people of Latvia found their way. Ziedonis’ life, while tethered to the maxim and the symbol and the allegory and the adage, was one lived in full awareness of his nation’s rich history and that which stifled it. His espousal of local-level causes outside of his writing may have been seen as quaint or similarly irrelevant. But his writing, when informed by his activism—and his activism, when informed by his writing—forged a personality that shone as a Latvian beacon inasmuch as such a beacon could shine.
Ziedonis, for his part, needed Latvia the same as it needed him. Without Latvia, Ziedonis’ spiritual maxims had no physical home to which to harken.
An example of Ziedonis’ effect on the Latvian psyche is cited by Žanete Grende, the head of the Imants Ziedonis Museum (called Viegli, or “Easy”) and a personal friend of Ziedonis’ in her foreword for Minimisms, an English-translated collection of Ziedonis’ quotations cultivated from his works and speeches:
“I [remember] the school badge award ceremony held in my last year at high school, when we were youngsters, full of dreams and excitement, [when we] recited the Master’s words: ‘It’s the same with frames. There are people who live within them and never emerge. Then there are those who, at times, remain within them and at other times emerge, coming out and going back in. Then there is a third kind: those who don’t live within them at all. They only die within them. In fact, they don’t even die within them, but are put inside them after their deaths.’”
“The notion that one can live outside the frame was quite a revelation.”
It was such revelations that buoyed Latvia through and beyond oppressive times. Ziedonis, for his part, needed Latvia the same as it needed him. Without Latvia, Ziedonis’ spiritual maxims had no physical home to which to harken. And without the strict personal concoction of dedication and uncompromising scrutiny as communicated through the spiritual maxims, the causes Ziedonis enacted with Latvia in mind would be less-encompassing, unbound by Ziedonis’ being, denuded of their personalized potency. Following the ethos of Ziedonis’ work, one could become enlightened in oneself. And, insofar as one’s self was aligned with one’s roots in specific culture and land, the personal became the political, and the line between the acceptable and unacceptable was drawn. A national identity, cherished and built in the shadows, need only wait for the morning.
Minimisms (2018)—Ziedonis, Preserved
Minimisms, which was published in 2018 at the behest of an ailing Ziedonis—“Please,” he said to Grende in 2008, “will you search through my writings and unfurl the texts to find small phrases which, like a potato seed, might lead the way to a new understanding, greater and more meaningful than previously anticipated”—encapsulates Ziedonis’ verve and dedication and speaks to the aforementioned causes of self-efficacy and nationhood. After all, without certain context, his words could not be pegged as anti-Soviet or even necessarily political language. The aphoristic “seeds” champion personal strength, kindness, self-knowledge, and appreciation of the world that was, as well as the world that can be. A detailed afterword written by the Latvian poet Lija Brīdaka also accompanies the work.
The books shapes itself, by my reckoning, into a narrative arc which encapsulates Ziedonis’ persona, his causes, and his ultimate goals in being: finding joy, living free. It is a sketch of Ziedonis’ greater body—his physical own and his work (which Ziedonis in all likelihood saw as extensions of each other: To sculpt yourself, he said, is a sacred cause).
After the foreword, which ends with a quotation of Ziedonis’ about the ancient, enticing nature of boundaries—how boundaries are “the seams of great possibility”—the book proper begins with quotations which, given the context provided by the foreword and by Ziedonis’ legacy, lead one to think of boundaries (especially politically installed ones) being pushed to expose these seams. The sequence from the first pages reads:
“We will come in closer and closer
for there’s no way to go any further
There’s just one thing you must do—
The meaning of life is joy
Don’t ever cover your eyes
if you have to leave—
go into the darkness!
If I am ever chased away
the dark will glow on inside my eyes.
You too can do some of what
has never been done
It is not only children who breathe
and echo our future lives—we too
will dive deeper into those seas.”
In the quotations, masterfully compiled, the struggle to find life’s meaning—as defined, joy—through the darkness of human circumstance is bared. The 200-page collection swings from these early pages into exhortations willing the reader to move, be active, live in the present (“I kept waiting and it was a mistake—for waiting is already imprisonment”), get dirty, be necessitous and no more, behold beauty, work, bare his soul to the elements, and recognize the humanity, essence, finite, and infinite in all things.
Interspersed within this narrative of the personal quest for enlightenment are quotations that serve as reminders of the tangible situation facing Ziedonis at the time of writing. These refer namely to the near-inescapable, near-omniscient overbearance of the Soviet era and its upholders. Some of these quotations name Latvia explicitly, while some merely imply. For instance, he writes: “An idea taken to the limit becomes the cause of its own destruction; It is not yet decided who this century/will entrust to lay down the roads—/us, the fierce and insistent, or/those who care little,/the unconcerned.” Insofar as the reader is looking for a narrative and uses the writer himself—his era, his biography—as fodder for granting it, such quotations ground the collection in a specific place (much as the specific grounding of Ziedonis’ Motorcikls in the Latvian roads and fields did for the more-abstract language in that collection). The quotations also provide greater context for what would otherwise be merely a book of general, unorganized aphorisms, a context that would have depended on the reader himself alone.
The collection hits its narrative peak, in my opinion, between pages 85-113, where the quotations, having wended up in the previous pages through the struggle and value of taking one’s chance at the untiring, consistent pursuit of love and joy, despite all obstacles—”I will walk house to house and/tell them all/that there’s nothing more precious/than those roads/which lead you from dawn till dusk; You are peace, peace, peace./I know: this life will burn out/in creation./Could you lend me your peace/of mind for this life of mine?; No one will be spared if there have been lies in love,/if there has been falsehood in life.”— center around the state of happiness, its near-measurable characteristics. The climb towards happiness, at this point, narratively, has ceased. It could be argued that it is here, as in life, that the struggle truly begins; for once happiness is seen and known in the act of climbing, how then to climb when there is nothing more over which to climb? What can be lived but regression or reclusion? The quotations in the second half of the collection address love, joy, and happiness the same as the first—but now with joy having become an “equilibrium,” all is well, and yet it must be preserved in the practice of freedom.
This equilibrium was foreshadowed in the collection’s buildup, for example with early lines such as “And then time came to a stop,/and that was love. Because only/in the face of love does it stop.” As the imagined narrative tails off into joy’s paradoxically elusive nature as a baseline state of being (one which must be maintained but never “had,”) the reader is left in a restive peace, looking for repeated active purpose after the goal (finding joy) has been achieved. Looking, perhaps, for an example of someone who has done so, who has found not only joy, but freedom in its pursuit.
In this sense, the afterword, which further details Ziedonis’ ever-Latvian life, provides a beautiful cornerstone to the collection. Ziedonis’ kinetic, ideal-driven life and work chronicled and encouraged a respect for nationhood that—when coupled with the message of self-efficacy and open-mindedness—was a potent force in precipitating Latvia’s ultimate independence upon the advent of perestroika & glasnost.
Ziedonis’ veiled critique of the Soviet Union was not destined to remain long in the shadows of public conception. Indeed, with the Soviet Union near collapse and independence approaching, Ziedonis began writing for Atmoda, the first independent opposition newspaper in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. He was then elected to Latvia’s Supreme Council and was among the Council members to vote yea for the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence in Latvia. Ziedonis’ legacy holds today as an uncompromising lodestar of self-evident truth and practical efficacy in a global landscape of those who would sag to the middle or use the vulgar or overstated to rise higher. His works would provide a refreshing read for Americans in search of something from the late 20th-early 21st centuries, which speaks a hard truth—that of the human condition—not seen for years.
Patrick Burr is a writer living in Latvia. He holds an MFA from the University of Washington, where he received the program’s Nelson Bentley Prize.