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Personal Essay

What Latvia Understands That America Doesn’t

“Having lived in Latvia for over a year…there is a selection of good things, ideas or their manifestations, which seem to pervade Latvia and/or which the United States either lacks or has forgotten.”

The heartbeat of Latvia is alternately slow and quick, depending on how one asks after it. And ask I have, since moving to the former Soviet state in the summer of 2019.

The process of acclimatizing oneself to a new culture and geography and landscape—even or especially in the time of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), and even or especially when one goes into the experience thinking how similar or bridgeable the place will be to one’s longtime home, how uneventful the experience might be, how little, even, one may interact with the local culture—is one of manifest and constant subconscious comparison and immersion as into a murky lake. Levels of analysis and intrigue one may not have accounted for, such as the way people cross the street, hail taxis, or laugh, accompany in a great, semi-permeable broth the more-predictable-yet-still-surprising-when-first-experienced cultural incongruities, such as eating routines and dietary habits, what is considered “good” manners, how people greet each other, how receptive they are to helping foreigners with language or otherwise, how people deal with daily challenges, and how people see and express the way they see the world.

Sometimes these incongruities amalgamate at inopportune moments, and one feels that the world has conspired to make him misunderstood: The struggle of trying to direct an elderly Korean taxi driver towards one’s apartment, for example, arrives in an unflinchingly unique and acute way, especially when the metro is closed, buses have stopped for the night, and he does not comprehend the map on your phone. And walking behind a little old woman who suddenly spits on the sidewalk at her feet will take anyone aback.

This is to say that no matter how much research or language training one has done in advance, one must let one’s sense adjust to a place. It is a process I am getting better at, having lived for extended periods of time in various locations across the United States (Washington D.C.; Nashville; Montana; Seattle) and the world (London; Seoul; Latvia) since 2013; yet, it is a process I have not yet mastered—and perhaps a process which given the uniqueness of each culture, each locale, one cannot master. One can rely on expectations and education only so much.

Latvia: A Partial History

My most recent experience with Latvia and its culture has been a peaceful and informative one, all things (COVID 19-related and otherwise) considered. Latvia is a sleepy, seaside country of 1.9 million tucked (at times snugly, at times vise-gripped) between the west and east, with Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Russia, and Sweden playing violent tug-of-war over the past centuries for claims of territorial supremacy. Geographically, Latvia has been the space between the victory lines the tug-of-war flag must cross, the spoils of someone else’s crusade, a sacrificed, swampy battleground (graves of Germans, Russians, and Jews, dating from the World Wars, pock the countryside and some cityscapes), a demilitarized zone.

Just recently, in 1918, did Latvia first declare its independence as the Republic of Latvia, a declaration which saw the unification of the territories anciently occupied by four Baltic tribes—the Curonians, Latgalians, Selonians, and Semigallians—and the Livonians, who were/are Finnic in origin and into the approximate territory of which are split present-day Latvia’s administrative districts: Courland, or Kurzeme, in the west; Latgale, part of which was also the ancient territory of the Selonians, in the east and south-east; Semigallia, or Zemgale, in the central-south; and Vidzeme, alternatively known as Livland to Germans (though the Livs also inhabited areas in Courland), in the north-east. These areas, on the back of a national awakening and the Young Latvian movement, united by declaration on November 18, 1918 into an autonomous, self-determining republic.

This fledgling Latvian republic immediately (see: two weeks later, on December 1) needed to fight for its independence against invading Soviet troops, whose initial forays were successful enough to install a Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic government in Riga, Latvia’s capital city. Germans, Estonians, Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, Danes, Britons, and the French fought in concert to repel the Soviets; however, by January 31, 1918, all of the country but for the area around Liepāja on the shores of Courland had fallen to Soviet control.

Over the first quarter of 1919, the Latvia-allied troops successfully repelled Soviet forces into Latgale; however, the German Baltische Landeswehr then turned their presence hostile, established with Baltic-German nobility’s backing a puppet Latvian government through coup d’état in Liepāja, sending the provisional Latvian government established the previous year aboard an Allied-protected steamship, the Saratow, in the Baltic Sea. A month later, the Landeswehr captured Riga and, in June, pushed its campaign into north-eastern Latvia. Estonians and Latvians fought back, in Riga and elsewhere. And, on June 23—with an army which knew the terrain better than did its opponents—they defeated the Landeswehr at the Battle of Cēsis.

A ceasefire was signed on July 3rd, only for the Germans secretly to plan and execute an attack on Riga in cooperation with the West Russian Volunteer Army that October. The Latvian Army, alongside those of Estonia and Britain, fought back and, on November 11, 1919, defeated the German-supported troops in Riga on what is now known as Lāčplēsis Day. By January 13, 1920, the aspirational Latvian SSR’s government, which had held hope in Latgale, had folded; on May 1st sat the first Latvian Constitutional Assembly; on July 15th, Latvia signed a ceasefire with Germany; and on August 11th, the Latvian-Soviet Riga Peace Treaty was signed.

Does this sort of struggle for self-determination sound familiar?

The 1920s saw Latvian culture’s cornucopian emergence and the second election (1925) of Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis, who had been Latvia’s Prime Minister from 1918 to 1921, including aboard the Saratow; Ulmanis was again elected to the same role in both 1931 and 1934. Under the campaign slogan “Latvia for Latvians,” he presided over great gains in national awareness and the development of Latvian culture and language; however, his legacy is mixed due in great part to actions taken during his fourth term.

In 1934, with political threat on the doorstep, he declared a state of war and dissolved the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) with the backing of the military. He interned Social Democrats, ultra-nationalist anti-Germans, and pro-Nazi activists alike in prisons near Liepāja (though many were released after a short time). And, in 1936, he assumed the title of both President and Prime Minister, circumventing the constitution and effectively becoming Latvia’s dictator. As dictator, he outlawed political parties, including his own.

With the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union agreed that in the event of conflict, Latvian territory would belong to the Soviets. Upon Soviet ultimatum, Ulmanis allowed Soviet troops and military bases into Latvia, and Latvia was soon fully occupied by the Soviets, Ulmanis surrendering control in 1940 rather than risking direct war.

During World War II, Latvia changed hands often, and its men were drafted at different times into both the German and Red armies, meaning that on occasion brother fought against brother, father, son. Before World War II, Latvia’s Jewish population was near 100,000; today, due to deportation (to Siberia), intermarriage, repatriation (often to Israel), and historic events precipitated by the Germans and Soviets alike, the core population is under 5,000, according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

After World War II came the Soviets with Stalin’s communism. They demanded fealty, changed street names and social/governmental demands, and deported to Siberia those who opposed, were perceived as opposing, or merely were well-off and thus existed against principle (this including my wife’s grandparents, whose land was seized before they were put on a train. When they returned after years in Siberia, their land had changed hands and was not returned, as was the case for many). The former KGB headquarters,  Stūra māja (The Corner House), including its basement cells, sits along Brīvības iela (Freedom Street) in the center of Riga and is open for tours.

This long-winded and yet compact retelling is to say that Latvians know their history. They remember. And they know what could otherwise be. Modern Latvian culture is an amalgam of old rituals and celebrations, folk song and dance; Russian habitual and cultural practices and superstitions, vocabulary, language; and 20th-/21st-century westernized values and rituals. Since the 1990 declaration “On the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia,” Latvians have grown back into their space and themselves; there is a billowing national pride and awareness that is slowly subsuming Soviet-era nihilism and corruption. Latvian flags fly above more and more buildings and private homes—but it is not a boastful nationalism. There remains a guarded recognition of the past and how quickly it can all be lost.

As Latvia is a small country, about the size of Lake Michigan, with a population equal to that of Idaho or Phoenix, Arizona, this holds all the more true. The Latvian language is spoken by under two million worldwide, including by (only) 80% of the country’s population—and as a first language by just over one million, or around 60% of its population. As such, and as an even greater proportion of first-language Russian speakers reside in the capital, Riga, the government has installed laws to protect the use of its language in the public sphere—in government; on storefronts.

The fight against the negative effects of globalization, too, is one Latvia feels in preserving its language and heritage—and in stabilizing its standard of living. The average Latvian salary as of Quarter 1 of 2020, according to Latvia’s Central Statistical Bureau, was €1,100/month ($1,325/mo @ $1.21/€1 = $15,900/year—though considering greater purchasing power), and an enterprising citizen must either work multiple jobs and bring in some form of international income or be left to relative paucity and demotivation if it is in the global context that citizen aims to thrive. There are full-time researchers with PhDs in Latvia who make €300/month at leading national institutions; European Union (EU) and top-level national projects thus are highly coveted, but Latvians, thus far, have received them more rarely than do their EU counterparts. Low-level corruption and tax evasion persist throughout the workforce and in banks—according to a great many studies into the matter—if only because they are established as normative practices. Though to globalization the nation must cleave, if it is to come further into its own maturity and become an influential member of the EU, a nation with heft, fiscal and otherwise.

Latvia, in its sleepy urgency, desires to move forward and is keenly aware of what it cannot move back to.

The working Latvian is thus infused with an urgency which spells not the difference between international travel or an intrastate vacation, but in subsisting in a much more direct, and sometimes dire, way.

American Navel-Gazing: Some Observations of the United States and Latvia

a) Of course these are generalizations for the sake of argument and illustration, and, needless to say, the recap of Latvian history included here is not comprehensive or nearly detailed enough to account for all of the factors which go into and have gone into the formation of the Latvian state. However, the image is an accurate one nevertheless and detailed enough for our purposes here.

Latvia, in its sleepy urgency, desires to move forward and is keenly aware of what it cannot move back to. It looks to the West—namely, the United States, its close ally and the country in which its Prime Minister, Krišjānis Kariņš, was raised (Wilmington, Delaware) and earned his degrees (University of Pennsylvania, B.A. & Ph.D. in Linguistics)—for an example of stout prowess and introspective self-care and to provide a counterbalance to the storm or threat thereof on its eastern border, not in search of something antipodal to communism, but in search of the continuance of the possibility which communism stifled. This November, coverage of the American election flooded Latvian news outlets’ front pages, and talk shows dedicated the bulk of their time to it. Whether due to the United States’ influence or due to its being paralleled with the archetype of what Latvia can be, the United States matters to Latvia in a way that the United States cannot perhaps comprehend at its highest levels of governance.

All the more reason why the United States’ recent navel-gazing and obsession with the minutiae and semantics of its own past and present strike a profoundly ugly and unsatisfying, if not yet worrying note in the Latvian capital and in the Baltics as a whole. The manifest instability shown by the United States in its constant decadence and Instagrammability and decline into perpetual advertisement—and the subsequent seeping of that and other social media tendencies into political conversation—is a blow to the stable presence of the United States as a trustworthy world power based upon both its capacity to defend its ideas against attack and those ideas themselves. There are significant populations in the United States (as there are anywhere) who do not care about this, who care only for a comfort in their minds deserved, who would gladly trade in their brains for that comfort, though it is this on which their comfort has been based for centuries.

This distinction is not one between elephants and donkeys but, rather, of recycled storylines and the need for singular problem-solving to deal with the necessarily unique, necessarily thus standard issues of our global age—chiefly, the slow infusing of the digital world with the physical world and the physical with the digital. There is truth to be found in a great many things—if one is patient to discover it and knows how to mute distraction.

b) Having lived in Latvia for over a year, having studied the language and its history and its present through reading and conversation, there is a selection of good things, ideas or their manifestations, which seem to pervade Latvia and/or which the United States either lacks or has forgotten. This is not a comprehensive list, and I expect to add to it:

First, Americans, for all of their rebellious skepticism, are sometimes gullible. There is a comparable readiness to accept the pure strains of others’ thoughts or to reject all aspects of others’ thoughts (which, too, is accepting others’ thoughts)—or to follow others’ thoughts down the rabbit hole that it is believed they would have taken if only someone had tracked them that far before. This is beneficial when getting behind a globalizing, world-changing idea or to defend territory but negative in terms of the recent banding together into mobs against the perceived defects of each others’ views.

Have people granted themselves too much “free time,” as defined by time spent looking into other peoples’ business, rather than pursuing something based on their own abilities? Are there too many screens being looked at, mouths agape? Is there too much uncertainty as relates to the core issues in the United States—we want to talk, but do not agree about what?

The second regards digital technology, the speed of its recent development, and how it intersects with other core issues such as spying, the environment, energy, international strife. The technology society utilizes has evolved so quickly that perhaps broad swaths of society had not the requisite time to understand it—its effect on the body and mind, its effect on routine and perceptions of time—prior to its introduction, leading to a minor devolution/addiction/obsession. Big tech influence is rampant in the United States in a way it is not elsewhere. Although it has improved life, it has also shaken it up.

One example of how Latvia is less beholden to these changes: In Latvia, there exists no Amazon distribution center, and many to whom I have talked have said they have never ordered anything from Amazon. Not that Latvia is not connected to the Internet—indeed, Latvia has among the fastest Internet connections in the world—but that society maintains bastions of localness to balance these effects; the country itself could be called “local,” from how Latvians value nature to the continued prevalence of markets and family farms.

Third concerns Latvians’ welcoming nature. Although many are quiet and mind their own business, they are often quick to welcome visitors as friends and give the benefit of the doubt. Americans, I find and would like to believe, are quite welcoming. However, the lack of multilingualism in the American population makes things more difficult in this regard.

Fourth is the apparent godliness of celebrities and politicians in the United States. Whether one decries them or lauds them, one is ramparting their efficacy, often in many places where practice could or should override legislative decree. This point is similar to that of the navel-gazing and readiness to follow mentioned in the first point.

People must live their own lives and revisit politics when necessary. The celebrity and the politician should be those persons who do the most for the community, and who balk at recognition both because they do not need it and because it takes precious time away from the work. This has become increasingly not the case today, especially when there is Instagram fame and quick money to be made.

The beauty of Latvia is in its approachability. There is not a lack of fame—only of the apparent intangibility or supremacy often associated with it in the United States. This is not to say that Latvians do not respect the well-known among them—rather, that the well-known (for the most part) do not expect godly treatment, and people understand that people are, foremost, people, not far away objects to be gazed upon and envied. In recent months, I and my wife have walked past former president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga getting out of her car with her husband in front of a shoe store in the city center and former president Raimonds Vējonis walking alone near the National Art Museum. A job is a job, and the plain heroism of the working Latvian in the eyes of greater society is thus preserved.

Fifth and finally, the United States seems to be flooded by anger and excess, which has manifested in the most recent so-called culture wars. Needless to say this combination of a high level of criticism, poor reporting focuses, and vigilante justice does not exist at such a scale in Latvia; the country is not intent on rending itself apart.

Perhaps the animus is to die with the Biden administration, though it also existed before former President Donald Trump, President Trump being merely the king of one large troll hill. Perhaps this is merely an extremely vocal minority that has been given an avenue to a voice through social media and celebrity and isn’t humble enough to shut up and listen to why their quick-fire solutions to problems—some real, some imagined—are deeply flawed.

Perhaps what was exacerbated by President Trump’s presence and that which precipitated it is not, as some would have it, the decline of Western civilization but merely a human itch that on occasion must be scratched. However, we must be aware of ourselves and what we sign off on, no matter how quickly and in how many directions things move. We must not settle for anything less than trust and love and honor and respect—in ourselves, in our relationships and friendships, in the image we thus hold of our country and what we deserve to pursue as a group. As Americans.

American Culture: Cannibalization of Literature (or its Subsumption by the Industry TM); Art Rising

My move to Latvia was not motivated by these things, though I am a relatively young man employed as an author and editor who has not been blind to how stark over-saturation and political discourse, sensationalism, and bilateral lemming line-toeing have infiltrated significant portions of the marketplaces of the very places where I stand and intend to stand. Sensitivity readers exist! People, of course, not being able to discern for themselves and authors being too dumb and innately cruel to be socially aware and kind. And what is funny (or not) is that in the end it is mostly an attempt, where it is not panderingly and misguidedly kind, to corner the market and turn/save a profit.

But the big industry is not burgeoning; it is cannibalizing itself, literarily, for one purpose of literature and art is to push the very boundaries no one wants to push or believes oneself allowed to push or even knows to exist prior, in tasteful ways. In taking it upon themselves to define what the acceptably pushable boundaries are, the powers-that-be are at once delimiting out potentially intriguing and valuable conversations and setting up a DMZ around the topics they consider worth addressing to ensure they are addressed in an acceptable way. This is near culturally illicit. Some publishing houses are, at some times, forsaking their role as cultural ambassadors regarding this. (As was noted at the bottom of a recent New York Times article by Ben Smith, though one would be a fool not to support one of the article’s subjects’ premises—that blatantly false speech which directly incites hatred or insurrection such as that which occurred at the Capitol on January 6th should not be published by a self-respecting publishing house in protection of the publisher’s own free speech—the overall outlook extends far beyond merely not making offense into a fetid concoction of ad hominem and gymnastically false appeals to authority of which the great Olga Korbut would be proud.) Detailing the shift in how employees at Big Five/Four publishing houses view their jobs as they relate to speech, the piece states: “In the new media world, many publishing employees see their companies not as powerful gatekeepers but as workplaces and consider these [questions] to be labor issues, not speech issues. They do not feel any obligation to help authors who they believe are hostile…” This leaves taste to mob rule which itself results in nothing but regurgitation and LCD (in two senses) pleasures.

Are people happy in the United States today? Happiness, in my view, cannot correspond with laziness and immediate instability.

This could indicate a few things: that new literary culture at Big Publishing TM and those places riding on its coattails is overrun by this fanatic blind impatient lack of empathy (and miscalculated empathy) and lack of supra-cultural responsibility, whether due to a handful of loud voices or throughout; or that literature no longer holds so immediate a cultural influence and thus this surrender to Twitter and quick-fire judgment is apparent only because it happened before its happening was decided upon, and thus the powers-that-be believe it must be followed, lest they lose their last dwindling reserves of news-cycle relevance (of course, ignoring that literary value often increases with time).

Or, somehow, those responsible may truly believe their simultaneously proscriptive take on their publishing duties and certain literary approaches and descriptive take on other personal boundaries and definitions (here fashioning a would-be garden of Eden, but for reality).

It might also indicate that another path may or must be forged, one aloof to or ignorant of such noisome, garish, zero-sum battles and party lines—and quick-fire, social-media-esque dopamine-hitting formats and styles—which hijack the art, in literature and elsewhere. The pace and volume of things—and that people do not seem to realize what they are doing, really—is what concerns me.

In any case, mainstream publishers and journals will need to catch up. But then they are always catching up.

Of course, I do not imagine that these tendencies are new to humankind, nor that a paradise without their existence could exist on earth—nor even to say that they pervade all elements of the social areas to which I am referring, that there are not bastions within them which do not care in exactly the right way and still curate valuable, unaffiliated, singular works ripe with intrigue and unique vision and unbridled conflict-and-peace and humor and love. Maybe the future is not mainstream (has it ever been?); indeed, there are plenty of so-called independent publishers who are putting out some of the best literature of the new millennium at this moment, work that deserves to and will be read.

Only am I saying that the celebration of these tendencies is not the hallmark of balanced well-being or widespread goodness. Or of art.

Why Latvia; Problems & Overcoming Them

A tangent in saying that my interest in and move to Latvia came as a desire to see more, to learn more about how other societies live, to know myself, and to be abroad and be free to gain a truly broader perspective of the world—incidentally, the better to consider what is going on in the United States.

Not to say that Latvia is perfect, for it, too, has its problems. Life expectancy hovers around 70 for men; traffic deaths are among the highest in Europe; societal acceptance of homosexuality lags; birth rates continue to decrease; youth continue to emigrate in high numbers; I also have heard the critique, often from Latvians, that Latvia is too provincial, too much of an echo chamber from which it behooves those with ambition to outgrow, and is politically passive.

And the problems plaguing the United States are multifaceted and complex, part of the reason why myriad explanations and proposed solutions are gaining traction and why there is a desire to simplify it all into neat boxes which then are seen as being mutually exclusive, black-and-white, clumping at the loud fringes. Healthcare costs, with the advent of new drugs and treatments and technologies; more people with sub-curve job growth, coupled with a higher cost of living and a greater demand for food; drastically higher education costs and the narrative surrounding higher education; the continued facilitation and growth of the gig economy, and the crowding-out of some traditionally stable full-time work positions from the realm of jobs which pay enough to live well on (local columnist; taxi driver; university employee…); monolithic corporatization and the satrapies being set up by their leaders, forcing the central government to wield more strength and monetary power to protect the people who nevertheless continue to buy into this extreme simplification of things (drone-delivered packages a Prime example); the fortifying of blind political dichotomy, including that in and incited by the media and the politicians who exacerbate and fight it instead of stabilizing.

These issues should not and cannot be simplified, and must be addressed with careful policy and individual awareness, at once knowing that the world is watching and at once not caring, because being the best, most balanced and magnanimous and munificent with our stable, principled example as we can be first matters to us, as individuals and as Americans.

Closing, Opening

I am grateful for the nine-hour flight’s distance I am afforded when I am in Latvia, as it allows for a birds-eye vantage of what goes on. And I love the country to which my wife has introduced me. But I crave the United States. I crave my country and its formative precepts. And eventually, I must be here to stand unaffiliated, a party of one and that which I love. I neither need nor crave nor fetishize long life or perfection or consumerized simplicity, though as ancillary things they are alright; I crave and need my simplicity, my principles, and those which so wrote my country’s place in history: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, and all that follows, now and later.

Are people happy in the United States today? Happiness, in my view, cannot correspond with laziness and immediate instability. Happiness, in my view, is the process of burgeoning and comes not through war or unyielding conflict with one’s neighbors but through intense personal, reflexive challenge and effort and neighborly compromise where its required, with enough distance to give the principle born of personal challenge the room to breathe and flourish. Compromise is easier when the stakes of that compromise are not so high—when less money and mind-space and controlling stakes are involved. Remember this, as Latvia is rediscovering and celebrating, that we are first individuals whose bodies and minds (if discrete) need tending according to the controllable and sometimes inscrutable principles of life on earth—who need situational efficacy, strength, and consistency to flourish.

And we are only as pure of spirit, as ourselves and as a country, as we ourselves individually practice and in association allow.

Patrick Burr is a writer who has lived in Latvia for the past year. He holds an MFA from the University of Washington, where he received the program’s Nelson Bentley Prize.

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