Latvia and the Legacy of the Soviet Union Memory Speaks for Us until We Hear Others

Freedom Monument in the Latvian capital Riga
Freedom Monument in the Latvian capital Riga: symbol of national sovereignty. | Photo (detail): Melanie Kintz© picture alliance / Westend61

In 1990, Latvia regained its freedom after several decades behind the Iron Curtain. Russian-born Deniss Hanovs, who has been a Latvian citizen for twenty years now, asks, “Who am I to my Latvian compatriots who survived the Soviet occupation? What do I have to do to be accepted here and become part of Latvia?” He believes a shared future in freedom is possible – provided that people are alive to one another’s pain.

On 24 February 2022, the world I’d spent 44 years in fell apart. That morning, when Putin’s army attacked Ukraine, I was planning to give my cultural history students a lecture on the Age of Enlightenment – an age in which many believed the individual and humanity as a whole could be improved by constantly developing and educating the mind. Immanuel Kant believed that as society became more civilized, human consciousness would eventually come of age: the mind would break free from the phantasms of power and control that curtail individual freedom. And this evolutionary process would be likely to bring home to an enlightened global society the idea of perpetual peace.

The Long Road to Reason

I can’t remember how I managed to conclude the lecture on 24 February. Mozart, who wrote The Magic Flute shortly before his death, was to be my salvation. I told my students the fairy tale made up by his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, a German composer, veteran impresario and Freemason, who knew how to captivate an audience:  

On stage, Prince Tamino gets lost in the forest and is pursued by a monstrous serpent, but the real monsters and phantasms lie hidden in the recesses of the prince’s own mind. Enlightenment, liberation from preconceptions, and fear of the Other lead the young man on a long path, beset by doubts, that eventually leads to the temple of the sun, of justice and reason.

The sun set behind the horizon of the 21st century at the end of February, and now I, a Russian living in Latvia, have to get through another long night on my own personal path of grief, fear and doubt, of denial and forgetting. I have to feel out the cracks and divisions in Latvian culture.

Seeking Acceptance

Who am I to my Latvian compatriots who survived the Soviet occupation and multiple deportations in the 1940s? Do they see me as a part of present-day Russia, a descendant of former Soviet occupiers in a world in which the Soviet Union is being resurrected? As a part of Latvia, but an unknown other, who became a Latvian citizen twenty years ago, but forever “non-Latvian”? How, to whom and under what conditions can I tell the traumas I’ve been through, which, like those of the Latvians, are part of me today? Will my culture, my language, my identity and my collective memory be accepted or rejected? What do I have to do to be accepted and become a part of Latvia?

There are so many questions and so few answers, and even fewer solutions and ways to overcome mutual estrangement in present-day Latvian society, which still lives as though World War II were not over yet. That war estranged the Baltic states from Europe. In 1940, in the loveliest days of summer, winter struck. Tanks rolled into Riga, the capital of an independent state. Cattle cars were loaded at night with people, with their fear, their sorrow and their simmering rage. The annihilation of so many individual fates, memories and bodies began at that little railway station in Riga. People were deported, hauled off to death, to the silence and oblivion exacted by totalitarianism. Latvians, Russian émigrés in the wake of the Revolution, and Jews were carted off to Siberia. And thousands continued to disappear on those trains up the end of the 1980s, when, thanks to perestroika, the musty archives of lies were finally opened up and the atrocities of the Soviet state were brought to light.

Others’ Pain

My family was obsessed with the crimes of Stalinism. I was ten years old when I plunged headlong into this hushed-up chapter. But it wasn’t till university that I learned about the horrible fate of my Latvian classmates and their grandparents, who lived in fear of denunciation, repressive measures, arrest and deportation for half a century after 1945. During my Cultural Studies programme, I was confronted with the fact that the only way to preserve my self is to discover the pain of others. There is no “light” version of others’ trauma. Their pain is terrible because of all the things that cause it: anger, injustice, arbitrariness, betrayal and the fact that our Latvian compatriots were compelled to remain silent and even lie to themselves for decades. Which is why, after Latvia’s independence and sovereignty were restored in 1990, the nation’s newfound freedom gave rise to a violent “explosion” of collective trauma and rage into my life and the lives of my Russian-Ukrainian family in the decade that followed. Our whole existence changed rapidly and dramatically. We, formerly the “Great Russian Brotherhood”, an almost privileged group who barely spoke Latvian and understood nothing of the twists and turns of history in the late 1980s, suddenly found ourselves in the new world of Latvia’s stolen history and compatriots.

Since then, like Mozart’s prince in the dark forest, I’ve been looking for a path that will lead me to Latvian history, to the space of others’ pain. It’s a long, rocky road, with unplumbed depths, populist traps and radical temptations along the way. And there are no wise priests as in Mozart’s opera, no one to reveal the secret and tell me what it was really like. You have to come to grips with the traumatic history of others yourself and it’s your choice whether to find out or remain in the dark.

Personally confronting the history of others – their memoirs, narratives, fragments of memories – can achieve what academic history cannot: a confrontation with the silent sorrow of a victim of a totalitarian past. The old woman who tore off the covers of all her books in her library published in pre-Soviet – i.e. the “false” and “dangerous” – Latvia: that was the door to a temple where anguish cannot become the cause of hostility or political manipulation by radical parties, but the prelude to forgiveness, acceptance and personal freedom vis-à-vis the pitfalls of one’s own history, which always has a part in the forging of myths and cultural constructs.

Remorse as Assuming Responsibility  

Acceptance of the Other’s collective memory is the path to what cultural scientist Aleida Assmann calls the “politics of remorse”. Remorse is a personal act of accepting not guilt, but responsibility for the tragic history of the country and society in which I now live. In 2017, my desire for remorse became a need, so I addressed the Latvian public live on LTV7 and asked for forgiveness. Some of my Russian acquaintances saw this as a betrayal, while many of my Latvian colleagues were confused and didn’t know what to make of my apology. There was no dialogue. But I’m stubborn – or just naïve. I keep looking for a way into the past of my Latvian compatriots. I’m aware of our responsibility to ensure that Europe’s totalitarian past doesn’t silently creep into a totalitarian future. So in my speech, I asked my audience to take into consideration  my own memories as well, which were manipulated by Soviet history, and the memories and fears of my parents, who were spoon-fed nothing but Soviet lies from childhood on. My memory is steeped in clichés equating all things Russian with goodness, light and progress. Now the world has seen Russian history, culture and identity used as a smokescreen for evil and violence. Now the collective memory of Russians in Latvia will be fraught with the question of personal responsibility for evil. Has everything got worse? That seems the wrong word: it’s a matter of a new challenge and a new space for difficult questions about belonging, about the hierarchies and vanity of memory, about accepting trauma, creating intercultural dialogue, and bridging the ethnic divide. This xenophobia is within me, too, like a virus: all of a sudden, I can’t deal with the lure of my culture’s “greatness” anymore either. Violence begins with the lies and vanity of memory, and Mozart’s Queen of the Night drowns out the dawn of consciousness. The twilight in Europe has lasted a long time, but the capacity to muster compassion and understanding can brighten the skies above us.

Dialogue between Memorials or between the Living?

In his poetry collection Pieaugušie (Adults), the young Latvian poet Kārlis Vērdiņš describes Riga as a silent conversation between the city’s monuments: Milda, the symbol of Latvian independence, gazing “sorrowfully” at the “Soldiers’ Ballet”, a monument to the Soviet soldiers who liberated Latvia from Nazi occupation… and ushered in half a century of another occupation. How can this be mentally reconciled? Who were these soldiers? My grandfather could have been one of them. The two monuments are separated by the Daugava River. Should we rename it the Lethe? Should we forget the past or restore our ability to remember the trauma in a different way? These monuments on opposite banks of a shared river are not silent: they speak different languages and bring together different groups of Latvia’s dispersed population. They speak for us, while we remain silent and do not listen to those on the other side.

Latvian society lives behind glass walls that are stronger than the Iron Curtain, which came down in the 1990s and gave Europeans an opportunity to use their shared history as a basis for a shared future. Here in Latvia, we vote along ethnic lines and watch different TV channels. Since 24 February, the unheard, unprocessed history of the 20th century has made a grab for one victim after another: manipulative propaganda, radical conspiracy theories and hate speech have caused rifts with even the closest of relatives who believe in the great liberating mission of this attack on a sovereign state. Due to collective trauma and deafness to history, we’re heading for a future in ruins, with hardly a trace of freedom left. These are dark times, but a turn towards the light – freedom as the space of a shared future – is possible. Rediscovering our own share of the responsibility for the history of others is a long road and slow going at that. But there’s no alternative: otherwise, only the monuments will still be speaking, and not us, the living.