Imagining the Nation
History, Modernity, and Revolution in Latvia
Daina Stukuls Eglitis
Imagining the Nation
History, Modernity, and Revolution in Latvia
Daina Stukuls Eglitis
“This well-documented study is a significant contribution to t he scholarly literature on postcommunist transition and includes a useful bibliography of Latvian- and English- language sources.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
As Latvia and other former Soviet-bloc countries seek to rebuild and transform their societies, what is the central dynamic at work? In Imagining the Nation, Daina Stukuls Eglitis finds that in virtually all aspects of life the guiding sentiment among Latvians has been a desire for normality in the wake of the "deformations" that marked the half-century of Soviet rule. In seeking to return to normality, many people look to the West for models; others look back in time to the period of Latvian independence from 1918 to 1940 before the years of Soviet domination. Ultimately, the changes in Latvia and other Eastern European countries are closely tied to a vital reimagining of the past, as the logic of progress long associated with "revolution" is amalgamated with nostalgia for what is gone. The radiant utopias of revolution give way to widely shared aspirations for a return to the normal in politics, place names, private property, and even gender relations.
Eglitis draws upon published and unpublished documents, campaign posters, maps, and monuments, as well as interviews with Latvians from all walks of life. The resulting picture of life in contemporary Latvia offers fresh perspective on a dilemma facing millions throughout the post-Communist world.
“This well-documented study is a significant contribution to t he scholarly literature on postcommunist transition and includes a useful bibliography of Latvian- and English- language sources.”
“This book makes a significant, groundbreaking contribution to the study of Soviet and post-Soviet societies.”
Daina Eglitis is Assistant Professor of Sociology at George Washington University.
List of Illustrations
1. (Re)Constructing Normality in Post-Communism
2. From Opposition to Independence: Social Movements in Latvia, 1986–1991
3. Normalizing Politics and Politicizing Normality
4. Transforming Boundaries: Space, Place, and Normality
5. (Re)Constructing Gender in Post-Communism
6. Transformation and Normalization: A Conclusion to the Study
(Re)Constructing Normality in Post-Communism
Eighteen years ago on this day
A boat came ashore on the Daugava.
Out of the boat climbed an honorable old man,
Holding in his arms a tiny boy,
With a youthful gait he strode to the castle
And brought me this fateful tiding:
This small boy take as your son,
Raise him as your heir.
An honorable old man was Vaidelots
And he said: he found in the depths of the woods
This odd human child
Suckling at the milky breasts of a mother bear.
He said the boy was fated by the gods
To become in time a hero of the nation,
Before whose word alone would tremble
All future persecutors of the nation!
—Lielvādis, adopted father of the Bearslayer
The Bearslayer: Myth, Memory, and Modernization
The Bearslayer (Lāčplēsis) is a mythic hero of ancient Latvian lore, whose story was put to paper by Latvia’s first epic poet, Andrejs Pumpurs, in 1888. The epic integrates many of the themes that dominate both Latvian literature and history in the twentieth century: an ambivalence and distrust toward Christian religion, which is imported rather than indigenous; a devotion to nature and the natural world; a central place for song in the maintenance and protection of the nation; a fierce desire to defend the nation from subjugation by outsiders; and a veneration of the countryside, particularly in contrast to a suspicion about the big city, which is perceived to be the product and haven of outsiders.
Though the Bearslayer is not linked to Christian religion, he is a quasireligious figure. The Bearslayer is reminded at points in the story that his fate is to fight and sacrifice for his nation, another strand of the religious theme, though the ‘‘religion’’ is the nation rather than Christianity.2 He is also, like the figure of Christ, a man unlike others: born of a mother bear, he inherited a bear’s strength and a bear’s ears, which are the locus of his strength. When he falls in battle with the enemy, the nation awaits his resurrection from the depths of the Daugava River. From the beginning of the story, when the Bearslayer earns his name by killing a bear who attacks his adopted father, he demonstrates his heroism and strength in the service of others.
Though the original Bearslayer epic was published in 1888 and a play by the Latvian writer Ja¯nis Rainis, Fire and Night, based on the story, appeared in 1905, the hero is still relevant in the twenty-first century. Indeed, representations of the Bearslayer abound, particularly in Riga (which, ironically, did not occupy a place of great favor in Pumpurs’s epic): there one can stroll down Lāčplēsis Street, drink a Lāčplēsis beer, and examine the figure of the Bearslayer on the south side of the Freedom Monument. In the interwar period 1918–1940), the Lāčplēsis Order was a military decoration of highest regard. This award has been renewed in the post-Communist period. In 1888, fully one hundred years after Pumpurs’s epic appeared, the rock opera Lāčplēsis opened to great acclaim, and a physical representation, Ka¯rlis Jansons’s interwar statue of the Bearslayer, broken and decapitated, was unearthed in the city of Jelgava after decades beneath the soil. Dainis I¯va¯ns, an important figure in the opposition movement of the late ••••s, wrote of the statue: ‘‘With flowers in place of his severed head, without legs, but with the handle of the sword in his hand, with strength in his muscles and heart, which had survived destruction, he spoke to an unthinkable wonder of resurrection.’’ I¯va¯ns, in fact, called 1988 ‘‘the year of the Bearslayer.’’ That same year, on Lāčplēsa diena (Bearslayer Day, November 11), the interwar Latvian flag was raised over Riga Castle for the first time since the Soviet occupation. During the demonstrations of the period of opposition, signs could be seen in crowds calling for the removal of kangari from posts of power: the word comes from a character in the epic, Kangars, who betrays his nation for personal gain.
As Pumpurs’s epic comes to a close, the Bearslayer and the Dark Knight, a mythical soldier in the army of Bishop Alberts from the German lands, are locked in battle at the edge of the Daugava. Seeking to deprive him of his strength, the Dark Knight severs the hero’s ears with his sword. As they struggle, the Bearslayer and his nemesis tumble into the river. The Bearslayer, however, is not dead ‘‘to his nation.’’ He continues his epic battle to overcome the Dark Knight beneath the ‘‘mourning river waves.’’ The story ends unfinished, and the fate of the nation that the Bearslayer both protects and represents is uncertain:
From time to time the sailors,
Traveling the Daugava,
See two men at midnight
Battling on the steep shore;
At that moment, in the ruins of the castle,
A dim light is reflected,
Two men locked in battle
Reach the very shore,
Until from that shore they finally
tumble into the water’s depths;
A woeful scream echoes from the castle,
The light is extinguished—
That is the Bearslayer that struggles
With the enemy still,—
Laimdota looks from the castle,
And waits for the victory.—
The sailors believe, that someday
The Bearslayer will
Hurl down his enemy alone,
drowning him in the whirlpool.
Then a new time will arrive for the nation,
Then it will be free!4
In 1986, the Daugava again became the site of a struggle that, while not itself of epic proportions, was a catalyst in the mass Latvian mobilization against Soviet power, which ended in the defeat of the Soviet regime in Latvia and arguably contributed to the collapse of the empire itself, an epic conclusion to be sure. The struggle began with an article in the progressive weekly newspaper Literatūra un māksla (Literature and art): the piece, written by the journalist Dainis I¯va¯ns and the engineer Artu¯rs Snips, was a critique of Soviet plans to build a hydroelectric station (HES) on the Daugava River in southeastern Latvia. The writers deplored the lack of expertise and bureaucratic incompetence of those responsible for the project, suggesting that the damming of the Daugava would flood the surrounding arable land and forests and worsen pollution problems. The writers also invoked the spirit of Latvian national consciousness, reiterating the significance of the Daugava in Latvian culture, and writing that ‘‘we cannot allow technicians to deter- mine single-handedly the future of our common home, our river of destiny.’’ 5 The protection of the Daugava also finds echoes in the epic of the Bearslayer, in which the genesis of the river is described: in the story, the Daugava is dug by the creatures—birds and animals—on the order of the god of thunder. Though the devil tries to reroute the river into a bottomless pit, the river is saved by the intervention of thunder, who drives the devil away.
In the weeks following the publication of the article on the Daugavpils HES, letters bearing more than thirty thousand signatures in defense of the Daugava poured into the offices of Literatūra un māksla. The authors of the piece also received letters, a handful of which I¯va¯ns quoted in his book: ‘‘I think that I could not live if the campaign to stop the construction of the HES failed. None of my personal problems have hurt as does the fate of the Daugava,’’ and ‘‘I was anguished, I thought that the nation had fully lost its self-respect and any rights to defend the Daugava. I too am gathering signatures for its protection, though it is sometimes difficult to bear this hopeless road.’’I¯va¯ns and Snips were invited across the country to make their case against the HES. While the public responded with letters and meetings, the Latvian Council of Ministers responded by creating a commission to study the Daugavpils HES project. In January 1987, the commission returned a negative evaluation of the project, questioning its economic and ecological feasibility. In November of the same year, the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) Council of Ministers, noting that the impact on the ecosystem had been improperly assessed, halted construction of the Daugavpils HES. The power of the issue of the Daugavpils HES to mobilize a hitherto politically passive population in a context that was still far from risk free for those who challenged the regime highlights one of the paradoxes that colored social change in Latvia. On the one hand, the mobilization around the issue marked the genesis of an independent and expanded civil society and the assertion of civic power. On the other hand, it also highlighted the power of the nation and culture in shaping the civic project, for a significant part of the mobilizational power of the issue lay in its relationship to precisely those two elements. That the Daugava was not just a river, but a national icon, was understood by those who initiated the campaign as well: in a 1991 interview, I¯va¯ns commented: ‘‘At the time that I wrote about the building of the Daugavpils HES, [about] the permanence of the catastrophic consequences [of this], I understood that this problem is political and that it touched my homeland’s economics, history, culture.’’7
The period of mass opposition in Latvia, which lasted from the mobilization around the Daugavpils HES issue through the achievement of indepen- dence in August 1991, was a dramatic demonstration of the population’s desire for fundamental change. From the protests of thousands of Latvians for the historical recognition of events like the Soviet deportations of 1940, to the Baltic Way, a human chain of pro-independence demonstrators that stretched from Tallinn, Estonia, through Latvia, to Vilnius, Lithuania, the sentiment in favor of a radical break from the Soviet order reached through the populations of these states.
Like the break with the USSR, Latvia’s illegal annexation into the Soviet Union in 1940 had, at least initially, taken place with little bloodshed. After two decades of independence, the first period of statehood in its history, in 1939 the USSR presented Latvia with an ultimatum demanding that Latvia’s government permit the Soviet army to base troops on Latvian soil, ostensibly for the purpose of mutual protection. Following in the path of Estonia, the Latvian government agreed to the terms. By this time, Russia and Germany had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The agreement contained a secret protocol that provided for the division of the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania) and Poland between the signatories: Latvia, together with Estonia and later Lithuania, was to go to the USSR, and, in June 1940, it did. In the middle of that month, the Soviet government presented the Baltic states with demands that they submit to the transformation of their governments as stipulated by the Soviets. It must have been relatively clear that the intention of this transformation was to pull the Baltic states decisively into the Soviet sphere: on July 2, 1940, Soviet Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov indicated to the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs that he ‘‘must finally confront reality and understand that all the small states will have to disappear.’’ Molotov continued that ‘‘your Lithuania, and the other Baltic states . . . will have to be incorporated into the glorious family of Soviet Republics. Consequently, you should from now on prepare the Lithuanian people for the introduction of the Soviet system, which will sooner or later prevail in all of Europe.’’8
Fearing that resistance would be futile, particularly with thousands of Soviet troops already on their soil as the result of earlier pacts providing for the USSR’s establishment of military bases on Baltic territory, the governments capitulated. In July the new governments, elected from a single slate of Communist candidates by voters compelled to participate in the balloting, requested ‘‘admission’’ to the USSR, decisively ending the independent existence of the Baltics. By this point, rivers of blood poured from the heart of the Baltic states, as the Soviets sought to brutalize the population into submission with arrests, deportations, and killings. By some estimates, during this ‘‘year of terror’’ (baigais gads), which stretched from mid-1940 through mid-1941, Latvia lost more than 40,000 inhabitants to deportations and executions. 9 Toward the end of this period, from June 15 through June 27, 1941, eight hundred twenty-four cattle wagons packed well beyond capacity with about 15,600 people left Latvia by rail for the Russian interior.10 The end of independent existence in 1940 did not end the widely shared desire of indigenous populations for self-determination, a desire that remained vital fully half a century after occupation. The ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the USSR in 1985 signaled the beginning of a process that would open the doors to the manifestation of the desire of the Baltic populations (and others) for fundamental change in the social order. What happened in this region of the world has been called revolution in both popular and theoretical literature, though the term is often paired with adjectives like ‘‘velvet’’ and ‘‘gentle.’’ In the Baltics, the events are popularly called the singing revolutions. Although they had powerful domestic and international effects like earlier revolutions, these qualifying adjectives suggest that the events that transpired in the Eastern European and Soviet space were not revolutions in the style of the great revolutions: they were largely without both the utopias and the violence that permeated earlier revolutions, like those in Russia and France.
Furthermore, there was not a particular ideological model for the construction of society in the wake of the death of the old order, aside from the often-repeated but vague aspirations for an open society, democracy, markets, civil society, and, more generally, ‘‘normality.’’ Part of the challenge of post-Communist societies, then, was not just to realize the institution of a new social order, but to construct models of what that social order should be and to endow that social order with meaning. This point is nicely highlighted by the editors of a history volume on the periods of opposition and early independence in Latvia:
In this period [1991–93], Latvia had again become an independent country with an internationally recognized government. It turned out, however, that Latvian society was not ready to turn this freedom, for which it had fought actively for many years and gained suddenly, into goal-oriented practice and constructive politics. In other words, when the outer ‘‘shell’’ of independence was to be filled with appropriate practical content, it became obvious that the ‘‘legacy’’ of the Soviet period—the institutional system of government, basic social values, political self-understanding, governing skills, and political culture—did not meet the needs of the new situation. During this time, there was a clash of different, more or less con- trasting, opinions, and only gradually did views crystallize on the goals toward which the renewed Latvia should move in terms of building the country’s system of government, economy, and society and constructing the orientation of its foreign policy.11
In this work, I examine the construction of and contestation between different models and notions of social change in Latvia and the endeavors to identify the directions of change in that country in the early post-Communist period. I suggest that, in part, social change can be understood as the product of a widely shared desire for ‘‘normality,’’ which, on the one hand, contributed to the construction of a unified opposition and, on the other hand, also underpinned the postindependence contest over how a post- Communist state and society should be imagined and (re)constructed. Although the focus of the book is on a single country, Latvia, the story related herein is relevant to much of the region, because, indeed, the revolutions of neighboring countries were also marked by the seemingly unrevolutionary zeal for ‘‘normality,’’ a marked contrast to the radiant utopias promised to millions across the globe by socialist revolutions. Whereas normality was widely seen across the region as clearly meaning a ‘‘not-Soviet’’ and ‘‘not-Communist’’ state and society, the particular content of this desired ‘‘normal’’ future was murkier and became an object of contestation as Communist states achieved self-determination.
To some, normality entailed the restoration of the social order that existed before states were drawn into the Soviet orbit. To others, the template of normality was not in the past but in the modern West: Western Europe and, to some degree, the United States, represented the desired goal. These two powerful currents both washed together and rushed against each other in politics, debates, and policies across Eastern Europe. The Latvian example, hence, serves to highlight a contest that, although varied in form and content in each individual country, was an important characteristic of Eastern Europe’s revolutionary road. The choices for building the future often came down to a contest between new roads and old maps, as states and societies struggled to fill the vessel of ‘‘normality’’ with concrete meaning.
Normality and Transformation
Every epoch produces its own notions and understandings of social change, and the transformation of the East European and post-Soviet space is no exception. In this regard, I suggest that Latvia is a small country with a big story and with theoretical and empirical significance for studies of social change. In Latvia in the middle to late 1980s, a powerful opposition to the Soviet order emerged, based on a widely shared antipathy toward the USSR, a powerful wish for independence, and a desire to return state and society to a state of normality. It was readily apparent that a new order, however, could not be founded on the rejection of the old ‘‘abnormal’’ order, and it was in the wake of the death of this order that the contest over the road to normality was defined. Although many East Europeans broadly agreed about the desirability of fundamental social changes, including, in principle, the institutionalization of democracy and markets, this broad consensus did not mean that they shared the same vision of how these changes were to be realized and how they were to be balanced with other factors like national interests (however defined), social justice, and historical precedents. Radical social change has touched all spheres of social, political, economic, and cultural life in Eastern Europe, though it has been underpinned by the decidedly staid aspiration of normality—this is a central theme of this book. I seek to show how this notion and ambition were implicated in both the unity of the opposition period and the fierce contestation of the post-Communist period.
I hope that this work contributes to the understanding of the transformation of states and societies in Eastern Europe by developing an analytical picture of the multiple and competing logics of change in Latvia in the late Communist and early post-Communist periods. I focus on several particular aspects of social change.
First, I suggest that the notions of ‘‘normal’’ and ‘‘normality’’ can be used to develop greater understanding of the motivations behind and manifestations of transformation in Latvia and, by extension, other societies in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. I offer the theorized concept of normality not as a replacement, but as a supplement to the more widely used explanatory concept of nationalism. Although the concept of nationalism is often associated with changes in this area of the world and is not infrequently used to explain the rise and route of social change, this concept is weakened by its failure to distinguish among different ideas about change, which, while often sharing a common commitment to the ‘‘interests of the nation,’’ define those interests in fundamentally different ways. Normality in this context is widely linked (though not always or inevitably) to ideas about the elevation and salvation of the nation, but it retains a flexibility to distinguish between different definitions of ‘‘national interest,’’ which otherwise might be con- flated, especially where change is explained by factors associated with nationalist sentiment alone. As well, the theorized concept of normality permits the integration of other notions and identities of belonging and difference, which can help to increase the understanding of social change.
Second, I examine the idea that an interesting part of the post-Communist contest between different narratives of transformation has been the battle to define the ‘‘natural’’ order of things in society. That is, part of the process of change has been a struggle between different groups to define and redefine what is socially ‘‘natural’’ and ‘‘normal’’; ultimately, from a sociological perspective, what comes to be seen as ‘‘normal’’ in any society is socially constructed, and this process of construction is unusually visible in the transformation period. For example, in Chapter •, on gender and women in the transformation, I outline the process by which a ‘‘natural’’ gender regime (contrasted to the ‘‘abnormal’’ gender regime of the Soviet period) is (re)constructed, and I examine by way of case studies how changes in gender roles and norms are experienced by women in Latvia. Similarly, the political con- flict over laws governing citizenship and naturalization in Latvia has been part of a process of debating what a ‘‘normal’’ ethnic or multiethnic society looks like and how it can be realized. In a discussion of post-Communist societies, the sociologist Michael D. Kennedy makes this point: The process of identity formation after communism is ironic. Politicians, activists, and analysts emphasize the unprecedented fact of communism’s end. At the same time, however, its subjects insist that they want no more ‘‘experiments’’—they only want what has been proven to succeed. They want to be normal. They wish to be who they ‘‘really’’ are, or who they ought to be. In short, they want to be something inconsistent with the system they recently overturned and the social relations it produced. In this, identity is understood in the most nonsocial of terms: in ‘‘natural’’ terms.12 In this book, I examine questions about how the definitions of ‘‘who they ‘really’ are, or who they ought to be’’ are confronted and contested and how the delegitimation and rejection of the Soviet order open the door to the transformation of the boundaries that define what is ‘‘normal’’ for post-Communist state and society.
Third, this book is a multisited study of the process of social change and ‘‘normalization’’ of state and society in Latvia. Specifically, I look at several important sites of change in post-Communism, including electoral politics, national territories and private property, and gender roles and relations. Whereas at some sites different narratives of normality clash, in others they appear as different but complementary. I show how notions about normality have shaped each site, and, as well, how using normality as a prism through which to look at social change helps point to the bases of conflict and complementarity at each site of transformation.
Since 1989 and the massive changes that year brought to Eastern Europe, a debate has raged over whether those changes (and those that came later to the Soviet space) constituted a ‘‘real’’ revolution.13 I suggest that the changes were revolutions, albeit revolutions that redefined rather than reproduced models of modern revolution. Our body of knowledge and theory about revolutions up to the 1980s owed its existence primarily to the great revolutions of the modern era: the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions were the foundations of contemporary understandings of the term. But in the Eastern European revolutions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, both the violence and the utopian ideologies inherent in the great revolutions were noticeably absent.
The events in Latvia and neighboring states spanning the middle 1980s to the early 1990s signaled a reinvention of notions of what revolution is and what revolution does. The great revolutions are typically understood to contain a logic of change that embraces a radical break with the past and a progressive rush forward, but there is an alternative and older concept of revolution. This concept derives from the understanding of revolution as a circular movement, like the revolution of a wheel, where the starting point is also the end point. This sense of revolution, although no longer widely associated with the American and French Revolutions, was, to some degree, recognized by revolutionaries of the eighteenth century, who believed they were returning to a ‘‘natural’’ state of freedom and equality of man. In the revolution in Latvia, what emerges is an amalgamation of these two directions of change. Hence, these revolutions combined linearity with circularity, or progress with return. What many of the Eastern European ‘‘revolutionaries’’ sought was not, after all, a radical break with the past, but rather a return to the (pre-Soviet) past. At the same time, many revolutionaries expressed ambitions for progress and modernity that acknowledged the past but did not embrace it in its entirety.
Social Change and Common Sense
Reasonably, we might ask how these imperatives of return and progress, which seem on the surface contradictory, were amalgamated in the anti- Soviet opposition. I suggest that their amalgamation rested to a large degree on a notion of fundamental change that revolved around the idea and ideal of ‘‘normality’’ and around visions, even if they were not all the same, of a ‘‘normal’’ life. The mobilizational power of this notion was grounded in a belief, widely shared by indigenous populations in Latvia and the other Baltic countries, that the Soviet period was not normal. Not only was the regime illegal and illegitimate, but it was a fundamental deviation from what was perceived to be the normal course of national, state, social, and economic development.
Latvian society, like the societies of other East European states, was powerfully affected by the belief that the Soviet system was both alien and unnatural, because it had been brutally imposed by an outside force and embraced political, social, and cultural traditions widely held to conflict with the national ‘‘way of life.’’ Propaganda and the economic, political, social, and environmental projects undertaken in the early decades of Soviet Communism suggest that Soviet revolutionaries themselves rejected normality and the bourgeois world it represented.14 They aspired to a utopia that would surpass normality. Normality was a barrier to achievement rather than a goal, because it represented a world doomed in Marx’s theory to failure. In the area of economics, for example, the elevation of the Stakhanovite, the shock worker, to icon status perpetuated the idea that extraordinary feats could be ‘‘ordinary’’ in the Soviet Union. Similarly, the lofty goal of surpassing the progress of the capitalist countries in an impossibly short time was hailed as an achievable task.
Environmental analogies to the commitment to clear the hurdles of normality are also telling. One of Josef Stalin’s projects, the White Sea–Baltic Sea Canal, focused on the linkage of the two bodies of water through the creation of a passage through the miles of rock and ice between them. The project was considered to be extraordinary not only because its construction, without the help of all but the most elementary technology, seemed a maddening feat, but also because it was given a twenty-month deadline. In reference to the seemingly impossible time frame of the project, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quoted the authors of a book on the project as writing: ‘‘These are not the tempos of noxious European-American capitalism, these are socialist tempos!’’15 Stephen Hanson, in fact, pointed out that Leninism contained a ‘‘promise to overcome ordinary time.’’16
Unlike the Russian Revolution, the anti-Soviet revolution in Eastern Europe was born of opposition to a present dystopia rather than embrace of a future utopia. Nicolae Harsanyi and Michael D. Kennedy highlighted this point with their contention that ‘‘as communism helped wipe out alternative socialisms, the dystopia of real existing socialism helped destroy the appeal of utopia itself.’’17 Hence, the quality of the Eastern European revolution was antiutopian, as the desired outcome was defined in terms of normality rather than radicalism. In fact, the revolution was itself, in a sense, antirevolutionary, because as late as 1987, the Soviet order continued to be presented in the parlance of revolution: for example, Gorbachev’s address on November 2, 1987, was called ‘‘October and Perestroika: The Revolution Continues.’’ Whereas revolution in that sense was meant to advance the utopias of Soviet Communism, the antirevolutionary revolution strove toward normality. The sociologist Ann Swidler defined ‘‘common sense’’ as ‘‘the set of assumptions so unselfconscious as to seem a natural, transparent, undeniable part of the structure of the world.’’ She also suggested that there was a ‘‘continuum from ideology to tradition to common sense.’’18 In Soviet Latvia, however, there was a break between the ideology of Soviet state Communism and the ‘‘common sense’’ about that ideology and state among large segments of the Latvian population. Rather than ideology settling into common sense, it ran up against it. In Soviet Latvia, there was a potent sense that the Soviet order was not normal, that it was illegitimate, illegal, artifi- cially imposed, and contrary to the national ‘‘way of life.’’ Though this sentiment could not be publicly articulated until Gorbachev’s glasnost opened the doors to freer speech without dangerous penalties, it was put forth in subtle ways before Gorbachev and in more direct language and action after. There were few political dissidents in Soviet Latvia: the risks of dissent, though they decreased after the death of Stalin, were substantial. Many people voiced their feelings about the Soviet regime in small acts of resistance, retreat into private life, or jokes about the regime shared between close friends, rather than in overt dissent. Folk dancing has long been a part of ethnic Latvian tradition and, since the nineteenth century, part of a tradition of large song festivals. In the Soviet period, Latvian folk dances were mixed with elements of other dance traditions such as ballet. These came to be called, disparagingly, ‘‘fake braid dances,’’ a reference to the ‘‘authentic’’ braids associated with Latvian girls and, consequently, with the authentic folk dances of Latvians.
In the sphere of political dissent, the Soviet order was sometimes attacked directly: in a letter written anonymously by twenty-six ‘‘Young Communists’’ in the early 1980s, the writers asserted that Communists ‘‘promised nations and individuals freedom, brotherhood, equality, humanity, and full democracy, but in reality there has been only inequality, caprice, and coercion,’’ and ‘‘the foundations of the USSR [are]: lying, stealing, drunkenness.’’19 In the period of glasnost, criticism of the Soviet order became more ap- parent. During the Chautauqua Conference of American and Soviet delegates in Ju¯rmala, Latvia, in 1986, some Latvians approached delegates from the United States and called out such comments as ‘‘We are waiting for freedom, only you can help.’’ Warned by a delegate in one instance of the potential consequences of such outbursts, the speaker responded that ‘‘we live in prison anyway.’’20
The Soviet-era changes in Latvia’s demographic composition were also part of a larger discourse on the abnormality of the existing situation: in a 1988 letter from the oppositional Latvia’s Latvijas Naciona¯la¯ neatkarı¯bas kustı¯ba (National Independence Movement, or LNNK) to the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (LSSR) Ministers’ Cabinet, ‘‘central institutions’’ of the USSR, and other oppositional organizations, the LNNK highlighted the ‘‘abnormal’’ ethnic balance in Latvia, where Latvians were close to falling below 50 percent of the population.21 The widely shared sense that the Sovietera mass migrations from other republics had wrought an ‘‘abnormal’’ and dangerous ethnic imbalance became a potent issue in the mobilization against Soviet power. A 1986 letter from the nascent human rights group Helsinki 86 to the United Nations also addressed this issue and more: [The state of Latvians] is catastrophic. In the span of a few decades we have become just half of our country’s population. In large cities, just a third. . . .Our language is everywhere ignored and laughed at. . . . Our housing is in a catastrophic state. . . . Russians arrive uninvited and shortly receive the best housing. Latvians must live crowded into old housing, in circumstances without dignity. . . . When was there a referendum held in which Latvians gave up their language, their army, [and] their rights to freely interact with all the nations of the world?22
The vision of normality that was articulated in the period of opposition was the antithesis of all that was associated with the Soviet regime: instead of oppression, there would be freedom; in place of the Party, there would be parties; instead of the arcane and closed world of Soviet decision making, the public would have a voice, and decision making would be transparent; in the books of history, truth and authenticity would replace lies and omissions; where black soot rose from towering industrial smokestacks, cows would graze in green pastures. These stark dichotomies were articulated as part and parcel of a process of boundary making between the opposition and the Soviet regime against which it stood.
The sociologist William Sewell has suggested that ideological structures exist not in any single actor, but rather in the collectivity, and therefore they contain the contradictions inherent there.23 Sewell’s assertion is relevant to this case because collective action in Eastern Europe was loosely bound around the pursuit of a ‘‘normal’’ state. Normality was defined largely in opposition to the Soviet order and hence could accommodate these contradictions without undermining unity.
The body of ‘‘stories’’ on which the division between the opposition in Latvia and the Soviet regime was based can be imagined as a scheme of opposites, whereby the Soviet order was variously represented by the opposition as (to use some of the local parlance) unnatural, deceptive, uncultured, uncivilized, illegitimate, polluting, murderous, and abnormal. This narrative constructed affinity between Latvians, on the one hand, and a potent estrangement from the Soviet order, on the other. In the period of opposition, this was the defining social boundary, drawn first on the shores of the Daugava in 1986, which enabled mobilization of the population against the Soviet regime. Dainis I¯va¯ns wrote that ‘‘the Daugava was like a soul, the murmuring of which only now, in spite of the dams, mud, and pools of stagnation, we began to hear. The Daugava was like a shield. The Daugava became a boundary between US and THEM.’’24
Though the opposition realized an important part of the aspiration for normality with the achievement of full independence in August 1991, much remained undone. The old order was gone, but a new, ‘‘normal’’ one remained to be (re)constructed. In the following section, I elaborate further the idea that the post-Communist period saw the development of a contest between different narratives of change. That is, although there was loose consensus around the notion that social change and ‘‘normality’’ were desirable, there was less agreement about how change should look, what models of change should be followed, and how ‘‘normality’’ was to be defined. I briefly introduce four different narratives of and about change in the early post-Communist period in Latvia.
Ideal Types of Social Change
The ideal type is a methodological device, put forth by the sociologist Max Weber, which facilitates the analysis of historical phenomena. Ideal types are not perfect representations of the phenomena to which they refer, but they highlight particular illuminating aspects of a given phenomenon. For the analysis at hand, I posit four ideal types. These types, though born of the ‘‘commonsense’’ invocations and symbols that I iterated earlier, are my conceptual creations: they are devices intended to help clarify the complexities of social change. I use these ideal types to describe narrative positions and groups that embrace these particular narratives. These narratives have been elaborated and elevated in post-Communism and offer different foci, legitimating stories, and prescriptions for the (re)- construction of normality.
The ideal types that I discuss throughout the book all contain stories about the past as well as the present and future. Each offers a sense of Latvia’s place in a larger historical and cultural context, and each understands change in terms of this context. Whereas the narratives that dominate and define the periods of opposition and post-Communism are rather different, they share through this period a common orientation toward normality, toward the transformation of a social world perceived to be abnormal in some way.
Spatial normality is the term I use to describe a narrative orientation that takes as its primary model of transformation the modern West.25 The term spatial is intended to represent the location of this narrative’s core template of transformation, which is a place in space: the West, particularly Western Europe. Notions of normality are tightly bound to the notions of prosperity and security that these modernizers associate with Europe and Europeanness: in a 1996 speech to Parliament, then-Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs, a member of the Latvia’s Way party, remarked that ‘‘Europe to us is a symbol of the desired feeling of security and standards of welfare.’’ There is no need to construct a revolutionary utopia because the future already exists, and it is, as Jan Gross put it, only an overnight train ride away.26
The way to normality is through and to Europe, and the means to get there is to rush into the arms of European institutions: those that seemingly guarantee prosperity (like the European Union) and those that seemingly guarantee security (like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Here, economics, particularly the construction of modern capitalism, is a key instrument for achieving normality. This narrative, as well as identifying particular goals, also signals particular dangers in the present and future. Like the temporal narrative (which I describe below), it perceives a potential danger from its Russian neighbor, but unlike that narrative, it also recognizes a danger in the nonintegration of and disharmony with non-Latvians (particularly Russians) in Latvia.
Temporal normality denotes the direction of change typically found among the most nationalistic elements in Latvia. I use this label because this narrative’s template of transformation is, in a sense, a place in time: the interwar period. In this ideal type, the focus is not on modernization but on restoration and re-creation of the institutions, norms, and values of the interwar period of independence. Change, hence, is a matter of consciously re-creating a social context that was wrought at a previous time by a particular conjuncture of agency and historical circumstance. If prosperity and security are the watchwords of spatial normality, then Latvianness and tradition are the keys to temporal normality. Normality, in other words, is to be found in the past, and that normality is based on the assertion of Latvianness and traditional social organization and authenticity, which were undermined by the Soviet experience.
The temporal ideal type is concerned with economics, though that too is more typically linked to the interests of the primary nation rather than prosperity in a more general sense: there has been some trepidation about full privatization and open markets among some political organizations in this category because of their concern with the well-being of, among others, farmers and pensioners, segments of the population dominated by ethnic Latvians. In terms of the identification of danger in the present and future of Latvia, this narrative posits danger in integration rather than nonintegration of minorities: because the minority population is nearly as large as the Latvian population, the concern is that Latvians rather than non-Latvians will slip into the new cultural and language context. As well, although there is interest in ‘‘joining’’ Europe, there is strong concern about following European prescriptions for change, which are perceived to be unfavorable to the interests of the primary nation.
The spatial and temporal ideal types clearly have different emphases, but they share important characteristics as well. First, they operate on a common assumption that there is a transformation imperative across the fields of politics, economics, and social life. Both narratives highlight the discontinuity of post-Communism with Communism: change is perceived as fundamentally revolutionary rather than evolutionary in that the ‘‘remnants’’ (atliekas) of the Communist past are to be discarded in the dustbin of history rather than retained as a basis for transformation.
Second, in post-Communist politics, nationalism is more a matter of degree than a distinct political option. Individual rights and freedoms are clearly present in these visions of democracy, but the principle of individual emancipation does not stand alone. Rather, the state extends civic guarantees of individual rights and liberties, but it is also widely seen as the guarantor of national survival. Hence, the state theoretically exists to ensure group rights, most notably those of the primary nation. This concern has been present in both dominant narratives though, again, to varying degrees. Third, there is some shared sense of continuity with the interwar state in the temporal and spatial narratives. This is apparent in a number of ways, including the fact that independent Latvia provides a reference point in both: the temporal narrative has spoken for the renewal of the First Republic of Latvia, and the spatial narrative has supported the construction of the Second Republic of Latvia. I suggest that collective memory as a model of normality is shared between the spatial and temporal ideal types. Collective memory as a model for normality (that is, for its reconstruction), however, is embraced primarily by the temporal narrative.
Beyond these commonalties, I suggest that the two dominant ideal types are alternatives in a category of ‘‘revolutionary’’ narratives. Both were born of and draw on the revolution that toppled the Soviet regime, and both subscribe to a revolutionary notion that there must be a radical break with the Soviet past.
A third ideal type has been evident in the contest over change as well, though this one can be more accurately characterized as an ‘‘evolutionary’’ narrative. This is so because, rather than embracing a radical break from the Soviet past, this narrative has highlighted an evolutionary transformation of Soviet structures like the socialist economy and citizenship regime. I label this ideal type evolutionary. This term is used to connote a narrative that is important though clearly not dominant in the early post-Communist period. Unlike the temporal ideal type, which asserts continuity with a relatively distant past, the evolutionary ideal type has embraced continuity with the immediate past. The goals of political organizations in this category have been more evolutionary than revolutionary: although these organizations have not rejected change, it has commonly been seen as evolving from recent history rather than turning away from that legacy. The evolutionary quality of this narrative is most apparent in the social and economic fields: it rejects changes in social and political status wrought by a new citizenship structure that privileges citizens of the interwar state and their descendants. Furthermore, this narrative is critical of the changes in economic status that have come with the opening of the markets and the rapid rise of the power of private capital.
The evolutionary ideal type highlights an imperative of preservation in terms of the political power of non-Latvians (through extension of citizen- ship without conditions to all inhabitants) and economic security of working people (primarily through redistributive economic mechanisms). The evolutionary ideal type posits danger in the nonintegration of Latvia’s minorities, though it is less concerned with nonintegration into the common European home; it seeks to strengthen markets and relations in the East at least as much as in the West. In contrast to the ideal-typical spatial and temporal narratives, the evolutionary narrative is nearly invisible outside the political field, largely because of its weakness in that field.
In all these ideal types, there is broad agreement on several points relating to the tasks at hand. First, all recognize an economic imperative and accept some degree of marketization and privatization as necessary for improving the lot and the prospects of the state and population. Second, all accept basic parliamentary democracy as the basis of the post-Communist political process in Latvia, though the extension of franchise and the basis of constitutionality, among other things, are contested.
The final ideal type in the scheme is the reactionary narrative, which, although not readily apparent in Latvia in the initial period of post-Communism (which is covered by this work), is visible in some other post-Communist states like Russia and Ukraine. The reactionary ideal type is concerned with the legacy of the immediate past, though it is a preservationist rather than evolutionary narrative. In common with the temporal type, it highlights return, but its proponents (often unreformed Communists or those hit hardest by post-Communism’s dislocations) advocate a return to the immediate past. In Russia, this has translated to a call for the restoration of the Soviet Union, its territory and its political, economic, and social structures. In Belarus, there have been political gestures toward reunification with Russia, and in Ukraine, several candidates in the 1999 presidential race made a similar call. Even in non-Slavic areas of the former Soviet Union, nostalgia for the immediate past has a powerful pull. It is worth noting in this study not only because it extends the scheme of ideal types beyond the frontiers of Latvia, but because Latvia, as a former Soviet republic with a large Russian population, is potentially affected by the power and influence of this narrative in neighboring states and among segments of its own population, particularly the large contingent of retired Soviet army officers.
Overview of Chapters
The following chapters are dedicated to the examination of contests over the direction and quality of transformation at different sites of change. The analysis of different sites permits a study of the character and evolution of social change in a comparative manner. This study shows that despite the broad unity in opposition to the Soviet order, the direction of change after the collapse of that order, far from being clear, was contested. More important, the study highlights the fact that no single logic of change dominated the early years of transformation. The different sites of change lend themselves to a comparison that focuses in particular on the degree to which narrative differences are manifested in conflict or complementarity and ways the different definitions of normality shape actions in each field.
In Chapter 2, which focuses on the period of opposition, I highlight the mobilization of ordinary people unsatisfied with the Soviet order and examine the process by which ‘‘personal troubles’’ were translated into ‘‘public issues’’ through the construction of a narrative that became a basis for opposition to the extant order.27 This portion of the work provides a basis for understanding the development and centrality of notions about normality and highlights the way that these notions operated as critical unifiers as the opposition confronted the Soviet regime. The unity underpinned by the oppositional vision of ‘‘normality,’’ as described in later chapters, disintegrates in the very late Communist and early post-Communist periods, and normality becomes a site of contest over social change.
In Chapter 3, I introduce the first site of post-Communist change: electoral politics. The political field is key to this study because it represents the central site from which post-Communist social change has emanated: the character and direction of change have been strongly determined by legislative actions that both preceded and followed the first post-Communist elections of 1993. The actions of the legislature have, as I show, been colored by the different narratives embraced and constructed by political organizations in the Parliament.
In Chapter 4, I focus on national places and spaces and the way in which these have been part of the process of social change. The process of (re)constructing normality is not just a process of changing political and economic structures; it is also a process of transforming—rendering ‘‘normal’’—the symbolic landscape. The particular dimensions of the transformation of space and place also represent aspects of the process of normalization that evoke different levels of contest and conflict and involve different sets of agents. In this chapter, I take up the particular issues of the changing of street names in the capital city of Riga, the dispute with neighboring Russia over the shared border, and the policy of rural property restitution to prewar owners in Latvia.
The changes in the post-Soviet space include some fundamental alter- ations in the gender regimes of those countries, a topic I explore in Chapter 5. This field of change offers a picture somewhat different from those of politics and place and space. Although the direction of change in, for example, the political field, is intensely contested, this field has been the site of a marginalization of women that derives from all leading narratives and is scarcely the object of contest, not only because it has generated less public interest than other fields, but also because of a complementarity of narratives not found elsewhere.
The (re)creation of normality in social life has entailed the (re)creation of a gender regime that is profoundly influenced by the emergence of the imperatives of both traditionalization (the reinstitution of pre-Soviet gender norms and roles) and modernization (the institutionalization of modernity in, most prominently, the marketplace). The resulting processes of domestication on the one hand and commodification on the other affect the opportunities and roles available to women in post-Communism, an argument that I elaborate by using case studies of social welfare and prostitution in post- Communist Latvia.
The Road to the Future
The Bearslayer of Pumpurs and Rainis is a hero of epic proportions, whose role is to protect and sacrifice for the nation. He does not, however, do this alone, and, as the Bearslayer declares near the end of Fire and Night, The life of the nation is by thousands of years longer than the short life of even the greatest hero, After me there will be others, who will complete the journey. In late-twentieth-century Latvia, the journey of the nation led away from Soviet Communism, but the road beyond that turn was twisted and uncertain. Answers to the questions of who would complete this journey and where it would lead state and society were not readily apparent in a context where utopia was eschewed in favor of normality and normality was defined with a variety of models. In this work, I follow the maps of and for change drawn by different actors seeking to define Latvia’s journey at the dawn of independent statehood. I consider, to the extent possible in a still rapidly changing context, where those roads have led and could still lead.
Also of Interest
Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.