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Colonized Colonizers

Latvia's Past and Present in the Context of Colonialism and Imperialism

By: Carsten Kaefert


Student No.: 3012875
Instructor: Rick McCutcheon
Class: CRS-4910 Conflict and...
Table of Contents
Colonized Colonizers.................................................................................................................................1
Abstract.................................................................................................................................................3
Split Land..............................................................................................................................................4
History: From Colonizer to Colony.......................................................................................................5
Early Years: The Creation of Nationhood........................................................................................5
Sovereignty and the Loss thereof.....................................................................................................7
Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia.........................................................................................9
The Case for Soviet Rule as Imperialism.........................................................................................9
Latvian Post-Colonialism...............................................................................................................17
Bibliography........................................................................................................................................23
Abstract
Colonial discourse usually is about relationships between Orient and Occident, (global)

north and (global) south or between the west and the rest. However, there are some scholars who

suggest that this is not enough. In search of a truly global understanding of postcolonialism, they

argue, more cases have to be taken into consideration. Most prominently the cases of post-Soviet

countries. This paper deals with one of these countries, Latvia, and finds that not only did the

Soviet occupation of more than 50 years constitute imperialist colonialism, but also that

postcolonial theory is a useful tool in explaining Latvia's way since the end of the occupation in

1990.

Colonized Colonizers: Abstract 3


Split Land
One might think that hockey is important to Canadians, as theirs is the world's most

successful team and what is called a soccer mom in other countries is a hockey mom in Canada –

and it probably is. Far less so, however, than it is to Latvians. Every visitor to the country who

undertakes the effort to explore it aside from guided tours in Riga's old town and sketchy bars

populated by drunken British tourists, everybody who engages in a conversation with a Latvian

will hear about the most important moment in history since the country's independence. That is

neither its accession to NATO nor to the European Union, it is a hockey game. More precisely, it

is the Latvian national teams 3-2 victory over the Russian selection during the 2000 world

championships in St. Petersburg. Several factors made this game a moment of identification for

Latvians. First of all, hockey has always been a favorite sports for them. Thus winning against a

seemingly far stronger opponent is a memorable event. But this is not only on an athletic level a

David versus Goliath story, it is even more so on a meta level: Latvia beat their former

oppressor, still a veritable superpower in both the domains of sports and politics, on its home

turf.

There is, nevertheless, a sizable portion of Latvia's population to whom that moment is

not memorable at all – despite them being hockey fans, too. This is the Russian minority, which

constitutes 29.6 per cent of the Latvian population (2002 estimate) or, measured by the language,

even 37.5 per cent.1 As the relationship between the two major groups is tense, to say the least,

telling the two major groups apart is one of the first skills to be taught to newcomers to the

country. How can a country of about a tenth the size of Manitoba and just some two million

1 CIA World Factbook, “CIA – The World Factbook – Latvia,” Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/
library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/lg.html (accessed April 7, 2009).

Colonized Colonizers: Split Land 4


inhabitants2 have a society with such deep rifts, how can it be so torn up? The answer lies within

its history – a history of occupation and colonialism.

History: From Colonizer to Colony

Early Years: The Creation of Nationhood


Latvian history can be traced back to roughly 600 years BCE, 3 and through most of these

years (certainly from the 13th century onwards), it was controlled by a foreign power. Although

“the fate of the future Latvian and Estonian peoples in the middle ages was one of

straightforward conquest and colonization,”4 giving each and every year proper consideration

would be far beyond the scope of this essay. Latvians themselves half-jokingly state that there

probably have been more European countries that once had a stake in its politics than those who

did not.5 Ironically enough, though, the brief stints of relative independence from foreign rule

have been used to exert rule over others. During the 17th century, small Courland – one of the

kingdoms predating Latvia and namesake for modern-day Latvia's province Kurzeme – got

involved in overseas colonialism. Two colonies were set up in Tobago and West Africa, with the

latter one lasting for a mere ten years until the British took over.6 The colony in Tobago,

however, existed for more than fifty years and left traces behind in both places, the Kourland

Bay on the Caribbean island7 and a tourist-trap casino named Tobago in Riga's historical old

town.

2 Ibid.
3 Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven,
London: Yale University Press, 1993): 40.
4 Ibid. 46.
5 A sentiment supported by Lieven, who states: “For two hundred years, religious faith as well as lust for conquest
drew crusaders from many parts of Europe to fight for a season or so in the Baltic.” (Lieven, The Baltic
Revolution: 42.)
6 Klemens Ludwig, Lettland (München: CH Beck, 2000): 40.
7 Ibid.

Colonized Colonizers: History: From Colonizer to Colony 5


Latvian nationhood, however, was not even a distant idea at that time. Like in many other

European countries, the concept of nationalism gained traction during the 19 th century. Given the

non-existence of a Latvian state before, attempts at nation-building were foremost cultural, not

political (although, as Lieven states, in such a setting the cultural is inherently political8). Thus,

hoping for protection against their earlier German masters, early Latvian nationalists pursued

rather a status of full autonomy within the Russian empire than full-fledged independence.9

One of the driving factors towards cultural unity and nationhood was song – which was to

become a staple in Latvian nationalist movements. Inspired by contemporary German national

folk festivals and drawing upon earlier peasant folk songs and legends, which “were, to all

intents and purposes, the essence of Latvian [...] culture,”10 the 1873 great national folk festival

was a “political as well as cultural event(s) of the first importance, the culmination of a decades-

long process of national-cultural development.”11 Of particular importance to that development

was Krisjanis Barons, who collected and published dainas, traditional Latvian folk songs and

thus prevented them from being forgotten. His vast collection spanned some 1.5 million dainas,

out of which a collection of 217,996 were published around the turn of the century. 12 The extent

to which these dainas were (and are) part of the very fabric of Latvian culture is illustrated by the

fact that this extensive collection still lacked contributions from a sizable portion of the

country.13 Another prerequisite towards nationhood was forging the different Baltic dialects

within the territory into a single national language. Although this as well was helped by song and

the collection of Dainas, it took Latvia longer than its fellow Baltic states and it had finally
8 Lieven, The Baltic Revolution, 51.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid. 111.
11 Ibid. 110.
12 Latviesu folkloras kratuve, “Latvju Dainas,” LFK, http://www.lfk.lv/1894_eng.html (accessed April 6, 2009).
13 Cf. ibid.

Colonized Colonizers: History: From Colonizer to Colony 6


forged its language in the 1920s.14 However, to this day people from the province Latgale take

pride in their Latgalean, even claiming it is a language of its own (although it can easily be

understood by other Latvians). The struggle for nationhood intensified in the early 20th century

and the Latvians, together with Lithuanians and Estonians, seized their chance when at the end of

World War I both their main previous masters, the Russian and German empires, collapsed. The

former Livonian and Latgalean provinces were incorporated into an independent Latvia with the

signing of the Riga Treaty with Russia on 1 of August 1920.15

Sovereignty and the Loss thereof


With independence firmly established and all serious transnational conflicts conflicts,

Latvia could start unhindered nationbuilding efforts. There was a lot to do, as Latvia had never

been a fully sovereign state, save a democracy as it now aspired to be. The Baltics “needed to

reform their social, economic and political structures to conform to their new status as nation-

states.”16 At least economically Latvia was in a comparatively good position, despite the

necessity of a huge land reform, as it was more urbanized than, for example, Lithuania.17 This

also meant that it had historically been a part of capitalist Europe and possessed relevant

experiences, for example some basic banking personnel.18 Latvia was even able to weather the

great depression fairly well, coming out of it as one of Europe's most successful states. 19 (They

have not, however, been able to repeat this feat in the ongoing recession, where the Latvian

14 Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: 117.


15 Ibid. 59.
16 Romald Misiunas and Rein Taagepera, The Baltic States. Years of Dependence 1940-1990 (Los Angeles,
berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): 10.
17 Ibid.
18 Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: 61.
19 Ibid. 64.

Colonized Colonizers: History: From Colonizer to Colony 7


economy is one of the worst affected in Europe. Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugmann

referred to Latvia as “the new Argentina,” referring to its currency devaluation.20)

Socially and politically, however, thing went less smoothly. Although all three Baltic

states started out with democratic, parliamentary systems, none of them were in place anymore

by 1934. They were, as Lieven puts it, “too democratic for their own good.”21 When president

Karlis Ulmanis seized power, the country had seen 16 governments come and go and the

population, although grudgingly, accepted the now (mildly) authoritarian government.22 Still to

this day Ulmanis is a hero to Latvians, who refer to his authoritarian ways with a shrug and a

comment like “Well, that's the way it was done everywhere back then.”

However, just as Baltic democracy, Baltic independence was not made to last in the first

half of the 20th century. With the outbreak of World War II the Baltic nations' fate was sealed, as

they were in the way of both Nazi Germany's expansionism to the east and Soviet Russia's

expansionism to the west. It was on August 23rd, 1939, that the Soviet-German non-aggression

treaty, better known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop-Pact. This very pact included a secret protocol

regarding the signing parties' spheres of influence in the Baltic region.23 The line that should

separate the two parties was the Polish-Lithuanian border. Moscow did not waste any time, and

by the end of September Latvia had capitulated.24 Despite the occupation coming to place

without a single shot being fired,25 peace (or, given the nature of the Soviet occupation, “absence

of war”) should not last long, for the Germans broke their treaty with the Soviet Union. Already

20 Dw-world.de: “Latvia: Europes Most Extreme, Dramatic Economy,” Deutsche Welle, http://www.dw-
world.de/dw/article/0,,4025197,00.html (accessed April 11, 2009).
21 Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: 64.
22 Cf. Ibid. 65-66.
23 Ibid. 79.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid. 80.

Colonized Colonizers: History: From Colonizer to Colony 8


in 1941, the war reached Latvia and Wehrmacht troops forced the Red Army out of the country. 26

Just a few years later, in 1944, with German defeat imminent, the Soviets were back. 27 This time,

they were there to stay.

Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia

The Case for Soviet Rule as Imperialism


As I shall be using the term, “imperialism” means the practice, the theory
and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant
territory; “colonialism,” which is almost always a consequence of
imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory. As
Michael Doyle puts it: “Empire is a relationship, formal or informal, in
which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another
political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration,
by economic, social or cultural dependence. Imperialism is simply the
process or policy of establishing or maintaining an empire.”28

As will be shown, most of Said's elements of imperialism and colonialism apply to the

situation of the Baltic states during the reign of the Soviet Union over them, with Latvia being

quite possibly the most clear-cut case thereof. The most disputable point is probably the most

basic point as well: were the Baltics “a distant territory” ruled by a “dominating metropolitan

center”? The Baltic, especially the parts that evolved into Latvia and Estonia, have always

maintained close ties to Russia as described above – and geographically they are everything but

distant. More significantly, they can be described as a metropolitan center as well. This is

especially true for Latvia, with its capital Riga being colloquially known as “the metropolis that

26 Ibid. 86.
27 Ibid. 87.
28 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993): 9.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 9


is too big for its country.” Riga has a rich history of being an important center for Baltic trade,

having been an important member of the Hanseatic League with trade ties reaching all over

Europe.29 A city so important for its region that it provoked admiring folk songs from Latvians

and jealous bad-mouthing from neighbors such as the Lithuanians30 (another sign for the

traditional mutual dislike of the Baltic peoples towards each other,31 but an investigation into this

would provide for at least another essay.) However, Riga is not traditionally a Latvian city, not

being founded by Latvians and having had a German majority through most of its existence.32

Taking this and the historically mostly peasant nature of Latvia into consideration, Said's basic

indicator of imperialism.

The evidence for a colonization of Latvia according to this definition is easier to provide.

Not only do numerous scholars, such as Violeta Kelertas33 or Romuald Misiunas34 referto it in

this way, but the establishment of settlements required by Said can easily be identified in the

profound russification policies during the Soviet occupation. Between 1939 and 1980 the Latvian

share of the country's population dropped sharply from 75.5 per cent to 53.5 per cent, 35 with the

numbers being even closer for 1990.36 Soviet russification policies were based upon two tactics,

deportation of Latvians and immigration of Russians (or, to a lower degree, other Russian-

speakers). Solzhenitsyn provides an bone-chilling account of the purges the Soviets under Stalin

committed in the Baltic:

29 Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: 44.


30 Ibid. 9.
31 Ibid. 36.
32 Ibid. 10.
33 Violeta Kelertas: “Baltic Postcolonialism and its Critics,” in: Violeta Kelertas (ed.), Baltic Postcolonialism
(Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006): 1.
34 Misiunas, The Baltic States: 112.
35 Ibid. 353.
36 European School of Russian, “Latvia,” European School of Russian, http://www.eu-russian.com/latvia/
(accessed April 6, 2009)

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 10


And was it not, indeed, in 1939, that we reached out our helping hands to
the West Ukrainians and the West Byelorussians and, in 1940, to the
Baltic states and Moldovians? It turned out that our brothers badly
needed to be purged, and from them, too, flowed waves of social
prophylaxis. They took those who were too independent, too influential,
along with those who were to well-to-do, too intelligent, too noteworthy;
[...] Thus the population was shaken up, forced into silence, and left
without any possible leaders of resistance. Thus it was that wisdom was
instilled, that former ties and friendships were cut off.37

His writings former illustrate that the Gulag system was one of dual use, a tool of

domination and terror as described in above quote as much as a way to acquire cheap labor:

The economic need manifested itself, as always, openly and greedily; for
the stat which had decided to strengthen itself in a very short period of
time [...] and which did not require anything from outside, the need was
manpower:

a. Cheap in the extreme, and better still – for free.

b. Undemanding, capable of being shifted about from place to


place any day of the week, free of family ties, not requiring either
established housing, or schools, or hospitals, or even, for a certain
length of time, kitchens and baths.

It was possible to obtain such manpower only by swallowing up one's


own sons.38

Together with his grueling accounts of mistreatment, terror and miserable living

conditions I the Gulags, this is eerily reminiscent of another phenomenon that oftentimes

37 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II (New York:
Harper & Row, 1973): 77.
38 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. An Experiment in Literary Investigation III-IV (New York:
Harper & Row, 1974): 143.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 11


accompanies the colonialism and imperialism in the south as described by Said: slavery. In a

country the size of Latvia the loss of citizens caused by deportation to the Gulag system is easily

on a demographically relevant scale. For example, about a tenth of all Latvian farmers were

deported in order to push forward collectivization.39 During the first post-war deportation wave

from 1945 to 1946 about 60,000 are believed to have been displaced to Siberia. 40 Another large

deportation wave hit Latvia in March 1949 brought about 50,000 Latvians to Siberia in the

matter of just a few days.41 This left the Latvian society in a state of shock, as Solzhenitsyn

described, and on top achieved two more goals. It delivered a massive push for the Soviet efforts

at collectivizing Latvian agriculture, causing “a stampede into kolhozes(sic),”42 a Soviet form

collectivized farm. Collectivization also helped to quell resistance to Soviet occupation, as the

guerrillas so far active within the countryside were antagonized to the farm population, which

used to support them. Collectivized farms were seen by the guerrilla as Soviet property, thus they

helped themselves to it. Slowly, “the Freedom Fighters started to fit the 'bandit' label the

occupation forces tried to pin to them.”43 The devastating effects of the deportations did not

cease with the return of most of the displaced after Stalin's death in the fifties, rather was the

opposite the case, as they came back to a country now alien to them with their homes most likely

inhabited by Russian immigrants.

Regarding to the definition of empire as a relationship Said quotes Doyle with,44 the

situation in Soviet Latvia is just as clear cut. The political domination of the Latvian polity by the

Soviets is beyond any doubt, and it has been implemented using not just by a selection of the
39 Romuald Misiunas, The Baltic States: 102.
40 Ibid. 73
41 Ibid. 99.
42 Ibid. 102.
43 Ibid. 93.
44 Said, Culture and Imperialism: 9.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 12


ways he suggests, but by all of them. The aspect of force has been exhaustively discussed above,

but dependence on the political, economic or social levels still remains, with evidence for them

being plenty as well. Political collaboration came by the way of installing a puppet regime in the

Latvian SSR, economic dependence was instilled through Soviet-style industrialization and

collectivization and social and cultural dependencies were created through migration and a far

reaching russification of education and culture.

As Latvia became the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic (SSR), its previously republican

(although in the last years increasingly authoritarian) system was replaced by a government

following the Soviet-Russian example, which incorporated ethnic Latvians mostly in relatively

powerless positions to give the appearance of a proper Latvian government whilst maintaining a

maximum of control for Moscow. Prime example for this was the Supreme Council or

parliament, which even during the Stalin era was predominantly Latvian. 45 Within the Supreme

Council, the Latvian population was even statistically overrepresented.46 However, this is rather

witness to its powerlessness than to anything else (although it should become important later on,

during the struggle for independence). The more powerful positions, however, were held –

especially under Stalin – by Russians or Russian Latvians, who emigrated to Russia years before

the annexion, as “the Soviet rulers clearly distrusted anyone who had not undergone the 20 years

of Sovietization in the USSR.”47

This political domination through (selective) collaboration went hand in hand with the

creation of cultural dependence in accordance to Said, who states that “the two (spheres) are not

45 Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: 99.


46 Ibid. 34.
47 Misiunas, The Baltic States: 78.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 13


only connected, but ultimately the same.”48 Surprisingly, the Latvians, defying serious attempts

at Russification and their languages young age, fared comparatively well in the preservation of

their mother tongue, even better than some western European peoples.49 Still, it was at the mercy

of their Soviet masters and a close call, as “if it (the Soviet occupation) had continued for another

generation the Baltic languages and cultures might have been damaged beyond repair.”50 Thus it

is clear that the Soviets had a major cultural impact in Latvia. This impact can still be seen

nowadays, most clearly perhaps in the architecture of Riga. The stark contrast between the Black

Head's Guild and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia might be the most telling example: on

the one hand there is the Guild, an impressive, intricately decorated medieval building that can

easily be seen as the most beautiful piece of architecture in Old Riga, which is not a small feat,

given that the whole of the old town made it onto UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. And

then there is, just a couple of meters away, the museum. Built in Soviet times to commemorate

the Latvian Red Riflemen, it is a huge black block in the middle of the square. It not only seems

out of place in its surrounding, but is outright ugly by itself. Another sight visualizing the extent

to which the Soviet occupation exerted an influence on Latvia is the Soviet Freedom Memorial.

The structure, depicting fighting Red Armists and dominated by five huge, star-shaped columns

symbolizing the five years of World War II, commemorates Latvia's liberation from German

occupation by the Soviets. It was constructed to oppose Milda, Latvia's national memorial

celebrating the country's first independence, and is located just about two kilometers down the

same street and, most importantly, quite a bit larger. Nowadays it is the prime spot to see Soviet-

era nostalgics on Soviet remembrance days – and is, little surprise there, quite disputed, as many

48 Said, Culture: 57.


49 Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: 95.
50 Ibid.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 14


Latvians would like to see it blown up. Both structures also served the Soviets to “project their

power backward in time, giving it a history and legitimacy that only tradition and longevity

could impart.”51 The museum by paying homage to a group of Latvians that played a central role

in the Russian revolution, and the memorial by redefining conquest as liberation. Thus both of

them instill a sense of the two nations belonging together, having stood up for each other (which

leads to Solzhenitsyn feeling little remorse for Latvians, as “they had sown the seed

themselves.”52).

The political, cultural and social dependence was complimented by economic reforms. In

addition to the previously mentioned agricultural collectivization, private ownership was

abolished in the remaining economy as well and the industry remodeled to serve Soviet needs.

Whilst during Latvian independence and the Soviet isolation trade with Russia almost came to a

standstill,53 after the anexion the Soviets quickly turned the rather well-developed Latvian

economy towards supplying the empire's needs again.54 In doing so, they followed multiple

goals:

51 Said, Culture: 16.


52 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago V-VII (New York: Harper & Row, 1976): 44.
53 Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: 62.
54 Misiunas, The Baltic States: 108.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 15


There were also non-economic reasons. Ideologically, the industrial
proletariat were considered superior to the peasantry and expected to be
more supportive of the Soviet regime. From a colonial imperialist
viewpoint, industrialization offered a path for settling large numbers of
Russians among a reticent local population. At times such colonization
seems to have become a goal in itself than a means of industrialization. N
particular, it made little economic sense to deport Baltic farmers to
Siberia and then import Russian labor to the Baltic cities.55

Thus, economic change proved to act upon the other elements of Soviet imperialism as

well – an imperialist feedback loop was created. The economic outcomes of this equaled those in

other colonies: while many goods were produced in the country, it was itself very scarce of just

the same consumer goods.56 The economy was completely geared towards the need of the

colonial master, not Latvia's own needs.

There remain, however, more questions about the colonial nature of the Soviet enterprise

in the Baltics, such as the commonly perceived backwardness of the Russian culture in

comparison to its more western counterparts, or the socialist-communist pretext under which it

was exercised,57 but I take the liberty to discard of those, as attitudes and intentions fade in the

face of the deed – they do not matter for those on the receiving end. For them it looked like

colonization, felt like colonization and sounded like colonization, so it shall be colonization for

all my intents and purposes.

55 Ibid.
56 Ibid. 109.
57 David Chioni Moore: “Is the Post- in Post-Colonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Towards a Global Postcolonial
Critique,” PMLA 116 No.1 (January, 2001): 122.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 16


Latvian Post-Colonialism
With the colonial and imperialist nature of the Soviet occupation in Latvia firmly

established, another question comes to mind: “Is the Post- in Post-Colonial the Post- in Post-

Soviet?” In her article of the same title, David Chioni Moore addresses fellow scholars of post-

colonialism such as Spivak, Cesaire or Ngugi:

Yet these autocritiques,now a genre of their own, have only strengthened


the field's hold. These critiques have tackled questions such as the
political utility of the category "postcolonial," the near-disappearance of
formerly important terms such as "Third World"and more specific terms
like "Africa," the often impenetrable vocabulary of postcolonial studies,
and specific concerns about its major claims. In the following pages I
supplement these debates by examining an enormous geographic, or
rather geopolitical, exclusion embodied in the range of situations that
have been generally understood, in postcolonial studies, to be
postcolonial. After reviewing what counts as postcolonial, I turn to the
post-Soviet sphere: the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, the
Caucasus, and Central Asia.58

She addresses an important problem there: so far, post-colonialism has been understood

as a state of affairs applying to the global south, regarding the relationship between the western

metropolis and the Oriental periphery, shortly as a matter of complexions. However, there

evidently was colonialism within the Soviet Union – colonialism between European nations,

between exactly the metropolitan centers that usually are seen as being on the giving, not the

receiving side. Can the theories that are useful in the traditional context also explain the cases of

colonialism between Europeans? Are they truly global? As Moore demonstrates with the

58 Ibid. 112.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 17


example of 14th century author Geoffrey Chaucer, this dilemma is not as new as it seems, but

rather as old as the (post-)colonial discourse:

Chaucer lived at a time when England was a relatively poor margin off
Europe's northwest shore, and England's elite culture had been heavily
Latinized and Frenchified since the Norman Conquest. And so, Chaucer
asked, do I write in a foreign, formerly colonial, transnational Romance
tongue, thereby guaranteeing international and local-elite readers and
participating in a rich, old, but largely external tradition? Or do I write in
the vernacular, "my" language, of narrower geographic compass and
socially lower, principally oral use? A similar dilemma for Ngugi and
Chaucer,but only Ngugi is today called postcolonial, while Chaucer is
perceived to stand at the head of a colonizer's literary history.59

Thereby he points at a significant weakness in the term “post-colonial,” as it in its narrow

definition refers to countries “with a former subjugated relation to Western powers.”60 This

includes, on the one hand, Western countries such as Canada or the United States (as they were

English colonies) in the post-colonial, but leaves out peoples like the Khoisan in South Africa,

which had been colonized by other African peoples even before the arrival of Europeans. 61 Thus,

in her opinion, to which I confer, the term post-colonial has to be extended. The inclusion of the

post-Soviet states is necessary, she states, because “of how extraordinarily postcolonial the

societies of the former Soviet regions are, and, second how extraordinarily little attention is paid

to this fact, at least in these terms.”62 Also drawing from Moore, Karlis Racevskis comes to the

notion, that despite the clear colonial nature of the Soviet enterprise, “any casal perusal of the

literature [...] will fail to uncover any mention of the Baltics, or, for that matter, of the Soviet
59 Ibid. 112-113.
60 Ibid. 113.
61 Cf. ibid.
62 Ibid. 114.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 18


Union.”63 This is regrettable, as “postcolonial theoretical approaches help appreciate the high

stakes of literary expression by highlighting the political, ethnic or nationalistic dimensions of

literary works.”64 To achieve this end, the traditional approach towards post-soviet societies has

to be scrapped, as “the distinctions between socialism and capitalism, left and right, that

sustained the Cold War, have become largely meaningless.”65

What matters more – and is unique to the post-soviet states including the Baltics – is that

they were “not only the subjects of colonialism but of a totalitarian colonialism.” 66

Totalitarianism is, as witnessed by Hannah Arendt, immensely destructive towards the human

mind. Recording the futility of this destruction is one way of coping with it, it is a survival

strategy. The probably most impressive document of this regarding to the Soviet Union is

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago – far more than a thousand

pages strong, he frantically recorded his own time within the system and its large extent from

every perspective available to him. He, as well, claims to have had no choice but to record his

experience:

By an unexpected turn of our history, a bit of the truth, an insignificant


part of the whole, was allowed out in the open. But those same hands
which once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their palms in
reconciliation: “No, don't! Don't dig up the past! Dwell on the past and
you'll lose an eye!”

But the proverb goes on to say: “Forget the past and you'll lose both
eyes.”67
63 Karlis Racevskis, “Toward a Postcolonial Perspective on the Baltic States,” in: Kelertas, Baltic Postcolonialism:
166.
64 Ibid. 166.
65 Ibid. 174.
66 Ibid. 173.
67 Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago I-II: x.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 19


Racevskis claims a similar fate for the Latvian literature, stating that this kind of narrative

and the collection of evidence have “become a national project.”68 However, there is a surprising

silence: “the failure of scholars specializing in the former Soviet-controlled lands to think of their

regions in the useful if by no means perfect postcolonial terms developed by scholars of, say,

Indonesia and Gabon.”69 Indeed, she claims, it has even been denied expressis verbis.70

According to Racevskis, postcolonial theory “might even offer a useful perspective on the

current economic and cultural situation”71 in the Baltics. Although exploration of the economic

situation does not seem to be an especially worthwhile endeavor in the time of a global economic

crisis that has basically crippled the Latvian economy, culture still remains available as an object

of analysis. Contemporary Latvian culture has much potential for postcolonial analysis.

Especially language sticks out in this regard, as it is of quite some concern for Latvians these

days. Latvian radio, for example, broadcasts advertisements not to use the word “okay,” but

instead the Latvian word “labi,” which literally translates to “good.” And unlike other small

countries, television in Latvia does not provide Latvian subtitles for foreign, English-language

programming (although Russian ones are common), but instead features a rather sketchy voice-

over with, at best, one male and one female speaker covering all the roles. Literally everything is

Latvianized, from movie titles (where Mr. And Mrs. Smith become Smids kungs un Smidsa

kundze) to personal names (on residence permit, my name read Kārstens Kēferts), as it is

mandated by a law following the French one to the same effect. The fear of a loss of language

implied by this is indeed very real. Many times I discussed this with Latvian friends, they voiced

68 Racevskis, Toward: 175.


69 Moore, Is the Post-: 115.
70 cf. Ibid. 117.
71 Racevskis, Toward: 180-181.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 20


the certainty that without this kind of protection, the Latvian language would be eradicated in the

near future. This is likely due to Latvian experience with attempts at the country's culture.

Experience with what Ngugi calls “the cultural bomb”:

But the biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by


imperialism against against the collective defiance is the cultural bomb.
The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate people's belief in their
names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of
struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.72

As Racevskis quotes literary historian Karl Hinrihs, “For over sixty years, natives of

Latvia have endured the effects of this cultural bomb.”73 That they now have to recover from this

“war waged in the arena of language”74 seems perfectly natural. As does the over-protectionism

that arises out of it – although its consequences pose new questions. As a reminder, more than a

third of the population of Latvia identifies Russian as their mother tongue, and many of those,

especially the generations born before the second independence, do not speak any Latvian. It is

understandable that they now feel pushed aside and are not very inclined to cheer for the Latvian

hockey team. Latvians have to be careful not to employ the cultural bomb against their Russian

minority, for, as Jamaica Kincaid puts it:

72 Ngu~gi wa Thiong'o, Decolonizing the Mind. As quoted in: Racevskis, Toward: 179.
73 Ibid. 180.
74 Ibid.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 21


All masters of any stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are
noble and exalted; (...) Of course, once you cease to be a master, once
you throw off your master's yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you
are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, for the
slaves.75

75 Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988): 80-81.

Colonized Colonizers: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Latvia 22


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