#24   Reaching milestones

Although Latvia this year is marking the 90th year of its birth, another anniversary worth noting is 17. This marks the 17th year since Latvia has restored its independence in 1991. That may not seem like a lot until you realise that Latvia’s first experience with national sovereignty, democracy and self rule lasted for only 22 years, from 1918 until 1940.

To patriotic Latvians, this first brief stab at independence, the ‘Ulmanis era’, takes on almost mythically legendary proportions, and understandably so. Those 22 years have been our only frame of reference for more than half a century. And when you remember that the previous 700 years were always spent under someone else’s rule, then those short 22 begin to loom large in the national consciousness. Latvia’s identity as a nation was shaped during that brief period, and despite the 50 years of destruction, occupation and deportation that followed, another Latvian identity, similar to the first, but different, is emerging.

And we are already 17 years into the job. That’s the part that startles me the most. Those of us who have been alive to witness and participate in Latvia’s second independence have been rebuilding Latvia for 17 years – nearly the same time that our parents and grandparents had to build the first republic back between the World Wars.

They proved you can do a lot in 22 years. How do we compare? Like them, we are rebuilding after a war. Latvia’s first state was built after the devastation of World War I and a war of liberation. Latvia today is rebuilding from an even more devastating World War II, plus 50 years of foreign occupation to boot.

We are doing it in a different world; a globalized, digitalized cyber world where small changes over a short period of time can have a big longterm impact on a vast group of people. As members of NATO and the EU, our place in that world is now known by more people than at any other time in history.

My parents lived through those first 22 years, but sought refuge in the West when Latvia was occupied. They never lived to see Latvia regain its independence. It feels like I’ve returned to Latvia in their place, to pick up where they left off. That’s why I’m looking forward to 2014, when I can say I’ve lived and worked during 23 years of independence. Kids always try to do a little more than their parents did.

#25   When the Prime Minister met the President

Few people realize that the first time a Latvian Prime Minister ever met the President of the United States, Latvia was not yet independent.

Under the Soviets, Moscow called Latvia the ‘Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic’ and our parliamentary body was known as the Supreme Council. In early 1990 the people of Latvia elected a majority of pro-independence deputies to the Supreme Council and on May 4, 1990 the Council voted in favor of restoring the original Republic of Latvia. It was a bold declaration to re-establish full independence. You can imagine how Mikhail Gorbachev felt about that. He didn’t like it and didn’t recognize it. Nevertheless, the Supreme Council chose Ivars Godmanis as Prime Minister and gave him the task of realizing the declaration.

A month later I met with Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis in Riga. I was working for the American Latvian Association in Washington, D.C. and had known Godmanis when he was a leader of the Latvian Popular Front. During that meeting we agreed that the time was ripe to bring Godmanis, and his Foreign Minister Jaņis Jurkans, to Washington. D.C.

Like Moscow, Washington, D.C. in 1990 still did not recognize the restored independence of Latvia.  Unlike Moscow, Washington was very interested in making the Latvian wish come true.

So in July of 1990 Latvia’s Prime Minister Godmanis and Foreign Minister Jurkans arrived in Washington, D.C. Since the U.S. didn’t recognize the legality of Soviet rule in Latvia, Godmanis and Jurkans could not be received as foreign dignitaries. They had no official status in the U.S., no bodyguards, no Secret Service protection. They were just two guys from Soviet-ruled Latvia who wanted to talk to someone about independence.

I greeted them at the airport in a rented car and for a week the three of us went around Washington, D.C., knocking on doors and talking to anyone who would listen. We went to the U.S. Congress, State Department, think tanks and TV stations. The Soviet Embassy in Washington watched all this with understandable annoyance, but took solace in the fact that at least, those upstart Latvians weren’t showing up at the White House.

But Soviet satisfaction didn’t last long. After a week of talking, lobbying and explaining all around town, we met U.S. Senator Robert Byrd. He was convinced that the White House was the exact place Godmanis and Jurkans needed to be. So Byrd called President George H.W. Bush and urged him to meet with the Latvian leaders. Bush agreed. On July 30th, 1990, Prime Minister Godmanis, Foreign Minister Jurkans and I walked into the Oval Office of the White House to meet with the President of the United States. We were supposed to only meet for 15 minutes – a standard courtesy call – but the discussion went on for 40 minutes.

Thus, the first time a Latvian Prime Minister ever stepped foot in the White House, he still didn’t represent a fully independent country. That happened

14 months later when the world, and the United States (September 2, 1991), formally recognized the restoration of the Republic of Latvia. The next time Prime Minister Godmanis returned to the White House he was escorted by a full complement of Secret Service agents. The Republic of Latvia was back in business.

#26   Rockin’ the Kremlin

Once upon a time electric guitars were illegal in the Soviet Union. That’s because in the late 1950’s rock and roll was illegal in the Soviet Union. Granted, not everyone in the West was crazy about the emergence of rock and roll either. It was energetic, provocative and challenged accepted standards, beliefs and values. It shook people up.

As a college student in the US in 1968 I knew rock was revolutionary because people like Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix were turning the world upside down. My world then was Western, democratic, stable and even a little boring. Many in my generation agreed that society and politics were ripe for change.

It was only recently that I learned that Latvia in the 1960’s was the birthplace of a rock and roll revolution in the Soviet Union. The first ‘illegal’ handmade electric guitar in the USSR was built by Valery Saifudinov (Seisky) in Riga. A sawed-off acoustic guitar was attached to a block of wood, while magnets and wires needed for the pickup were stolen from Riga pay phones. In 1962 Saifudinov created the rock band ‘The Revengers’ which became the USSR’s first rock band.

In 1966 Pete Anderson’s Latvian rock group The Melody Makers organized a rock concert in Riga, the first ever in the USSR. 2,000 tickets were sold out in 10 minutes, but 15 minutes after that the KGB cancelled the concert. Thousands of fans showed up anyway to protest the cancellation. They carried posters that said ‘Free the Guitar!’. It was an unprecedented public protest against Soviet government policy.

Similar rock and roll protests began to emerge throughout the former Soviet bloc – in Prague, Budapest, East Germany and even Moscow.

A documentary film about these and related events, called ‘Rockin’ the Kremlin’ is now being produced by Nick Binkley and Doug Yeager, and will be directed by multi-Emmy award winner Jim Brown. It tells the remarkable story about the global social and political impact of rock and roll. It throws light on a remarkable period in our contemporary history, and helps many begin to understand that rock and roll is not just about sex and drugs, it’s also about the freedom of the human spirit.

In the past we idolized rock and roll heroes because of what they did on the stage. ‘Rockin’ the Kremlin’ tells the story of people who are rock and roll heroes because of what they did in the streets.

#27   From Park Place to Rīga

There was a time when the world’s most popular board game, Monopoly, was banned in Latvia. I don’t know if the Soviets actually had a law that made this classic capitalist game taboo, but you couldn’t buy it in stores. Like rock and roll records, foreign books and TIME magazine, Monopoly was a hot commodity in the black market, and a popular item to be smuggled in by relatives visiting from the decadent West. Really enterprising Latvians made the game themselves out of pieces of cardboard, drew their own board and cards, and gave all the properties Latvian names. On weekends Monopoly ‘dissidents’ would secretly gather in dimly lit apartments and clandestinely engage in the subversive activity of buying and selling American-named properties like New York Ave. and Marvin Gardens..

Now Latvia is free and so is Monopoly. Not only can you buy the classic Monopoly game in any Latvian store, you get it in a slick, colourfully printed Latvian version that’s set in Latvia and even sells Latvian properties.

But this year, Hasbro has a created a World Edition of this classic game, called ‘Monopoly Here and Now’.  To determine which 22 of the world’s top cities would be featured as properties in the new game, Hasbro asked fans around the world to vote on the Internet. After 5 million votes were counted, Montreal took the top position and the honour to be the ‘Boardwalk’ of the new global edition. And who was chosen as Park Place? Riga, Latvia.

Cities like New York, London, Paris, Beijing and Tokyo all made the list, but ranked lower that Riga in voter popularity. How on earth did Riga beat out the world’s most glamorous cities? I think the explanation is obvious. The people who live in those other cities, never had to make their own Monopoly games by hand.