#28   The land that sings about singing

Just as every country has a flag, every country in the world has a national anthem. Citizens usually sing their national anthem on national days, or to begin important events, although many will sing their national songs spontaneously, when seized by a feeling of pride or patriotism. We hear others sing their anthems most often at sporting events.

But what do they sing about?

In Austria they sing about mountains, while in Bangladesh they praise banyan trees and mango groves. Denmark mentions the Vikings in their national anthem, while in the Netherlands they raise their voices for William of Orange. Brazil, Greece and Bolivia express heroic thoughts about freedom, while the United States and Turkey sing about their flags. Many countries stress God’s role in the destiny of their land.

Latvians too ask God to bless their country in Latvia’s national anthem.  The anthem is even called ‘God Bless Latvia’. But in their anthem, Latvians also sing about singing and dancing. One reason for this may be that the song was first performed in Riga in 1873 at the First Latvian Song Celebration. It was written by Karlis Baumanis 45 years before Latvia became independent, in 1918.

Ironically, the first time a Latvian choir sang the song, they had to replace the word ‘Latvia’ in the lyrics with ‘Baltija’. Back in 1873 Latvia was under Czarist Russian rule, and Moscow frowned upon national anthems in their empire. But less then a half century later, the Czarist Empire collapsed, Latvia declared its independence, and on November 18, 1918, the word ‘Latvia’ returned to the lyrics of “God Bless Latvia.” Two years later, in 1920, it became the official national anthem of the Republic of Latvia.

After Latvia was occupied in 1940, the national anthem was totally banned by the Soviets in Latvia. You couldn’t sing the words, you couldn’t even hum it. But hundreds of thousands of Latvian refugees in exile still sang it proudly in other countries around the world. Like the flag, the anthem returned again in 1989, and by 1991, when Latvia restored its independence, the anthem was restored to its place of honor as well.

Although Latvia has changed in 90 years, the words of its anthem have not.  The blessing that Latvians ask God to bestow on their land consists of a simple, and very typically Latvian request – make our daughters bloom and our sons sing, and we know they will dance together in happiness. Not a bad thing to wish for your country.

God, bless Latvia,
Our dearest fatherland,
Do bless Latvia,
Oh, do bless it!

Where Latvian daughters bloom,
Where Latvian sons sing,
Let us dance in happiness there,
In our Latvia!

#29   The returning

Long before there were Latvians, there was a land covered by ice. When the ice melted and the glaciers retreated, life returned to the land. As streams and rivers flowed into the sea, people flowed into the land. Just as the landscape transformed itself through the movement of ice and water, so too the ancient peoples that settled here adapted to these changes. Tribes, languages and cultures evolved, sometimes clashing, but also coalescing.

About a thousand years ago the idea of ‘being Latvian’ started to come together as well, as tribes with similar languages and cultures began to merge into a nation. That nation became a state in 1918, forming the Republic of Latvia. Latvia’s independence was interrupted by invasion and occupation in 1940.

Following a hot war that blazed around the world, a cold war descended upon the land. Hopes, dreams and aspirations were frozen in time by a new glacier that destroyed lives and smothered living cultures. The heavy weight of this crushing totalitarian glacier did not begin retreating until 1991.

For Latvians today, the last 17 years have meant the end of another Ice Age. The ancient symbols of the warming sun and enriching water continue to serve as powerful metaphors for Latvia’s resurgent cultural, economic and political life.

The Baltic Sea too has come alive. Once a forbidding barrier to a free world outside, it is now an inland lake surrounded by the most prosperous countries of the European Union. It is also part of what Latvia seeks to protect by being a member of NATO.

The Latvian poet Rainis has written that ‘He who evolves himself, endures.’ This is something every Latvian understands, for nature teaches that life is constant change, movement, transformation and evolution. Evolution can be a painful process and not all can survive its diverse challenges. Even retreating glaciers continue to claim victims, but they also release the earth to produce new life in their wake.

The State of Latvia has returned and is celebrating its 90th birthday. The ice has melted. It’s good to be back.

#30   When dreams become reality

I was working at the Latvian Legation in Washington, D.C. when Latvia restored its independence in August 1991. We received a lot of congratulations in the ensuing days, from old and new friends, but there is one I will never forget.

After interviewing me for a radio program, a young American reporter turned off the tape recorder and blurted out a confession. “I really envy you Latvians. You have just won back your independence, thrown off the shackles of an occupation and have been given a chance to rebuild your country! The past is over and everything is ahead of you now. In America we had our revolution and war of independence over 200 years ago. We have nothing to rebuild here, just a lot of things we have to fix. That’s boring. You Latvians have an exciting future ahead of you, and no matter what happens, you now can do something about it.”

I have to admit, I did feel lucky back in 1991. And it was exciting. It seemed almost unbelievable. After 50 years in a Soviet Union everyone thought would last forever, Latvia was independent again. Latvia had changed, the world had changed, and those of us who wanted to live and work in Latvia had our work cut out for us.  But it was work we had always dreamed we could someday do.

In the early 1990’s we reshaped the government, the laws and the way we interacted with the world.  We privatized and made unheard of profits. We established embassies, joined international organizations, rebuilt cities and sent our presidents around the world. Our economy grew, new opportunities opened up and yes, new problems replaced the old ones. Today our economy is struggling, our political parties are bickering, and the euphoria of those early days is a faded memory.

But I think that the American reporter had it right. Life in Latvia has not been boring. For me, it has been a rare stroke of luck to be a Latvian these last 20 years. It’s also been a privilege to participate in so many aspects of Latvia’s rebirth, development and growing pains. I have not only seen a dream come true, but have also had a chance to contribute something to it.

Of course, that dream is not yet fully realized. We are still rebuilding and in some cases, already fixing things we built not that long ago. The restoration of a country and the healthy regeneration of a nation takes time, hard work and toughness. There are always many disappointments along the way.

But when a dream comes true once in your life, you start to believe it can happen again.  When I think about where Latvia has been, where it is now, and where it could be in the future, I still let the dreams fly.