Telling Latvia’s Story

Although I was born in a refugee camp in Munich in 1949, and never actually lived in Latvia until recently, I have been hearing and telling Latvia’s story all my life.

Growing up in Chicago, I heard about it constantly from my parents, who fled Latvia when the Soviets occupied for the second and last time in 1944. In the United States from the 50’s until the 70’s, the only people talking about Latvia were other Latvians. Few Americans were interested in a small country behind the Iron Curtain, and apart from the Pentagon and State Department, no one paid much attention to it.

From my parents I heard about the good old days of a free Latvia, when Karlis Ulmanis was president, Riga was a jewel and Latvian butter was the rage of European gourmands. I also heard about the war of independence against the Bolsheviks and Bermontians following WW I, the battles with Nazi and Red Army invasions during WW II, the Soviet occupation, and the endless executions, deportations, Russification and dehumanization that followed.

In my boy’s mind there were two Latvias. The colorful Camelot of my parent’s nostalgia and the dreary concentration-camp-by-the-sea that the Soviets had created. It wasn’t until 1978 when I actually first set foot in Latvia, that I realized there was much more to the story.

I also realized that since the end of WW II, Soviet-ruled Moscow was telling that story, as it saw ideologically fit, to the world. Between 1944 and the late 1980’s, the world only knew of a Soviet Republic called Latvia, and most of what it knew was carefully orchestrated by the KGB in Moscow. Soviet Communists liked to cut people out of official photos when they are no longer useful. Moscow’s propagandists cut huge chunks out of Latvia’s history, culture and society.

The only other source of information about Latvia, anywhere in the world, was the 200,000 strong exile community which the Soviet occupation had dispersed to Western Europe, Canada, the United States and beyond. They worked at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, created cultural and political organizations and constantly tried to remind anyone who would listen, that Latvia was an occupied country. And that as a result of that occupation, the very survival of the Latvian language, culture and people, was at stake.

Since I was writing ads for a living in Chicago when I first visited occupied Latvia in 1978, I decided to add my efforts to those of other exiles, in telling the story right. In the early 80’s, the American Latvian Association and the World Federation of Free Latvians were two of the most active and influential Latvian exile organizations. They represented hundreds of smaller Latvian organizations in dozens of cities around the world, and did what they could to lobby Western governments and tell Latvia’s story to the Western press. Exiled Latvians had spent the 50’s and 60’s looking inward, consolidating their communities and nurturing their culture; by the early 80’s political action and outward communication took on greater importance. A new generation of  Latvians born in exile (and speaking good English) joined their parents in telling the world about what was going on in occupied Latvia. We were naïve, idealistic and we wanted to restore Latvia’s independence. To do so, we knew we had to explain why in an honest, accurate, and persuasive manner.

In Chicago in 1981, we developed the monthly Chicago Latvian Newsletter into a regular and reliable source of current English-language information about Latvia. We produced the first major English-language book about Latvia in 30 years. In cities across the U.S. we participated in Captive Nations Day rallies and organized Baltic Freedom Day demonstrations. In 1985, I joined the Washington D.C.-based American Latvian Association as a full time publicist and lobbyist. By the time Gorbachev and glasnost rolled around and Latvians in Latvia could start speaking for themselves, the Western Latvian community had already established a base of information and a network of receptive contacts throughout the Free World.

When the dissident group ‘Helsinki 86’ emerged from Liepaja and organized the first overtly pro-independence march to the Latvian Freedom Monument in Riga on June 14, 1987, Latvia became a legitimate news story. In Washington, we made sure that every Congressman, Senator and foreign policy advisor read the story and understood its implications. When the Latvian National Independence Movement and the Popular Front came into existence in 1989, we brought their leaders to Washington and introduced them to the same politicians and foreign policymakers. To Americans, Latvia, like its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania, was suddenly a real place, with real people. The Balts were dramatically altering their own lives, and as a result, the world.

Washington sat up and took notice. Latvians in cities across the U.S. held larger and larger rallies and formed Popular Front support groups to channel direct assistance into the pro-independence movement. In early 1989 we were calling Western reporters and telling them about what was happening in Latvia. After 2 millions Balts formed a human chain from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius on August 23, 1989, the reporters were calling us.

Reporters were also starting to call the Latvian Legation in a sleepy residential  neighborhood on 17th Street in northwest Washington. Despite 50 years of foreign rule in Latvia, the diplomatic mission of the former independent Republic of Latvia was still legally functioning in Washington, staffed by accredited diplomats who had served Latvia prior to the 1940, and continued to do so during the ensuing decades of occupation.

The Legation itself became a news story, and combined with the restlessness in Latvia and the tirelessness of the exile community, by 1990 the story of Latvia and the Baltic States began to appear regularly on the front pages of U.S. newspapers. In Washington, working with the Legation, we focused on Congress, the State Department, think tanks and editorial writers. The idea of Latvian independence, which had been dismissed in the 60’s, was a real possibility in the 90’s. No longer was it just old Latvian exiles talking about it. The major newspapers were openly advocating it.

I joined the Latvian Legation as a press liaison in January of 1991 and on May 4,  the newly elected, Popular Front-dominated Supreme Council of the Soviet Republic of Latvia, declared its intention to restore Latvia’s independence. Moscow scoffed, even when Latvia’s pro-independence Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis and Foreign Minister Janis Jurkans came to Washington and met with President Bush in the Oval Office of the White House. Moscow was too busy with its own problems to scoff when Latvia realized that independence in August, and on September 2, 1991, I stood in the office of Latvia’s elderly chief of mission Anatol Dinbergs and watched a TV press conference as President George Bush announced the full restoration of ties between the United States and the sovereign Republic of Latvia. The Legation became an embassy, Anatol Dinbergs became ambassador and I became his Minister Counselor and Deputy Chief of Mission.

I had been a naturalized U.S. citizenship since 1968, but gave that up in December of 1991 so that I could assume full diplomatic duties at the Latvian Embassy. I had to fly to a U.S. Consulate in Canada to do so because it’s impossible to give up your citizenship in the U.S. In 1992, 86-year old Ambassador Dinbergs retired and I was appointed Ambassador in 1993.

I had been telling Latvia’s story all my life, first as an obscure refugee, then as a political activist and finally as an ethnic lobbyist. Along with thousands of others living in the U.S., I had written letters, given interviews, delivered speeches and held rallies, making the case for Latvia’s independence. I had been told it would take a miracle. Apparently miracles do happen. .

During most of the last ten years that I have served as a diplomat, I was no longer promoting Latvia’s independence, but simply trying to preserve it. During that period the exile community in the West also underwent changes. Many established close ties to Latvia or moved here, and became actively involved in rebuilding the country. Others remained in the West to revitalize their exile organizations and help tell the story of a new, emerging Latvia.

While history  – especially the Soviet and Nazi occupations – was an important part of that story, even more important was what was happening in Latvia every day. With the beginning of independence in 1991, Latvians on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean  were talking about new things – party politics, the economy, and the challenges facing Latvian society.

Latvian embassies in the West became the first and main source of information about the new Latvia. Diplomats talked not only about Russian troop withdrawal, NATO and the EU, but also about investment opportunities, tax breaks and the emerging IT (Information Technology) industry. In Latvia, English-language newspapers and magazines began to sprout up, tourists and official delegations began coming out and foreign entrepreneurs and journalists began to pour in.

When I ended my 7-year tour as ambassador to the United States in 1999 and moved to Riga to become the Director of the Latvian Institute, I realized I had come full circle. My parents’ generation had fled Latvia following WW II to tell a story and seek help in the West. I was returning to Latvia in their place. In 1978 I knew there was more to be told. In 2000, we finally have a chance to tell it.

As I sit in my Old Town Riga office and gaze at the 800-year old steeple of the Dom Cathedral, I am reminded of another number that was etched deeply in my consciousness from childhood. 22. Latvia was independent for 22 years. We are now approaching the halfway mark of the record that was set by Latvia’s founders from 1918 until 1940.

Today we are using the Internet, e-mail and multi-media magic to tell everything there is to tell about Latvia and how its is doing as we enter the 21st century. About our goals of becoming a inseparable part of the European Union and NATO. About our desire to create a stable, prosperous democratic country. About our ports and our infrastructure, our folk songs and festivals, our people and possibilities. We have a capital that is both old and new, big and small, spectacular and stately. We have a vast expanse of untouched forest and uninhabited rural areas, mostly poor, sometimes prosperous, but everywhere beautiful.

Those of us who were talking about Latvia during the 50-year occupation were telling a story of war, suffering and injustice. But today, Latvia is a writing a new story, of opportunity, engagement, growth and development. Those of us who are trying to get this story out, are simply trying to get people in, so they can see for themselves. As we enter the 21st century, the story of the new Latvia has only begun.

Soon we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the restoration of Latvia’s independence. I’m looking forward to the 23rd.

Riga, Latvia 2000