Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | August 16, 2013

The ‘Difficult Past’ and Divided Mnemonic Communities: Latvia

The MYPLACE project has completed its first major public deliverable: “Country based reports on historical discourse production as manifested in sites of memory.” These reports are available here: .

Here the Daugavpils University MYPLACE WP2 team Zane Stapkevica, Liene Leitiete, Aleksandrs Cvetkovs, Rihards Sisojevs, Irena Saleniece summarise the Latvian report.

History of Latvia in the 20th century is complicated and controversial; commemoration practices in Latvia are diverse and often contradictory for young people. That is why the Latvian report from Daugavpils University, in cooperation with the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia < > deals with Latvian youth attitudes towards historical events and representation of the past in the museum. The study is based on 5 expert and 5 focus groups interviews, field work in the museum, observation of public events, etc. Experts interviewed were staff members of the museum. There were 45 members in the focus-groups – 16-20 year old students from various kinds of educational institutions represented different regions of Latvia and different ethnic groups (mostly Latvian and Russian).
Both experts and members of focus groups expressed the opinion that the history of Latvia in the period between 1940 and 1991 is problematic and controversial. The dominant historical discourse sees the period from the perspective of Latvian state – it’s establishment, destruction and restoration. The ‘problematic’ and ‘difficult’ events thus are often related with foreign forces – the Soviet and Nazi regimes that occupied the territory of Latvia, destroyed its sovereignty and committed crimes against various groups of the Latvian citizenry. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia represents the history of the 20th century of Latvia following the lines of the dominant narrative.
Experts listed the participation of Latvian voluntaries in the massacre of Jews during the Holocaust; collaborationism with the Nazi and communist regimes; the fact that the population did not protest against the deportations and the Holocaust as events that could be called shameful. To young people, in Latvia the shameful past may be related to collaborationism with the Nazis, to the Holocaust, to deportations. However, they doubt whether this notion can be used in regard to Latvian history. Unexpectedly in historical context some recent events were considered as ‘shameful’ – the spontaneous riot on January 13, 2010, when crowds in Riga threw stones at the Saeima (parliament) building and vandalized other objects and also the “language issue” relating to the unreasonable claims of the part of the Russian speaking population.
Public activities in Latvia show that there are many people who basically agree with the official version of the past. Observations have documented that the population of Latvia, young people included, celebrate November 11, November 18 and commemorate events of deportations, etc.

Image 1 Latvia D2 1

Image 2 Latvia D2 1

Categorical public denial of this version of the past has been rarely observed (R. Jefimovs; A. Gilman – denial of Soviet deportations; the incendiary of the flag of Latvia 18.11.2012.), the exception being the celebration of May 9. 

Focus-group interviews reveal that young people are familiar with events of Latvian history; they learned about it first of all from the members of their families and from school. Young people are aware that the memories of their families have many gaps. However, the most important thing for young people, though not always unequivocal and precisely expressed, is the attitude of family members to events in the past, especially if they relate to the life experience of the people close to them. From what the young people told the interviewers, we can infer that they can identify differences in the historical experience of witnesses of the past belonging to different generations and they can provide explanations for these differences. Occasionally, they can explain why family memories in Latvia are often incomplete and fragmented. In two cases young people indicate that confrontation between them and their parents arises when they try to use what they learn about history at school.

Our focus-groups heavily rely on the information learned at school. Unlike other places and situations, the educational process usually provides verified factual material, but at the same time, a pluralism of opinions concerning the evaluation of the processes in the past. Moreover, when schools discuss themes or history-related issues they consider the motivation, interpretation and evaluation of past events of representatives of different sides. Schools, too, now try to teach pupils to evaluate past situations not by applying the criteria of their own time, but by trying to see the position of another person, to understand the choice he/she has made from the perspective of his time.

From the perspective of society and the state, comprehensive school is the only institution that in a systematic way provides all children of the respective country with the same version of the past, based on the conception of history developed by the national historiography. The situation in Latvia is a good example of this: today, at school young people learn the conception of Latvian national historiography, while their parents and grandparents, who grew up and were educated in the schools of the 1940-70s, had learnt the concepts of the Soviet historiography. In the latter, there was no place for the statehood of Latvia, therefore the history of Latvia was integrated into the history of the USSR.

Most interviewees accept the necessity to have commemoration days, but only on principles of parity: what is due to the participants of one warring side, the same is due to their former enemies (Latvian Legion of Waffen SS and Red Army). However, we cannot avoid the fact that young people living in the East of Latvia and especially those communicating in Russian in their everyday life are more oriented towards supporting the victors’ version of WW II and are more positive about those who celebrate May 9.

Image 3 Latvia D2 1

While young people of Eastern Latvia communicating in Latvian are more sympathetic to the veterans of the Legion.  In places where the language environment is homogenously Latvian and there are no vast May 9 celebrations, pupils take a more nonchalant attitude.

For further research we must take into consideration the fact that both past experiences and perceptions of history are very different in different families. The local population of Latvia, those who were raised in 1920s and 1930s, learned a specific view of history at school and certain personal experiences during the period of the independent state of Latvia and historical transformations of the 1940s – 1980s. Families, whose members arrived in Latvia after 1940, have a rather different experience. They do not have pre-war “witnesses”, their knowledge about Latvia was learned at a Soviet school. If they happen to have graduated from school outside of Latvia, at school they didn’t learn anything about Latvia’s history at all.

[The research leading to these findings has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme ([FP7/2007-2013] [FP7/2007-2011]) under Grant Agreement number FP7-266831).]

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