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Sometimes it grows on you (2010)

The Times Online ran an editorial on their comment page on March 4 where they encouraged fellow Brits to welcome the new wave of Latvian economic migrants with open arms. Said The Times, “We should welcome Latvians warmly for all that they have contributed to the world, and for what they might, therefore, contribute to Britain.”

To make its point, The Times listed a number of internationally recognized names associated with Latvia, but as several commentators pointed out, none of them were actually ethnic Latvians. Eisenstein, Berlin, Rothko and Baryshnikov were either born or simply lived here, and no doubt knew Latvians to some degree, but none were Latvians themselves.

But I don’t think that changes the spirit of what The Times was saying in its editorial. People from Latvia have always done well in other countries and tend to add rather than subtract from whatever environment they land in.

The key words here are “people from Latvia”, because the air, water and Baltic Sea vibes that are unique to this place and this place alone, have a lingering affect on anyone who’s stood under a Rīga pine in a Kurzeme forest. (Or a grove of birches on a Vidzeme hillside.) Regardless of which ethnic group you started your life in, once you’ve been through several seasonal cycles on a piece of land that the Europeans once called Livonia, the sunsets have a cumulative effect and something mystical rubs off.

The composer Richard Wagner came to Rīga to escape his debtors and France’s King Louis XVIII sought refuge in Jelgava from Napoleon. Doubt if either one learned the local language, given their preoccupation with greater concerns. But Mikhail Baryshnikov does speak Latvian fluently and once claimed that when he and fellow Russian dancer Boris Godunov visited Moscow, they would speak in Latvian to each other so that no one else could understand them. Latvian as the secret language of codes? Wouldn’t be the first time.

Code-breaking was no doubt one of the concerns of legendary U.S. diplomat George Kennan when he was stationed in Rīga in the 1930’s. It wasn’t until 1946 that Kennan wrote his famous “long telegram” warning the U.S StateDepartment to be wary of the USSR; clearly Kennan’s earlier days in Rīga left an impression.

Some social scientists debate whether ethnic identity is something inherent in humans, or an acquired taste. If you’re a “primordialist” you believe that your ethnic identity is etched in your genes, now and forever. But the “instrumentalists” argue that people actively adopt and utilize their ethnic identity in order to foster wealth, power or status.

In Chicago, everyone became Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and stayed Irish if they wanted a good position in the city government. During the 1980’s and the rise of the Solidarnosc movement in Poland, the same people who once made fun of Poles dug out their family trees to prove that they too had noble Polish heritage.

Back in 1995, when I was serving as Latvia’s Ambassador to the U.S., I was introduced to Franklin A. Sonn, the first post-apartheid black man to be appointed South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States. When we met, he smiled and said that his grandfather was from Rīga. After the surprised look on my face subsided, Ambassador Sonn proceeded to describe his rich ethnic heritage, which included both Rīga Jews and African tribal chieftains. Michael Strautmanis, a friend and close advisor of President Obama, is an African-American with a very Latvian last name and an equally keen understanding of Latvian culture because he was raised by a Latvian stepfather in Chicago.

So the Brits need not worry about people coming from Rīga to London in search of fame, fortune or just a job. But they should keep in mind that it could work both ways. One of Rīga’s most celebrated and accomplished mayors at the turn of the last century was a Brit by the name of George Armistead. There’s even a statue of him and his wife and dog by the canal near the Latvian National Opera house.

If one of the future mayors of London happens to be from Latvia, you don’t have to include the dog.

March 9, 2010

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