LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 45, No. 1 - Spring 1999
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1999 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Andrejs Plakans, The Latvians.
A Short History. In Studies of nationalities, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1995. Soft cover, ix-xvii, 256 pages. $25.
I knew when I bought this book that it would have one thing I have always wanted - a map showing clearly where the Latgalians, the Curonians, the Selians, and the Ziemgalians (never mind the author's names for them) had lived before all but the Latgalians disappeared. I was not disappointed. I found it on p. 5. It also reminded me about the Livians and showed where they had lived. I received, as well, a sort of eerie thrill to find some of my independent thinking echoed in the author's words, some of which were his own and other scholars' thoughts, as if my mind had been read even before I was to start thinking. I saw clearly that it is good for people working on historical linguistics to read works by historians even if they do repeat mistakes by others specializing in historical linguistics.
The author, on speaking of Baltic prehistory, tells us that the Baltic languages had occupied territory far larger than they do today, a fact I am sure of. That, like me, he and surely others view these languages as Central and Peripheral (though still in contact with the rest of Baltic) with the Central Baltic ones near Germanic and generally influenced by the languages of Western Europe and the Peripheral Baltic ones influenced by languages of the east. I differ somewhat from this view by considering Latvian originally Peripheral, never mind its later extensive contacts with Germanic and by acknowledging special direct eastern influences on Peripheral Baltic but by defining them as principally Semitic (rather than Iranian) via contact with, in my view, the other Peripheral Baltic language, Thracian. Otherwise, I give my following perspective to help others appreciate truly the most significant impression this book can leave on its readers - that of the miraculous durability of the Baltic peoples, their cultures, and their languages. My special perspective is that of the North Baltic aspect of Lithuanians and, especially, Latvians which has helped them and all they have to offer to survive. In fact, whenever the author mentions elements in the languages of these peoples as well as in Selian and Ziemgalian, we should change his East Baltic to North Baltic if they are shared by all.
On reading all of The Latvians, I see a curious parallel with a well-known Hollywood plot formula - "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl." I clarify this in the following way.
I see "Boy meets girl" as everything leading up to and including the first Latvian (interwar) republic. This starts and ends with the Latvians seeing themselves as a people, a tauta. It includes the early times with groups, the Latgalians, etc., destined to become Latvians, the long period when they were subservient to the Germans in Livonia, the following periods when they were under the Poles, the Swedes, the yoke of the Russian Empire considered part of two districts, the Baltic one and the Vitebsk one where the Latgalians lived, and, finally, when they achieved statehood in 1918.
I see "Boy loses girl" as beginning with the Soviet occupation, followed by the insidious days of the Nazi occupation and the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia. Considering the physical power of the armed forces of these enemies of the Latvian tauta, though, as the author mentions, the Nazis masked their ultimate evil intent - the deportation of the Latvians to the east so Germans could seize their territory -, each of these impediments to the Latvians' desires of self-expression through self-rule seemed far more indissoluble than the trivial obstacles to "true live" of Hollywood's "Boy loses girl".
I see "Boy gets girl" as Latvians' achieving statehood during the crumbling of the Soviet regime - a crumbling brought on by the banal reality that those in power (with Russia's tsarist aristocracy's funds long ago stolen and Eastern Europe's resources already picked clean) no longer could come up with the blat money needed to bribe the army. (Yeltsin, eventually, got his from the US. so he could ensure the "loyalty" of the Moscow garrison.)
To me, this carefully documented (from all possible sources), modestly phrased concise work, even with its frank statement of Viktors Arajs's collaboration with the Nazis in their evil work, their murdering of Jews, even with its reminder of the Latvian strelnieki sizable contribution to the Bolshevik cause, opens up an unforgettable vista of immeasurable proportions to any objective reader, to any student of human history with an ounce of imagination. To me, this is a vista of the miracle of survival of the Latvian people, the Latvian tauta, a Baltic tauta like the Lithuanian one, as a distinct, recognizable, and not-to-be-forgotten, active part of humanity. (And this in the book is even buttressed by the author's mention of a one-time Latvian colony in Tobago.) This book shows how that survival was threatened both from without and from within (when several times many Latvians were willing to give up their identity for better economic conditions, e.g., going to the "warm lands" of Russia and Russianizing). The urge of the Latvians to keep
their identity expressed in this book reminds me of a somewhat parallel urge I noticed among the Lithuanians in Southern California who, in their summer youth camps, do all they can to encourage their children to keep the memory of their original ethnic identity alive.
Harvey E. Mayer