The Latvian Identity: Vaira Vike Freiberga at TEDxRiga

The Latvian Identity: Vaira Vike Freiberga at TEDxRiga

Translator: Kristaps Kadiķis
Reviewer: Ilze Garda Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here representing
the element earth and Latvian identity. And yet the person who stands before you left her native city Riga at the age of 6 only to return to it at the age of 60 and to be elected president
8 months later. President of a country without ever
having belonged to a political party, without having undergone
an election campaign which we normally think of
as a part of a democratic process, without having spent a red cent
in election expenses, [is] not exactly
your typical political path. However, the path that I did follow has given me some unique
experiences and insights. And it is those
that I’d like to share with you, in spite of the fact
that the earth on which I was born, the ground that my feet
were treading for most of my life, was not that of my native land, but was scattered
across 6 different countries on 3 different continents, where in the course of time I had to acquire 5 different languages and drop a few on the way
which I didn’t quite master. How in all this strange pattern could one become president of a country and an expert in its identity would seem like a paradox, but, alas, it’s but one of three
main patterns of identity that the Latvian nation has developed because of historical events as a consequence of the Second World War. After the first occupation
and the annexation by the Soviet Union, the following Nazi occupation, involvement of Latvians
in both sides of the warring parties against international conventions, and then three patterns developed. Some, like my parents
and those of my husband, left and went into exile
with their children, hoping to return when the international community
would ensure Latvia’s independence again, which of course did not happen. Poor souls had never heard of the protocols
of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and even less, of Yalta and Tehran
where the Allies had been involved. The second pattern was of those
who were forcibly deported to Siberia. Their lives have been documented
in films and documentaries; if you stay in Latvia,
you’ll have the occasion to see during our Song Festival
which is upcoming in a few weeks. Finally, of course, the majority
of people stayed here in Latvia, but stayed here in a country
that was submitted to totalitarian rule, to a foreign occupation
and military presence, and an imposed ideology
and economic system. I speak mostly, of course,
from a perspective; first of those who went into exile, but then of those
who returned and tried to heal the various separate parts of our nation, the branches that had been cut off
from the common tree, to remind them all that they do grow
from the same historical soil, the same past,
the same cultural traditions, and that those are the ones
that essentially give us our identity. But my own identity formation
was by no means an easy path, and this is why I spent
much of my spare time – apart, of course, from my career,
my academic career as a loyal, contributing, and reasonably
successful Canadian academic – I spent much of my time
struggling to bring up my children, born abroad
from the Latvian point of view, born in Montreal,
native-born Canadians at that rate, and other: the children of many other Latvians
in different continents – South America, Australia,
Europe, the United States, Canada – to try and inculcate in them a sense of what it means
to be a Latvian and why. And I came to the conclusion
that identity is a complex process where being Latvian, or German, or American,
or Chinese, or anything whatever, is only one of the layers
of something like an onion in your psyche, where each of you, each of us are a part of many groups, conglomerates, associations, identities. We belong to many, many people with whom we can identify
in a multiplicity of ways. We are in fact more like the bulb
of a lily than that of an onion. Lilies having these different scales, and those are part
of different aspects of our personality. But there are some essential elements
of identity that remain constant. One of them is what I call the automatic. The natural, as it were, identity
that the children acquire as they grow up and are socialized by their family,
by their immediate surroundings, the extended family if they have one, later kindergarten, school, the other children on the street,
society at large, and nowadays increasingly by the electronic media
of communication of various sorts. The child develops a sense of self. Each child looks in the mirror
and at some point says: “Ah, that is little Annie,”
or little Susie, or little Tommy. They know that they recognize themselves, and they acquire a sense of who they are. But it’s much later
that personal sense of belonging – of belonging to mommy or daddy,
or grandma, or grandpa, or of living on a certain street,
or in a certain countryside – is extended to a larger group. And this happens sooner or later
depending on the circumstances. For my generation, as exile children, when we first encountered children
belonging to different nationalities, we developed what I have called
a reactive identity. When somebody points their finger at you and calls you a dirty foreigner,
or a dirty Polak, and you say: “Hey, I’m not a Polak, I’m a Latvian,” you realize who you are
whether you would like it or not. Sometimes you like it because they’re ready to play with you
and they’re quite friendly, and sometimes you do not, because they’re ready
to throw stones at you, run after you and try and beat you up. And you discover
that not all people are equal, and by much as among your own people,
you have some who, for instance, – in my case, going to a Latvian school
in a refugee camp in Germany – some are friendlier than others,
and so it is with foreigners. But when I befriended
a little Estonian girl who had a curious little knitted cap with a geometric pattern
and a sort of crown on top, – something like Anne Boleyn
if you can think of her portraits – but a knitted cap with geometric designs, I thought it was cute, and I asked her:
“How come you have such a cap, and I see all these
other Estonian girls have such caps?” I thought they were nice. She said: “Well, Estonians wear them.” And when I asked my mother
could I get a cap like that, my mother told me:
“Estonians wear them, Latvians do not.” It was as simple as that,
and much as I liked the cap, I was told: “No, you’re not an Estonian, that is for Estonian girls,
Latvian girls do not wear them.” Later, in spreading
across the different continents for refugee camps were closed in Germany, there were many almost tragic stories,
certainly sad ones, of little girls starting to go to school,
say, in Middle America, and being told by their mothers that decent little girls
when they go to school must have long braids with ribbons and dresses with white colours and cuffs. When they arrived in school,
they were shocked to see that everybody
was pointing fingers at them and they were absolutely different
from the other girls in school. When they told their mothers that’s not
how American girls are dressing, their mothers said: “But you are not
an American, you are a Latvian.” And the poor child
then had a choice to decide whether to remain different
and obey mamma, and remain within the Latvian community, or to rebel as soon as
her age would allow it, turn her back on Latvian society
and Latvian identity, and forget about it
as quickly as she could. What I spent my life doing was trying to convince
young people of Latvian origin, starting with my own children, but also convincing myself
as I myself grew up – since I did grow up abroad
and not in my native country – that there was a third form of identity
which was a freely chosen one. And that is the one where you realize
that belonging to a certain group – be it an ethnic group,
a cultural heritage, a linguistic group – you may define it in different ways,
but that what it does it opens doors to you
that would otherwise be closed. That learning the Latvian language – practically you might say,
spoken by so few people across the world, you’d be better off
learning Chinese, no doubt – but for your identity
and for your sense of well-being, for your roots being accessible to you, for that sense of belonging
that comes from belonging to a community in which you have birthrights,
– you belong to them by birthright – that is something
that cannot be replaced by something else. You can become a new Canadian, an American naturalized citizen, you can travel to many lands
and make a good living, and marry a local person, and fit in. And I have met many,
many Latvians who said: “I married an American girl,
I fell in love with her, but she did not like my going
with other Latvians to various Latvian events, she wanted me to turn my back
on them, and I thought to myself, ‘But she’s turning her back
on my identity. She’s turning her back on who I am’.” But who I am is not so easily defined. One of the things that, I think,
defines who I am in that ethnic sense is, of course, that cultural heritage to which knowledge of language,
knowledge of history, in our case, knowledge of folklore – since that is a good part
of our heritage – those are the riches
that are available to those who open that door
of belonging to the Latvian nation quite freely and without having
to make that forced choice. Being different from the others,
one can blend in very easily. When you’re a Latvian, in the great many countries
you can blend in very nicely, nobody will ever know by looking at you that you are a Latvian
or of Latvian origin. But you can keep – and this is what I tried to convince the youngsters from various countries
that I came in contact with – you can keep as it were
your secret garden: that Latvian identity that is your own. And that, of course,
we would be more than happy to share with the rest of the world, if somehow we could help them
to overcome the language barrier and they could get to know
about what it has to offer. In my own case, I have done that as well. I have done my own
small efforts, if you like, in terms of writing
scholarly articles and books about the Latvian heritage,
about the Latvian identity, and particularly about
what in our Latvian folk songs makes them so extraordinary, so special, and so worth getting acquainted with,
and so worth analyzing, and entering into that international
non-material heritage which UNESCO now for several years
has been recognizing. For those of you who are in Latvia
for the next few weeks, I quite recommend going
to the Latvian Song Festival, watching it on television,
seeing it on video. What we see in the Latvian Song Festival is something that embodies
the tradition of singing which had been
a pillar of Latvian identity for a great many centuries, before Latvia ever became a nation. In the 19th century, when Latvians were still largely
an oppressed class of society, they started singing in choirs. When the choirs got together regionally
and organized song festivals, they came to realize that one daughter was born in Riga
and another was born in Valmiera, but they were singing the same song, and they asked themselves the question
that one of the folk songs asks: “Are they daughters of the same mother?” And yes, they are daughters
of the same mother who is the Latvian nation. The singing and the coming together
was one element that allowed them to become conscious
of this Latvian identity. It allowed them
to become conscious of the riches that that identity offered them quite apart from the condescension, and, in fact, the denigration
that they had frequently suffered at the hands of those who had occupied
the upper levels of society in the various occupying forces
over the centuries. The Latvians recovered
their sense of pride in themselves, not just their sense of an awareness
of themselves as a nation. And through that awareness, they realized that they as a nation have the rights that belong to nations worldwide. And in many ways
this coming together and singing led to the thought
of Latvian independence, the creation of an independent
Latvian nation, and the tradition that managed to survive
through various foreign occupations, through various imposed ideologies, that managed to survive in Australia,
America, in Europe elsewhere, behind the Iron Curtain,
on the other side, the tradition helped us to maintain our sense of roots, our link with a past, the sense of inheritance and entitlement that being Latvian meant to us. And this sense of entitlement,
of course, makes us also fully European. This is why as a president
I worked so hard to ensure that Latvia became a member
of the European Union. This is why since leaving office
as president I have been such an ardent promoter
of European unity. But I must say that in addition to that, I find that from my experience
as president of a nation that I have acquired insights
that are welcome elsewhere in the world, and I’m part of at least 3 different clubs
and of great many organizations that have an international remit, that worry about the condition of women, that worry about transitions
to democracy in various countries, and I find myself now
with my Latvian identity laboring in the Lord’s vineyards which are really those
of a citizen of the world. So that having returned
like Ulysses to the land of my birth, having been able to truly express
my Latvian identity in a way that being born here
should’ve predestined me for, I find myself also becoming
a very ardent European, but, most of all, I find
that all these experiences, those of my nation,
those of myself as an individual, those of my compatriots who suffered
by being deported or otherwise repressed, all those sufferings, that other nations both in Europe
and elsewhere have gone through, have contributed in each case to developing our own sense of humanity. And I would leave you with this thought that be your identity what it may, it must start with a sense
of your intrinsic value as a person, as a human being, as a citizen of the world, as a member of the human race. It is this belonging, this sense
of brotherhood or sisterhood with people who may look
entirely different from you, who have different values at times, certainly different experiences, but who after all have the same life path
that any human being has. From birth through development, growth, a career, experiences,
joys and sufferings, and then, of course, we leave
the stage as Shakespeare says, having been but actors on the stage. I wish you all to spend your life looking for that solid ground
under your feet, which is what your identity gives you. And remember, you don’t have
just one of them, you have many, and constantly, in the course
of your life, you keep having choices. You can construct who you are
and who you want to be. Godspeed to you all. (Applause)

16 thoughts on “The Latvian Identity: Vaira Vike Freiberga at TEDxRiga

  1. Poor old Vaira is twisting facts as usual. Latvia was incorporated into the USSR and not occupied! Like it or not, but it was Karlis Ulmanis and a pro-Soviet Latvian parliament who allowed this "occupation" to happen. You also cannot deny the fact that so many Latvians were actually happy to try communism-socialism. The unemployment rate in 1939 for about 40% so it explains why so many people were disappointed with capitalism and wanted a change.

  2. The funniest thing about Vaira is that her parents happily lived in Latvia under Nazi occupation but as soon as Soviets started to win the war her family moved to the Nazi Germany refugee camp in a hope that Germany would eventually win the war. Unlucky for her the Nazis lost so she had to move to the WEST. To me it is quite obvious that her parents were Nazi supporters and perhaps even participated in Nazi crimes.
    Quite interesting conclusion.
    Maybe how about the fact that they all understood that Soviets will win, so they left, not wanting to live under Soviets??
    It's a known fact that what nazis did to Jews in Latvia was a terrible crime, but what is also known that Latvians had it much easier under Nazi, than Soviet occupation. Maybe it was due to Latvian dislike for Russians, so nazis left us alone mostly (unless you were resistance and/or communist, or eligible for war), but anyways facts are facts. 

    If Russia invaded Latvia today, I would also leave, not because I am a supporter of anything, and not even because of patriotism. I would leave because I don't value Russian politics, way of thinking, proletariat-culture etc. at all. I'm not against Russia, in an ideal world there should be no border between Latvia and Russia, you should be able to go visa free from Vladivostok to Lisbon, live and work where you want and fuck who you want, go on gay prides etc. whichever way you like, but unfortunately it's not possible with today's Russia where among other things president's protegee is a Chechen ape who tortures people and embodies the worst aspects of gopnik culture….

    I have a dislike for K. Ulmanis too, however you can't really compare him with Stalin who directly or indirectly killed tens of millions… And regarding the fact that people were not rich in Latvia before Ulmanis or Soviets… Where were they rich exactly at that time? There was also a thing called Great Depression, perhaps you have heard about it? Were people rich even in Germany at that time with war reparations and inflation?? Or other West European countries?

    ''Rich'' is a relatively recent terms when we speak about the masses. United States perhaps reached relatively good level already before 1929 Depression, in other countries you can't really talk about that until well into 60s- beginning of 70s….

  3. She is lying – no one elected here. She is not Latvian. NATO, USA did elect here, not the country or people. there was no Soviet occupation. World is f***g crazy these days. Pathetic person, Lier, Fachist supporter.

  4. Dr. Vike Freiberga is a class act. My experience as a Lithuanian Canadian resonates very much with what she says. Thank you Dr. Freiberga for thinking through the complex issue of identity and in so doing helping us to do so as well.

  5. Latvian identity?! Nopietni, Vairas kundze?! About what identity she is talkinf about, if because of her actions a lot of families was divided, because men left for Europe to support family, a lot of families moved to Europe, to not live in poverty, and children, who were born abroad will NOT speak latvian, and they will not have grandparents, because they were left here, in Latvia. She is wery vitty, it was so simple to leave and came back for her family. The song festival she is talking about- a lot of people CAN NOT AFFORD going to, even if they want to, because people live in poverty!!!

  6. She has got very strong accent. It is very weird as she used to live in canada for whole her life! I presume she did not speak much while she was living there.

  7. Prieks par Vairu, gribētos redzēt vairāk tādu spēcīgu un izglītotu politiķu Latvijā. Interesanti, ka Vairas virzienā tiek vērsta liela daļa kritikas, tas man šķiet ļoti dīvaini, it kā viņa viena būtu atbildīga par to kādā stāvoklī ir/bija valsts, aizmirstot faktu, ka prezidentam Latvijā varas ziņā ir vairāk reprezentatīva funkcija nevis tieša likomdošanas izstrādes un pieņemšanas vara.

    Nabadzība, savukārt, ir atsevišķs un ļoti sarežģīts temats, lai cilvēku vilktu ārā no nabadzības nepieciešams celt izglītības līmeni, savukār, lai cilvēki varētu pilnvērtīgi mācīties, nepieciešama psiholoģiskā palīdzība gan individuāli, gan ģimenēm, mēs būtu spējīgas atbalstīt sevi un citus, un daudziem ir nepieciešams pārkvalificēties, lai darītu jaunus darbus.

    Man šķiet, mēs pārāk daudz esam pieraduši vainot citus – gan tos, kas nodzērušies, gan tos, kuri ir pie varas, gan tos, kuri aizbrauc. Respektīvi, ja man ir darbs, tad dzērājs pats vainīgs, ka dzer, ja es dzeru, tad valdība vainīga. Bet patiesībā visas pārmaiņas sākas ar abpusēju cieņu, gan pret dzērāju, gan pret aizbraucēju, un ideālā variantā arī pret politiķiem…

  8. My grandparents were from Latvia. My grandmother was from Riga. Her accent sounds sooooooo much like my grandmother. I miss her…….

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