Defining Latvia. Recent Explorations in History, Culture, and Politics

Loader, Michael; Hearne, Siobhán; Kott, Matthew
Budapest 2022: CEU Press
Anzahl Seiten
269 S.
€ 71,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
James Montgomery Baxenfield, School of Humanities, Tallinn University

This book emerges from a conference – “Latvia at Crossroads: The Centenary of the Latvian State” – held at Uppsala University in October 2018 to explore new international research about Latvia. Rather than being the central focus of the conference, the centenary of Latvian statehood was utilised as an incentive to look at Latvian history more broadly, with the diversity of papers presented being well represented in this volume. Edited by Michael Loader (University of Glasgow), Siobhán Hearne (Durham University), and Matthew Kott (Uppsala University), it is composed of nine research chapters, in addition to a foreword by Ivars Ījabs, and an introduction by Hearne entitled “Latvia and Latvian Identity in Historical Perspective”. The chapters are presented chronologically, which Hearne divides into three parts in the introduction: 1) the late nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War; 2) Soviet Latvia; and 3) post-Soviet Latvia to the present day. However, the book’s structure does not sign-post these divisions, and there may be better ways to divide or group the content, either by period or theme.

The first chapter, “Mapping Latwija: Matīss Siliņš and Latvian Cartographic Publishing in the 1890s” by Catherine Gibson, is the only one that deals with the nineteenth century. It examines the activities of mapmaker Siliņš (1861–1942) and his efforts to delineate a linguistically and culturally Latvian space nested within the Russian Empire. Gibson locates Siliņš’s endeavours within the broader dynamics of European mapmaking during the period, presenting surprising insights into consumerism during the final decades of imperial Russia. In the second chapter, “The Sokolowski Affair: Testing the Limits of Cultural Autonomy in Interwar Latvia”, Christina Douglas and Per Bolin examine the intersection of minority rights and higher education through the “considerable frictions within the cultural sphere when the new Latvian elite struggled to replace the former Baltic German elite” (p. 67). The subsequent chapter by Paula Oppermann, “More Than a Means to an End: Pērkonkrust’s Antisemitism and Attacks on Democracy, 1932–1934”, remains with the theme of minorities while addressing the topic of antisemitism in interwar Latvia, focusing on the activities and ideology of the Pērkonkrusts (Thunder Cross) movement in the years prior to the 1934 coup d’état of Kārlis Ulmanis (1877–1942). Harry C. Merritt is the only contributor to cover the Second World War. In his chapter, “My Home and My Family are Now Our Regiment: National Belonging and Familial Feelings in Latvian Units during World War II”, he draws from a broad corpus of primary sources to delineate the experiences and relationships that developed between Latvian soldiers in both the Nazi and Soviet armies.

Soviet Latvia appears to receive the most attention. Daina Bleiere probes the coherency of Soviet economic planning in “The Economic Program of the Latvian National Communists – Myth or Reality?”. Exploring centre-periphery relations with Moscow, Bleiere offers nuanced insights into how economic policies have been simultaneously exaggerated and downplayed to achieve specific ends. Loader’s chapter “Latvia Goes Rouge: Language Politics and Khrushchev’s 1958 Soviet Education Reform” also contends with national communists and centre-periphery relations, though in the realm of education; detailing how a coalition of Latvian conservatives and national communists sought to resist the controversial 1958 Soviet education system reform of Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971). Ekaterina Vikulina rounds out the Soviet period with “Latvian Photography of the 1960s between Art and Censorship”, which explores Soviet policy shifts in the sphere of art through the lens of photography.

The last two articles in the volume concern Latvia in the present day, and more specifically the politics of the far right. In “Onwards and Upwards: Mainstreaming Radical Right Populism in Contemporary Latvia”, Daunis Auers examines the development and electoral success of radical right populist parties in Latvia, utilising the concept of mainstreaming to explain how they have become engrained in the political landscape. Finally, Kott concludes the volume with “Gaming the System: Far Right Entryism in Post-Soviet Latvian Politics”, examining two cases of more mainstream Latvian political parties being infiltrated and overtaken by extreme right movements. In their examinations of far-right politics in Latvia from the 1980s until the present day, both Auers and Kott touch upon various topics covered in previous chapters. Whether by design or happenstance, in lieu of a conclusion, these final two chapters succinctly illustrate the trajectories and contemporary relevance of the various themes explored throughout the volume.

Temporal jumps result in some periods having less coverage than others, though this is to be expected from a project that seeks to address issues and phenomena that have so far received less attention, and the work does not suffer from this episodic characteristic. Though not intended to be a complete history, readers will nevertheless find a well-rounded overview of Latvian history. The Soviet period, covered by three chapters while other periods receive only one or two, receives the most attention. Also, at 37 pages, Loader’s contribution is significantly longer than the other chapters. While there is no collated bibliography, sources are provided in footnotes, the examination of which reveals the incorporation of a broad array throughout the chapters. Occasionally, however, peripheral matters lack precise references. For example, in Bleiere’s chapter, an account of Pļaviņas Hydroelectrical Power Plant (p. 144) provides no references other than mentioning an article in Literatūra un Māksla (Literature and Art) written by Vera Kacena (1912–1992). A glossary indicates the utilisation of sources from archives in Latvia, Russia, Germany, Estonia, and the United States. Similarly, secondary literature is predominantly in English, Latvian, German, and Russian. A rather impressive index provides an extensive list of people, places, and phenomena, greatly facilitating navigation of the book.

In her introduction, Hearne remarks that “Latvia as a concept and Latvian as an identity do not have a singular definition”, indicating that the “chapters in this volume broadly examine shifting definitions of Latvia and Latvian identity” (p. 17). In a broad and subtle sense this is perceivable throughout the volume, though the question of “Latvianness” becomes less as the chapters progress. In the same vein, Ījabs points out in the foreword that contributors examine periods and problems less frequently covered, and in doing so “they put the grand concepts of statehood, the nation-state, and state foundation in a slightly different light, showing the historical complexities behind them” (p. 12). However, many of the chapters do not engage with these grand narratives but rather represent isolated studies. Vikulina’s contribution, for example, is rather about the characteristics of Soviet photographic censorship during Khrushchev’s Thaw, in which she incorporates Latvia as a case study. Nevertheless, all chapters are engaging, offering insightful and intriguing explorations of various topics. Hopefully, the volume is representative of upcoming variety in future research topics. As Hearne remarks: “Rather than the definitive word [...], the unique explorations presented within this volume are intended to act as an invitation for future studies.” (p. 37)