Silvija's StoryStrength of Family

It was a cruel irony, standing in the streets of Vecrīga...

...looking up at the Brivibas Piemineklis, the Freedom Monument. There was little about Latvia which was free. I was amazed that the Communists even allowed the statue to remain standing. I found out soon enough it was because schoolchildren were taught it was erected by a Latvian People thankful to their Soviet "liberators" for toppling the "fascist" regime of Karlis Ulmanis. The Latvians, who knew better, understood the true meaning of the statue—and looked at it as hope for the future.

In the summer of 1977 I never thought I would see Latvia independent in my lifetime. Thankfully, I was wrong. However, experiencing Latvia for the first time during the Soviet era—at the naive, yet at the same time know-it-all, age of 16—was an experience I'll never forget!

Although I grew up in a Latvian household and always thought of myself as Latvian first, American second, nothing changes the fact that I did indeed grow up spoiled by the freedoms of my parents' adopted country. Being told so many rules to which I had to abide my first time in Latvia was appalling; it was inconceivable to me that I shouldn't play Dievs Svētī Latviju! on the first piano I found for fear of whatever "ears" might be listening. Being told my hotel room (in which I had no choice but to stay, by the way, as you were not allowed to stay with relatives) was bugged (and I mean in addition to the little cucarachas scurrying around the room) absolutely blew my mind.

What a shame that the Soviets were so unimaginative with their technology—the silly radio to which I never listened because I couldn't understand Russian, had two plugs coming from it! So every day I unplugged it, and every day when I returned to my room, it was magically plugged back in again. I even had a rather bovine looking woman in a Soviet uniform come to my room to “check my radio.” I told her I had no idea if it worked since I spoke Latvian, not Russian, and didn’t listen to it. Nevertheless, she plugged it back in with a flourish and said I should leave it plugged in. Yeah right.

In some ways it was just one little victory I felt I could win at that time, since there were so few of them. Even visiting my great uncle in Jelgava required that my grandmother and I fill out mountains of paperwork—and then pay through the nose for a Soviet driver who not only took us there and back, but sat guard in front of the house the whole time we visited.

To list all of the examples of what I considered abominations of Soviet oppression just during a two week visit would fill volumes. We all have stories of the worst oppression: deportation to Siberia. But, perhaps even worse was the pervasive oppression woven into the fabric of everyday life. The immediacy of hopelessness in the face of these circumstances was inescapable—I sincerely believed I would never see Latvian independence in my lifetime.

With all of that said, I'll move on to what are actually the strongest, and most lasting, impressions of that first visit. These feelings had nothing to do with sadness, hopelessness, or oppression. Rather, the complete opposite. I learned first hand about a strong, proud, independent-minded people who knew how to survive no matter what, and for whom there was nothing more important than family.

New York, 1999

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