My grandfather is the picture of a 90 year old soviet man. Injured by shrapnel from a grenade in the great patriotic war, yet he still jogs a few miles every morning. He lived through World War 2, the new economic policy, Stalin, the fall of the wall, and all the rest.
I had the chance to visit Riga, the city he lived in for all those years, along with my mom on her first trip back to Latvia since fleeing to the US as a refugee in the 70s. I would be able to understand my own roots, recounted to me through the history and stories of family I have never known . Seeing through their eyes, I would also be able to experience the contrast between communist and European Latvia. But to contrast the staunch Reaganite-conservative politics that they share with so many others refugees like them in the US with those from a much different type of conservative in Europe, would be a real treat in seeing where the future might lead.
“Life was good under Stalin”, says a 73 year old student of my grandfathers at a small gathering in his honor at an Armenian restaurant.
Immediately trying to stifle the conversation, grandfather raises a toast of vodka “to the next generation. For them to surpass ours in every way.”
But my mother, appalled, took the bait. “You lived in fear, never knowing if you or your neighbor would be disappeared. What good life?”
His solemn reply, simply that “We had food and housing. It wasn’t so bad.”
Once a similar refrain in other parts of the former Soviet Union, the sentiment is now creeping into the Baltics. With the economy in shambles, young people have fled to neighboring Scandinavian countries and to England and Ireland for an education, if not to migrate altogether. My conversations with some ofthe small percentage of young people I saw revolved around job prospects and opportunities. It’s not often that they see an American after all.
America, source of crisis. America, too preoccupied with a president who hasn’t “changed” anything. American wars that are only defending bad economics, labeled “democracy”. Study there? Why, when Europe is the future.
What happened to “the land of opportunity”? Kids are more filled with pessimistic anecdotes than arguing with facts: Why Ireland? Everyone else is there. What’s happening to the Euro? Not sure.
At this point, with media discussing the dissolution of the Euro entirely, one might expect that kids might have longer term vision.
When asking my mom about the conditions in her life that helped add up to her own decision to flee, they were only in part economic. Grandpa gloats that they were in fact “rich.” Under soviet standards, they certainly were. Their own multi-room apartment and a car? Unheard of. What more could they ask for? On a meager teacher’s salary, his real key to success was private lessons. Particularly for the students whose well-connected parents had something to offer in return. Then why the decision to leave?
Continuing to tour through Riga, we found our way to the bazaar. Weaving through the shopping babushkas, we tasted pumpernickel embedded cheeses, meats with cheeses embedded, and kefir straight from the farm. Mom, always the bargain shopper, did a quick calculation between lats and dollars, kilos and pounds, to find prices to be the same as those in the States. Strawberries in the market in May? Shipped from Spain. Only a bit more expensive than New York.
Soviet Latvia didn’t have lines. They didn’t have Spanish strawberries either, but rather bananas from Cuba. In her eyes, there wasn’t much visual change but things were somehow less recognizable. Prices were still unaffordable for most people, but now the city has more shops with more options. An illusion of abundance.
On my brother’s birthday we went to the house from where he started kicking before being rushed to the hospital, passing the BMWs and Mercedes in the streets. Sneaking into the old building proved fruitful when a neighbor offered to give us a tour of his apartment. Walking through the centuries old structure, my mom ogled the devastation that is his apartment. Despite being right in the center of town, it looked as though it hadn’t been at all maintained. Three families piled in to a place with century old plumbing. Three to an apartment was something she had known and wasn’t expecting to see again. Our guide also had a distinct smell to him – Rīgas melnais balzams (Rīga Black Balsam), a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur made with many different natural ingredients mixed in pure vodka, giving a 45% abv (90 proof) drink, Any regrets leaving for a hard 1st generation American life were swept away. She couldn’t help but laugh at the squalor behind the nice facades. It’s still a hidden city filled with secrets.
So why leave? Arguably that kind of squalor and collective living was learned and wasn’t typical for my family. Certainly there was anti-semitism. Meeting with a local Jewish organization, Shamir, I was told the extended history of Jews in the country. I even picked up a Jewish map (the online version does the paper no justice). For my mom, not one for history, I picked up the cookbook of traditional treats. I knew that the word “Еврей” (“Jew”) was listed in the nationality section of passports, under the infamous “Пятая графа” (“the fifth line”), but hadn’t known about the systematic burning of Synagogues. A tour of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991 a free museum dedicated to documenting the horrors of communist rule, takes this message even farther, announcing the Nazis as liberators from harsh Soviet rule. To me, this was an unexpected take. To my mother, not so much.
A big part of why she left was being lied to. The Soviets held a monopoly on information and did their best to obscure truth, casting a fog of rumors, coupled with outright violence, that curtailed efforts to organize for ones rights. Leaving helped to clarify many things and now, to her, the Horatio Algiers dream is still alive in the US. But to locals, much of the fog remains. The Museum of the Occupation in the center of downtown Riga was initially a monument of nationalist pride. Now the idea behind it is being questioned. “Were the Russians that bad,” asks my cousin. “Even with the recent plane crash of Polish politicians, the official party line is to blame the Russians for purposefully causing it. This is just lies.” It’s hard to ask the right questions when faced with that fog.
Hearing this, I realized that my grandfather succeeded because he always made his own truth, depending on whatever reality he believed himself to exist in. He was firm in his beliefs. He left 20 years after my mom, after the USSR dissolved. He became an English-speaking American citizen at 77. On a cushy pension, he gets by just fine in the reality of the US. But What if he had stayed? My mom says that he probably would have made it under that system also. And would probably have bought up half the city.