Insights from Latvia
I recently visited Latvia. It’s a very interesting country. I learned a lot.
About national identity:
As a country, Latvia has existed for only about twenty years. Prior to that it was either part of Lithuania, part of Poland, Sweden, Germany or Russia. So I wondered how Latvia got its national consciousness? What kept the old tribes that comprised Latvians to feel “Latvian”?
I’ve had the same question about Macedonia. The Greeks claim Macedonia is Greek. The Serbs claim it is Southern Serbia. And the Bulgarians claim that Macedonia is Western Bulgaria. So who are the Macedonians, really?
My insight is that Macedonian food, songs, and lore are not Greek, not Serb, and not Bulgarian. They are what distinguish Macedonia from its neighbors.
What about Latvia? Similar story. While the food is not different from Lithuanian and the language is quite similar to Lithuanian, the folk-dress and songs are Latvian and not similar to any of their neighbors.
I have found the same phenomenon in Mexico. Some years ago, I came across a village way up in the mountains where people spoke the medieval Spanish I speak, Ladino. The people there do not eat pork and celebrate all the Jewish religious holidays but with different names. The people there are Catholics.
Who are they?
They are the descendants of the Jewish people who escaped the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteen century, and in order to survive they changed their religion from Jewish to Catholic but continued to practice Judaism in hiding. Over the years, out of fear of being prosecuted, the knowledge that they were originally Jewish was not transmitted to subsequent generations, and over time they believed themselves to be Catholic even though they kept the Jewish food, songs, and holidays intact.
Apparently, cultural identity is passed from one generation to the next through foods eaten, songs sung, the unique holidays celebrated, and the folk-dress one wears.
On National Loyalty:
Twenty-eight percent of Latvians are ethnic Russians. I am told that there was never a disturbing historic conflict with them, the ethnic Russians have never caused any trouble. Their loyalty was to Latvia. Compare that to Ukraine. In Eastern Ukraine, the ethnic Russians feel like Russians and when Ukraine turned toward the EU, they revolted. Their loyalty was apparently to Russia.
There is the same loyalty issue in Macedonia. The Albanian minority there feels Albanian with Macedonian citizenship. They do not feel Macedonian. Many of them even refuse to speak Macedonian.
What made the difference, I wondered? Why does the Latvian minority behave different from minorities in other countries?
The ethnic Russians in Latvia are descendants of the Russians who refused to accept the reforms of the modern Russian Orthodox Church. They revolted 300 years ago and refused to change. They are called the “Old Believers”. They were severely persecuted and escaped into Latvia where they settled. They were like the persecuted Calvinists who escaped England and settled in America; they have felt American ever since.
A persecuted minority in its country of origin will be peaceful in its host country. However, a minority which is part of an adjacent majority will not behave as if they are minority, but as an “exiled minority” and maintain loyalty to their origin.
I wonder what does it mean for the wave of immigrants now in Europe.
Unity by force does not work:
Latvians have many bad memories about Russia. During Stalin’s era, the secret police would go into houses and arrest people (with no cause) and ship them to Siberia. It was Stalin’s strategy to move ethnic groups around in order to break national identities.
Stalin wanted to create a Slavic Empire, with all Slavs—Russians, Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Poles, Czechs, etc., united into one big Slav Empire. This goal was implemented by force; moving people geographically, mixing the nationalities by force.
Force works in the short run but not in the long run. Power can cause integration because it uses fear, but it has long-term collateral damage: It is a disintegrating force. Note Yugoslavia – few years after Tito who kept the unity by force, died, the country erupted into ethnic fighting.
I suggest that we need to recognize that integration is not the same as fusion.
Dictators were trying to create a fusion of the cultures; to create a new nation where the ethnic differences disappear. Integration, as opposed to fusion, allows for differentiation. We can be different and still live together. Integration is the right tool for manifesting this. It’s important to recognize diversity as a good thing and find ways to integrate the different ethic groups with Mutual Trust and Respect.
MT&R, in contrast to integration by force and fear, is actually less effective and less efficient. It is a process created and nurtured over the long term. But it sustains the unity of the system. Power and fear have better short-term effectiveness, but the results are not sustainable in the long run.
What creates long-term integration is the recognition of the rights of every ethnic group to practice its religion and to follow its cultural imperatives freely. Diversity should be allowed and even nurtured. That is how the Ottoman Empire survived for five hundred years.
MT&R is what makes America “America”! Allowing diversity, allowing religious freedom and cultural practices such as Irish pride parades, and Jewish Hanukkah symbols alongside Christian Christmas trees during Christmas.
Are we losing in America with all this talk that it is a Christian nation? Is that really what we want?
Ichak Kalderon Adizes