Historical Dictionary of Latvia

By Purs, Aldis | Canadian Slavonic Papers, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Historical Dictionary of Latvia


Purs, Aldis, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Andrejs Plakans. Historical Dictionary of Latvia. European Historical Dictionaries, No. 19. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1997. xxvi, 192 pp. Map. Bibliography. $34.50, cloth.

An historical dictionary is a curious source. It does not approach the exhaustive nature of an encyclopaedia; rather, it acts as a kind of primer for the historical importance and relevance of carefully selected, yet representative and thorough, entries on various historical subjects. Its uses are twofold; the initiate has a reference for a field opening before him or her and the specialist has an accepted basic meaning for terms and events in future academic dialogue. Andrejs Plakans's A Historical Dictionary of Latvia, part of the Scarecrow Press series of European historical dictionaries, is an uneven attempt at meeting these dual purposes. Plakans succeeds and fails both the initiate and the specialist.

Plakans begins with an exhaustive timeline that covers the period AD 800 to June 1996. He also provides a general introduction to the region's geography, culture, language and history. Plakans draws particular attention to the conflicting versions of Latvia's history presented by Baltic German, Soviet Latvian and nationalist Latvian schools of thought. He is regrettably quite correct in stating that "there does not exist an integrated history of Latvia within which these differing viewpoints are dispassionately incorporated." He also adds a caveat to his own work, stating that the entries "have been chosen with this diversity in mind, but they cannot pretend to completeness."

Ultimately, all historical dictionaries are judged on their scope and detail. Plakans' scope is admirable, as he attempts to combine biographical, geographical and chronological entries with thematic ones. Plakans defines the historical meaning of more abstract terms such as "literacy," "literature," "serfdom," and "education" with the more standard entries for great men (only seven women receive individual entries and there are no thematic entries that deal with gender), organizations, and events. A fundamental weakness of the dictionary is who and what is not included. Plakans tends to concentrate on contemporary affairs, a tendency easily explained by the momentous events of the past fifteen years. This focus, however, denigrates the importance of the past and threatens the book with a short shelf life. His attention to the politics surrounding the sixth Saeima (parliament), for example, makes many of his contemporary entries dated. Likewise, his coverage of the political leaders of the past is limited. For example, Plakans includes an entry for every Prime Minister of the post-Soviet era, but does not include every Prime Minister from the 1920s and 1930s. Likewise, the cultural figures that he includes are primarily from the generation of artists that reached their maturity during the Soviet period. …

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