The Testimony of Lives: Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia

The Testimony of Lives: Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia

The Testimony of Lives: Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia

The Testimony of Lives: Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia


In 1944, Vieda Skultans left Latvia as a six month-old refugee. In 1990, she returned for the first time. This remarkable book is both a personal account of a homecoming, and an anthropology of a nation trying to come to terms with its past and facing an uncertain future. Based on more than one hundred interviews carried out in the wake of Latvian independence, it gives voice to the stories that could not be told under Soviet rule - stories of dispossession and exile, and of ambiguous returns. At the same time it unpicks the process of memory itself, showing how personal memory is shaped by the traditional narratives of national history and culture.


I have been asked how I came to write a book about Latvian narrative. My answer, in the spirit of all true narratives, links necessity with coincidence. I am Latvian by birth. This and my being an anthropologist made Latvia a natural fieldwork destination.

The unfreezing of the Soviet Union from 1989 made anthropological work there a real possibility. Although the Baltic states do not form part of the traditional heartland of the anthropologist, they have about them an air of remoteness and the unknown. (They were the last in Europe to be Christianized.) the relative inaccessibility of Soviet Latvia for some fortyfive years imbued its opening up with great feeling and romance. I first visited Latvia in 1990. It was a time when many other exiled Latvians were returning, trying to find a link between memories and perceived realities. At each of my visits the tiny airport in Riga was full of people clutching bunches of red carnations or roses and crying. Old people met who had last seen each other as children or adolescents. Some touched each other’s faces enquiringly as though sight alone could not give them the evidence they were seeking. the airport officials had already become inured to such emotional outbursts: loudspeakers announced five more minutes of crying time.

The nature of my re-encounter with Latvia was no less emotional than theirs but of a different kind. As an infant in arms I had no personal memories of Latvia. More potent perhaps were my childhood readings of Latvian folk songs and literature. These evoked for me a timeless and pantheistic world, far removed from the reality of life in north London. My image of Latvia was literary, built of books and readings. in so far as I was brought up on school books published in the 1920s and 1930s I belonged to a textual community who were a generation older than me. Indeed, many of my closest contacts were with older women.

My research project began as an anthropological study of neurasthenia. the professional isolation of Latvian psychiatrists had meant that their diagnostic practice was closer to the nineteenth century than to contemporary western practices. Neurasthenia or nervous exhaustion was and remains a much used diagnosis in Latvia. I planned my project in terms of the conventional academic concerns of medical anthropology. I wanted to investigate the meanings of neurasthenia for doctors and their patients; to look at how the diagnosis might be used to deflect personal and social

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