Latvia, a small, intensely beautiful country, lies on the shores of the Baltic Sea, across from Sweden. It has been forcibly occupied by foreign powers through most of its history. Germany began its conquest of Latvia in the twelfth century, using brutal measures to reduce the population to serfdom and to impose a harsh and masculine Christianity on Latvians, who lived in harmony with nature, worshipped the sun as well as a number of powerful female deities, and respected the importance of women in their folksongs, dainas, and in daily life. Greedy for its fertile lands, clear rivers, and deep natural harbors which give access to the Baltic Sea and hence to the West, Sweden, Poland, and Russia have repeatedly occupied Latvia. The last occupation by Russia, a result of the secret pact between Hitler and Stalin, took place in 1940; briefly interrupted by Nazi occupation during World War II, Russian occupation has lasted over fifty years.
This foreign rule is only now in the process of being ended. As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvia has finally been recognized as an independent country by the community of nations, including somewhat belatedly the United States, and it has been admitted to the United Nations. But Latvia will be truly free only when the vast Soviet military forces are withdrawn from its borders.
Russian occupation has left behind deep psychological scars, complete economic chaos, and great ecological damage caused by forced collectivization and urbanization. The water in Riga is unsafe to drink, the white sands of the Baltic seashore are dangerous to lie on, and orchards, hills, and trees in Kurzeme have been levelled in a process ironically called "meliorization." Even harsher Soviet policies directed against people - deportation and forcible relocation of Latvians to Siberia, as well as economic incentives and preferential treatment to immigrants from Russia and elsewhere - account for the fact that only 52% of the inhabitants of Latvia are now Latvians.
Nevertheless, in spite of almost continuous oppression - that is, Latvia was an independent country only from 1920 to 1940 - Latvians have maintained their own language, culture, and sense of identity. During the brief period of independence, Latvia and the other two Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania had one of the highest literacy rates in the world and enjoyed the highest standard of living in Europe. Unlike some other republics newly independent from the Soviet Union, Latvia has a tradition of democracy, an identification with Europe and the West, and a commitment to education for women. Reconciling the preservation of Latvian language and culture with constitutionally guaranteed rights for minorities is a current challenge: the democratically elected government is now debating language and residency requirements for citizenship for Russians and others.
I was six when I left Latvia on one of the last ships sailing for Germany in 1944. Escape to other countries was by then impossible, and remaining would have meant staying in the cross-fire between Russian and German armies, or deportation to Siberia. My parents had narrowly escaped being deported along with 30,000 other Latvians in 1940, the Year of Terror, and others in my family were not so lucky. It has been estimated that 20% of the people of Latvia were killed, imprisoned, deported, and exiled by Nazis and Communists both, during and after World War II.
For forty-seven years I mourned Latvia and relived my separation from it in dreams, depression, and a perpetual sense of alienation. I missed my house, I missed the landscape with its fragrance of birches and pines and wild strawberries, I missed the friends and family whom I would never see again. Most of all I missed speaking in my own language and living in a culture in which I could have a sense of familiarity and control. I moved further away from Latvian concerns than most exiles by marrying an American, living in a small town in the Midwest without a Latvian community, and concentrating on mastering a foreign language in order to teach it, so that both my leisure and professional reading had to do with English and American literature rather than Latvia and Latvians. …