What Happened to Aspazija? in Search of Feminism in Latvia

Article excerpt

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 But Latvia will be truly free only when the vast Soviet military forces are withdrawn from its borders.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 sears, 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. Only feminism gave me a sense of connectedness.

Last year I returned to Latvia in order to give a paper at the International Congress of Latvian Research, and to lecture and conduct workshops at a conference for Latvian educators. I spoke about women's studies courses and programs in the United States, their relationship to the Women's Movement, the content of our Introduction to Women's Studies courses, and issues in teaching literature by women.

In preparation for this task I read, among others, Francine du Plessix Gray's Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope (1989), absorbing in its details but irritating because of its tendency to blame women for being more powerful than the system under which they live. I read prison memoirs by women, numerous enough to form a whole separate genre, most notably Irina Ratushinskaya's Grey is the Color of Hope (1988) and the Latvian writer, Helene Celmina's Soviet Women in Prisons (1985). I read dozens of articles.

Images of cold, torture, starvation, and hardship prepared me for parts of the trip. So did repeated warnings that I should not expect sympathy for women's issues as defined by American and European feminists. But I had to know whether feminism had flourished in Latvia in the past, whether it still lived there and, if so, in what forms. I turned to Aspazija for help.

Aspazija was one of Latvia's most important women. She was a revolutionary heroine, a committed feminist, a superb lyric poet, and a playwright who achieved great success in two very different types of drama: realistic social criticism as well as poetic symbolism. As Latvians sought to free themselves from political oppression by Czarist Russia and economic exploitation by Baltic German landowners, Aspazija's plays were crucial for an awakening democratic and nationalist consciousness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her work is personal and political, realistic and mythic. It remains powerfully compelling today because of its emotional integrity, lyric intensity, and rich symbolism.

In addition, Aspazija took courageous and very public positions on a number of feminist issues in her essays and articles and later in her speeches as a deputy to Saeima, the single-chamber parliament holding ultimate authority during most of Latvian independence. She called for greater educational opportunities for girls, equal pay and promotion for women, an eight hour work day for domestics, and benefits for unwed mothers. By attacking the double standard of sexual morality, forced marriages, and the restriction of women to the domestic sphere, she helped create an enlightened attitude among Latvians. She worked on other progressive causes, most notably land reform.

Aspazija's life would make a poignant novel. It also parallels the fate of Latvia, so that to me Aspazija came to be a symbol of Latvia itself.

Aspazija was the pseudonym for Elza Rozenbergs, born 1865, to Latvian parents of the landowning class. Her mother was beautiful, musical, and disappointed with her own life and marriage; her father was alcoholic, passive, and emotionally distant. Elza was a lonely, sensitive, ambitious girl; she longed for love and exceptional achievement, and she felt injustices keenly. Her mother stubbornly defied convention and family objections against education for girls and sent Elza to school.

Yet her ambitions reached only so far for her brilliant daughter. Further education was out of the question, and Elza was expected to leave school at 16, to marry and to devote herself to domesticity. Like Shakespeare's sister imagined by Virginia Woolf, Elza rebelled and ran away to Riga to work in the theater. Since she was accompanied by a young man, she was considered sullied and disgraced. She was arrested and forcibly brought back to her parents' house in the country. Against her wishes she was married off to a bricklayer, the son of a neighboring landowner. He shared none of her artistic or intellectual interests; she found him and the marriage repulsive. An alcoholic like her father, he squandered the family property. Before running away to America to avoid his creditors, he took her to Jelgava, locked her up in a room, and tried to sell her for 4000 rubles. She overheard his bargaining and escaped through a window.

Elza's parents were evicted from their farm, and she took a series of menial jobs to support her alcoholic father, despondent mother, and younger brothers and sister. She worked briefly as a governess, fell in love with unavailable men, suffered. She longed for education, yet she could not be admitted to the university because as a married woman she needed her husband's written permission, and she was probably too poor to attend anyway.

Later she used many of the injustices she endured as a young woman in her realistic plays dealing with the difficult situation of women. In Lost Rights (Zaudetas Tiesibas, 1894), Laima sacrifices her educational aspirations and her sexual integrity; in order to support her family, she gives in to the importuning of a cynical landlord, only to be condemned by conventional society and rejected by the man she loves. In The Unattained Goal (Neaizsniegtais Merkis, 1985), Velta is forced by her parents to put aside her intellectual pursuits, to decorate and show herself off yet guard her virginity, to marry a man unworthy of her; when she runs away, the police forcibly return her to her husband. In other stories and plays Aspazija addresses the impact of divorce, sexual harassment, rape, and battering on women; her analysis emphasizes that female victims rather than male perpetrators are unjustly blamed for such crimes. Yet her women are also passionate, sensual, and strong rather than asexual timid creatures.

In spite of the hardships of her early life, her triumphs as a writer came early. She took the pseudonym of Aspazija (Pericles' intellectual mistress), published poetry, and in 1888, at the age of twenty-three, she won a prize for her first play The Avenging Woman (Atriebeja). Subsequent plays, The Vestal (Vaidelote, 1893) and The Silver Veil (Sidraba Skidrauts, 1904), were staged to great popular and critical acclaim. The latter became a rallying point for nationalist feeling, and Aspazija, crowned with laurel wreaths, a symbol of the struggle for Latvian independence and democracy.

When she was twenty-nine, she met journalist Janis Rainis, who was to become Latvia's foremost poet. They fell in love, wrote passionate letters to each other, shared ideas about literature, and lived in the excitement of an awakening national consciousness, which they themselves were shaping and influencing. Almost as an afterthought they married in 1897. Photographs from this period show a beautiful, radiant, confident woman whose gaze is direct and unafraid. She was in full possession of her poetic powers; she loved a man who was as exceptional as she was. The story should have had a happy ending.

Aspazija devoted herself to building Rainis' self-confidence, nursing him through his periods of despair and self-pity, helping him to focus on drama and poetry instead of journalism, furthering his reputation. She believed that she was working for the good of Latvia by giving her energies to Rainis rather than to her own writing. Together they translated Goethe's Faust, although the first edition gave credit only to him. She not only edited his work, but she also wrote large parts of his most influential play Spidola and his most beloved one The Golden Steed (Zelta Zirgs).

In the early 1890's, Rainis had smuggled Marxist literature into Latvia. As editor of The Daily Leaf (Dienas Lapa) and as an active member of the New Current (Jauna Strava), a broad progressive movement of the intelligentsia, he was spreading ideas of socialism, internationalism, and women's rights throughout Latvia. Aspazija shared many of his ideas and activities, though she herself never became a Marxist. Saulcerite Viese, author of one of the very few full length studies of Aspazija, usefully characterizes Aspazija's politics by referring to Lenin's distinction in Socialism and Landownership (1905) between two social struggles, that is, "first is the struggle of the whole nation for freedom (including freedom for the bourgeois society), for democracy, and for national self-determination; second the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeois for a socialist communal order." Viese finds that "although the problems of `the chains of capitalism' and of the `oppressed millions' can be heard now and again in her works, Aspazija is primarily interested in issues of the first struggle. That is the essential difference between her and Rainis.... Aspazija's works are filled with protests against monarchy and despotism, they call for democracy and for freedom from physical and spiritual restraints." For a complete characterization of Aspazija's politics, one needs to add her strong critique of patriarchy and sexism. In 1897, when Rainis was arrested for his political activities, Aspazija visited him in prison and smuggled books and manuscripts for him. When he had to go into exile, first to Russia and then Switzerland, she endured privation and hardship with him. During the long years away from Latvia, from 1906-1920, Rainis experienced a period of great productivity and creativity, but Aspazija could not get used to exile. She cared for Rainis's comfort, did all the housework, helped him to write and to edit. She did not object when Rainis laid claim to the only lamp they owned.

She had believed that self-sacrifice to a male genius would be beautiful, even supremely inspiring. In Latvia, she had written to Rainis, "You see, I am your creation and with you I am a healthy, whole organism. The roots of my being are deep in your soul, and wherever our future life leads, be it east or west, I will follow you." But Feliks Cielens, who visited the couple in Switzerland in 1912, found Aspazija deeply depressed and withdrawn. She agreed with him that generally the first duty of the writer is to do his or her own work, but then explained, "My other great duty has grown greater and deeper than my own creativity. With my spirit I have to help the great spirit whom I discovered, nurtured, and supported, who even today needs my advice and help.... If Rainis can create so much in exile, it is because I am always with him to encourage, advise, and help. This work divides me, it weakens my creativity. But that is the way it is...I do not regret my sacrifice, because a spirit like Rainis comes to a nation only once in centuries."

Although Cielens praises Aspazija's sacrifice and records Rainis' statement that without her he would have remained a "journalist and a pitiful lawyer," such altruistic devotion exacted a cost. During the long years of exile, she wrote relatively little, suffered continual ill health, became addicted to Veronal, a barbiturate, and alcohol. But she remained passionately committed to her marriage to Rainis in spite of his public infidelities and private impotence. When they returned to Latvia in 1920, he was welcomed as a national hero. She was his embittered, aging, overweight wife; she was also a literary has-been, heartbreakingly different from the radiant young woman receiving laurel wreaths and ovations after a performance of The Silver Veil. Rainis increasingly turned his attention to public service in the new democratic republic while Aspazija suffered literary neglect and political ostracism. She attempted suicide twice.

Yet miraculously she recovered her creativity. She and Rainis finally decided to live apart, although they remained in close contact. She began to regain her health and energy, possibly because of what she learned from a woman physical therapist who stressed a regimen of baths, herbs, and fasting. Aspazija studied myths and ancient religions, which gave her new access to the power of her own unconscious. She continued to pursue her interest in reincarnation and mysticism. Between 1922-1943, roughly coinciding with the brief period of independence of Latvia, Aspazija had a second very productive period: she published eighteen volumes of poetry, plays, autobiography, and fiction. Among the plays is The Serpent's Bride (Zalsa Ligava), a beautifully rich symbolic statement of the powerful role of the unconscious in creativity, mystical spirituality, and immortality.

She also participated actively in Latvian politics: as a deputy to Saeime, she consistently spoke out for democratic, cultural, and feminist causes. She joined feminist organizations, and she worked on other progressive issues such as separation of church and state, land reform, and public funding for the arts. She repeatedly advocated greater educational opportunities for women.

She might still have enjoyed peace and triumph in the second half of her life, but personal and political events intervened once more. Rainis died unexpectedly in 1929, without having left a will, so his relatives claimed his resources. He left many debts at a time when the worsening world economic situation was beginning to be felt in Latvia. Creditors came and confiscated property jointly owned by Aspazija and Rainis, including books, manuscripts, and their serene seaside home in Majori. Aspazija was burdened with the disgrace of bankruptcy and an enormous debt, which she eventually paid off. Once more she had been failed by a man who should have cared for her, just as she had been failed by her alcoholic father and spend-thrift first husband.

Yet she could not give up the hope that a strong man would save her nevertheless. After being castigated for accepting honorary membership in the "bourgeois" National Women's League, and after prolonged controversy over her decision to publish sections of Rainis journals without censoring them, she was thrown out of the Socialist Democratic Party, Rainis' ideological home. She turned to dictator Karlis Ulmanis for help. When he seized power and suspended the Constitution in 1934, she congratulated him; in turn, he helped her straighten out financial matters. She was harshly criticized for her actions during this period.

When Latvia was occupied by Soviet armies in 1940 and Nazi armies in 1941, she struggled alone with isolation, ill health, deprivation, and cold. Towards the end only her former servant and now loyal friend Anna Stunda could get her to sleep when medicine and alcohol failed. Praising a cup of real coffee that friends had found for her, perhaps praising life itself with her last words, "How delicious it was!", this passionate woman and too often neglected writer died in 1943.

What remains of Aspazija in Latvia now, a little less than fifty years after her death, after more than fifty years of foreign occupation? I delighted in every clue I could find in Riga that she had existed. The street next to the National Opera is now Aspazija rather than Soviet Boulevard, a larger than life size bust still stands in the second floor lounge of the National Theater, where her plays were performed. Across a noisy street, in a small, out of the way public green, is a statue of Aspazija and Rainis. As in life, they stand shoulder to shoulder, but they look off into different directions. Laying down flowers at public monuments, placing each spray so that it becomes part of the design and emotion of the whole community is a national habit. The base of the Monument to Freedom and the stones marking the places where five Latvians were killed by the Black Berets, specially trained Soviet military troops, in January 1991, were covered with fresh flowers every day. There were flowers at Rainis' feet, but there were no flowers for Aspazija.

Nevertheless she is not forgotten and her spirit does live in Latvia. I found her through feminism and women's studies, which has the potential for linking women across cultures. She is present in at least two ways: preservation of materials about feminism in the past and a developing interest in women's issues in the present.

In spite of fifty years of occupation, in spite of violence in the streets of Riga, in spite of meagre resources and consistent undervaluing of Latvian language and culture, Latvians have nevertheless preserved a treasure trove of primary materials for research about Aspazija.

The summer home at Majori that Aspazija and Rainis owned is now a public museum. Damp, sparsely attended - I was the only visitor during an entire morning - and badly underfunded, the house is nevertheless there. Many of Aspazija's personal effects, books, and notes are housed in it, and plans are underway to photocopy some to preserve them from further deterioration. No postcards of Aspazija standing alone were available, but there were a few where she is pictured with Rainis. The bright, well-informed, young woman museum worker who served as my guide was, unsurprisingly, on the side of Rainis: he was a great genius, Aspazija was wrong to disturb him by making a fuss about his infidelities, especially with a young woman whom Aspazija had mentored, Aspazija should not have written him about concerns about her own health, and so forth. The guide was intrigued but unpersuaded that looking at the same evidence from a woman's point of view would tell a different story.

A second vastly rich collection of materials is housed in the Rainis' Museum of Literature and Art History, located in the Old Castle of Riga. Aspazija's first editions, manuscripts, notes, documents, letters, photographs, even death masks have been preserved. It was touching to hold the three long wooden file drawers filled with index cards written in many different, scrupulously exact hands, work done during the last fifty years under incredibly difficult circumstances.

But Aspazija lives in other ways as well. Wherever I went, wherever I spoke, there was intense interest in feminism in the United States, and a beginning discussion of women's issues in Latvia. 53.5% of the inhabitants of Latvia are women; 55% of the labor force is female - one of the highest proportions in the world; 90% of all able-bodied women are employed; 59.8% do primarily physical work; and every fifth woman does unhealthy or heavy non-mechanized labor such as pouring asphalt. Only 13% consider their working conditions good, and 48% hold jobs below their qualifications and training. Although 80% of teachers, 77% of doctors, and 84% medical workers are women, these professionals are not well paid. Most women find it necessary to supplement their income by overtime, moon-lighting, selling their knitting and weaving, and providing services.

Although 64% of women are better educated than men, they do not hold leading positions in education. There are two women deans at the University of Latvia, but sexist behavior takes one right back to the 1950s. Women are interrupted and elbowed out of the way, not always metaphorically only; or they are honored by being elected as secretaries. 61.6% of university students are women, but their greater proportional presence is openly regretted and preference is given to those men who are not seduced by other ways of making a living learned during military service, but who opt for an academic education instead. Students have to be under thirty-five to be admitted, so returning women students are unknown.

Women's health and safety are major issues. Abortion, commonplace and dangerous, is no longer free, but now requires a fee "for better conditions," which seems to mean the availability of aspirin. (In 1989 there were 52,000 abortions and 39,000 births.) Childbirth, unless one has the hard currency for extra services, is grim. Sanitary napkins and tampons are generally unavailable, as are the cotton swabs used as a substitute. Condoms, the most typical birth control device, are expensive, unreliable, and unpopular with men. Battering of women, often related to alcoholism, is commonplace, acerbated by the housing shortage, and minimized by the unenlightened police, "You'd better learn how to get along with him," is a frequent response. Attitudes blaming victims for rape are harsh. The worst American practices (for example, a "Miss Latvia" contest that was so explorative as to be a caricature) are being imported.

But Latvian women are interested in learning about feminism and women's studies, and in defining the issues important to them. Notions we take for granted, such as criticizing sex role socialization for its differing treatment of girls and boys, met with little sympathy. They had had too much gender uniformity in the schools, they said, women were forced to drive tractors and sweep streets. Freedom, they said, would mean "femininity." It would also mean the end of countless hours of standing in line and contriving to feed and clothe families, which conditions create extremely high stress levels and rob women of time and creative expression.

The most striking characteristic of Latvian women is their intense desire to learn and to evaluate for themselves. Having lived under the repressive Soviet system whose attempts to control information until very recently extended to requiring five signatures before a scholar was allowed to read Freud and other primary sources and to printing distorted maps, Latvian women want to know everything and their most frequent passionate requests, in the midst of an almost total unavailability of consumer goods, are nevertheless for books. I was asked again and again to send materials, to describe some aspect of American women's lives - such as the absence of state compensation for mothers from the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy through the year children reach kindergarten, which they found incredible - and to return to lecture about women and feminism at the University of Latvia and elsewhere. Under the auspices of the democratically elected government, the first academic women's studies conference and the first forum on women's issues, which focused on women's self-confidence and health, took place in late 1991. The first collection of research in the emerging discipline of women's studies in Latvia is being prepared. The Latvian academic women's organization is asking for help so they can formally join the world community of scholars. (Contact Emilija Gudriniece, President, Association of Academically Educated Latvian Women, Riga Technical University, Azenes 14, Riga, Latvia, LV 1048. Telephone (+0132) 613531 work, 322716 home.)

Like Aspazija and like Latvia itself, Latvian women have survived a long and brutal oppression, and they have maintained their courage and their strong desire to learn. Their future in the new republic is still uncertain: economic chaos and growing unemployment are daily harsh realities for women, but new calls are now being heard to confine women once more, this time to the domestic sphere, which mirrors ironically the lack of choice under the Soviet system when women were forced to work operating heavy machinery and pouring cement. Women's participation in the new Parliament is very low - only 10 women out of 201 representatives, or 4.9% are women - which does not compare favorably with nearby democracies of longer standing (35.7% women in Sweden, 33.7% in Denmark).

But Latvians have preserved materials about Aspazija and about her feminist activities in the past. Aspazija's spirit continues to live in new guises in Latvian women as they begin to gather, to organize, and to define issues important to them. Aspazija's courage and resilience are evident in women in Latvia today.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aspazija. Drama. Latvju Gramata, 1963.

Aspazija. Kopoti Raksti (Collected Works). 6 vols. Riga: Liesma, 1988.

Celmina, Helene. Women in Soviet Prisons. New York: Paragon House, 1985.

Cielens, Feliks. Rainis un Aspazija: Atminas un Pardomas (Rainis and Aspazija: Memories and Reflections). Vasetmanland, Sweden: Ziemelblazma, 1955.

Gray, Franeine du Plessix. Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Latvijas PSR Valsts Statistikas Komiteja (The Government Statistics Committee of the Soviet Republic of Latvia). Latvijas Sievietes (Women of Latvia). Riga, 1989.

Lulle, A. "Sieviete Darba un Dzive." ("Women in Work and Life," unpublished paper by the vice chair of the Statistical Committee of the Latvian Republic).

Nesaule, Agate. "Aspazijas Sievietes," Universitas 56 (1985), 32-37.

Nesaule, Agate. "Review of Stahnke's Aspazija: Her Life and Drama." Journal of Baltic Studies, XV\1 (Spring 1984), 73-75.

Stahnke, Astrida B. Aspazija: Her Life and Drama. Lanham, MD, 1984.

Viese, Saulcerite. Aspazija. Riga: Liesma, 1975.

Photograph (Statue of Aspazija and Rainis in Riga, Latvia)