Loader, Michael, Hearne, Siobhán, and Matthew Kott. Defining Latvia: Recent Explorations in History, Culture, & Politics. Central European University Press, Budapest, 2022. 364 pp., $9.99 Kindle.
What has it meant to be Latvian? Defining Latvia, edited by Loader, Hearne, and Scott, is a multi-authored collection of chapters that seeks to explore the complex history of nationalist identity in Latvia from multiple angles and points in history, starting with early conceptions of the Latvian state in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with right-wing nationalist discourse in contemporary Latvian politics. Featuring authors with various backgrounds and interests, including scholars of the Holocaust, fascism, Soviet cultural influences, Baltic politics, and World War II, the book emerges from a 2018 conference at Uppsala University in Sweden marking 100 years since the First Republic of Latvia’s foundation. Ultimately, this volume endeavors to portray Latvia’s history of cultural identity as a struggle between multiple histories of difference making.
Defining Latvia is split into nine chapters total, with the addition of a foreword and introduction that outline the main ideas of the book’s content. Although each chapter is authored by a different author, the chapters are not completely disjointed from one another; they are listed in chronological order, and oftentimes the author of one chapter may reference the work of an author of a previous chapter. For example, Chapters Five and Six both discuss the Latvian national communists and their defeat in 1959, but Chapter Five is about their economic plans, while Chapter Six focuses on the interaction between the national communists’ goals and Khrushchev’s educational reform. A similar pairing occurs with Chapters Eight and Nine, which both discuss contemporary right-wing politics in Latvia, with Chapter Eight discussing the rise and successes of the modern National Alliance (NA) party and Chapter Nine examining how right-wing radicalization in Latvia can occur through entryism, whereby an organization or state encourages its members or supporters to join another, usually larger, organization in an attempt to expand influence.
The book is broadly split into three main time periods. The first period covers the formation of the Latvian state, starting from the mid-nineteenth century and spanning until World War II. Chapters in this period discuss early cartography of Latvia as a tool for defining the territory of Latvia within the Russian empire, the cultural autonomy of ethnic minorities—particularly the Baltic Germans—within the early years of the Republic of Latvia, the rise of organized antisemitism in the 1920s and 1930s, and the experience of Latvian troops amidst both the Red Army and the Nazis. The second period covers Latvia in the Soviet era, and how the experience of Latvian identity was shaped by Soviet policies, especially under Khrushchev. The third and final era spans Latvia’s transformation following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of contemporary right-wing politics. The first period contains the most chapters (1-4), and only the last two chapters (8-9) are devoted to the third period. Each period of the book broadly seeks to argue the validity and persistence of Latvia’s search for national identity, but individual chapters contain arguments that are more specific or unique to their particular subject matter. In this sense, the book can come across more as a collection of related essays, rather than one single, continuous narrative following Latvia’s history with modern nationalist philosophies.
One particularly strong thread in the volume is an intertemporal connection provided by Chapters Three and Eight. Read together, Chapter Three (“More than a Means to an End: Pērkonkrusts’s Antisemitism and Attacks on Democracy, 1932-1934”) and Chapter Eight (“Onwards and Upwards!: Mainstreaming Radical Right Populism in Contemporary Latvia) offer a more cohesive narrative about how ethnic Latvians have gravitated towards nation-state ideology as a means of creating a distinct national identity. The anti-semitic, fascist Pērkonkrusts party of the interwar period aimed to undermine democracy by challenging the Latvian Constitution’s protection of rights for all citizens regardless of ethnicity, and even though iterations of the party were banned more than once throughout the period, the ideas they propounded persisted and their members remained active in politics and social activism, eventually contributing to the normalization of antisemitism and the general alienation of Jews in Latvia’s public spaces. Decades later, the Pērkonkrusts party resurrected itself in the 1990s, and despite a ban on the party due to “minor acts of terrorism,” subsequent iterations of the group persisted into the 2010s.
The right-wing parties of contemporary Latvia have reused old talking points from the original groups of the interwar period, including an emphasis on the perceived threats posed by demographic changes, especially as related to the economy. The Latvian fascists of the 1930s decried “non-Latvian” businesses, while the radical right of contemporary Latvia have accused international students—especially those of Asian descent—of “abusing the student visa system” in order to take advantage of job opportunities in the country and contributing to the dilution of Latvian identity. Including these aspects in an analysis about the development of Latvian identity provides a deeper, more critical understanding of the interplay between different facets of Latvian society and their long-term impacts by showing how certain talking points of identity formation can persist over time.
Many of the chapters also detail how the threat of Russian hegemony has affected the formation of Latvian identity. From the beginning of Latvia’s journey towards statehood, Russia, whether in the form of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, has been a looming figure over Latvian statehood. The cartography of Matīss Siliņš, a Latvian author and ethnographer in the late nineteenth century, though not necessarily intentionally nationalistic, aimed at validating the existence of and unifying the Latvian community within the bounds of the Russian Empire by creating maps of the Latvian territory written in Latvian. Along the same vein, Latvians have long championed the use of Latvian language in Latvia, as exemplified by the conflict between the national communists and Khrushchev’s education reform, and the backlash in 2018 against employers requiring Russian language proficiency for service jobs in the tourism sector. This pattern of Latvian assertion in the face of Russian influences is essential to Latvia’s formation of self-identity, as this particular approach to difference-making has become a core tenet of how they have defined themselves over time. Unfortunately, this resistance towards outside influences has become more than just opposition to a perceived oppressor (Russia), metamorphosing into more broadly xenophobic and otherwise discriminatory beliefs, as seen with the content of Chapters Three and Eight.
Although there are clearly some overarching themes present throughout the volume that make it relatively cohesive, there are two chapters that break the flow of the book and seem more disconnected from the rest of the chapters. Chapter Four (“My Home and My Family are Now Our Regiment”: National Belonging and Familial Feelings in Latvian Units during World War II), which discusses the experiences of Latvian soldiers during World War II, touches upon Latvian national identity within the extreme context of war. However, a primary argument of the chapter is actually advocating for increased usage of first-person, primary sources (testimonies, essentially) in order to gain a more nuanced perspective on war and occupation. The discussion of national identity in the chapter is mostly limited to how nationalist sentiments could be embedded in efforts to boost camaraderie and brotherhood among Latvian soldiers. Chapter Four is one of the few chapters of the book that very explicitly addresses issues of historiography for the content it examines, which is important to note, since this is an analytical element that other chapters lack. Nevertheless, this chapter doesn’t feel like it contributes all that substantially to the broader discussion of national identity with regards to the rest of the book.
The other chapter that feels misplaced is Chapter Seven (“Latvian Photography of the 1960s Between Art and Censorship”). Chapter Seven has a similar issue to Chapter Four, in that it discusses a topic that other chapters don’t touch upon but doesn’t end up contributing any especially solid points to the larger picture of the volume. The focus on changes in composition and content of artistic photography during Khrushchev’s Thaw with respect to censorship laws and increased access to Western media seems too niche within the scope of the rest of the book. Although art movements are obviously important when examining a place’s sense of self, the chapter’s content is relatively self-contained, and any connections made to national Latvian identity are underexplored.
In terms of theoretical frameworks, many of the chapter authors allude to prior research and historical perspectives and often seek to challenge or expand established viewpoints. The historical perspectives they reference are usually only briefly explained, thus if the reader is unfamiliar with the work and the historians in question, their mention may not illuminate much. Generally, however, this is not a hindrance to the reader’s overall understanding, as most of the authors do not base their entire chapter around a single perspective. The exceptions to this are Chapter Four—which has an entire subsection delineated to the historiography of the content it explores and so therefore is quite in depth with the arguments it is trying to counter—and Chapter Nine, which provides a necessary definition of its foundational theoretical framework (“entryism”) in its introductory section.
Additionally, though the foreword briefly alludes to Orientalism by referring to fading “Orientalizing assumptions about the Latvians,” Latvia’s experience with histories of difference making is not examined within the Orientalist framework in the rest of the volume. Orientalism can be defined as a theoretical framework that has influenced how an appointed “West” has perceived and culturally and politically manipulated an appointed “East,” and though Edward Said’s original East-West dichotomy was specifically limited to the Middle East and India versus the U.S. and Western European colonial powers, many writings following Said have applied the East-West dichotomy framework to explain relations between other regions of the world. This decision to avoid employing the Orientalist framework is thus understandable in some ways, in that the Orientalist framework is not necessarily appropriate for all histories of difference and difference making. That being said, there seems to be a general absence of theoretical analysis in the volume, and the inclusion of an argument somewhere referring to the use of the Orientalist framework for Latvia’s context could have been interesting. For example, a valuable addition to the whole narrative centered around Latvia’s experience with minorities would have been to look at Latvia’s experience with Orientalism and how it compares with Russia’s experience, as both the subject and perpetuator of Orientalist ideas. With respect specifically to the topic of Latvian nationalism, the authors could have more explicitly discussed the concepts of ‘nationalism of the oppressor’ versus ‘nationalism of the oppressed.’ These additions would have likely been most appropriate for Chapters One, Two, or Eight; for Chapter Eight especially, Orientalism could have been mentioned from the perspective of Latvia’s efforts for a so-called “return to Europe” and how Latvia fits within the conception of the “West.”
Collectively, the volume broadly constructs Latvia’s production of national identity as the result of perceived internal and external existential threats. Perceived internal threats are seen as stemming from minority groups living within Latvia, while perceived external threats are seen as stemming primarily from Russian influence. These threat perceptions have delineated in- and out- groups for Latvia, a fairly common approach to difference making. The only unusual aspect about Latvia’s strained relationship with minorities is that the physical area of Latvia has been inhabited by multiple ethnicities since the beginning of the republic’s founding, which implies that ethnic tensions have not been due to inexperience with diversity—as has been the case with some places—but rather is due to the need to define ethnic Latvian-ess in spite of it.
Overall, this volume explores a variety of content, both to its advantage and disadvantage. There are some ways in which it feels like an introduction to Latvian history, and yet at the same time, the authors seem to share an expectation that the reader is already acutely familiar with European and Russian history, and the study of historiography on the whole. This is not necessarily an unreasonable expectation, rather, it means that the desired audience for this book is somewhat limited to a particular range of students of history.
Additionally, while this volume was never intended to be completely comprehensive, the variety of topics feel simultaneously a little disjointed and not broad enough. Taken together, the chapters allude to an overarching theme—one that I have discussed in this review—but a more explicit, overarching framework could have significantly helped the volume feel more cohesive. Enough of the chapters have similar content and themes that they could have been joined to create a different book. For example, Chapters Two, Three, Eight, and Nine could have been their own book on Latvia’s history of minority experiences and discriminatory politics. Even so, I do appreciate the way in which most chapters aim to present a relatively in-depth examination of a particular topic as a sort of case study for the larger theme of Latvian national identity. This organizational approach does, indeed, suit their goal of the volume “act[ing] as an invitation for future studies.”
Defining Latvia ultimately serves as a steppingstone for future exploration of Latvian identity formation and their relationship with difference, as its authors intended. The volume scratches only at the surface of what it means to be Latvian. Future studies should focus on providing more insight into intertemporal threads connecting different aspects of Latvian identity, as well as more insight into Latvia’s relationship with the rest of Europe.
Michael Loader, Siobhàn Hearne, and Matthew Kott, Defining Latvia: Recent Explorations in History, Culture, & Politics, (Central European University Press, Budapest, 2022), 239.