I got shivers yesterday when I heard President Obama promise that NATO would defend the Baltic States no matter what.  Mostly, because it’s politically hard to justify such a promise, at least to those with isolationist tendencies (e.g., libertarians, CATO Institute).  Each of these three countries has a small population (Estonia at 1.3 million, Latvia at 2 million, and Lithuania at about 3 million; for reference, the population of Chicago is about 2.7 million). The countries have little strategic benefit to the U.S. with no real resources to mention (if you don’t count amber, sprats, and Skype; though Riga is a major transportation hub and port). Yet, the three little countries are independent democracies and NATO allies and were supporters of the coalition forces in Iraq, and as such they have sent and lost troops to Iraq and Afghanistan along side American and other countries’ troops. And, they are at the European doorstep to Russia.

This geographic and political situation of the Baltic countries brings to mind a catchy song by the Latvian rock band Prāta Vētra (Brainstorm), called “Starp Divām Saulēm,” (translated officially as “Among The Suns” but a more literal translation would be “Between Two Suns”). The suns to me being the many foreign powers that have driven Latvia’s fate for the last several centuries: Germans from the 13th century on, Swedes for a period, and Soviets or Russians and Europe and the West in the 20th century.   The band, lead by Renārs Kaupers, is beloved in Latvia.  The song came out while I lived in Latvia 1998-2000 and was incredibly popular. 

Lai no kādām tālēm nācis, Liekas tikko elpot sācis
Starp divām saulēm izvēlēties – Spožāko un neapdedzināties
Virs mums ir divas, divas debesis
Pa vienām ienākt, otrām atdoties,
Vienām tuvoties, no otrām – izvairīties
Virs mums ir divas, divas debesis
Un vēl virs mums ir divas zvaigznes
Zem vienas dzīvot, pēc otras ilgoties
Ja pirmā kritīs, tu priecāsies,
Bet varbūt liktenis atspēlēsies,
Virs mums ir divas zvaigznes
Lai no kādām tālēm nācis, Liekas tikko elpot sācis
Starp divām saulēm izvēlēties – Vēsāko un atveldzēties
Lai no kādām tālēm nācis, Liekas tikko elpot sācis
Starp divām saulēm izvēlēties  Mīļāko un iemīlēties

From whatever distant places you’ve come, it seems you just started breathing
Choose between the two suns  the brightest one, and don’t get burnt
There are two skies above us
Come through one, surrender to the other
Approach one, avoid the other
There are two skies above us
There are also two stars
Live under one, long for the other
If the first one falls, you celebrate
But maybe fate will retaliate
There are two stars above us
From whatever distant places you’ve come, it seems you just started breathing
Choose between the two suns  the coolest one and get refreshed
From whatever distant places you’ve come, it seems you just started breathing
Choose between the two suns – the loveliest, and fall in love

*I looked at a Russian translation of the song (“Между двух солнц”) to check my work, and “lai” was translated as “неважно,” which led me to use “whatever.” Otherwise “lai” could be “be it” or “let” or “in order to” or “so that,” etc.

The first line is haunting: it makes me think of Latvia’s brief taste of independence between the two world wars, after Latvians had gained independence from the Russian Empire on November 18th, 1918.  Democracy and the economy struggled but grew, while land, for centuries owned by the minority Baltic German landowners who were the governing elite, was given to the Latvian peasants to farm. The country lasted like this for barely a couple of decades before being consumed and corrupted by the anxiety preceding World War Two and the world economic crisis.  In August of 1939 the Russian-German Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact relegated the Baltic states to the Soviet sphere. By June 1940, Soviet troops occupied the country; within a month, fraudulent elections declaring new Communist leadership led to the country’s assimilation into the Soviet Union as a republic.  By the end of 1941, the Soviets had deported, mostly to Siberia, 35,000 Latvians (including minority citizens such as Jews, Germans, Russians) who were accused of being Anti-Soviet.  But there was more: By July 1941, Nazi Germans occupied Riga; then, the killing of Jews started – 85,000 in Latvia by the end of the war. The Soviet Union won back the country in the fall of 1944. 

Despite the violence, by the end of the song Kaupers calls for choosing the loveliest, the sweetest sun and falling in love with it (iemīlēties; no subtle dipthongs here, but instead: ee-ye-mee-lay-tee-yes, he croons again and again).  And who knows? Maybe the song doesn’t have to be so literally about politics and being bandied back and forth between two heavyweight neighbors;  maybe it’s about the beauty found in choosing between two divergent paths.  A bit of Frost’s road less traveled by, perhaps, minus the nostalgia and confidence. 

*****

I’m guilty of believing that the Soviet Occupation, as awful as it was – deporting and imprisoning and killing so many, trying to wipe out a people’s language and culture and self-expression and voice, destroying an economy and democracy – is also responsible for helping preserve one of the Baltic States’ greatest treasures: their skilled, creative, expressive, artistic knitting.  Today, people still knit, but there isn’t the absolute necessity.  I really, really don’t want to romanticize this, and I see that I am on the verge of it here; instead, I mean to point out that knitting was a source of national and personal expression by thousands of Balts, which, in turn, I believe helped them hold onto a bit of their national identity during the Soviet Occupation. Knitting mittens and hats and sock in their town’s particular style or colors or designs was a small, somewhat safe way of expressing self and nationality in an oppressive police state.  (I say “somewhat safe” because of a story from one of my former school students in Latvia: her father’s mother had knit two hats in the colors of the Latvian flag for her two sons; it was only a matter of time before the one brother called from the police station, caught for expressing nationalism, to warn his little brother not to wear the other hat.) 

Not only could knitting be an expression of nationalism, but a personal expression too, an expression of beauty and creativity and vanity and self. The communist, authoritarian state did not promote these values. It was hard to find a really beautifully made sweater in the Soviet Union. If you did, after waiting in a long line to purchase it you would probably end up finding it being worn by someone else with better connections. Instead, many people in the Baltic states used skills they had learned over the past centuries from the Baltic German landowners, and they knit for themselves. Keep in mind, these are countries that are obsessed with flowers and beauty: at almost every celebration people give flowers, and during the Soviet Union it was the Baltic republics that supplied Moscow and St. Petersburg with flowers, not the more southern republics with warmer climates.  

Meanwhile, during this same period in the 1950’s-1990’s in Capitalist Western European countries, knitting became a hobby, a fringe of society in consumerist economies that easily provided affordable, beautiful sweaters.  I don’t want to disparage knitting as a hobby either. I am a hobby knitter myself and I love how knitting has become more popular in the last decade or so.  The patterns I see in Interweave and Vogue Knitting and Ravelry are inspiring and energizing. Knitting for yourself and your family is not a necessity though, and don’t they say that necessity is the mother of invention? When I lived in Latvia about ten years after it regained independence, I was overwhelmed by the expression and abundance of hand-knitted things among my friends and even my youngest students. I can still see one of my 4th graders, Kristina, swiftly knitting up elaborate pieces in between lessons. Granted, I also remember hearing friends squawk when they’d rather be doing something else. Here, I’m thinking of my wonderful friend and neighbor Nora who supposedly begrudgingly knitted and darned socks for her husband Morris.  And in some cases, I had to agree: I’d rather be outside picking plums or black currants with Nora on a beautiful Latvian summer day and drinking sour birch juice, or watching re-runs of our favorite episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, or drinking strong coffee and Finnish chocolate together.  Of course, we did plenty of that too.  Enough to gear us up for more knitting, I suppose. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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