Looking Back in Time
The week between November 11 and November 18 is a special time in Latvia. 92 years ago last Friday, on November 11, 1919, the Latvian army defeated the combined German-Russian forces of General Pavel Bermondt-Avalov in Rīga, liberating the capital city from occupying troops after fierce months of fighting. This date, henceforth known as Lāčplēša Diena, or Bearslayer’s Day, in honor of the Latvian national epic, marked a decisive battle in the long struggle for Latvian statehood, which had officially been proclaimed one year before, on November 18, 1918.
During the calendar week that falls between the two dates, we have the chance to look back in time, recalling the events that followed the proclamation of independence. In our thoughts, we first experience the struggles of the Latvian army, the many lives lost in bloody battles on the embankments of the Daugava River and elsewhere in the newly proclaimed state. And only at the end of the week do we celebrate the joys of independence, immortalized on the day the Latvian state was established.
In reality, however, the sequence of the two dates was reversed: first came the brave, bold decision to proclaim national independence, on November 18, 1918; then came the difficult struggles of battle, which culminated in the decisive battle on November 11, 1919, against Bermondt-Avalov’s army. But thanks to the random vagaries of numbers – eleven comes before eighteen – we can recall the events in a more natural sequence: first the painful struggles for victory, then the joyous elation of statehood.
In effect, we can rewrite history, presenting the sequence of events in a more traditional narrative: a difficult struggle followed by a historic decision.
Last Friday, heads of state attended a memorial service at Dome Cathedral in the morning, laid wreaths at the Brethren Cemetery at noon, watched a parade of military troops at the Freedom Monument in the afternoon, and then, at night, lit candles by the walls of the Rīga Castle, beside the Daugava River. The day was spent recalling the soldiers who fought and died in the name of Latvian independence, as well as the soldiers who ensure the safety and freedom of our nation today.
This week, the remembrance will continue. All government employees will wear red-white-and-red ribbons on their lapels, commemorating the difficult struggles following the proclamation of independence. Special events will be organized (such as the exhibit Born in Rīga – World Famous at the Splendid Palace cinema in Rīga, and the annual Staro Rīga festival of light). Latvia’s embassies and consulates around the world will host special exhibits and festivals dedicated to Latvia, like the Latvian Music Festival in Tokyo. People throughout Latvia will light candles, bundle up against the incoming cold weather, and reflect on the sacrifices made by our soldiers to achieve victory over the armies threatening our country’s existence.
Then, on Friday, a national holiday in Latvia, we will once again hoist the Latvian flags outside every building in the country. People will gather to feast with friends and family, celebrating this special day. Others will attend military parades honoring our servicemen. All of us will devote our thoughts to the blessings of independence – the joy of living in a free nation unencumbered by occupying armies, a nation not threatened by foreign troops. The day of independence makes us give thanks once again for the miracle of this fact – the fact of freedom and independence.
However, if we remember that the real sequence of events in 1918-1919 initially began with the bold, brave decision by the Latvian People’s Council, headed by Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis, to proclaim independence, followed by a long year of struggles against occupying forces, we realize that the decision came first, then the struggle. And only then came the victory.
Similarly, our national decisions today are often followed by difficult struggles. After the start of the global financial crisis of 2008, the brave decision by the Latvian government to impose a strict round of austerity measures, expenditure cuts, and an internal devaluation policy, as well as to apply for a loan from international lenders to save the national economy, has not been without its hardships. But after only a couple years of belt-tightening, the Latvian economy began to experience upward growth.
Today, the Latvian economy is well on the way to recovery, growing for the sixth consecutive quarter. And the world has certainly taken notice. As recently reported in The Economist, Latvia now boasts one of the highest real GDP growth rate estimates in the European Union – 3.3 % – with exports up 6.9% in 2011. Likewise, as described in a recent report on the Latvian economy by the European Commission, the manufacturing and tourism sectors reported record rates of expansion in the first half of 2001 – 14.7% and 25%, respectively. Furthermore, the unemployment rate has decreased from a peak of 17.3% in March of 2010 to just under 12% today.
Though bold decisions in Latvia are often followed by hardships, history has proven that victory is never far behind. In the 1920s, after the Latvia state was established and foreign armies had been driven from Latvian soil, the Latvian economy became one of the strongest in the region, exporting goods throughout Europe. Today, after a couple years of tough fiscal policies, the Latvian economy has once again regained momentum, serving as a success story for all of Europe. Now Latvia is well on its way to assuming its status as the presiding nation of the Council of the European Union, in 2015.
Of course, as in 1919, there are still a few struggles ahead of us. Latvia must work to reduce the ongoing emigration of citizens abroad, continue to implement reforms in almost every sector here at home, and once again consolidate the budget for 2012, by about 120 million lats. But the sense of 2011 marking a serious turning point for Latvia and for the Latvian economy – of a decisive battle won, an important summit reached – is more than palpable. It is clear as day.
This week, as Latvians recall the struggles of their forefathers following the decision to proclaim Latvian independence, we can also recall the struggles of the past couple years. And we can rest assured in the knowledge that, then as now, bold and brave decisions will only lead to bold and brave new beginnings. All we have to do is look back in time.