I recently had the privilege of attending the 57th Latvian Cultural Festival in Adelaide. This was the first time for ages – I used to dance in these festivals when I was a teenager, around 50 or so years ago.
In those days, the festivals were held every year in a different capital city. They kicked off with a church service (Lutheran) and had folk dance and choir performances, art exhibitions, theatre and various other things during the week between Christmas and New Year. They culminated in a New Year’s Eve Ball, which in my day was just a humungous excuse to get drunk.
Everyone spoke Latvian and it was very rare to find a spouse who was English speaking.
Much to my shame now, I pretty much rejected the culture, even though I enjoyed the dancing and the costumes. I particularly rejected the drinking part of the culture. I thought it was pointless and destructive, which put me at odds with most of the Latvians, even though in their heart of hearts they probably agreed.
From exile to Diaspora
Most Latvians assimilated very well. As with migrants from other countries, they were not always appreciated or embraced into the Aussie culture. There were difficulties with language and recognition of qualifications … nothing different from today, really. Although refugees were accepted far more readily than they are today.
Latvians were literally people in exile – it was impossible to return to their homeland because of the war and foreign incursions. So they did the best they could to remain loyal to Latvia: they formed folk dancing groups and choirs, ran Saturday schools for their children to learn the language and customs, and held church services.
Then in 1989, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians did an astonishing thing: they formed a human chain across the three nations, to protest against Soviet occupation. 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of The Baltic Way. The Soviet hold on the nations began to crumble until in 1991 Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia proclaimed their independence.
From that point, Latvians who were spread around the world became Diaspora rather than being in exile.
It was the culture of song and dance and language which was stubbornly maintained throughout occupation that enabled national unity and identity and ultimately resulted in independence.
In Australia, the individual Latvian communities across the country came together to hold the annual Cultural Festivals. I’m beginning to realize that this is a pretty rare phenomenon. Other cultures have language schools and may deliver ethnic food and dance classes but few regularly draw the whole community across the nation together.
But it is diminishing
There are not many Latvians in the world! Latvia’s population is only around 2 million (about half that of Sydney alone!). There are only a few hundred in each of the capital cities and overall about 20 000 in Australia identify themselves as Latvians.
So to keep the Cultural Festivals going takes a concerted effort. Over the last few years they have been held every second year and many of the people attending are there because they married a Latvian and may not even speak the language. Their children may grow up speaking only English.
The number of people participating in the dancing, choirs, theatre productions, art shows etc is diminishing. As the original Latvian immigrants pass away, the remaining Latvians will need to work harder to keep the culture alive.
Unfortunately, there is also a trend of leaving Latvia itself largely due to economic migration once Latvia joined the EU. This is a disturbing trend, though you can’t blame them looking for better opportunities to make a living.
Ambassador at large for Diaspora, Aivars Groza, has the difficult job of keeping in touch with those who have left Latvia and to somehow keep Latvia alive.
All is not lost!
Would God let the Latvian culture die off in the next few generations? I feel the answer is a resounding “NO”. Check out the Awakening Baltija website and explore the impact of the Awakening conference in Riga last year.
I believe that God, together with the stubbornness of Latvians, will not let this rich culture die out. But there still needs to be a deliberate move to maintain the things of the culture – it will definitely be worth the effort!
Aira Chilcott is a retired secondary school teacher with lots of science and theology under her belt. Aira is a panellist for Young Writers and indulges in reading, bushwalking, volunteering at a nature reserve and learning to play clarinet. Aira is married to Bill and they have three adult sons.
Aira Chilcott's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/aira-chilcott.html