Toward a Postcolonial Perspective on the Baltic States Kārlis Račevskis

My purpose is to examine the paradoxical nature of the postcolonial designation when it is applied to the Baltic States. While the occupation by the Soviet Union can be seen as a colonial enterprise according to the most basic definitions of colonialism, the case of the Baltic countries is yet to be considered relevant in the context of an ever-expanding field of postcolonial studies. In this sense, I argue, the Baltics have been doubly victimized: first, by the outcome of World War II and second, by the ideological effects of the Cold War. It is the testimony of literature, I suggest, that makes a convincing case for applying a colonial perspective to the experience of the Baltic peoples. The novels of the Latvian author Alberts Bels, for example, evoke most tellingly what it felt like to live inside the cage of Russian colonialism, and chronicle present-day attempts to cope with its aftermath.

The idea that the Baltic States might be considered former colonies of the Soviet Union is clearly a vexing one—untenable in some quarters, irrecusable in others, but mostly ignored or deemed irrelevant. The theme certainly appears incongruous in the context of the ever-expanding field of postcolonial studies. Any casual perusal of the literature falling under this rubric will fail to uncover any mention of the Baltics or, for that matter, of the Soviet Union. As Violeta Kelertas has noted, “although much has been written about various locations and forms of postcolonialism, the empire that constituted the Soviet Union has been little discussed in these terms.”1 One notable exception to this neglect is the ground-breaking article by David Chioni Moore in which he observes “first, how extraordinarily postcolonial the societies of the former Soviet regions are, and, second, how extraordinarily little attention is paid to this fact, at least in these terms.”2 He argues further that “it should be clear that the term ‘postcolonial,’ and everything that goes with it—language, economy, politics, resistance, liberation and its hangover—might reasonably be applied to the formerly Russo- and Soviet-controlled re­gions post-1989 and post-1991, just as it has been applied to South Asia post-1947 or Africa post-1958.”3 As a result, Moore is struck by two kinds of silences: that of postcolonial studies on the subject of the former USSR and that of scholars who specialize in this area who fail “to think of their regions in the useful if by no means perfect postcolonial terms developed by scholars of, say, Indonesia and Gabon.”4

To many members of the Baltic community it is quite obvious that a discussion of the recent history of the Baltics in these terms has much to recommend it, and, indeed, as Kelertas sees it, that it is actually “crucial to redefine ourselves according to postcolonial concepts and insights.” One compelling reason for such a redefinition is the new perspective and understanding to be gained when dealing with works of literature. Approaches to Baltic cultures conceptualized in terms of postcolonial theory would certainly help “account for the particular content and form that their literatures took and are now still taking.”5 This argument could be extended to other areas as well. Postcolonial theoretical approaches help us appreciate the high stakes of literary expression by highlighting the political, ethnic, and nationalistic dimension of literary works. In this sense, literature is seen not simply as a cultural ornament or a refined pastime but as a form of expression that speaks for a people’s identity, preserves and revives its collective memory, and dramatizes its struggles for political legitimacy and cultural survival. As Moore points out, since the colonial relation can be considered just “as fundamental to world identities as other ‘universal’ categories, such as race, and class, and caste, and age, and gender,”6 approaching a culture in terms of an experience of colonization can bring a new depth and richness to its study. Consequently, the elaboration of a postcolonial perspective can indeed be termed crucial in terms of the Baltic peoples’ attempts at understanding themselves as well as gaining a sympathetic hearing from others at this stage of their post-Soviet era of rebirth and recovery. But it is also highly problematic, as I have suggested, and raises a number of critical issues that need to be sorted out if such an elaboration is to bear fruit.

I / The Case for Colonialism

First, to be sure, there are very good reasons why the Baltic States are generally absent from discussions of colonialism and its aftermath—the most obvious being the history of their identification with a European rather than a Third-World sphere of interest.7 With respect to the Soviet Union, the relationship between colonizers and colonized is therefore marked by an ironic reversal. Kelertas makes the point that the relation between the Soviet empire and the Baltic countries simply does not fit the customary opposition of civilized metropolis and barbaric or primitive periphery typical of the traditional view of colonial relationships. As she explains it,

“usually it is the center which is accused of being Eurocentric, while in the post-Soviet context the Baltic States perceive themselves as European and the Soviet metropolis as uncivilized, barbarian, and ‘Oriental’ (because of its allegedly Mongolian roots—Genghis Khan and the invasions of the Golden Horde are always mentioned as determinants of Soviet mentality).”8

On the other hand, from the perspective of many Eastern Europeans, the postcolonial qualification should be rejected precisely because of the negative associations the term elicits. Thus Roumiana Deltcheva points out that “the term is largely rejected within the Eastern European community.” She further argues against such a designation by submitting that:

“This analogy [ … ] is not applicable to Eastern Central Europe. First, until the end of World War II the Eastern Central European countries were developing within the socioeconomic framework of capitalism. The socio­political changes after the war were at least on the surface instigated by popular movements from within and only “aided” by the Soviet regime. Secondly, all Eastern Central European states had existed for a long time, albeit with interruptions and limitations of their independence, and have their autonomous political, social, economic, and cultural history. From this perspective, the Soviet ‘colonizer’ did not introduce a radically different model that entirely obliterated their national and cultural identity. Thirdly, not all countries of the Eastern bloc were externally ‘colonized’ to the same degree.”9

The colonization of the Baltic States, in the light of these considerations, appears to have been carried out to a degree that would amply justify the removal of the quotation marks from the term. Their situation—as the historian Robert Conquest pointed out 40 years ago in a small book significantly entitled The Last Empire—was fairly clear-cut: “The three newest colonies in the world to-day,” he wrote, “are the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. For over 20 years—from 1918 to 1940— they were free, independent nations; to-day, they are ruled from Moscow.”10

There are indeed excellent reasons why the Baltic countries should be and always should have been seen as the victims of colonization. It is a conclusion made inescapable in terms of some basic definitions. Colonialism involves, after all, a condition of domination, of territorial occupation and control. As Stephen Slemon puts it, “colonialism oppresses through direct political and economic control.” This control materializes in the form of an “ideological regulation of colonial subjects, of subordination through the manufacture of consent.”11 The manufacture, in turn, can take many forms. It can be more or less subtle and its strategies can be carried out on various levels of coercion. Generally speaking, however, the fabrication of consent involves such areas of contention as language, history, and education. In this regard, if the Soviet form of colonialism differed from other kinds it was perhaps in the brutality and thoroughness of its oppression. Nothing illustrates this thoroughness better than the uses and abuses of language in the Soviet system.

The control of language, as postcolonial theory makes clear, is fundamental to strategies of domination:

“Language is a fundamental site of struggle for postcolonial discourse because the colonial process itself begins in language. The control over language by the imperial centre—whether achieved by displacing native languages, by installing itself as a ‘standard’ [ … ] or by planting the language of empire in a new place—remains the most potent instrument of cultural control.”12

What the Soviet system endeavored to control above all was the whole semantic dimension of linguistic expression. It is a procedure we associate most readily today with the fictional creations of George Orwell. It is a fiction, of course, that had its source in the reality of everyday experience in Eastern Europe. Václav Havel provides a most compelling description of the method that was perfected during the years of Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe. In order to suggest the insidious subtlety of a system that remained totalitarian while pretending to be something else entirely, Havel terms it posttotalitarian:

“The posttotalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is pretended as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies its past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”13

To be sure, the Soviet system could also forego all subtlety and work in ways that corresponded to perfectly traditional modes of colonial oppression. In regard to language, this sort of approach was most evident in the campaign to impose Russian as the lingua franca of the empire. The pressure to conform was particularly intense in Latvia, where the failure to use Russian was likely to bring various forms of rebuke or punishment—at school, at one’s workplace, or even on the street. Even after independence had been achieved, the attempt to establish Latvian as the official language of the realm was openly opposed by Russia. Under the guise of protecting the rights of the sizable Russian minority in Latvia, the Russian government used various forms of economic and political blackmail to impede the democratic process of the newly formed republic. Clearly, even after the collapse of the Soviet regime, Russia has not given up an ambition traceable back to Peter the Great, which was to displace the populations along the shores of the Baltic Sea in order to open up a new and wider window to the West.

It is an ambition that is obviously colonial in its designs. As the editors of The Post-Colonial Studies Reader point out, “place and displacement are crucial features of postcolonial discourse,” and are notions that constitute a central theme in the field of postcolonial studies.14 In the case of Latvia, again, the displacement of its inhabitants was part of a purposeful plan to gradually disperse and eliminate an identifiable ethnic group. The first phase was rather brutal and swift. Thus, in the 1940s, Latvia lost approximately one-fourth of its population: about a quarter of a million to the war, executions, and deportations, and another quarter of a million to voluntary exile. The second phase consisted of opening factories and establishing military bases in Latvia and flooding the country with Russian troops and a Russian work force. While the troops are gone, the presence of Russian nationals is not only evident but could even be considered oppressive today. This is especially so in Riga, a city whose population now represents half the country’s total population. The former colonizers are everywhere in evidence, in terms of their numbers, their economic power, and their ownership of Riga’s best real estate.

II / The Soviet Myth

The history of Soviet colonialism and the continuing threat of Russian colonial designs is an undeniable reality for those who experienced the Soviet occupation and who continue to bear the effects of its aftermath. Since the experience of the Baltic peoples would seem to fulfill the conditions overseen by standard definitions of colonialism, we are brought to ask ourselves why this reality has remained imperceptible— why others have not been able to see what is so obvious to us.

The issue becomes a question of perception—and of overcoming the obstacles impeding perception. Or, to put it in other terms, it becomes a matter of understanding the causes of a peculiar form of blindness that has victimized the Baltic peoples as well as other nationalities in Eastern and Central Europe. As Václav Havel has suggested, the former colonies of the Soviet empire can be seen as the victims of a system of impersonal power that had its roots in the West:

“It was precisely Europe, and the European West, that provided and frequently forced on the world all that today has become the basis of such power: natural science, rationalism scientism, the industrial revolution, and also revolution as such, as a fanatical abstraction, through the displacement of the natural world to the bathroom down to the cult of consumption, the atomic bomb, and Marxism.”15

Havel’s enumeration also has the merit of pointing out one of the main obstacles that has stood in the way of seeing the Soviet satellites as victims of colonialism: while science, rationalism, and the industrial revolution have all been readily implicated in colonialist schemes of domination, Marxism has traditionally been identified with the opposing camp of the critics of colonialism. Moreover, a number of the earliest and some of the most eminent critics and theorizers of colonialism have been explicit Marxists or have been clearly influenced by Marxism-Leninism. Indeed, one of the earliest definitions and analysis of colonialism can be found in Lenin’s brief treatise on imperialism, which he defines as “the monopoly stage of capitalism”:

“Imperialism is capitalism in that stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital has established itself; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the great capitalist powers has been completed.”16

Consequently, and by definition, according to the Western critical canon, it is not possible to be both a victim of Marxism and colonialism, since Marxism has always belonged to the tradition of anticolonial discourse. David Chioni Moore makes the point that “many postcolonialist scholars, in the United States and elsewhere, have been Marxist or strongly leftist and therefore have been reluctant to make the Soviet Union a French- or British-style villain.”17

What complicates matters even further in the case of the Baltic States is that leftist critical theory in general is implicated in a long history of misperception or miscomprehension of the Soviet system. In this sense, it could indeed be said that the Baltic countries have been doubly disadvantaged: victims of World War II, they were further victimized by the Cold War that followed, since the latter prevented them from being seen as the victims of the former. In terms of the Cold War, Eastern Europeans belonged to the political right by definition and could therefore count on little sympathy from the left. Thus, for a long time, the Soviet Union benefited from a curious sort of blindness afflicting a good many Western intellectuals. So much hope and ideological capital had been invested in the idea of a bright future for humankind, for which the USSR seemed to stand, that many thinkers simply ignored or refused to accept the evidence of such well-documented facts as the Soviet slave labor system. The example of French writers and thinkers is particularly revealing. Thus, in 1950, at the height of the Stalinist repression, Les Temps modernes—a journal associated, most notably, with the name of Sartre—published the following account:

“There is no country in the world where the dignity of work is more respected than in the Soviet Union. Forced labor does not exist there, because the exploitation of man by man has long since been abolished. Workers enjoy the fruits of their own labor and are no longer forced to depend on a few capitalist exploiters. Forced labor is characteristic of the capitalist system because, in capitalist countries, workers are treated like slaves by their capitalist masters [ … ] The various inhuman measures applied in the prisons of the United States to the negro population of that country offer a singular contrast with the equitable and reasonable disposition of the Soviet Union’s Code of collective labor; this code has been drawn up in a spirit that is more humanitarian than repressive and its goal is to transform criminals into law-abiding citizens.”18

While the contributors to Les Temps modernes were eager to deny or downplay the existence of the Gulag, they were also—as we might expect—among the most outspoken critics of colonialism. The two stances went naturally hand-in-hand: “The intellectual left of the 1950s needed to believe in the possibility of a just and durable global empire. Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet Union offered them this alternative.”19 Thus Sartre, who had become a champion of anticolonial liberation movements, “denounced sincerely France’s colonial ambitions, believing that only Soviet communism could offer the final solution to the misfortunes of the modern world.”20 The irony of such a deluded promotion of the Soviet hegemony is obvious today. As Thomas Pavel notes, Sartre had become, in effect, an ardent advocate of colonialism because he represented, in spite of himself, “the persistence of an imperial mentality”—i.e., that of the Soviet Union. With its armies, its claim of carrying out a civilizing mission, and its territorial conquests, the Soviet Union was simply the last of the great, old-fashioned global empires. The ideology of the Soviet Union, summed up in the utopian concept of homo Sovieticus, played a role identical to the one Christianity, rationality, and Eurocentrism had played in serving to promote the imperial interests of Spain, France, and England.21

Eventually, the reality of the Soviet system imposed itself as the deluded experiment in human engineering it had been from the start and, perhaps not coincidentally, the illusions fostered by Marxism-Leninism dissipated about the same time that France was giving up its colonial ambitions. Pavel, for one, sees a connection between these two events and a more general disillusionment that marked the evolution of a certain Zeitgeist in France and other Western countries. It was a time, he suggests, when “the great doctrines and global projects, whether from the East or the West, appeared equally detestable. We threw out the Enlightenment together with Dialectics.”22 The rejection of the Empire mentality had led to the rejection of systematic thought in general and to a suspicion of such fundamental supports of rational thought as the subject and reason. At the same time, Pavel expresses the hope that a new generation of French intellectuals has brought to an end what he calls “l’ère du soupçon dans les sciences humaines” and he heralds the return of a redeemed consciousness and a renewed belief in human agency.23

III / The Postcolonial Suspicion

Eastern Europeans will be forgiven for viewing such an optimistic prognosis with suspicion and for resisting a project that seems likely to prepare the ground once more for the validation of Eurocentric universals. Their experience as colonized subjects is still too recent not to dwell on it a little longer. While for Pavel the end of colonialism meant the discrediting of principles that were central to European and Western thought, for Eastern Europeans, the end of the Soviet Empire has only reinforced, as we have seen, a suspicion of all forms of systematic thought that had originated in Europe and had served to legitimate the totalitarian system of which they were the victims. Perhaps the most significant distinction to be made between European colonial powers and the Soviet Union is that the latter was, after all, a totalitarian power. Its satellites were therefore not only the subjects of colonialism but of a totalitarian colonialism that was all the more reprehensible because it rested on principles and themes that originated in the most glorified ideals of European political thought. There is still much to be understood and much to be revealed in this regard, and before we jump on the bandwagon of those who would trumpet the triumph of enlightened Western values, it is important to see how and why these values are apt to be so easily co-opted and subverted. Thus Havel warns us of the consequences deriving from “a failure to understand the totalitarian systems for what they ultimately are—a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for a global recasting of how that civilization understands itself.”24 We must realize, continues Havel, that:

“Totalitarian systems warn of something far more serious than Western rationalism is willing to admit. They are, most of all, a convex mirror of the inevitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies, an extreme offshoot of its own development and an ominous product of its own expansion. They are a deeply informative reflection of its own crisis. Totalitarian regimes are not merely dangerous neighbors and even less some kind of avant­-garde of world progress. Alas, just the opposite: they are the avant-garde of a global crisis of this civilization.”25

It is a crisis, explains Havel, that stems from an ever-expanding, irrepressible advance of what has been termed an “eschatology of the impersonal,” an expression used to designate “the total rule of a bloated, anonymously bureaucratic power, not yet irresponsible but already operating outside all conscience, a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to come into contact with the truth.”26 The deployment of this impersonal power is entirely irrational and operates outside the realm of reason and consciousness because it is, by definition, unaffected by rationally conceived human standards.

It is at this juncture, we might note, that postcolonialism intersects with postmodernism, in the sense that both approaches can be seen as attempts at resisting and questioning some fundamental principles of Western Wisdom.27 As others have already argued, the conjunction can be viewed as a welcome and promising one, because it offers an opportunity to reevaluate certain received political notions and to innovate by going against the grain of established truths. It is also at this juncture that the experience of the Baltic peoples could be deemed relevant to such postcolonial issues as the necessity to develop strategies of resistance to persisting forms of domination as well as the desirability of renewing precolonial forms of thought.

For any renewal to be effective, a few established ways of thinking need to be discredited. This can be done most effectively by showing that such ways have become irrelevant. Thus the distinction— between socialism and capitalism, left and right—that sustained the rhetoric of the Cold War have become largely meaningless. Havel considers such distinctions to be a throwback to the 19th century and finds that “these thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories have long since been beside the point.” For Havel, the future prospects of humanity will be determined to a large extent by the degree to which we can escape such ingrained habits of thought and, in the process, “succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the terrain of politics.” For him, such a reconstitution would consist, first and foremost, of “rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things.” This would mean “placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human I.”28

IV / The Power of Narrative

To some, such an agenda may sound overly vague and ambitious; to others it may appear much too sentimental and naive. From the perspective of those who have experienced the totalitarian colonialism of the Soviet empire, the defense of the right of individuals to human dignity expresses a most obvious and most deeply-felt need. It is a need, moreover, that finds itself expressed in the simplest, most basic form of human communication: the story. That is why narrative—in oral or written form—has been of utmost importance for those deprived of their dignity, those who were denied their very humanity because they had become subhumans by definition. It is a realization that often came in prison or in the camps. This, indeed, was Havel’s own experience. “While I was in prison,” he recalls, “I realized again and again how much more present, compared with life outside, the story was. Almost every prisoner had a life story that was unique and shocking, or moving. As I listened to those different stories, I suddenly found myself in something like a pretotalitarian world, or in the world of literature.”29 The crucial importance of narrating one’s experience of confinement and persecution is indeed a commonplace in accounts of this nature. Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, a Russian woman who survived 18 years of internment in the gulag, is the author of one of the more remarkable memoirs documenting the slave labor camp experience. She remembers that the need to recount her experience became an obsession from the beginning:

“Readers often ask me: ‘How could you keep such a mass of names, facts, place names, and poems in your memory?’ Very simply: because just remembering it all to record it later had been the main object of my life throughout those 18 years. The collection of material for this book began from the moment when I first crossed the threshold of the NKVD’s Inner Prison in Kazan.”30

In Latvia, the gathering of such narratives has become a national project and has produced a remarkable amount of documentary evidence that testifies to what has been endured. The importance of this literature of deportation, as it has become known, can be appreciated on several levels.31 It stands, first of all, as an indictment of crimes which, as the editor of The Black Book of Communism reminds us, have so far escaped any “legitimate and normal evaluation, as much from an historical as from a moral point of view.”32 This relative silence over the horrors perpetrated in the name of communism—especially when one considers the abundance of literature documenting Nazi atrocities—has recently been explained as “the silence of people who are simply baffled by the spectacle of so much absolutely futile, pointless, and inexplicable suffering.”33 To be sure, the suffering was equally pointless and inexplicable to those who endured it. For them, however, it was this very futility and absurdity that made it imperative that it not be passed over in silence. In this sense, the literature of deportation partakes of an impulse that marks an entire stage in the history of our civilization. As Carolyn Forché reminds us, the 20th century may well go down in history as the “age of atrocity.” Since the record of inhumanity and barbarism to which it would owe this deplorable distinction is beyond human comprehension or rational explanation, the only recourse, especially for the victims, has been literary expression. It has produced a genre Forché calls “Poetry of Witness,” a kind of literature whose principal function is to simply serve “as poetic witness to the dark times in which they lived.”34 Similarly, the narratives that make up the literature of deportation do not seek to explain or rationalize, do not seek justification or redemption in a meaning to be found somewhere outside the boundaries of narrative. These narratives thus partake of a general awareness marking an age that has witnessed the collapse of grand narratives and of transcendental signifieds. The latter part of the 20th century has been marked by the disintegration of all the great historical referents—capitalism, the bourgeoisie, imperialism, socialism, the proletariat. Any attempt at maintaining a heroic political identity in terms of any one of these concepts has consequently become suspect in this postmodern age of disillusionment. What stands out in the light of this disintegration is “the metaphysics of signification,” according to the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. For Nancy, the reality of these times is to be found in the void opened up by the failure of meaning, by the failure of civilization to make sense. Our ability to comprehend has thus been reduced to a simple enumeration of the calamities that have marked this age:

“It is an endless list—and in fact, everything is happening as if our only option were but to draw up this list, in an accounting that allows for no bottom line. It is a litany— that is, a prayer, but of pure suffering, of pure loss and bewilderment, a wailing that is heard daily from the mouths of the millions of refugees, of the deported, the besieged, the mutilated, the starved, the raped, the cut off, the excluded, the exiled, and the expulsed.”35

As the metaphysics of meaning stands revealed, Nancy argues, individuals are increasingly exposed to the risk of no longer being able to interpret the world or themselves and meaning has been brought down to the level of singular, individual, immediate experience. At the same time, individuals also become exposed to themselves, to each other, to their own language and end up having no other recourse but to exist in the sense that they themselves are. It is futile to go looking for meaning somewhere else, explains Nancy, because we arc ourselves this meaning: “Being does not have meaning, but being itself, the phenomenon of being, is meaning, which is, in turn, its own circulation—and we are this circulation.”36 The world, we realize, has lost its sense, since it no longer can claim to have a referent; it can no longer depend on a sense it would derive from an exteriority, from another world. Thus, “the world no longer has any meaning, but it is meaning.”

V / The Literary Experience of Colonization

Thinking this meaning thus involves the experience of being, of being immersed in the experience of living as a body that has the capacity for living, thinking, and feeling. To get at the sense of this existence then, “it is not a question of signification but a question of an exertion of thought [un travail de la pensée]—of discourse and of writing, an exertion whereby thought strives to get in touch (be touched by) that which is not its ‘contents’ but its body.37 Thinking becomes a praxis of writing, a literary assertion of one’s very being. In Latvian literature, it is a mode of thought that is particularly characteristic of the writing of Alberts Bels, the most important novelist of the Soviet period of occupation.38

Bels’ first novel, Izmeklētājs (Latvian: “The Investigator”), was published in 1967. The work has generally been valued for its innovative treatment of form and character and for the influence it had on Latvian literature. Bels was the first Latvian writer to effectively bring out the importance of the world of material things and of its power over human thoughts and emotions, of its capacity for creating desire as well as for suppressing individuality. The novel is centered on a consciousness that thinks, feels, and experiences the materiality of its body as an integral part of its being. The narrative consists of the interior monologue of the main character, who attempts to give meaning to his dual role as a sculptor and as an investigator of a crime. At the end, we realize that the crime is imaginary and that the book’s central character has been engaged in the intellectual and analytical task of investigating his own personality. Bels’ narrative procedure was clearly at odds with the official literary and aesthetic precepts of the day. It had also managed to strike a most responsive chord in the readers whose existential dilemmas it had so effectively portrayed.

In the novel Bezmiegs (“Insomnia”), written in 1969, published in 1987, the narrative once again is made up of the thoughts and emotions of the main character. The latter is portrayed as an outwardly apathetic man, as are many of Bels’ characters in the novels he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s, a period marked by a general atmosphere of paralysis and stagnation in Soviet society. The hero subscribes to a principle of noninvolvement and is content with the small material advantages of a mediocre existence—an old car, a small room in a communal apartment, a television set. The paralysis of spirit is most apparent in the depiction of the everyday minutiae as well as in the nighttime monologues of the building’s other inhabitants. The novel’s hero feels free only at night, in his room, when his work no longer dominates his thinking, when the surrounding sounds of the apartment house have died down, and when he is able to escape the oppressive presences of things and of people that hang over him during the day.

The feeling of entrapment is the explicit theme of Būris (“The Cage”). Its central character is a personable and talented young architect whose thinking and values are also—and inevitably—influenced by the mentality of the rising class of professionals to which he belongs. He is depicted thus as a member of an increasingly influential group of “faceless, mechanical humans who lead monotonous lives without real social commitment, repeat stereotyped thoughts and acts, [and] are primarily concerned with achieving a comfortable neo-bourgeois standard of living based on their skills to use influence and connections.”39 After he becomes the victim of a kidnapping and is locked up in a steel cage in the middle of a vast forest, he is faced with the most basic issue of existence— that of survival. The cage, at this point in the novel, acquires an obvious symbolic dimension and the hero’s struggle to escape it is to be taken both literally and figuratively. The cage stands for all the dehumanizing, stifling, and repressive elements of social existence that have been internalized by the individual; it represents the cumulative effect of the norms, habits, standards, and platitudes that limit thought and prevent the development of meaningful human relations. There is, therefore, no escaping the cage, and when the architect finds himself finally freed, it is only to return to the cage of his life in Soviet society.

To be sure, the literary contributions of Bels are not limited to depicting the anguish of individual existences in a world bereft of any redeeming value or significance. As the colonial grip of the occupier loosened and as the hope of an eventual liberation grew stronger, the scope of his novels expanded to include considerations that went beyond strictly individual concerns. The novel Cilvēki laivās (“People in Boats”) is generally considered to be one of his best. Its central theme is the destiny of the Latvian people as it has unfolded over the centuries. A secondary motif evokes the ties that bind an individual to his or her ethnic and/or national community. The story takes place in the 19th century, in a small fishing village in Courland whose existence is threatened by the inexorable advance of a vast sand dune. As the narrative unfolds, the dune becomes a multilayered symbol for the novel’s principal themes: it represents, by turns, the flow of time, the march of history, the force of nature, the oppression of state despotism, the discord that tears communities apart, as well as the self-destructive urges individuals harbor within themselves. Above all else, it stands for the force of destiny: just as the dune finally engulfs the hamlet, history eventually swallowed up the once prosperous nation of Courland. What gives the narrative its tragic resonance is the evocation of the inexorable force of geopolitical circumstances to which small nations are subject. In a world in which small countries have naturally fallen prey to the predatory designs of the larger ones, the fate of the colonized is made all the more bitter by the lack of concern the more powerful nations have often manifested for the lot of the small ones. The lesson Bels wishes to impart is an understanding of the inherent importance of each people—no matter how small—in the global community of nations. At the same time, each people must also accept the responsibility for preserving the language, history, art, and traditions that are unique to each individual community. In this sense, a nation’s survival is constantly threatened by the narrow-mindedness and apathy of its own people and by the neglect into which its particular cultural and linguistic identity is always in danger of falling. The vitality of a community, proposes Bels, can only be ensured by the diligence and dedication with which its members are willing to rise above selfish motives in order to work toward sustaining the values and ideals that have been key to preserving their identity through the ages.

It is a principle that remains valid in a postcolonial, post-Soviet Latvia. The creative work of Bels thus not only has the merit of providing a telling account of the Soviet colonial cage but also of putting his readers on guard against new cages implicit in changing circumstances of economic dependency. The newly-found independence becomes possible in the context of a new kind of world order that can appear both alienating and incomprehensible. Freedom brings also with it its share of disappointments and, while “totalitarianism uses the cage model to imprison people for life,” as Bels explains in Latviešu labirints (“The Latvian Labyrinth”), “democracy is like a labyrinth in which one is condemned to wander endlessly.”40 Or, as he points out in his latest work, Uguns atspīdumi uz olu čaumalām (“Reflections of Fire on Eggshells”), today it is money that makes you free. And it is the former colonizers who seem to have it. The Latvian postcolonial hangover therefore appears to be rather unique by virtue of the ironic situation Bels outlines in the novel. Watching the fancy foreign cars in the streets of Riga, Janis Klegermanis—one of the novel’s characters—ponders the fact that sitting behind the wheel, in many cases, are probably men who, ten years earlier, were important cogs in the Soviet apparatus. Today, they live quite comfortably, thinks Jánis, and he is struck by the thought that “they now had what they had promised Janis communism would bring him. A spacious, nice apartment, good food, efficient medical care, travel, happiness, peace, and prosperity. They now had all that.”41 Having failed in their first attempt at colonizing the country, the Soviet invaders and their descendants—whether by hook or by crook—have been able to take advantage of the new scheme of things. Only this time their position turns out to be incomparably more profitable.

VI / Theorizing the Aftermath

Examining the Latvian literary scene as it has evolved since independence, literary historian Karl Jirgens is particularly interested in narratives of resistance and struggle against an oppression that amounted to what he terms a “colonization of the mind.” He therefore finds useful an insight offered by Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his essay Decolonizing the Mind. Writing some 25 years ago, Ngugi wa Thiong’o warned of a most forbidding obstacle challenging the defiance and resistance of those who have been colonized:

“But the biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against the collective defiance is the cultural bomb. The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities, and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of nonachievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from the wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is further removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces which would stop their own springs of life. It even plants serious doubts about the moral lightness of struggle.”42

Jirgens finds the metaphor of the bomb to be a particularly apt way of characterizing the Latvian experience:

“For over 60 years, natives of Latvia have endured the effects of this ‘cultural bomb’ as an attack against the Latvian worldview calculated to ‘shock the mind’ into submission. The ground on which this war was waged was in the arena of language. In the broadest and narrowest terms, language serves as a key to both imprisonment and liberty. Consequently, literature plays a fundamental role in resisting psychic colonization and in reasserting the Latvian identity and worldview.”43

At the same time, Jirgens finds that the designation “postcolonial” “implies a definition of the occupied nation in terms of the imperial Other.” Because the term “constitutes a form of arrogance that insists on viewing the occupied territory from the point of view of the aggressor or colonist, not from the point of view of the indigene,” it should be deemed objectionable. Jirgens recommends that we avoid using it and “that the conditions of colonization be addressed in terms such as occupation or liberations.”44

It could also be argued, however, that what helps to define a former colony is not so much the former colonizer’s perspective as the fact of colonization itself. As a result, such an avoidance may not be to our advantage: today, in light of the universal condemnation to which colonization is subject, the former colonizer may have more to gain than the victim through an avoidance of the stigma implicit in the designation. The opprobrium that is attached to the history of colonization is something the Soviet Union has managed to evade for far too long, as I have argued above. It also points to a legacy that present-day Russia still has to acknowledge. Simply writing off this episode as a Stalinist aberration, as a series of events and circumstances from which the present regime can claim utter detachment, is getting off the hook much too easily. At a time when the acknowledgment of collective guilt and even the assumption of monetary reparations are becoming increasingly acceptable as ways for nations to make up for past misdeeds, the clear identification of colonial perpetrator and colonized victim might prove useful in gaining a sympathetic hearing on the stage of international public opinion. Lastly, the term can also serve as a reminder that the threat of colonial designs on the part of the former colonizer have by no means been eliminated.

The theorization of colonialism might even offer a useful perspective on the current economic and cultural situation of small nations struggling to establish themselves in the global arena. The struggle for recognition, for validating a national culture or an ethnic identity, has perhaps become even more daunting at a time when such issues no longer seem to be of great concern for the newly emerging forms of imperialism. “Is globalization a friend or a threat?” asks Ilga Švecha in a recent essay raising a question that has become highly relevant in these times. Different times call for different values: as a commercial reminds us, “there are no frontiers on the planet Reebok.” Indeed, the values of diversity and democracy that have been central to strategies of postcolonial self-assertion may well become increasingly irrelevant in a global context dominated by what has been called a “Culture McWorld”:

“The globalization of American culture—McWorld culture—is a movement that is not so much hostile as indifferent toward democracy: its objective is a universal consumer society that would no longer be made up of tribes or citizens—all bad potential customers—but only of this new race of men and women that consumers represent. This new globalizing culture makes irrelevant not only those who critique it from a reactionary standpoint, but also their democratic competitors, who dream of an international civil society made up of free citizens originating in the greatest variety of cultures.”45

It is perhaps in this sense that the postcolonial concerns of the Baltic peoples correspond most closely to those of other former victims of colonialism. The Balts can also identify with a collective defiance aimed at the forces of economic and technological globalization working to devalue the distinctiveness of languages and cultures. Having survived the nightmare of the Soviet utopia, they may well have certain qualms about entering a brave new Disney World of consumer satellites. As Bels sees it, the economic and political realities of the new system have not always been favorable to Latvians, who seem to be caught in a vicious circle of impoverishment: “A poor language produces poor thoughts. Poor thoughts produce poor deeds. Poor deeds produce poor people. Poor people produce a poor language.”46 For the people of Latvia, as the philosopher Janis Vējš reminds us, it is crucial “to find the Ariadne’s thread that promises to lead them out of the abyss threatening their very existence.”47

These are times calling for new forms of resistance and, to repeat the point made by Havel, we may well have reached a juncture at which it becomes clearer than ever that what matters most is “placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, making human community meaningful, returning content to human speech.”48


1 / Violeta Kelertas, “Perceptions of the Self and the Other in Lithuanian Postcolonial Fiction,” World Literature Today 72/2 (1998), p. 253–261.

2 / David Chioni Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique,” Publications of the Modern Language Association 116/1 (2001), p. 111–128.

3 / Ibid., p. 115.

4 / Ibid.

5 / Kelertas, “Perceptions of the Self,” p. 253.

6 / Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet?” p. 124.

7 / Latvia was even a colonial power at one time. In the 17th century, the Duchy of Courland had evolved as a maritime power of international standing and was able, for a time, to claim Gambia in Africa and, later, the Caribbean island of Tobago as its colonial possessions. There is also the issue of the geo-political situation of the Baltic countries and the various positive or negative associations it brings, depending on the outcome of the latest war. Obviously, being in the camp of the Germans at the end of World War II has not helped.

8 / Kelertas, “Perceptions of the Self,” p. 253.

9 / Roumiana Deltcheva, “Post-Totalitarian Tendencies in Bulgarian Literature,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée CRCL/RCLC 22/3–4 (1995), p. 853–865.

10 / Robert Conquest, The Last Empire, Ampersand Books, London 1962, p. 80.

11 / Stephen Slemon, “The Scramble for Post-Colonialism,” The Post-colonial Studies Reader, ed. B. Ashcroft et al., Routledge, London and New York 1995, p. 45–52.

12 / B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, H. Tiffin (eds.), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Routledge, London and New York 1995, p. 283.

13 / Václav Havel, Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965–1990, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1991, p. 136.

14 / Ashcrof, Griffiths, Tiffin, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, p. 391.

15 / Havel, Open Letters, p. 258.

16 / Vladimir I. Lenin, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, New York 1939, p. 89.

17 / Moore, “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet?” p. 117.

18 / Quoted in Raymond Aron, Mémoires, Julliard, Paris 1983, p. 307.

19 / Thomas Pavel, “Empire et paradigmes,” Le Débat 58 (1990), p. 170–80.

20 / Pavel, “Empire et paradigmes,” p. 172.

21 / There is, by now, a rich literature documenting the history of this peculiar blindness. See, for example David Caute, The Fellow-Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment, Macmillan, New York 1973. On the subject of the French, see also Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1992; and also Francois Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, trans. Deborah Furet, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1999. One of the more vocal and prolific critics of the fellow-traveler phenomenon has been Jean-Francois Revel. In his latest book: Jean-Francois Revel, La Grande parade: Essai sur la survie de l’utopie socialiste, Pion, Paris 2000, he proposes that the French left has been using the theme of Nazi atrocities as a diversionary stratagem for avoiding the discussion of Soviet barbarism.

22 / Pavel, “Empire et paradigmes,” p. 173.

23 / L’Ère du soupçon, a book by Nathalie Sarraute published in 1956, was one of the key texts of the period and expressed an attitude of a new generation of authors and thinkers (the New Novelists, Structuralists, and Poststructuralists) intent on questioning the fundamental assumptions and premises of their forebears.

24 / Havel, Open Letters, p. 259.

25 / Ibid., p. 260.

26 / Ibid., p. 260.

27 / See, for example, Račevskis’ review of the Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 43, in Research in African Literatures 29.2 (1998), p. 14–18.

28 / Havel, Open Letters, p. 263.

29 / Ibid., p. 338.

30 / Eugenia S. Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, vol. 2, trans. Ian Boland, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, New York 1981, p. 418.

31 / I discuss this literature at length in my book, Modernity’s Pretenses: Making Reality Fit Reason from Candide to the Gulag, State University of New York Press, Albany 1998. See Chapter 7 in particular.

32 / S. Courtois, N. Werth, J. L. Panne, A. Paczkowski, K. Bartosek, J. L. Margolin, Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, repression, Robert Laffont, Paris 1997, translated as The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1999, p. 13.

33 / Alan Ryan, “The Evil Empire,” The New York Times Book Review, January 2, 2000, p. 12. Review of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1999.

34 / Carolyn Forché (ed.), Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, W.W. Norton, New York 1993, p. 29.

35 / Jean L. Nancy, Être singulier pluriel, Galilée, Paris 1996, p. 12.

36 / Ibid., p. 20.

37 / Ibid., p. 23.

38 / For a general account of Bels’ literary career, see the entry I co-authored with Prof. Ieva Kalniņa of the University of Latvia for: Steven Serafin (ed.), Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Eastern European Writers, vol. 232, Gale group, Detroit 2001, p. 15–20.

39 / Rolfs Ekmanis, Latvian Literature under the Soviets, 1940–1975, Nordland, Belmont 1978, p. 323.

40 / Alberts Bels, Latviešu labirints, Daugava, Riga 1998, p. 43.

41 / Alberts Bels, Uguns atspīdumi uz olu čaumalām, Daugava, Riga 1998, p. 107.

42 / Quoted in Karl E. Jirgens, “Carnival of Death: Writing in Latvia Since Independence,” World Literature Today 72/2 (1998), p. 269–281.

43 / Ibid.

44 / Ibid.

45 / Benjamin R. Barber, “Culture McWorld contre démocratie,” Le Monde Diplomatique 8 (1998), p. 10–16.

46 / Bels, Latviešu labirints, p. 145.

47 / Jānis Vējš, “Transition of Society, Transformation of Philosophy,” Metaphilosophy, 25/2–3 (1994), p. 143–55.

48 / Havel, Open Letters, p. 263.


Alberts Bels, Izmeklētājs, Liesma, Riga 1967.

Alberts Bels, Būris, Liesma, Riga 1972.

Alberts Bels, Bezmiegs, Liesma, Riga 1987.

Alberts Bels, Cilvēki laivās, Liesma, Riga 1987.

Eugenia S. Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, vol. 1, trans. Ian Boland, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, New York 1967.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, James Currey, London 1986.

Kārlis Račevskis, Modernity’s Pretenses: Making Reality Fit Reason from Candide to the Gulag, SUNY Press, Albany 1998.

Kārlis Račevskis, “Review of the Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 43,” Research in African Literatures 29/2 (1998), p. 14–18.

Nathalie Sarraute, L’ère du soupçon, Gallimard, Paris 1956.

Ilga B. Švecha, “Globalizäcija: draugs vai drauds Latvijai,” Universitas 80 (2000), p. 40–43.


Kārlis Račevskis, “Toward a Postcolonial Perspective on the Baltic States,” Baltic Postcolonialism, ed. Violeta Kelertas, Rodopi, Amsterdam and New York 2006, p. 165–186.