Looking History in the Eye. Gints Grūbe Speaks about the Baltic Way

Looking History in the Eye. Gints Grūbe Speaks about the Baltic Way
Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014 . Gints Grūbe
Una Griškeviča
The international conference “25 Years After. The Baltic Way and the Collapse of Totalitarian Communism: European Memory and Political Inspiration” is held at the University of Latvia and the Corner House on the 21st and 22nd of August. “The reference point for the conference is the 100th anniversary of World War I that we mark this year, and the Baltic countries for which this war, in fact, ended with the restoration of their independence,” Gints Grūbe, the curator of the “Freedom Street” thematic line in the “Riga 2014” Programme, tells the culture portal “Riga 2014”.

Gints Grūbe reminds us that the Baltic Way twenty-five years ago took place at a time that may be considered the end of World War I for Latvia, and the entire concept of the Corner House is also largely meant to emphasise this fact. There also are several historical problems that have not been sufficiently analysed and discussed. To some, all of this is obvious – after all, we have seen it with our own eyes, but there is an entire generation that did not have such first-hand experience of what was happening in Latvia at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, and such historic phenomena are usually – for many reasons – analysed and discussed about twenty years after they have happened.

“At the time the statehood of Latvia was being restored, our historians were busy with many other problems – things that had been taboo during the entire period of Soviet occupation, such as collaboration with the totalitarian regime – a historic trauma that has been haunting several generations. That is, those are the subjects that we have not discussed, or thought about, very much.

Also, the Corner House has come as a surprise to many people – the way it has been preserved and due to the fact that it is now a museum with meaningful content.

Therefore the organisers of the conference thought that one of the days of the conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Baltic Way had to be dedicated to in-depth and analytical discussions, talks on the theme “Individual in a Totalitarian System”, whereas the other subject of the conference deals with historical memory and the events of the twentieth century that affected several generations.

“In German or English, there’s the term “historical collective memory”, but what we have in Latvian are artificial constructions that carry no real meaning. There are several reasons for this – our history, because of geopolitical and other factors, is rather complex, we have not focused on one theme or another, they are suspended in the air.”

Gints agrees that Latvians do not like to talk about history, and reminds that the problem of the Corner House is also suspended – in the sense that it still has not been decided what will happen with the building and with the memories represented in the building via exhibitions. “That is why several witnesses to these events have been invited to participate in the conference, who could express their opinion on these matters. For instance, the process of revising the collective memory regarding the Holocaust is under way in Germany, and there is comprehensive work being done, for several generations, to rethink the events of the Second World War. It is not so here, and that is why we are always targeted by new kinds of propaganda, also in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, which further undermines our value system, makes it more erratic. People believe all kinds of propaganda tools, people are manipulated. The same goes for everything that concerns KGB documents and the efforts to make them public – the very fact that there are certain political parties that have made these issues part of their political platform and a political instrument proves that we are not ready yet to talk about these problems. If we were, it would be proof of our maturity.”

“Our minds continue to be captive,” says Gints Grūbe in a reference to Czesław Miłosz’s book, emphasising that it requires a certain level of maturity for us to freely speak about the fact that people collaborated with the Soviet authorities, and discuss why they did so. “It needs certain daring, and some kind of institutional progress,” he notes. Many people seem to believe that, while opening the KGB building to the general public was a good thing, the work on the problem will come to a halt once the “Riga 2014” Programme ends.

“But even if it does happen so, in a worst-case scenario, it does not mean that these wounds will heal. On the contrary, any attempt to turn a blind eye to a problem or refuse to discuss it will only make it worse.”

Several persons who organised the Baltic Way – then Popular Front leaders Sandra Kalniete, Vita Matiss, Dainis Īvāns – participate in the conference, as well as several collective memory researchers from Germany. “These people studied Stasi archive materials and how it turned out after the fall of the Berlin Wall that respected figures in Eastern Germany had collaborated with the authorities. We have not been through this process. In my opinion, it is because we are trying to fool ourselves into believing that we will keep the peace that way. However, such peace is deceptive…” Gints Grūbe indicates.

In answering our question if a monograph has been written or a film has been shot on the Baltic Way, Gints Grūbe reminds us that Askolds Saulītis’ new film “Baltijas brīvības ceļš” (“The Baltic Way to Freedom”) will be aired by the Latvian State Television in the evening of the 23rd of August, whereas materials of the conference will be collated and released in print.

“We have organised conferences about the start of World War I and about World War II. We have also discussed the latest political developments at various conferences, but recent history of the events that happened twenty or twenty-five years ago… That is something new. A Hungarian writer, who has written several novels on the history of the Holocaust, said that the first novels on this theme were written twenty-five years after the Holocaust.

It means that either the trauma was very painful or the process of change was so quick and controversial, and so far-reaching, that we have not really appreciated this turning point in our history at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s.

Because the Baltic Way was a symbolic act that encompassed other, much greater events – not only the restoration of the statehood of the Baltic countries but also a number of human tragedies associated with this process of change. The Baltic Way symbolised fantastic hopes people had,” concludes Gints Grūbe, adding that, if there was such a call today, people would take to the streets and join hands again. “I believe the referendum on the state language proved it. I think that the situation in the world has escalated so much that any challenge becomes a challenge to the Baltic countries’ co-operation. And I believe to me that the Baltic co-operation continues to develop, at a much more serious level than at that time. The potential for security in the Baltics is not being created from scratch, it is based on the co-operation ties that existed at the time the Baltic Way was organised.”

The programme of the conference is available here.

The conference is streamed live on the “Riga 2014” portal on the 21st and 22nd of August.

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