Saturday, December 24, 2011

5 A Latvian Latvia? By Way of Mime or Alterity?

Latvians living today abroad and removed from their forebears social environment by at least two, more likely three generations,  have no idea of the life-style in Latvia a hundred years or more ago.

The basic difference in the social environment is that between life in a household and life in a family, and between a profit system based on an exchange of gifts and favors and a social system based on money.

The household based social system rests on the development of communal bonds, while the money system rests on who has more money and the skills to make more money--at whatever the social cost.

I learned of the difference between the two systems in a crash course in 1940, when as a “rich kid…” (as one cranky ex-Latvian among the responders to these blogs describes the effects of my blogs on his limited experience and ability to interpret Latvian society, he evidently knows nothing about, and apparently is too conceited to want to learn more).

With the occupation in 1940 of Latvia by the Soviets, Latvia was confronted with the final phase in the destruction of its ancient social system, which was based on the household or what Latvians call “saime”. I have not read or heard a thing about saime in the Latvian media since my return to Latvia. The 'saime', has been utterly replaced by the family or “ģimene”, and this replacement has been the subject of many of my blogs in one way or another.

I met the “Sokleni” saime, when my father, “a rich kid” due to his father’s wealth, was suddenly faced with all his means of income nationalized. In order to save his family from destitution, he removed it to the countryside, where a sister of his mother, Made Jurjans, had a farm. Thus, at the age of eight, I met my aunt Emma Melbardis, nee Jurjans.

The Jurjans were then and still are, a well known family in Latvia. Back in the days of about a hundred years ago, the family was well established in the Vidzeme hights region, specifically round about the village of Ergļi. The Brothers Jurjans continue to be recognized as musicians, who organized the first horn (pūtēju) ansemble in Latvia, and were partly responsible for the creation of the Latvian opera .

I am innately fascinated with names, and have since childhood been interested in their origins. Unfortunately, in Latvia, knowledge of history is not a well developed area either in academia, media, or the public at large. One may excuse this by pointing out that Latvia is a poor country, and has few and little resources available for the study and research of history’. Today, the internet makes this easier—if only people clicked their “Search” buttons more often.

As to the origins of the Jurjan tribe, the Search button, when looking for “Jurjan” will bring the reader to the southern shores of the Caspian Sea , and a city by the name of Gorgan , in an ancient region of northwestern Persia (today Iran) known as Golestan. As the first sentence of the Wikipedia site has it: “The Volga trade route was established by the Varangian Rus who settled in Northwestern Russia in the early 9th century.

The relationship between the name of Jurjan and Gorgan must be sought traveling the etymological route. The consonants J and G are frequently interchangeable. Moreover, in former times, not all people could readily pronounce the consonant R, thus formerly Amsteldam is today’s Amsterdam, and the Golestan region remains Golestan, even though its capital city is Gorgan or perhaps Jurjan (to those Golestanis' who became Latvians). Incidentally, the name of Jurjan is met with in many European nations as a search for that name will discover.

It is rather surprising for a Latvian to discover that his maternal lineage takes him back to Persia, and that the dark locks of hair that made my aunt and grandmother somewhat “sprogaina” may originate in the area of the Caspitan sea. So much for the Westernized Latvians’ attempts to drag me into the system of “money” that destroyed and keeps destroying through “civilization” the household traditions of Latvian saime that was the corner stone of Latvian society a century ago.

The “saime” of Sokleni, consisted of my aunt Emma, her husband Rudis (Rudolfs) Melbārdis, their two step children, uncle Rudis brother Karl, a retired sailor and man of all trades (smith, wagon maker, horse trainer, etc.), two household helpers (one from Poland), young women both, milk maids, a family of three “young farmers” (husband, wife, and daughter Valda), my own family, consisting of a mother with three children, and before he had to return to Riga and face arrest, my father, too, did his chores as a farm hand. All in all, the saime consisted of fifteen people, with Sergey, a Russian prisoner of war, joining as a trustee, in a later year.

When the war began, and the farm house (visible from the highway) was often filled with fleeing civilians and military, aunt Emma fired up the bread oven, opened the honey pots, and fed, both, the fleeing Russian and advancing German troops. The livestock of the household consisted of 25 cows and a bull, 12 horses, 35 sheep, 10 pigs, one cat, and two dogs, innumerable chickens and ducks. When let graze in the open field, the latter were in my charge. It was this social unit that went through the war as one community, not basing its economy so much on money, as on cooperation, a criss-cross of personal bonds, and the will to survive and stay alive.

Far removed from such households/ saimes as existed in centuries before it, Sokleni, nevertheless, was less an imitation of same, as an alterity, a recreation of a traditional social system. Violence and vulgar behavior was not tolerated, and was dealt with on holidays. Indeed, the famous brawls of Latvian holidays, often were not the result of drunkenness, but a ground for settling scores which it was not convenient to settle at home.

It is interesting that “the rich boy” with plenty of money in pocket and bank account, was forced to return to the traditional and still existent household system, when time came for ‘naked’ survival. Today’s urbanites have no idea whence or what the social environment of their forebears. It is a shame that urban “virtualism” reigning in Riga should dictate Latvia its future through an advertisement oriented social setting.

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