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Reviewed by:
  • Imagining the Nation: History, Modernity, and Revolution in Latvia
  • Ints Silins, U.S. Ambassador to Latvia, 1991–1995
Daina Stukuls Eglitis , Imagining the Nation: History, Modernity, and Revolution in Latvia. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. 265 pp. $35, cloth.

Latvia is one of the more interesting successes to arise from the collapse of the Soviet Union, not least because of the odds initially facing this small country. Except for twodecades between World Wars I and II, Latvians were subjugated by Swedes, Poles,Germans and Russians for so many centuries that it seemed fate had meant them to be little more than connoisseurs of occupation. During the half century of Soviet rule, even Latvia's national identity and survival came under threat. By 1989 [End Page 208] the influx ofsoldiers, apparatchiki and workers into Latvia from elsewhere in the USSR, mostly ethnic Russians, had reduced Latvians' share of the population to an imperiled majority of 52 percent. The Russian empire, reincarnated as the USSR, seemed about to swallow up Latvia for good. Yet today Latvia has regained its vigor and independence, is building prosperity on the basis of democratic institutions, and has attained membership in both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU)—all with a minimum of violence and turmoil. How did this happen?

Daina Eglitis's book helps us toward an understanding of how Latvia's "singing revolution" led to this improbable but welcome result. A sociologist, she offers a well-researched analysis of the early years of Latvia's transition from Communism and occupation to democracy and freedom, examining electoral politics, citizenship, language, property issues, and gender relations. Her central contention is that the transformations in Latvia and its neighbors in the early 1990s had as their goal not some new utopia, as did the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, but simply normality. These softer post-Communist revolutions were driven by a broadly-shared conviction that the economic, social, political, and even gender relations of the Soviet era had been distorted and in some sense unnatural. Eglitis suggests that the ratcheting down of the ideological volume implicit in non-utopian revolutions aiming at normality goes far toward explaining why the post-Communist metamorphoses of the Baltic states, dramatic and far-reaching though they were, did not degenerate into violence, as in the Balkans. In Latvia, especially, the ethnic tensions created by the enormous number of Soviet migrants could easily have exploded into violence.

Normality, of course, begs definition. In the run-up to Latvian independence, with the focus on undoing Soviet rule, the definition could be left vague. After independence, simmering disagreements surfaced. Eglitis sorts the competing positions by postulating four idealized ways of seeing Latvia's past, present, and future—what she calls "narratives of change." These she labels spatial, temporal, evolutionary and reactionary.

The spatial and temporal perspectives dominated, Eglitis says. The spatial narrative defines normality according to a place, namely Western Europe, whereas the temporal perspective defines normality for Latvia by a period in time, the two decades of Latvia's interwar independence. The spatial model of normality was provided by Western institutions and practices, and the way to reach it was through speedy membership in the EU and NATO. Many Latvians perceived Russia as a potential danger, but they also believed it would be dangerous if they failed to integrate resident Russians into Latvian society or experienced a severe deterioration of ties with Russia. Either of these outcomes would have imperiled EU and NATO membership.

The temporal definition of normality seeks to reestablish the institutions, norms, and values prevailing during Latvia's interwar independence. This is the viewpoint of the most nationalistic groups; it gives priority not to modernization but to tradition and Latvian-ness. Its adherents insist on the continuity between interwar and current-day Latvia (hence, for example, their insistence on restitution of property seized by the Communists even when this goes against economic logic, as with the restoration of [End Page 209] farmland to aging, absent owners uninterested in farming). Proponents of this view see more danger in the integration than the non-integration of the Russian minority because of its threatening...