Anna Zigure, a Latvian diplomat and writer, is visiting Ukraine. Her appearance in Kyiv is part of the project “Our Way to Independence” organized by the Embassy of Latvia and the National Art Museum of Ukraine. In an exclusive interview with Den/The Day, Ms. Zigure shared her vision of the current acute problems in the international informational and cultural policy, spoke about trends in contemporary Latvian literature and her extraordinary family in which there were a lot of writers and poets.
As a former ambassador of Latvia to Finland, would you advise Ukraine to adopt the Soviet-Finnish model in its relations with Russia?
“Finland underwent a lot of ordeals and had to sacrifice many things. It lost some very important territories. About 500,000 people were evacuated from them, particularly from a part of Karelia annexed by the Soviet Union. The Finns had no other option but to establish relations, for they were aware that, being a small country, Finland would be unable to constantly defend itself. The then Finnish President Urho Kekkonen once said: ‘Find your friends near and your enemies far.’ But the Finns still do not forget to exercise caution, for they know that many things in the neighboring country are based on lies.”
What is Latvia’s attitude to the Maidan and the current events in Ukraine?
“All who can receive unbiased information, not only from Russian channels, sympathize with you and understand that the situation in Ukraine is very far from the media-hyped ‘fascism’ and ‘radicalism.’ But it is only your country’s informational policy, especially the one you pursue abroad, that can provide a true picture of all events, explain all ambiguities, and avoid distortions. Ukraine itself should speak more to the world, not the other way round. For if there emerges information vacuum somewhere, the adversary receives a nice opportunity to fill it and present the vision he needs.
“The Ukrainians have again showed the world their strength and unity, and these things must continue to be a valuable foundation on which a modern state can only exist. It is very dangerous to have no solidarity and bridges of mutual understanding at such turning points of history. Do not lose your benchmarks, for it is very important to come out ‘for,’ not ‘against,’ an idea. A positive orientation is in itself a source of strength for the people.”
To what extent constructive is a dialog in Latvia between the Lettish- and Russian-speaking people? Is there such a dialog in literature?
“You see, there is a certain informational division in Latvian society: the Lettish-speaking and the Russian-speaking citizens of Latvia seem to exist in two different media spaces and some of them are even in ‘television isolation.’ Still, I recently read an interview with Marina Kosteneckaja, a contemporary Russian-born Latvian writer. She is taking an unbiased attitude to the events in Ukraine, taking into account not only the political side of the matter. Yes, intellectuals will always be seeking points of contact and trying to understand their opponents. But, on the other hand, look at what is happening to intellectuals in Russia itself…
“In general, the need of a dialog is already a foundation for normal development. We know that Latvia is, politically and strategically, one of the key Baltic countries, so the solution of many problems here influences, one way or another, the entire region, as does Latvia’s ‘line of destiny’ – the River Daugava that flows across the entire Central and Eastern Europe.
“As for the Russian-language literature of Latvia, it is rather modest – it is just another component of modern culture. We have a lot of reciprocal translations, so I can’t say in this case that these literatures exist in parallel dimensions.”
What could you single out in contemporary Latvian literature?
“I would love to see the Ukrainian translation of a book by the Latvian writer, poetess, and playwright Mara Zalite. What especially touched me are the marvelous reminiscences about her family in Siberian exile and the return of a 5-year-old girl to her native country, Latvia. It is a story of knowing and accepting the home, a story of surprises and discoveries. It has also struck a chord with me, for, strange as it may sound, I first saw a Latvian flag at the age of 40. For me, this book is like the returning to all Latvians of what they have lost. Besides, I would advise you to read our poets because Latvian literature is, above all, the literature of poets.”
You come from a family of writers, which also suffered persecution: your grandmother, poetess Elsa Sterste, was sentenced to a prison camp term; your grandfather, the famous poet Edvarts Virza, and father Janis Zigurs, also a writer and translator, were under pressure; your family estate Billi Tes was nationalized…
“Yes, we’ve been through quite an ordeal… As for my grandma, it is an incredible story! She was born in 1885 in Jelgava, graduated from the Petersburg Conservatoire, and wanted to be a pianist, but some problems with her hand prevented her from fully achieving this dream. So she decided to study French literature and went to the Sorbonne. When she came back to her kith and kin, Word War One broke out, and when Latvia gained independence in 1918, she returned to her fatherland and married my grandpa, the outstanding Lettish poet Edvarts Virza who was absolutely unknown in the Soviet era. During World War Two she decided to emigrate to the West. In the Soviet Union, far from all shared her cultural likings – it was just a small group of intellectuals, admirers of French culture, who used to gather at Riga apartments in the first postwar years to hold professional discussions. Most of them translated French literature. So my grandma and other participants of what the KGB called ‘French group’ were arrested in 1951. As one of the organizers, grandma was given the harshest sentence – 25 years in prison. Luckily, she came back after the death of Stalin. After a stroke, she had the left part of her body paralyzed, but she continued to write, even though some of her works were banned. A really strong woman, she helped me very much when I studied at Tartu. Despite everything, grandma lived for about 90 years. And the building you have mentioned was returned to our family in the years of independence. Now it houses a museum of my grandfather, the poet, writer, and translator Edvarts Virza.”
As a writer, diplomat, and chairperson of the board of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia Foundation, what could you say about your country’s cultural policy?
“In my opinion, cultural diplomacy is no less important than, say, economic diplomacy. The display of culture and the establishment of governmental institutions to promote it is one of the basic principles of a modern state, without which a county is doomed to international ‘muteness.’ For example, we have a number of institutions that help perform these functions: the Lettish Institute, the Lettish Literary Center, the House of the Writer and the Translator in Ventspils, and other state-run programs.
“But we created all this from scratch, for Latvia had no cultural or any other diplomacy. When I came to Finland as ambassador, my secretary and I had to do everything on our own – from ‘cultural bridges’ to paying electricity charges. This always happens in the beginning. But today Riga is the European Capital of Culture 2014. So let me invite you to our city!”