by Zinta Aistars
It was 1974. I was just a kid, still with two more years ahead of me in high school.
The tears streaming over my face were angry ones, fierce with the sense of betrayal. No one had told me this part of my history. I had listened to all the stories my parents and grandparents had told me, I had attended Latvian school from age 3 through high school, sat through formal lectures and seminars, walked through war museums, paged through libraries. But not until I read Aleksandr Solzhenitysn’s Gulag Archipelago, a brutal account of Stalin’s concentration camps from 1918 to 1956, did I learn this part of my history—that Vladimir Lenin gained his power through the strength of an elite unit of Latvian soldiers. My God, my own countrymen? Could this be? Responsible for what would then follow, helping to plant seeds of what would become the Soviet Union, a system of bloodlust and terror? My own …
I read and reread the Gulag pages, the Russian dissident’s horrifying account of his treatment as a political prisoner under the rule of communism. The cruelest prison guards, he wrote, were the Latvians. My heart shattered inside me with shame and disappointment. When I confronted my parents with this new knowledge, their lips pinched and they nodded slowly. True. Yes. It was so. There were those among us who fought on the other side. The small elite unit that put Lenin into power was the military crème de la crème. And they were, in ethnic bloodline, my brothers.
The story of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn registered early on my radar. Born of parents who had come to the United States as WWII refugees as their native Latvia was swallowed by the oncoming Soviet army, I was accustomed to following political news from early childhood. I visited the Soviet Union the first time at age 15, with many return trips to follow. As much as someone looking in from the outside could—I understood. Which is, perhaps, not at all. But Solzhenitsyn filled in some marked gaps. And the role of my countrymen in the mad world he revealed to the rest of us, safe in our democracy, shook me to the core. For long months after reading the Gulag, I was unsure of my identity. That is, I knew who I was. Had always known. Latvian was my first language, the language we spoke at home. I hadn’t learned English until I attended public school. And still, I knew myself different. And gloried in it.
I gloried in the entirety of my Latvian identity. I had never felt that curious need to fit in as others my age seemed to; it was my status of difference that was most desirable. But now I had the sudden wish for the ground to open and swallow me up. My ethnic roots with me. I wished to be a girl without a country.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a hero. He was a political dissident who had put his dissident thoughts on paper, spoke them loud and clear, in defiance of one of the most fearsome governments that had ever existed. Instead of being silent after his imprisonment in the Russian gulag, his voice rang even louder, even more clear. His books spread like wildfire across all civilized nations, revealing the truth with courage. His first novel was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, followed by others, including Cancer Ward about his experience of suffering through cancer under Soviet imprisonment. He wrote Warning to the West, and it was just that. He wrote, no matter how the Soviets tried to choke the voice out of him. But he was not to be silenced, and if the Soviets did not simply eliminate the problem by their most frequent, if unoriginal solution to problems—execution—it was by another powerful weapon that he remained alive. The world was watching. Solzhenitsyn, via manuscripts smuggled out to the free world, had captured the imagination of the free world, and odd as it was, it was not weaponry the communists seemed to fear as much as public humiliation. They were all about image. The best they could do was to free the dissident and exile him. Deny the man the home he loved so much that he would risk his life to save it.
For the next 20 years, Solzhenitsyn continued to write, and he devoted himself to writing the truth at any cost. He would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He would give a commencement speech at Harvard, and once again dare to speak the truth, this time speaking to the new generation of fresh faced Americans about the shallowness of American materialism. He would return to his Mother Russia decades later, greeted by the current totalitarian, Putin, who would commend him on his literary contribution to Russian literature … yet somehow leave out his most important work, Gulag Archipelago.
The man seemed nearly invincible in his armor coat of blatant honesty. Until last Sunday, August 2, 2008, when his lion’s heart finally failed.
Thinking of him, I look through my bookshelves for that battered old copy of the Gulag from my teen years. Solzhenitsyn put me into a tailspin. He made me question my identity. He made me question my personal figures of authority. He made me take a closer look at the history of my ancestors, take a microscope to my own government. He caused me to redefine the world in which I live. Today, I am proud to call myself Latvian. Because, like Solzhenitsyn, my people have survived occupation after occupation, terror after terror, slavery and oppression. We, too, have made mistakes. Not all of us are heroes. Like any family, mine too has its strong and weak characters, heroes and cowards, the good and the bad. Like most of us, I love my family nonetheless.
Solzhenitsyn, too, never stopped loving his country or his people, despite the blood on their hands. He taught me—that the most patriotic thing any of us can do, is to speak to our own about our shortcomings. At any cost. With fierce determination. Until we change.