Caption: Still from Cicermanis’ film; yet another invasion survived!
A reviewer of a proposed book* in which I have a chapter had two questions for me. Paraphrased, the first question is one Latvians, when abroad, often hear, “Where or what is Latvia?” And the second deals with how my seemingly “non-specific” teaching approach in my class, the Democratic Workplace, relates to teaching specific democratic concepts in Latvia. As I thought about it, it seemed like my response would make a good essay. Emended, here are my answers to the two questions:
First, Latvia, a democratic nation since 1991, and a member of the European Union and NATO since 2004, has endured centuries of external rule, of imposed government. These impositions began in 1201 with the introduction of Christianity to the Baltic pagans by Bishop Albert. A brief cartoon film* by Janis Cicermanis, “Latvietis” simplistically but effectively sums up many Latvians’ shared worldview. A farmer sits outside his thatch roof farmhouse playing on his kokle, a type of zither. Clouds darken the skies as wave after wave of invaders and despots disturb his idyllic world of farming, beer brewing, bee keeping, music making, and simple living. Outsiders, from benign as Luther to murderous as Hitler and Stalin, force themselves into this farmer’s little world. While the three Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have their own unique cultures and languages – including art, literature, and music – others have long been determined to move in and tell the Balts what to do and how to do it. In spite of these blatant assimilation efforts - most recently by the Communist Soviet Union from 1944-1991 (the darkly termed, “Soviet Times”) - the Baltics’ culture survives, ever-the-while under threat of yet another imposition. Currently, it is feared by many that Putin’s Russia will once again claim the Baltics. A majority of Latvia’s large post-WWII Russian-speaking population identify as Russian-Latvians with no desire for Russian rule. My conclusion is based on a decade’s worth of personal observations and friendships in Latvia, recent news stories, and survey reports. However, any excuse may do for Mr. Putin. He has declared a Monroe doctrine type fatwa protecting the “rights” of Russian speakers the world over!
Unlikely as it may seem, the fear is real (think Ukraine) and dredges up for many Latvians the horrors and humiliations of Soviet Times – of coercive rule and the loss of freedom, of a deliberate “Russification”, of KGB interrogation and torture and disappearances into Siberia. When I teach the Democratic Workplace, I do so within a not-so-distant totalitarian context** and its consequent behaviors: Do not trust strangers, (one outstanding undergraduate told me “I trust no one”), talk openly only among immediate family, mind your own business, never speak up - speak softly, someone may be listening – and never offer your opinion. Never be different – do not stand out. In the workplace, do as you are told and go along to get along. Of course, there are exceptions among ethnic Russians and Latvians to this grim view– people who, throwing off the uniform of totalitarianism, embrace and relish freedom and achieve their dreams; after all, it is only human to desire freedom and to be creative, to express oneself, to seek and to arrive.
In my teaching in Latvia – now five years – I’ve broken away deliberately from the ubiquitous lecture/textbook teaching model (prevalent in both free and not-so-free societies). Instead, my emphasis is on working in teams, leading and following, the student’s thinking independently and critically in class and in group discussion among peers in their native language, and the questioning of authoritarian rule (with all its coercive certainties) vs. democratic rule (with all its ambiguities).
This emphasis is specific to creating leadership and workplace options in a post-totalitarian culture; and, importantly, to breaking away from the above enumerated behaviors from a despotic past.
That said, my approach to teaching these concepts could just as well be used – and indeed is - in some American classrooms to the benefit of many students who are not permitted as much freedom as they may want in their learning.
*Lubans, John “The Unfinished Work”: Organizational Democracy, in “Constantinou, Constantia, Michael Miller, and Kenneth Schlesinger, Editors. “International Librarianship: Developing Professional, Intercultural, and Educational Leadership.” Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016.
**A professor from Prague, serving on a May 1-2 panel
“Between Truth and Power” at the National Library of Latvia in Riga, spoke about the lingering effects of Soviet/Communist behavior. When a Czech, say in a shop, behaves in the Soviet manner – rude, dismissive, arrogant, belittling, etc – he smiles and calls the behavior. “Don’t give me this Soviet crap! I am the customer and you are the clerk. You get to serve me, not the other way around.” The Riga audience chuckled; perhaps resolving tacitly to do the same the next time someone puts on Soviet airs!
I have seen latent, anxiety-inducing, Soviet behavior in some - not all - Latvian bureaucracies; it’s tacitly understood: “We have you under our thumb and don’t you forget it!” Reminiscent of Merton’s “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality”, this anti-service attitude can be found in many bureaucracies the world over including the USA. It’s cured only when a people recognizes the behaviors as negative, removes offending supervisors and trains and disciplines employees to be genuinely client-centered, “to lean toward the customer”, not away.
© John Lubans 2015