Pūt vējiņi: Of individual freedom

Posted by jlubans on January 02, 2012

20120102-lk-084.jpgAs we leave the old year for the new, I am reminded of a story about our innate desire for individual freedom and how it survives and finds expression even under the worst of conditions. Egils Otlans, a Latvian-American friend, told the story to me a few weeks ago. His family, like mine, fled the Russians at the close of WW2 and, as refugees, wound up in the USA to start a new life.

Egils returned to Latvia sooner than I did. While I came back in 2000, he was one of many Latvian-American tourists to visit Riga and Latvia during the 70s and 80s, when the Soviet occupation of the Baltics was in full force.

When he went, the only option was through Intourist, the communist travel service. It was a moneymaker (all those refugees yearning to see their homeland and the families left behind) and it was an espionage service. Run by KGB and NKVD – with graduates from a different kind of hospitality school - tourists were strictly limited in what they could do, whom they could see, and where they could go. All facilities and services were under Intourist – no options. Intourist hotel rooms were bugged and employed hundreds of listeners. Mail was routinely intercepted and read.

On Egils’ visit to Riga he saw a city that had once been beautiful and was now dilapidated, neglected. He encountered first hand the grim realities and absurdities when individual freedom is banished. (My mother also visited occupied Latvia and her stories confirm what Egils and hundreds of other visitors saw.)

At tour’s end, Egils was seated with the other tourists outside the Intourist hotel on the Intourist bus. On the sidewalk were family members, friends (and Russian police). Since Latvians are “slightly crazy” about flowers, everyone on the bus and on the sidewalk probably had farewell bouquets. It was time to depart. Egils told me that several elderly visitors believed they would never see their Latvian relatives again.

Besides a genetic love for flowers, Latvians often sing, putting their emotions into music. Music defines Latvia, the Latvian language and its heritage. Of course, the national anthem could not be sung – it would be a crime to do so and would result in some sort of recrimination by the police – maybe a one-way trip to the notorious House on the Corner*, KGB headquarters, on (then) Lenin and Friedrich Engels streets.

Slowly, one voice started the first words of a national folk song, a song as well known as the national anthem: Pūt vējiņi (Blow wind, blow**.) All joined in - on the bus and on the sidewalk – and their voices blended and the sad melody soared. Soon everyone, including Egils, was in tears. The police, befuddled, stood by, not knowing what to do.

And that is how Egils’ tour to Latvia ended.

See a performance of the song with thousands of voices, here.

*What is the tallest building in Riga?
The answer was “The House on the Corner”, because from its sixth floor you could see Siberia.

**Put, vejini (Latvian Folk Song)
Arranged by Andrejs Jurjans (1856-1922)

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