Rita Laima’s new memoir, Skylarks & Rebels, chronicles her unique personal story, and in so doing, captures the trajectory of Latvian history and grapples with the crises of identity faced by all exiles and émigrés. Laima was born in the United States to Latvian parents who were forced to flee their country’s postwar Soviet occupation, but she returned to Latvia as a young adult in the 1980s out of a sense of national obligation and cultural belonging. She raised her children in Soviet Latvia during the period of Latvia’s liberation and the Soviet collapse. Her unique vantage point—between America and Latvia, between Soviet totalitarianism and the tenuous but exciting freedom of post-Soviet Latvia—makes her story worth studying as a window into the struggle for identity and belonging that defines the lives and culture of exiles and émigrés in America.
At its core, Laima’s memoir asks the question, “do political exiles and persecuted émigrés have a responsibility to the country that their families fled?” I suspect Laima’s answer would be “yes,” but it’s not an easy answer to give, and whether that responsibility necessarily entails a physical return to one’s native country is an even more difficult question. As of 2012, there were approximately 370,000 people of Latvian descent living abroad. For comparison, the population of Latvia was around two million in 2012, and shrinking. The relationship that Latvia has with its sizeable diaspora—particularly the portion of it that left before the country’s 2004 EU accession made intra-European economic migration de rigueur for young Latvians—is important for both the Latvian state and Latvian exiles and émigrés in America, but a moving target nevertheless.
The Latvian state would like to address its shrinking population and growing demographic problem by enticing its diaspora home. However, the Latvian diaspora was instrumental in securing the sympathies of American officials and keeping alive the hope of Latvian independence during Soviet occupation. When Latvia was threatened by Soviet Russification policies, the diaspora helped preserve Latvian culture by establishing Latvian-language publishing houses (approximately 1,500 book titles), newspapers (Laiks), literary journals (Jauna Gaita), and organizations (the North American Latvian Cultural Fund and Joint Baltic-American National Committee) beyond the reach of Soviet policies. In the 21st Century, when Russian designs once again threaten Latvia in a more conventional martial way, the Latvian state recognizes the important role that the Latvian diaspora plays in educating Latvia’s NATO and EU allies about Latvia’s history, culture, and dire geopolitical position—a goal Laima’s memoir contributes to.
On the flip side of this relationship, the Latvian diaspora never stopped singing for the Tēvzemei, or Fatherland. Literally. Traditional Latvian folksongs are an integral part of Latvian diaspora culture, as are Latvian summer camps and language schools. The exile culture that Laima experienced as a child in the US was made viscerally personal and politically powerful by the premise that “we have lost our home, and we want it back.” Laima, and many émigrés like her, took that premise to heart, and returned to their home when the opportunity arose. She also returned to the US after nearly two decades in Latvia, embodying a new émigré ideal that might be greater than its constituent parts: she serves Latvia through the prism of America, and serves America through the prism of Latvia.
Laima consciously takes her seat at the roundtable discussion—ongoing for a century in foreign language magazines, peoples’ kitchens, religious Sunday schools, and ethnic summer camps—about what it means to be an exile and an émigré. She writes,
My story will resonate with the descendants of Balts and East Europeans whose countries ended up behind the Soviet Iron Curtain after the war, whose families became refugees, and who sought to preserve their ethnic identity while becoming part of America. This is why I feel a deep kinship with my fellow Balts and with Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Hungarians, Jews, etc. Some of us still wonder where home is.
In my research, I have interviewed many people from these formerly captive nations, and their questions and conversations about identity and duty are remarkably similar. A Cuban friend living in Miami once told me, “never forget, we are political exiles, living in protest, and will return to Cuba as soon as it is free.” But other political exiles from the former Soviet Union have staked their reputations on similar claims and failed to follow through. In a published email exchange between Russian journalist Masha Gessen (who returned to post-Soviet Russia), and her brother Keith Gessen (who did not), Keith writes, “1991 was the end of Russian émigré culture, and for the dissidents who failed, after 1991, to return, it was the end of their political lives—which were, for so many of them, the best lives they had.” Uncharitable, maybe, but also not an unusual stance.
Lest we forget, many people who left communist countries did so simply to feed their families, though to call them “economic migrants” would belie the political roots of their poverty. Running a country into poverty and death through gross negligence, corruption, and submission to an unabashedly violent and consciously ruinous political philosophy is its own peculiar form of political persecution, suffered most recently and most urgently by Venezuelans.
The people who run from this type of poverty, though not out-and-out political dissidents, also deserve a stake in the rich debate about political and cultural identity. Maybe they expect to return one day, and like Laima, they would be a credit and a benefit to their nation if they did, bringing a little piece of America with them. But until then, those who would deny exiles and émigrés the pleasure of grappling with the complicated question of “where is home?” ought to read Laima’s memoir.