National poet of Latvia

National Poet of Latvia, Rainis

RIGA – Latvian poet, translator, social democratic journalist and politician Rainis, died on September 12, 1929. Hours before his death, Rainis penned an article in Russian called “Латвийцы”, or Latvians. It was published in the Russian-language newspaper Сегодня/Segodnya on September 29, 1929, in an edition devoted to the 10th anniversary of the newspaper. The article is often quoted by the Russian political groups, who misinterpret it and take it out of context.

A little needs to be said about the title. English is somewhat vague using the term Latvians. It could refer to either an ethnic group of Latvians, or it could refer to the citizens of Latvia. And the two do not often mean the same thing. There is an archaic English word: “Letts,” which refers to ethnic Latvians. Consequently, Lettish is a derivative adjective. It is used in this text to mean the same thing, even though the word is hardly in use any more. The following in my translation of the article from the original Russian into English:

When I am asked a question about literature as a means of convergence between the Russian and Latvian peoples, I first and foremost am reminded of the conditions for the existence of the minorities in Latvia. The conditions undoubtedly are favorable. Cultural autonomy forged a gratifying soil for mutual understanding.

But there are few fruits yet. What especially attracts my attention is that this aspiration to converge is first exhibited by the Jews. Significantly less frequent attempts are made by the Russian minority, and even less by the German minority. The reasons as I see are that Russians and Germans considering themselves peoples with ancient great culture are unwilling to make first steps towards the convergence.

The text of the article

But, by the way, that convergence is extremely necessary and it ought to take place best of all through the mutual exchange of literary works.

When it comes to the Russian literature, we, the Letts, have always been interested in it, have learned from great Russian writers. It’s true that Russians showed little interest in the Latvian literature, they rarely noticed it. I must note, however, this one comforting exception. Your newspaper more than other minority publications always promoted the need for cultural convergence. I didn’t have an opportunity to follow Segodnya regularly because I spent a lot of time traveling, but in the previous years, and by those issues that I did read in the last few months I was convinced that this is one of those few newspapers, which often presents their readers with examples of translated works of the best Lettish authors, follows the work of our theaters, and shows interest in the new Lettish literature and works of the Lettish artists.

All of that, of course, impacts the drive toward the convergence of the two people. The fact that Segodnya broadly informs readers about the successes of the Lettish artists and actors abroad as well as the cultural initiatives of the Letts, I am ready to credit as an accomplishment of the minority leaders, who attempt to establish cultural connection with Latvians. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the Germans. But even more than Russians, the convergence with Letts occupies, as it is seen, the Jews and the Poles, often underscoring their interest in the Lettish culture.

Convergence of the people has to start, of course, in schools. Up until now, the convergence of the young generation has not taken place systemically. Detachment is detrimental not only to Letts, but also to the minorities themselves. This occurrence is unhealthy and inappropriate. The Germans, for example, uselessly disassociate themselves from the Letts, often forgetting that they are not going the same way as the foreign Germans. The ideology of the Latvian Germans and proper Germans is significantly different. The Russian youth rarely adopts the need for the cultural convergence. As I have already mentioned, predominantly Jewish youth, who well-mastered the Latvian language, makes a pleasant exception.

I would like to point out to Switzerland as an example of a country where peacefully co-exist three peoples. Each Swiss – be it a German, a French or an Italian – has only one motherland. It is Switzerland. And everywhere they call themselves Swiss. Latvia is too far from the ideal brotherhood of the peoples.

We, in the Lettish language, don’t even have a special word, signifying a Latvian [resident of Latvia], corresponding to the Russian word “россиянин” [resident of Russia] in Russian. I supported the need for introduction of a word which could denote all peoples residing in Latvia. I offered the word “latvijetis”, in Russian латвиец. But my proposition didn’t find supporters. Latvia’s Russian, a German or a Jew finding himself outside of Latvia will definitely say that he is a Russian from Latvia; a German from Latvia; a Jew from Latvia. A foreigner doesn’t understand this. Being in Palestine, I was often asked what the state language of Latvia was, what the languages of minorities were. I answered that our minorities didn’t assimilate to majority and they all speak their own language. But my interviewers weren’t satisfied.

“Why is it that all Latvian citizens don’t think of themselves as Latvians, but think of themselves as Russians, Germans and Jews?”

I ran into three Jewish students in Brussels. Many times I have told them who I was and I asked them in German which nationality they were.

The answer followed: “Wir sind lettlender.” It turned out that they speak Lettish well and present themselves as Latvians (латвиец).

This was a very comforting phenomenon, and it characterizes the mood of the new Latvian youth-minority, a new generation of Latvians.

At one time I was asked by two young beginner writers, both Jewish. They were asking me for help in publishing their works, written in Lettish.

As you can see the young generation of Latvians is predisposed to the process of convergence. At first, it has been done by the Jews, now it’s time for others, a few timid (when it comes to that kind of convergence) peoples, but even here, the new beginnings are being shown and it makes me happy and excited.


  • Jim Staley says:

    Thank you for posting this! It’s still thought-provoking and modern, even though so much has changed since 1929. My own “Lettish” is not good enough for easy reading of Rainis and I greatly feel the lack, as so little of his work is available in English. Thanks again.

  • Baron Tornakalns says:

    Really thought-provoking for so many different reasons. Many, many thanks for taking the time to produce this excellent and important translation.

  • Dina says:

    Yeah, but Jews started it, as always ;)

  • Dina says:

    But seriously, we have some serious problems here with nationalities and languages and terminology that is nationality/citizenship related. There’s so much aggression and mess!

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