Hell (and heaven) on Earth:
Latvians in Lejas Bulāna By
Many Latvians think of Siberia as a wintry hell that swallowed up
thousands of their compatriots during Stalin's rule. However, in a
much less known story, this vast territory is also home to the
village of Lejas Bulāna, a place that can probably claim to be the
longest surviving Latvian diaspora settlement in the world.
While most Latvians
in the West arrived in the same migration flow in the early 1950s,
those heading to the East have been a much more varied bunch. During
World War I, much of the population of Latvia fled to Russia to
escape the invading Germans. Some of them couldn't return to their
homeland after 1918, while many committed communists willingly
stayed on. The post-revolutionary Latvians in Russia published
newspapers, ran schools and theatres, and provided numerous
high-ranking officials in the Bolshevik regime, who were massacred
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Quite a few who
survived the 1940s deportations from Latvia chose not to return home
after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's death and are still living in
Russia to this day. They were joined by thousands of others in the
1960s and 1970s who moved east to take up jobs or join spouses.
The residents of
Lejas Bulāna trace their roots back well before these migrations.
Their ancestors must have passed on some tough genes, because after
almost a century and a half, its 140-odd people still speak the
language of their ancestors and have preserved traditions that have
died out even in Latvia itself.
The foundation of Bulāna
is a tale of sinners and saviours. Long before the creation of the
Soviet Union, many people from the Western provinces of the Russian
Empire were being deported to Siberia for real or imaginary crimes.
By the mid 19th century, the spiritual authorities were becoming
concerned about the souls of this scattered flock.
About 1845 the Moscow
Lutheran consistory sent a minister by the name of Sederholm to make
a survey of their co-religionists in exile. After a journey of some
15,000 kilometres he concluded that it was impossible to minister to
such a widely scattered group, and so in 1851 the Russian government
ordered that in future all Lutheran deportees should be settled in
the Minusinsk district around the southern reaches of the Yenesei
River. In 1858 several Latvian and German families settled on the
banks of a Yenesei tributary, the Kebezh River, which the people of
Bulāna to this day refer to by the very Latvian name Lielupe.
Separate Finnish and Estonian villages were also founded in the area.
The people living in
Bulāna today are mostly the descendants of these 19th century
colonists. Time has erased most memories of these beginnings, but
most think that their ancestors came from Kurzeme, the western
province of Latvia. One old woman remembers her grandmother
recounting how it took her a year to walk to Bulāna.
More can be learned
from the memoirs of Jānis Driķis, a teacher in Bulāna at the turn
of the century. Driķis wrote that the driving force behind the
establishment of Bulāna was a German minister named Kosman, who for
three summers travelled from Irkutsk to oversee the colony. He was
an energetic man who taught the villagers to build houses, brought
in school teachers and tried to correct the wayward path of some
villagers who drank away the horses and seeds they had been given
Kosman said he wished
to settle in Bulāna full time and asked the villagers to build him
a house and tend some fields to support him. But they objected to
what they saw as a reintroduction of German and baronial authority
-- and sent him packing. Occasional clashes were reported between
the German and Latvian residents of the village, but after a few
generations it seems that the Latvians assimilated their neighbours.
followed Kosman, none of whom had an easy time. One problem was a
shortage of women. Because few deportees were allowed to bring their
spouses with them and exiles were considered as being divorced from
commitments back in their homelands. The villagers refused to have
Russian brides and so when groups of deported Latvian women were
brought in, both genders were lined up facing each other and instant
Early in the life of
the colony gold was discovered in the nearby Sayan Mountains. Many
young men departed to seek their fortunes. Driśis describes the
short, turbulent lives of the miners, most of whom returned to Bulāna
from the diggings in autumn, caroused away their money, and were
indentured by leaders of mine gangs who paid off the drinkers' debts
in return for work.
However, the land
proved to be a more durable resource. The rich black soil and short,
hot summers of this area allow the growing of many crops, including
sunflowers and watermelons. In addition to these natural advantages,
Driśis wrote that the sturdier pioneers, often those deported for
trivial offences, thrived away from the dominating German landowners
in Latvia. Free to chop timber and use meadows where they pleased,
the settlers began writing home that they had found a land "where
milk and honey flows." Free settlers began moving in. According
to the 1897 Russian census, the village had 910 inhabitants, of whom
786 were Latvians. In that year in Western Siberia as a whole there
were 6,768 Latvians, 4,082 Estonians and 2,038 Lithuanians.
This census also
reveals the relatively high education level of the Latvian colonists,
with 69 percent of men and 60 percent of women aged 20 to 29 being
able to read. Fifty-five percent of the Latvians were farmers, with
16 percent engaged in mining or metallurgy.
Credit for the high
educational standards may go to the village school established in
1860 and to the church opened in 1886. Both these institutions
survived the horrors of the 20th century and are crucial to
community life today.
After the ravages of
World War I and the Russian Civil War, Bulāna never regained its
previous population level. In the early 1930s the Communist
collectivisation drives forced the farmers out of their freestanding
homesteads and into the village proper. The wealthier ones, or those
who had simply earned the ire of the authorities for one reason or
another, were deported to the far north of Siberia. The old people
in the village remember the early years of collectivisation as times
of slavery and hunger, as they were forced to work for no pay and
could be punished for hiding food from the commissars.
The village church
was converted into a social club after its steeple was torn down.
Religious books were destroyed. And the saying that he who burns
books will soon burn people came to fruition, as Stalin's mass
purges decimated the Latvian population in Russia. Bulāna also fell
victim with dozens of men taken away on trumped-up charges and shot.
At least 147 people
were executed or deported from Bulāna in the 1930s. Simultaneously,
teaching in Latvian at the school was banned, as were all
World War II also cut
a swath through the village. In the early stages of the German
invasion of the Soviet Union, Latvians were not conscripted into the
Red Army because they were considered a suspect group by the regime,
but this policy changed toward the end of 1941 as the military
situation worsened. Starting with the battles near Moscow in late
1941, most of the young men from the village were killed fighting on
various fronts. Two surviving veterans still living in Bulāna,
Aleksandrs Melbārdis and Roberts Atklībers, both spent a few
months in Latvia towards the end of the war when their units were
The old villagers
remember the years after Stalin's death in 1953 as a time of
relative peace and prosperity. Bans on peasants leaving their
villages were lifted and people were paid for their work on the
And despite the
horrors, the village managed to keep its Latvian identity. This was
partly due to Bulāna's isolation: the nearest town of any size is
about 25 kilometres away. Until about 20 years ago no roads led to
Bulāna, just pitted tracks that became unusable in bad weather.
But most of the
credit must go to the women of the village. They maintained songs
and folklore and spoke Latvian to their children at home. In the
absence of ministers, old women conducted Lutheran services at
funerals and christenings. Despite living in an officially atheist
state, every single child was baptised, a tradition that continues
today even in families where one parent is Russian.
In fact, the people
of Bulāna identify themselves as strongly with their religious
faith as with their nationality. Lonija Tomane, the village
librarian, said that until about the 1950s there was strong family
pressure on children to marry other Lutherans, so that ethnic
Germans and Estonians were acceptable spouses, but Orthodox Russians
were not. Bibles printed in Latvia in the 18th and 19th centuries
and hidden during the Stalinist book burnings can still be found in
Lejas Bulāna is not
only still in existence after 143 years, but its culture has
preserved some traditions that have disappeared in Latvia itself.
Russian words and phrases have become a part of the villagers'
vocabulary, but the dominant language is still that of their
ancestors. The Bulāna dialect is clearly understandable to speakers
of standard Latvian, but shares some features of the tongue spoken
in Ventspils district in northern Kurzeme. Endings of words are
chopped off in speech, and there are no genderized pronouns (both
males and females are spoken of as viņš, or "he").
Another oddity is that some German words are substituted for Latvian
ones, for example, gapele instead of dakša (fork) or ķisenis
instead of spilvens (pillow). These words may have been
picked up from the Germans who lived in Bulāna in its early years,
or it may be that the language in Bulāna has retained elements of
speech common in Latvia in the 19th century, when German cultural
influence was strong.
complain that their memories are fading, the old women still know
many songs. Lots of them are folk tunes that would be familiar to
Latvians elsewhere, although the melodies and inflections in the
voices have local variations. Another idiosyncrasy is the
celebration of Jāņi, Midsummer's Eve, which still involves
Latvian traditions such as bonfires and cheese-making, but takes
place two weeks later than in Latvia, in line with the Julian
calender that was used in the Czarist Empire before 1917.
However, while Bulāna
has done exceptionally well to preserve its past, its future may be
bleak. This is largely because the economic decline of Russia since
the late 1980s seems to have hit this village especially hard.
Back in Soviet days,
the local collective farm employed most of the people, but it has
been a failure in the transition to capitalism. Low prices for crops
have meant that it makes just enough money to buy seed and fuel from
season to season, and just 10 people work for it, often without
getting paid. Lack of transport and distances to markets have
prevented individuals from selling their crops.
Virtually the only
other cash in the village is from pensions and from the salaries
paid to the school teachers, which are meagre and frequently in
arrears. The people grow all their own food. Life moves to a cycle
of planting, weeding, harvesting and milking. The village is
electrified, but most houses have hand-operated wells and outside
toilets. Alcoholism is a serious problem.
This has led to rapid
depopulation. With the school only running to the ninth grade, the
pupils complete their education at boarding schools in the
surrounding towns. The lack of jobs means that most of them never
come back. Only a few children have been born in Bulāna in recent
years, while the lack of available spouses means that those few
young people who do stay usually intermarry with Russians or
Estonians. In most cases, the language spoken in these mixed
families is Russian.
Many people in the
surrounding districts trace their origins to Bulāna, but they are
rapidly being assimilated into the mainstream of Russian society.
For example, in the town of Yermakovsk, about 50 kilometers from Bulāna,
about two thirds of the population of 5,000 are of Latvian or
Estonian descent. But the lingua franca between these people is
fewer people from Bulāna are moving to Latvia now than in Soviet
times. Earlier, transport was cheap and people were guaranteed jobs
and housing wherever they went in the Soviet Union. Today, the
Latvian government does provide no-cost visas to Russian citizens of
ethnic Latvian origin, and some money for relocation expenses, but
afterwards the migrants have to fend for themselves in a struggling
economy. Latvia does not have the means to support them, in contrast
to the German government which has spent large sums on repatriating
its ethnic minority in Russia.
However, Bulāna is
being helped by a factor which at first glance might seem to be its
biggest threat: the surrounding Russian population. In recent years,
four families belonging to a religious cult that worships a guru
named Vissarion have moved in after buying abandoned houses from the
kolkhoz (see sidebar). The Latvians in Bulāna are mistrustful of
these folk who are both Russians and non-Lutherans, but in everyday
life the two groups get along well enough. Three of the cult members
teach some subjects at the school, and their children willingly
attend Latvian-language lessons with the other youngsters.
The attitude of the
Russian authorities towards Bulāna is also quite positive. Local
newspapers and television programs have run stories praising its
interesting history and culture. The 140th anniversary of the school
in July 2000 was attended by numerous dignitaries from as far away
as Krasnoyarsk. There is official support for teachers from Latvia
who teach extra Latvian language lessons alongside the standard
curriculum, which is taught in Russian.
The local Lutheran
church is also a force for the good. Lutherans in Russia are a tiny
minority, but they have a seminary in St. Petersburg that has
trained ministers who now run an active parish in Krasnoyarsk. These
Russian-speaking clergymen regularly visit Bulāna to hold services
and organise Christian camps for the village children.
The last decade has
also seen increased contacts with Latvia. Although the links were
never entirely severed, they were strengthened in 1975, when two
young adventurers literally rode into town. Ingvars Leitis, an
historian and journalist, and photographer Uldis Briedis set out in
that year to cycle from Rīga to Vladivostok. They told the
authorities this was their way of paying tribute to the great
Socialist Motherland, but their real agenda was to visit the sites
of former Gulag camps and older places where Latvians had settled.
Leitis says he was stunned to enter Bulāna and find not an
archaeological site, but a living community.
He made several
documentary films about Bulāna that were only screened in the late
1980s. Two other film makers, Vaira Strautniece and Andris Slapiņš
from the Juris Podnieks Studio in Rīga, also documented the life of
the village in the mid 1970s.
increased during the independence drive. A theatre group from Saldus
in western Latvia paid a visit in 1989 and in that same year two
young teachers from Latvia arrived to spend a year working in the
local school. These educational missions have continued up to the
present. Strautniece organised a trip to Bulāna in 1991 by
folklorists, philologists, ethnographers and other academics, whose
studies were published in a comprehensive book about the village.
The Lutheran church
in Latvia has also taken an active interest in Bulāna. A
semi-clandestine visitor in the early 1980s was Juris Rubenis, who
is now a prominent social commentator and the pastor of the Torņkalna
Church in Rīga. Jānis Vanags, the Lutheran archbishop of Latvia,
held a service in Bulāna in the summer of 2000 and has promised
that pastors from Latvia will make annual visits. This year is the
third in succession when the teachers going to Bulāna have come
from the Svētā Gregora Christian Academy in Saldus; a young
missionary from this school is also preparing to set out to work
with the village alcoholics.
Despite its problems,
Bulāna has lived through much worse times, and may very well
survive into the foreseeable future. Its people's courage,
resilience and pride in their heritage can be an inspiration to
Latvians elsewhere in the world.
- - -Philip Birzulis
is a journalist based in Rīga. Most information on the current
situation of Lejas Bulāna is from interviews by him in the village
during four visits from 1999 to 2001
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