LIVING LATVIAN HISTORY IN SIBERIA
Thousands of miles from their
motherland, Latvians in Siberia cling to their identity, as Philip
Visited by starvation, mass terror and now the poverty of the new
Russia, the people of Nizhnaya Bulanka have endured more than their
share of 20th-century suffering. But the tale of this tiny village
in the heart of Siberia is also one of extraordinary survival.
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At first glance its
three dusty streets where chickens peck and horse-drawn carts
trundle along may not seem like much. But the village has another,
Latvian, name, Lejas Bulana, and most of its 200 inhabitants speak
the language of their Latvian ancestors. Here, closer to Beijing
than to Riga, a piece of Latvia has survived for over a century.
While the story of Latvia's Western йmigrйs is well
known, less told is that of the thousands who went East instead and
whose descendants, an estimated 125,000 people, are scattered across
the former USSR. Some are survivors of the mass deportations of the
1940s, while others are the offspring of Latvian communists who
helped the Bolsheviks gain power in 1917. Then there are those who
simply moved to take up jobs in the '70s and '80s.
The people of Bulana predate them all. Long before Stalin, the
czarist authorities were deporting undesirables to Siberia, plenty
of whom came from Latvia. By the 1850s, Lutheran pastors sent to
minister to them were finding it impossible to reach this scattered
flock, and so the church fathers arranged that many of them were
brought together in one place. Bulana was established in 1857 along
with Finnish, Estonian and German villages in the same district of
southern Krasnoyarsk territory, in central Siberia.
As in many frontier towns, Bulana had some wild early days of
drunkenness and greed produced by the discovery of gold in the
nearby Sayan Mountains. But its rich, black soil proved to be a more
valuable asset, and free settlers joined the ex-convicts so that by
World War I there were 2,000 inhabitants.
Bulana resident Mariana Lindberga, 69, remembers her maternal
grandmother describing how it took her a whole year to walk from
Latvia. But most others have lived in Bulana enough generations to
have forgotten their exact origins.
Historical documents show that many of the original settlers were
from Kurzeme, the westernmost region of Latvia. The language spoken
in the village today is similar to that region's dialect, although
it has other peculiarities as well. While understandably many
Russian words are used, so too are a few German ones because at the
time when Bulana was settled German culture dominated Latvia and
many Germanisms were used in everyday speech.
However, Bulana's people have no doubts about who they are.
"We are Latvians, completely," said Lindberga. "How
can you forget your language? Impossible."
Escaping their German landlords, Latvians established many other
villages across Russia during the last century. There are
settlements in the Omsk Region and Bashkortostan on the European
side of the Urals where small Latvian communities survive to this
But Bulana has retained far more of its original identity than any
of the others.
Probably the main reason is its isolation, which is both a blessing
and a curse. The nearest town of any size is 20 kilometers away and
the roads are atrocious, even in good weather. A couple of winters
ago the snow was so deep that the village was cut off for two months
and several people died because they could not get to hospital.
But a strong brew of national and religious feeling has also played
a part. Lonija Tomane, the village librarian, said that in previous
generations parents only allowed their children to marry other
Lutherans, which meant that in addition to Latvians, Germans and
Estonians were acceptable as spouses. Orthodox Russians were not.
Despite official atheism, in Soviet times every village child was
baptized by old women who perform the ceremony in lieu of a priest.
Nowadays, a Lutheran pastor from Krasnoyarsk, 600 kilometers to the
north, visits Bulana once a month. But not everyone is pleased,
because he delivers his sermons in Russian some of the old women
won't accept him.
"A Russian priest? Huh, we need a Latvian. They were communists
and now they think they know more about God than we do," said
74-year-old Milda Kadaka.
The mystery of Bulana's survival is deepened by the fact that for
decades it lost contact with Latvia proper. After the revolution,
Russia was virtually isolated from the outside world. For a while,
Latvian teachers from elsewhere in the U.S.S.R. came to work at the
school, but in 1937 Moscow ordered that teaching be only in Russian.
Around this time the Soviet Union also became a hell on earth. The
old women are haunted by memories of starvation during the mass
collectivization of agriculture and the slaughter of the village men
during the purges. Many others died in the war.
Ironically, some younger men said their first contact with Latvians
from Latvia was on military service when they found themselves in
the same units. Also, when Latvia was a Soviet republic, a handful
of Bulana residents went there to live.
Then in 1975 an eccentric Latvian historian and film maker called
Ingvars Leitis literally rode into town. He and a companion decided
to visit the sites of gulags and places where Latvians had settled
last century, but because this was strictly forbidden, they decided
to bicycle from Riga to Vladivostok and tell the authorities this
was a tribute to the vast socialist motherland.
To their great surprise, in Bulana they found not historical relics
but living people.
Leitis made repeated visits and when Latvia's independence drive
started in the late '80s academics, clergymen, journalists and
others went to Bulana to study the place. Since 1989 teachers from
Latvia have been traveling there to teach the language; this year,
Leitis' son Rihards Asbergs has made the trek.
But not everything has been sweet after this reunion. While a number
of Bulana residents have over the years resettled in Latvia, others
have felt rejected in the motherland. Lonija Tomane spent a year in
Latvia in the mid-70s but came home embittered because, hearing her
use Russian phrases, people told her to, "go back to Russia."
Some of their supporters in Latvia think that, while the Latvian
government has bent over backwards to help Western йmigrйs
return, even allowing them dual citizenship, they have shunned their
poor Eastern cousins.
"They don't want us there. Siberian bears, that's what they
call us," said Emilija Blumberga, 76.
In any case, many dismiss the idea of leaving the place that has
been home for five or more generations.
After enduring so much over the last 70 years, it might be expected
that now, finally, the village would be flourishing. But sadly, it
has instead gone into what may be an irreversible decline.
The main reason is simple economics. The widespread collapse of
agriculture over the last ten years has meant that whereas 70 once
worked at the village kolhoz, today there are just 12 employees
whose already pitiful wages are in arrears. There is hardly any cash
in the village, with most surviving on what they grow in their own
gardens. These people have never been strangers to vodka, but
despair has now driven many to chronic alcoholism.
Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that most young
people leave for the towns. Their children are born elsewhere and
are quickly Russified. And there are worries that several Russian
families who have recently settled in the village might further
speed up assimilation.
"Those who stay are those who don't want to study further, and
those who don't want to leave their parents without support. When I
go, who will come in my place?" asks Janis Melbarzis, kolhoz
chairman and village head. His 22-year-old daughter Inga moved to
Latvia this summer.
But although there were many more in years gone by, there are still
20 pupils at the village school, giving some hope for the future.
School principal Vera Gutmane insists that the children of the
Russian families are also taught Latvian.
University-educated Gutmane is herself a striking exception to the
exodus of youth. She insists that if she had to live anywhere else,
she would move to Latvia. But she feels deeply at home in Bulana.
"My mother is here, my father is here, the graves of my
ancestors are here, my roots are deeply in Siberia. I stay here
because there are Latvians here, my people."