Translation of President Egils Levits’ address

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Mr Ambassador, ladies and gentlemen, dear compatriots. It is a great honour and pleasure for me to be here among you and to celebrate the national holiday of Latvia.

I would like to share with you today my thoughts on patriotism and the question, “What does patriotism mean today”? We know what patriotism meant at the time Latvia was founded; when Latvia won its independence in 1918. 

A few days ago, on 11 November, Australia celebrated the end of World War I. That also meant the end of the war for Australia.  However, for Australia the war was  very far away from its shores, although many Australian soldiers fought in World War 1 and over 40,000 died.

For Latvia, World War I meant war on the territory of Latvia; Latvia lost altogether about 30% of its population. This was probably the largest loss of population by any European country. Further, it was a war in which Latvia itself was not a combatant. It was other countries who fought the war on the territory of Latvia.

The First World War ended with the Armistice of Compiègne on 11 November 1918. Three large empires had collapsed and no one knew what would happen next. Latvians used this window of opportunity to proclaim the independence of their country. Only one week after the Armistice of Compiègne, on 18 November, the State of Latvia was founded.

Clearly, simple proclamation of the independence  was not enough. Latvia had to fight for another two years in the War of Independence. Fourteen different military units participated, but in the end it was the Latvian army that defeated both the Russian and German forces. It is difficult to imagine today how tiny Latvia was able to conclude peace treaties after the victory over Russia and Germany, with both countries undertaking to withdraw their troops from Latvia. That was what patriotism meant in 1918.

Patriotism at the very beginning meant, through participation in armed conflict, the creation of one’s own country.  Latvians are one of the oldest European peoples, although the country of Latvia is relatively new. Latvians are the original known inhabitants of their land, respectively the five groups that make up the Latvian nation – the Latgalians, Selonians, Zemgalians, Couronians, and the Livonians (who have a different language). 

In any event, the Latvian people have, therefore, existed much longer than the Latvian State, but when the first opportunity to create the Latvian State arose, the Latvian people siezed that chance. That was “patriotism” at that time.

When you create your own country, you also need to build this country further and this is what happened in the first 20 years. Latvia was able to develop peacefully until 1940, when Latvia was first occupied by the Soviet Union; Latvia was then occupied by Germany from 1941-1945. And then the second Soviet occupation 1945-1990. Latvia was under occupation for precisely 50 years, from the summer of 1940 to the late spring of May 1990. 

During the time of occupation, patriotism meant, first of all, preserving one’s language and one’s Latvianness in the Russian-backed Soviet Union. Soviet policy was aimed at marginalizing Latvians and Latvian culture. Patriotism was one of the forces that maintained Latvianness in Latvia. There were a small number of people, the dissidents, who openly expressed their opposition to the Soviet regime. This political action was an extremely noble manifestation of patriotism.

Then came the Latvian “Awakening” or revival. The whole geopolitical situation changed, with the disintegration and collapse of the Soviet Union. During this period of disintegration from 1985 to 1990, Latvian patriotism manifested itself by advancing this disintegration, very deliberately and purposefully, by the participation of the Popular Front of Latvia, the Citizens’ Congress of the Latvian Republic and in other ways, greatly contributing to the final collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Even today, we Latvians have still not fully appreciated our own contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cessation of confrontation between the Western Bloc and the Soviet Bloc. The processes carried out in our small nation affected not only us and our closest neighbors, but essentially, if we look at the consequences, the political situation of the whole world.

Latvia’s sovereignty has been restored since 1990. Now we are an independent country and a member of the European Union and NATO. Reading the Latvian press and social networks, one might think that Latvians are bickering with each other. However, externally, Latvia is seen as acting purposefully and positively influencing global processes in the world. 

Currently, Latvia is seeking for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, so that our voice will be heard in the “central parliament” of the world. It will definitely take a lot of effort and money to achieve membership of the Security Council. However, I think Latvia will succeed. 

Patriotism in Latvia today means actively building one’s country by participating in the democratic process, both directly by becoming involved in political parties, and less directly, by voting in elections once every 4 years. To participate in elections  is a minimum of patriotism, and it costs nothing. This also applies to Latvians living abroad, to all citizens of Latvia.

What does patriotism mean outside of Latvia? The Latvians  first entered Australia as refugees in 1949 -1950 with one or two suitcases and built their lives here, in a foreign land. Few spoke English. However, with a positive attitude, a capacity for hard work and general purposefulness, these Latvians quickly adapted to the new conditions. 

In 1988, in his study, “Latvians in Australia”, published in Australia, the Latvian sociologist Dr. Aldis Putniņš conducted sociological research and concluded that Latvians, with their perseverance, determination and knowledge, were able to achieve a higher level of well-being than the average Australian, within 25 years (or one generation), whilst still maintaining their Latvianness. 

What does “Latvianness” mean? In Latvia, it is natural to come in contact with other Latvians, to hear the Latvian language without giving it a second thought. Living outside of Latvia, this is not normal, it is in fact rare. In order to maintain Latvianness, effort must be made, schools and events must be organized so that we can meet, so that we can discuss common issues related to Latvia.

And those who do it are the ones who organize these events, who make these events attractive so that others want to attend, and also, those who bake the “pīrāgi. These are all examples of the everyday expression of patriotism. Children’s performances at such events are also patriotism. The first generation immigrants and subsequent generations have continued to maintain Latvian traditions and have, as a matter of course, in their families, passed Latvianness on to the next generations. They are all patriots. 

There are also people here among us who have recently left Latvia for various reasons – work or family reasons – who now permanently reside outside of Latvia. Some think that Latvianness is self-evident, that it will not disappear and that nothing needs to be done to preserve it. However, I think that Latvianness must be nurtured and worked on communally, otherwise it will dissipate.

These young people can also express their Latvianness by participating in and organizing Latvian activities.The activities are focused in two directions – inwardly for oneself, but also outwardly in order for them to be meaningful to others. It should be remembered that every Latvian is an “ambassador for Latvia”, parallel to the real embassy and ambassador. Being here in Australia each of us is an ambassador, in talking about Latvia, thereby conveying a positive image of Latvia. 

Patriotism is essential to make the everyday more meaningful and important, rather than simply surviving.If we want something more from life, then we have to give something to the community, also to Latvianness and to the Latvian people. At the same time, this does not exclude patriotism towards one’s country of residence, in this case Australia, and this is natural because our countries are allies, we have similar values. 

These are my thoughts on “patriotism today”. Thank you to those who organized this event, which is itself an affirmation of patriotism. Everyone can contribute and everyone can do it both within the family or more widely, together with friends and compatriots.