There are those moments in which you travel back to some time and place you visited earlier. A trick of light, a confluence of sounds on a summer evening. Sometimes I am fooled into thinking that I am back in Latvia, where August nights around a white wrought-iron table on the grass lasted the length of a candle.
For a moment, then, I imagine what life would have been like had Brezhnev’s regime not been determined to prevent the marriage of a Latvian citizen and an American woman who intended to live there. Marriage is one of the rights protected by the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords, but the KGB, which devoted many manhours to confiscating our love letters and recording sweet nothings, evidently cared nothing for marriage. Or for the Helsinki Accords.
Many of those nights we spent, my fiancé and I, in a room whose wood floor was painted blue and whose three large windows were edged with vines as if they were a gift wrapped with a green ribbon. The room had been turned over to us by the daughter of a family with theatrical ties to Bertolt Brecht. Following in the family tradition, she has gone on to establish herself as a stage director. Sometimes she would visit us, bringing another friend or two, and we would all have tea at a wrought-iron table on the other side of the windows, whispering our ideas about art, music, drama, poetry. We kept our voices low because there could be microphones. Already, my fiancé had been threatened by the Central Committee, warned of what might happen to him, his family, his career, if he continued to see me. Futilely, we had tried to reassure Soviet authorities that he had no intention of emigrating.
In fact, the man I was going to marry, the composer Imant Kalnin, could not think of leaving his country. For one thing, it was his country—a nation whose independence the Soviet Union recognized in the 1920 Treaty of Riga, declaring that the Soviet Union “for eternal times renounces all sovereign rights over the Latvian people and territory.” (I could think of living there, because the U.N. charter specified that I could retain my U.S. citizenship and passport.)
“Eternal times” lasted until 1939, when a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin placed Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia under Soviet domination.
Though the spirit of glasnost had prompted the Kremlin to admit the existence of this secret and illicit protocol, and though the August coup resulted in Soviet recognition of Baltic independence, little over a year ago the New York Times quoted Mikhail Gorbachev as saying that the entrance of the Baltic republics into the Soviet Union was “the choice made by their peoples.” Choice? Was it a choice to vote when, if you did not, you were not permitted to work? Was it a choice to vote when you were escorted to the polls by eight hundred thousand Red Army troops? Was it a choice when, slipping up, the Communist Party announced its candidates as winners in foreign newspapers an entire day before the votes had been counted?
That there was no choice had been acknowledged all along by the United States and other Western governments, which refused to recognize, legally, the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union. Alas, our public policy on this issue for all these years was a tragic contradiction of precisely those democratic principles President Bush avows to uphold. How could we not accord full diplomatic recognition to nations whose independence we insisted on? Not to do this was to violate logic—and human lives.
There was a moral fault line here, a crack through which the hidden village of realpolitik could be glimpsed, beneath the fine-sounding surface of speeches about democracy. But recently, following the August coup, we were in a remarkable position to correct ourselves: not only the Baltic countries, but we the people, too, had been given a second chance.
We the people—and they the people, for many Russians and other Soviet citizens, disagreeing with Gorbachev, believed the Baltic nations were legally independent and quickly voted to acknowledge the fact—had been given a chance to accord full diplomatic recognition to these small countries without running any risk of “destabilizing” the world situation. Could we reject this great gift, this gift that was like a view through green-ribboned windows opening onto the past, this gift of an opportunity to stand, peacefully yet firmly—and more wonderfully still, firmly yet peacefully—for ourselves? Because to affirm Baltic independence was to reaffirm our own.
Waiting for President Bush to take a stand—after Iceland! after Russia! after Mongolia!—I watched television, as did so many others. And I watched as a cameraman panned the interior of the KGB headquarters in downtown Riga. Then: a close-up of coffee cups abandoned on a table, and an announcer’s voiceover explaining that employees had fled just seconds before. The half-drunk coffee, said the announcer, was still warm. File drawers were open or turned over; some of the employees had taken some of the files with them. I stared at the screen, knowing that somewhere in that building was the file the authorities had kept on Imant and me. It was a file that had been waved in front of Imant by a KGB colonel during repeated interrogations. It contained photographs, transcripts of telephone calls, the confiscated letters. Maybe, I thought, with a rising sense of triumph, it’s been put through a paper shredder.
Those were stolen words, stolen pictures; at the same time, it occurred to me that the KGB had never even really succeeded in stealing these memories from our lives, no matter how thick their file was, because, as Imant had asked me to do, I had saved them in my book The Exiled Heart, an examination of the nature of meaning. What was the meaning of those memories? Those August nights on which we talked about art, music, drama, and poetry were, perhaps, our own declaration of independence. Our ideas were independent, we seem to have been saying, our feelings couldn’t be dictated, and ideas and feelings would outlast any bureaucracy, because serious art survives.
I believe that, just as I believe that it is an artist’s responsibility to do everything possible to safeguard his or her own independence from all who would encroach upon it. So long as an artist has any choice at all, the artist must, as it were, choose independence.
In Latvian folklore, the Castle of Light is a symbol of Latvia’s independence. When the Black Knight stole the key to the castle from the Bear-Slayer, the castle sank into the Daugava, darkened and drowned. The Castle of Light has been returned to its foundation, but the United States was not among the first to cheer its early (or late, but better late than never) light. In this instance at least, countries around the world revealed themselves as caring more for the principles of democracy than the United States. We let Gorbachev make the choice for us, privileging an old-boy network above principle.
Did we simply not have the courage of our convictions? Did we simply not have any convictions?