Seedlings of Capilalism in Rural Latvia
HERE, some kilometers outside the "Gypsy Capital" of Latvia on a farmstead called Blodas ("Soupbowls"), a rough, sometimes improvisational, sometimes cunning spirit of enterprise has survived the 50 years of communism that ended suddenly in August. With help, instruction, and understanding from abroad, the entrepreneurs here and elsewhere in rural Latvia can emerge from the semi-underground and push Latvia and the other two Baltic states into the mainstream of the 21st century.Blodas stands on a bluff over the Abava River valley, with a stunning view from the panoramic picture window of its newest building, which stands on the stone foundations of an old barn. The ground floor has a wood-stove-heated sauna and a tiled dipping pool, built in the past few years by Karlis Leiskalns, the proprietor, his family and friends. The barn next to an 18th-century granary houses about a dozen cattle, as well as chickens to keep the household in eggs, piglets, and a turkey. On a typical weekend, Blodas is alive with guests - mainly journalists from the Popular Front weekly Atmoda in Riga, some 100 kilometers east of here, and a dozen or more barefoot and sandy-haired Latvian children. They look like waifs, I think, compared to my rosy-cheeked, big-boned boys, and I live just 45 minutes by air from here. Clambering down a slope toward a glass-calm bend in the Abava river, in overalls and a white peasant shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Mr. Leiskalns expounds on the difficulties of getting decent tractors so he can sow his acreage. He explains his plans for making the "new building" a bed-and-breakfast and sauna guest house for foreign visitors. "Organic food and natural spring water will bring them in," says the proud jaunsaimnieks, or new farmsteader. A couple of days later in Riga, Leiskalns, in his role as a politician, is standing in an impeccable gray suit, telling a visiting Suddeutsche Zeitung journalist that Latvia will probably welcome most of its Russian residents to adopt citizenship, on a case-by-case basis, as called for by Latvia's 1927 citizenship law. "I am very much against the blanket granting of citizenship to everyone here, but that is not because of any feelings about Russians. It's just the law. Latvian citizenship has nothing to do with nationality. I expect there will be so much opportunity for work and enterprise here that many Russians will stay, adapt, and be accepted as citizens," he says. Leiskalns is a jack-of-all-trades - an occasional columnist for Atmoda, a homesteader, and deputy chairman of the fledgling Conservative Citizens Party. Officially, he still works as maitre d' at Kristaps, a popular restaurant in Riga's Old Town. Anything seemed possible during the waning of Communism in Latvia, and that still appears to be the case during the first surrealistic days of independence. On the opposite end of the political spectrum is another emerging entrepreneur - Leo Hirssons, one of the founders of Latvia's renewed Social Democratic Workers' Party, the single largest political force when Latvia was a parliamentary democracy between 1918 and 1934. A dark-haired, blue-eyed former actor and stuntman, Mr. Hirssons says he has "the best" of a Latvian, Jewish, and Gypsy ancestry. He has regained title to two properties in Piltene, a small village south of the port of Ventspils. Becoming a landlord doesn't bother the 35-year-old activist. "We have to be a market-oriented, liberal Social Democratic party. The business with red flags and the proletariat is dead for the next few generations after what was done with these symbols by the Communists," he says. HIRSSONS is a kurzemnieks, a native of Kurzeme, Latvia's westernmost province and the site of intense battles and forced population transfers during World Wars I and II. The two buildings in Piltene, which was 53 percent Jewish before World War II, were owned by Mr. Hirssons' grandparents, who were shot by the Nazis in 1941. Driving along gravel roads through central Kurzeme, we pass the stone foundations of former country taverns and many overgrown and weather-beaten farmsteads, the legacy of deportatio ns in 1949 aimed at enforcing collectivization and clearing the dark forests of anti-Communist partisans. Hirssons' plans for his Piltene holdings include making part of one property into a sawmill and cabinet-making shop. He hopes to renovate the other apartment house with foreign financing, in return for a large apartment suitable for staff from foreign companies he expects to move into nearby Ventspils with its giant port facilities built by Occidental Petroleum in the mid-1970s. Furniture from Hirssons' shop could be shipped to neighboring Scandinavia via the port. Still a pipe dream in a land of pipe d reamers, but possible. My own cousin, Juris Krievs of Iecava, a town in the middle of Latvia's most prosperous agrarian province of Zemgale, proudly admits he is rich. During the summer, he turned a profit of 17,000 rubles by growing and rapidly salting cucumbers in a hothouse built of thick plastic film on a wooden frame. Every morning, he or his salesgirl, a recent graduate in economics from the University of Latvia, would sell the pickles at a stand in the big Riga open-air market. Juris, whose last name, Krievs, means "Russian" in Latvian, is also an executive at a local asphalt plant. He has essentially worked double shifts since early spring. He believes, however, in certain limits on the common Soviet practice of drawing a salary from one employer and actually working elsewhere. "I am encouraged by my salesgirl," says Juris. "I offered her a fixed per diem or a percentage of the gross, and she took me up on the latter. The younger people in their 20s are not just interested in being consumers as fast as possible. They want to learn enterprise." Enterprise for my cousin has meant, at times, hair-raising drives with a partner to Byelorussia or the outskirts of Leningrad, with 300 kilos of pickles in tow, just to test new markets or follow the shifting price of their product. "We've dealt with potholes the size of kitchen sinks, gangsters, corrupt cops, near-accidents, you name it," he recalls. Juris, who started in private enterprise by raising hogs in the pre-perestroika '80s, is not one to turn down any chance to make a ruble, although he is th inking of drawing some lines soon. With a reputation - from his wild youth - as one of Iecava's can-do tough guys with a good heart, Juris was approached by a co-worker at the asphalt plant with the delicate problem of fetching a relative for burial in a country where private funeral directors are nonexistent. His Volga pickup is one of the bigger vehicles around. "Once the word was out, they started calling in the middle of the night," he recalls. "But there are some things I'm not up to, and that's hauling around half of Latvia with only the dear departed to chat with, if you know what I mean," Juris says in a colorful Latvian street slang that almost defies translation. As his wife Anna, a pediatrician, looks on with mild distaste, he declares that "I am definitely out of the corpse transport business." Driving back to Riga, Juris stops in on a friend, Janis Pastars, a university-trained 34-year-old agronomist who is Iecava's best-known new farmer. Mr. Pastars has just put up a huge sheet-steel hangar for his collection of second-hand Swedish and other foreign farm machinery. They chat about the possibilities of getting the hangar floor paved before mid-September. "Impossible," Juris says, "which means I have to do it." In early August, Latvia's independence, too, looked impossible for the next few years. Now the task of economic recovery, of leaping from the third world into the 21st century is more than daunting, but with men like my cousin and others of his generation, it just might get done.
Juris Kaza, a Latvian-American journalist based in Stockholm, visited Latvia for 10 days recently.