Political clout of Baltic culture

Events in the country of Latvia such as the World Choir Games and the symbolic passing of books from hand to hand aim to revive the cultural history of the country.

Robert Tonsing/AP
People form a human chain in Tallinn, Estonia in 1989.

Aiva Rozenberga was 13 years old when 2 million people stood hand in hand in 1989 across the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, forming a gigantic, peaceful human chain of defiance of Soviet occupation later called the Baltic Chain. Their voices raised in song, music carried the message: “We want freedom!”

This past January, to kick off the tenure of Riga, Latvia, as a European Capital of Culture, 15,000 Latvians stood shoulder to shoulder again, this time passing books from one hand to the other to bring them from the current library to a new library across the Daugava River.

Ms. Rozenberga was part of the chain, as program director for Riga 2014, the foundation that put together this year’s program of events. The chain of book lovers epitomizes the power of culture in a small, vulnerable country.

“In 1989 when we had the Baltic Chain people were standing hand and in hand for freedom and independence,” Rozenberga says. In January, “people stood for knowledge, their culture being forwarded from generation to generation.”

Culture as a force for positive change is the theme permeating the 200 events giving Riga the spotlight this year. The celebration will peak with the eighth World Choir Games (July 9-19), when 22,000 singers from around the world will converge here. It will echo the time when, as the communist bloc floundered, Latvians sang forbidden folk songs as part of the Singing Revolution that helped bring down communism in the three Baltic nations.

“We hear a lot about financial and economic issues in Europe, but what about culture?” says Rozenberga. “It is our turn to ... show what role culture plays in keeping a country strong.”

Latvia has come a long way since freeing itself from almost 50 years of Soviet occupation. Hit hard by the financial crisis of 2008, Latvia made it into the eurozone in January. Its remedy? Discipline, austerity, and sacrifices for sure, but also culture. Andrejs Pildegovičs, the Latvian foreign minister’s state secretary, says singing is “our secret weapon.” “We are a peaceful people, and we think that it is one of our contributions to mankind,” he says.

As Rozenberga started the Capital of Culture application process in 2008, she drew strength from her grandfather, a pastor who’d been sent to a Siberian gulag, never to come back. She’d heard stories of him drawing strength from organizing prayers for barracks inmates.

“I can look back at how hard it was in those days to realize how many possibilities we have to have everything we want,” Rozenberga says. “Whatever suffering you can always be strong; it only depends on you, and what your mind decides.”

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