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Latvian Novels from the 1970s and 1980s: Publications after the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Blogā piedāvāju piezīmes referātam, kas nolasīts starptautiskajā zinātniskajā konferencē “Socialist Culture Recycled (Eastern Europe: from Disillusions to Nostalgia and Beyond)”, rīkotājs: The Institute of Russian Literature of Russian Academy of Sciences.

Time frame and location

My paper is based on studies of the relations between the most popular and recognized Latvian prose writers, known as the Soviet intelligentsia, and the occupation regime of the middle and late Soviet period (1968–1991) that partly overlaps the Stagnation Period (1964–1982), a popular and convenient term to describe the era of Leonid Brezhnev, which lasted until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985.

The usual focus has been shifted from dissidents to writers recognized both by official critics and readers. The power of the word and literature as a communication channel in the Soviet occupation system is at the centre of the study.

It has been claimed that “the political, public, and scholarly debate over this period in Soviet history is often wedged over the lines of “pre-crisis” or “pre-renewal”[1]. It also has been stressed that, “when the Soviet Union collapsed despite Gorbachev’s reform and attempts to modernize the country, “stagnation” became the primary explanation of the failure of the Soviet socialist project.”[2].

Latvia’s situation in this period has been directly linked to its geopolitical position. The Estonian scholar Epp Annus has introduced the “Western borderlands” concept regarding the Baltic states — countries that “enjoyed the advantage of a still-active pre-Soviet cultural memory, in comparison with those lands where Sovietization processes started immediately in the post-revolutionary years: in the Western borderlands, a living memory kept alive continuities with pre-Soviet times”[3]. These continuities were strengthened by visits to the neighboring West and other foreign countries, the acquisition of prohibited or partly permitted literary works, contacts with like-minded people in neighboring countries, and by the Latvian intelligentsia in exile. Through the works published in the 1970s and 1980s, together with oral memory, writers encouraged non-violent resistance and a return to the pre-war system of Western and democratic values.

In contrast to the West, where literary works often leave an impact only on narrow intellectual circles or serve the entertainment industry, in the Soviet system, literature played an enormous role in almost everyone’s life. Thus, it was the popular writers and their works, which reflected both European and general democratic values, who recorded and anticipated changes in the Soviet system and prepared society for those changes – the revival of democratic values and the irreversible social liberalization which occurred in the late stages of the Soviet system. In addition to their literary work, these writers devoted their energies to preserving national identity and national values and, drawing on their sense of mission and authority, paved the way for the Singing Revolution.

Writers selected for the study were born between 1910 and 1938 and, relatively speaking, represent three generations: 1) writers who had already grown up before 1940, i.e., the Soviet occupation (born between 1910 and 1922); 2) writers who were teenagers until the 1940s and whose view of the world was related to their experiences before the war (born between 1922 and 1927); 3) writers who were children in 1940 and whose view of the world was formed during the Soviet time (born in 1928 and after).

Among the representatives of the first generation are mostly writers loyal to the Soviet regime, most of their work were no longer relevant after the restoration of independence and were not published in new editions, with rare exceptions, as a writer and composer Marģeris Zariņš (1910–1993), whose novel “The Counterfeit Faust or a Corrected and Expanded Cookbook” (“Viltotais Fausts jeb Pārlabota un papildināta pavārgrāmata”, 1973) is considered to be the first Latvian postmodern novel and has been published in two reissues (2003 and 2015). The text has not been changed, as the author has not created different versions of his work. The 2003 edition includes the author’s comments – glossary of dialects. This annex is redundant and to some extent contrary to the postmodern nature of the text.

A special case is Vera Kacena (1912–1999), who represents the so-called people of the idea. After the 1959 campaign against the National Communists, her literary publications were not allowed, so he, despite of being communist, can also be considered being a dissident. Though she did not look for opportunities and earned a living with translations. She is also one of the very few writers who has created so-called drawer literature, as her novels “The Walker at War” and “The Ball Ended at Midnight” though written in the 1970s, were published only in 2012 and 2013.

The second generation – writers who were teenagers until the 1940s and whose view of the world was related to their experiences before the war (born between 1922 and 1927) – is represented by Zigmunds Skujiņš, born in 1926. He is one of the most outstanding and popular Latvian writers in the second half of the 20th century. From the mid-1950s, Skujiņš and other prose writers of his generation restored the connection with pre-war Latvian literature. His works have been published in about 7 million copies in more than 20 languages, ranking him among the most translated Latvian writers. The novels “Nakedness” and “Flesh-Coloured Dominoes” have recently been translated into English.

Skujiņš has claimed that “I never wanted to join the party, I didn’t have to. No one has led me, I have not commanded anywhere, I have chosen everything myself. I’ve never said what I don’t think. You may not talk at all, because it is not said that you need to talk.According to my deepest conviction, writers fall into two categories only – dilettantes and commercial writers.”

Of course, the censorship existed and also Skujiņš had to deal with it. “Nor does it occur to me to hide that I have tried to write my works in such a way that they “go through” and reach the readers. But it would be an idiot, not a carpenter, who would make shelves regardless of the width and height of the doors,” Skujiņš claimed in 2005.

Or, as Miervaldis Birze (1921–2000) has stated in 1995, “All my life I have been writing with a thought, Will it go through?, because that was the time when we created the literature of dosed truth.”

Compared to other writers of his generation and younger, Skujiņš can feel happy because his works have been published repeatedly after the collapse of the Soviet Union – in “Collected Works in 10 volumes” (2005–2011), as well as in several other editions. In his “Collected Works”, Skujiņš did not include his first three novels, among them the very popular novel “Grandsons of Columbus” from 1961.

Skujiņš is an outstanding stylist, and throughout his life, but especially since 1990s, he has been carefully reviewing and stylistically correcting most of his work.

I would like to focus on two of his novels.

“Memoir of a Young Man” (“Jauna cilvēka memuāri”), came out in 1981 with the print run of 100 000, with new editions in 2001 and 2011. The novel has been translated into Romanian, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. The novel is written as a memoir to the twenty-year-old student Kalvis Zariņš and an observation of the world – his relationships with girlfriend, parents, friends, university professors and others.

In the new editions, the author has added comments, created by his daughter Inga Skujiņa with the assistance of the author. Skujiņš also has made stylistic improvements, making the space and details of the plot vague, for example, in the beginning of the novel:

In 1981: I remember it happened in our faculty library. Zelma waited for the discussion to begin. What really, I will not recall. We once counted that Zelma has twelve different social responsibilities. I had ten free minutes until the grade sector meeting. We stood at the window and looked at the Greek profile of the Opera House.

In 2001 and 2011: I remember it happened in our faculty library. We stood at the window and looked at the Greek profile of the Opera House.

At the end of the novel, 1981: As far as I know, Zelma is married. Her husband, the artist N., restores antique paintings. Sometimes they live in Riga, sometimes in Leningrad. Occasionally, the magazine “Māksla” publishes Zelma’s articles about the direction of painting, about the unit of form and content, or something similar. She gives lectures at the Artists’ House, leads discussions in creative youth seminars, and deals with organizational issues. I have seen her in the volga; whether I can not say if the man behind the wheel was the artist N. or the driver of the institution.

This paragraph does not appear in the contemporary editions at all. The author adds tension to the text, reduces irrelevant information, focusing on the main character’s emotional experiences. The same hid did with the novel “The Man in His Prime” (“Vīrietis labākajos gados”, 1974, new edition in 2008) about a middle-aged man, his relationship with his wife and a new colleague, and in parallel with development of innovative engineering solutions at the “VEF” factory.

At the same time, it cannot be said that the author would like to get rid of the characteristics of the era. On the contrary, the new editions of the novel is full of the signs of the times, and many of them are also explained in the commentaries.

For example, “Palanga – the most famous resort in Lithuania, similar to Jūrmala in Latvia. Hundreds of thousands of people were resting and undergoing treatment in Palanga. One summer day, immediately after the publication of “Memoirs of a Young Man”, a Lithuanian eyewitness on the beach of Palanga saw that everybody was reading this novel.”

or “Driving to Cēsis with a tractor – a sign of the times. There were few personal cars in the countryside. Shared equipment and cheap fuel encouraged wasteful, absurd behaviour. People used to drive a tractor even to the store. Poorly arranged everyday life, artificial obstacles to living improvements, and land reclamation psychosis emptied individual houses in the countryside. They were bought cheaply by the intelligentsia from Riga, and in their spare time they tried to preserve traditional rural architecture by repairing roofs (..).”

and Fluent in English – although English was taught in schools and universities, a good knowledge of foreign languages was a shadow of somebody’s biography rather than the other way around. Why do you speak a foreign language? For what purpose? Secondly, knowing a foreign language well was almost impossible due to a lack of real practice opportunities. Those who did learn foreign languages, studied them as a philological phenomenon, were especially “gifted to languages” or learned them “in spite of”. Like many things were done these days – in spite of”.

Although it must be admitted that the author’s corrections have made the novel more intense, the first version of the book could be more useful for understanding the period in the turn of the 1970s and 1980s.

Skujiņš’s next novel “The Bed with a Golden Leg” (“Gulta ar zelta kāju”, 1984) is one of the most essential Latvian novels written in 1980s – and the most popular, with a total print run of 195,000 (for 1.5 million readers that was Latvian-speaking population at the time). The subtitle of the novel “The legends of the Vējagali” describes the nature of the book: it is a story of one Latvian family over a century, told through tales and legends. Some critics have acknowledged similarities with García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the composition and poetics of the “magic” of the novel[4]. Skujiņš himself only partially recognizes Marquez’s influence.[5] The book has also been translated in four languages, including the Russian, translated by Sergei Cebakovskii (“Sovetskii pisatelj”, 1987; “Roman-gazeta”, 1989, No 20/1122).

It was published three times during the Soviet period, and twice after the collapse of the Soviet Union – in 2008, in Skujiņš’s “Collected Works”, and in 2015, within series for use in schools. Both editions include comments by Zigmunds Skujiņš, originally written in 1988 and later edited.

Unlike “Memoirs of a Young Man”, the text of this novel is republished almost intact, with relatively small stylistic changes. This is probably due to the fact that the novel is about history and was already intended in such a way that both the details and adventures of the characters are of equal importance. Skujiņš himself has also stated that this is his favourite work and the only book about which, after finishing, he has had a feeling that everything had been said.

Regarding historical references in the plot of the novel, Skujiņš uses everything available to him at that time, including until-then hidden and undisclosed facts: Stalin’s Great Purge from 1936 to 1938 in Moscow, deportations, Latvian legionnaires during WWII. In the mid-1980s, this was considered a bold and compelling move — though critics, pretending to be naive, blamed the author for historical inaccuracies, too much harmony and optimism, and even a lack of tragedy, they worried about incompetent readers and foreign readers[6]. Some critics have also noted that “relatively paler images [id est inexpressive characters] exist in the final section of the book”[7], and the narration becomes hasty. This can be interpreted as “a sign of the population’s dwindling viability”[8], as a warning cry for the crucial phase of non-violent resistance in the name of the nation’s continuation.

But even after the restoration of independence, Skujiņš has not tried to correct or supplement anything. The author’s notes mostly explain historical persons and very few of Soviet realities, like

“Factory house – a foldable family house manufactured in a factory. Popularly called Līvāni house.”

The next generation – writers who were children in 1940 and whose view of the world was formed during the Soviet time (born in 1928 and after) – is represented by Regīna Ezera (1930–2002) and Alberts Bels (1938).

In 2000–2001, Regīna Ezera’s “Selected Works” in 3 volumes were published. She is one of the popular writers who never added anything to her published texts. In an interview she has mentioned that she has never had the time or desire to return to her previous work and that all her creative energy is always concentrated on her current work.

Alberts Bels (1938) originally wrote his novel “Insomnia” (“Bezmiegs”) in 1967. The commission of experts recognized it as “an anti-Soviet pamphlet written in the form of nightmares and gossip”, a criminal case was filed against the writer. The novel was not released in its uncensored form until 2003. It was published first in 1986 in the literary periodical “Karogs” and in a book among other novels by Bels, in 1987, so it actually represents two or even three decades: the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s.

In the edition in 2003, the censored sentences and paragraphs have been added to the text along with the author’s preface and the original document – the conclusion of the expert group about the anti-state nature of the novel.

Significant is the author’s statement that he had created an abbreviated version of the novel in 1986, because he did not see the possibility that the Soviet occupation could ever end.


Since regaining independence in 1991, many popular Latvian novels from the 1970s and 1980s have been published in new editions, within writers’ complete works, series for use in schools and other publications. Some of them remain untouched and supplemented only by authors’ or literary scholars’ prefaces or comments. On the contrary, some authors have edited their work and presented new versions of their texts to be considered new canons and their last will with different approaches – editing previously published texts, including addition of censored fragments or detailed endnotes, or improving a writer’s style.

However, it should be emphasized that in most cases the texts of the novels in re-publications have remained intact, suggesting that the writers in the novels managed to say enough about both what was allowed and what was not allowed.

[1] Fainberg, D.; Kalinovsky, A. Introduction: Stagnation and Its Discontents: The Creation of a Political and Historical Paradigm. In: Fainberg, D.; Kalinovsky, A. (eds.) Reconsidering Stagnation in the Brezhnev Era: Ideology and Exchange. Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books, 2016, p. xiv.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Annus, E. Soviet Postcolonial Studies: A View from the Western Borderlands. London/New York: Routledge, 2018, p. 240.

[4] Berelis, G. Metaliteratūra. Avots, 1989, Nr. 6, 15.–16. lpp.

[5] Skujiņš, Z. Aplikācija par rakstnieku un laikmetu. Ķekava: Lasītava, 2018, 323.–324. lpp.

[6] Jugāne, V. No kritiķa dienasgrāmatas. Janvāris. Literatūra un Māksla, January 25, 1985; Vāverniece I. Vieglums kā literārs paņēmiens? Padomju Jaunatne, March 13, 1985; Sokolova, I. Par dažiem politiskā romāna jautājumiem. Literatūra un Māksla, February 14, 1986; Plēsuma, A. Vēstures vēju vētītās leģendas. Karogs, 1985, Nr. 4

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hausmanis, V. (ed.). Latviešu literatūras vēsture. 3. sējums. Rīga: LU Literatūras, folkloras un mākslas institūts; Zvaigzne ABC, 2001, 103. lpp.

Publikācija veidota pēcdoktorantūras pētījuma “Latviešu prozisti padomju okupācijā: sadarbība un nevardarbīgā pretošanās (1968–1991)” (pētniecības pieteikums Nr. ietvaros.

Pēdējo reizi labots: 14.02.2023 14:05:46