Is Cultural Trauma an Impediment to Society Integration?

08. June, 2006


Ilze Boldane


The painful social experience and collective fear of ethnic Latvians rooted in the historical memory hinder formation of such relations among the ethnical groups in Latvia prevailed by mutual trust and confidence.

National programme “Society Integration in Latvia” pays serious attention to bringing closer the majority nation and the ethnic groups residing in the country [1]. Several research studies were carried out about adaptation strategies to the new conditions of the ethnic minorities of Latvia, about their political and other activities; nevertheless, the role of Latvians in the integration processes of society hasn’t been studied thoroughly enough. Results of the survey carried out by SKDS in 2005 show that tension between ethnical groups is observed mainly on the group level [2] and rarely – on the individual level, but the research published by the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences in 2004 “Ethnic Tolerance and Integration of Society of Latvia” points out that the decisive factor influencing the ethnical relations in Latvia is the “closed” identity of Latvians [3].

The above mentioned issues have motivated the working group within the project “Resistance to Integration of Society: Causes and Possible Solutions (the Analysis of Relationships between Ethnicity, State and Civil Society)” [4] by the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the University of Latvia to study the influence of particularities of the Latvian ethnic identity on their current value orientation, especially on the integration processes. [5]

Collective Identity and Cultural Trauma

Formation of collective identity is closely related to the historical memory that supply the group members with answers to such questions as – who are they? why are they here? where are they going? what are the formative factors of their current behavior? [6] The historical memory strengthens solidarity ties within the group, creates the specific language of symbols and signs, thus influencing the communication between groups (our people will understand, the others – as they wish), and creates boundaries separating the groups. It retains the socially determined stories (sometimes distributed and secured by the mass media, education policy and other means) significant for the collective “we” stories related not only with its positive experience, but also with the negative one that fosters the social and/or cultural trauma.

Cultural trauma, according to the authors of the concept, is a phenomenon of collective consciousness, which appears as an effect of social events that have threatened group existence [7]. These events are reflected in the collective memory of the group as a painful and dramatic loss of the identity and significance. The cultural trauma is preserved by the mechanism of cultural translation – both “informal” – family, individual interactions, and “official” – museums, school textbooks, remembrance days.

At the same time cultural trauma is a construction formed within the public space by agents of public communication (mass media, political parties, organizations, public figures) that are often ideologically or financially interested in this process. To “experience” trauma means to define the painful event for the society, to find out who are the victims and the guilty ones, and to presuppose moral and material consequences. The social pain experienced is retained in the collective memory of society and is represented as fundamental threat to existence of the group. In certain cases cultural trauma “materializes” in the society by influencing the formation of social and political institutions.

Particularities of the Collective Memory of Latvians

A much suffered peasants’ nation, for a long time oppressed by other nations, that exhibits a range of characteristics resulting from the social niche occupied over the centuries – love for the land (cultivated in agriculture and in the sense of fatherland) and song, working habits (“diligent”, “hardworking”, “prompt”), seclusion (don’t help each other, don’t trust each other, mind their own business), good abilities of adaptation (‘We, Latvians, are pretty much like spear-grass, we bend to one side, then to another: we succumb to one, then to another”) are the traits with which Latvians characterize themselves. The people interviewed pointed out certain periods of freedom and oppression in the course of history that differ by the status of Latvians (as dominating or subordinated) in the administration and government, economy, and culture.

In the stories of respondents representing different generations it is possible to distinguish different attitudes to Latvian oppressors. Respondents of the older generation in the past grievances (landlords – peasants) express the negative valuation of the German ethnic group often formulated as follows “If the Soviet power hadn’t been established and if they hadn’t been so violent (..), we wouldn’t have greeted Germans with flowers.”

The middle and younger generation often stated that “…all the grudge against Germans, Poles, Swedes, has been forgotten lately …”, as today the topical is the latest “occupation”, the attitude to which finds its expression in emotional evaluations of Russians (Russian language speakers). Descriptions most often found in interviews go like this – disloyalty to the state of Latvia, disrespect regarding its majority nation and the state language, desire for the Soviet system and hence regain of a privileged position.

It has to be admitted that this scheme only using different ethnonyms and territorial denotations could be found in the public space of the time period between wars, as well as at present [8] – only the statements about the joint struggle against “black knights” or “fat Polish lords” were exchanged for the united opposition to “occupants” and “fortune seekers”.

Loss of Statehood – the Core of Cultural Trauma

The loss of state independence is present in almost all stories of the respondents, which is an evidence of the place assigned to this event in the collective memory. The repondents in great unanimity admitted that the best time in the history of the Latvian people was the period of Latvian independence between the wars. This time is associated with prosperity, economic growth, certain system of economic management and values, patriotism, Latvian upbringing, a praise for all that is Latvian, etc. But then the year of 1940 came and “we ceased to exist, we were swept away”. During following years that are being described as “Russian times”, “Communist times”, “Soviet times”, “time of occupation” Latvians were physically and morally oppressed, deported to Siberia, stripped of their property, made second-class citizens, the Latvian language was despised and privileges were given to immigrants.

As victims of this situation in the respondents’ stories there dominate “Latvians”, “Latvian people”, “every second Latvian family”, and “we”, but responsibility should be taken by “all that system”, “Communists”, “immigrants”, “Russians”. The respondents voiced the opinion that the Soviet occupation created a huge damage to the morality of nation, rooted out the good qualities of Latvians and brought in the vices of other nations, as well as damage to the economy of Latvia, throwing it back for many decades, so that the consequences of it are felt today and will be felt for a long time. “When Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, he led them through the desert until the last slave died (..) The same situation is here – until the last person brought up in Communism won’t die, there will be no sense.”

Cultural Trauma and Disagreements on the Matter of Society Integration

Data obtained in interviews demonstrate the significant role cultural trauma plays in the structure of historical memory of Latvians, which, in turn, is an important element of the collective memory. The interviews also show the impact of the Latvian ethnic (collective) identity and historical memory on the formative praxis of inter-ethnic relations in Latvia and integration processes in the following way: expectations from people of other ethnic groups to repeat the Latvian adaptation model and to adjust to the existing conditions and authorities like Latvians did it earlier; reserved and deprecatory attitude toward people with different worldviews and lifestyles; certain behavioral models that presuppose turning away from and avoiding contacts with representatives of the group that are “responsible” for causing the collective pain; anxiety over perspectives of group existence and preservation of culture in their influence on political decisions.

The mutual confidence of the groups, the certainty about possibilities to preserve, facilitate and transmit to next generations their culture are the conditions for their peaceful coexistence and mutual trust [9], and therefore – the integration of society. Social pain and collective fear experienced by Latvians rooted in the historical memory make it difficult to form relationship of mutual trust and confidence between the ethnic groups living in Latvia.

But the most important is – the historical memory determines the Latvians’ special attitude to the state. The concept of society integration presupposes that the important factor integrating society is the state as value, recognized by all groups living in Latvia [10]. Nevertheless, the Latvian view on the state is a specific one, related to the experienced as well as construed cultural trauma. There is a dominating opinion in the interviews that the current state is the “natural” continuation of the state violently destroyed in 1940 that in the Latvian memory is associated with the best that has ever happened. This view is represented also in the state legislation. [11] Other ethnic groups cannot fully share such a vision of the state of Latvia because it threatens the legitimacy of their existence in Latvia.


[1] “National programme “Society Integration in Latvia”, Riga, 2001. – p.7

[2] Views on inter-ethnic relationships in Latvia: summary of the survey of inhabitants of Latvia. – Riga: SKDS, 2005. – p. 22

[3] “Ethnic Tolerance and Integration of Society of Latvia”. – Riga: BSZI, 2004. – p. 82

[4] Financing for the project was assigned by the Foundation of Society Integration, 2005-2006. The results of the project are to be published in August, 2006.

[5] Within limits of this project there were carried out 30 deep interviews with the Latvian respondents of three generations and both sexes in the regions of Bauska, Cēsis, Daugavpils, Rīga and Talsi.

[6] For instance, the Hungarian-British scholar G. Schöpflin actualizes the collectively accepted stories about the group’s past (myths) as the most significant element in the formation of the mutual ties and basic values. Schöpflin G. Nations. Identity. Power. The New Politics of Europe. – London: Hurst&Company, 2000. – p.80.

[7] More on the cultural trauma see: Alexander J. C., Eyerman R., Glesen B., Smelser N. J., Sztompka P. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. – Berkley: University of California Press, 2004. – 314 p.

[8] The use of this scheme was more often in the first half of the 1990-ies, though sometimes this kind of rhetoric is applied also today.

[9] Schöpflin G., p. 130.

[10] Concept of the National Programme “Society Integration of Latvia” – Riga, 1999. – p. 4

[11] Constitutional Law on the Status of Republic of Latvia, passed on 21 August 1991. raksts

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