Editor’s introduction: We received this letter ( see below) from a longstanding reader of our web site, who periodically has also written articles for us on the situation in Israel. He and his family recently visited Latvia. Although it is only a short letter it gives a glimpse of the situation in Latvia.
The westernisation of the country is evident. In the capital we see all the trappings of capitalism, with its fashion industry and so on. We have the illusions in capitalism, especially among the youth. Although, even they have to admit that it is hard to make ends meet. And the older generation, who remember the past, say life was actually easier under Soviet rule.
However, once you get away from the glitz and glamour of the big city and move into the suburbs we have terrible poverty. As the letter says, the average wage is about £100 per month (about €140), but some prices are at West European levels. That explains the 70% of the population that is poor.
The writer asks himself whether the equality of socialism means a drab and dreary society where the skills of people are not allowed to develop and flourish. The problem is that the old Soviet Union was not “socialist” as we would understand it. Yes, there were many positive features, some of which survive to this day even in Latvia ‑ see the cheap flat rate fares for public transport referred to in the letter – but there was no genuine workers’ democracy, the planning was not under the control of the workers. The Soviet Union was ruled over by a parasitic bureaucracy that lived in privileged conditions. To defend these privileges it imposed a brutal dictatorship, which stifled the genuine abilities of the workers and youth of all the former Soviet countries.
Today Latvia is capitalist, and yes a minority is “flourishing”. They are making money and so on. But 70% of the population is classed as poor. There are homeless people on the streets.
As socialists, we call for a return to the planned economy, but with workers’ democracy! Combining state ownership of the means of production with workers’ control and management would allow for a genuine flourishing of society. That 70% that live in poverty could come to the fore and use their skills to build a society where everyone can have a decent home, a living wage, good schools and healthcare and so on. The choice does not have to be between barbaric and uncontrolled capitalism and grey, drab Stalinism.
We need to return to the genuine ideas of Marxism, to genuine Socialism!
This summer my wife and I visited Latvia. My wife was born in the USSR, but her roots are those of Jewish Latvia. Latvia is a beautiful place. As the plane circles to land all one can see is green, green and more deep green. We are not great travellers, but I have never landed at an airport where the sides of the runway are deep lush grass.
Latvia, as I'm sure you know, is the largest of the three Baltic states that the Former Soviet Union occupied. It has two million inhabitants, 40% of whom are Russian, and under the new free state of non-Soviet Latvia are stateless.
On a trip to the seaside we ‑ my wife could speak to everyone through her Russian ‑ got into a conversation with one of these Russians, who hearing us speak Hebrew said he too was Jewish, and told me in English that he had been to the US on a special travel permit. He has no passport!
The evidence of the legacy of the Soviet past is very prominent, but it is declining. The very old buildings of Riga that were left to decline are now slowly being restored. The transport system consists of mainly trolley buses, trams and buses, in that order. Most are from the Soviet era, built by Skoda. But no matter what distance one travels in Riga or on what form of transport the fare is the same, 20 cents (roughly 20 p). This, my wife says, is from the Soviet period. Also all the transport has conductresses.
The trappings of western products are everywhere, Coca Cola expensive, McDonalds cheap, but food in general is very cheap. For the first week my daughter-in-law was with us, we all ate very well travelled a lot and it cost me about the same as one week had cost in Holland some years ago.
The women are the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life, and this has sparked a cosmetic and fashion explosion since the Soviets left, but now we come to the crux of the matter.
For us the prices of the perfumes and clothes were cheap for the former and the same as in Israel for the latter. But, and it's a big but, from what my wife could glean, the average wage is about 100 Lats (100 pounds) a month! 70% of the people in Latvia are poor. The minute you go out into the suburbs of Riga you see the difference. People over 50 said to my wife that economically they managed better in the Soviet era, but the younger people said that although it was hard to make ends meet they preferred the new era because if you had the ability you could get ahead. So we come to the old question: what price freedom? As a socialist this question has always dogged me, whether the world with true equality would be a very drab world, stifling people’s natural abilities.
The Russians who live in Latvia are, as the taxi driver told my wife on the way to the hotel (all the taxi drivers are Russian) “we Russians are the niggers of Latvia.” There is a very strong nationalistic trend among the Latvians. And the Latvian nationalist anti-Semites even helped the Nazis in their dirty work. There are in fact only 7000 Jews left in Latvia (6000 in Riga), and I saw more than one Swastika and slogans, that I must assume were anti-Semitic, scrawled on the walls of the underpasses.
We also visited the only Synagogue left in Latvia. The Nazis burnt all the others to the ground, but this one in the old city was saved because a priest said as it was near a church and the fire could spread and burn the church as well!
I would like to return to Latvia one day, and if I do it will be interesting to see the changes. We saw homeless people; something my wife, who has no love for the Soviets, assures me did not exist during the Soviet occupation. There was one old woman who would sit on the steps of one of the underpasses that we had to use to go to the one and only Jazz Club in Riga, whom I will never forget. She sat there with her dog who was muzzled. When my wife asked her the name of here dog here drawn sullen face suddenly burst into a smile and told us "Nona". I'm petty sure she was blind. I hate to see homeless people; it tears the heart out of me, because we know it is so unnecessary!
One more thing, my wife could not find her old street names, because Lenin St, and Karl Marx St have all been changed, but people soon gave us the new names, the Lats are very friendly and polite!