Emptiness

Order from chaos

Taming freedom and civilizing selves in the 1990s

This essay was written in October 2021 for the catalogue of Ieva Kraule-Kūne’s exhibit “Where My Cards Lay” on the memories and experiences of the 1990s: https://kim.lv/en/where-my-cards-lay/

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Charles Dickens, The Tale of Two Cities

Antoņina, who lives in Lielciems, a village about 25km from Latvia’s border with Russia, says that back in the 1990s her grandmother warned her about capitalism.[1] Having heard that there would      be private property again, her grandmother had gasped: “Oh no, now you’ll see what it means to work for a master and to have no one to complain to.” But Antoņina dismissed her grandmother’s warnings. She and her parents rode the wave of freedom: “Free, even if in pastalas,” the saying went.[2] “Now pastalas are very expensive,” chuckles Antoņina, and “all you can buy are Chinese shoes.” Antoņina told me this story after the closure of Lielciems’s post office in the fall of 2020. The town’s population was declining, and the Latvian Post had evidently decided to optimize their services. The closure of the post office also involved the firing of Lilita, who had worked for the post office for 40 years, following in the footsteps of her father and her father’s father. Lilita was forced to resign a few months before her retirement. Her complaints went unheard.

The 1990s were brutal in Lielciems. The factory that was the lifeblood      of the “urban-style settlement” closed down in 1994. This meant that the heat supply to the apartment buildings was also cut, as the factory and apartment buildings shared the same heat supply. There was no work, no money, no heat, and no hot water. In the winter, the temperature in the apartments dropped to +5C, and people slept huddled together and in their coats. Every apartment had a chimney coming out of a window, as residents obtained wood-burning stoves, known as “burzhuiki” or “Godmanis’s stoves” (named after the Latvian prime minister who served from 1990 to 1993 and who suggested that people use them to solve their heating problems). “I ate so many pickled vegetables back then that I can’t even look at them now,” said Antoņina’s neighbor Tanya. Most of the inhabitants left, but some stayed for family or other reasons. Quite a few of the former factory workers, men and women alike, spent their time drinking. “There was something bad in the alcohol,” said Elena, whose son died in his sleep with a bottle by his bed. “There was a cheap drink called Royal. They say that it had some addictive substances added to it. They say that when men started drinking it, they couldn’t stop.”

Around the same time in Riga, artists and other members of the intelligentsia were also drinking Royal.[3] They had education but no money. Some worked night shifts as cheap entertainers, others engraved gravestones. They looked after each other, made art, partied until the early hours of the morning, slept for an hour or two, and sometimes went to work. In a conversation about the wild 1990s published in Satori, Juris Poškus and Solvita Krese remember a time when Monika Pormale was playing the piano in a fur coat, which caught fire from the candle     sticks Solvita had placed on the piano, while another artist—     Gints Gabrāns—     was doing somersaults from one end of the apartment to the other. Collective trips to exhibitions     [1]  abroad organized by Latvians in exile (trimdas latvieši) or Western institutions were particularly exciting. One could sell a painting at an exhibition      in New York and buy a country house in Latvia. On one such      trip to Berlin, most of Latvia’s emerging art elite almost fell out of the train because they were standing on the landing between train cars with open doors, drinking and smoking, when the train made a sharp turn. Had it not been for Oļegs Tilbergs who held up the Latvian art elite with his body, memories of the 90s could be very different.

Many others did not survive the 1990s. In Lielciems, people could not handle the sharp fall in status and the loss of meaning. People who had gained status from factory work were devalued in the post-Soviet present along with the factories they used to work for. Many drank themselves to death, committed suicide, or died in drunk driving accidents.[4] In Riga, people were also dealing with the challenges thrown up by freedom. You could do anything, including destroy yourself. You could destroy yourself by drinking yourself to death, as people in Lielciems had done, or you could climb to dizzying heights of wealth and power and then fall back down, losing not only wealth and power, but also your mind. Some did.[5]

I remember those years as a heterotopia. Those were the years when an egg boiling machine appeared in my parents’s kitchen, and every block in Riga had a household technology store that sold things on credit. Those were the years when things were bought and sold feverishly, when everything was available, and when nobody cared about copyright. Those were the years when most people had trouble distinguishing legitimate job offers from fraudulent schemes or police officers from racketeers. Those were the years when the aspiring middle class had not yet realized that their tastes had to differ from those of the rest of the population or correspond to those of their peers in the West. Those were the years when people dressed in fake brands from Poland’s markets and installed white plastic windows in their apartments. Those were the years when some people got extremely rich, and the streets were full of beggars. Everyone was supposed to be one’s own boss, but the bosses in charge of the state did not seem to know what they were doing. Those were the years when the internet exploded, and authoritative discourse—     of the state and science—     was shattered, giving way to a plurality of faiths, self-help guides, and magical interventions.

Whether the 1990s were a time of extreme dispossession or dizzying freedom depended on how individuals could translate their Soviet capital into a new, post-Soviet one. There were people who could navigate the chaos, and there were people for whom chaos was just that—chaos. But, almost as a rule, whatever capital people had acquired during the Soviet period did not carry much value in encounters with the West. When going abroad, whether to Berlin or New York, one felt—and was made to feel—unprepared for the world. As Andris Breže put it in the Satori discussion, “grass or trees were similar, but everything touched by human hand was different.” Reading books did not suffice, one had to have an emotive and kinaesthetic understanding of the civilized world.[6] How does one open the water tap in the bathroom? By pushing, pulling, turning, or just putting one’s hands under it? How does one open a can without a can opener? What are chopsticks and how does one hold them? Am I supposed to take a shower every morning? What’s wrong with wearing socks with my sandals!? Why am I the only one dressed up for the theatre? Why is everyone laughing when there is nothing funny on stage?

There are many amusing stories about embarrassing everyday failures that post-Soviet people, including Latvians, experienced as part of the civilizing process (Bourdieu 1979, Elias 1939). But the civilizing process—which was also a process of middle-classification—was more than just amusing. It demanded that white plastic windows be considered aesthetically and environmentally unacceptable. It was better to have wooden windows that “breathed” and corresponded to historic architecture. In the process of becoming civilized, one also learned that fake brands from Polish markets were not to be worn, that one either had to buy the real thing or find something unique and therefore better. Some people said to have always known that, thus claiming inner civilizational qualities that were not subject to the whims of the times, but most had to re-educate themselves if they wanted to become part of the cultural elites or even the middle class.

Undergoing the civilizing process also meant taming the dizzying freedom of the 1990s by developing new understandings of the world and the institutions that accompanied them (in reality, it usually happened the other way around). For example, Latvia’s scholars needed to learn how to produce proper knowledge in lieu of the distorted Marxist-Leninist perspectives that had shaped social sciences to date, and most people needed to learn to “think critically,” something they, as former Soviets, were assumed not to have mastered (Dzenovska 2018).[7] In conditions where previous sources of both everyday understandings and authoritative knowledge were discredited, Western individuals and institutions emerged as authority figures that helped former Soviets      apprehend the new situation for the purposes of guiding action. This reorientation of understandings and knowledge drew on and solidified a discursive juxtaposition between Western and Soviet “mentalities,” as well as between Western scientific knowledge and Soviet ideological knowledge. Rietumnieki (Westerners), those who hailed from the other side of the Iron Curtain—including several generations of Latvians who had resided or were born abroad during the Soviet period—became experts on how things were to be done in the new post-Soviet present by virtue of having lived in “the free world”. Rietumnieki arrived as staff members of development agencies, such as the UN Development Program and the World Bank, as entrepreneurs and investors, as government advisors, as researchers, translators, and relatives. The Soviet “imaginary West” had become real through the mere presence of Westerners (Yurchak 2005). Rietumnieki’s knowledge of “the West,” which ranged from high-level professional skills to some basic understanding of banking operations to the ability to open an exotic food package, was valued regardless of their political commitments. They knew, for example, that run-down places, such as the island of Ķīpsala across the river from downtown Riga, would become desired waterfront real estate, and so some bought property there when locals still thought of the island as a hotbed of poverty and criminal activity. Whether liberals, conservatives, or leftists, rietumnieki were thought to have the kind of understanding, often referred to as “mentality,” that was needed to operate in “the      free world” that Latvia had just joined.

Former Soviet citizens, regardless of their education, skill, or life experience, became handicapped because their understanding of the world was thought to be tainted by Soviet ideology and practice. Even those who did not associate themselves with the ideology of the Soviet state were found to be lacking because they had not been exposed to a wide variety of “Western practices” and had been trained in an education system that was thought to have discouraged initiative and critical thinking. To this day, many Latvians refer to “Soviet mentality” to explain all kinds of ills of the post-Soviet present, including corruption, emigration, intolerance, lack of civic activity, insufficient entrepreneurial skills, people’s expectations in relation to the state, and more. References to Soviet legacy have become a crutch for explaining the present without the need to understand it. In a recent film entitled Homo Sovieticus (dir. Ivo Briedis, Mistrus Media 2021), the director Ivo Briedis and the author of the script Rita Ruduša work on exorcising the Soviet spirit from within. It is no easy task. No matter how many good books Ruduša reads, she still feels the presence of the Soviet homunculus inside her. This sets her apart from her Western colleagues.

Feelings of inferiority stem not only from the inside but also from the outside. Whether as migrants in the UK or civil servants in Brussels, Eastern Europeans have commented on their second-order status and produced astute critiques of the civilizing process they were (and are still being) subjected to.[8] Strikingly, Latvians have talked about this very little, if at all, instead striving for Europeanness with greater fervour and focusing on expelling the demons within. The perpetual fear of Russia and the perception of the inevitability of the economic and political course that Latvia claims to have chosen may have played a role in keeping critical thinking at bay.[9] Maybe remembering the 1990s can recover a sense of freedom and the ability to think critically?

Most of my peers—the generation that embarked upon the 1990s as recent high-school graduates—remember the period      as a dizzying combination of danger and opportunity, as a time when they did things they never thought they would do or would      never have done had they known better. Freshy out of college in the United States, I tried to make money by looking for a market for snake venom for a company in Latvia. It turned out to be an absurd and highly unsuccessful enterprise. A classmate of mine believes that it was Machiavelli’s Fortune that pitted him against forces he could not begin to take the measure of, such as OMON (Soviet special forces) and corrupt entrepreneurs with a monopoly over violence. Prevailing despite danger which he did not fully understand, he embodied the revolutionary sensibility of the times —the sense of creating the world anew.

It was the barricades of 1991, when people gathered to protect the newly restored state from Soviet special forces, that was the paradigmatic manifestation of this revolutionary sensibility. The barricades also constituted the collective revolutionary subject—tauta (the people). The building and guarding of barricades produced a visceral togetherness—or a barricade sociality—that moulded the people into a political subject (Dzenovska and Arenas 2011). Carrying barriers, patrolling the streets, procuring food, or huddling together generated social relations that turned strangers into comrades and suspended the division between Latvians and Russians. Tauta emerged as a “cosmic force” whose unity surprised not only OMON, but also barricade participants themselves. In the face of the cold, darkness, and potential violence, folks at the barricades forged solidarities by sharing clothing, food, and drink, by singing, dancing, and playing music, by setting up field clinics and providing medical aid, as well as by circulating information about political developments and military tactics. Many participants recall how Russian-speaking employees of the Soviet milicia (police units) surprised everyone by siding with the people of the barricades rather than OMON and how Russian women brought food to those who manned the barricades.

The 1990s, then, were a constitutive moment, a moment when tauta as a law-making entity and the law of the land were created. Paradoxically, this moment required overcoming division and producing a people united in difference in order to legitimate subsequent laws that produced a series of divisions and expulsions, as well as created institutions that tamed freedom and civilized the revolutionary people into a European nation.

Another way to tell the story of the 1990s, then, would be to say that in addition to violent dispossession and dizzying freedom, the 1990s were the years when the institutional and legal foundations of current-day Latvia were laid, when the direction of economic policy was set, and when the social and emotional infrastructure of society was formed. Since every act of creation draws lines and sets boundaries, these were also the years of deferrals, expulsions, and resentment. All of Latvia’s residents were perpetually deferred from becoming fully European. It seemed that Europeanness was almost within reach when something went wrong again, be it a corruption scandal or an intolerant statement. Many of Latvia’s Russian-speakers were expelled from the ethnically defined polity unless they asked to be accepted on the conditions set by the Latvian state. Workers—either as devalued Soviet-era workers or as not sufficiently valued post-Soviet ones—left the country and sought employment abroad. Objections to all these things, in turn, tended to be expelled from public discourse as misguided attachments to the Soviet past or grist for the mill of Russian propaganda. In a sense, then, it was also freedom that was expelled, at least in the way it existed in the 1990s, as a space of radical, if dangerous, openness and possibility.

Why is it that the 1990s have become a popular object of memory today? Is it simply that the generation that grew up in the 1990s feels that they have to transfer their history to the generation that does not know much about it? Or is there something about the current historical moment that makes us want to remember both the violence and the possibilities of the 1990s, the fact that it was the best of times and the worst of times? As noted by scholars who have considered the question of nostalgia (e.g. Boyer 2015, Boym 2001), affective invocations of the past are not so much about the past as they are about the present and the future. Is it possible that by remembering the 1990s we are nostalgic for the futures that the 1990s both enabled and foreclosed? The world at large seems to have lost the future as something that overcomes the ills of the present. Instead, we now have to defend what we have     —from health to rights to the earth itself—from the future as a series of threats (Dzenovska and Fedirko 2021). Is it surprising, then, that the time of dizzying freedom and opportunity even if accompanied by violence and dispossession becomes an object of nostalgia?

We no longer find ourselves in situations of extreme danger and opportunity. We have ordered our present and our threats. They now come from predictable sources, even if we argue that they are unpredictable (such as Lukashenka’s “hybrid warfare” or Russia’s “fake news”). Some find this comfortably stabilizing, others find it stifling. We have been tamed. We no longer think that everything is possible or, rather, we do say that everything is possible because we live under free-market capitalism and liberal democracy, but we forget to mention that everything is possible only if we behave correctly and responsibly (Ozoliņa 2019). This is so in politics, science, art, and everyday life. Artists can succeed if they can present themselves to a growing corpus of curators in a recognizable way. Academics can succeed if they are able to get grants that prescribe the path, if not the very outcome, of research. And residents of Lielciems can succeed if they become self-employed entrepreneurs. But if, in the 1990s, anyone could become an entrepreneur by feverishly selling and buying things, today an entrepreneur is a member of a profession recommended by the government to those who have lost livelihoods as a result of deindustrialization.

The explosion of memories about the 1990s unsettles that ordered present. Most of these memories are about beginnings, even if some are about the beginnings of ends. The explosion of memories mimics the constitutive moment of the 1990s before it became ordered. I suspect that, before long, the ordering of memories will begin—perhaps it already has. How and where the lines of inclusion and exclusion fall will define the future to come. What kind of critique will be in, and what kind of critique will be out? Who and how will “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Benjamin 1940)? What will be the place of memories from Lielciems, where people talk about the 1990s as the time “when all this began…”, where people think that the place they live in does not have a future, and where Antoņina, once ready to wear pastalas for freedom, embarks on a critique of capitalism in an attempt to make sense of the present?

References:

Benjamin, Walter. 1940. On the Concept of History (transl. Dennis Redmond, 2005). Available on Marxists.org: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Transl. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Dominic. 2006. “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18(2): 361-381.

Boym, Svetlana. 2002. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Dickens, Charles. 2003 (1859). The Tale of Two Cities. London: Penguin Books.

Dzenovska, Dace. 2018. School of Europeanness: Tolerance and Other Lessons in Political Liberalism in Latvia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Dzenovska, Dace and Arenas, Ivan     . 2012. “Don’t Fence Me In: Barricade Sociality and Political Struggles in Mexico and Latvia.”. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(3): 644-678.

Dzenovska, Dace and Fedirko, Taras     . 2021. “Embattled Futures on the Margins of the Liberal Empire.” Anthropology News website, October 21, 2021.

Elias, Norbert. 2000 (1939). The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, 2nd edition. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Glaeser, Andreas. 2011. Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ozoliņa, Liene. 2019. Politics of Waiting: Workfare, Post-Soviet Austerity, and the Ethics of Freedom. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Yurchak, Alexei. 2005. Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zarycki, Tomasz. 2014. Ideologies of Eastness in Central and Eastern Europe: London: Routledge.


[1] Personal and place names have been changed when material comes from my interviews rather than public events or articles.

[2] Pastalas are laced-up and sole-less peasant shoes made      of leather.

[3] Recollections in this paragraph come from “Savvaļas sarunas: mākslinieku nezināmās biogrāfijas” published in Satori (see here: https://satori.lv/article/savvalas-saruna-makslinieku-nezinamas-biografijas) and a discussion on the bohemian life of the 1990s orgnaized by Satori as part of Prāta Spa events (see here: https://satori.lv/article/prata-spa-par-90-gadu-bohemu-sarunasies-solvita-krese-andris-breze-un-kaspars-vanags).

[4] The suicide rate for men in Latvia doubled between 1988 and 1994: https://www.spkc.gov.lv/lv/psihiska-veseliba-0/pasnavibas_latvija_situacijas_perspektivas_risinajumi_20091.pdf

[5] See the film “My F     ather the B     anker” (dir. Ieva Ozoliņa, Mistrus Media, 2015): https://www.filmas.lv/movie/3843/

[6] See Glaeser 2011 for discussion of modalities of understanding.

[7] This paragraph and next are adapted from Dzenovska 2018.

[8] See one example here: https://projekte.berlinergazette.de/blackboxeast/

[9] See Zarycki (2014) for an elaboration.


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