To most Minnesotans, Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, are geographic abstractions. The three Baltic States will be a testing ground to see if the U.S. honors its commitments to NATO. I have no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin — with whom President Donald Trump is to meet next week for a summit in Finland — will at some point provoke some sort of incident to justify intervention. Latvia and Estonia have a large percentage of Russian migrant workers who were brought in by Josef Stalin to staff now-defunct Soviet enterprises. They have to learn the local language to become citizens, yet Russia doesn’t want them back. They are an irritation to us Latvians and an opportunity to Putin.
I will be the honorary consul for Latvia in Minnesota, and it’s my job to make Latvia real. I just got back from there, a country where most people regard Trump as a puppet for Putin. Trump joins a long line of U.S. politicians who think that Putin can be changed. We have a saying in Latvian: “Times change, but character stays the same.”
I came to the U.S. as a refugee after World War II when the Soviets invaded the Baltics. All of our neighbors in Latvia were sent to Siberia, and our farmstead was burned down. Our family chose to flee — a no-brainer; my father was a journalist and he wore glasses. (Stalin sent people who wore glasses to the gulag, for it meant that they could read and that they therefore were a danger.) My father later became the chief of the Latvian Service of the Voice of America and used an alias so that relatives back home would not be sent to Siberia or shot.
Minnesota is 3½ times the size of Latvia, which sits at 56 degrees north latitude or on a line 500 miles north of the Twin Cities. The country produces tall basketball players (Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks, Davis Bertans of the San Antonio Spurs, Gundars Vetra of the early Timberwolves). It has short growing seasons; it’s too cold to grow corn. It cherishes its traditions, such as a song festival that had a “choir” of 43,000 singers and an irresistible pastry — a bacon bun called a piragi.
The country has served as a refuge for Russian people and businesses wishing to flee Putin. That famous Russian vodka, Stolichnaya, is now made in Latvia because the owners did not want to be owned by Putin’s cronies.
Here in Minnesota, St. Louis Park is home to a vibrant community of Russian Jews who left because of Russian anti-Semitism. Ordinary Russians are jealous of Latvia’s economic success and denigrate its language by calling it “Sobacij Yazik” — barking.
What Americans do not understand is that Russia is a Third World country with nuclear weapons. Latvia has ice-free ports on the Baltic Sea, which has always made it a target for Russian expansionism. Putin brags that he could take over the Baltic states in a week, and thus they rely on NATO to thwart the Russian bear. Ironically, the U.S. politician who was most responsible for getting the Baltics into NATO was the avuncular Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Although the U.S. Senate passed a resolution (97-2) supporting NATO, it remains to be seen if Trump is willing to send boys from Mississippi to fight off Putin in the Baltics. It seems more urgent to fight in Afghanistan, where NATO troops, including Latvians, are battling and dying to defeat the Taliban. Latvia, by the way, is the start of a supply pipeline to our soldiers in Asia.
Putin uses Latvia as a whipping boy against hallowed “Mother Russia” (Russia is 140 times larger). The problem is that Latvia has lost many generations to this fallacious argument, which is why we try so hard to get our message out.
John Freivalds lives in Wayzata. He has been nominated to be honorary consul for Latvia in Minnesota.