Over the past decade, Latvia has experienced an unprecedented wave of emigration. More than 200,000 Latvians – or around 10% of the population – have left their homeland. This is an exploration of those who have stayed: a generation of urban shaman, tech entrepreneurs and journalists, reflecting the faces of contemporary Latvia.
Latvian tech entrepreneur and digital nomad Uldis Leiterts (31) is the founder of Infogr.am, a pioneering data visualisation service launched in 2012 and used by over 30 million people every month.
Dinosaurs were a huge part of Uldis Leiterts’ childhood, the highlight of which was a trip to the Moscow Paleontological Museum when he was 4 years old. “Nothing has changed,” he says about a recent visit. But Uldis is no dinosaur: in fact he even thinks the call function on his mobile is obsolete. He visited 30 countries in 2016 (and is about to leave again), often living out of a suitcase. During his travels, he’s noticed that “imperfect places with bad weather are perfect for innovation.”
The description applies perfectly to Riga, Uldis’ native city. To escape the dullness of the ancient port and trade hub, Uldis is attempting to transform it, launching the Digital Freedom Festival (DFF) with his friends in 2016. Imagined as a global meeting to celebrate digital revolution, the first DFF was hosted in Riga, gathering tech professionals from all over the globe. “This is an opportunity for local people with huge ambitions” says Uldis, laying out his plans for DFF. “In Latvia, Internet speeds are up to 30 times faster than in America. Only Seoul and Tokyo are faster. You can spend your life watching TED Talks, or you can get Mark Zuckerberg to come here.”
“Imperfect places with bad weather are perfect for innovation” Uldis Leiterts (Infogr.am CEO)
“Latvia needs 100,000 to 200,000 skilled programmers, engineers, and scientists. We cannot wait for 25 years while they grow up,” says Uldis, who seems particularly concerned by the fast rate at which the population is shrinking. Since 1991, the population of Latvia has dropped from 2.66 million to 1.98 million – a decrease of almost a quarter. Most of those who have left are economic migrants, and 40% of them have no plans of returning.
With its head office in Riga, Infogr.am employs people from 15 countries. Uldis acknowledges that he is propelled by chaos, noise and conflicting opinions. “The moments when I know what will happen are the ones that scare me.”
Inin Nini (35) is a spiritual coach, a shaman, and a storyteller. As the elder of her community Moonlight tribe, she performs dance rites in Latvian forests, manors and suburbs.
Inin always loved playing in the forest near her home. She recalls her childhood as a life with identical dresses for every girl, identical dolls, and even identical aunts and uncles. “People of Eastern Bloc are united by a common sadness and shame that we have spent time in the prison of the soviet system, without proper shoes or real Coca-Cola.” Now, pearls sparkle on Inin’ s dark dress, but this is no special occasion. “These are my casual clothes,” she says. However, Inin believes this poverty also reinforced creativity. “I am still in rebel mode: the first 10 years of my life coincided with the end of the Soviet Union. Break the system, breathe in the freedom!”
“Break the system, breathe in the freedom!” Inin Nini (shaman)
Although Latvia became officially (and genuinely) free in 1991, this did not resolve the troubles within the nation or within its people. At first Inin blogged about intimacy, trying to find a more attractive word for such a fundamental human thing as the vagina. She then left her job in advertising and travelled to South America to experience shamanism.
Upon her return, she changed her name to Inin Nini. “Shaman, witch, interpreter of dreams, priest, psychotherapist – there are all just names for people who remind others about the presence of body, mind, and soul. And they are all important,” says Inin. Her task is to awaken knowledge within people that they pretend to have forgotten.
Inin appreciates the relationship with nature that is an essential part of Latvian identity: whether it be its national solstice celebrations or the connection with nature’s bounty – mushrooms, tea leaves, and potatoes. “We know how to make something from nothing,” she adds.
A quarter of the Latvian population is ethnically Russian; a high proportion sometimes seen as a threat in the light of the recent events in Ukraine. Inin has no real links with Russian people, but takes a more understanding view on Latvian-Russian relations: “We can compete and fight with their lust for power. Or draw a line and sincerely pray for their soul. It would be so good if our prayers helped Russia to stand up. It would be good for the entire world.”
Andrejs Strokins (32) is an internationally awarded photographer.
When Andrejs, born in Riga to Polish and Russian parents, had to integrate into a Latvian school, his schoolmates were not welcoming. “Ruskie, they called me,” Andrejs remembers. “I had to defend myself: I spat in one guy’s face, and later we became best friends.” He now speaks fluent Latvian and lives in the centre of Riga, yet admits he’s thought about leaving: “I just lack the courage.”
Andrejs is convinced his parents would rather forget the soviet times than speak about them. “It’s the same for many people,” he says. Yet for Andrejs, who works as a press photographer, history is essential. He also collects albums of amateur photography from the Soviet Union, full of pictures depicting daily life rather than huge historical moments. “I am trying to find more information about this painful period. I’ve had to go through a lot of shit.” Since he knows how easily photos can be manipulated, he remains skeptical of the history he has learned.
“As soon as we start to discuss political issues, conflicts arise” Andrejs Strokins (photographer)
“Today, lots of Russian speakers in Latvia watch Russian TV news and absorb information from it. As soon as we start to discuss political issues, conflicts arise,” he says. Some time ago, his father thought of converting the family’s Russian surname into Latvian, believing it could stop the suffering that was associated with the Russian past of the family. In the end, however, he changed his mind. Andrejs, who thinks of himself as Polish rather than Russian, has no problems with his surname.
Agnese Kleina (34) is a visual journalist and publisher of international bilingual bookzine Benji Knewman.
In her youth, Agnese was good at gymnastics and writing, yet she saw writing as a “100% local business.” Her friends have dubbed her flat in Riga as “The Museum”, as Agnese is fond of design. She is mostly interested in the kind of post-modern interiors that fell out of fashion in the late soviet-era. “I’ve lived in this time, and I want to tell the world about it,” she says.
The end result of her searching is called Benji Knewman. The magazine, subtitled “Life that you can read”, was launched in 2014. Each issue sells around 2,200 copies on average, with stories in Latvian, English and sometimes Russian. The idea, she says, is to help East and West to meet: “Like an archaeologist, I would like to help my readers see behind the sentimental and the retro, to move forward,” she says.
As regards the social and political scenes of modern Latvia, Agnese is mostly concerned by the consequences of the soviet occupation. From 1944 till 1991, Latvia was part of the USSR, called the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. “Those 50 years are like a ball and chain. Young people have to live with parents and teachers who still seem to be dragging the ball behind them instead of taking a close look at it and themselves.” Agnese is also obsessed with the idea of creating a modern art museum in Latvia. The aim? To dust off and exhibit artwork created during those five decades of soviet rule.
Agnese Kleina: “The idea is to help West and East to meet”
Egils Grasmanis (39) is the director of Brain Games and founder of the movement I Want To Help Refugees.
“Board games are a perfect tool to bring people together,” says Egils, the man who brought board gaming culture to Latvia. With his company Brain Games, Egils, who describes himself as “European”, publishes and exports localised games to 30 countries. In 2016 their family game Ice Cool won the award for best children’s board game in the UK.
Egils says he is amazed by his grandmother, now 93. “Her understanding is profound. Her experiences under different systems and as a refugee herself have shaped the way she treats other people.” During the Second World War, more than 200 000 Latvians left the country as refugees. This transgenerational memory is the reason why Egils started playing board games with asylum seekers in Latvia.
Egils Grasmanis: “Our people need critical thinking”
According to State Chancellery data, 364 and 328 asylum seekers arrived in Latvia in 2014 and 2015 respectively: accounting for about 0.018% of the total population. Yet according to a UN survey in 2016, 55% of Latvia’s residents are inclined towards rejecting refugees and believe that their standard of living would be lower if they had a refugee family as neighbours. In 2015, Egils created a Facebook group I Want To Help Refugees, which has now become a fully fledged movement and is trying to turn the tide in Latvia “so that the majority are for and not against refugees.”
According to Egils, the real time bomb is the ethnic split which exists within Latvia already. “Russian-speakers are hurt by the betrayal of 1991,” he says. “Politicians promised Latvian citizenship for all, but it did not happen. Minorities feel marginalized. Russia pays their pensions, allowances and provides citizenship, they feel welcome there, but not here. It is tragic!”
Egils believes that an apology would help a society which can be easily swayed. “Our people need critical thinking,” he says. “Creativity and innovations are the things for which we could and would like to be known.”