Author portrait
Sandra Kalniete // PORTRAIT

Sandra Kalniete is a unique figure in both contemporary Latvian politics and contemporary literature. She is the author of several exemplary works of documentary literature and is a brilliant politician who has served as the Latvian Ambassador to France (1997) and as the Latvian Foreign Minister (2002). In 2004, Kalniete was elected to the position of Commissar to the European Union. The popular politician’s first literary endeavours are in the field of art history, which she studied at the University. Her essays and reviews of events in the art world and her academic study of Latvian textile arts (“Latvian Textile Arts”) gained the attention of her peers and brought her professional recognition. Even at this time, one may note the laconic form of expression and the analytic and concentrated way of thinking that is characteristic of Kalniete’s work and remains her signature style. This style of writing is closer to the masculine way of looking at the world, just as the study of grand historical events and an involvement with documentary prose are viewed as a masculine priority. Kalniete published two sweeping research works back to back, both of which significantly altered traditional viewpoints. Both of these works can be viewed as unconditional evidence of her political toughness, wherein a deep knowledge of history is revealed, as well as an understanding of the method of guiding social processes, a patriotic pride in her country, and a strong, uncompromising personality – characteristics that are absolutely necessary for anyone endowed with the task of representing Latvia to the world. The turning point in Kalniete’s professional work is the renewal of Latvian independence and the Popular Front and National Reawakening periods, processes within which she played an active role as an “historical labourer”. More than ten years later, after having served as the Latvian Ambassador to France, she returned to these events in the book “I Broke, You Broke, We Broke, They Broke Apart” (2000). Kalniete turned to the reawakening of recent historical events because she justifiably feared that it might become impossible to deliberate upon the process of democratisation and its guiding forces when all of the texts published during the period of National Reawakening were subjected to Soviet censorship. The Latvian Popular Front movement has already been the victim of superficial and incomplete research in history books that continue to be published even today, and as the years go by these false interpretations will only deepen. Though it is widely believed that an historian’s eyewitness experiences and memories of historical events are a third rate documentary source, Kalniete believes that in this case this prejudice does not apply: “Only after comparing many eyewitness testimonies with the given events’ fragmentary reflection in the press of that time, and then completing this comparison with an analysis of the documents of informal organisations and the Party, was it possible to approach the truth”. The book references a wide variety of documentary materials of the time and offers the archives of the leaders of the Latvian Popular Front, but the most important aspect of the book is the author’s knowledgeable view from the inside of these historical events and her personal involvement in various important positions. In the author’s foreword, Kalniete admits that in writing about a time and people so close to her, she was unable to be diplomatically impersonal; nevertheless, in the impression of the book as a whole, exaggerations of subjective positions are not apparent. Likewise, in wishing to reveal the Reawakening as a personal experience and the country’s “celebration of the soul”, the author rarely uses romantic pathos and rhetoric as instruments of style. In her prose, the intensity of enthusiasm and the artful way of expression do not burden her journalistic analysis. Unlike her previous work, which provided a collection of materials and extremely thorough analyses that could have commanded a greater amount of attention, Kalniete’s next book, “With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows” (2001, published to great acclaim in France in 2003), is more concentrated and direct, closer to art prose. The book deals with the tragic story of the deportation of the author’s mother and father to Siberia. The drama of the Dreifelds and Kalnietis families is the story of many Latvians’ fates, therefore the border between the author’s own and any other Latvian’s pain disappears within the book when taken as a whole; the ability of art to universalise has been effectually put into practice. Any Latvian could be and has been in the place of Kalniete’s relatives, who have been doomed to die. The author herself was born in Siberia, though her early memories could not serve as testimony to events of the time. For this reason, Kalniete turned to other sources of information – the memories of her parents, letters, fragments from diaries, archive documents, newspaper articles, history books. Stories about Siberia are abundant in the memoir literature popular in the 1990s; however, Kalniete’s attitude toward the events written about is different because emotions are guided by thoroughly researched empirical materials. The impetus for the book’s creation was the author’s feeling of indebtedness to Latvian history and to those Latvians who rehabilitated their invented “crimes” only after the regaining of independence, when it was finally possible to cleanse the country history from “the lies concocted by a foreign regime”. Kalniete offers several arguments that demythologise those opinions that attempt to impose a collective “inherited guilt” upon honest Latvians. Latvians’ enthusiasm for fascism, Latvians as murderers of Jews, Latvians as anti-Semites – the study of these mythologies and their appearance in the future must be cleansed of demagogy. For this reason, in both of her works the author examines the deformations of consciousness observed among Westerners, who “give communism more breaks than fascism, though they are essentially two similar totalitarian regimes, both of which preserve racism and a politics aimed at annihilating nations”. The resonance of Sandra Kalniete’s book beyond Latvia’s borders will allow others to think about whether or not communism is merely an innocent expression of leftist intellectual freedom, and in what way fascist concentration camps differ from Soviet gulags. In 2003, “With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows” was published in France by the publishing house “Editions des Syrtes”, where it was given the title „En Escarpins dans les neiges de Sibérie”. The publications has caused a stir among the reading public, has seen successful sales results, and been widely praised in the press. In December of 2003, „En Escarpins dans les neiges de Sibérie” received the Grand Prix prize from the readers of ELLE magazine in the historical documentary essay category. In 2003, „En Escarpins dans les neiges de Sibérie” also received the Irina Alberti Fund award, which is dedicated to works that unmask the holocaust and communist regimes. Ieva Dubiņa Translated by Rihards Kalniņš Edited by Rita Ruduša-Case and Mark Case