The following interview with Ambassador Andrejs Pildegoviès "Singing Your Way to Freedom" was published in the December 2011 "Diplomatic Pouch" e-mail newsletter, produced by The Washington Diplomat. Although a complement to The Washington Diplomat newspaper, all content is original and exclusively written for the Pouch.
Singing Your Way to Freedom
interview by Gail Scott, The Washington Diplomat
Diplomatic Pouch - December 2011
For Latvian Ambassador Andrejs Pildegovics, who was born during the second half of the 50-year Soviet occupation of his Baltic homeland and didn’t taste freedom until his college years, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Latvia’s independence this past Nov. 17 was “a dream come true.”
“I belong to a fortunate generation that has witnessed this miraculous transformation from a captive nation where everything was against the people’s will to the second part of my life in a free, modern society,” he said at the National Day celebration held at the embassy. “It is mind-boggling to live through this and witness history. Before, in Soviet times, we didn’t have access to information, opportunity to travel, or communicate with the rest of the world. Now, Latvia is a proud, free county, a member of the European Union and NATO.”
The proud ambassador added: “On my watch, visas are no longer needed to enter the United States, we have one of the fastest broadbands in the world, and we are an independent player. It is remarkable and we thank every individual and government who supported us.”
In particular he thanked the United States for being “one of our staunchest allies,” noting that the U.S. government “never recognized the Soviet occupation. They remained steadfast, politically and legally. This was the unique case [for all three Baltic countries] … and helped our embassies to continue to operate here during those five dark decades.”
According to the ambassador, Latvia is now thanking the U.S. government in real terms, allowing the U.S. military to use Latvia as a jumping-off point for personnel and supplies, especially crucial given Pakistan’s current reluctance to provide access to conflict areas in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Other like-minded nations, especially Latvia’s Nordic neighbors, supported Baltic freedom, too. “Iceland and then Denmark were the first two countries to recognize our independence,” Pildegovics said. Surprisingly, it was Russia who was third to recognize independence “because of [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin. He was pretty crucial to our success. We decorated him with Three Stars…. He realized that the Russian people were becoming a democratic society, leaning toward openness with Latvia.”
It was also the Baltic centuries-old tradition of singing that added worldwide pressure on the Soviets to release their hold on the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Essentially, the Baltics peacefully sung their way to freedom.
“I was 19. I remember going with my father to join the more than a million people singing in the 400-mile human chain from Tallinn in Estonia through Riga to Vilnius in Lithuania,” the ambassador recalled. “It was an extraordinary time for the Baltic people, who held hands across three countries and sang about their right to freedom on Aug. 21, 1989.
“‘The Singing Revolution’ was a unique phenomenon in world history,” Pildegovics continued. “That peaceful, nonviolent protest, almost Gandhi-like, with no one attacking anyone — just stoic, calm determination exposing the weakness, exposed the … illegal status of Soviet rule. That protest was the catalyst.”
Today, Latvia has been designated by UNESCO as a world treasure of choral singing and holds a mammoth festival every fifth summer when more than 40,000 singers, following one conductor, perform for an audience that’s at least that big. The next song festival is in July 2013. The following year, the European Union will anoint Latvia as its “European Capital of Culture.”
“Our summer festival is very picturesque,” the ambassador said. “It’s held in an open-air arena, lakeside, just outside of Riga in a thick pine tree forest.”
In fact, this huge songfest has been going on since the mid-19th century, even during the Soviet period, when choirs came from all over the countryside to join other singers on stage.
“All other forms of arts were not allowed by the Soviets but they didn’t even think about outlawing singing because they thought it was such an innocent form of art. They didn’t realize what strong instruments voices could become, with the ultimate effect of leading to our peaceful freedom.”
(above photo of Ambasssadors at the Embassy of Latvia National Day reception by Gail Scott, The Washington Diplomat)