Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'Remembrance Day': A hatred that refuses to die

 The Royal Court is to stage a play about the annual procession of Nazi Waffen SS veterans in Latvia, and theway it still divides families in the country today. John Nathan watches the march with the playwright.

Marchers honour the Latvian Legion, which fought on the side of Nazi Germany.

 It is a fine morning for a parade. Beneath an unblemished, Baltic blue sky, they gather, the very young and the very old, in the icy, cobbled courtyard surrounding Riga's Doma which is not only the largest cathedral in Latvia, but in Lithuania and Estonia too. It is here that every year on 16 March the most fiercely disputed event in the Baltic calendar begins. The date is that of Legionnaires' Day, which celebrates Latvian independence in general and in particular the battle between the country's Nazi Waffen SS divisions and the Soviet Army in 1944.
 For the moment, the jeers of the few hundred Russian anti-march protesters, some of them bearing decapitated pig heads on sticks symbolising not only those being commemorated but the three thousand or so taking part in the march, are out of sight and out of ear-shot. They are waiting at the parade's destination, the Freedom Monument, which is about a 15-minute stroll away. The monument consists of a towering column topped by a copper-green statue of Liberty who holds aloft, not a torch but three gilt stars. This is Latvia's most potent symbol of independence. Despite the presence of thousands of riot police wearing balaclavas and body amour, the mood back at the cathedral is more festive than tense.
 This is the playwright Aleksey Scherbak's fourth time at the march, which he is covering as a journalist for one of Riga's Russian-language newspapers. Language is important in this city. The population of 700,000 is largely divided between those who speak Russian and those who speak Latvian; between those who view the Soviets as heroes who defeated fascism in Europe, and those who view the Russians as occupiers who had to be fought, even if that meant fighting for Hitler's Germany in a Nazi Waffen SS division.
 Scherbak has made this split the subject of his latest play, Remembrance Day, which opens tomorrow at London's Royal Court theatre. Forged in the Court's Moscow workshops for the theatre's International Playwrights season, it is directed by Michael Longhurst, whose visceral 2008 production of Stovepipe plunged its audience into the terrifying world of mercenary soldiers fighting in the Middle East.
 Remembrance Day looks at the heat and hatred generated by the annual Legionnaires' Day march as viewed by a Russian family in Riga. The question that underpins it is how a nation can come to terms with its past without reviving past conflicts.
 Watched by Scherbak, those taking part in the procession gather in the cathedral square. Many are affiliated to the various groups that make up Latvia's nationalist movement, including the handful of still-living Waffen SS veterans. Also present are Latvian men in their early-80s who were too young to fight with the SS, though they wish that they had. Smiling teenagers, all of them pretty enough to be cast in Glee, hand out free copies of the latest issue of DDD, a newspaper whose correspondents complain of unwanted Russian and Jewish influence on Latvian society. Under the masthead it says "Latvijas Nacionala Fronte" – Latvian national front. A few yards away more teenagers are gathering, only this group have rejected blue jeans and are dressed head-to-toe in black. Like some of the adults, a few wear T-shirts bearing images of advancing SS divisions.
 The controversy surrounding the march has spread beyond the Baltics, to Britain where David Cameron has been criticised for allying his European MPs to Europe's far-right fringe including Latvia's For Fatherland and Freedom Party. In the cathedral square, a young man holds up the flag of the reportedly neo-Nazi All For Latvia! party, with its swastika-like emblem. This is the Fatherland and Freedom Party's new ally in the Latvian parliament.
 "Look how young they are", says Scherbak of the blue-jeaned and black-shirted teenagers. Though the two groups look very different, they are, he says, the same. "They are all Latvian nationalists. They all believe in the same thing" he adds, not disapprovingly, but in the way he says most things – calmly and as a statement of fact.
 In that sense the Ukrainian-born writer is much like Sasha, the Russian father in his new play. And like Sasha, (played by Michael Nardone in the play), Scherbak observes with a father's concern (he has four teenage children of his own) how the wars that were once fought by today's old men have been passed down through their families like heirlooms to a new generation.
 In the play Sasha's 16-year-old daughter Anya (Ruby Bentall) joins the protest against the march, and her father counsels her not to get swept up in an issue that has split Latvian society. Russian-speakers account for over a quarter of Latvia's 2.25m people and about 40 per cent of Riga's population. Tellingly, there will be very few, if any, Latvians protesting against the march when it reaches the Freedom Monument, and there will be no Russians in the march as it makes its way through Riga's cobbled streets.
 "A man may have an SS on his uniform, but that does not tell you what he thinks inside", says Scherbak as we follow the procession. "A soldier is not the same as a killer." It is a view that may surprise many, not least Scherbak's fellow Russian-speakers whose cries of fascist, Nazi and murderers are still too far away to drown out the Latvian folk songs rising above the parade.
 But then, Scherbak is not only speaking as a playwright but as a former member of the Spetsnaz (Russian special forces) whose job in Afghanistan was to fight as part of a squad of four soldiers, in enemy territory, in the mountains – at night. It is an experience that has apparently informed his view of all soldiers, even old Waffen SS soldiers such as Valdis, one of the characters in his play.
 Valdis (played by Ewan Hooper in the play) is based on a real soldier of the same name who knew Scherbak's father. Like the Valdis in Remembrance Day, he fought in four armies. "The Latvian army, the Red army, the German army and the Soviet army", says Scherbak, who was a boy when he met the old campaigner, then an employee of his father, a builder. Scherbak remembers Valdis as a silent, powerfully built man. "You do not forget a man like this", says the playwright. He doubts if the real Valdis is still alive. But by putting him into his play, Scherbak has found a way of representing the tides of Soviet and Nazi occupation that ebbed and flowed across the Baltics during the Second World War, finally ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Latvia declared independence.
 For many Latvians independence is bound up with the fight against what they see as the greatest evil of all, Soviet and Russian dominance. As the march makes its way through the streets of Riga's old town, one of the teenage black-shirts tells me he is not worried what people think about his support for the Waffen SS. "Latvia has its own history. If Europe had been occupied [by the Soviets] they would understand. The occupation is still not finished. There is still influence from Moscow", he says. "The Second World War is not over", adds his friend.
 As the march nears the monument along a mall flanked by nationalists bearing the Latvian flag, the jeering starts. All the protesters appear to be Russian, or Russian-speaking Latvians. Some wear striped clothes representing the uniforms of Nazi concentration camps. Placards list the massacres committed under Nazi occupation. Ninety per cent of Latvia's 80,000 Jews were killed. One placard reads "Rumbula 25,000", which refers to a place south of Riga and the number of Jews who were taken there and killed in two days. It is said that the Nazis recruited many of the killers into the Waffen SS.
 Protester Anatoly Gregorief, 77, remembers being in Leningrad during the siege, when the Latvian Waffen SS surrounded the city. Like many of the elderly protesters here, he is desperate to tell his memories to anyone who will listen. So is Maria, who was deported to Germany as a slave labourer, then to Buchenwald concentration camp. Seeing a gap in the rush to give testimony, a woman in a white fox-fur hat called Tamara – also in her seventies – chimes in with her view that Latvia should never have been allowed to join the EU.
 By contrast Anton and Yvgeny, both of them 17-year-old Latvian-born Russians watch the parade in silence. They are here to protest against fascism, they say. All of Europe rejected fascism; only Latvia accepted it, says Yvgeny. Yes, they have (non-Russian) Latvian friends, but no they don't talk about the march with them or about the issues that surround it. But if they saw one of their Latvian friends in the parade, that would be different. They wouldn't talk to them any more, says Anton. There might be a fight, says Yvgeny, who is wearing the orange-and-black ribbon of St George, which symbolises the Soviet Union's victory over the Nazis.
 Suddenly Scherbak's refusal to judge even those who fought for the SS seems to be one of the more moderate opinions being expressed on Riga's streets today.
 "The most dangerous thing is that as the old SS die, the young people are now using it for their own politics", he says. Is this the message of his play? "Da", he says, in Russian.


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