This special issue of the Journal of Baltic Studies investigates the making and becoming of the Latvian countryside twenty years after independence from the Soviet Union. Countryside or lauki in the Latvian language is not simply a term that designates non-urban territories. In the national imaginary, lauki is a term that marks relations which constitute people and place, relations that are central to the Latvian understanding of the good life as a national life.
At the same time, lauki is also an abstract material space where, from the point of view of the state, economic life flourishes or stagnates, infrastructure is developed or deteriorates, where more people die or leave than are born or arrive, where social welfare payments and European Union subsidies outcompete production-derived income, and where civil society is fledgling at best.
On both registers, Latvian lauki are thought to be in trouble today. Urban intellectuals and rural inhabitans alike lament the dissoluation of relations which to date have constituted the particularity of place and people in the Latvian countryside. At the same time, rural economists exhibit unwavering pessimism about the economic development prospects of the countryside, arguing for a consolidated polycentric development instead. For all, it is clear that the countryside—that is, the relations that make up people, places, buildings and, ultimatly, a livable life—is undergoing rapid and radical changes. Indeed, it is often difficult not to succumb to pessimism when traversing the Latvian countryside. If people on the Western coast of Latvia regretfully note the absence of cows, in Latgale—the south-east part of the country—near-apocalypse is inscribed into the landscape punctured by abandoned homes and overgrown fields.
And yet, amidst apocalyptic landscapes and narratives of lament, somewhere between the mythological place of the nation and the abstract space of the state, there are also multiple concrete places; places where mid-sized farms, traditional bath-house and tourism services, and industrial pig farms with foreign capital struggle to co-exist, suggesting that the countryside is not only a space of demise, but also a space of possibility. All that and more, it is a space where concrete people continue to deploy a variety of tactics of living, communicating, and contesting dominant understandings of rurality.
These various registers of the rural are not entirely unique to Latvia. During the uneven course of modernity, the rural has been an integral part of the European social imaginary. In the context of urbanization and industrialization, European peasantry has been subjected to various civilizational projects (Weber 1976). In the context of critique of capitalism, peasants have been lamented as “potatoes in a sack” lacking political agency (Marx 1852). In the context of literature, the country has been rendered as an idealized space of harmony that contrasts with the loneliness and alienation of the city (Williams 1975). More recent projects, such as the European Union Common Agricultural Policy, too have taken the rural as an object of knowledge and target of intervention. Here, as John Gray (2000) has argued, the rural is caught between two conflicting goals: that of reproducing a particular form of social life as a value in and of itself and that of establishing rurality as a “multifunctional” space of production and economic efficiency. As the rest of European farmers, Latvian farmers too have had to find their way amidst subsidy payments and development projects, some of which have emphasized productivity, while others have sought to support or revitalize rural life. As a result, it becomes difficult to tell where local rurality ends and the translocal one begins.
This special issue, thus, looks at the making and emergence of the Latvian countryside as a set of relational practices that unfold in a particular historical context and contemporary field of power relations. It pays particular attention to the ways in which particular notions of space and place shape the countryside, as well as to the ways in which social relations and practices constitute the countryside as a particular place and space. It draws upon the work of an interdisciplinary group of scholars brought together under the European Social Fund project on rural development strategies and changing cultural spaces in Latvia.
Specifically, the papers in this issue explore: (1) the articulation between mythological, abstract imaginaries of the rural spaces of Latvia and concrete practices through which they are constituted as lived places; (2) the various practices of rural dwellers through which communities, places and political-ethical traditions are created and contested; (3) the understanding of and interaction with translocal processes, policies, and practices that go under the names of globalization, European integration, or development.