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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: April ::
Ukrainian and English in Latvia
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0676  Monday, 11 April 2005

From:           John Velz <
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Date:           Friday, 8 Apr 2005 23:18:06 -0500
Subject:        Ukrainian and English in Latvia

To those interested in the academic problem of performing in Latvian:

In 1993 I gave a lecture in Riga (in English) on "Shakespeare and the
Shapes of Medieval Religious Drama".  I stayed several days, sharing a
suite with a young English scientist there to consult with the Riga
University Metallurgy Department.  We got on well in our primitive
surroundings.  Water out of the tap was the same color (brown) as the
river and hot water for shower was limited.  This British colleague was
invited to sit in on a doctoral oral in metallurgy.  The candidate was
an ethnic Ukranian, born and raised in Latvia, but speaking  Russian or
Ukranian at all times.  The first question came in Latvian.  The
candidate said in Russian "I do not understand your language." The
answer came back, "This is a failure!"  The committee put their heads
together for a few seconds and then one of them spoke: "We have a bylaw
at the University saying that a foreigner can request to have the
examination conducted in his own language.  What is your nationality?"
"Latvian, but I speak Ukranian and Russian."  "If you are to be examined
in Ukranian or Russian you must declare yourself a foreigner."  A
hesitation and then "I am a Ukranian."  "Do you wish to have the
questions asked in your national language?"  "Yes".  The next question
came in Ukranian, and so did all the others.  The candidate sailed
through the exam.

This was shortly before the first national elections were held in Latvia
after the wall came down between Eastern and Western Europe.  There was
a lot of debate at the time in Latvia over who should get the franchise.
  Thousands of Russians and Ukranians born in Latvia lived in
late-twentieth-century prefab.  concrete housing without character put
up for Russians and Ukranians from which others were excluded.  Children
born to parents in this environment never interacted with Latvian
children in any way when growing up.  The Russians and Ukranians were an
enclave of civil servants who administered the country but were in it
not of it-like the Raj in India.  The motivation behind the humiliation
of this Ukranian/Latvia man was strictly political.  To get his degree
he had to deny his country of birth (Latvia) and claim Ukranian
nationality when perhaps he never had set foot in the Ukraine in his
life.  I marvel that he learned no Latvian during his post-graduate
years, but apparently this was true.

On the other hand I was warmly welcomed in Latvia.  My Shakespeare
lecture was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on a Friday night.  I can guess how
many would attend the lecture if it were so scheduled in Austin, Texas.
  But the line of Latvian students trying to get into the classroom
stretched all the way down the corridor.  The room held perhaps 40 desks
and I estimate that some 70 students crammed into the room, standing,
sitting on radiators, kneeling on the floor, etc.  The fire marshall at
the University of Texas would never have permitted this crowding.  No
fire marshall in Riga.  I was the first American to lecture in the
English Department of the University of Riga since the wall came down-my
host excepted.  He was a Professor of Germanic Languages at the
University of Wisconsin who at the age of 10 in 1940 escaped the Nazis
with his family in a sailboat to Sweden.  He had hurried back to Latvia
like many of his exiled compatriots in the U.S. and Canada the moment
the Russians pulled out of Latvia.

His grown daughter was with him.  She was equally fluent in English and
Latvian, a valued escort when shopping or sightseeing.

It was very hot in that classroom on the top floor of the building with
a western exposure, so hot that I dripped perspiration from my face onto
my lecture pages as I talked from them, but none of us minded.  The
American was welcome.  It seemed obvious to me that Shakespeare and
religion both were welcome as well.

Yours for lecturing abroad on Shakespeare.

John Velz

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