Baltic's Onetime Rulers Have Shrunk to a Handful
By MICHAEL SPECTER
R IGA, Latvia -- The torturous events of the 20th century don't interest her much. She holds no views on nationalism. She has always been bored by crusades and movements.
But more than most people in the world today, Pauline Klavina lives with the burden of history. That is because at the age of 80, Mrs. Klavina is one of the last Livonians.
When she dies she will take to her grave much of a heritage that has been alive -- and at times booming -- for 5,000 years.
It is hard to imagine now, looking into her frail, fading eyes, that Livonians once ruled the icy seas around the Baltic countries, sweeping down more than a millennium ago from Finland through what is now Estonia and Latvia.
"There are at least four of us left," she said, referring to people who consider Livonian their native language. "There may be more. I like to think we will all make it past the year 2000 -- into one more era. But I prefer not to think about the end."
Yet even she knows that the end is surely near. Languages depend, of course, on the vitality of the people who speak them. And in this era of superpowers, telephones, the global village and economic integration, they are vanishing at a rate that has never been matched.
More than 6,000 languages are spoken in the world today, but linguists say that within a generation at least half of them will be gone.
"The world is getting very small, and these cultures are the victims," said Kersti Boiko, chairman of the Finno-Ugric language program at the University of Latvia. Linguistically, Livonian is related to northern tongues like Estonian, Finnish, Votish and Karelian.
"Of course Finnish and Estonian will remain," she said. "But in 50 years the others will be gone."
It is a harsh sentence, but this is not the first century in which the power of individual languages atrophied. Latin speakers once ruled the world. So who should care about the disappearance of a moribund fishing culture that started its decline more than 400 years ago, when the Russian navy vanquished it in the brutal Livonian Wars? This is, after all, a nation that had its finest days in the 12th century, during the era of the Teutonic Knights.
"I have never understood," said Mara Zirnite, a researcher in cultural history at the Latvian Academy of Sciences, "why it is more important to save the tiger than to save a culture that has been on earth for thousands of years. That just never made sense to me."
Mrs. Zirnite is working on an oral and photographic history project in an attempt to preserve what she can of Livonia in today's Latvia.
"Cultures are not like restaurants or even people," she said. "For humans it is simple: you are born, you die and then you are gone. But cultures can live forever. Why should we have to go around searching for the shards of a society as if it were ancient pottery? But once a language is gone, that is what we have to do."
Livonians have always been sea people. Their folk calendar divided the year into two parts: the time for fishing and the period, when the seas were rough, to make nets. Their marshy land was poor, and farming was nearly impossible. Their myths involve boats and brave men fighting towering waves.
Historically, there were two Livonias. One was a province of medieval Germany, and it encompassed present-day Latvia and Estonia. By the 16th century it had been defeated as a power.
Since then, and particularly under the Soviets, there has been nothing but retrenchment. Today Livonia is the descriptive term for a 50-mile strip of land along the coastal region of northwestern Latvia.
Uldis Balodis, a Latvian living in the United States who has studied the culture, says that about 2,000 people live there, but none consider Livonian their native language. And that is why most experts believe that the culture is in peril.
Mrs. Zirnite is doing everything possible to prevent the day when Livonia disappears. She offers a class in its culture and has encouraged young people of Livonian ancestry to try to study the language.
The Soviet Union did much to hasten the death of Livonia by moving many of its people from their coastal villages and by forbidding the language to be taught in schools. Since the end of Soviet power, Latvia has helped to re-establish the heritage.
Every summer there is a Livonian folk camp attended by about 10 children in the town of Mazirbe, on the northwest coast. There are feasts and gatherings and classes and traditional games. But none of the children speak the language of their ancestors.
"It is hard," said Renate Blumberga, 26, a student of Livonian history and language. Ms. Blumberga speaks only a little of the language, but she is determined to learn more. She and a few of her friends -- all of Livonian heritage -- study with Ms. Boiko.
"I have decided that if I can do something to keep this language living," Ms. Blumberga said, "it will be a worthwhile goal."
Mrs. Klavina certainly agrees. Speaking in Latvian, she says that sometimes even she loses the ability to talk in her native language. Since her husband died 30 years ago, the opportunities for casual conversation are few.
But she still dreams in Livonian, she insists, and she willingly recites her poetry in the language as well. You can almost hear the loss in rhythms of her sad speech:
"My language is the tongue of the sea
It sounds like a divine voice
I shall never forget it
As I cannot forget my mother."