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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Vignette 2: The Café Meeting

            In 1870, on a bleak and cold winter morning, I had the pleasure of meeting the renowned Krišjānis Valdemārs and Juris Alunans.
I left my room with my writing equipment, and travelled down the narrow, wooden staircase. The winter fog settled heavily onto the city spires. The cobblestones of the street was were wet with a thin frost. I navigated through the maze of old city streets and found myself at the café. It possessed only a small entrance, but managed to dig itself deeply into the building. Inside the café, the old Teutonic columns rose sharply from ground. Candles flickered in the hazy light and smoke. It was still early morning, and already the café was filled with a thick layer of tobacco smoke.
I had to work an upcoming publication for local newspaper. I had taken on the work to supplement my income and began to look for permanent prospects after my graduation. But, overall I quite enjoyed the publication. It was a small Latvian newspaper, not by choice however—rather from fear of Russian censorship. Russian officials were unsure of what to make of the sudden rise of the Latvian revolutionary sentiment. So officials in St. Petersburg decided to shut down a number of Latvian newspapers promoting a Latvian identity. (Ijabs, 98)
I ordered my usual coffee and breakfast and took a table towards the back, overlooking the rest of the establishment. I started to review my article when I was interrupted by my friend Andris, who was sitting at a table behind a nearby column approached my table. He informed me that the Krišjānis Valdemārs was sitting in the table directly front of me.
I had first heard of his name from a fellow Literature student in my second year of study. However, by my last year in university, the name of Valdemārs was well-known even to the semi-literate peasant. He had acquired a reputation as a maverick throughout Latvia. It was Valdemārs that famously had declared his Latvian identity. It was Valdemārs that had revived our past and history that for centuries been forgotten. (Zake, 314)
            Valdemārs was sitting with two other fellows—one had a heavy beard and dark eyes, the other had a thin face hidden by a brimmed hat. Not wanting to be rude, but unable to contain my ambition, I approached the table with some extra cups of coffee and food as an offering. Startled at first, Valdemārs and then men accepted the gift and invited me to sit. I nervously introduced myself, promptly telling them of my background and my interest in the folklore of Latvian peasantry.
            The man with a heavy beard introduced himself as Alexey Kuznetsov, a Russian from Moscow. From what I later gathered, Kuznetsov was well-established merchant in Moscow, who became quite sympathetic to discovering Latvian culture after his Latvian wife passed away. Despite his Russian background, he was a good friend of Valdemārs. The other man, Juris Alunans, was a more prominent Latvian literary figure. Alunans had travelled the countryside of Latvia and collected various words, poems, and Dainas and published famously in an article entitled the “Latvian Language”. Before Alunans had embarked on his journey to revitalize the Latvian language, it was quite difficult to write anything of substance in Latvian. In my opinion, the words were hopelessly simple and unable to adapt to the contemporary issues of today (Zake, 318).
Within a short minute of conversation, Valdemārs and Alunans immediately began inquiring over my studies and the present curriculum of my university. I told them that one camp of professors would assign only German writers like Karl Gutzkow and Mundt. Another camp assigned only Russian writers like Yazykov or Samarin. While Alexey grinned, both Valdemārs and Alunans shocked their heads disapprovingly (Zake, 316).Alunans remarked, in an exhausted tone, “we must create a new language, a new identity one that is based in history—a history repressed time after time by the remnants of an archaic German order!” Alexey, the Russian, fell silent. Valdemārs nodded in agreement. There was a brief pause. All four us sipped on our coffee, until Valdemārs turned to me and said, “the youth will save us from the chains for German oppression.” He violently slammed his fist on the table—“it will be you and your comrades that will take our history and propel into the future!”
            I spent an hour or so discussing the issues of Latvian identity, but was required to leave to meet with my editor. I was very excited and spent all night thinking about their words.

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