Tahra & Dzintra

Jelgava, January 2024

" {...} 'Maybe it means that when there is pluralism, some parties say that God exists and others say he doesn't, and whoever wins the election decides what is right.' Elona mused. {...}
'We are free now. Everyone can say what they like.' I shook my head in disbelief. ' Then they would have to cancel and reinstate things like Christmas and New Year's Eve, depending on who wins the elections.'{...}".

In this quote from the book "Free" by Lea Ypi, young Lea and her schoolmate talk about the collapse of socialism in Albania and the upcoming free elections. 

On 2 January 2024, I connect online with Tahra and Dzintra. I'm in Lesce, Slovenia, and they're in Jelgava, Latvia. They celebrated Dzintra's 76th birthday on 30 December and started the new year together on 31 December. On this second anniversary in the Gregorian calendar, they are both sitting in Dzintra's living room with a large bookshelf stretching across two walls in the background. 

Tahra is 17 years old and non-binary. She still calls her grandmother Dzintra by her birth name. Nevertheless, they get on well together. Tahra was born in 2006. Two years after Latvia joined the EU, 15 years after Latvia gained independence from the Soviet bloc and 4 years after Latvia won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first and only time.
"I have been attending an online school for three months now. The face-to-face school no longer suited me, I needed more time on my own. I'm graduating next year, so we'll see what I do after that. The lessons take place on an online platform, as it was for everyone during Corona. I have seen very few of my teachers live. But last year I was part of a History Olympiad. I met some of them for the first time there. I had depression when I was 14 and I'm still recovering from it, it's not completely gone yet. I think that's also important to mention for the interview." says Tahra by way of introduction.
I came into contact with Tahra through friends of friends who volunteer with Tahra at Papardes zieds 'The Blossom of the Fern'. Papardes zieds is an organisation that promotes quality education about sexual and reproductive health and rights in Latvia. Tahra is mainly responsible for the online presence of her teenage volunteers on Instagram. "The presence was not a given, we fought for it," Tahra adds. The organisation continues to receive hate and hate speech.

Dzintra is shy and doesn't show her face at first. At first I only see the blue sleeves of her cardigan. I hear her voice. She speaks very good English. "I learnt English at school. My teacher was very nice, I wanted to impress him!" says Dzintra with a laugh, hidden in the right-hand corner of the screen. "I tried to learn German, but when we decided to go to Germany, nobody understood me and I didn't understand them! I travelled to East Berlin in 1989, the Wall was still standing when we were there. Shortly after we returned, the wall came down. That was quite something!" Tahra exclaims a surprised "OoohShe had never heard of this trip.

Dzintra was in 1964, 17 years-old. "I lived in the Soviet Union. I went to school. It was an ordinary school. There were no dissidents in my close family circle, so life was pretty quiet. We made fun of Soviet politics at home, but not at school or in public. There would have been trouble. Several relatives of my distant family emigrated to the USA. One of my cousins was a pastor and emigrated."  Dzintra sang in a choir for 37 years until she was 62 years old. The granddaughter and grandmother enjoy singing together. "Können wir dir was vorsingen?" asks Tahra. And so they both agree kur tu skriesi vanadziņi ein, a Latvian folk song:


Where do you want to flee to, you hawks?

With these wax wings?

I will walk, surrounded by lime trees,

Has she grown up?

Quite large, quite bushy,

The branches hook into the Daugava.

Young daughters gossip,

broke off the branches of the lime tree.

My lime branches are gone,

On the Daugava, they are in a dream.


The branches of the lime tree have broken off,

thrown into the Daugava.

They travelled down the Daugava,

and throw soap bubbles.

You meet the fishermen on the sea,

They took a small boat.

Tahra says: "Latvian folk songs make me feel powerful. The Latvian language has often been suppressed, so the music is very metaphorical. It's about animals and plants to express strong feelings."A major song and dance festival is held in Latvia every 5 years: Vispārējie Latviešu Dziesmu un Deju svētki. 

I ask Dzintra if there was anything special about her youth. "No, not really. I was like everyone else at the Komjaunatne. The Pioneers was the group for children and the Komjaunatne the group for older teenagers. But you didn't have to do anything there, only those who wanted to could get involved. I was part of it, of course, but I didn't do much." Dzintra's school and secondary education was in Latvian. "I studied a bit, but when I was in love and married, I started working." Dzintra worked in an architect's office for 41 years. "I had a good job..

A little later in the conversation, Tahra shares why she has so many emotions when she thinks about Ukraine. "In general, I feel a lot. But we also learnt a lot at school about the Soviet Union and all the bad things that happened back then. It is depressing. The generational trauma is visible in Latvia." She thinks for a while and says: "The stories from my grandparents' childhood here make the Ukrainian situation even more real."

Latvia has 1.8 million inhabitants. Jeglava, where Tahra and her grandmother live, is located some 50 kilometres from Riga, the capital. Latvia is one of the Baltic states and lies between Estonia and Lithuania. The country's two other neighbours are Belarus and Russia. A quarter of Latvia's population belongs to the Russian minority. The Latvian government, as well as its neighbours to the north and south, has taken stricter measures to prevent the Russian language from being used in public spaces. From 2025, bilingual lessons will no longer be offered in schools. During a trip I took to the Baltic states in the summer of 2023, I witnessed the marginalisation of the Russian minority. A young activist I met there was reluctant to talk about the story of her Russian-speaking grandmother, even though her story had made a big impression on her in her life. 

Is there an event that has had a particular impact on you? I ask Dzintra and Tahra. Tahra, who was resting her head on her grandmother's shoulder, straightens up again. "I feel very much for the Ukrainians. The Russian breath feels very close to my neck here in Latvia.
There is one thing that Tahra has really taken away from her activist work over the past year. "I have been following the debate on the Istanbul Convention in Latvia very closely, especially via the organisation's social media". Latvia signed the Istanbul Convention in 2016, but did not ratify it until November 2023. "There were voices in the debate that went very far and tried to ban sex education and abortion. There was a lot of disinformation and the arguments went as far as : „’Homosexuals are then accepted' by the way, homosexuality is not part of the convention' Tahra adds to emphasise the absurdity of the argument. Or people said that women are beaten anyway. It was like a revival of the #Metoo debate, only in Latvia. The most important political moment for Dzintra was when "Latvia got its freedom back!", "How could you feel the freedom?" I ask. "Through the language! Even though most of my education was in Lithuanian. Russian was always present in society. It seems like a good time to ask the last question. What do they associate with power? I ask Dzintra.  

Dzintra connects power with the spiritual and mental. "Power is the ability to endure what happens in life. It is the ability to learn how to deal with your emotions in these situations. It is the freedom to be able to make a choice." 

Freedom is a word that comes up again and again. It's also a term that I'm currently working on. I'm in Slovenia because Zizek was born here. He wrote a book about freedom. I'm also currently reading the book by the Albanian-British author "Free". In this book, she deals with growing up as an adult. 

At the end of the interviews, both of them add, without any discussion: "We pray for Ukraine and for peace in the world..