Слава Україні!——Glory to Ukraine!


A hybrid kind of creature

Like two evil magicians, Putin and Trump have stolen the idea of truth.

Words by Lolita Tomsone

Photography by Zaika Jegor

The following interview was originally published in Benji Knewman 13.


Political scientist and cultural historian Dr. Art Denis Hanov, a professor at the Faculty of Communication at Riga Stradiņš University, is the author of several books on such subjects as ethnic minorities and social memory, the French Revolution, and the culture of Baltic Germans. From what he tells Lolita Tomsone, director of the Žanis Lipke Memorial Museum, it becomes clear that, commuting between Riga, St. Petersburg, and Berlin, he is looking for a place where he belongs. He admits to alienation from his native Latvia.

Denis’s favourite African fairy tale is about a bat, which the earthbound animals refused to allow at their festive table, because it had wings and could fly. The birds also refused to allow it in their flock, because the bat had teeth, so it’s not a bird. Denis would like each of us to be free to choose our wings and show our teeth, to belong, to remain different.

Denis, we’re sitting in your apartment, which doesn’t at all look like a communal apartment. Have you ever lived in one?

Actually, [a lot of] my childhood memories have to do with my aunt’s communal apartment – the living room with its old Dutch tiles on the stove… It’s possible that my love of antiques is the result of my visiting my aunt often – she worked in an antique shop next to her apartment, in the china section, which is obviously represented here [in my apartment]… In her apartment, I would smell this mix of aromas, various sauces and cabbage. There were arguments and even fisticuffs in that communal kitchen, but I only remember the huge, dark corridor, which seemed endless. Her room was at the end of it. She was a war veteran; she reached Berlin. This is all really classic.

A classic Russian aunt…

Not really Russian, in fact – classic Soviet. My grandfather was in the military, a naval officer, and my grandma moved here from Leningrad Oblast, while my mom came here to study – so in local-national ideology, these are principally and forever alien people. Principally – perhaps; but I don’t really want to believe that it’s forever. At my aunt’s antique-filled room I became aware that there exist four-metre high ceilings. That you can have linen napkins on the table. She was into antique jewelry, so she would eat porridge for months just so she could buy it at Soviet prices. My aunt was a monarchist and possibly invented her family post-factum, because she bought the portraits of all kinds of merchants and claimed that one of them was my great-grandfather.

I remember these old, cast-iron bathtubs and water heaters. So in principle I knew already then that there had been something before us, us Soviets, us from the “khrushchevkas”, us from the boroughs.

My parents were the so-called “technical intelligentsia” – Dad worked for television, a part of the broadcasting crew, and later he moved on to the huge service company Elektrons – he repaired TV sets. In the summer, during the holidays, I would be in the back seat of our Zaporozhets, which was the same sickeningly green colour as the wallpaper in certain public places.

There, in the back seat, I had a thermos and sandwiches, and I kept reading books while he did his repairs. Such were my childhood impressions – he walked all over the centre of Riga, whereas I sat around it…

My grandma had a high ceiling and a conservatory – that is, she had a big room and a small bay for which she didn’t have to pay because it was not considered a room – it wasn’t heated but was very beautiful. She would sit there and, if my parents weren’t around, would praise Ulmanis and the life of that time – but very carefully. It’s an interesting connection between these generations. I don’t know how much of it exists at present.

Yes, the Soviet parents and grandmas.

The Soviet parents seem to have fallen through the cracks – apparently even grandmas sometimes feared the political naivete of their children, but they did trust their grandchildren. For instance, my grandma from Ukraine told me about the period of occupation and what life was like in the city of Rovno. But my parents never talked about it. My aunt was engaged in subversive activities among the young, when it came to what she talked about with me. A non-communal flat could be a kind of communal one. For example – we lived in Iļģuciems, and the apartment was no more than 30 square metres, but there were seven of us. My aunt, on the other hand, lived alone in a huge room, which, according to my standards at the time, could have easily been made into a two-storey flat. Whereas we – my grandma, grandpa, uncle, mom and dad, me and my sister – we lived in two little rooms.

Who slept under the table?

No, no one slept under the table. It was emotionally difficult, though. My grandpa suffered from advanced alcoholism. I have memories of Sundays when everyone was at home. I really loved my Riga grandma because I always associated her with celebrations. She was very stout, a woman-mountain. But she really loved me because she was unhappy in her marriage. And as unhappy people tend to eat their unhappy lives in chocolate, that’s what she did. She was also lost in luxury objects, in dresses sewn to measure; there were accessories and a collection of shoes. And those Sundays were impressive also from the point of view of acoustics: we started with the program I Serve the Soviet Union

Well, we certainly did not watch that. 

Yes, on Sundays there were these trumpets and they hurt everyone’s ears. But for some reason, everyone would be in a good mood. Grandpa would be sober, at least in the morning, and we could be children. At least I remember it this way. And in my memories, it’s never winter or autumn, with all that slush – no, I remember fair summer mornings. The rooms and the kitchen were sunny.

I remember from my childhood — if I ever wanted big bows or shiny hairpins, they told me right off: only Russians have things like that. There was a kind of dress code, which I didn’t really understand: at an early age they tell you that Russian girls have this, but you will have brown or blue hair ribbons. I knew that Russians had one less year of school, and they had a different school uniform, and I didn’t understand why. It’s the Soviet Union, everyone here lives in Soviet Latvia, but why do they have a uniform with pinafores in Russian schools but we have something else? What do you remember? Where did you meet Latvian children – in the courtyard? 

When I wanted hair ribbons?!

Well, you were deprived of them altogether.

Of course, because a boy must be a boy. In fact, I went hysterical once in a toy store because I wanted a tiny red wooden piano but they bought me a plastic truck with a yellow bed. But as far as differences are concerned, my dad grew up in a Latvian courtyard, and already in Soviet times he spoke fine Latvian. When I started taking Latvian in first grade, he could really help me. True, it was not reflected in my garumzīmes (the diacritical marks indicating long vowels in Latvian), as you very well know. But recently I was comforted by my friends and colleagues who assured me that garumzīmes were designed by the devil and that they are only for the initiated.

Of course it’s evil forces behind garumzīmes!

I felt comforted. But when I was little, Dad helped me because he had been friends with Latvian kids, and so we didn’t have an emotional problem with the language. I also had some Latvian peers because for several years I took ballroom dancing at the VEF Culture Centre; we even had our graduation there. So there were mixed pairs, a mixed audience, but everyone danced by the ethnic principle.

I knew that Latvian boys, for instance, had two distinguishing characteristics – they don’t wear loud colours and prefer linen, something a little greenish gray, the colour of hemp. And that they have all kinds of strange little neckties.

Prievītes (narrow, hand-woven ribbons that are part of men’s national costume)?

Yes, with patterns. I didn’t have anything like that. At a certain age, they had long hair, little ponytails, whereas my hair was always cut very short. They were different. I even remember that one boy’s Latvian grandma got into an argument with my father around the end of the waltz lesson – they had an interethnic conflict. I didn’t understand the language then but I remember that my father was perfectly able to answer and she was very much surprised, like it was some sort of exception.

And I understood that there existed something where I was not loved or rather where I could not be loved; I of course wondered why I was not loved because it was simply impossible not to love me. I felt that there was something there – not on the everyday level, but something incomprehensible and unavailable to me. That there was someone for whom my language and my presence could be unpleasant for reasons that I didn’t then understand.

Was everyone Russian at your school?

In our class, as far as I remember, an exotic person, so to speak, was the Roma boy Sasha, who would change his last name at least once every six years because his mom would marry a different man. She was looking for her, let’s say, love, and as a result, he would be different now and again. But he was the one who would protect me when they were trying to beat me up. I didn’t subscribe to any of the stereotypes – “a bike’s been stolen, it must be a Gypsy” – I knew: this guy was noble, he was courageous, and when we were studying Dubrovsky he, obviously due to his own experience, stood up and said to the teacher – and keep in mind it was still Soviet times: “No, true marriage happens up there, in the sky!” We of course did not understand what he was talking about – to us, the sky was only a backdrop for the weather. But he knew that it should be forever. He obviously really wanted it to last forever. And when we found out about the series Seventeen Spring Moments — and he had coal-black hair – we made him up like Hitler. We were taken by these uniforms and started play-acting the series, and we needed the Reichsfuehrer, and so he was it. We slicked his hair, parted it, and added a moustache.

These days you often go to St. Petersburg, but have you ever been to Moscow?

No, I’ve never been there. I’m afraid of that city, and I’m not the only one. You and I have several mutual friends who only this year went to St. Petersburg.

When you go to St. Petersburg, how do you feel? Are you Russian or Latvian – what is your sense of belonging? 

Oh, I could talk about this until the next morning. The first thing I understand is that I am different.

When did you first go to Russia?

The first time was in 1999, at quite a mature age. It was the beginning of my Ph.D. studies. Professor Elena Celme and I went to a conference at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences where I presented theses from my dissertation in progress on the newspaper Baltijas Vēstnesis – an exploration of the newspaper as a space for national identity.

Well, the Neva [River]! The conference took place at the end of April, when the ice moves. It was as if a china factory had exploded and all of its unsold merchandise had been thrown into the Neva – the ice was moving and tinkling like little crystals, not in big lumps. It was great! The sun was bright, although it was still cold… And the city is like a museum – there’s baroque and classical architecture, etc.

I fell in love with the museum aspect of it but did not interact with the Russian quality that exists in the city. When I started going there regularly a few years ago after escaping Riga, I understood that I am different there. A very bright spot for me was the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art. I got a membership there, and they copied my name from my passport, but they only wrote it in Cyrillic. They gave me the membership card and what I saw was Deniss. They also added my patronymic, which for some reason was important to them Aleksandrovich Hanovs (Deniss Hanovs in Latvian).

“Deniss”, with two “s”s?

Yes, I look at this in Cyrillic and I don’t understand — who is this? I got so stuck on this letter “s” that, while waiting for a friend, I was just staring at it. In fairy tales a letter may get lost and would have to be sought, but here it was the other way around – you get an extra letter, and in Cyrillic! It’s the kind of story that my Latvian colleagues and friends wouldn’t know about; their experiences are different. I, for one, don’t know what it’s like to live in a country that is simultaneously yours and not your own; to live in a history that is forbidden to the extent that you are afraid to talk about it even with your family. Such was my route to Latvian culture and to an awareness that something here was not quite right. Cracks would appear when children would find something at home and take it to school and then you realized that there was some other, concealed, history. Intellectually I can simply be aware of it, but emotionally it always explodes my consciousness. I know that our society is impregnated with an enormous quantity of pain, which is concentrated in hatred, fear, hostility, reticence, and a total disinclination to accept that someone else might have a claim on this space, and that these people were brought here by the winds of the terrible 20th century; to accept that someone else next to me was also maimed by them. For many, it’s an impossible task. I could just skip this page or close it, but when I did that I understood that I needed to investigate another aspect of myself – the Russianness that in the 1990s I may have even tried to forget. When I ended up at the Latvian Academy of Culture, a period began – if you remember the first part of Nastavshev’s play (Vladislav Nastavshev, theatre director, author of the autobiographical play The Lake of Hope), where the protagonist’s mom says: “You have become Latvianized!” That was about me as well. Vlad and I have similar biographies in this respect.

At Erarta, if you had asked them to make a membership card on which your name is Денис Ханов, without the extra “s”, you would have gotten it. 

Probably… But I am not Russianizing myself back, I mean, my “s” is mine. But to see it in Cyrillic – that’s a bit much, it’s like meeting someone who is not exactly me, so it’s the state of being a third person. For culture researchers it might seem like a blessing, but for an ordinary person who is not a culture researcher in their spare time, it’s somewhat stressful.

I realized that I should find out who I was in the context of Russian culture – I had consciously wanted to become more Latvian than the Latvians around me for quite a long time. As you know, I didn’t manage it grammatically.

I understood that I had to accept that I was different, because the Russians from St. Petersburg and Moscow kept telling me that.

They hear an accent?

Yes they do and, depending on their education, they react. One journalist who moved to Latvia said to me without the slightest hint of embarrassment: “Well, you speak like a resident of a Russian provincial town”, and he didn’t even try to…

And which town would that be?

He didn’t specify, and I already felt insulted. Yes, in St. Petersburg they are immediately aware that I am somewhat different, and their reaction tends to vary. I have infected a close friend with my intonations; he’s also elongating his vowels now, and then he says – what the hell is this? Others who don’t know me so well, they say: “Oh, so you’re a foreigner,” and quickly lose interest in me.

They don’t compliment you for speaking Russian so well, being a foreigner?

No, they don’t.

They simply consider me a foreign Russian, a kind of hybrid creature. And my body also responds in different ways – sometimes I’m blocked to the point where my Russian becomes really bad. In St. Petersburg I would suddenly start speaking some sort of ancien régime Russian, all kinds of curlicues, tulle, and cacti, something precious, something ancient – I guess it’s from my wish to become a part of that language.

It was the month of May. I walked across Nevsky Prospect to go to Mikhailovsky Theatre to see The Queen of Spades – that classic tourist set. It was the 163rd season. The costumes were all dusty. I went to socialize. At that moment, a military choir rehearsal was taking place, and they were singing “Slavianka’s Goodbye” – that famous marching anthem. This “Slavianka” suddenly caught me, as Bulgakov would say, like a murderer from behind the corner. I was a few hundred metres from the choir, and rehearsal was ending. They were marching back to their trucks to go back to their barracks. And I suddenly realized that I had heard this song in the third or fourth grade, when May 9th was still the classic symbol of a heroic deed, something I would never have been able to accomplish because I wouldn’t have survived. But it was the heroic deed of my relatives. We too had been fed up with all these veterans, as they told us for the 25th time about things that were important to them. In the late Soviet period we were indifferent to this, but here was that “Slavianka”. I was standing there in the light and felt tears welling up in my eyes – me, the one who’s always considered himself so cool and immune to any ideology.

So all of this came over me like an avalanche, and I turned out to be completely defenseless. The soldiers got onto their trucks, they crossed the river, and this phantom vanished along with all the musical instruments, the goose-stepping, and shoulder cords.

It was something ritualistically solemn, Soviet-Tsarist – because the two have long since combined in that country – yet at the same time it was mine. For the Latvian nation, the Second World War brought freedom from Nazism, but it also prolonged the occupation with all its Stalinist repressions, and it’s a good thing that it finally ended. But, on the other hand, one should not forget that it was ordinary, simple-minded peasants who became soldiers – they, after the dekulakization, were driven into the army; and they really fought against a monstrous regime, bringing with them another monstrous regime. What I terribly miss in this country is an awareness that it’s possible to be somewhere in between. The status of difference is absolutely necessary for a thinking person in general, and for a researcher it’s the minimum. I have heard stories of Latvian people losing their minds from fear and grief, but I see the same thing when I enter Akhmatova’s house on Liteyny Prospect; I see the windows that were made so that children could see if the janitor was coming with the NKVD and it’d be time to quickly hide or burn something, because any book could become the reason for one’s arrest.

I understand that I will always be in that third, in-between position.

I often tell my students an African tale about a bat. The animals on the savanna decided to have a party and gathered around the fire. The bat flew over and wanted to dance with the rest but they said, “What the hell? You have wings, so have a conscience. You’re not a land animal – go to the birds.” The bat was offended and flew to the baobabs where the birds were having their own party, but when they saw the bat’s teeth and ears, they yelled, “What is this? This is an insult!” As a result, the bat now flies around alone and it is neither this nor that. I often compare myself with the protagonist of this African tale. For a while I too was aggrieved by all of this but then I understood that it’s a wonderful state of being. It’s like having a third eye.

What do you find for yourself in Latvian Russian culture?

It’s “The Golden Mask”, when the Moscow theatres, like the Vakhtangov, come to Riga, and I go to see them. But I hate the audiences here, because people seem to come to air out their diamonds. It’s just impossible. With Baryshnikov’s Brodsky (Brodsky/Baryshnikov – a New Riga Theatre play) I understood that most of the audience simply did not get it, at least the one with which I saw it. It’s more of a social event, a scandalous social event: “I must be there, so that tomorrow at cocktail hour I can talk about it.”

You live in Berlin now. Does it have its own Moscow House (Moscow House – the cultural and business centre of the City of Moscow in Riga)?

In Berlin, I visit the Russian House where the Russian contemporary cinema week takes place. I bring literature mostly from St. Petersburg. In Riga, I ignore certain bookstores selling Russian-language literature because they want to decide for me what is moral and what isn’t, and Sorokin, for instance, is considered amoral in one bookstore chain, and its owner – a very God-fearing person – forbade his books to be imported. So I’m protesting. Excuse me, it’s censorship!

To some degree, we can see that our region, and the world at large, is unfortunately entering the next coil of the spiral and human life, and is once again not worth a penny. There are again crazy dictators, and even in democratic countries they behave like dictators – just take that crazy Trump.

Like two evil magicians, Putin and Trump have stolen – I don’t know, from some altar, I guess – the idea of truth. Yes, it could always be revised, and should have been revised to remain the truth, but nowadays there basically is no more truth.

What do you think you lack here?

I wish there was more solidarity. I’m not talking about the social aspect. I think I have in mind solidarity with regard to certain minorities. Since I’m a minority both ethnically and sexually, I very keenly feel that in the dominating discourse it’s only: “We, the majority, we have to take over. Only we should be many and only we should do well.”

You know, in Russia there is a concept that, on the level of political language, can solve this problem – rossijskije (of (belonging to) Russia). But why can’t we say, for instance, Latvijas mākslinieki (artists of Latvia (Latvian)), as opposed to mūsu latvieši (our Latvians (Latvian)), which I hear on the radio all the time. Or, this concept should be expanded, but it’s not done.

If the concept of Latvijas tauta (the Latvian nation (Latvian)) still exists, please be so kind as to use it. It is fully within your power to change this reality, because in the contemporary world it is words that change reality.

We have 160 ethnic groups. Just look into PLMP (Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs – (PLMP in Latvian abbreviation)) and you will find these people there, but we only speak of Russians and Latvians. There is a broader term, Russian speakers, where the language is not an ethnic parameter or language spoken at home but more a marker of belonging to a culture.

It’s easier to just say “Russians”.

You can’t live a quality life in a country where all around you – even if you own a villa and if you have all the dogs and alarms in the world – plosās naids (hatred rages (Latvian)); it is a poisoned environment and at some point you can be marginalized. I think that we never did get back to Europe; sorry, we just didn’t manage. We just continued drowning in our own grief, and it’s understandable, but we didn’t manage to surface, and in fact we don’t want to do so. We are splashing around there, we are fine in there and, whatever happens, we will explain the world by this, and the world will become simple. Yet the world is becoming ever more complicated, but we don’t want a complicated world, so we’d rather suffer awhile. Furthermore, we’d rather do so separately, because why should we learn about and acknowledge the suffering of others? That might make me upset.

I like the fact that when I go to Russia, it’s all very complicated there and it’s complicated not because there are Russians versus Latvians but because it’s Russians versus Russians.

You know, I must admit that I’ve had emotional moments, and they are always very irrational, where I’ve wanted to stay in St. Petersburg or just move there.

And to feel like you belong there?

I understand that it’s not in my stars, I will not be one of them. By the way, I went to a bar called Stirka with a friend. We sat there and had a few drinks and I once again mentioned that idea: maybe someone would help me, maybe someone would need me…

But he said, “Do you see that sign next to the shelves with alcohol?” I looked and the sign said: “St. Petersburg doesn’t need you.” And it may be true. I have my own St. Petersburg, which does need me. I have invented it for myself.

So what? We live in a world of fantasy anyway. Everyone has their own fantasies, and I have invented my own bookish, poetic St. Petersburg. But I also understand that it’s a city of people. I run around the city for a whole day trying to see these people. I need them and it turns out that they need me a little as well, so that sign does not quite do justice to reality. On the other hand, many people have warned me that it’s not easy to deal with the everyday nastiness and bribery in St. Petersburg, and I am a bit of a hothouse plant. So now I believe that everything will disappear and everything will be forgotten.

That’s very Russian. Don’t you think that these artists here are also planting a cosmic sadness, some sort of existentialism, and all kinds of worldly issues and grievances, and the impossibility to resolve it all, so all that remains is to drink oneself to oblivion?

Without a doubt, my phases in St. Petersburg are as follows: first rapture, then tiredness or exhaustion, or feeling over-satiated, then a bit of malice, but it all leads to the feeling of sad parting with a good friend. And you always think: will I ever come back here again? The only thing that saves me, the only antidote is that on that very same day at the airport I connect to the local Wi-Fi and buy new tickets. That’s the only thing that saves me.  

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