Everyday life, power, and agency in turbulent Latvia: The story of Otto Irbe


Everyday life has become a significant area of study in modern sociology, possibly due to all essential decisions being made and played out in everyday life, instead of at a special stage or in a specific time. An understanding of the differing models of everyday life enables us to have an external, broader perspective into our own lives and, consequently, our society and times. We can only directly experience our own everyday life, and by default, the lives of other people, especially of other generations and times, are accessible to us only indirectly: through history, literature, or the stories of people about their own experiences. By using the approach of oral history, I wish to offer an insight into a time and space that has been a turning point in twentieth-century Latvian history and has had a deep and long-term impact on the daily lives of the population. The paper focuses on a complicated and dramatic period in Latvia’s history: the 1940s when Latvia experienced one Nazi German and two Soviet occupations, and the 1950s. The relationship of power and agency is discussed on the basis of the life story by Otto Irbe (1916-1998), who represents the generation that grew up when Latvia gained independence in 1918. The Soviet occupation of Latvia on 17 June 1940, dashed the dreams and plans of this generation and forced not only Irbe, but almost two million citizens of Latvia to take on new roles and directions for the rest of their lives. Like many other Latvians in the 1940s and 1950s, Otto Irbe was flung about in the machinations of the two conflicting powers. But unlike many others, Irbe found himself at times on the same side as the authorities in power, and other times in opposition to them. Irbe has been a farmer, a militiaman, a legionnaire, a deserter, a partisan (forest brother), a black-marketer, and finally a prisoner. However, his story is not that of a victim, but rather that of a capable and able person, because in every situation he aspired to retain control over his own life. The chapter first addresses the research context of the study, and the Latvian collection of life stories. The chapter then examines the relationship between political power and individual agency, based on the personal viewpoint of the period as reflected in Otto Irbe’s life story.

Atsauce: Bela, B. (2012) Everyday life, power, and agency in turbulent Latvia: The story of Otto Irbe. Baltic Biographies at Historical Crossroads (pp. 37-52). London; New York: Routledge.