The Washington Diplomat
Of all things, it was her interest in Chinese that introduced Russian-born Elena Pildegovica to her husband Andrejs Pildegovics, the current ambassador of Latvia and the son of a famous Latvian historian who specialized in China.
“When I started at university, they divided us up into groups of 15,” Elena recalled, “and Andrejs and I were in the same group.”
“It was extremely demanding, rigorous work. I took six hours of Chinese, geography and history, so there was lots of homework. Since we were already in the same group, we used to practice Chinese together — we were ‘study buddies.’ Being part of the same team, we learned how to survive in this very rigorous academic situation. It also helped we had common interests from the beginning: Chinese.”
But the demanding curriculum didn’t leave room for much else. “The first and second years we worked so hard, there was no time for romance,” Elena said. Eventually though, “since we lived in same city and were the same age, we went to movies and art festivals together” — and that’s when the two became more than just “study buddies.”
After completing her master’s of business administration in Riga in 2004, Elena worked in several Latvian financial institutions and served as a Chinese-speaking tour guide and business interpreter. Both she and her husband studied Chinese at the Beijing Language Institute — a skill that’s paid off in many unique ways. “When we need to talk in front of the children but still keep a secret like, ‘Shall we get ice cream,’ we can always speak Chinese together,” Elena said.
But life was not always so pleasant or light-hearted. Born in St. Petersburg in 1971, Elena’s early years were spent under Soviet rule. Although she chose the famed Saint-Petersburg State University in her homeland for her studies, she decided to move to Latvia’s capital Riga at the age of 18 — a “serious decision” but one she never regretted because “by the second day, I came to feel that Latvia was my home,” Elena said.
“The last 15 years of democracy in Latvia without the Soviets has been tremendous. Now we are free,” she said with understandable emotion. “I was born under Soviet rule, a monopoly, state-controlled society. Then, we couldn’t travel except to other Soviet republics. I went to Bulgaria and the then Czechoslovakia,” she noted.
“Now we have been free for 20 years, since 1988. We have complete change, although Latvia is still in transition. But it is really amazing what we have achieved.”
Indeed, Elena is clearly proud of Latvia’s achievements and its perseverance — something she’d like more Americans to know about. “Latvians are a very well-educated, creative people. We have many important Latvians including Mark Rothko, the world-famous expressionist painter, Isaiah Berlin, a well-known philosopher, and Gunnar Birkerts, one of the world’s most famous architects,” she explained. “In the past, Latvia has exported people, not goods. In the first half of 20th century, many Latvian people found refuge in America.”
But today, Latvians are finding opportunity in their economically thriving homeland. “We are hardworking, hungry for success, and now we have real opportunity. Now we have young adults, people in their mid-20s, the ‘new grownups’ who have not lived under Soviet rule. But it is my generation’s task to explain what it was like,” Elena said. “As Latvians, we need to know our history in order to not repeat it.”
Part of that history includes 50 years of Soviet rule. The three Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia —were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained a part of the U.S.S.R. until its collapse. Unlike the other former Soviet republics though, the three Baltics were sovereign, independent nations before being occupied by Soviet troops during World War II — an occupation never recognized by the United States.
So this year, Latvia is organizing a big celebration in honor of its 90th anniversary of independence in Washington on Nov. 18 at Union Station. Elena notes that the festivities will feature lots of traditional folk singing by Latvians in their colorful native costumes to give Americans a glimpse into the country’s proud culture. (clarification by the Embassy of Latvia: the Embassy organized an exhibit of National Costumes at Union Station in the fall of 2007 – no Latvian events are planned at Union Station this year)
But Elena concedes that many Americans don’t know much about Latvia, a West Virginia-size country of some 2.3 million people that borders the Baltic Sea. “They know Latvia is a Baltic country or they know that it is in Northern Europe and that we are close to Russia,” she said. “But they may not know that we have been a member of NATO and the European Union since 2004. Today, more and more Americans are traveling to Riga and learning about the sunny Latvian disposition and our rich culture.”
Likewise, Elena and her husband have had a chance to learn a bit about American culture. Although Andrejs has only been posted in Washington for a year, Elena lived in the United States back in 1995 when her husband came to California for a brief foreign service program at Stanford University — and she’s delighted to be back now with her three children.
“We arrived last August … and after two months we found great schools and our children are very happy. They already speak Latvian and Russian and are now speaking English for the first time. Their progress is amazing and they can really speak English. It’s not just a dream.
“Tomass, our 11-year-old, plays soccer at Sidwell Friends [School], where he and our 8-year-old Eva go to school (correction: Tomass is at Sidwell Friends this year; Eva attends the local public school). Eva now speaks English as fluently as a bird sings,” Elena proudly said. “Lize, our youngest who is just 3, loves to read books and tells stories. This summer when we are at our summerhouse in Jurmala, [Latvia], and near the seaside, she will build sandcastles, her favorite thing.”
As for Elena, she’s found many favorite things to do in Washington. “I enjoy every minute of my life in Washington — wonderful museums, nature all around us and lots of beautiful bike trails. We all have bikes, even our littlest one who insists on having her own. But when we go on long bike trips along the [C&O] Canal to Great Falls, she rides with my husband. We often have a picnic, picking up snacks as we go. It is such a positive experience.
“We also love to travel around the United States. American roads are amazing, completely free,” she added. In fact, the whole family took a road trip to Seattle last Christmas in their Toyota RV. “When you consider that gas costs $8 a gallon back in Latvia, your prices here are still a bargain to us.”
Back in Washington, Elena and her husband often spend time with the Lithuanian ambassador and his wife, who are their closest neighbors in D.C. and also from Latvia’s closest neighboring country. “The two ambassadors are close and our children are about the same age so we do lots of things together as families,” Elena noted.
But after 15 years of diplomatic life, Elena admits the lifestyle isn’t exactly “family friendly,” with her husband’s frequent business trips, the “total unpredictability of where we will live and when,” and the need for their children to keep changing schools. “But still, all of these are minor inconveniences for this great opportunity,” she said.
Elena does miss her friends and family back home in Latvia though. “My mother-in-law has come to visit. When she was in Washington, she said that she had ‘never been so hot.’ In Latvia, we live on the 57th parallel north, so in the summer we think it’s warm if it’s 68 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Remembering her earlier days living in Russia, she added: “In St. Petersburg, out of 365 days, 200 will be rainy. Latvia has more sunshine, but in Washington you have the most sunshine and I really appreciate that.”
But even more than American sunshine, Elena loves what she calls “the American spirit,” which is very reminiscent of Latvia’s own drive and tenacity.
“I like the very strong spirit of competition here,” she concluded. “You work hard if you want something, prove yourself, and fight for what you want.”
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.