After deciding to learn more about modern literature from the Baltics, I picked up a novel by Latvian writer Nora Ikstena. Published in 2016 in Latvia, where it became a bestseller, “Soviet Milk” was later translated into several languages including English and my native language, Russian – which is notable in itself since it’s exceedingly rare for Latvian books to be translated into Russian.
Set in post-World War II Latvia, much of the book focuses on the Soviet era, especially the 1970s. At first glance, it seems like an uncomplicated story of a family living through hard times. But as you continue reading, it’s clear that it’s much more than that. The author raises important questions around critical issues in the Soviet Union, such as freedom. The book chronicles life in Soviet-ruled Latvia for a mother, who starts out as a gynecologist in Leningrad before being exiled to a village in Latvia, and her daughter, whose life in many ways resembles that of the author. Both mother and daughter narrate the story, which in different sections follows both characters’ journeys at various points in their lives. The mother is a particularly tragic figure – I couldn’t quite figure out whether she was a victim of the Soviet regime or just deeply depressed.
The book reveals much about what life must have been like under Soviet rule. I didn’t expect it to have many positive things to say about Russia or about Latvia’s past as a Soviet republic. I was surprised, however, that it wasn’t overly disparaging of the Russians. In fact, some of the Russian characters are portrayed in a positive light. In interviews, the author has even said that Latvians themselves are also to blame for the repression in their country. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that the Soviet regime is the main antagonist of the story.
Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst