Latvia and the Irish mushroom

LIKE so many Latvian towns, Karsava survived its own brutal Nazi holocaust in 1941 and some 50 years of occupation by the former Soviet Union.

But now it faces its biggest single challenge yet.

Yet unlike the string over adversaries this remote rural community in the south eastern part of the former Eastern Bloc country have seen off over the centuries – this particular foe has never actually set foot inside Latvia.

It is none other than the . . . humble Irish mushroom.

In just one year, the town’s population has fallen by nearly a third and most of those who left are now living in Ireland.

In a trend that is echoed throughout Latvia, scores of the town’s young men and women – the lifeblood that should guarantee the future of the place for generations to come – are jumping on trains to the country’s capital Riga and taking cheap Ryan Air flights to Dublin each week.

Since Latvia joined the European Union in May 2004 and barriers to free movement across the borders of member states came down, an estimated 50,000 Latvians have emigrated to Ireland.

Once in the country, the young Latvians – many of whom are qualified engineers, psychiatrists and other such professionals – take on board any number of jobs.

Latvian farm outhouse

However menial – mushroom picking being one of the most popular – the wages involved can amount to as much as 15 times more than what they could expect at home.

Its an exodus that has even captured the imagination Hollywood, where a studio is said to be in talks to turn into a film the first of five books written by a woman who left her four children behind in Latvia three years ago to pick mushrooms in Ireland.

But while Laima Muktupavela’s book The Mushroom Covenant may have become a best seller, it effectively documents the start of a phenomenon that has alarmed the Latvian Government so much is has set up a task force to investigate.

Edgars Puksts, the mayor of Karsava – which is about 40km from the Latgale region town of Rezekne where Muktupavela was born – laughed out loud when interviewed by Ireland on Sunday.

He said: “It is funny to us that a newspaper in Dublin sends reporter to here to ask about what is happening.

“This is at the same time as our own Government sends a team of investigators to Ireland to figure out what is so special about Ireland and why so much of its workforce is ending up there.”

Hotel backyard

Yet driving down the pot-holed and crumpled roads that link each village in the vast Russian border area, it’s hard not to see why.

Streets of once-thriving towns stand deserted, countless homes sit empty while schools and churches struggle to survive as not only whole families move out but the people who run the local services just give up and leave.

Wages earned in a month for anything from a school cleaner to a psychiatrist are a fraction of what a SuperQuinn shelf stacker can take home in a week.

Locals say that if the two men employed to drive the town’s ambulances could leave they would.

On their €20-a-week wage – which is not far off the average for the area – they can barely afford to feed their families.

. . . another Latvian hut covered in snow.

Instead, it is down to locals to provide them with free weekly parcels of home grown vegetables and meat.

But while they stay because their children are so young, they appear more the exception than the rule.

A state TV camera crew turned up when it heard Juris Silvas was to leave.

Until November, the 45-year-old was Karsava Secondary School’s PE teacher.

Earning about €65-a-week, he finally quit his post and announced he was joining his son in Ireland.

It created such a storm that a local TV crew turned up to film his last day.

This, the presenter told viewers, was yet another example of what was happening to Latvia – it’s brightest and strongest leaving to live in other countries, including Ireland.

The broadcast came just days after Latvian biathlete Jekabs Nakums announced he was quitting his country to clean cars in Ireland.

Indeed in the week I spent working for Ireland on Sunday spent in Latvia last December, there were at least five such broadcasts highlighting the country’s emigration crisis.

Jurijs is unmoved by any sentiments such broadcasts are meant to arouse.

He’s had enough of poor wages and the lack of opportunities in his town.

The most 44-year-old wife Vija earnings as secretary at the school was a paltry €60-a-month.

In June the couple waved good-bye to their 23-year-old son Edvins.

Although a qualified farm worker with a specialism in forestry, the only work he was offered on graduation was “washing pigs and cows”.

Jurijs said: “Despite the years he spent studying forestry, demand for his skills fell off when he graduated.

“He tried to make a go of things here but in the end realised he could do so much better in Ireland.”

And while Edvins earns more than €900 working in a supermarket in Ennistymon, Co Clare, his father and mother play their International Correspondence Course English tapes over and over.

Yep, I've only gone and put another one in!

Jurijs said: “We would love to stay in Latvia but we want a better quality of life.

“We also want a more interesting life.

“My son earns more than ten times what he earned while living here.

“My wife and I – and friends of ours who have already left the town are very proud of Latvia.

“We appreciate that by leaving, we are helping to kill of our own communities.

“But life is life. There is change and that is all there is to it.”

Karsava Secondary School Director Stanislaus Katkevic said: “It’s a great pity that so many of our people want to go to Ireland.

“We are genuinely worried that whole communities will just disappear.

“Each year there are fewer and fewer of us.

“In the last year alone, we have lost 800 people bringing our population to about 2,100.”

And he added: “But you know, it is not something the people who leave are shouting about.

“There is a certain amount of shame and embarrassment attached to all this.

“We have a word for it. It is ‘Neerti’.

“Nobody is feeling very good about having to leave their own country just because they need to earn some extra money.”

Erika Bondarenko, editor in chief of local paper Ludzas Zeme, agrees.

She said: “Many of those that leave are walking away from communities they and their families have been part of for decades,

“They are well educated, they have a good station in life and they are well socialised.

“Yet to survive they have to go abroad – mainly to places like Ireland – to earn enough money to give themselves a better quality of life.

“Anf yet the jobs they have to do are menial jobs – like cleaning toilets, building work and picking mushrooms.”

Agricultural student Aija Mihale will soon become another of Latvia’s mushroom picking exports.

The 19-year-old’s mother Silvija has already left and is currently one of thousands of Latvians who pick mushrooms in Ireland.

She admits: “I’d like to be an aupair but I might also end up picking mushrooms.

“There is nothing for me here and the fact that there are so many of my fellow countrymen in Ireland makes it a very attractive destination.

“I do not speak good English but maybe it is not so important if I am among my own people.”

While she talks, the bent over frame of an elderly black clad woman emerges slowly from the shadow of a dimly-lit side room.

Shuffling out into the light and leaning heavily on her walking stick, she looks blankly at Aija and then shuffles back to her room to sit back on a ramshackle bed.

It is her 90-year-old grandmother Bronislava.

Who will look after her when Aija joins her mother?

A family friend shrugs and says with breath-taking and somewhat brutal honesty: “She’s too old to travel and at 90, she’s had her life.

“She will be fine. It should not be young Aija’s concern.

“Maybe Silvija will return in a year and look after Bronislava, maybe not.

“It will not be a problem.”

Also facing a future at home without either their children or their grandchildren is Mihails Kravcenko and his 55-year-old wife Jekaterina, 55.

At 53, Karcava General Hospital’s Chief Administrator considers himself too old to start a new life in Ireland.

But he has already seen his daughter Jelena move there.

Her husband Viktors left in January and returned for her in June, once he’d found a job and a flat.

A fully qualified psychiatrist, the 33-year-old had instead been forced to work as a cleaner to make ends meet.

Her take home pay was little more than €20-a-week.

Mihails, who survives on his own meagre wage by growing his own vegetables and only ever buying second-hand clothes, said: “My daughter is a very well educated and intelligent woman.

“But what kind of life is there for her here if all she does is cleaning.”

And it’s a life his two grandchildren will never get to experience.

Daria, 13 and her eight-year-old brother Daniil are dubbed “mushroom orphans” because, like thousands of other young Latvian children, they are left at home with relatives while their parents eek out a living in Ireland.

But, although they talk to their parents over the phone each day, they are hoping to join their parents in about two years.

Daria said: “I don’t want to go but I know I will have to after a certain time of study at school.

“I will finish one, maybe two years and then go.

Talk to anyone in the town about Ireland and they all say the same.

When asked where we were from by Vladmir Paklenkovs, a petrol pump attendant at a garage on the outskirts of Karsava, he signed: “Oh my God, you guys.

“You have taken half our town.

“We are not so used to seeing Irish people in our country. It seems we prefer to come to you.”

Although the 40-year-old father-of-two will not join most of his school friends in Ireland, he admits: “If I was younger, I think it could be a better option.

“But I have my various jobs, my car, my house and my life here – which is cheaper than in the West.”

He knows of more than 30 of his relatives and friends who have left in the past year and talks of the new lives they have established for themselves in Ireland.

While some of them have gone over to pick mushrooms, others have taken jobs on building sites, in forestry and in factories.

One of his customers, who had been listening to the conversation by the counter, muses aloud in Latvian that the area in and around Karsava had survived invasion and occupation by both the Nazis and the Soviets.

“But,” he says with a smile, “it looks like we could be beaten by the Irish.

“They will be the death if our communities with their bloody mushrooms.”

About two miles out from Karsava, sits The Brothers Cemetery – a stone-column reminder of the day the town suffered its own Nazi holocaust.

Laid out off a remote pathway in dense forest, it marks the spot when – on August 21, 1941 – the town’s Jews were rounded up and “terribly killed and burned by Hitler’s Fascists”, with their bodies dumped in a massive open grave.

And in its wake, the Soviet regime has left its own mementos – in the form of Karsava’s once grand and paint-peeled Communist Party buildings, as well as in ghost towns like Lidumniek, about 20km away and nearer the Russian border.
There, row after row of drab concrete cereal box-style blocks of flats stand deserted on hills above countless centuries-old wooden farm houses, also abandoned.

Although the timber-framed and newly-painted Catholic Church remains open for weekly services, the old 1920s secondary school closed in nearby Siblis about five years ago because it simply ran out of children to teach.

This is hardly surprising when – as the town’s chief economist Zinaida Pavlova admits – so many of the area’s 20 to 30-somethings leave each year.

She says simply: “Although we have launched various initiatives to do what we can to rebuild the infrastructure, there is a perpetual decline in the population.”

Few doubt that perhaps the legacy and “monument” of Ireland’s influence here and elsewhere in Latvia may well just be the growth of ever more dead or dying communities.


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