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«From child refugee to president»: BBC interviews ex-Latvian president

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Latvia’s ex-President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga

As part of a series of programmes «Her Story Made History», BBC has interviewed ex-Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, giving the interview the title «From Child Refugee to President».

Vīķe-Freiberga recounted her childhood and life in emigration, as well as her experience being the first female Latvian president.

When asked if she recalls anything about the war, Vīķe-Freiberga mentioned in the interview that one of her first memories is the one regarding the march of the Soviet Red army as it entered Latvia. She was about three and a half years old.

«I was impressed by the ones with the red flags and the fists. So at one point, as one of them marched by, I raised my fist in the air and shouted ‘hurrah!’,» she says. «At that point I saw my mother lean against the lamppost, absolutely stricken, with tears streaming down her cheeks, saying ‘Please, child, don’t do that. This is a very sad day for Latvia’.»

Vīķe-Freiberga said that she remembers it so well because of conflicting emotions. She was surprised seeing some people loud and happy and others, including her mother, crying.

«My parents never let me forget that I am Latvian,» she told BBC.

When she was seven, Vīķe-Freiberga and her family left in exile, first to Germany, then to French-held Morocco.

«We took the ship on New Year’s night of 1945. It was a transport ship with troops and with armaments and of course if it gets torpedoed it’s going to blow it up. But they have taken a certain number of civilians with them, who also want to flee from communism at any price. Latvians gathered on the deck and sang the Latvian anthem.»

The family ended up in a refugee camp in Germany. Conditions there were very harsh and Vīķe-Freiberga’s baby sister fell ill with pneumonia and died. A year later another child was born in the family. This time it was a boy. However, this happy memory is overshadowed by another tragic event.

«A young girl of 18 was lying in the same room with my mother. She had given birth to a little girl and didn’t want her. She didn’t want to name her child and she didn’t want to have anything to do with it, because the child was the result of a group rape from Russian soldiers. Each time the nurses brought that poor child to the mother, she would turn her face to the wall and cry and refuse to talk to her. The nurses gave a name to the girl – Mara, which was my sister’s name,» Vīķe-Freiberga recalls.

«And I thought that was really too much, because here was a Mara who was born, who was surviving and who was absolutely not wanted in this world. And our Mara, whom we had wanted so much, was taken from us. I realised that life was really very strange and certainly very unfair,» she added.

When she was 11, Vīķe-Freiberga’s family moved to Morocco, where they stayed in a small village she described as the «world in miniature».

«There were French people there, there were all sorts of foreigners, Spaniards from the time of the Civil War, Italians and old Russian émigrés,» the ex-president recalls.

The family did not stay in Morocco for long, though, and left for Canada, where Vīķe-Freiberga wanted to continue her studies. Her parents, on the other hand, wanted her to get a job.

Vīķe-Freiberga found a job in a bank and continued her studies in evening school. In the end, she made it to the University of Toronto. There she met her future husband, Imants Freibergs, another Latvian in emigration.

The ex-president recalls: «The registrar had a list of subjects and I looked at it upside down and I saw something, a long word starting with P and ending in Y, and I put my finger on it and said, ‘Sir, this is the one I want to take’.» Her chosen subject was psychology.

Most students there were men, and Vīķe-Freiberga soon learned that women were tolerated, rather than welcomed.

«Our dear professor at one point in a seminar said, ‘Yes, well, we actually have three married women here in this PhD programme, it’s such a waste, because they’re going to get married and they’re going to have children, and they’re actually taking up a place that a boy could have taken who will become a real scientist,» Vīķe-Freiberga said, adding that she and the other female students remembered that for the rest of their lives.

Vīķe-Freiberga told in the interview that they resolved to show that professor that women can succeed even better than his boys.

Vīķe-Freiberga succeeded doing just that. She spent 33 years at the University of Montreal. She became fluent in five language and wrote ten books. She and her husband also raised two children, teaching them to be Latvian.

The ex-president also admitted in the interview that this was not easy.

In 1998, age 60, Vīķe-Freiberga was elected professor emeritus and decided to retire. However, at some evening she received a call from Latvia’s prime minister. He offered her a seat as the head of the new Latvian Institute. The events that followed developed rapidly and in eight months after her return to Latvia she was elected president.

«I was somebody who was not interested in making money or anything like that, but simply in doing a job,» said Vīķe-Freiberga.

She recalls hearing media reporting false information about her, making her look as though some spendthrift, having lived a life of luxury in the West.

«I discovered that if you couldn’t trust the media, you have to go directly and speak to the people,» said Vīķe-Freiberga, adding that she had focused on doing that for all eight years as president.

 Vīķe-Freiberga admitted in the interview that being a woman in the post of the president provided certain advantages.

«I remember at the Istanbul NATO summit, President George W. Bush took me by the elbow, because I had high heels and it was a gravel path, and we walked slowly along,» she said.

«I did all I could to tell him how important it was to enlarge NATO and to make sure that Latvia was included and how much progress we had made and how full of goodwill we were,» the ex-president added.

She also mentioned that for Latvian diplomats and her it was particularly important in the time when the West was making decisions regarding the expansion of NATO and EU.

Latvia joined both organizations during Vīķe-Freiberga’s term.

Her second presidential term ended in 2007, a couple of months before her 70th birthday.

After leaving her post as president, she remained active in international politics. Vīķe-Freiberga helped found the Club of Madrid, in which ex-leaders combined efforts to enhance democracy. She also has a particular focus on women’s empowerment.

«The battle is far from over,» said the 81-year-old ex-president, concluding the interview.

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