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Sandy Journal

Meet former Latvian resident Edgar Pavars: he dyes hair and discusses Tolstoy

Jul 01, 2019 04:21PM ● By Sona Schmidt-Harris

Edgar Pavars works in the beauty industry, speaks three languages and spent 25 years living under Soviet rule. (Sona Schmidt-Harris/City Journals)

By Sona Schmidt-Harris | [email protected] 

With a vocabulary as big as his tattooed forearms, Edgar Pavars is a man of surprises. Numerous American idioms spill out unexpectedly in a Latvian accent, which is as charming as he is. Though he reveals little in his face, you start to know the man as he expertly snips at split ends. 

Pavars, a Sandy resident, attributes his good English to asking Americans what a word or phrase meant; he rarely used the dictionary.

Born in a suburb of Moscow, Pavars moved to Riga, Latvia (the capitol of Latvia) with his family when he was just four months old. He lived under Soviet rule for 25 years.

“It’s rather difficult because not everything was bad,” he said. “When you were a child with average parents, you didn’t particularly feel anything was wrong. Young parents usually had difficulty with housing, so in the beginning of your life you live in kind of communal life conditions. My dad, my mom, and me, we lived in one room in dorms for married people. So, on one hand it was very cramped, on the other hand as soon as you got out in the hallway, you had a bunch of friends to play with.”

As his parents aged, their living conditions improved.

“I always remember my parents were short on money. Pay was very low for most people — just barely enough to get through from paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

Pavars, who graduated in mechanical engineering from Riga Polytechnical Institute, has fond memories of his education. “Opportunities for libraries, theaters, sports were unlimited if you wanted it. You could get as educated as you wanted to be. There were no restrictions whatsoever, with the exception of certain censorship of the intellectual and philosophical thought, which was the foundation of the western cultures. For example, if you wanted to read Plutarch, it was not allowed. You could access it only if you were a history or philosophy major with permission from your professor. However, classics, many other American, English and French writers were not restricted,” he said.

He later studied business and economics at the University of Latvia.

Friends helped Pavars get a visa to come to the United States. “As you leave the Soviet Union, you have to surrender your Soviet Union citizenship, and you literally become a man or a woman without a country,” he said. With the help of the Tolstoy Foundation, established by the descendants of the great Russian writer, Pavars was able to obtain help as a refugee. The Tolstoy Foundation had several hubs in the United States, one of which was in Salt Lake; when he was offered the destination, he gladly took it.

The biggest cultural shock to Pavars was the ability for people to speak their mind regarding political matters without any fear of retribution, “and the fact that hardly anyone but homeless people walk on the streets,” added Pavars. “It’s a very car-oriented culture in Salt Lake City.” People offered him a ride even if he had to only walk a block. 

“When I first saw a cooked turkey, to me it was like you killed a pet and you’re cooking a dog. We don’t eat turkeys. It was the most horrific scene I ever saw. You kill a fighting bird which protects the flock,” he said. Corn was also shocking as it was food for pigs in Latvia. “But you have to take that first bite of pig food and turkey.”

Pavars said most Americans don’t know much about Latvia, not even where it is; however, he said people in Salt Lake tend to know more about the regions of the collapsed Soviet Union because of missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Pavars still “lives” in three countries: Russia, Latvia and America. “If I dream about my friends, it will be in Russian.” He dreams in Latvian if it is regarding friends with whom he participated in sports. If he dreams about current events and his life in the United States, he dreams in English.

His education did not transfer over easily, so he began a new career in the beauty industry because it afforded him a shorter education span and a profession that allowed him the flexibility of time, location and opportunities.

“The Soviet Union was a very big country, and different regions were drastically different from one another. Ethnic republics had a certain influence of their historic pasts, and some of those ethnic republics were not willing joiners into the greater Soviet Union. There are a variety of different opinions, both positive and negative,” he said.

“My Russian side of the family, my great-grandmother whom I met, she was one of the ex-indentured servants to the descendants of Peter the Great, and they embraced the Soviet system with all their hearts because it gave them freedom and opportunities. Where my Latvian side of the family was occupied or annexed when they were growing up and fully formed people, so they had a definite resistance and more negative approach to the Soviet system,” Pavars said.

Pavars believes that on average, Eastern Europeans are much more community-oriented and significantly less individualistic. “It takes a little more time to assimilate into American culture,” he said.

“In general, Eastern Europeans can be a little opinionated and lack a certain finesse in their responses. For example, if someone asks, ‘Do you like the coffee?’ We would respond, ‘No, we don’t.’ In our culture, we give an honest opinion so something can be done about it,” he said.

From working in the beauty industry, Pavars said he needed to learn to sugarcoat opinions from the get-go.  

“Eastern Europeans are more like cats; cats don’t have facial expressions for one simple reason: It’s a survival mechanism. You could not show weakness, and also you could not show reactions because they could be interpreted in a negative way especially when you felt the Soviet apparatus, so we pretty much learned a very stoic, very expressionless way of communicating until you really got to know somebody and trust them.”

“You didn’t want to stick out too much in one way or another because the hammer was always raised,” Pavars said.

Though he is a realist, Pavars is also hopeful. He paraphrased Tolstoy’s “The Three Questions.”  

What is the most important time of life?  Now.

What is the most important person? The one in front of you, even if it is a complete stranger or your own reflection in the mirror.

What is the most important thing to do? Care!

From the help of the Tolstoy Foundation to the writer’s philosophy, Pavars is inextricably connected.