In 2022 in Latvia 195,159 people, 9.6 percent of the population, do not have Latvian citizenship but neither do they have another: they are former citizens of the Soviet Union who speak Russian as their first language and a large part are of ethnic Russian, who despite having always lived in the country did not take citizenship when it became independent. The Latvian writer Janis Jonevs talks about this particular condition, and more generally about the relationship between Latvians who speak Latvian and Latvians who speak Russian, in a long article published in the new issue of The Passenger, the book-magazine of the Iperborea publishing house dedicated to countries, cities and places in the world: in this case to the three Baltic countries. We publish a short excerpt.
I have lived in Latvia all my life. I am Latvian. We know well that we are a small nation and when we go abroad we are prone to questions and misunderstandings. They often confuse us with Lithuanians but it doesn’t matter, we smile and answer that the statement is almost correct. But every Latvian gets annoyed if they ask him: «Is Latvia in Russia? Do you speak Russian between you?” No, Latvia is not in Russia. But yes, it’s close. Latvians speak not Russian, but Latvian. Yet nearly half of Latvia’s population speaks Russian. Another question that makes me cringe is: “Why don’t you like Russians?” Actually, I like Russians, it’s this question that I don’t like, but I understand what they mean. And I would have answers. (…)
There have always been Russians in Latvia. However, since 1945 the Soviet government has pursued a policy of increasing the number of Russian speakers here, while the percentage of native Latvians decreased dramatically, which the latter were not happy about. I too was born in the Soviet Union. At school we studied Russian. (…)
No one openly taught me that non-Latvians, i.e. Russians, were bad. Nonetheless, there was something in the air. My mother, who had dissident sympathies, did not impose any form of hostility on me, on the contrary, sometimes with a slight surprise she told me that she had met “very cool Russians”. At the same time, in a stern tone, she was telling me that when I grew up I shouldn’t have married a bloody Russian. I lived in a city where Russian speakers were at least half the population, if not more. “Watch out for the Russians!” was the recommendation that acquaintances constantly gave you when you went around the city. (…)
In 1990 Latvia proclaimed its independence. Moscow recognized her a year later. We had won. The regaining of independence, the period we call the «barricades» was the time of love for Latvia, genuine romanticism, the revival of national consciousness. (…) There was no organized revolt against what were considered to be the occupiers. When the Latvians finally regained power, the Russians were not expelled or repressed. Some of them left voluntarily, for example the soldiers of the Russian army with their families, the others continued to live in a completely different country.
However, there is one thing they still hold against us today. In short, before here we were all citizens of the Soviet Union. Will we all be Latvian citizens now? Not so fast. Our new government was afraid that by granting citizenship to everyone, those who still wanted part of Russia would also take it. And democratically we would have returned exactly there, to the point from which we had just escaped. So only people whose ancestors resided in Latvia before 1940 (the beginning of the first Soviet occupation) received citizenship. The others received passports from non-citizens, in English «alien’s passport».
“How come,” many of them said, “we too were in favor of independent Latvia and now we are extraterrestrials?” A resentment that still lingers today. A pretext for the fascists in Russia to talk about apartheid in Latvia – you hear this kind of bullshit every now and then. I would like to point out that non-citizens of Latvia enjoy all the protection and support of the state, only they cannot participate in elections. Anyone who wants, however, can become a citizen by passing a (simple) exam in Latvian history and language. The number of non-citizens is decreasing every year, even though they still account for more than a quarter of Russians in Latvia. The others are citizens and enjoy their right to vote.
At what stage is the integration? I live in Riga, the capital of Latvia. About half of the city’s inhabitants are still Russian-speaking. I hear them on the street. Russian girls dress more provocatively, more flamboyantly – not much, just a little. I see them in supermarkets, they often address the shop assistants in Latvian. That’s all. I don’t meet Russians at concerts and festivals. What places do they frequent? I do not know. I recently found a really bilingual place, the Laska bar (the name is Russian), but it’s the only one I know. How does this other half of Riga spend time? What does she talk and discuss, what does she like, what does she watch, listen to and read? I do not know. They have their own press, their own television. Sometimes it seems to me that I know the Russians of Russia better than those who are next door. Only on New Year’s Eve do you hear a wave of fireworks explode at 11pm – when it’s already midnight in Moscow.
Of course we meet. While studying, at work. I always had some Russian colleague and we got along well. Inga speaks Russian with her family, but now with a Latvian accent. Inga says of them: «We hate Putin, but we celebrate New Year’s Eve at 11pm.»
© Janis Jonevs, 2023
Translation by Rita Tura
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