Latvian, Russian or multi-ethnic?

Identities and culture do not recognise border checkpoints. In the town of Rezekne, only an hour’s drive from the physical border with Russia, five young Latvians tell the Körber-Stiftung about their identity and everyday reality. Their answers open up a world of competing and overlapping identities, of mixed languages and stark rifts between communities living side by side.

On 14 September 2017, the Latvian Parliament debated a draft law designed to buttress the use of Latvian as sole state language and extend penalties for non-compliance with official-language regulations. When looking at Latvia from the outside, the country seems to be divided along ethnic lines: the Latvian majority, and the Russian minority, in which people speak their own language and fail to integrate into the Latvian State. When speaking about their daily experiences to people who live along the border, however, the impression of a clear distinction between “us” and “them” somewhat fades.

Valentin (18) and Karina (17) are both from Russian families and attend Russian schools, where students are mostly taught in that language. “If someone asked me where I am from,” says Karina, “I would say from Latvia, but from the Russian community there.” She is proud of all her family being Russian. Daniela (15) and Vanesa (17) attend a Latvian school, but have different backgrounds: Daniela’s family is Latvian, whereas Vanessa’s is Russian. Ksenia (16) attends a Polish school where most of the classes are in Latvian, but there is also a strong focus on learning Polish. She is ethnically Russian.

What keeps this multi-ethnic society functional?

“Nothing unites our country with Russia,” says Vanesa. Karina disagrees. “Russians in Latvia have historically supported Russia and loved that country,” she reflects. “Latvians, on the other hand tend to feel patriotic about Latvia and to support the politics of the EU.” In her opinion, patriotic feelings towards Latvia are less widespread among young people as among their elders, be they ethnic Russians or ethnic Latvians. Daniela thinks that some of the traditions that remain from the Soviet times, as well as cuisine and music, unite the two communities. “What brings us together? We share a territory,” says Ksenia. For Karina it is Latvian holidays that unite Latvians and Russians.

Listening to their answers, it feels as though the young people have some difficulty finding factors that bring both communities together. When asked what divides Russians and Latvians, however, they are nowhere short of ideas. “Politics” is the master word. “The Latvian attitude towards Russians is particularly negative, and that does not help,” states Vanesa. Karina dives deeper, into everyday attitudes: “I feel that Russian parents educate their children slightly differently than Latvian ones. Even our sense of humour is different. It is not only politics that separates us, but mentality.” Ksenia agrees that norms of behaviour create major differences between Russians and Latvians. Daniela adds religious differences to the list. Valentin is the only one for whom the division between both communities is exclusively political. According to him, “it is the Latvian government that divides Russians and Latvians because it sees the Russians as a threat and cultivates conflicts between both communities. In the last few years, it has become frightening to speak Russian in Latvia.”

The separation between both ethnic communities appears starkly drawn when one asks the question directly. Yet, when one pays closer attention to people’s daily lives, this separation no longer appears as rigid.

“I tried to think in Latvian, but Russian words kept popping up.”

Belonging to an ethnic group appears mainly determined by one’s family. At home, all the young people we talked to speak the language of their ethnic group. The language spoken at home is also the language in which the young people find it easiest to think and communicate. “Once, when I was on my own,” Karina tells, “I tried to think exclusively in Latvian, as an experiment, but it proved very difficult. Russian words kept popping up.”

“I read in Latvian, but think in Russian.”

Vanesa thinks in Russian and communicates almost exclusively in her mother tongue, but when it comes to reading books, Latvian is her language of choice, perhaps influenced by her Latvian education. Nevertheless, she follows media in Russian. Ksenia also prefers Russian for reading the news, although she sometimes also looks at Latvian-language outlets. When it comes to literature and reading, a third language makes its appearance: English. Karina reads books in Russian and English and follows the news in all three languages. Daniela thinks exclusively in Latvian and reads in Latvian and English. Sometimes, she glances over a local newspaper in Russian. “I follow both Russian and Latvian news on Delphi.lv,” tells Valentin. “News is covered differently in both languages.”

“Somehow, it works to mix both languages.”

Outside of the family circle, the use of language is not as homogenous. Valentin and Vanesa mainly communicate with Russians from their own ethnic community. For the others, the divide is not as clear, for example for Daniela. “I speak Latvian and Latgalian [a regional language] at home. With my friends, I speak both Russian and Latvian: we often mix both languages,” she explains. For Ksenia, Russian clearly dominates, both at home and with her friends, even though some of them are Latvian. Despite attending a Polish school and studying in Latvian, she is still more comfortable to communicate in her mother-tongue. Karina has quite a few Russian friends from school, but also Latvian friends from the dance classes she attends: “They have trouble speaking my first language, but their understanding of it is excellent.” Speaking Latvian is quite natural for her, although she is still more comfortable in her mother tongue. In everyday practice, in particular through language, borders between the Russian and Latvian communities in Rezekne become porous.

All five young people have a strong sense of belonging to either the Russian or Latvian ethnic communities. On first approach, there appears to be little overlap between both groups. Yet, when one takes a closer looks at their everyday life, both Latvians and Russians tend to mix the languages, mingle in friendships… The borders that are so rigidly set in people’s minds, when answering direct identity questions, are blurred in practice. Whether this linguistic mingling could in the long term decrease the mental divide between both communities, is an open question.

“I would love to live somewhere in Europe, but not in Latvia.”

Despite his discomfort in speaking his mother tongue in Latvia, Valentin remains the only person who plans on building a future there. All the others are thinking, with more or less certainty, to leave the country. “It is difficult for me to think of leaving Latvia,” says Karina. “I grew up here and love the country. But abroad, I see much better prospects to study and work in the future.” The drain of young people from the Baltic states is a major demographic problem, with grave economic consequences for the ageing society. Feeling Latvian, or loving the country is not a sufficient argument for most to remain there. Although on the linguistic level there is quite some overlap between both communities, differences between both appear relatively set in stone and bridges between them, fragile. 

Interview by Nora Kalinskij

In an earlier version we wrote: “On 14 September 2017, the Latvian Parliament debated a draft law that would allow to substantially fine anyone speaking Russian in public.” Following a note from the Latvian Embassy in Berlin, we specified this phrase.


Gabriele Woidelko
Head of Department History and Politics
Programme Director “Russia in Europe”

+49 • 40 • 80 81 92 - 160
Twitter @Woidelko

Twitter @KoerberIV

Nora Müller
Executive Director
Head of Department International Affairs

+49 • 30 • 206 267 - 60
Twitter @muellernora

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