Language: A way to forgive and forget?

Latvia has rejected making Russian the country’s second official language. In the light of its traumatic history, such a decision comes as no surprise, although it may prove to be short-sighted in a bitterly divided country facing corruption scandals and the spectre of bankruptcy.

A referendum, initiated by the Russian speakers’ movement, Native Tongue, has exposed deep fault-lines in Latvia. Ethnic Russians, who make up about one-third of the population, have long complained of discrimination. But many ethnic Latvians believe the referendum was an attempt to dent the country’s independence.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians moved to Latvia and the neighbouring Baltic republics during the population transfers of the Soviet regime. Since Russian was the lingua franca at the time, there was little use in learning Latvian, which in any case belongs to a different branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

Extreme Russification numbed national cultural life. Several waves of mass deportation to northern Russia and Siberia took place – altogether involving at least 100,000 people – most notably in 1949 in connection with a campaign to collectivize agriculture. Large-scale immigration from Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union began and continued throughout the post-war period. In just over 40 years the proportion of Latvians in the population dropped from roughly three-fourths to little more than one-half.

A national renaissance developed in the late 1980s in connection with the Soviet campaigns for glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”). In 1987 mass demonstrations on ecological issues were the first unofficially staged political gatherings in the country in post-war times. In 1988 the Latvian Popular Front emerged in opposition to the government and triumphed in the elections of 1990. Despite Soviet resistance, and after half-a-century of Soviet rule, in 1991 Latvia gained independence from Moscow and joined the European Union in 2004.

Independence saw the geopolitical tables turned and the new government introduced Latvian language skills as a prerequisite for citizenship. Many Russian-speakers resisted, and today some 300,000 remain without citizenship, which means they cannot vote in elections, hold public office, or work in government institutions.

To some extent over the past 20 years Russian residents of Latvia have suffered the backlash of anti-Soviet feeling and endless not-so-subtle attempts to assimilate them or make them second-class citizens. And, over the past two decades, the linguistic situation has shifted. Children growing up in Russian-speaking homes study Latvian at school starting from the first grade, while tens of thousands of adults have learned the language.

In his book Anathemas and Admirations (1987), the Romanian philosopher Emile M. Cioran (1911-95) penned portraits of writers he liked. It includes the following aphorism: “On n’habite pas un pays, on habite une langue” (People do not inhabit a country, they inhabit a language.) Perhaps in Latvia the two languages need to cohabit a bit more and, who knows?, over time they might become closer friends.

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