Riga is a heavily Russian city, always has been since I personally knew it, which is from my first visit in 1980 or so. There appear to be no problems getting by in Russian here, just this morning, as I was buying my copy of the magazine Ir at a Narvesen shop, the clerk smoothly went from telling another customer something in Russian to asking me for my LVL 0,95 in Latvian. As an interesting aside, the girl behind the counter looked to be of Roma (gypsy) ethnicity, a people who, in Latvia, mainly have Latvian as their mother tongue going back for centuries.
There is no lack of Russian culture and media here. There are placards for all sorts of Russian singers and entertainers coming to Riga. The Russian Theater in the Old Town on Līvu Square has been spectacularly renovated and attracts an audience made up of anyone who understands Russian. Contemporary Russian TV series as well as old Soviet films are shown on Latvian TV channels with subtitles, something which (except on some channels) is never done for English language material, where a Latvian voice-over (murmulis) is the standard procedure. Some commercial signeage is both in Latvian and Russian, and Russian foods and canned goods are sold in their Russian-language packaging with small, Latvian-translated labels (in micro-typeface) pasted on.
In short, Riga is a very comfortable town to be Russian in. You can make it through your whole day speaking Russian, because most of the population does, and in a commercial situation, the customer's language is what matters (for making the sale and building the relationship). Even in some hard-line, state-language only institutions, a translator will eventually be called if thats what it takes to get important business done, so that the Russian-speaker will still remain in his/her language sphere.
Given all that, enough ethnic Russian Latvian citizens (so we can forget that other issue that gets brought up whenever “the Russians” are discussed) signed a petition to have a referendum on making Russian a second official state language. To me, that sounds like bringing back the Soviet Union – the bi-lingual signs everywhere that weren't really based on language equality, but rather, we will have your Latvian jazik around until we absorb you, make all the other non-Russian Soviet “nations” part of the “we are Russkie-Borg”. It was prelude to a “soft” destruction of national identity (as opposed to the Siberian alternative), Chapter Two of the Russification policy of Czarist Empire.
The petition campaign, was, or will be, at the end of the day, part of a campaign to resovietize Latvia at an official, day-to-day level. It will be back to when, if a few Russians were present, everyone spoke Russian. In the Soviet era, it was because of fear of political repercussions, but if the second official language is passed, it will be because of the laws and regulations of the independent, democratic Republic of Latvia.
Perversely enough, the whole process may have started with a failed initiative by Latvian nationalists to petition for a referendum to make all state-financed education in Latvian only. But was that enough to trigger the successful counter-petition by the pro-Russians, or was it merely a lucky excuse? It almost didn't get off the ground because two different Russian nationalist groups were at each other's throats for a while as to who would start the signature gathering. Then there was the extraordinary Saeima election and the bizarre attempts by Valdis Zatlers and his Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRP) to get the pro-Russian Harmony Center (SC) into government at all costs.
The ZRP's efforts were a spectacle, against all political logic on both sides of the attempted coalition. The political programs of the ZRP and SC didn't match – center right parties and self-proclaimed populist social democrats cannot have too many common policies in government. Moreover, the SC, by dropping most of its populist positions in order to get into a government with the ZRP at all costs, proved nothing but that it was a chameleon willing to betray the electorate that believed its own slogans.
The SC apparently took great offense at not being let into government as a “Russian” party that got a few more votes that anyone else (as if “Russian” and not liberal, conservative, social-democratic, centrist was an actual political ideology). Then one of the SC leaders and Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs publically signed the petition, apparently triggering a wave of copy-cat signings by other SC members. This all was in the interests of “national bolshevik” Vladimir Linderman, who was the de-facto leader of the petition signing movement, and “rapped for Russian” in a video along with the semi-monolingual Valerijs Kravcovs, an ex-Saeima deputy, ringing a huge motherfucker of a bell (you were wondering when I would let slip some obscenity, weren't you? :) ). Ušakovs said he was merely asserting his self-esteem (strange, for one of Latvia's most photogenic young politicians), but Linderman and his droogs were dead serious – they want to impose Russian as a second language and will do their best to see that it is enforced.
The unintentional consequences of Nils' wounded self-esteem and his self-proclaimed respect for Latvian as the sole national language (go figure on that one) will be that Latvian will end up back where it was in the Soviet Union, as the language you speak at home, on the street, or in official situations when there are no Russians around to demand that their language be spoken,
I won't go so far as to say that Russian as a second language will be the end of the Latvian nation and all that (even if that is one possible scenario), but it will end up at least as a significant nuisance (if properly resisted). One example is French in Canada, which means that even the Inuit who have never been near Quebec have to pour their milk/lait on their morning cereal. Or the Finns, who have to learn Swedish (to some extent) in school out of respect for a few villages where the ethnic Swedes still speak it (on the island of Åland, the Swedes on this Finnish possession speak English when dealing with the mainland. Then there is Ireland, where the Irish, who all speak English, with the exception of some Leprachaun-infested villages, where some people actually speak Irish, but everyone has to learn and forget Irish in school in any case.
I moved to Latvia in 1995, not Russia, and, while I have visited Russia a couple of times, I have no desire to live there. Being in a virtual Russia was not part of the deal of what I now see (for a number of non-language related reasons) as a dubious choice to live in Latvia (the economy is a wreck, the future bleak). Frankly, I don't want my son (16) to grow up in a Russified country, where the role of Russian goes well beyond the present-day “modus operandi” (described at the start of this post) that seems to work, while presenting a lesser, but nonetheless non-trivial threat to Latvian identity.
Don't get me wrong. I am a pretty multicultural person and can get along/have gotten along elsewhere – Sweden, the US, where I grew up, Germany, where I have worked and know the language. But for me, Russian as a second official language would be a defeat of all that Latvian independence meant, a re-sovietization of conditions in this country. Count me out on that...