When I wrote about the successful signature campaign by Latvian citizens to make Russian the second state language, I got some comments on Twitter and elsewhere that “a language is just a language” and it was somehow wrong to associate demands for Russian as a state language with the Soviet policy of Russification.
This is surprising, except when it comes from the generation that doesn't fully remember what the Soviet Union was like. To be honest, I didn't live in Latvia then, but I participated in many emigre Latvian activities, including demonstrations against the Soviet russification policy, which consisted both of imposing the Russian language on the Baltic populations and massively importing Russian-speaking labor (at least to Estonia and Latvia). The latter means of russification ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
The actions of Balts abroad were based on personal experience (visiting the Baltic States), anecdotal stories and academic research (including a book by the Latvian political scientist and present-day Saeima deputy Rasma Kārkliņa) that characterized policies regarding the use of Russian in non-Russian Soviet republics as part of the policy of russification. It is probably beyond reasonable dispute that the Russian language, during the Soviet era, but also with precedents in Czarist Russia as far as the Baltic were concerned, was used as a weapon of state policy aimed at subjugating and, eventually, assimilating the Baltic nations to some greater, Russian-dominated ethnos.
The Soviets made it clear-- the future belonged to a Russian-speaking new Soviet people that would have erased all traces of the diverse national identities that had been (in some cases forcibly) incorporated into the USSR. Those policies were terminated with the collapse of the USSR, but it is reasonable to say that the widespread post-Soviet knowledge of Russian, whatever merits one can ascribe to it otherwise, could also be described as one of the badges of occupation. In other words, on a “but for” basis, many Latvians would not speak Russian but for the occupation of Latvia for 50 years, a period of time when they were compelled to learn Russian. Above and beyond Russian as a compulsory subject in school, there were also campaigns (proclaimed in the Latvian-language Soviet press) exhorting people to improve their Russian and emphasizing the role of Russian as the basis for the new Soviet nation of the future.
As a language learned by compulsion during the totalitarian occupation of Latvia, Russian can be seen as a weapon that has left its impact on most Latvians (and non-Russians in Latvia, such as Armenians, Poles, Georgians, etc.), even if that impact has entirely benign consquences today (buying a beer at a Moscow bar, watching Russian movies, whatever). However, those consquences are benign only because the regime of Russian domination and compulsory teaching of Russian has ended. If it had not, “Russianspeakingness” would continue to be a sympton of russification and a badge of occupation and dominance by a foreign power.
The successful signature campaign to restore Russian as a state language in an independent Latvian state, reviving, at least formally, the status it had in the Soviet Union, is an effort to make Russian a weaponized language again. Since there is little or no evidence that ethnic Russians in Latvia cannot conduct most of their daily lives speaking Russian, there is no logical need to make Russian a second state language except to make it a weapon again.
To be sure, it is a weak and irrational weapon if, as some suggest, it is aimed at expressing some kind of protest by the “Russian-speaking” (read ethnic Russian) citizenry for not getting a share of political power after the recent election. Unfortunately, their poster-boy, Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs, ran mostly as a populist social democrat, attracting some ethnic Latvian votes. His Harmony Center party (Saskaņas centrs/SC) was acting like a party of Russians, not a Russian party pushing for specific issues relating to Russians as a significant minority in Latvian. As a “Russian” party, SC should have agitated for more adult education in Latvian as a foreign language to make more citzens functionally bi-lingual as well as for home language instruction to keep Russian children form losing their native language (something the USSR never did for minorities living outside their borders). Most non-Russian Latvian citizens would have no issues with that. But those Latvians, who don't see Russian as “just another language”, should object against having a weapon pointed at them again.