Saturday, December 03, 2011

Weaponizing the Russian language in Latvia again

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. 


Anonymous said...

Juris, I understand, as much as a foreigner can, why there is so much passion surrounding this issue, but it seems a never ending "No Exit" Sarte drama in a "Spy vs. Spy" conflict in which the "bloody shirt" can always be waved to distract Latvians from matters of substance.

Both populations, it seems, would be better served by an effort to address Latvia's hemorrhaging of people in a country at the risk of being euthanized on the alter of neoliberal policy worship....

George said...

There is absolutely no solution to this demographic issue, either you blame the Russians for imposing their soviet type mentality upon Latvians, or get blamed by them for violating their rights and freedom of speech. Both lead to more separation and fringe politics. A sane, non-bias consensus must be made.

Anonymous said...

Cienitajs, From your posts it's evident you're just about to (re-) join our friendly ranks of latvia-lovers by correspondence. WTF the difference it makes to you personally if russian will, by any unthinkable coincidence, become an offical language? You'll get soon your new contract within better paying organisation located in more organised country and will call it a day on your Riga dwelling. Others will remain in LV, including those russian speakers who signed that petition.
Just think of it - every small country on this planet bordering it's larger neighbour is doomed to be heavily influenced by later's cultural and economical gravitation. South- and central americas and USA, USA and hispanic minority within it, north and west africa and France, Ireland (yes- they indeed ditched their gaelic and switched to english) and Great Britain, Germany and, well, pretty much every country around it, Korea and Japan. This list is endless. Add to this the speciffic of LV as a country with historically signifficant proportion of non-aboriginal population. Latvian latvians will alway share cultural space with others. Call it a LV'esque type of multiculturalism. And there will be no "russiffication" again. Simply because russian speakers themselves have no such agenda to dominate in LV. Try to overcome your habit in treating them as colonial human-leftovers beyond atmoda. Repeating myself again, present days latvia is endlessly distant from being welcoming worm home to everyone living there, seemingly including the moderator of this blog and definitely the undersigned. Roll your clock back to early 90-ies: non-latvians en masses deprived from basic citizen rights to vote and be elected, almost 10 years long saga of "to-give-or-not-to-give" lunatism with naturalisation, near sadistic methods of forcing non-latvians to start speaking state language. Way too much was done to prove to non-latvians, and some of latvians alike, that this country rejects them! Yes - they detest LV statehood and politics. But so do I! Now, when non-latvians exercise their constitutional right to initiate the petition, same old sermon is being played - DEAR LORD, SAVE US FROM OCCUPATION AGAIN. I recon latvian lingo and culture are more under threat from neverending economical dismay and utter decay of public and personal morale which is forcing thousands to immigrate. And russian speakers, even those with LV passports, are not the reason for it. Neither they're the obstacle to overcome this miserable existence of otherwise beautiful country. SC winning of last elections proves motley latvian society is maturing slowly and may in near future finally overcome toothing problems with blaming others in it's own shortfallings.

Aris Kruvevers

Anonymous said...

We're talking about freedom, democracy and human rights. The issue of 'aliens' is incomprehensible from any liberal-democratic point of view (not to mention libertarian). But, again, most of the Eastern European countries are still blinded by a nationalism which goes against individual choice and freedom. The Soviet Union, sorry, Latvian state is telling people and companies what language we have to use to label our stores, the Latvian state tell us what language our employees have to know... Otherwise we are gonna be fined or it could be worse, the business could be close down. This is a nationalistic narrow mind. The market is the only one who can judge, never the state. It would be unthinkable in UK or USA. But, this is the soviet mentality, the state impose you a language, a view of the world... and finally you're the slave of Latvian state.

KasparsM said...

I have to agree Aris Kruvevers. When Juris says that he didn't live in Latvia but russification is beyond dispute etc., he only shows that he is very influenced by nationalistic sentiments, or in a better word, hysteria.

I lived in the Soviet Latvia and while russification was real, I don't believe it was forced or intended. It was just a natural by-product of political and economic environment of these days. The Soviet industrialization combined with loss of Latvia population in war combined with Latvia being more advanced than most of the Soviet Union at the time, it made an attractive target to immigration. Many of them were industrial professionals looking for jobs and better living conditions. I understand that Latvians view this as threat to their language but they should also understand that the Russian speaking immigrants are not "occupants" but merely people looking for better life. They are victims of the Soviet regime as much as Latvians.

Also it should be noted that during the Soviet time Latvian culture was very vibrant. Despite state censure, Latvian writers and poets were prolific. The regime taught them to express the critique of the Soviet regime in very subtle ways. The Soviet movies are generally much more deeper and much more artistic than current Hollywood flics. There was discrimination of Latvian language, except for decreasing native Latvian speakers due to demographic changes. No wonder that many people feel nostalgia and remember Soviet times as more pure, orderly and less materialistic.

The current language law instead of protecting is actually constraining the artistic creativity of Latvian language. It was most evident when the Language Center fined the Symphonic Orchestra for publishing and ad where the word "simfōnija" was used for using the long vowel ō. According to bureaucrats ō is not officially recognized in Latvian alphabet although most people would accept such use in artistic manner.