Monday, February 20, 2012

More on the Latvian referendum and the Nisei Russians

Well, the balagāns (carnival) of sorts is over. The outcome of the referendum was clear to start with. More interesting are the results of the referendum when analyzed as a kind of survey or popularity poll. Clearly, something is the matter in Latgale, the eastern region of Latvia, and it is not only that most people there seem to be happy speaking Russian. Even before the vote, Latgallians were dissatisfied with new government rules preventing the daily crossing of the Russian border to bring back cheaper motor fuel, cigarettes, alcohol and other goods. For many “bordertown” inhabitants, this essentially “legal smuggling” for resale was a means of survival. According to some reports, when the new policies were announced, there was a near-riot in Rēzekne.
In the long term, ways have to be found to create jobs in Latgale and to at least slow down the emigration that has taken around 20% of the region's population since the last census in 2000.
The point has also been made that something has to be done to resolve issues with the so-called Russian speakers. Mostly it seems to a kind of Rodney Dangerfield complex (the late American comedian known for his repetitive line: I don't get no respect). Since just what this means, exactly, is hard to define, maybe people should talk about it.
I suspect the Rodney Dangerfield thing is something that afflicts sovoks a lot more than it affects the part of the population I called the Nisei Russians (like the second and onwards generation ethnic Japanese in the US). The Slavic Nisei are people who are fully aware that they are no longer living in the Russian motherland and, for whatever benefits their country of residence offers, there are certain sacrifices. One is that Russian is not the state language, but that it is respected or at least benignly neglected as long as you can communicate in whatever the local language is.
When Latvians arrived in the US as refugees after World War II, they learned English, and when many Latvians moved to English-speaking countries to seek work in recent years, they also had to speak English. No one is going to make their language the new state language, although countries suddenly facing significant numbers of Latvians are taking pragmatic steps to ensure that important matters are explained to them in Latvian – basic laws and regulations, procedures for dealing with the authorities, perhaps safety rules at some workplaces.
This is nothing new – countries with large migrant labor communities provide services in their languages, be it Turkish in Germany, Finnish or Serbo-Croatian in Sweden. However, by the second or third generation at the latest, the descendants of the immigrant laborers are fluent in the local language, sometimes, perhaps all too often, at the cost of their “native language”. For this reason, places like Sweden even offer home language teaching. This leads to bizarre employment ads seeking instructors (with higher education) to teach an obscure African language spoken mostly by illiterate goatherds.
What I mean to say is that there is a range of options short of adding new official languages for dealing with a significant and often permanent population that doesn't speak the local and indigenous language. In the time of the Nisei Russians (who had been there for generations) in Latvia, the Russian language was also handled pragmatically. Latgale, already a problem child back then, prevented Latvian being enshrined as a state language in the 1922 constitution. Someone wanted the Latgallian dialect (with different spellings and pronounciations) also made a state language. Latvian was later made a de facto state language in practice and by later legislation, but as I understand it, made it into the constitution only in 1998. In the Saeima, where most deputies were multilingual, indigenous languages such as German, Russian and Yiddish could be spoken, bu the transcripts of proceedings were published in Latvian.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, except for some historical irritation with the Germans, the local ex-lords and landowners, languages had largely co-evolved, with only Russian being briefly pressured on certain parts of Latvia at certain times under the Czars when it was decided to russify the non-Slavic peoples of the Russian Empire. So no language, except for German, was politically loaded and even then, it was resented rather than resisted because no one was forcing on free citizens in a free country.
It was the Soviet Union, led mostly by Russians cowering under a fearsome Georgian, that weaponized the Russian language and turned it on the non-Russian peoples of the aptly named prison of nations. Russian was going to be the common language of a Soviet people to be forged, first by the subtractive terror of executing, deporting or imprisoning national elites and national bourgeois elements, then by “gentler” proactive methods of teaching a Soviet newspeak that closely resembled Russian. Along with it, to Latvia, came the first speakers of Soviet Russian, many of them descendants of ethnic Russian or other Slavic peoples who had already had been put through one or two runs of the Soviet grinder.
The result was that the Soviet Russian used in publications and official speech also embodied or in various ways served the totalitarian regime that the Soviet occupation brought with it. It was, after a while, the Slavic language of sovokshomo sovieticus by another name – but often, too, of lowlife and criminals (maybe I am mistaken, but the Soviet industrialized Baltic states were a place of work release for large numbers of Soviet criminals finishing their sentences for ordinary crimes). The Russian of the Soviet era (OK, I don't speak a word of it, so I am told and have read) became the carrier of totalitarian lies and nonsense in one aspect of a pretty unpleasant life, and the bljed! suka!bellowing drunk ex-jailbird neighbor pounding on the door because his wife has locked him out again in another side of Soviet reality.
Latvia's Nisei Russians, who for the most part were ordinary folk who celebrated Christmas in January and celebrated Easter for hours with kissing all around, were buried under the sovok avalanche dumped on the country under Soviet rule. They were lumped with the Russian-speaking sovoks and I have spotted a few Nisei in my circle of aquaintances. Back in the day, most Russians in Latvia spoke at least some Latvian, and it was not a threat to what they were.
However, the new Soviet world permeated by sovok-Russian was a direct threat to Latvians and Latvia's indigenous nationalities, it was a weaponized language aimed at making sovoks of everyone, with real Soviet Russians being just a bit more equal that others.
It is this attitude, that of Soviet Russian privilege, that has survived the end of Soviet rule in Latvia and has not been moderated in many cases by attempts at “integration”. Even without examining the practical effectiveness or theoretical validity of Latvia's integration efforts, it seems obvious that while immigrants can, in many societies, integrate “upwards” from the “lower” status of new arrivals to being accepted or even part of the elite (see how Latvian-born Laila Freivalds became a minister in Sweden), it is harder, if not impossible for self-proclaimed or self-deluded elites to “integrate” in a direction they perceive as downwards. For Tovarsich Bljed-Suka adjusting to a free Latvia where he had to speak the Dog Language was a serious challenge. In many cases it still is. That is what the referendum was about for many Latvians.


Ilze K said...

Plain and simple, easily understood explanation of the current situation. Thank you.

Andzvej said...

Enlightening , may gives a deeper understanding of the language issue.

Anonymous said...

Seems the author has a first stage of Alzheimer's. He has forgotten that at Soviet time every Latvian speaking could get any education in mother Latvian Language. He has forgotten that at 1991 one third part of population of Latvia has lost own citizenship by own government law . He has forgotten that there wasn't any free Latvian Language courses after that time. He has forgotten that initially ultra-nationalist VL party wanted to initialize plebiscite to switch all minority education into only Latvian language... and many more

Anonymous said...

I wanna play demagogy as well and I coould say that the Russians were incompetent comparing to the English, because Russians were not capable of removing the native languages ​​of the countries they colonized, unlike the English did it in the U.S., Ireland... Nowadays independent countries, but with the language of the Empire that occupied them. Can you see? It depends on the pattern you use to compare and, of course, mine it's not perfect but works as others, 'cause English and Russian, both, were imposed in many places(colonizating as well), so that's why you can find people born in Latvia or Malta using as first language the one of the the Empire, and among them, you can find people who can ONLY speak the language of the Empire...

PS: by the way in many US states they publish the official documents in two languages or even three... And in many towns you can find all the signs in the public transport in english-spanish, english-spanish-chinese... but wait, go to Munich...and you will find explanations in the transport in several languages AS WELL... What about Latvia? Nothing. Ok, now, at least, we have those new screens and e-talons points in several languages, thanks god we have tourism! Not to mention the right to use the language what you want for your business, Can you imagine latvian legislation working in USA? No way! Impossible going against freedom of entrepreneurship in USA, but in Latvia it's ok, of course.

Rezo said...

Perhaps, you should have called this post "Karma". Let us not forget who the original sovoks were -- the Latvian riflemen. So, when you write about "the fearsome Georgian", do not forget your Latvian forefathers who helped put him there.

Juris Kaža said...

Rezo, The Riflemen helped put Lenin in power, it was the fearsome Georgian who purged most of the Latvians who had anything to do with running the USSR at the time, or who simply lived there. So any collective Karma they had generated was expressed in 1937, not now, nor in what happened after 1945.
To one of the anonymouses - in 1991, everyone equally lost their Soviet citizenship, which was forcibly imposed on the Latvian population in 1940 and afte 1945. Latvian citizenship was restored for citizens in 1940 and their descendants, and like most countries in the world, Latvia offers naturalization to anyone else who meets certain rules and qualifications.
So you are proposing that the entire civilian colonial administration of French Algeria should have been given Algerian citizenship in 1962(?) just for being there, or that Norway should have granted citizenship to the German civilians present in the country on May 9, 1945? Norway was fully occupied and administered by Germany on the day that the Nazi regime surrendered.

Anonymous said...

Don't know about Latvia, but there is a different angle regarding the way things were with citizenship in neighboring Estonia when independence was restored. The Republic of Estonia continued to exist de jure the whole time, "under the surface". It never went anywhere, it was "merely" annexed and occupied by Moscow for a number of decades. Estonian citizens (including those of Russian ethnic ancestry or whatever) continued to remain Estonian citizens, never lost their Estonian citizenship, and all that transpired in the early nineties was the reissuing of passports and the filling out of other paperwork affirming and attesting to legitimately derived Estonian citizenship. We did not restore Estonian citizenship, it had been there the whole time and never went missing. To petition to be naturalized (hypothetically, not all naturalization applications need be approved) is a very different matter than for an existing citizen to apply for issuance of an ID card or a passport. Shouldn't get issuance of documents to a citizen attesting to his or her's existing citizenship mixed up with the desire of an immigrant in let's say the US or Canada to become the citizen of their new adopted country.