So the vote has started in the language referendum. The effort to make Russian a second state language in Latvia is doomed to failure. There is no real need for it, anyone who is monolingual in Russian can not only get their daily business done (with a bit of hassle in some places) but they can also enjoy a broad spectrum of local Russian culture and information (theater, radio, local TV) as well as a massive amount of Russian-language electronic media from Russia (both on local cable channels and with satellite dishes).
Indeed, the default choice in putting together cable TV program packages is a few local channels and almost everything else but CNN and BBC World (if available) is either in Russian or with a Russian soundtrack. Even Lattelecom, the national telecoms and pay TV operator, recently replaced the English-language History Channel (which I think could be switched to a Russian soundtrack) with a monolingual Russian science channel Nauka. It is impossible to switch languages on this, even when the Russian soundtrack seems to have been laid over English in some kind of adapted segment.
A number of commentators have said that the underlying causes of the referendum are unresolved ethnic issues after 20 years of independence and should be seen as a strong signal of failure to build a unified society based on multi-ethnic solidarity. As “let's all sing Kumbaya” - desirable that may seem, suffice it to say that there are few societies on the planet that have achieved this. That includes the US, despite the 1940s war movie Army squads where the Italian guy, the Irish kid, the wisecracking Brooklyn Jewish guy, the Scandinavian farmer's son and the college kid from Philly all joined together to fight the evil buck-toothed Jap (more on that later).
I am sure integration would have worked had Latvia been towed away in 1991 and anchored as a large island next to Tasmania, off the coast of Australia. Completely isolated from its ex-aggressor and occupier neighbor, the island republic would be a happy nation of Latvians of different ethnicities, with Russian as a home language (as were Latvian, German, Greek in hypothetically neighboring Australia) for part of the population.
This, however, was not the case. Latvia and its Russians remained under the powerful, sometimes chilling political and increasingly state power-elite-controlled media shadow of an unrepentant Russia. Vladimir Putin's outrageous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union (prison of nations, anyone?) “was a major geopolitical disaster of the century”. How do you say WTF?? in Russian? The ethnic Russian and non-Latvian Russian speakers (Belarussians, Ukrainians, other “Soviet nations” represented here) were enveloped in a separate Russian media bubble that was hostile by default to the Baltic states, portraying them as cryptofascist apartheid societies.
Latvians, in the early and mid-1990s, frankly, had other concerns than being hypersensitive to the needs of a nation or national minority that they saw as the oppressor nation for the previous 50 years. Never mind that those concerns were making a Charlie Foxtrot of their politics and economy with incompetence, corruption, bungling, you-name-it. The perception of Russia and what Russians in Latvia represented (whether individual Russians themselves had chosen to do so or not didn't matter) was determined by hard, recent historical experience. The Latvians and Russians shot down by the OMON paramilitary police in January, 1991, were not shot by Samoans, in case anyone hadn't noticed.
Which brings us back to the Japanese and the US in 1941. I think one of the unseen and sad aspects of the ethnic situation in Latvia has some rough parallels with the way US citizens of Japanese ancestry were perceived after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Latvia in 1940 had an indigenous, integrated Russian community, all were citizens, served in the Latvian military, had their own fraternities, the Russian Orthodox or Old Believers churches, etc. Then the “motherland” of Latvia's ethnic Russians, in a series of actions led by Russians from Russia (and aided by Latvians and other nationalities, to be sure) committed the long, drawn out atrocity of the 1940-41 and 1945-1991 occupation of Latvia. As a result “our Russians” who had lived here for centuries were overwhelmed in the consciousness of Latvia's Latvians and other victim nations by the image of the Russian as conqueror, occupier and oppressor.
In the US, in the space of a few hours on December 7, 1941 and in the years of war that followed, the “mother nation” of the Japanese in the United States became a treacherous aggressor, killing American boys on a Sunday morning, marching them to death on Bataan, and fighting with the perceived savagery of mad dogs on Pacific islands like Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where soldiers had to be burned in their caves by Marines with flamethrowers and Japanese mothers shot by snipers to keep them from throwing babies off cliffs into the sea. A slightly different image than the mild-mannered math teacher at a California high school or the family running a grocery store on Hawaii.
By no means was the internment of Japanese Americans justified, but it can be explained by the shock of what Japan did to the US (and by no small measure of racism back then). Latvia has done nothing of the kind to its Russians (including the huge contingent that were moved in during the Soviet period). Think of the mild-mannered hypohetical Mr. Nakamura being replaced at Santa Monica High by 20 samurai-sword waving wanna-be Tojos (that is the military leader of the wartime Japanese government). Something like that happened in Latvia, and it lasted almost 50 years. So maybe don't blame the Latvians too much for the referendum having a number of ironic and even absurd angles to it.
That is my quick take on things as voting gets under way. I have to go off and do some work for a a foreign newspaper as a one-off freelancer. More later.