RUSSIA’S COMPATRIOT POLICIES
In recent years, the Russian state has intensified its efforts to reach out to its ‘compatriots abroad’. Not only does Russia attempt to create closer ties between Russia and Russian compatriots, it also tries to weaken identification with the states where Russian speakers live. This is done by highlighting traits which supposedly make Russians unique: respect for Russian traditions, collectivism (sobornost’), the Russian language, a distain for liberalism and individualism, and deep respect for Russia’s interpretation of the Second World War.
The crucial aspect of this strategy is that it links these cultural traits of Russianness (russkost’) with the expectation that ‘real Russians’ should support the policies of the Russian Federation. The Russian strategy therefore aims to politicise Russian cultural identities in order to create a unified community of Russian compatriots, with shared values and shared political allegiances towards Russia.
Unsurprisingly, the Baltic states, Ukraine and ‘the west’ in general, are depicted as the enemies of these Russian values. These states are ‘fascistic’, culturally depraved, overly permissive, and have distain for Russian history and culture. Compatriot policies therefore attempt to prevent the Latvianisation of Russian speakers.
LATVIA’S NATIONAL SPACE
Despite Russia’s efforts, I present evidence that many of Latvia’s Russian speakers do not feel the close political bonds with the Russian Federation that the Kremlin might hope for. At the same time, the messages from the Latvian state paradoxically act to reinforce the unambiguous messages from Moscow. Analysis of Latvia’s media and political spaces shows how Russian speakers are often depicted as more loyal to Moscow than Riga. For example, Russian speakers’ desire to use the Russian language, or consume media from Russia, are taken as evidence of clear political and cultural links with the Russian Federation.
If the Russian state attempts to politicise Russian culture, then the same can be said of the Latvian state. Russian speakers, a majority of whose parents or grandparents arrived in Latvia during the Soviet occupation, are constantly reminded of their illegitimate position in Latvia. Citizenship laws, language policies, political debates and discussions of history all reinforce notions of illegitimacy, and of lack of belonging. The recent introduction of the preamble to the Latvian Constitution is a prime example of this. Here, the ethnic Latvian nation (latviešu nācija) is conceptualised as the central core of the Latvian state. Consequently, there is little space for Russian speakers to find acceptance as legitimate members of the core Latvian nation.
Despite negative pressures from both the Latvian and Russian political spaces, Russian speakers in Latvia have, in fact, been able to carve out hybrid identities that are simultaneously ‘Latvian’ and ‘Russian’. Certain factors remain very important for a majority of Russian speakers, including Russian language and perspectives on history (notably the history of World War II). The evidence suggests that, while a majority of Russian speakers think it is important to learn Latvian, and consider Latvia their home, they do not want to lose their Russian cultural identity. This is why the Russian language remains a key concern for many Russian speakers.
Politically, however, ties with the Russian Federation are relatively weak. Many Russian speakers in Latvia have a sense of cultural superiority over their Russian counterparts, demonstrating pride in their more ‘European’ and ‘civilised’ existence. Russia is also considered by many to be a foreign and strange country. Cultural identification with Russia should therefore not be considered as synonymous with support for President Putin and Russia’s political programmes.
Historical memories represent one of the most complex areas of cultural contention. It is generally accepted that Russian speakers and ethnic Latvians have divergent views of the history of World War II. However, even in this area, Russian speakers show some divergence from Russians in Russia. Young Russian speakers, for example, are increasingly more likely to accept (at least partially) that Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. At the same time, many Russian speakers are keen to stress the positive (liberating) role of the Red Army in the victory over fascism. This demonstrates how many Russian speakers wish to accept narratives and identities from both the Latvian and Russian spaces.
POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
The findings of this research lead to a series of logical policy recommendations. Most importantly, policy-makers need to recognise the complex and hybrid identity positions of the majority of Latvia’s Russian speakers. At the same time, it is very difficult for many Russian speakers to feel accepted as legitimate members of Latvia’s core community. While Latvia is their homeland, policies often create the impression that the Latvian state represents the interests of ethnic Latvians and the ethnic Latvian nation (latviešu nācija).
One way to overcome this would be to depoliticise Russian culture, and to stop viewing Russian language and culture as an inherent threat to Latvian statehood. As evident in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Putin has been keen to portray Russia as the defender of the cultural and political rights of Russian speakers. Russia’s assertive compatriot policies therefore have the potential to link cultural identities with political actions. By showing a more positive attitude towards Russian culture, Latvian state policy could demonstrate a more reciprocal relationship towards Russian speakers.
The Latvian state should therefore highlight positive images of Russian Latvians, i.e. individuals who are comfortable in both the Latvian and Russian cultural environments. Russian Latvians, although diverse, are a group of individuals who are unique to Latvia. By their very nature these people are not pro-Russian because they are Latvian-Russian (or Russian-Latvian). The Latvian element is important here, but so is the Russian aspect of identity. While previous policies have tried to Latvianise Russian speakers, the evidence suggests that this will only work if the state also acknowledges the culturally Russian aspects of their identity.