Russians Again Foreigners in Latvia

Los Angeles Times
MAy 1 2004

Russians Again Foreigners in Latvia

As the Baltic state begins its integration with the West, resentment
of the past empire surfaces to close many doors to longtime residents.

By Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writer

RIGA, Latvia – Viktor Dergunov has lived in this graceful old city of
church spires and cobblestone streets since 1961, when the Soviet army
dispatched his father to this tiny Baltic republic that once formed
the forbidding edge of the Iron Curtain.

Over the decades, the Russian family came to see Latvia as their
home. Dergunov met and married Yelena, who was born in Riga. So were
their children and, last year, a granddaughter. But when Latvia
entered the European Union today along with nine other nations,
Dergunov and his family did not join other Latvians as new EU

Their Latvian passports are marked “alien.” They will not be able to
travel through the rest of Europe, at least for the next few years,
without obtaining a visa. There are limits on the jobs they can hold
and the property they can own. They cannot vote, although a Spaniard
who establishes residence here is now eligible, as an EU citizen, to
vote in municipal elections.

When Dergunov, a 53-year-old anesthesiologist, was asked about
Latvia’s decision to join the European Union, he was blunt. “I can say
one thing: They didn’t ask us. We didn’t take part.”

The hundreds of thousands of Russians still living in Latvia, Estonia
and Lithuania 13 years after independence are among the most visible
reminders of the stunning transformation of the post-Cold War
landscape. In recently joining NATO as well as the EU, republics that
once were part of the Soviet Union are for the first time becoming
members of an alliance that for years was Russia’s sworn enemy.

In the Baltics, the Iron Curtain’s fault line still looms large. The
region carries the footprints of Hitler and Stalin’s armies, of five
decades of Soviet rule, of a grass-roots independence movement that
helped close the book on Russian dreams of enduring empire. In Latvia,
with half as many Russians as ethnic Latvians, there is little chance
of agreement on which is the greater cause for regret.

“To the majority of the Russian people, Latvia is something that was
ours and got away,” said Karlis Kaukshts, vice rector of the Baltic
Russian Institute. “It’s like an unfaithful husband.”

For Latvians, NATO membership represents security for a nation that
was subjected to Nazi and Soviet occupation. The tiny nation lost more
than half a million people to death, deportation and flight during
World War II, including more than 90,000 Latvians, Jews and Gypsies
who were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

Thousands more were deported to Siberian gulag camps after the war.

“It seemed peculiarly appropriate after the removal of the Iron
Curtain, and the whole of Eastern Europe finally being free of this
tyranny, to join a community of nations that had been totally
expanding, and at every wave of expansion had gained in strength,
gained in effectiveness and had shown visible benefits to every
country that had joined,” President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said in an

Moscow has watched the Baltics defecting to the West with
ill-concealed anxiety. When NATO F-16s began patrolling Baltic
airspace last month, a Russian jet illegally probed the edges of
Estonian airspace. Six Russian diplomats have been expelled from the
Baltics for alleged espionage since February, and Moscow has

The greatest uproar occurred in March, when Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky,
the flamboyant Russian nationalist politician, predicted that NATO and
Russia would come to apocalyptic blows in the Baltics.

“Hatred of the Russians is pushing the Baltics into the paws of NATO,
and this puts them on the brink of death,” Zhirinovsky said. “The
conflict between NATO and Russia will be in the territory of the
Baltics. We will not be bombing Brussels. We will bomb Vilnius, Riga
and Tallinn.”

Leaders in those Baltic capitals issued furious protests.

“This is the head of a party who represents, what, 15% of Russian
voters? This is the vice speaker of their Duma. Make your own
conclusions,” Vike-Freiberga said. “What do you call it if someone
says they’re going to wipe you off the face of the Earth?”

The U.S. ambassador to Latvia, Brian E. Carlson, said there is no talk
of NATO bases in the Baltics. Yet he declined to downplay the fears
that drove Latvia into NATO’s embrace.

“The face of Russia seen up close is maybe not as benign as it looks
from a distance away,” he said. “People who are living here have
memories. Russia has marched into these countries before, and the idea
that people like Zhirinovsky are looking for an invitation to reoccupy
these countries to them is not that farfetched.”

Russia’s ambassador to Latvia, Igor Studennikov, said Russia “presents
no threat” to the Baltics. “We are proceeding from the assumption that
every country is entitled to join the alliances it wants,” he said.
“But we doubt it will enhance security in the region…. Humankind is
now faced with new kinds of threats – terrorism, illegal transborder
migration, drug trafficking – and these alliances do not protect
anyone from these threats.”

Many Russians in Latvia, like ethnic Latvians, opposed the Soviet
state and demonstrated for independence beside them in the streets of
Riga. They felt cheated after Latvia granted automatic citizenship
only to those who were citizens before Soviet occupation in 1940 and
to their descendants. For naturalization, residents must pass a test
on Latvia’s history and language, which many Russians see as an

“We grew up here. Our children grew up here. We buried our relatives
here. I’ve paid taxes. Do I really need to pass a test for that?”
Dergunov said. “Does the state really need this moment of palpable
humiliation to forgive me my origin?”

Conservative politicians have argued that Russians who do not wish to
learn Latvia’s language and history don’t belong.

“Most of the Russian people in Latvia are children or grandchildren of
the occupiers and colonizers of our homeland who invaded our country
in 1940…. After the war was over, their army was supposed to go
away, but they stayed,” said legislator Peter Tabunas, a member of the
nationalist Fatherland and Freedom faction.

“We made a very big mistake by going the long way of compromises with
them,” he added. “If they were really discriminated against, if they
really thought their life was so bad here, they’d be going back to
Russia. But they’re not.”

With EU membership likely to bring an influx of entrepreneurs lured by
Latvia’s low wages and prices, many Latvians see the preservation of
their language as a matter of national survival. The population is
dwindling at the rate of 1,000 a month – Latvia has the lowest
birthrate in Europe – and for many it is worrying that Russian is the
mother tongue of nearly 40% of the people.

Vike-Freiberga, who spent many years working as a psychologist in
Canada before returning to Latvia in 1998, began to understand the
problem when she went to a clinic for a vaccination.

“You arrive at the clinic speaking Latvian, in a country where Latvian
is the official language, and you find that nobody can answer you,”
she recalled. “It can be very distressing. And I think it could be
even more distressing for a Latvian to call up the fire station to say
there’s a fire, and be told, ‘Chto?’ ” – Russian for “What?”

Lawmakers ignited a firestorm in 1998 when they called for public
schools to teach only in Latvian. About 80,000 Russian-speaking
children attend school in Latvia, many at state-funded
Russian-language schools. Public universities already conduct all
instruction in Latvian.

Furious Russian teachers and parents appealed to the EU, arguing that
the move was an affront to European human rights standards. Latvian
officials compromised, backing regulations that will require secondary
schools to conduct at least 60% of their instruction in Latvian
beginning in September.

Karina Rodionova, a native of Armenia who met her Latvian husband
while attending college in Riga, sent her 14-year-old daughter,
Ruzanna, to a Latvian school for the first time last September. But
Ruzanna began failing all her classes and said the teachers refused to

“Geography was a total humiliation,” the girl said. “The teacher
turned to me, looked me in the eye, and she said … ‘If Russians want
their education in Russian, why don’t they go the hell back to
Russia?’ All the children turned their heads. They were not laughing,
but they were looking at me. I rushed to the bathroom and cried.”

Rodionova scheduled a meeting with her daughter’s Latvian literature
teacher, who Rodionova said had repeatedly castigated the girl in
front of the class for being “stupid.”

The teacher spoke in Latvian. Rodionova speaks Russian, Armenian and
Georgian fluently but has never learned Latvian. ” ‘What’s the matter,
don’t you speak Latvian?’ ” Rodionova recalled the teacher asking. “I
said no. And she continued speaking in Latvian, even though she is
completely able to speak Russian. That’s the moment I began to
understand everything.”

Such stories are relatively rare in a country that has been
multiethnic through much of its history. The school debate has been
more political than personal, and in cities such as Riga, residents
seem to slide between the languages with little thought.

“I think it’s abnormal if a person is living here for 13 years and
can’t learn one language on an elementary level,” said Janis Olups, a
26-year-old waiter.

“But I think we young people, to continue to live a normal life, we
have to forget about the past. We should live in one nation. Because
we cannot resolve problems that were created by Stalin and Hitler.”

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.