Latvia: what the Russians left behind

By Leyla Aliyeva:

A sign in Latvia
A street sign in both the Latvian and Russian languages. Photo by Arseny Samsonov.

Latvia’s history is marked by occupation. Since the 15th century the territory has been controlled by Sweden, Poland, Germany and Russia. It declared independence from Russia in 1918, but was reincorporated into what was then the Soviet Union as a bulwark against Nazi Germany in the early days of the Second World War. The Nazis invaded the fledgling country in 1941, only to be pushed out by the Soviets three years later. It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Latvia could once again proclaim itself an independent state.

Yesterday was Latvian Legion Day, celebrating the day when the Latvian Legion, serving as part of the Nazi Waffen SS, repelled the Soviets in 1944. The commemoration saw Latvian Waffen SS veterans parade through the streets of Riga. This event faces a lot of criticism from Russia and from the international community for honouring Nazism and insulting the victims of its regime. But the Latvian Legion veterans say that they were fighting for Latvia’s freedom from the occupying Soviet power.

In a couple of months, on 9 May, Victory Day in Russia we will also see processions. Russians everywhere, including the substantial ethnic Russian minority living in Latvia, celebrate the end of the WWII on this particular day. Yet for ethnic Latvians, 9 May signifies the start of Soviet rule. These examples show the conflicted relationship that Latvia has with its powerful neighbour Russia. Recent events in Crimea and Ukraine have caused panic in the Latvian media and in political circles, with the government attempting to cut Latvia’s heavy economic dependence on the Russian market by imposing sanctions. This has led to widespread criticism from the Russian side.

Latvia is important because over a quarter of the 2.1 million people living in the country consider Russian to be their mother tongue and have an identity linked to Russia. The events in Ukraine have provoked emotional reactions within Latvian society. Some ethnic Russian representatives feel that minority issues have become more difficult to discuss in this climate.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, 25 million Russians[1] remained in the former USSR territories, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, the Baltic States and more. Other Russian-speaking or ‘russophone’ nationalities also remained. As a result, the Russian-speaking population in Latvia today is its largest linguistic minority. However, the historical background of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia has its origins beyond the period of the USSR.

Russia ruled Latvia in two different periods: with the Russian Empire from the 17th century until 1919; then during the Soviet Union from the end of WWII until 1991. The different regimes facilitated a lot of development and growth in the country: Latvia was one of the top manufacturing and transit countries in both the USSR and the Russian Empire. However, both periods were characterised by ‘russification’ (sometimes known as obrusenie) which focused on enforcing Russian culture in controlled territories and did not allow for a high level of multiculturalism. The proclamation of independence in 1918 had a dramatic impact on Latvian national identity formation, even though the independence lasted for only 22 years.

But Russia was not the only ruling power in Latvia. The control of Latvian territory has shifted from one power to another since the 15th century. Germany, Sweden and the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth competed with each other to acquire the best chunk of Latvian land. These events led to the development of Latvian culture and the creation of the Latvian language. However, it came with a price. The ruling foreign-backed minority became the ruling elite in Latvia, and they put the ethnic Latvian majority into serfdom. These historical events served as a major factor in Latvian identity formation.

In 1991 Latvia restored its independence for the second time after almost 50 years of Soviet rule. Demonstrations by both Latvians and ethnic Russians to exit the Soviet Union had great significance. The 3 March advisory referendum showed that 75% of the total Latvian population strongly supported Latvian independence, which included a large part of the Russian-speaking population. But, unfortunately, the exit from the Soviet Union resulted in a cultural divide between ethnic Latvians and the post-USSR Russian-speaking residents.

This was partly due to Latvia restoring its pre-war citizenship legislation, a policy also followed in the neighbouring country of Estonia. According to the legislation, citizenship for the newly independent state of Latvia was granted to those people and their descendants who held Latvian citizenship in the pre-war period. Citizens of the former Soviet Union and their children rarely qualified for the automatic new citizenship, and thus had to undergo a process of naturalisation in order to get Latvian or Estonian citizenship. This procedure required individuals to demonstrate knowledge of the state constitution, history, national anthem, and pass exams, which tested their proficiency of the official language.

These measures resulted in a large part of the population becoming ‘stateless individuals’ or ‘aliens’, because they did not meet the high level of knowledge of the language, culture and history required for citizenship. Latvian and Estonian naturalisation requirements were repeatedly criticised by the international community as being too demanding and prejudicial. Several times authorities stated that there should be an emphasis placed on analysing the transparency and effectiveness of the work of the language inspectors.

The pattern is more visible in numbers: only 289,000 ethnic Russians have been able to acquire Latvian citizenship, leaving more than 500,000 without citizenship. Over time more former Soviet citizens have gained Latvian citizenship, although the official data in 2006 showed that Russian-speakers accounted for more than 66.5% of Latvia’s non-citizens.[2]

This ‘alien’ status excludes individuals from voting and participating, not only in local and national elections, but also in European elections (Latvia and Estonia became EU Member States in 2004). Such measures exclude Russian-speaking individuals from political affairs. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, former Soviet citizens also had to qualify to undergo the naturalisation procedure.[3] This created an issue, as an estimated 200,000 retired Soviet army officers, former KGB, Soviet Communist Party officials and their families (who were predominantly Russian or Russian-speaking) were excluded from acquiring Latvian citizenship.

The Latvian model of gaining citizenship should be contrasted with the third Baltic state: Lithuania. There a different path was followed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Lithuania implemented the zero-option model of citizenship, which automatically granted Lithuanian citizenship to all permanent residents in the country, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or knowledge of state language. But Lithuania’s different approach was understandable, the result of its larger indigenous population: the 1989 Soviet census demonstrates that Estonia and Latvia had a much lower share of titular population – 62% and 52% respectively – compared to Lithuania, of which 80% of the population were ethnic Lithuanians. Lithuania’s strategy did not put Lithuanian culture and language at risk because it had significantly lower number of Russian-speaking people in the country.

Language education laws in Latvia demonstrate the struggle to reinstate the Latvian language in its diverse population. In 2004 minority schools in Latvia were subject to new legislation, which proposed that minority schools should conduct 40% of its teaching for years 10 to 12 in Latvian; the other 60% could be in a minority language (i.e. Russian). The legislation initially required that only Latvian could be used to teach years 10 to 12, but was amended after protests and demonstrations by Russian-speaking minorities.

To this day Russian is not an official state language in Latvia, despite the significant number of Russian-speakers. In 2012 a Constitutional referendum took place in Latvia on whether to amend the constitution and add Russian as the second official language. Around 75% of voters said “no”. This result was expected, but it is interesting that the voter participation for this referendum was at an all-time high. This shows that cultural and linguistic concerns are amongst the most important issues in Latvia.

In terms of politics, in the 2011 Latvian elections the social-democratic party ‘Harmony Centre’ won the largest support from the voters, thereby gaining the majority of the seats in Saeima (Latvian Parliament). Harmony Centre is the only party with a focus on improving the conditions of the Russian-speaking minority. But despite its large support, the party has been excluded from the coalition government because of the suspicion that it is funded by the Russian authorities and represents pro-Russian interests.

Regardless of the fact that the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia have had a long history in the region[4], the recognition and integration of the Russian minority culture into Latvian social and political life has been inadequate. One could argue that this attitude is some sort of a ‘payback’ for all of Russia’s historic “wrongdoings”, or that it is motivated by the fear in Latvia of cultural and linguistic extinction of the titular nation. Whatever the case, these attitudes have led to prejudicial measures against ethnic Russians. Recent events in Crimea and Ukraine have only served to exacerbate the fears of ethnic Latvians. But continuing its prejudicial policies may encourage the Russian minority population in Latvia to turn towards Putin and his policy of ‘protecting’ Russians, wherever they might be.

Now it is essential to recognise the conflicted history between the ethnic Latvian and Russian populations in Latvia, but not be beholden to that history. Instead, we should focus on a careful implementation of the concept of national unity and the recognition of inter-ethnic relations, which may guide the Latvian population to a more integrated and interconnected society.

Leyla Aliyeva studied International Politics at Middlesex University and is currently an LLM student at the same university. Her particular focus is on post-USSR and Eastern European  countries with a specific focus on human rights and minority rights. She also worked at the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre as an intern and worked on serious human rights violations in former Soviet states. 


[1] In this article I define Russians as those who either have ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties with Russia, because of the difficulty in identifying ethnic Russians after decades of mixed marriages and integration. The reasons for why someone is Russian-speaking is not important – be it due to the Rusification program or though cultural ties; what matters is that they identify themselves as Russian.

[2] Minority Rights Group, ‘World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People : Latvia’ ( ) <> accessed 13 January 2015

[3] Bridget Anderson, World Directory of Minorities (1st ed,Minority Rights Group International,1997) 226

[4] Minority Rights Group, ‘World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People : Latvia’ ( ) <> accessed 13 January 2015

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