The new generation of Baltic Russian speakers

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Agnia Grigas

Agnia Grigas

It is helpful to try to understand the new generation of Russian speaking young adults and their views in order to understand the complexity of the dynamics faced by populations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, writes Agnia Grigas.

Agnia Grigas (Ph.D, Oxford) is the author of The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia (Ashgate 2013) and a forthcoming book on Russian compatriots (Yale University Press 2015). Learn more: ‘This article was first published in EN.DELFI.LT.The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Juljan Jachovic, The interviews were conducted in September and October 2014. 

Since the Russian military incursions into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to protect Russian “compatriots”, some EU member states have been worried. While London has often also been called a Russian city, Moscow seems more intent in protecting its compatriots that reside in Russia’s near abroad; states that were former members of the Soviet Union. Since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have significant Russian and Russian speaking populations this has been much discussed and cited as reasons for concern among the Baltic states and their EU and NATO allies.

Estonia and Latvia have particularly large ethnic Russian minorities, with about 24% and 27% of the general population respectively, while Lithuania’s Russian population falls just under 6%. Percentages of Russian speakers, rather than ethnic Russians, are even higher since other Baltic minorities such as the Polish, Ukrainians, Belarusians, or people of mixed ethnic origin, have often adopted Russian as their primary language. Latvia’s Russian speakers made up nearly 34% of the population, Lithuania’s Russian speakers toted nearly 8%, and Estonia’s about 30%. In all three Baltic states, Russian-speakers are concentrated in capital cities and in territories close to the Russian border. However, the vague and ambiguous term of Russian compatriots, or even Russian speakers, has been little explored, in the Baltic or European context.

To understand the complexity of the dynamics faced by populations of the Baltic states and in fact the EU, it is helpful to try to understand the new generation of Russian speaking young adults and their views.  Russian speakers in the Baltic states are not a uniform group and vary from country to country, from generation to generation, and in their socio-economic environments.

The generation born following the fall of the Soviet Union and after Baltic independence, which is now in their twenties, is important, because they represent the future of Baltic Russian speakers. Certainly they are more integrated into Baltic societies and much more likely to perceive themselves as Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian than their parents or grandparents who had immigrated during the Soviet era. In most cases, members of this younger generation also perceive themselves as European, in addition to Russian. They have often travelled and studied in Europe and see the future of their countries within the European family. As a result, this generation offers nuanced perspectives on their relationship to Russia.

On one hand, young Baltic Russian speakers shun the idea of Moscow’s protection of Russian compatriots along the model of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, some are open to Russian cultural support, or even passports. Having spent their entire lives in the Baltic states, they do not necessarily identify themselves with the Russian state. On the other hand, they do feel that the shortcomings of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian societal integration, and a vacuum for political representation, based on their ethnic identity.

Darya from Riga is an articulate graduate student in Middle Eastern studies, of Russian and Polish descent. Born and raised in Latvia, she considers herself a Russian speaker. However she shies away from the label of “Russian compatriot” because “I have never been to Russia and I don’t know much about Russian culture in particular.” While sceptical of the support Moscow could garner among Latvia’s Russian speakers, Darya suggests that the concept of Latvia’s nation-state is problematic for other ethnicities.

“The biggest problem in my opinion is Latvia’s view of Russian speaking people as “others”. It makes Russian-speaking people feel alienated and unwanted. Another problem is that Latvia might give citizenship to Russian-speaking people, but they can never be called Latvians because Latvia strictly differentiates between citizenship and nationality. My citizenship is Latvian, but [my] nationality can be only Russian or Polish. It shows that the [Latvian] country formed from and for one nation – Latvians, making other ethnic group as “citizens” and not Latvians.”

While arguing that Russian speakers do not need Russia’s protection and the integration issue could be solved domestically, Darya is also supportive of Latvia’s non-citizens acquiring Russian citizenship based on their ethnic ties to the country.

Artiom, a doctoral student from Riga, considers himself a Russian speaker but bristles at the notion of being called Russia’s compatriot.“No, why should I? I’m a Latvian citizen and I don’t think of myself somehow involved in Russian national modeling or political field. Besides, I think, that Russia is rolling into the darkness these days, and I can’t accept on any level their contemporary aggressive national rhetoric.”

To the question of Putin’s protection of Latvia’s Russian speakers, Artiom is adamant. “Protection from what? Gays and freedom from censorship? All enemies of Baltic Russian speakers are imaginary. Russian national rhetoric uses these images to produce divergence in multiethnic societies.”

Like the majority of the Baltic Russian people interviewed, Artiom also believes that separatism is impossible in the Baltic states because it would lack the support of the majority of Baltic Russian speakers and due to Baltic NATO membership. However, Artiom warns, “But it doesn’t mean Russia does not want to increase its political influence in the inner politics of Baltics states through the so-called ‘Russian parties’, which mask pro-Putin beliefs behind the ‘language question’.”

Elena, an Estonian schoolgirl, is also a fine example of the delicate Russian-Estonian demographic melting pot. She emphasises that while her mother tongue is Russian, that does not make her a Russian compatriot. “I was born in Estonia,” she explains. “It is my homeland.” She is sceptical that Russian speakers have genuine grievances in Estonia, and suggests that “people imagine some kind of problems.”

Anton, a 24-year-old Russian speaking student from Tallinn, considers Estonia to be his home. Furthermore, he shuns the notion of being defined as a Russian compatriot. He argues: “I do not consider myself as a compatriot, because apart from the Russian language, nothing ties me with Russia.”

He also added that he has “sworn allegiance to Estonia”. When asked if he thinks that Russian speakers in Estonia have legitimate grievances, he provided a quick and brief response, “What kind of provocative question [is that]… I’m fine.” He wittily added, “The ones who do all the complaining, do not do anything. At school they needed to learn [the Estonian language], but not drink in the alleys.” For those Russian speakers that would say they require Russia’s protection, he provided a short but firm answer suggesting that Russia is only a short train ride away: ”If they think they need Russia’s protection, please…luggage, station, Russia.”

Natalia is a young professional born and raised in Lithuania in a Russian family. Having attended primary education taught in the Russian language and later Lithuanian university, she now works for a multinational company. Natalia admits that today she feels more at ease with English as her second language. Natalia considered carefully the notion of a “Russian compatriot” and concluded that, according to the judicial definition of the term, she is Russia’s compatriot.

However, subjectively or emotionally she has trouble identifying with the label. “Russians who were born and grew up in Lithuania differ a lot from Russia’s Russians. Mostly they are culturally and mentally closer to Lithuanians, even though they perceive themselves as Russians.”

When considering the potential grievances of Russian speakers in Lithuania, Natalia notes, “If we omit the fact that there’s one obviously predominant anti-Russian line in the public sphere that makes you feel uncomfortable if you are Russian, there are no grievances. Some examples of discrimination can be met in the Lithuanian society (eg while searching for a job), however they’re not numerous. As there are no grievances, no [Russian] protection is needed. However some support [from Russia], especially in cultural and educational spheres, would be very useful.”

Pavel, a graduate student in political science, is a perfect example of the complex identities of minorities that are often simplistically grouped as Lithuania’s Russian speakers. From a family of Polish-Ukrainian-Russian ethnic background, Pavel grew up speaking a mix of Russian and Polish at home and in his neighborhood.

However, having attended Lithuanian schools and university, he now feels more at ease in the Lithuanian language and would not consider himself a “Russian speaker.” He also rejects the label of Russia’s compatriot because he feels he has no close ties or affiliation with the Russian state. According to Pavel, Lithuania’s Russian speakers do not face notable grievances: “I see these [allegations of grievances] as more or less political games only. However, I could say, that due to poor teaching of Lithuanian language in Russian schools, most of graduates face discomfort in the universities and labour market.”

He sees no role for Moscow in these perceived or real grievances but rather views it as an “internal problem and even a problem of a minority which does not have a relevant, competent and independent (from Russia) party, which could identify and deal with real grievances.”

At first glance, the picture of the Baltic Russian speaker is not one that lends itself so easily to Moscow’s manipulation. None of those interviewed would call for Russian military protection. Nor do any support separatism, as seen in the Ukraine or Georgia. However, based on Moscow’s definition of compatriots, most Baltic Russian speakers would qualify for Moscow’s protection as outlined in its laws and compatriot policies.

Furthermore, while the Russian speakers tend to generally be ambivalent about Russia’s policies; during times of tensions and crisis, many (especially the older generation) tend to rally behind Moscow. Most Baltic Russian speakers whether young or old (including those interviewed), tend to follow Russian media and are therefore arguably more receptive to Russian point of view and propaganda.

Lastly, the activities of Russian paramilitary and local supporters in eastern Ukraine demonstrated a majority, or even significant percentage of supporters among the Russian-speaking population, is not necessary to facilitate territorial takeovers.

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