Reviews Baltic Russians under pressures. A minority with split identities
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3:2016, pp 89-90
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 25, 2016
The author of this book has been likened to Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev, since he shows there is another Russia than that of Stalin and Putin, and to Chekhov, who exposes dilemmas to the reader without solving them.1 A more appropriate and up-to-date comparison can be made with Svetlana Aleksievich, because of Kniivilä’s use of interviews and his empathetic and respectful approach to interviewees of various ages, origins, and professions and to their often touching or dramatic lifestories.
However, there are of course significant differences: Kniivilä asks questions concerning the identity of the Russians living in the three Baltic states, the problems they encounter in daily life, their view of Russia and the West, and how and why they or their parents came to the Baltics. Second, unlike Aleksievich, Kniivilä as a political journalist provides context for the interviews, explaining facts and sometimes arguing with his interlocutors. He describes his trips and the places he visits, thus producing a travelogue that could even be used as a guidebook for ambitious travelers. He visits the cities where the most Russians live, the three capitals and towns in the eastern parts like Narva, Daugavpils, and Visaginas, and Klaipeda.
Kniivilä starts by visiting the Russian-dominated town of Visaginas in eastern Lithuania and the Ignalina nuclear power station nearby. The latter was built from 1975 onwards, intended to be a showcase of Soviet development but it was closed down by Lithuania in 2009 as a condition of EU membership because of the dangerous Chernobyl-type reactors. Kniivilä sees this fate as a symbol for the Soviet Union: a gigantic, ill-conceived project. The book ends with a visit to Lasnamäe, the biggest suburb of Tallinn with over 100,000 inhabitants, most of them Russian-speaking.
Kniivilä clarifies several facts about the over one million so-called Russians living in the Baltics. He shows that they are in fact an ethnically very heterogeneous group, including Ukrainians, Belorusians, Poles, Tatars, and others, with the Russian language as their main defining feature. Many are of mixed origin and have married Balts. Their identities are often split and changeable.
He states that in Estonia and Latvia, where in 1991 the native Balts feared they would become a minority, only those inhabitants who were citizens of the republics in 1940 and their descendants automatically became citizens, while others had to apply for citizenship and prove knowledge of the national language and the constitution. The citizenship laws have since been liberalized as a condition of membership in the EU. In Estonia, about 30 percent of the population are Russian-speakers nowadays (2011). About half of them have become citizens, and one-fourth of them, mostly old people, are non-citizens with aliens’ passports valid in the Schengen area. One-fourth have chosen Russian citizenship instead, which gives them visa-free entry and voting rights in Russia. The Russian-speaking minority in Latvia is a little bigger (34 per cent), but about 14 per cent of the population still lack citizenship and only 1.6 per cent have Russian citizenship.
In Lithuania, by contrast, only 7.2 per cent are Russian-speakers, which partly explains why all inhabitants became citizens on independence. Kniivilä could have added that the Poles, being a little more numerous, constitute a greater problem, since they find it easier to learn Russian, a Slavic language, than Lithuanian and are cooperating with Russian political parties.
Kniivilä shows that the Baltic Russians now want to stay in their countries because they realize that they are better off there than in Russia, where the economy is falling behind. Elderly people who are not citizens look longingly back to Soviet times rather than to the Russia of today. Like the Balts, many Russian-speakers take the opportunity to work in other Schengen countries. Russian-speakers who are citizens can also serve in the border troops and be very useful there, and some have even fought in Afghanistan, on the NATO side this time, as a way to integrate.
However, after being the leading nation in Soviet times, the Baltic Russians are unhappy to be seen as a suspicious minority and as occupiers. Those in Estonia and Latvia would have liked to be granted citizenship automatically as in Lithuania. Kniivilä seems to support this view, even if he also understands the Baltic leaders in view of their 50 years’ experience of Soviet occupation. He states that Russians also suffered under the Soviet system and that today’s Baltic Russians can hardly be blamed for Soviet oppression. Most Balts acquiesced to it in order to survive, and some collaborated. One could even argue that the Balts, too, are among the children and grandchildren of the Soviet Union.
Kniivilä also notes that the Russian-speakers are critical of the Baltic language laws, which prescribe that all official and public material be written in the state language, even in places where Russian is predominant. After a petition list gathered enough signatures for making Russian the second state language in Latvia, a referendum was held in 2012, but the result was negative. The most hated institution among the Russian-speakers in Latvia is the language inspection, which may come at any time and check whether all signs are in Latvian and all employees speak Latvian well enough; otherwise they can be fined.
Kniivilä further pays attention to the Russian-speakers’ opposition to the gradual transition to the state language at Russian schools, for example in Latvia. Some young Russian-speakers prefer to learn English instead of the small national languages and go abroad for higher education. However, most of them understand the need to learn the state language. In Russian-dominated Daugavpils, Kniivilä visits a Russian school, where more than the stipulated 60 per cent of the education is in Latvian, and a pub which remains popular despite its stated policy that every customer must speak Latvian.
Kniivilä also identifies one issue which nowadays tends to bring Balts and Russian-speakers together, namely the European refugee crisis. Despite their own experience from Soviet times, the three governments have strongly opposed the demand of the EU Commission to receive two thousand non-European asylum seekers,. He quotes the once liberal former foreign minister of Estonia, Kristiina Ojuland, who has spoken of a genocide of European peoples and claimed that Sweden and Finland already are living according to Islamic law. As in the rest of Europe, xenophobic and homophobic nationalist parties in the Baltics, otherwise hostile to Russians, have now received backing from the local Russians as well as from Russia.
The greatest obstacle to the integration of the Russian-speakers into their societies, according to Kniivilä, is interference from Russia through the mass media and various organizations.2 He observes that most Russian-speakers watch Russian television, especially the channel aimed at the Baltic states, Pervyi Baltiiskii Kanal, which provides both good entertainment and political propaganda. The Russian media accuse the Baltic governments of discrimination against Russian-speakers and emphasize the common Russian cultural heritage and traditions. They cherish the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, defend the Russian conquest of Crimea in 2014, blame the current war in Donbas on the Ukrainian leadership, and oppose any NATO presence in the Baltic countries. Indeed, many Baltic Russians still celebrate the Soviet Victory Day, May 9, and have sympathy for President Putin. Some activists went to fight for the separatists in Donbas. These issues set the Russian-speakers apart from most Balts, who talk of 50 years of Soviet occupation, support Ukraine against Putin, and call for more NATO presence. Kniivilä notices a growing fear that small groups of Russian activists with support from Russia could wreak havoc and motivate military intervention, as happened in Donbas, which could have worldwide repercussions.
Still, Kniivilä concludes that unless Russia interferes more forcefully and the Baltic governments take strong measures against the Russian-speaking minorities, in which Russia has a strong interest, the overwhelming majority will continue to adapt to and be integrated into their societies. With this hope one can only agree. On the whole, this is a well-written and easily read reportage which provides many current insights into an important topic that also should interest people in neighboring countries with a less turbulent history. ≈
1 Niklas Ekdal, Dagens Nyheter, May 11, 2016.
2 See also Mike Winnerstig (ed.), Tools of Destabilization: Russian Soft Power and Non-military Influence in the Baltic States (Stockholm: Swedish Defense Research Agency [FOI] 2014).