Everyone here has their own trauma. Latvians and “their” Russians are divided by the war in Ukraine

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Signs are everywhere in Latvian, but when people speak on the streets, in shops or restaurants, it is mostly Russian. Welcome to Daugavpils, the second largest city of Latvia located in the south-east of the country.

Daugavpils (from our special correspondent) – There are no exact statistics, but roughly two-thirds of the locals use Russian as their first language. However, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Latvian government passed a law that will end teaching in Russian in all schools from September 2025, it will be only in Latvian. And everyone who lives in the country must take an exam in the state language, the only exception is for people over seventy-five years old.

Many ethnic Russians, who make up about a quarter of Latvia’s population, don’t like it. Among them is Natalja Kožanová, who heads the House of Russian Culture in Daugavpils. Its aim is to preserve awareness of Russian artists in the city’s history and to promote contemporary Russian culture. That is, the culture of Russians who are at home in Latvia. “I am originally a Russian teacher by profession, so it is probably clear what I think about the new law. All Russian teachers are undergoing retraining, looking for other jobs and other employment,” says Kožanová.

Director of the House of Russian Culture in Daugavpils Natalja Kožanová with photos of her great-grandparents. They were among the Old Believers persecuted in Tsarist Russia. | Photo: Martin Novák

He adds that of course he knows Latvian, because otherwise it is practically impossible to apply for a job.

He emphasizes that he does not come from a wave of Russian-speaking people who settled in Latvia during the Soviet era and came here to work in industry. “My ancestors belonged to the so-called Old Believers. Believers of the Russian Orthodox Church who rejected the reforms of the late seventeenth century and were threatened with persecution. Many went to Latvia, which did not belong to the Russian Empire at the time. The Old Believers were persecuted in Russia and then also in the times of the Soviet Union. They had we have icons at home, but we weren’t allowed to show them,” he says.

Russian aggression against Ukraine, which Moscow unleashed the year before last February, has further exacerbated the traditionally tense relations between Latvians and ethnic Russians. The Latvian government is among the biggest supporters of Ukraine in Europe, as Latvians fear that their country may be the next target of an invasion by the Russian military. At the same time, the head of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, uses national problems in the Baltics for propaganda purposes. He has repeatedly claimed that the Russian minority there faces discrimination, which he says is a great shame.

Unpleasant situations sometimes arise even with a doctor. Older ethnic Russian patients do not understand Latvian well, while younger Latvian doctors who grew up and studied already in the post-Soviet period of independence do not know Russian.

Kožanova does not want to talk too much about the war in Ukraine and its effect on Latvia and the situation of local Russians. He convinces the reporter that he has no ties to Russia. “The Daugavpils town hall and the Ministry of Culture contribute to us. We do not receive any money from Russia. There was a so-called House of Moscow in Riga, which was financed by the Moscow town hall. The government decided to close it,” Kožanová describes.

The director of the Daugavpils Theater, Oleg Shapošnikov, feels at home in both Latvian and Russian culture. In his office, he says that he grew up in a Russian-speaking environment, but he speaks Latvian well and considers himself both Latvian and Russian. “In the theater before, the cast was divided into those who played in Russian and Latvian. Now we play in both languages. We also do Shakespeare in the English original,” smiles the director, who was born in Riga.

The director and director of the Daugavpils Theater, Oleg Shaposhnikov, describes himself as being at home in both Russian and Latvian culture. | Photo: Martin Novák

He admits, however, that there has been tension in Latvia since long before the war in Ukraine began. “Everyone has their own trauma. Latvians have fixed in their historical memory the horrors of the Soviet occupation. Executions, deportation of families to Siberia. Many would like Latvia to be somehow completely cleansed of Russian influence, even though it has never been an ethnically and culturally homogeneous country. Russians speaking residents, on the other hand, feel that they are second-class citizens. The result is mutual misunderstanding and mistrust,” explains the director.

Moats are also known in politics. The Russian investigative portal The Insider wrote at the end of January that the Latvian MEP of Russian origin Tatjana Ždanokova had been reporting to the Federal and Security Service (FSB) for years. As a politician, she openly advocated cooperation with Moscow and the withdrawal of the Baltic countries from NATO.

Last year, the Friedrich Ebert Latvian Foundation published a poll showing that 78 percent of Latvians who speak Latvian as their first language support Ukraine in the war. However, it is only 27 percent among Latvian Russians.

Daugavpils is located in the south-west of Latvia. Many Russians came here to work in industry during the Soviet Union.

Daugavpils is located in the south-west of Latvia. Many Russians came here to work in industry during the Soviet Union. | Photo: Martin Novák

The article is in Czech

Tags: trauma Latvians Russians divided war Ukraine

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