Riga: Language and the City

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Having travelled in other parts of Eastern Europe when younger, I was excited about my first trip to Riga, Latvia, a few months ago. I was not sure exactly what to expect but had an idea that it would feel more developed than other parts of Eastern Europe while still bearing quite some traces of its communist past. The prosperity of the city surprised me – it feels like a wealthy Scandinavian city and, indeed, it has many cultural and business ties to Scandinavia. I did not feel during the course of my week there any hint of a communist inheritance.

I was also curious to see how the ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians co-existed in this Baltic city. Having read up on Riga before my trip, I knew that Riga is about 42% ethnic Latvian and about 42% ethnic Russian, and thus was not surprised to hear quite a lot of Russian spoken in the streets. It did not take me long to find out that there is indeed some antagonism between the two groups.

What I was not prepared for, however, was the complete lack of any signage in Russian. I do not know what the law is there, but it does not appear to consist of having a Latvian sign at least twice as big as a Russian sign. I saw plenty of English signs. Russian was most noticeable for its absence.

I cannot decide if this is a good or a bad thing – the Latvians were unwillingly taken over by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, and their culture almost destroyed. Independence provided them with a precious chance to protect and restore their culture. On the other hand, Russians are, unless they are willing to Latvianise, clearly treated like second class citizens. I met one Russian who used a Latvianised spelling on his business cards, but used his native Russian spelling to sign his e-mails.

I sympathise with both groups and cannot help but compare and contrast the situation in Riga with that in Montreal, which it seems to resemble more greatly than that in other bilingual cities such as Brussels. Is it the difficulty in reconciling the conflicting demands of justice for a minority within a minority?

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This entry was written by Donal Hanley , posted on Monday February 11 2008at 04:02 pm , filed under Demographics, Europe, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Riga: Language and the City”

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Fascinating post on a city I plan to visit later on this year.

    Things in Quebec sound a bit more balanced and cordial than in Latvia. The Anglo domination of Quebec’s economy seems quite far from the insidious Russian domination of Latvia during the Soviet era, unless you go all the way back to the Napoleonic wars. After the 1960s, following the cultural and economic emancipation of French Quebec, the English minority continues to have its own parallel institutions and don’t need to make their names sound more French to be socially acceptable. English is present in the cultural landscape of Quebec, whereas there seems to be an effort to completely obliterate Russian in Latvia.

  • Marek Muiste says:

    The Russians are the biggest minority in Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the reason of that was a total Russianise campaign which take place from 1940th until 1990th (there were also many of those in 19 century). The output of this is the situation which is very difficult to handle in regional, national and European Union level. The language is one aspect and I totally agree on this with you: Russian is not aloud as a official language. This requirement is widely criticized but it’s a fact: not the EU nor the national or regional government are accepting Russian language and I think that there will be no changes in that.

    The other question is that does all that mean like you are saying “Latvianising” and are the Russians treated as a second class people? Here a have to disagree with you. The native Russians have all the rights of a proper citizen (social, cultural, economical, civil etc) and to require that people should be able communicate in official language of the country where they are living in is a common sense not some kind of harassment.

    Maybe I’m not totally objective here, as I’m Estonian and we have similar problem like Latvia. But I really don’t see the injustice here.

  • Lasma says:

    Marek’s is mostly right, and not partial, because he knows, what is he talking about. It is complicated for people from other countries understand the situation, there is no injustice. I’m with you in this. (I’m from Latvia)

    P.S. Latvia is also NOTHERN Europe, not eastern.