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?
Tags: Ethnicity, Language, Riga