Latvian Letter

Dear Ksenia,

My name is Liva; I come from Latvia - your neighbouring country. I have positive expectations of everyone, no matter what their nationality, but when collecting information to write you a letter, I realised that not everyone has the same attitude as me. Mostly people say: "I don't like Russians." That's why I decided to explain in my letter the dislike felt by most Latvians, rather than simply to share my own feelings.

Our negative attitude towards each other originates from differing interpretations of history and from a lack of communication.

People aged 60 and above think that Russians are bad people and very nationalistic. My grandparents were born in Latvia, in a free, sovereign, independent country. They remember a sunny childhood when people lived in abundance, in peace. The economy was growing. Export was higher than import. The level of educated people was one of the highest in Europe.

Liva Dzene

is a first-year student of Industrial Chemistry Studies at Riga Technical University. She won the Latvian history competition "History around us" with the competition topic "Monument". As a winner of a national history competition, Liva participated in a summer academy of EUSTORY - History Network for Young Europeans. In her free-time, Liva is active in a Francophone association and works for a stone restoration and conservation laboratory.

However, it was all ruined by WW II when the USSR occupied Latvia. The two big deportations to Siberia in 1941 and 1949 were a tragedy for the Latvian nation. Large numbers of Russian-speaking people settled on Latvian territory. Moreover, the USSR pushed for denationalization. Older Russians still insist on using their native language everywhere, just as they did in the USSR. Some Latvians behave very negatively towards Russians because of the deportations and the fact that they were forced to speak another language, to accept a foreign government which ignored human rights.

My parents don't have any particular opinion about Russians. They see them as the same as everybody else. My mother even says that our Russian neighbours are warm-hearted, sincere and open-minded. I agree with her. My parents grew up in the Soviet Union, so they have much in common with all nations previously annexed by the USSR. Most people in Latvia speak Russian and this facilitates communication. Many have watched the same films - Adventures of Shuric, Arm of Briliants, 4 Tankers and a Dog and so on. They smile when they remember cartoons like Ну, пагади! and Musicians of Bremen. They studied Russian literature and history. They are not fluent in European, Ancient and Recent History as they were not taught these subjects at school. However, knowledge of Pushkin's and Yesenin's poems, Dostoyevsky's and Tolstoy's novels is common. Although there were political problems, censorship and shortage of goods, culture united people all around the USSR, and it has still an impact nowadays.

Finally, the last reply was provided by my younger brother, who said that Russians aren't good. He was born after 1990, when the USSR ceased to exist. He doesn't know Ну, пагади!, Anna Karenina, nor does he speak Russian. Meanwhile there are still many young people in Latvia for whom Russian is the native language, the language of their parents. They go to Russian schools, they listen to Russian music, and they watch Russian TV broadcasts. These two parts of the young generation are not connected to each other at all: culturally and socially they live separate lives.

However, slowly, the situation is changing, as a result of school reforms  which stipulated that in foreign language schools, 60 % of material must be taught in Latvian. There were many protests from Russian-speaking society, but now Russians are in a better situation after graduating from high school because they know both Latvian and Russian very well, while Latvian children know only Latvian. The linguistic and cultural barrier holds back communication between Russians and Latvians and creates negative stereotypes.

I believe that after some time we will overcome the dark periods of our history and our relationship will improve. We will judge each other not according to nationality but on personal character, as happens between people everywhere around the world, and in Isabelle Eberhardt's words "The farther behind I leave the past, the closer I am to forging my own character."

Yours sincerely,
Liva Dzene

Russian Answer

Dear Liva,

Many thanks for your letter. During the 3rd EUSTORY Young Adults' Academy in 2003 I was in Latvia. Almost 5 years have passed since then but the fascinating Riga side-streets are in my mind till now. I took a long, calm walk through the city and thought about our complicated past and our no less complex present. On the same day our international group had visited the Museum of Occupation in the centre of Riga.

On the way there it occurred to me that the museum was devoted mostly to the events of WWII. But like thousands of Russian students I bound up the term "occupation" primarily with Nazi Germany. Imagine how surprised I was when I realized that the exhibition told not only about the Nazis, but also about the Soviet occupation. It was a very strange feeling similar to psychological shock. Although we study a treaty of non-aggression (more famous as the "Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact") at school, I had never started thinking about how the history of the twentieth century and Soviet politics were perceived by Latvian people. From today's perspective I see that it was a turning point in my consciousness. History gained a great number of senses and facets. And I saw my own perspective on it: do not blame, do not acquit, but comprehend. Since that time I try to look at the situation from different points of view before drawing conclusions. So my journey to Latvia was an impulse to rethink my approach to history.

Ksenia Sredniak

is a post-graduate student at Volgograd State University. She studies history, focussing on the third wave of Russian emigration in the 1970s. Ksenia took part in the Russian History Competition "A Man in History. Russia - The XX-th Century" in 2002. For her work about her great-grandfather,  the organiser MEMORIAL awarded her the third prize. She is an alumnus of EUSTORY - History Network for Young Europeans.

Liva, you wrote about a lack of communication. I absolutely agree with you. And what is more, there is a distorting mirror through which we get information about each other. I mean a play on stereotypes - it seems to be employed in both our countries. We prefer to see only oppositions, although we have quite a few likenesses, don't we? For example, you wrote about thousands of Latvians who were sent to Siberia. As a young Russian I want to know about it and I also want other Russian students to learn about it. On the other hand, I'd like young Latvian people to read about the thousands of Russian people in the GULAG - they were sent there during Stalin's repressions in the 1930s. It doesn't mean that we should represent all Latvians and Russians as victims - that would be the wrong approach. But it is necessary to discuss in both our countries how it was possible that two people could divide Europe like a big pie and that the world kept silent, that most intelligent people were in Siberia and thousands of other people were happy that they were not there...

Last year I took part in school project. It focussed on the way in which people learn about World War II and the Cold War in the Czech Republic, Russia and Germany. As you know, the Czech people have a burdensome experience of interaction with the USSR too. And during the project we saw that to date, perceived enmity between Russians and Germans has been overcome, but that it still existed between Czechs and Russians. I think there is the same situation (to an even greater degree) between Latvia and Russia. And the only way to change it is through dialogue - but not at an ambassador, minister level. I see it as a keen, lively discussion between young people, in which everybody has the possibility to speak and to be heard.

Yours sincerely,
Ksenia Sredniak


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