Mari-Ann Herloff Mortensen. Distributed by www.AnthroBase.com.
In "transitional" Eastern Europe, ethnic and national identity are intimately tied to the restructuring of the relations of power. Usually the problem is one of exclusion or inclusion of certain segments of the population into political and economical life. In the case of Latvia, most observers emphasize the necessity of integrating the sizable Russian minority - 34% of the total population - into the new Latvian state. The Latvians themselves try to limit Russian influence, and the situation appears to be another example of a traditional ethnic conflict: the majority dominating a minority within a multiethnic state.
In such conflicts, the distinction between
members and non-members of the nation is usually made via the category of citizenship.
This is also the case in Latvia, and the criteria for citizenship set by the
new state is a prominent subject of discussion by both local and international
experts alike. These discussions operate on the implicit assumption that the
official divide between "Latvians" and "Others" exists solely between those
who have Latvian citizenship and those who have not, i.e., that all who are
citizens are real Latvians. Little attention is paid to the categorizing practices
among the ethnic Latvian population itself. It is these practices that demonstrate
that gaining the rights associated with citizenship does not in itself make
one an accepted member of the ethnic group or nation.
This paper will argue that the ethnic identity problems of Latvia do not lie solely in the realm of Latvian-Russian relations or in the question of citizenship, but are also tied to intra-ethnic divides among the Latvians themselves. In this way, the present study extends the traditional perspective on ethnic boundaries by concentrating on what might be called intra-ethnic categories of identification, more concretely, it challenges the notion that the only problematic categorical divides in present Latvian society is between citizens/non-citizens or Latvians /Russians.
My focus will be on the discourse of authentic versus partial Latvians, as it is articulated by three groups within present Latvian society: (1) the local Latvians, (2) returned Latvian exiles from the West and (3) Latvian deportees returning from the former Soviet Union. My argument will begin by describing the historical background for the fragmentation of the Latvian population into the three mentioned groups. I will then analyze the intra-ethnic relation between the groups by looking at the negotiations of identity taking place among them. Finally, these negotiations will be related to the larger context of Latvian transitional society.
The data is based on 3 months of fieldwork
in Riga during 1995, data which will enter into my MA thesis.
Latvia and the Latvians
Latvia's history has been linked to the domination of the two great Others of Latvian historical consciousness, Germany and Russia. As an independent nation-state, Latvia was born only during The First Republic (1918-1940). Nevertheless, the notion of a historically unified Latvian people or nation has been central in the restructuring process following the post-Soviet independence, as the existence of a Latvian Volk is the pillar from which is constructed an ethnocratic Latvian state.
After being absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1944, Latvian society experienced several waves of migration: an immigration of approximately 700.000 Soviet citizens, largely Russians; and the deportation of an estimated 150.000 Latvians to Russia. Finally, 240.000 ethnic Latvians escaped to the West to avoid the same deportations, and a large number were killed during World War II (Williams, 1992, Statistical Yearbook of Latvia 1994). These figures are discussed with great vigor in present Latvian attempts to re-construct national history, a debate which will not be described in detail here. In 1994, the Latvians were almost outnumbered by non-Latvians: the balance resting at 54% Latvians and 46% non-Latvians. Latvian historians call this a national catastrophe .
As Latvia gained independence in 1991, one
of the main problems to be faced became that of "turning the demographical tide"
and ensure a growing number of ethnic Latvians living on Latvian territory.
Apart from generally praying for an increasing Latvian birth-rate and a Russian
exodus, the return of the Latvians living abroad was seen by those feeling pressured
by the Russian presence as a means of preventing the ethnic minoritization of
the Latvians in Latvia.
During our interviews and informal conversations, the Latvians divided themselves into three separate categories: (1) "Local Latvians" , "Latvian Latvians" or "Latvians from here" (vieteije latviesi, Latvijas latviesi, latviesi no sejienes) and, (2) Western Latvians, who are mainly returnees from the U.S.A., Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and Sweden. The local Latvians call these people "exileLatvians", "American Latvians", "emigrants" or "Latvians from there" (trimdas latviesi, Amerikas latviesi, emigranti or latviesi no turienes). The Western Latvians call themselves "the free world Latvians" (brivas pasaules latviesi). The final category is (3) Eastern Latvians returning from the former Soviet republics, predominantly from Russia. By the locals these are called "Russia's Latvians" (austrumu or Krievijas latviesi ).
The 'Western Latvians' escaped the country during and immediately after World War II. The life histories of a number of these former exiles or their descendants resemble those told by refugees all over the world: the sudden uprooting of whole lives and families; the leaving behind of relatives and friends in the midst of war and chaos; the immediate loss of social and material status; insecurity concerning the future; and the pain and sorrow of leaving one's homeland. Most of these Latvians were gathered in Displaced Person's (DP) camps, mainly in Germany and Belgium, for periods lasting up to 8 years (1944/45- 1949/52. Karklis, Streips & Streips, 1974). The stories told about life in these camps are quite varied. Some informants talk of the suffering and humiliation of living together with thousands of other refugees, the scarcity of food and other necessities, and the overall sense of losing personal dignity. Others emphasize that the refugees were mainly well-educated, middle class intellectuals, who more or less immediately got the camps organized and functioning. One interviewee, Gorbatchev , a 31-year old American Latvian, recalls how his parents and grandparents described their stay in a DP camp in postwar Germany:
There were hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over the place, who had ended up in Germany - in the American zone. It was huge...basically a transplanted Latvia, over 100.000 Latvians. They had their own publishing house. Apparently it was very difficult although...the people who left were basically the cream of the crop, all the cultural and political elite, so they made their own publishing house, theaters, choirs and so on.
The notion of being the cream of the crop , the intelligentsia, is frequently repeated in the stories told to me by the Western Latvians.
From the DP camps, the Latvians scattered all over the world in more or less random fashion. What characterized the Western Latvian diasporas was their high degree of social organization. From the very beginning, the preservation of Latvian culture was regarded as imperative. The networks created in the West had as their centers the Latvian Lutheran Churches, through which were organized Latvian Sunday-schools (Svetdienas skolas), choirs and Latvian summer camps (Vasaras nometnes). All the Western Latvians I interviewed have celebrated Latvian Christmas (Ziemassvetki), Easter (Lieldienas), Midsummer-festival (Jani), etc. Among the younger generation, some have attended the Latvian Gymnasium in Münster, Germany, and others the Latvian College at Western Michigan University, U.S.A. The extent to which the Western Latvians have worked to establish Latvian communities cannot be discussed in detail in the present context, but the existence of such networks have certainly been a major factor in communicating and reproducing a collective Latvian diasporic identity.
The majority of the Western Latvians maintain dual citizenship of Latvia and that of their host country. They seldom express any wish to renounce their Western citizenship in order to become members of only one nation. Most of them say, that if ever forced to choose, they would give up their Latvian citizenship.
The Eastern Latvians' narratives focus on being brutally woken up in the middle of the night by the KGB; on the splitting of families; on tales of thousands of kilometers of long, horrible train-rides squeezed into cattle-cars, on repeated humiliations and dreadful experiences in the Soviet prison camps. The deportees generally talk of facing a hostile environment: The harsh tundras of Siberia, the prison conditions and struggles with the local authorities (Williams: 1992).
Both the Western and the Eastern Latvians adapted to their surroundings over the years, although the Eastern Latvians experienced difficulties in preserving themselves as an ethnic group: they did not have the opportunities to organize themselves to the degree characteristic of the Western Latvians. Eastern deportees often lived isolated from other Latvians, and their position in Stalin's U.S.S.R. was under a cloud. The Latvians had been accused of collaboration with Nazi Germany, which often made explicit signs of ethnic affiliation hazardous. Furthermore, the Eastern Latvians often lacked the possibility to speak their native language. As the years passed, many of the deportees married Russians or other non-Latvians and in this process changed their surnames in order not to be too conspicuously Latvian.
Only about half of my Eastern Latvian informants have Latvian citizenship. The main hurdles they face in order to obtain citizenship are their lack of language-skills or lack of sufficient documentation of Latvian descent.
We Are Not One
The process of restructuring the social and politico-economic fields of Latvia, basically on a conception of the nation-state dominated by the titular ethnic group, has spurred desire for ethnic unity : a sense of same-ness, of shared value-systems, of a common and essentially undisputed perception of ancestry and history, of an ethnic identity on which the legitimacy of the nation-state rests safely. This need is explicit in several areas of Latvian community life: in political narratives, in public and private discussions about true Latvian identity, in newspaper and magazine articles about the primordialism of Latvian traditions and culture , in relations between the Latvians and the Russian minority in Latvia, and in the intra-ethnic relations among the Eastern, Western and local Latvians. It is the latter field that will be described here.
As the diasporic Latvians return, reality seems to conflict with the dream of a Latvian Volk with a single ethnic and cultural identity. Most Western Latvians are sure that they themselves are Latvians. The Eastern Latvians regard themselves as Latvians. And of course, so do the locals. The problem is that the three groups do not share the criteria or codes with which they identify others and selves as members of the Latvian ethnic group (Borneman, 1991).
Conflicting Codes of Ethnic membership
Being Latvian means living on the territory defined as the residence of the Latvian ethnic group . This definition is heard mostly from the local Latvians who are born and raised on Latvian territory. What is emphasized here is jus soli: the right of the land, the right of the inhabitants of a territory to claim it as theirs and to make it the homeland of the nation defined by them as such. Ethnic identity is regarded as being shaped by the historical habitat of the ethnic community, and in the eyes of the local Latvians, as the non-resident Latvians lose the sense of the land , they lose the very locus of their - Latvian - identity. My hostess, Anna , a 70-year-old Latvian woman, explains her views:
Latvia might be the fatherland ('Tevzeme') of these people [the Western Latvians] but it is not their homeland ('Dzimtene'). It is not where they are born and have lived. It is the homeland of their forefathers! It is not the same, and when you [i.e. they] are born in America, that is your homeland, and that makes you an American. That is where you belong. Not in Latvia.
Kolja , a 24-years-old local Latvian man, says: "Well, we can't say anything They are Latvians, or so-called Latvians. But in their nature they are not Latvian anymore.
The view of many local Latvians with whom I have spoken is that a given culture is located . If you move away from a cultural territory for a given period, you are no longer a natural member of that culture. Obviously, Eastern or Western Latvians have difficulty using the territorial criteria for evaluating Latvian ethnic membership. They regard themselves as Latvian, although they have been living outside Latvian territory almost all their lives. What is essential to them is the fact that they are of Latvian origin., that they have Latvian blood in their veins. They are affiliated to the nation, and their ethnic membership is defined by this affinity. They claim the right of the blood , 'jus sanguinis'. Of course, the local or native Latvians also claim this right, but the diasporas have only this criteria for evaluating their own membership of the Latvian ethnic nation.
In most writings on national and ethno-cultural identity, the notion of common descent is central as a form of self-ascription by which people regard themselves as members of a specific ethnic group or nation. In the Latvian case, ethnic affiliation is the subject of negotiation: the locals tend to discredit the Latvian descent of the Eastern and Western Latvians and hence their membership in the Latvian ethnic group. If you can prove that you are of Latvian descent, you receive Latvian citizenship, but that does not necessarily make you a Latvian! Vackins , a 20-years-old local Latvian man, express the dilemma as follows:
It is the same with the Eastern Latvians. They have Latvian parents, but we can't say that they are Latvians. We can't be certain that they are. You have to live here and see what is going on and what is happening. Then you can understand.
The family and the continuity of the blood is repeatedly emphasized by the foreign Latvians, even if they haven't set foot on Latvian soil before 1991. Solvita , a 42-year-old American-Latvian woman, responds to the question: Do you have any sense of belonging here? :
Oh, certainly! It's the language, it's the relatives, the belonging has to do with relatives. I don't even have that close a contact with my relatives, I have a couple of cousins here, whom I haven't been seeing because I don't have any relationship with them.... But the sense of belonging...it almost has to do with just knowing that my parents and grandparents have grown up here.
The Eastern Latvians have serious bureaucratic problems when it comes to proving their Latvian ancestry and affinity. Many of the Eastern Latvians who were born in Russia or married Russians chose Russian as the ethnic designation in their passports in order to improve their and their children's opportunities in Russia. The local Latvians often express skepticism, when it comes to the claimed affinity of the Eastern Latvians with the Latvian nation: The attitude toward the Western Latvians is better than the attitude toward the Eastern Latvians, who are considered mostly as Russians , says my local informant Vackins.
Fields of Differentiation: Cultural Capital and Language Proficiency
It's not just the accent, they are absolutely different people. . They have become accustomed to different things, to other ways of living (Vackins).
It is obvious, that since the three groups described here have been living in completely different environments, they have acted within totally different social and cultural fields. The Eastern Latvians have lived as isolated households among Russians (or Ukrainians, Byelorussians, etc.) , while the Western Latvians have been integrated into American, Australian, German or other Western societies. The different behavioral traits of the Eastern and Western groups are sometimes used by local Latvians to emphasize that the foreign Latvians are exactly that: foreigners!
In response the Western and Eastern Latvians reassert their claim that they have preserved Latvian culture which in their view is to a large extent inherent in customs, traditions and folklore. The more culturally conscious Western Latvians claim that present-day Latvian culture is not the real thing . It is a Soviet culture pervaded by a habitus of bureaucracy , suspicion and general passivity, cultural traits very unlike their memories or perceptions of ways of the Old Country. The most nationalistically-minded Western Latvians sometimes insinuate that the locals have allowed the old traditions to be diluted and destroyed. Latvian culture has, in other words, been contaminated through contact with the Soviet culture.
Language is the most important national symbol in Latvia. It 'proves' that the Latvians are an ethnic group, a nation with a common language. As language has played a major role in re-Latvianizing Latvia, it is a heavily politicized subject, and inability to speak Latvian is one of the primary criteria for being disqualified as a loyal member of the nation. The local Latvians tend to discredit the Latvian spoken by the Western Latvians as being old-fashioned , an outdated language spoken in a time-void far from Latvia. They emphasize that the Western Latvians speak with Western, mostly American, accents and that their Latvian has been heavily Anglicized. Local Latvians claim that the local dialect is more authentic and therefore more legitimate, as it has been spoken continuously over the years. In other words, they speak the real Latvian.
The Western Latvians seem embarrassed by their own accents, often stating that they work hard on improving pronunciations. However, they do not accept the discrediting of their Latvian. Instead, they discredit the local language as being Russified, as having been destroyed by too much contact with Russians. Some returned Latvians even claim that Western Latvian is the original language that was spoken in the First Republic. The discussion about language competence is hardly academic. In the emigré communities in the West, learning and speaking Latvian functioned as a key marker, differentiating those who were loyal to the Latvian cause and those who were disloyal . Krista , a 35-year-old Canadian-Latvian woman, says: My family was more or less ostracized from the Latvian community because we didn't learn Latvian, God forbid! We didn't learn Latvian and that's the biggest no-no of all! . The function of language in the diasporic communities makes the criticism of the local Latvians even harder to accept for many Western Latvians, the language critique seems to call into question their loyalty to Latvia.
A degree of proficiency in Latvian is a central criteria if one applies for citizenship. Apart from being a way of keeping the resident Russians from gaining too much influence (as in most other republics, the Russians seldom speak the native tongue), the discussions of the true Latvian language seem to be part of an ongoing struggle of intra-ethnic boundary-maintenance between the three categories of Latvians: can you be a Latvian at all, if you don't speak the language correctly? Are you less of a Latvian if you speak with an accent? And who has the right to define what is the authentic language: those who speak an old-fashioned, Anglicized version or those who speak an updated , but Russified version?
The Politics of Identity
The relation between any homeland and its diaspora has always been problematic.
"While the homelands are grateful for [the diaspora's] support, they view the diaspora with a certain disdain for having been enticed by the fleshpots of capitalism and for retaining a vulgarized ethnic culture. This is among the reasons why homelands do not necessarily want to welcome their diasporas back from abroad. Returnees, particularly from host countries more advanced than the homeland, might unsettle its political, social and economical equilibrium (Safran, 1991)
Discussions about who is the most authentic Latvian ramify onto the larger political field. As the Latvians have created a nation-state based on (and named after) the Latvian ethnic group, defining the barriers of the same ethnic group becomes co-terminous with defining who are legitimate political actors. Controlling access to the political field by defining the criteria with which to evaluate others as members or non-members of the Latvian nation is a powerful tool. Gaining control of such a tool is an important activity in all societies, but especially those in transition . The struggles over which criteria to use when judging ethnic membership are struggles for power, just as the criteria for citizenship can be regarded as a way of controlling the access to power and influence.
The Western Latvians possess skills regarded as necessary in the reconstruction of the democratic state (English skills important in international relations; knowledge of computers, of market economy, etc.). However, most local Latvians think that the foreign Latvians should limit their activities to the role of advisors instead of occupying key posts in Latvian society and political life. As few local Latvians have these type of skills, they see the privileges of the Westerners, and Western Latvians as a threat to their re-claimed power over Latvia's institutional infrastructure. The local Latvians have often expressed to me their frustration over what they see as arrogance and patronizing attitudes from Western experts when it comes to academic traditions. They feel that both Westerners in general and Western Latvians in particular discredit their skills or dismiss these as being useless leftovers of the communist educational system.
The local Latvians, furthermore, see the easy access of the Western Latvians to high positions within the government as a threat to their control over the direction of the state. Unable to question their professional competence, they attack their cultural pedigree; subtle attempts to discredit the Western Latvians as 'true' Latvians : Western Latvians might have the necessary legal or constitutional knowledge, but they do not know Latvian culture or mentality as it really is. The only true Latvianness lies with the Latvians of Latvia! Doubting the validity of the Western Latvians' claim to Latvianness becomes a way of questioning their right to make policies on behalf of the real Latvians. Insofar that this strategy is successful, local Latvians may gain power by acquiring the positions now occupied by Western Latvians.
Educational skills are a sore point for both
local and Eastern Latvians. The latter mostly have educations from the Russian
universities. The locals tend to discredit these as being inferior to their
own, despite the fact that during the Soviet period many local Latvians also
studied at Universities in Leningrad and Moscow, where the education was said
to be very good. The discrediting of the Soviet educational system, and the
tendency to retrospectively emphasize Latvia's universities as being superior
to the main Soviet institutions, have left the Eastern Latvians bitter. One
Eastern Latvian woman stated, that the locals knew that the Russian universities
were better than the national ones, but that all the jobs were given to the
Western Latvians anyway. The locals did this because they thought they might
gain something from it, not because the Western Latvians were better qualified:
There is this book called 'The measuring time of the Latvians' or something, and it says that if somebody is rich and is not a Latvian, if we are polite with them, maybe they will give us something, so we are becoming more and more polite and do everything for them. ( ) If they're coming from the West, maybe they have something....but not if they come from the East!
It is rather difficult to make contact with the Eastern Latvians in Latvia today. Their organization in Riga, the Association of Russia's Latvians, is quite anxious that too many questions might harm our cause . Their main goal is to assist Eastern Latvians coming back from Russia to gain citizenship and find housing, often by exchanging apartments with Latvian Russians leaving for Russia. The association runs a small language-school connected to their offices and provides legal aid to people whose applications are mired in the citizenship bureaucracy. According to their leader, the Eastern Latvians' somewhat suspicious attitude is a response to the constant pressure from the locals, who don't understand that we love Latvia." The difficulties of gaining citizenship described by the Eastern Latvians, combined with the expressed attitudes of the local and Western Latvians gave me the overall impression that the discrediting of Eastern Latvians as true ethnic kin was a means of blocking their entry into the country, or at least hindering their political, social and economical influence. An elderly Western Latvian man comments : But this is a subject that no-one wants to talk about. Nothing is officially said or done about this in the government. But I suppose the government is worrying over some sort of stampede... worried that people in Russia will all of a sudden decide to come to Latvia because things are better here. And that the people who will come will be the ones who are worse over there, and they will need all kinds of assistance, so they will be just a burden on the government.
In the discursive practices surrounding the issue of education, there seems to be a subtle narrative concentrating on the differences in class-affiliations among the three groups. As the Western Latvians represent themselves as the elite that left , some local and Eastern Latvians feel that those who stayed or got deported are indirectly categorized as uneducated , as working-class , as never having been a threat to the Soviet system, and therefore not quite loyal to the Latvian nation. The subtle class-rhetoric inherent in the elitist remarks by the Western Latvians provokes strong feelings of resentment in both local and Eastern Latvians, for they see themselves opposed to everything Soviet (such as being working-class ). That the Western Latvians now occupy positions in Latvian society which belong to what might be called the educated upper-middle class (and, furthermore, have incomes 10-100 times higher than the average local salaries) does little to remove the image of the super-privileged who left and came back .
The economic differences between Western Latvians and the local/Eastern Latvians are immense, and the above discussions can thus also be seen as a struggle not only for influence and positions within the emerging political hierarchies, but also as attempts by the locals to gain access to high positions in the economic structures now evolving.
Conflict about who is really Latvian is also
a means of determining who has the authority to represent and articulate Latvia
within and outside the country. A Western Latvian informant states: [The Western
Latvians] occupy important positions in different ministries, newspapers and
so on, where they have a lot of contact with foreigners. They explain Latvia,
they do translations, they are advisors. Basically they are the transmission
belt in the middle between Latvia and the West. Most local Latvians don't understand
how to do that, they don't understand the West. The Western Latvians have a
quite substantial influence on the image of Latvia presented abroad, an image
not always shared by the local population. Questioning the cultural expertise
of the Western Latvians also casts doubt on their suitability to occupy positions
in the field of international public relations .
Conclusions: Latvians and the Other Latvians
The resourceful Western Latvians are a valuable asset in the Latvian transition, but they are also a foreign force in the eyes of many locals. Local interests see it necessary to dam up their influence on Latvian affairs. They do so by discussing the very criteria with which the Western Latvians evaluate themselves as members of the Latvian ethnic community: cultural capital and language proficiency. In this context, the articulation of national and ethnic identity takes on an instrumental character, defining the boundaries of the political community. In this context, excluding all "Russian influence" also means the exclusion of Russified Eastern Latvians. The categorization of citizens/non-citizens is thus not the only means of controlling the ethnic and cultural boundaries of the nation. Within the category of citizens , other categories are being negotiated. It is a process so complex that it prevents the analysis of ethnic boundaries solely through the category of citizenship. At the political level, citizenship laws are but one of the most visible fields of ethnic boundary-maintenance and ethnic politics. When we examine actual social practices and narratives within the group of Latvian citizens , other equally problematic processes of categorization become apparent. Here, in the intra-ethnic arena, discourses based on authentic/artificial, continuity/discontinuity and Western/Soviet constitute stronger categorical divides than whether one is a citizen or not. When "Other Latvians" (or Latvian Russians for that matter) gain the democratic rights connected to citizenship, how will they respond to the more sophisticated categorical exclusions within the field of Latvian identity? Western Latvians who return home with high hopes of finding one's own people ... dreamed of in the diaspora. They instead face a general exclusion within the social field, or stigmatization as "foreigner", some react with disillusion, some with anger and some with sadness. Many return, disillusioned, to their former diaspora in the West.
Apart from exploring the field of identity in a transitional society, the study of the relations between the locals and the Other Latvians has other implications. First, the processes within this relationship both mirror and influence the general attitude toward Westerners now evolving among the Latvian population. These attitudes need further investigation as the flow of personnel capital and images from the West into Eastern Europe increases. The negotiations of identity described above influence the relationship toward the Western world and its experts on democracy, human rights and market economy, experts who by many local Latvians are seen as being too powerful. Latvia still needs the aid of Westerners - claiming Latvian descent or not - so the relationship to the West, like so much else in the post-communist transition, remains one of continuous ambivalence.
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