On May 4, a national holiday in Latvia marking the declaration of independence in 1990, Latvia marked 25 years since the end of communism in the country. But, the landscape and the people remember life under the Soviet government and, unfortunately, many vestiges of the past are still part of life.
The end of Russian schools
While on the city bus in Ventspils, the small Latvian town I live in, I heard a conversation between the bus driver and a passenger. This would be normal in cities around the world, except in this conversation the bus driver was speaking in Latvian and the passenger was speaking in Russian. They understood each other but chose to answer in the language they felt more comfortable with.
I was told the Latvian government has announced that starting next school year all schools in Latvia will have Latvian as their primary language of instruction. Out of the approximately 10 high schools in Ventspils, there are at least two “Russian schools.”
These schools are across the river that splits Ventspils in two. This is the “bad side,” the Russian side filled with crime and danger.
When one Latvian high school student on the “main side” of Ventspils heard from another student that schools in Latvia could no longer teach classes in Russian, she smiled as she pumped her fist. The class’ teacher said the student was being nationalist and that it was bad. The student said she was being patriotic.
Ventspils State Gymnasium 1 is the best school in Ventspils. Classes are taught in Latvian, but some native Russian-speaking students choose to attend because it is a good school.
But what happens to the Russian-speaking population in Ventspils and in the rest of Latvia? They are already looked down upon. The US’ perception of the Latgalian region of Latvia, in eastern Latvia where many Russian speakers live, is that it might be annexed like Crimea, Ukraine. And yet, speaking with someone who lives in the region, in Daugavpils, the second largest city in Latvia with a majority of people speaking Russian, the people of Daugavpils do not want to live in Russia. They are proud to live in Latvia and think of themselves as ethnic Latvians.
When I told people in Ventspils, which is in western Latvia, that I was going to Daugavpils, they asked why I would want to go there. They said it is basically like going to Russia. A few people also told me about the terrible road conditions in eastern Latvia. Like it was some sort of symbolism of the Russian speaking area to have bad roads.
In reality, I think the roads are “bad” because that region gets much more snow than western Latvia. And, compared to Chicago roads in the winter, Latgale roads are just fine.
But, Soviet symbolism is not just in Latgale. Soviet architecture can be seen throughout Latvia. For example, the large Soviet-built TV tower in Riga, the capital of Latvia, plays a prominent role in the Riga skyline.
Today in parts of Latvia, whole towns built by the Soviets now sit abandoned. For example, the secret town of Skrunda-1 was built for Soviet soldiers and their families. It had early-warning radar systems and about 5,000 people, according to The Guardian. Now, it is a ghost town.
Effects on people
Architecture is not the only thing the Soviets left when they pulled out. They also left behind a way of life and a sense of security about a person’s place in society.
One man I talked to, who now lives in Belarus, was born in Irbene, a town close to Ventspils. He spent the first few years of his life there. He says his Russian father worked with the Soviet radio antenna there that listened in on the West. In 1993, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, his family was, as he puts it, “shown the door” by the Latvian government.
One teacher I met in Ventspils still yearns for the communist days. She says times were easier then. Back then, when she graduated teaching school, she was given a list of all the schools in Latvia that were hiring teachers. She says it is now very hard to find a teaching job, or any job for that matter. She teaches at two schools just to make a living.
Her husband has an “alien” passport. He was born in Russia but moved to Latvia as a child. He was on the Barricades, the protest event that overthrew the Soviets in Latvia. He says he believes the Latvian government should give him citizenship for helping Latvia regain independence. But the Latvian government disagrees, he said. Consequently, he does not want to be a Latvian citizen anymore. And yet, he does not want to be a Russian citizen; he has lived in Latvia for more than 30 years. So, for now, he is a man without a country.
And while I have met many people during my eight months in Latvia who prefer a capitalist society and the freedom they now enjoy, I have never heard anyone say anything negative about the “Soviet times.” But the people’s opinions of the Soviet Union or their willingness to talk to me about them depend on their age, I should say.
Today, post-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia have less purchasing power with their currency than Latvia, which has the euro. But, is the euro worth it if things are too expensive for the average person to buy in Latvia? Some full-time employees in Ventspils said they think of the 75 euro cent city bus ticket or the local fast food place’s 80 euro cent ice cream cone as a money splurge.
The population of Latvia is decreasing fast as the young generation of workers moves to the United Kingdom, Ireland, or Germany for better job prospects and better pay.
And while Latvia is a European Union country, I am not so sure the people of Latvia feel the same hope the outside world generally equates with an EU membership.