Latvia is a European crossroads point between the West
North and South. This indicates not only its geographical position but also
its. position in world affairs. In the 20's and 30's of the 20th centure it was
the last bulwark of the West and the gateway to the East. After the
Second World War it was the military bulwark of the USSR in the North
West, to some extent the gateway to the West for numerous Germans
and Jews leaving the USSR and considered Soviet `West` by other Soviet
At the end of 1980's there were about 1 565 000 Latvians in the world.
Most of them (1 388 000) resided in Latvia. 98% of those living in their
homeland considered Latvian their mothertongue. Of those abroad 87%
considered Latvian their mothertongue. The number of Latvian speakers
in Latvia has increased slightly since the Second World War while
proportionately due to deliberate Soviet policies there has been a
decline. This has been the main ethnic problem of Latvia for the last 50
years and will stay such in the foreseeable future.
Though nowadays often alluded to as the new language (5) of the new
republic, Latvian is in fact one of the oldest European languages having
numerous similarities to Sanskrit, closest to the original Indo-European
language. Latvian belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indoeuropean fami-
The Baltic tribes arrived in their present day territory some 3-4000
years ago, pushing the Finno-Ugric tribes inhabiting the region to the
north (present day Estonia and Finland). Some mixing of the two lan-
guage families seems to have occurred. As a result there are significant
numbers of Finnougric words in Latvian (mainly pertaining to the sea,
fishing, etc.) and a small Finnougric nationality residing by the coast
called Liivs remained alongside Latvian speaking people until mid-20th
century. The proto-Baltic period lasted from 1500 B.C. up to 500 B.C.
when the split between Eastern and Western Baltic languages took place.
The Western Baltic languages, the most prominent of which was Prus-
sian, have become extinct under the overwhelming German intluence hy
the end of the l7th century.
Lithuanian and Lalvian developed side by side till the 6-7th centuries
A.D., which explains the considerable similarity between them. The for-
mation of the Latvian nation started about the end of the first millenium
with a gradual merging of separate Baltic tribes. The different dialects of
Latvian can be traced back to the old Baltic tribal languages.
Though the present day Latvian terrilory came under German
domination already in the l3th century, for many centuries its influence
on the lowl dialects must have been minimal as there is hardly any
evidence of it in the oldest folk literature (folksongs-dainas). This can be
explained by. the fact that hardly any mixing of the people seems to have
occurred between the German speaking knights, clergy and townsmen
and the Latvian peasants.
Also the other rapidly succeeding masters of the territory -Danes,
Poles, Russians, Swedes do not seem to have affected the local languages
very noticeably. In modern Latvian one can trace mainly lexical in0uen-
ces - borrowing of words and idioms which have been fully assimilated, as
these early intluences affected the language before proper writing ap-
peared. It is only at the end of the l6th century that we can speak of the
Latvian people with their own language. The first written monuments of
Latvian are there in the l6th century in the Gothic script when under the
ideas of Reformation the clergy attempted to break the divide between
th local peasants and the landloards of Teutonic descent. The first great
landmark of Latvian is the translation of the Bible (1689) done under the
auspices of the Swedish king. Thus Latvian obtained a powerful literary
document the language of which was to affect the development of written
Latvian (so called Old Latvian) for centuries. It imposed a standard on
the written language and was also important as a recognition of a lan-
guage (8). Real writing in Latvian started only in the l9lh century when
national literature and cultural aspirations appeared. Up to this time the
notions of 'German' and 'educated' were almost identical and most of
aspiring Latvians would become Germanized.
This is also the time when first linguistic thought was formed, satura-
tion of written Latvian with Germanic elements was noticed and purify-
ing the language started. It went band in hand with creating modern
Latvian word stock and extensive borrowing from the international word
stock. The battle against German dominance in language and culture was
won by the end of the l9th century. Since then one cnnot speak of a fur-
ther German intluence that might touch the core of Latvian. However
traces of German are still there in the language - morphology, com-
pounds, structure of idioms. German still retained the role of the main
mediary language for borrowings from other languages. The end of the
l9th century saw attempts at Russifying the Baltic provinces which, how-
ever, never really worked.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a gradual change from Gothic
to Roman alphabet plus diacritics (long vowels, palatalization) which was
fully accomplished only in 1937. Roman alphabet had been at the basis of
one of the Latvian dialects (Polish influence).
The 20 years of independence saw establishment of Latvian as a state
language. At the same time minority poticy was most liberal. Thus in 1940,
of 1631 schools 1234 had Latvian as a language of instruction, 216 - Rus-
sian, 47 - Jewish, 15 - Polish, 6 Byelorussian, 3 Lithuanian, There was
widespread trilingualism: Latvian, German, Russian. There was also a
tendency toward language purism which, however, was pointed mainly at
the Russian and German languages at the same time allowing vocabulary
replenishment by classical elements as well as English and French bor-
rowings spread by the international contacts and media.
Already in 1940, the first year of Soviet occupation, Russian was intro-
duced in schools. State administration, overseen by Moscow apparatchiks,
slowly passed over to Russian. The Second World War and the following
deportations to Siberia reduced the number of former population by 0.5
million (25%). Latvia lost all its German (repatriation before the war,
war losses), Jewish and Gypsy population as well as hundreds of
thousands of Latvians (deportations, war refugees, losses). Latvians are
the only nation exceeding 1 million in Europe which has decreased since
the Second World War. Large numbers of immigrants were encouraged
to come - mainly partocracy, administrative nomenclature (so called
SRAPPS - Slavic - Stock Russian-born Apparatchiks, to use Brzezinski's
acronym) and factory workers. Russian became the official language of
the Communist party and administration. In 1959 the attempts of the
local communists to change the situation were crushed, a party purge fol-
lowed and since then no local indigenous Latvians would occupy any
leading posts in the republic up to 1955.
Any attempt, of changing the system were viewed as "bourgeois
nationalism" while Russification was called internationalization. Due to
the cuntinued immigration, which since 1960 seriously exceeded natural
growth and proportionately anything similar in the Soviet Union the Lat-
vian proportion was rapidly decreasing while in absolute numbers there
was even a small growth:
parts of the USSR have
come to stay (majority left) during the period 1945-1990. This can be
only viewed as an "arbitrary, forceful and brutal transplantation of
The situation is at its All in all about 4 000 000 people from other
worst in Riga and the other 5 larger towns where
Latvians are a minority. Though historically Riga has always been multi-
national (see the table),the tendencies of the post-war period are too ob-
vious to leave any doubt. The bulk of the migrants settled here, workers-
because of the hyper-developed industry, ex-militaries - because of their
right of residence in any place in the USSR they felt like. Riga was also
the center of Baltic Military and geopolitical region. In some Riga new
development areas the percentage of Latvians reached only (6-8%.
Ethnic composition of Riga
Latvia Russia Germans Others (among them Byel.
Apart from Russians proper there was also a sharp increase in other
Slavic nationalities - Byelorussians and Ukrainians, who, because of
mixed marriages and a ban on national schnols, were subject to strong
Russification. Comparing 1959 and 1989 census data we can see that
minorities increasingly lose their mother tongue. In 1959 42.6% of
Byelorussians considered Byelorussian their mother tongue; in 1989 -
only 32%, concerning Poles the fall is from 55.3 to 27.3%. The number of
mixed marriages contributed to the process, thus while 20% of Latvians
entered mixed marriages in 1989, the percentage with other nationalities
is much higher - Russians 37%, Byelorussians 85%, Ukrainians 85%,
Jews 50%;. In ethnically mixed marriages Latvians tend to assimilate the
minorities in about 75%, of cases (65o% in Latvian-Russian marriages,
75% in Latvian-Ukrainian, 80% in Latvian marriages with Byelorussians,
Poles, Lithuanians). Apart from marriages with Latvians, Russians tend
to assimilate minorities even more (13). More than 200 000 non-Russians
considered Russian their mother tongue.
A serious manifestation of nationality is the knowledge of Latvian and
Russian, 99% of Latvians speak Latvian, 99% of Russians speak Russian.
For other nationalities the percentage is substantially lower, on the
average about 50%. When it comes to knowing the two big languages of
Latvia the situation is very different. About 70% of Latvians are fluent in
Russian while only 20% of Russians are fluent in Latvian. Concerning
minorities the knowledge of the two languages is the following:
Thus it can be seen that the minorities apart from Lithuanians have
been more Russified than Latvianized. The process of Russification was
theoretically substantiated by the idea of objective internationalization
and language merging. The Soviet stress on Russification as inter-
nationalilation has given ground to many jokes, e.g., if a Latvian knew
Russian he was nevertheless called a nationalist, while a Russian knowing
only Russian was considered an internationalist.
Latvian and Latvians were gradually ousted from different spheres. In
schools, press, radio, theatres, literature, art and science a rigid Russifica-
tion reigned. Everything Russian was extolled ad nauseam and prewar
Lalvian and Western culture condemned. Certain pressures and repres-
sions were applied to Latvian linguists. Leading Latvian linguist
J.Endzelīns was dismissed from the University for "unscientific attitudes'".
Propagation of the Soviet variant of bilingualism became a must. Educa-
tion in some of the strategic spheres of national economy was possible
only in Russian (aviation, sea, transport, fishing). General education was
more and more Russified, with the number of Russian classes exceeding
Latvian for Latvian pupils. Concerning foreign language teaching, while
Russian instruction schools had 18 classes of Latvian a month, Latvian
students had 44 classes of Russian a month with teachers of Russian
receiving 25%, higher salaries for unexplained reasons. Subjects like Lat-
vian history disappeared from curriculum to be substituted by history of
the USSR, which actually meant the history of Russia. Mixed schools
came into existance despite a strong opposition from people. They caused
numerous conflicts as the administration was never fully bilingual, and
there is a great difference in student`s mentality in such aspects as asser-
tiveness, loudness, degree of collective spirit. In Latgale (the Eastern part
of Latvia) Latvian language schools were closed and turned into Russian
tuition establishment. The same principle was often applied to kindergar-
tens also in Riga.
In administrative sector there were only 29% of Latvian employees. In
Riga, the centre of republic's administration, the proportion was still
lower. Most of industrial branches of economy were Russian speak-
ing. Thus in Construction industry only 20% of employees were Latvians
Metallurgical 34%, Transport 37%. On the other hand professions like
Agriculture was 72% Latvian, Forestry 81% (the only Ministry to do ad-
ministration in Latvian), Culture and Art 70%. These numbers are very
suggestive of what might be called aboriginal or cultural autonomy and
clearly illustrate that the status of the language denoles the status of the
group that speaks it (2).
If we apply Allard's (1) theory whereby a minorily is determined by
the feeling of language speakers as having a subordinate status to those
of another language, Latvian was surely a minority language in Latvia,
continuously losing its position through growing migration and official
language policy, though nominally being a majority.
Also the psychological aspect of communication was detrimental for
Latvian. Due to the historical experience and traditions Latvians were
used to speaking another language with non-Latvians, so in everyday
conversation it would practically be always that Russian be spoken even if
out of 10 people one was Russian; sometimes even despite Russian en-
couragement of Latvian being the language of conversation. This prob-
lem exists still today and is in sharp contrast to neighbouring Estonia,
where Estonians on principle, though knowing it, would not talk Russian.
However, despite all these steps and processes Latvians were not yet
losing the language. Due to the late incorporation in the USSR and high
development of the language, the Baltic states escaped imposition of Cur-
rilic, like Kazakh, Kirgiz, Azerbaijan and Moldavian which had to drop
their Arabic or Roman alphabets. The interwar period had stabilized the
language, set strong norms on its spoken and written variants.
Education at all levels could still be obtained in Latvian; schools did
not pass over to Russian like they did in Byelorussia, Uzbekistan. Lat-
vians as a nation seem to be generally rather immobile and preferred stay-
ing in Latvia rather than going for better jobs to the vast expanse of
And the most important though hard to define factor : there was a
strong moral belief in the supremacy of Latvian language and culture
over the Soviet variant of Russian. Compensation mechanisms
developed. Never has there been so great an interest in Latvian literature
and poetry with normal editions of poetry reaching 30-50 000 copies
while bestsellers came to 200 000 copies (and that for a nation slightly
over one million). People flocked to the theatres, virtually the only public
place where good Latvian could be heard, ambiguous thoughts expressed
and purely Latvian company enjoyed. The early 80-ies saw a revival of
folk interest and even pop songs concentrated on language problems.
Apart from the extralinguistic pressure there was a purely linguistic
impact of Russian:
I. Large scale borrowing of Russian technical terms in Latvian with
certain phonetic and morphological adaption. These terms would fill
the lexical vacuum of Latvian.
2. Large scale borrowing of Russian terms and also some other words
which already have their Latvian counterparts. People would
understand that these words are not of Latvian stock but would use
them in haste, sometimes to convey the Russian environment, e.g. use
3. Large scale use of Russian phrases and cliches as loan translations
including the press, usually connected with the administrative sphere,
bureaucracy, etc. Gramatically often in correct Latvian, they however
carry typically Russian mode of expression and contents (analytiwl
4. Wide use of rude Russian phrases. Latvian has few taboo words or
phrases of its own, so the rich Russian four-letter word legacy is
widely used in appropriate situations.
5. There seems to be certain influence of Russian to have affected
Latvian phonetics (strange sound combinations in borrowings through
Russian, substitution of Latvian diphthong 'uo' by 'o', weakening of
Latvian broken tone, stress change) and grammar (Latvian
prepositions, prefixes being substituted by different prepositions and
prefixes corresponding to the Russian models, cases of word order
change) but its scale has so far not been overwhelming.
Thus the threat to Latvian has not been that of slowly
language or offering better opportunities to people through the medium
of Russian, but that of simply suppressing its usage and drowning Lat-
vians in the sea of migrant Russian speakers and Russian controlled
media, administration and professional spheres - something that can be
described only as linguogenocide.
The language planning and culture work in Latvia, being moderate
and dealing mainly with general language tendencies, its history, ter-
minology and dictionaries, was not able to affect the linguistic situation
radically. This was the situation when perestroika started.
Language issue was high on the pro-independence programs of the
Popular Front (an anti-communist and pro-independence coalition
movement which determined the political development of Latvia). In
1989 the still Soviet Latvian parliament adopted a Language Law making
Latvian the State (official) language. In practice it meant real bilin-
gualism as the Law presupposed Latvian and Russian use in administra-
tion. It is worth remembering that the same year the already reforming
Moscow tried making Russian the official language of the USSR and
Gorbachev talked of taking other people under the traditional wing of
Russia (7). The Law also envisaged a 3-year transition period during
which non-Latvian population working in state sector had to learn some
Latvian, according to their status, e.g., directors and senior officials were
supposed to be able to communicate in Latvian, doctors had to be able to
talk with their patients, etc.
A profound discussion and public debate preceded and followed the
adoption of the Language Law. However, due to general transition
period difficulties and disbelief of a large part of non-Latvians that inde-
pendence might come true, there was not too much effort put into learn-
ing the language, though courses of teaching were set up and often
backed by government and enterprises financial aid.
The process of restoring Latvian as a state language went hand in
hand with renewing the rights of other minorities, that had so far been
deprived of the possibility of using their language outside family circle.
The tilt of the minorities swayed the distribution of power, thus Latvian
Poles supported the Latvian cause, while in Lithuania Poles alligned with
Russians (10). Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian, Es-
tonian and Azerbaijan societies and language schools sprang up. The first
Jewish school in the USSR was established in Riga. Polish, Ukrainian, Es-
tonian schools have been set up and 11 language Sunday schools were
functioning in 1991/92. (6). In 1992/93 tuition could be obtained in 16
languages. Even a Gypsy form has been established in a school in
Immigration which in some years reached 20 000 newcomers was first
reduced and then stopped. Since 1990 there has been increasing emigra-
tion of non-Latvians back to their home countries. Thus in 1991 13 000
left Latvia, in 1992 - 35 000. Before looking at the future prospects of the
language and nationality issue the situation can be summarized. The split
of the USSR in many ways reminds one of that of the break up of the
colonial empire, with the difference that the metropolis was closer
geographically. There was also the historical peculiartity of the Baltic
States, that due to their later incorporation within the 'Soviet Empire'
their life standard was higher than that of the colonial power itself. It is a
somewhat unusual situation and is often used as an argument against the
concept of the colonia( character of the Soviet rule. However, it is by no
means unique - a similar situation was there in Franco's Spain where
Catalon was an oppressed language, while Catalonia enjoyed a higher life
standard than the Castilian territories. Also former Yugoslavia had a
similar situation where higher developed Slovenia and Croatia had their
languages under Serb military and bureaucratic control or even their exis-
tance denied. Otherwise, to quote Khleif (3) "the colonized become pos-
sessions of the conqueror; they are administered from the outside by the
representatives of the dominant group who are imported from the
metropolis; they are object of an ideology of racism; they are systemati-
cally excluded from the higher rewards of the occupational structure;
their dignity is constantly assailed."
Taking into account that this description fully illustrates the situation
of Latvia we may view it as a former colonial state WITH A
PRECOLONIAL IDENTITY (9) which has now entered its postcolonial
stage, with former metropolis amounting to about 150 million next door
and bipolor cultural and language division as the gravest legacy. The eth-
nic strife thus is both maintained and also limited by these two factors
which are present after the collapse. It is maintained by the huge non-
Latvian population, by a certain antagonism of a part of it to the new
developments, by the presence of Russian army in Latvia, the unstable
situation in Russia and the hard economic transition situation. The radi-
cal Latvian "3D" policy - decolonization, deoccupation, debolshevization
- adds some strife as decolonization seems the hardest point to carry
However, the situation is unlikely to come to open hostility because of
the same factors. One cannot expect the government to pass strong dis-
criminatory measures against half of the population. Generally the situa-
tion is slowly changing, and it could be considered that since
independence the threat of Latvian being extinguished has receded. The
end of the Soviet system also meant the end of Russification of Latvians
and other minorities which are gradually regaining national conscioas-
ness. The economic change and success has been achieved without
serious social and ethnic conflict (4).
Statistics have shown that so called 'non-Latvian' or 'Russian-
speaking' population is far from being monolith. Even "pure" Russian
population seems to have only two things in common - the language and
the nationality (by passport). Part of the Russian population that has
resided in Latvia for several generations could be described as belonging
to a peculiar Latvian Russian community with their own long standing
traditions and mentality.
Some of the recent immigrants bear a traditional Russian culture and
thinking. But the majority have no specific traits - they have been
brought up under an ideology of the superpower with no national borders
and are used to moving freely from one place to another looking for bet-
Statistical surveys have shown that while Latvians have a strong feel-
ing of ethnic identity, for Russians this feeling is substituted by either the
idea of Russian Empire or such notions as socialism, internationalism and
superpower myths (12). The basic core of this group is constituted by
former militaries (and their families) who in addition have a specific train-
ing and highly collective mentality. They also find adaptation to the new
conditions - no superpower, no unified system, no Communist Party-
most difficult. This group might be the most problematic one as their
mentality is in sharp contrast to predominantly sedate, immobile and
reserved individual Latvian mentality. Language problem may be the
most difficult part of ideology to part with.
Though there is a strong shift in the language situation, there has been
no limiting of non-Latvian population's rights and to large extent of their
relative importance. Thus 80-85% of the new business is in the hands of
non-Latvians. Out of 279 newspapers 196 are published in Russian, 45 in
both languages. There are 89 Orthodox parishes and 54 old-believer
parishes, the latter exceeding the number of them in Moscow. Russian is
the sole language of instruction in 208 schools, and there is a Russian
stream in 127 other schools. In Riga there are 61 Russian schools while
only 35 are Latvian ones. Two Russian (Moscow) TV programs are
broadcast on Latvian television in addition to the local Russian channel.
During the last decade there has been a significant increase of English
influence. Steady English borrowing has been there in Latvian for a cen-
tury, at first through Russian. The latest growth of borrowing has affected
mainly such spheres as electronics, computers, music, sports, politics, also
colloquial and slang Latvian. This fast expansion came with the slacken-
ing of ideological barriers, diminishing of Russian influence and openness
of the country to the Western influences. The language aspect changed
with new incentives. In the past, though being the first foreign language
in Latvian schools (after Russian), English teaching, nevertheless
reminded that of Latin, as there were no opportunities of ever using it.
The political change of openness affected this immediately. It should be
mentioned that British English is still taught in schools by tradition, like
in the rest of former USSR, however the existance of American English is
now well recognized.
There is of course the question whether Latvian is not too open to
foreign influences, especially taking into account the relatively small
number of speakers. Looking back into history there always seems to be
some domineering language affecting Latvian. Many people feel that as
soon as the Russian dominance was stopped, the English started. Taking
into account the large number of German borrowings in Latvian, coupled
with the new English influence the Germanic and international element
together with the Russian legacy seems to reach a very high proportion-
often suggesting that of a hybrid language. However these influences do
not really touch the core of Latvian and cannot be presumed detrimental,
especially, because already for several centuries widespread burrowing
has been natural for Latvian. Latvian has always been more open to out-
side influences than its closest neighbour - Lithuanian. Apart from the
negative consequences of administratively repressive lype, the language
itself has survived well enough.
Summing up it can he generalized that if the above mentioned procces-
ses are gradual, uninterrupted and without sudden changes, the future
pruspects for Latvian are relatively optimistic.
1. Latvia will remain a crossroads point between the East and West,
gaining from its geographical and historical position.
2. The language has a well worked-out literary tradition, developed
publishing and education which insure its stability. Further research of
the language and its studies are going to keep the language in its
3.The dialects of Latvian only enrich the literary language.
There is no danger of its diversification.
4.Since independence Latvian has a state language status which spreads
further the spheres of the language use. Learning Latvian is not too
difficult fur Russians as the languages are related, both are
inflectional. The situation is certainly Iess complicated than in
neighbouring Estonia where the languages represent two totally
different language groups and types (Slavic, Indo-European and
inflectional versus Finno-Ugric and agglutinative-inflectional).
5. The impact uf Russian which is still strung will he to some extent
cushioned and neutralized by the increasing impact of English, thus,
affecting the bipolarity. By analogy English is going to play the rule of
German in the previous centuries.
6. The ethnic situation will almost under any develoments improve by
means of emigration of a part of non-Latvian population, withdrawal
of the Russian army, growing assimilation of the new generation.
7. The pessimistic outlook might lie in the relatively narrow sphere of
use of Latvian in a modern country and the small number of language
speakers. Yet these are points that a large number of European
languages face without threat of language extinction.
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