Russian [russkij jazyk] is a Slavonic language closely related to Belorussian and Ukrainian with which it forms the East Slavonic group within the Slavonic branch of Indo-European. Owing a great deal to efforts of the polymath Lomonosov and his Russian Grammar (1755) modern standard Russian was established by the time of Pushkin (1799-1837). Today’s Russian speech community is multiethnic and dispersed over many states. It is estimated that about 233 million people speak Russian (approximately 164 million as a first language and 69 million as a second language). About 119 million people in the Russian Federation use Russian as a first language and 27.1 million use it as a second language.
According to Russian and Latvian chronicles the earliest Russian merchants came to Latvia in the 12th-13th century. The first major wave of Russians, however, entered Latvia after the Great Northern War (1700-1721) when today’s Latvian territory became part of the Romanov Empire of Tsar Peter the Great (Treaty of Nystad 1721). Around 1880 the centralisation of the Romanov Empire led to powerful Russification, backed up by the resources of the tsarist authorities. Russian was used in municipal institutions, in the courts and by the police, and was made compulsory in elementary education. By the end of the 19th century the Russians had become the second biggest nationality in Latvia (behind the Latvians). During the time of the first Latvian Republic that was founded after the implosion of the Romanov Empire and World War I the number of Russians was estimated at 91,000 (according to the 1920 Latvian census). According to 1935 figures they amounted to approximately 170,000 (around 9% of the total population). This number further grew after World War II when Latvia became part of the USSR and a second major wave of Russians moved to Latvia where they worked as members of the Communist party, army personnel or temporary blue and white collar workers. In 1989 there were about 902,000 Russians in Latvia. They made up approximately 35% of the total population. After the collapse of the USSR and the foundation of the second independent Republic of Latvia a considerable number of Russians moved back to their homeland. The Russian minority is still the biggest minority in Latvia.
About 50% of the total number of Russians live in Latvia’s biggest cities: Russians make up around 43% of the population in Riga, around 55% in Daugavpils, around 32% in Jelgava, around 37% in Jūrmala, around 35% in Liepāja, around 50% in Rēzenkne and approx. 32% in Ventspils. The other Russians live spread all over the country: some 30% live in small cities (10-50,000 inhabitants), some 15% in semi-urbanised areas (population between 1,000 and 10,000 inhabitants) and some 5% in rural areas (villages under 1,000 inhabitants).
According to 2004 data from the Board for Citizenship and Migration Affairs around 665,000, that is, about 29% of the total population, are ethnic Russians.
In view of the Latvian language law Russian is one of the ‘foreign’ languages. Only when translation into Latvian is ensured Russian can be used in state and local government institutions, courts and institutions constituting the judicial system, State or local government undertakings, and companies in which the greatest share of capital is owned by the State or a local authority. In addition, employees of private institutions, organisations, enterprises (companies), and self-employed persons have to use the official language if they perform specific public functions and in record-keeping and documents if their activities affect the lawful interests of the public (public security, health, morality, health care, protection of consumer rights and employment rights, safety at the work place and public administration supervision). Still, Art. 114 of the Latvian Constitution gives Russians the right to preserve and develop their language and their ethnic and cultural identity. Nine of the 100 members of the Saeima (Parliament) are ethnic Russians.
During Soviet rule the languages of education were Latvian and Russian. Russian was an obligatory subject in Latvian schools, but Latvian was not compulsory in Russian schools. Following Latvian independence minority schools were renewed and links were made to the first period of Latvian independence in which minority languages in schools were allowed. Nowadays in Latvia about 300 (33.3%) general education schools use Russian as a medium of instruction. Russian is taught both in primary and secondary levels. In many ways the Russian schools are not typical national minority schools, for not only Russians but also Belorussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Jews and others attend these schools. The number of pupils attending Russian schools is, however, decreasing. While in the school year 1995/96 39% of pupils attended Russian schools, their number decreased to 33% in 1999/2000 and to 24% in 2002/2003. A reason for this is that the number of pupils in other (non-Russian) minority schools in increasing and that parents (especially those in mixed families) have begun to send their children to Latvian-medium schools. It is not clear what influence the initiative of the Latvian government to transform all Russian schools into bilingual schools ( 3.3.2.) has had on the decrease of pupils attending Russian schools. In any case the 2004 introduction of the 60/40 norm in secondary education as well as the 2004 amendments to the Education Law ( 3.3.) have aroused criticism. In 2003 a campaign was launched by the Union of Political Organisations “For Human Rights in United Latvia” against the so-called education reform. It was supported by the Association of Russian Language Teachers, and the Latvian Association for Support of Schools with Russian Language of Instruction (LAShOR) also campaigned against bilingual education in Russian schools. The Latvian Ministry of Education and Science organises regular training sessions for Russian language teachers. Study visits to Russia are also widespread. Russian language teachers are trained at the University of Latvia’s Faculty of Philology (Department of Slavic languages) and at Daugavpils University’s Faculty of Humanities.
General information on the use of languages in Latvian courts is provided in the Latvia country profile . No detailed information is available on the specific situation of Russian.
With the exception of some emergency situations (that lack any definition) the official language has to be used in communication with public authorities. Documents in Russian (and other foreign languages) can only be accepted when a notary-certified translation into the state language is attached. The high proportion of Russian-speakers in Latvia and the fact that most Latvians know Russian both explain why Russian is used in oral communication with public authorities.
In Latvia 5 national daily newspapers are 100% in Russian: Chas, Vestji Segodnja, Komersant Baltik, Telegraf, and Bizness & Baltija. There are about 30 regional newspapers in Russian. The number of titles has increased over the last years and it seems that there is a strong competition going on between Russian papers printed in Latvia and papers printed in Russia. About 30 weekly or monthly journals in Russian are printed in Latvia. Among periodicals (all 100% in Russian) are Ljublju, Lilit, and Eva. Here too the number of periodicals is increasing and there is a form of competition with titles printed in Russia. Hundreds of books are published in Latvia in Russian on all sorts of topics and books printed in Russia are widely available. Russian versions of Latvian websites are available on the internet (3 out of 4 biggest internet portals have Russian versions). Numerous homepages are available in Russian.
The second National Latvian Radio channel transmits up to 20% of its programmes in Russian. More important is that 34 private-owned radio channels and 3 regional broadcasting companies broadcast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week up to 90% in Russian.
The second National TV channel broadcasts up to 40% in Russian. 4 privately -owned TV channels broadcast 20-50% in Russian and 5 regional broadcasting companies 10-80% in Russian. Russians living in Latvia have wide access to numerous cable TV programmes from Russia and several Latvian channels broadcast some movies and transmissions in Russian or at least provide Russian subtitles. Many cinemas offer subtitles in Russian too so as to attract a wider audience. Initially the Latvian Parliament tried to put a halt to the extensive use of the Russian language on Latvian radio and television with the provision of quotas in the Law on Radio and Television. Due to a decision of the Constitutional Court (2002) the quotas for broadcasting in languages other than Latvian were eliminated.
A characteristic of the Latvian media landscape is the existence of a double information space within Latvia: one Latvian and one Russian. The intermediate stratum of people who participate in both information spaces (people who read the press in both languages or get their information about Latvian politics from both Latvian and Russian sources) is said to be very small. And since diverging views on an issue (language use in this case) do not exist within one media group, one is always confronted either with a ‘Latvian’ or a ‘Russian’ opinion. The existence of a double information space is regarded as a major obstacle to Russian-Latvian conflict prevention.
Russians are culturally well organised. There are about 10 Russian culture festivals per year (in Rīga, Daugavpils, Ventspils) with a lot of performances and visits by artists from Russia. There are about 200 Russian cultural heritage associations having close contacts with Russian schools. Russian cultural activities, like those organised by Belarusians, Poles, Ukrainians etc., are supported through the ‘ethnic integration programme’ of the Latvian Society Integration Foundation.
Unlike other minority languages in Latvia, Russian plays a role on the job market, especially in privately-owned businesses, of which about 70% are said to function in Russian. Not surprisingly, Russian language skills are mentioned in job advertisements as prerequisites to obtain a job. Russian is also used in commercial advertisements, not only in the street but in the press, on radio, and on television as well.
The intergenerational transmission of Russian functions extremely well, so that mother tongue retention rates are high. A study conducted by the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences (2003) shows that 99% of the sample having Russian nationality have Russian as their native language. The same study showed that the number of people whose native language is Russian and who ‘mostly’ use Latvian has increased slowly and gradually (from 9% in 1996 to 26% at the end of 2002). In general it can be observed that the use of Latvian has been increasing in formal environments (at work), while in informal environments the usage of Russian has increased. In the wake of Latvia’s independence, organisations were established that actively strive for the preservation of the Russian language and cultural identity. The Russian Community of Latvia (ROL) is one of the most ambitious ones. It was founded in 1991 and attempted to create a broad Russian front. Initially ROL managed to bring together leaders from different Russian organisations. Internal quarrels, however, tore the organisation apart and local branches declared their independence. Now ROL is only one of several organisations. Next to it there are organisations such as the Latvian Association of Russian Societies (LARO) established in 1995, and the somewhat later established Centre of Russian Culture in Latvia and the Russian Cultural Autonomy Association. None of these organisations represent the entire Russian-speaking population of Latvia.
There are no special agreements regarding the situation of the Russians in Latvia.
More than ten years after Latvian independence Russians still are the biggest minority within Latvian society. Russians constitute approx. 29% of the Latvian population. With more than 95% of the Russians having Russian as their mother tongue it is clear that the intergenerational transmission of the language functions very well. The former ‘language of interethnic communication’ has not only consolidated its position in the private sphere. Russian still plays a prominent role in the Latvian economy, is present in all the media and is used as a means of communication in numerous vital cultural organisations. These circumstances ascertain Russian-speakers a high degree of self-sufficiency in their own language and prevent them from perceiving themselves to be members of a minority. Russians, who numerically outnumber Latvians in the biggest Latvian cities, feel more like members of a majority. The Russian community in Latvia is a constant worry for Latvian language planners, not only because most of them have not learned the national language of Latvia, but also because members of other minorities (Belarusians, Ukrainians and Poles) reinforce the already strong Russian community since they have a better knowledge of Russian than they have of their own language and/or Latvian. In recent times the Latvian government has taken measures to reduce the hours devoted to Russian in Russian minority schools. It remains to be seen whether these measures will influence the strong position of Russian within Latvian society.