Aliens (dir. A Gaponenko): the plight of Russians forced into twilight-zone lives as non-citizens in Latvia

Alexander Gaponenko, “Aliens” (2014)

In August 1991, the Soviet Union broke up after a failed coup d’état and 15 new countries arose from its remains. Latvia  was one such country, reclaiming independence after over 45 years of Communist rule from Moscow. One of its post-Soviet legacies was the multi-ethnic composition of its population: native Latvians constituted just over half the people and Russian speakers of various ethnicities from all over the Soviet Union made up most of the rest. This was a result of policies made by Soviet governments that included forced removal of Latvians from Latvia and distribution to other parts of the USSR and their replacement by Soviet immigrants, themselves often forcibly relocated from their homelands. The goal was to break down ethnic, religious and other differences which might serve as foci for self-determination and autonomy and to create new Soviet citizens.

After Latvian independence, about 300,000 Russian-language speakers (hereafter referred to as “Russians” for the sake of convenience) many of them concentrated in Riga the capital and eastern Latvia, especially in and around the city Daugavpils, found themselves subject to certain conditions demanded by Latvian nationalists in the new government if they wished to become citizens. These conditions included knowledge of the Latvian language to a level not always achieved by many native Latvian speakers themselves, taking an exam to prove their proficiency in Latvian and to give up Russian citizenship. Almost overnight these Russians became “non-citizens” – a category ironically invented by the Communists in the late 1980s for reasons of self-interest – and found themselves barred from public life: to this day, non-citizens cannot hold public office or own property, are barred from certain professions and may not serve in the military.

The 27-minute documentary takes the form of interviews of nine such non-citizens, director Gaponenko among them, and include a journalist who supported Latvian independence, a World War II veteran, a construction worker, a lawyer, a private detective and an unemployed single mother. Several interviewees admit to not applying for citizenship on the basis of principles: they were robbed of a choice to decide whether to retain Russian citizenship or apply for Latvian citizenship, and they do not agree with having to meet the conditions of applying for and acquiring Latvian citizenship. One interviewee organised protests against “reforms” of Russian-language schools proposed by Latvian nationalists and another currently campaigns against the rise of neo-Nazi groups. The single mother and her son have tried to adjust to the new situation by trying to learn Latvian but without much success.

Though their backgrounds are diverse, the interviewees are articulate and most of them are aware of what they are up against. They readily see parallels between their current twilight-zone lives and the situation in pre-1991 Latvia. A few of them speak of the fragmentation of Latvian society by nationalists who pit Latvians and Russians against one another over petty cultural and language issues while real problems go unnoticed.

At the end of the documentary, the film-makers chat to people on the street and ask them for their views on the Russians’ plight. Nearly everyone spoken to believes that Latvian citizenship should be extended to Russians. One man mentions that Estonia, Latvia’s northern neighbour, practises similar discrimination against its Russian communities. A few people say that Latvia’s population is falling and that the country needs more citizens.

Unfortunately very little is mentioned about how easy or how difficult it is for Russian-language speakers to learn Latvian to a level  where they could sit the compulsory exam and pass. I suspect that the Latvian authorities themselves do not care about extending Latvian-language classes and teaching resources to the Russian community and that their attitude is lazy indifference: they do not actively discriminate against the Russians (so that Russians themselves are unable to complain) but neither are they proactive in allocating money and resources towards lifting non-citizens to the level of citizens.

The section in the film in which a woman, Elizaveta Krivcova, states in detail the petty discriminations against non-citizens – non-citizens cannot work in the legal profession, they suffer restrictions on buying real estate and they cannot even work in forestry-related jobs – is quite chilling: the discriminations and the attitudes implied in them have their parallel in current Israeli treatment of Palestinians or the past treatment of Jews by various European governments. The ban on Russians working in forestry-related jobs possibly suggests a sinister tendency in current Latvian culture to romanticise and glorify peasant culture and nature, similar to the way in which past Nazi German ideology exalted nature, imbued it with mysticism and linked nature to racial purity and hygiene.

Bizarrely perhaps, the plight of the non-citizens has led them to create their own parliament and related institutions in which they can air their views and problems. The fact that the Latvian Russians have taken matters into their own hands and created underground institutions should fill us with hope. Since joining the EU in 2005 and some years later shifting into the eurozone, Latvia suffered severe hardship as a result of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and remains one of the poorest nations in the EU. The birth rate is falling and the ethnic Latvian population is decreasing as more people vote with their feet to find jobs overseas. Suspicion of Russia and Russians is apparently so strong that politicians in the Saeima wishing for more government regulation of the economy cannot voice their opinion for fear of being labelled disloyal to Latvia. As Latvian society falls into an existential crisis due to external economic and political pressures – at this time of writing in 2014, the country is preparing to host NATO troops, in effect becoming a likely warzone – perhaps the non-citizens might find they can play a useful role in offering an alternative way of doing things, one not following a US-style neoliberal economic and political path that enriches a few at the expense of many yet also one different from what Latvia experienced in the 20th century.

A recent article in European Business Review on this issue can be viewed at this link.

 

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