The Latvian Ethnic Identity
The Following is an essay that I wrote on Latvian ethnic identity while at university. It's a little heavy for the casual reader - it is an academic essay - but I think it is still quite accessible to the average person. If you have any questions or comments, please post below and I will do my best to respond.
The concept of ethnic identity as an ideologically constructed myth is the primary concern of constructivism. Whereas primordialism and instrumentalism take ethnic identity to be real -either based on an innate feeling of loyalty or as a rational response situational constraints, respectively- constructivists describe nationalism and ethnic identity "as phenomena that are socially constructed ... products of human thought and action" (Yeros, 1999, p. 1; Brown, 2000, p. 20). Accordingly, constructivists deny that nations are real, substantive entities, suggesting instead that "the perception by those involved that they are real should be understood as a form of ideological consciousness which filters reality, rather than reflects it" (Brown, 2000, p. 20). Therefore, constructivists perceive ethnic identity as a process in the mind of the subject, constantly under negotiation through social interactions, as opposed to an objective reality.
In this essay, I will discuss two major formulations of the constructivist approach that are useful for analysing Latvian ethnic identity: Quasi-Marxism and post-modernism. I will begin with a discussion on the quasi-Marxist variant of constructivism and the role of the intellectual elite in the initial construction of the Latvian ethnic identity. I will then describe the role of discursive practices constructed around native folklore, folksongs, peasant traditions and Latvia's inter-war 'golden age' in the ongoing construction of the Latvian identity during and after Soviet occupation.
In order to discuss the beginnings of Latvian nationalism it may be useful to first distinguish between two conceptualisations: ‘Orthodox’ Marxism and the constructivist, Quasi-Marxist formulation. Orthodox Marxism describes nationalism as a tool or instrument of the ruling class, a “secular sequel to the religious illusion” ((Block, 1984, pp. 30-31); (Cocks, 1997, p. 52)). From this perspective, the ruling class uses its "disproportionate access to organisational resources" to construct a national identity that suits its own rational purpose (Skocpol, 1980, p. 160). The constructivist approach differs from the orthodox Marxist conception because it insists that the ruling elites are “seeking to articulate their own identity constructions, as well as mobilising those of others" (Brown, 2009). One interpretation of the constructivist perspective specifies that an "overproduction of high-skill professionals by the scientific state" coupled with "frequent cultural discrimination" will motivate the intelligentsia to “rediscovered and reappropriated a selective ethno-history out of the pre-existing myths, symbols and traditions to be found in the historical record and in the living memories of 'the people', the mainly rural strata" (Smith A. D., 1998, p. 189 & 194). This particular interpretation is relevant in the initial construction of the Latvian identity.
From the 12th to 19th centuries, Latvia had been occupied by Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians; there was little sense of national identity among the peasants that inhabited the region (Smith G. , 1996, p. 148). Serfdom and controls on migration imposed by the occupiers limited the intellectual and social boundaries of ethnic Latvians and Latvian 'high culture' was dominated by the German landowning classes (Smith G. , 1996, p. 148; Zake, 2007, p. 325). By the 19th century Latvia had come under Russian rule and the Imperial administration was attempting to counter German cultural dominance by creating a new Russian-educated intelligentsia from the rural population (Zake, 2007, p. 325).
In order pursue a successful career in the Baltic cities at the time, one had to leave behind one's peasant background and assimilate into either the German or Russian culture (Plakans, 1995, p. 92). Yet the construction of Latvian nationalism did not originate in the Baltic cities nor in the farming regions "but in a somewhat exiled situation among students and teachers in Russia" (Zake, 2007, p. 315). These students and teachers were to form a group known as the 'young Latvians' - a name which is indicative of Moscow's failure to Russify their newly created intelligentsia (Pabriks, 1999, p. 34).
As the young Latvians "worked hard on acquiring an education and absorbed diverse cultural influences, they could not help but feel that they were viewed as inferior and were even expected to feel ashamed of their social [peasant] origins" (Zake, 2007, p. 314). They were inspired by German romantic nationalism and "the reformatory spirit and ideas of German, French and English humanists" and began to construct their own nationalism based their rural class background (Zake, 2007, p. 313; Pabriks, 1999, p. 33).The main goal of the young Latvians was to eliminate the perception of their own “cultural and social inferiority", to this end they began to hold meetings and discussions about history, literature and politics in order to prove that a Latvian culture could "compete with other nations in all spheres of life" (Pabriks, 1999, p. 33).
Because the farmer lifestyle had existed outside of the German and Russian dominated urban life, the young Latvians could point to it "as the 'organic' repository of the national essence" (Zake, 2007, p. 316). However, since the farmers that embodied and practiced true Latvianness were "hardly were aware of having lived as a distinct ethnic group" the intelligentsia took it upon themselves to substantialise and disseminate this unique identity, deciding "which aspects of the rural lifestyle could now become sources of Latvian culture and which could not" (Zake, 2007, p. 316).The Young Latvians began by collecting, classifying and publishing Latvian folk songs and folklore; next they set out to develop and distinguish the Latvian language and finally -realizing that Latvian at the time was unable to adapt to advanced philosophical and scientific ideas- they began to invent rules for creating new 'Latvian' words (Zake, 2007, pp. 317-318).
At this point it is important to emphasize that before 1914, Latvian nationalism was more cultural than political and "no organised mass movement or mobilising political force developed from this early nationalism of the nineteenth century" ( Lieven, 1994, p. 51; Zake, 2007, p. 315). In fact, many of the first generation of intelligentsia were married to or had benefited from the patronage of Russian and Baltic Germans and because of their divided loyalties "there were at least as many who wanted to coexist with Baltic Germans as there were those who wanted to displace them" (Plakans, 1995, p. 92). Therefore, the notion of 'Latvian people' and 'Latvian culture' owes much to the young Latvian's "restless sense of inferiority" and their determination to enter the world of the intellectual elites on nationalistically equal terms as opposed to any attempt to form separatist goals (Zake, 2007, pp. 308-325).
Hand-in-hand with the young Latvian’s effort to construct a Latvian identity, was the timely combination of print capitalism and "the Lutheran imperative to use vernacular languages" vis-a-vis Anderson’s imagined communities (Plakans, 1995, pp. 40-57); (1994). According to Anderson, the practical requirements of print-capitalism lead "rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profound new ways" and added a new 'fixity' to languages that had not existed before they were committed to print (Anderson, 1994, pp. 90 & 93-94).
We may note that the rise in Latvian nationalism coincided with the increase in the number of books published in the Latvian language. After the Great Northern War and the plague of 1710/11 only 5 books were published in the ten years up until 1721. However, in the eighty year period between 1755 to 1835, publishers quickly ramped up production and nearly 100 titles were published, on average, each decade (Plakans, 1995, pp. 67-68). While correlation does not always indicate causality, Anderson's argument fits the Latvian scenario well given that without print-capitalism it is hard to imagine the preservation, consolidation and dissemination of Latvian language, folk songs and folk-tales -all of which are considered to be fundamental symbols of the Latvian identity by modern day Latvians.
As soon as the young Latvians began to identify the culture, folk law and oral traditions of what was to become the Latvian nation, they realised "that language had an enormous power and its development would ensure the future of the" Latvian identity (Zake, 2007, p. 318). From the beginnings of Latvian nationalism in Russia, to inter-war period, and even today, the Latvian language is recognised as a cornerstone of Latvian identity. Even throughout the Soviet occupation when Russian was the exclusive dominant language in official spheres including government, transport, higher education and highly qualified employments, "the provisions for the Latvian language" in the media and institutional support for it as a medium of Latvian culture ensured that it remained pivotal to the Latvian way of life"( (Adrey, 2005, pp. 457-458); (Smith G. , 1996, p. 154)).
However, the importation of Russian labour during the occupation left those who identified themselves as ethnic Latvians (52% of the population at the time) questioning their "chances for linguistic and cultural continuity" after the restoration (Pabriks, 2003, p. 3). While nearly 70% of Latvians claimed proficiency in Russian in 1989, 'asymmetrical societal bilingualism' - diglossia- had created a situation in which only 22.3% of Russians, 18.0% of Belarusians, and 9.8% of Ukrainians were able to claim proficiency in Latvian" ( (Ginkel, 2002, p. 420); (Adrey, 2005, pp. 457-458)). As a result there was widespread support for diglossia-reversing language policies designed to re-invigorate the use of the Latvian language which was seen as in danger of extinction (Adrey, 2005, p. 458).
In 1992, the Latvian Language Law was introduced making Latvian the only official state language (Adrey, 2005, p. 458). These laws alienated much of the Russian population, leaving them stateless (due to the language requirements of citizenship) and unable to fill out official documents without re-education or assistance from a translator.
Seeking a more diplomatic approach, in 1995, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiated the National Program for Latvian Language Training (NPLLT), a comprehensive Latvian language program developed to promote ethnic cooperation (McMahon, 2007, p. 174). This program was aimed at bridging the language divide between Latvian and Russian speakers, and stimulating common values (McMahon, 2007, p. 174). The NPLLT may be judged as a success in terms of its role in containing ethnic conflict however, as the European Commission's annual Regular Report on Latvia noted in 2002, the EU and OSCE still had "concerns regarding the naturalization and effective political participation of minorities in the context of restrictive language laws" (Sasse, 2009, p. 23). In Russia, the position on the issue of Russian language rights became increasingly hostile culminating with the " threat by the Vice-speaker of the Russian State Council that Russia's armed forces may move into the Baltic States if they continue to 'offend the big neighbour'" (LCHRES cited in (Adrey, 2005, p. 461)).
Issues of language rights continue today in Latvia with many Russian speakers refusing to learn the Latvian language. Some are even pinning their hopes on a new 'Russian occupation' as Latvia is forced to contend with the arrival of illegal workers from Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine as well as the gap left by Latvians who have left in search of a better life in Western Europe (Bilefsky, 2006). It appears that the precarious situation of the Latvian language and the discriminatory policy it induces will continue to be a source of tension in Latvia for the foreseeable future.
The works of Michel Foucault show how "discourses regulate what can be said, what can be thought and what is considered true or false, legitimate or illegitimate." (Mole, 2007, p. 278). In this sense, discourse does not describe an objective reality but rather acts as a "medium through which reality is created and the material world is given meaning" (Wennerstein cited in Mole, 2007, p. 274). It is through discourse that the "emblems, hymns, festivals, habits, customs, linguistic codes, sacred places and the like" are given meaning, associated with national identity and disseminated ( Mole, 2007, p. 277; Smith, 1998, p. 191) . It is through discourse, that we remember shared histories of liberation, migration, golden ages, victories and defeats and in doing so define ourselves and our ethnicity with reference to the 'other' (Smith, 1998, p. 191). Once defined, the 'other' becomes part of a theme of danger which in turn becomes "instrumental in fixing (state) borders" (Jaeger, 2000, p. 18).
Latvians, in defining themselves, have "a rich variety of pre-Soviet national symbols" to draw upon including a golden age spanning the democratic year of statehood and a vast collection of folk songs and traditions. After the Soviet occupation however, an ongoing feeling of insecurity has led Latvian's to define themselves in part by the Soviet occupation and with reference to the Russian minority 'other'.
The First World War devastated all of Europe, but out of the ashes of all of this destruction - and after a brief war of liberation against both Germany and Russia - the new state of Latvia was formed and a freely elected Constitutional Assembly was convened on May 1st 1920 (The Latvian Institute, 2008). What was to follow would be Latvia's 'Golden Age': A 19 year period of economic prosperity, positive social change and a thriving Latvian culture between WW1 and WW2 that would prove inspirational to Latvians throughout the occupation and during the restoration of independence -from the Soviet Union - over 50 years later.
Apart from consolidating Latvian culture and traditions, the inter-war period had two major political consequences that enabled the success of the restoration of independence in 1990. Firstly, despite the increasing pressure of Russification, there was clearly a concerted effort -both in Latvia and amongst the Diaspora in countries such as Australia and the US - to maintain the language and traditions that would allow Latvians to continue to identify themselves as a distinct group. Many new literary talents emerged during the Soviet occupation and the theatre became a popular place were good Latvian could be heard (Pabriks, From Nationalism to Ethnic Policy: The Latvian Nation in the Present and in the Past, 1999). Internationally, the Diaspora vigilantly maintained Latvian cultural awareness through Sunday schools, Latvian choirs, fraternities and demonstrations. There is little doubt that the persistence of Latvian culture owes much to the inter-war period's success juxtaposed with the subsequent oppression and stagnation of Soviet rule.
Secondly, one of the interesting parts of Latvia's independence was the relative lack bloodshed, the restoration "was achieved peacefully and with the support of a large number of ethnic Russians in Latvia" (Ginkel, 2002, p. 426). This was not only due to the fact that the discussion was prudently framed in civic rather than ethnic terms - see below- but also because Latvian political leaders were able to point with pride "to the republic's treatment of ethnic minorities, particularly Russians, in the interwar period" (Ginkel, 2002, p. 416). In fact while some Latvian nationalist would have preferred to have an ethnically congruent state " they did not dear to challenge the legacy of the inter-war republic" (Pabriks, 2003, p. 76). This offered some satisfaction to the Soviet leadership that Latvian nationalism and independence would not result in ethnic violence.
In fact the initial independence movement in Latvia was a civic based nationalism and did not pose a threat to the maintenance of soviet authority (Ginkel, 2002, p. 420) . The Environment Protection Club (VAK) formed in 1987 in response to plans to construct a hydroelectric complex on the Daugava River but it also "campaigned for the preservation of historic monuments and symbols, folklore and culture, thus combining 'think green' with 'think patriotic'" (Pabriks, 2003, p. 62). This reawakening of Latvian folk culture highlighted the fact that Latvian culture had significant values, eroding inferiority complexes and activating an identity that was in competition with the Soviet identity (Ginkel, 2002, p. 421).
Then in 1988, the creative unions called for discussion on "how intellectuals should deal with the consequences of Stalinism" and "[o]n June 1 and 2 a conference took place discussing contemporary social and economic problems including" including migration, the unjust distribution of flat and the privileges of Soviet military personnel (Pabriks, 2003, p. 63). During the conference the Soviet regime was challenged by one of its own: Mavriks Vulfson, a journalist and professor of Academy of Art who stated publicly "that in 1940 Latvia was violently occupied by Soviet military forces" a brave statement that would previously have resulted in deportation to Siberia or committal to a mental hospital (Pabriks, 2003, p. 64). This declaration legitimated opposition to the Soviet regime in the eyes of the ethnic Latvians and lead to the foundation of the Latvian National Independence Movement and the Latvian Popular Front (PFL) in 1988 (Pabriks, 2003, p. 64).
The PFL was careful not to provide justification for a Soviet crackdown by framing Latvian nationalism as civic nationalism, according to Ginkel:
[T]he PFL's leadership painted a scenario in which it was the republic itself that was fighting for democratic freedom. There were no protest manifestoes or wild speeches that proclaimed that Latvians were going to take back their republic as an exclusive homeland for ethnic Latvians ... Similarly important was the 'Baltic Way,' a human chain of 2,000,000 Baltic residents in the three republics which connected Tallinn, Riga, and Lithuania in August 1989. The event commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It reinforced the idea that the three Baltic republics were united in an act of redress against Soviet excesses. Latvian nationalist agitation was couched as a greater political movement, not as battle between Latvians and Russians for control of the territory
(2002, p. 424 & 426)
After the restoration, much of the political discourse in Latvia has shifted toward a more paranoid, insecure ethnic nationalism. Fears of being subsumed by its powerful neighbour despite nearly 20 years of freedom from Soviet occupation have became ritualised along with the independence memory (Jaeger, 2000, p. 25). The Latvian National Security concept even brought the paranoid discourse of the 'enemy within' law stating that "[s]ince the external threat of [to] Latvia can be related to efforts of neighbouring countries to destabilise internal situation in Latvia, it is impossible to shift external threat from internal one clearly" (cited in (Jaeger, 2000, p. 25)). Such statements are clearly directed at Russia and Russians residing in Latvia, thus casting them as the threatening other and alienating a large minority of Latvian residents (Mole, 2007, p. 274).
I would like to finish the discussion on discourse with an instructive quote highlighting the ability of words to grant or in this case steal one's identity.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga, former president of Latvia, on the media reaction to her appointment as the first female president of Latvia:
The newspaper reports about it were about first woman president elected... in the former Soviet Republic of Latvia, and I got that phrase so often from journalists visiting and I saw it so often in print that eventually I actually would say right out to anybody who would dare to pronounce it in my sight to go and wash out their mouths with soap ... I found it intolerable that a country that had gained its independence in November 18, 1918... who had the misfortune of course to be under Soviet occupation and to be incorporated into the Soviet Union for half a century, this is no excuse to take away its identity by calling it a former Soviet Republic
(Vike-Freiberga, 2008, pp. 5:50-7:10)
Originally constructed by culturally egalitarian intellectuals and the emergence of print-capitalism, discursive practices revolving around native folklore, folksongs and peasant traditions, combined with a 'golden age' of national prosperity and discourses on language rights are responsible for the construction of the Latvian identity.
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