The New York Times on Those Repressive Lativans

The New York Times on Those Repressive Lativans

My piece, “The New York Times on Those Repres­sive Lat­vians” was pub­lished by The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor on 25 Decem­ber 2023, and is reprised here by kind per­mis­sion of the editors.

Latvians in the crosshairs

“In a Baltic Nation, Fear and Sus­pi­cion Stalk Russ­ian Speak­ers,” announced The New York Times on Decem­ber 18th: “In response to the war in Ukraine, Latvia has tar­get­ed res­i­dents with Russ­ian pass­ports as part of efforts to com­bat Moscow’s influence.”

The Times told of two Russ­ian-speak­ing res­i­dents who were informed they must leave the coun­try. The first was born in Latvia 63 years ago. The sec­ond arrived to work in a Sovi­et fac­to­ry in 1980, and took Russ­ian cit­i­zen­ship to get ear­ly retire­ment ben­e­fits. When Latvia regained inde­pen­dence in the 1991 “Singing Rev­o­lu­tion,” it “denied full cit­i­zen­ship to some Russ­ian speak­ers because they could not pass a Lat­vian lan­guage test. They were issued ‘nonci­t­i­zen’ pass­ports, a sta­tus that allowed them to trav­el and guar­an­teed res­i­den­cy and full access to health care and social ben­e­fits. But it shut them out from many gov­ern­ment jobs and nation­al politics.”

The arti­cle does men­tion argu­ments favor­ing Latvia’s poli­cies. Jānis Dom­bra­va, a mem­ber of the Saeima (Par­lia­ment) says: “We can keep those who want to inte­grate but not those who are wait­ing for the return of the Sovi­et Union. They should leave.”

The Times also pro­vides com­ments by the kind and under­stand­ing Russ­ian state media: Latvia is a “fas­cist-led coun­try of Rus­so­phobes intent on cre­at­ing a mono-eth­nic state.” Vladimir Putin said Russ­ian speak­ers are treat­ed “like pigs.” Latvia, he adds, is prepar­ing to dump them on Russia’s bor­der “in wheel­chairs.” This, he warned, would only lead “to clash­es with­in their own country.”

All the news that’s fit to tint

The Times sto­ry was mis­lead­ing in that it cit­ed two exam­ples out of thou­sands. It found both in Dau­gavpils, the clos­est Lat­vian city to Rus­sia, where 80% of the pop­u­lace is Russ­ian-speak­ing. Yet after the article’s ear­ly scare para­graphs, we learn that one woman passed the lan­guage test and had her res­i­den­cy restored. The oth­er woman, who didn’t pass, has not been expelled. Nor, despite “a maze of bureau­cra­cy,” have any others.

“We are not rush­ing to expel any­one,” says Ilze Briede, the head of Latvia’s migra­tion depart­ment. Nobody, she adds, has been deport­ed or is like­ly to be any­time soon. The dead­line for com­pli­ance has been extend­ed until 2025.”

So, before we fix the charge of eth­nic cleans­ing and a new form of Aryan suprema­cy rem­i­nis­cent of the Third Reich, per­haps we should con­sid­er real­i­ty. With Lat­vian fore­bears and hav­ing spent time there, this writer may have some to offer. (I vis­it­ed just after inde­pen­dence, then bicy­cled the 400-mile coast from Lithua­nia to Esto­nia a few years later.)

The other side of the story

Riga Cas­tle (1330), today home to the Pres­i­dent of Latvia. (

1) Latvia is a coun­try where, as Churchill said, the peo­ple own the gov­ern­ment, not the gov­ern­ment the peo­ple; where they elect rep­re­sen­ta­tives to gov­ern them; where they may say what they like and wor­ship as they please. That makes them “peo­ple like us.” (Ukraine, by the way is none of those things—if ban­ning oppo­si­tion par­ties, shut­ting Ortho­dox church­es, and muz­zling the press are any indi­ca­tors.) Latvia is also a NATO mem­ber. Judge that based on where it takes you.

2) Latvia is a wel­com­ing coun­try, and not just to tourists. Pro­por­tion­ate­ly, it has admit­ted more Ukrain­ian refugees than the Unit­ed States: 32,000 to 220,000. Their num­ber is pro­por­tion­al to 560,000 in Amer­i­ca. Ukraini­ans are now the fourth largest eth­nic group after Lat­vians, Rus­sians and Belarusians.

3) Latvia’s sit­u­a­tion is not just 50,000 Russ­ian speak­ers in Dau­gavpils. It’s broad­er than that. When they regained inde­pen­dence, 40% of the pop­u­la­tion was eth­nic Russian—the prod­uct of 50 years of Com­mu­nist oppres­sors shuf­fling Rus­sians in and Lat­vians out. It’s now down to 24% (450,000)–not through pogroms or depor­ta­tions but because many Rus­sians went home when Com­mu­nism end­ed and Latvia reestab­lished its native lan­guage. (Yes, there is a lan­guage test for full cit­i­zen­ship, but only in basic con­ver­sa­tion­al Latvian.)

War and remembrance

The Times is right about one thing: Lat­vians have long mem­o­ries. On my first vis­it, I met a vet­er­an of the Lat­vian Legion (orga­nized by the Ger­mans to fight the Rus­sians, which they did, to a stand­still in May 1945). He showed me flat farm­land where they dug in against oncom­ing Sovi­et tanks—Shermans acquired by Lend-Lease, their white stars hasti­ly repaint­ed red. “But why did you fight with the Nazis?” I asked. “You have to remem­ber,” he said sad­ly: “We had to choose between barbarians.”

On my sec­ond vis­it, we talked his­to­ry with May­or Teodors Eniņš of the coastal city of Liepā­ja (pro­nounced “Lee’-a-pie”). When I said “Churchill” he said “Yalta”—the fate­ful sum­mit con­fer­ence that had con­firmed Sovi­et rule of East­ern Europe. The con­ver­sa­tion drift­ed into “a frank exchange of views,” as the diplo­mats put it.

“You should have nuked them in 1945,” the may­or said qui­et­ly. Tak­en aback, I remon­strat­ed. “We left Yal­ta with promis­es of free elec­tions. It was all we could hope for. The Red Army held half the con­ti­nent. The only alter­na­tive was war. No one would have that.

“More­over” (warm­ing to my sub­ject), “things could have been worse. Greece—thanks to Churchill’s “per­cent­ages agree­ment” with Stal­in in 1944—was lib­er­at­ed. Stal­in agreed to fight Japan.” May­or Eniņš was unde­terred. “You should have fought them,” he repeaatead. “Think of all the trou­ble you would have saved yourselves—not to men­tion us.”

As we stood to leave, he pulled up his shirt, show­ing scars across his stom­ach. As a boy, he and his mates would vis­it the barb-wired beach­es after cur­few, walk­ing back­wards into the water to sim­u­late an inva­sion. He’d been strafed by Sovi­et guards. “They had guns and dogs.” How you think about these things often depends on how you grew up.

Peace and tolerance

The Free­dom Mon­u­ment, Riga by Kārlis Zāle, 1935, sur­vived the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion. The inscrip­tion trans­lates, “For Father­land and Free­dom.” (Pho­to by Vir­tu­al-Pano, Cre­ative Commons)

Giv­en such atti­tudes, you might think Lat­vians would hate Rus­so­phones, but you’d be wrong. The his­to­ri­an Owen Rut­ter wrote of the repub­lic in 1925: “To any­one who had seen the Lat­vian peo­ple at war, their gen­tle tol­er­ance in peace was per­plex­ing. By the bru­tal­ly intol­er­ant stan­dards so com­mon in the world now, one would expect the Lat­vians to have deport­ed all the Baltic Ger­mans, levied dis­crim­i­na­to­ry tax­es on the Jews…. Instead they pro­nounced amnesty for those who had fought against them [and offered] minori­ties full cit­i­zen­ship and free education.”

There were remark­able reforms: by allow­ing women to vote dur­ing the momen­tary Russ­ian elec­tions in 1905, Latvia became the first dis­trict in Europe with female suf­frage; this con­tin­ued dur­ing Latvia’s inde­pen­dence. The recent com­ments by Jānis Dom­bra­va and Ilze Briede show this atti­tude remains.

It’s odd, don’t you think? We nev­er read any arti­cles about Lat­vians scat­tered across Rus­sia, who nev­er got home because of “a maze of bureau­cra­cy,” or oth­er rea­sons. They don’t fit the Times narrative—which seems always that civ­i­lized democ­ra­cies are as bad as all those oth­er countries.

The Times even declares that accord­ing to Ger­man poll­sters, 53% of Russ­ian speak­ers in Latvia view Putin neg­a­tive­ly. You could prob­a­bly bet­ter that num­ber if you asked Russ­ian speak­ers in Russia—provided they dared give an hon­est answer.

Related articles

“Churchill and the Baltic States: From the Sec­ond World War to Lib­er­a­tion,” 2018.

“Churchill and the Baltic”: Part 1 of a four-part essay, Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, 2017.

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