Fresh ideas: Russia's aggression is felt by all former Soviet bloc countries

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My late uncle's sister's granddaughter Amanda (don't even try to figure it out) age 37, a psychologist, married (but filing for divorce), mother of 4-year-old Maria, and a citizen of Latvia, panicked hearing the news about Russia invading Georgia and took the first plane she could to San Francisco. Latvia is 1,367 miles away from the crisis, so when I heard about Amanda's flight, I wondered if she had been just a bit impulsive.

I should not have been surprised, however. Amanda, who speaks perfect Russian as well as Latvian, will not allow Maria to learn Russian (easier said than done since less than 60 percent of the population is Latvian and roughly 30 percent is Russian, though that percentage is higher in Latvia's largest cities). Neither will Amanda ever choose to eat at a Russian restaurant or shop at a Russian-owned store. Amanda's dislike of most things Russian stems from the fact that she grew up in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia and resents the 50 years of Soviet occupation.

The majority of Latvians, including those who fled Latvia as refugees during World War II, probably feel a similar resentment.

Without going into detail on Latvia's long history (which dates back to Roman times), it's enough to say that Latvia was an independent nation for a mere 22 years " until 1940. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Latvia's subsequent relationship with the Russian Federation has not been exactly cordial because Russia still has the power and the numbers.

Simply put, this is what happened: Latvia lost one-third of its population after it was annexed by the Soviet Union. Russians moved into Latvia to fill the gap and also brought in Communist Party members or "Russianized Latvians" to fill big Communist Party posts. By 1989, with a population of approximately 2.3 million, 905,000 were Russian. In 1935, when Latvia was free, there were 168,300 Russians living in Latvia.

Needless to say, during the occupation, Russian became the primary language in Latvia and Latvian history was distorted or erased. Latvians became second class citizens in their own country.

Today many Russians in Latvia view themselves as "natives" because they were born during the time of Soviet occupation, and they believe it's unfair for Latvia to make Latvian language a criterion for holding Latvian citizenship, since they have never felt the need to learn Latvian.

These Russian enclaves in Latvia, such as one referred to as the Abrene district (more than 1,000 square kilometers) in northeast Latvia, give Russia reason to claim a more-than-disinterested concern about those Russians' "rights." The bitter joke in Latvia is that Russia is more interested in the welfare of Russians in Latvia than it is in the welfare of Russians in Russia. In recent years Russian political leaders refer to the former Soviet republics as their "former Soviet space" and claim that "space" is part of "their sphere of influence."

The Abrene district was recognized as Latvian by the Russians as long ago as the 13th century. After World War I, despite the many ethnic Russians living there (because it's close to the Russian border), the border was drawn making Abrene part of Latvia. When Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944, however, Abrene became part of the Russian SFSR. In 1991, when Latvia broke away from the Soviet Union, it wanted Russia to recognize the 1920 peace treaty and "return" Abrene to Latvia. Russia refused. To facilitate Russia's recognition of Latvia's independence, Latvia put the issue aside in 1996. In January 2007 the Latvian Parliament agreed to sign the treaty, ceding Abrene to Russia. Latvia is not about to rock the boat with Russia.

Latvia's preoccupation with Russia and Russians has to do more, I think, with the fear of eventually losing the Latvian language, and consequently its culture. This may, of course, simply be my own preoccupation and worry. I look at Latvia's corrupt government, the weak economy; the pathetic salaries that have caused many younger Latvians (I believe the figure is around 60,000) to seek jobs as menial workers in both Ireland and the UK. And the Latvian Parliament chooses to send money to Ireland to build Latvian schools there (commendable, maybe, but surely short-sighted) instead of working to improve the economy in Latvia.

When Latvia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvia offered dual citizenship status for those like me -- who had become American citizens. I decided not to take Latvia up on the offer, for the simple reason that I'm a committed American. I didn't want to do anything to ever jeopardize my citizenship here.

What does that suggest? That in the back of my mind I still doubt Russia's word? That my immediate reaction is actually not that much different from Amanda's? That when I read about the Georgia/Russia conflict, I automatically side with Georgia, like most ethnic Latvians do?

The objective observer in me is skeptical about Georgia's motives in provoking the Ossetians to begin with. John McCain's senior foreign advisor is a man named Randy Scheunemann, who was one of the key men in supporting the war in Iraq. He is a friend of Georgia's president Michail Saakashvili. I see all kinds of dark possibilities here that I do not want to believe.

In the end, I am where I have been all of my life: half a Latvian; half an American, and many times feeling like an orphan of the world as a result.

- Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.


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