January 16, 2012
Speaking about languages, at times it seems that Russians, and especially politicians, do not understand how fatal their policies have been.
Overall, the Russian Empire collapsed twice precisely because of its unreasonable Russian language policies. For many decades, for innumerable people, this was the language of the occupiers. It symbolizes oppression, reprisals and arrogance. People do understand that it isn’t reasonable to blame common Russians or the language itself. Even so…
It appears that politicians whose home language is Russian—beginning with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and Nils Ušakovs in the Rīga City Hall—haven’t ultimately understood the lessons of history. Reviewing how 19th and 20th century history is portrayed in Russian language books, it’s rare to find explanations of the destructive role that the Russification policy played, which in large measure ruined and brought to an end the Russian Empire. In fact, the resentment felt by minority nations and their longing for freedom demolished the powerful Russian Empire. In large measure this explains the support of the Bolshevik revolution and Vladimir Lenin by Latvians, Jews and other people. In contemporary times it’s not unusual to hear the conclusion that the 1940 occupation of Latvia by the U.S.S.R. was a symbolic retribution for the Latvian Riflemen’s support of the Red revolution and their participation in the Russian Civil War.
This is a primitive and misleading assertion. Joseph Stalin simply repeated the mistakes of his predecessors. The idea proved to be a fatal tragedy. Both during Czarist Russia and the Soviet regime, Russian chauvinism most frequently manifested itself with the imposition of the Russian language. This engendered opposition, antipathy and hatred. It has to be admitted that even now the wounds from these policies haven’t healed. The Harmony Centre party, with Ušakovs as its head, carelessly ripped open the wound again, most likely because of ignorance. If representatives of the Kremlin support or encourage this policy, then they too haven’t understood its importance. In the beginning of the 20th century similar pressure led to the emergence of anarchists and other radicals. Later they enthusiastically participated in the destruction of the Russian Empire.
When pacifists reach for bombs
Russia’s problems, which continue in contemporary times, began in 1880. In that year Konstantin Pobedonostsev became chief prosecutor of the Holy Synod of Russia, a highly influential position in Czarist Russia. He was a notable person in the Czar’s court—the constitutional rights teacher of both Czar Alexander III and Czar Nikolai II. The British historian Alan Palmer wrote, “Pobedonostsev was a person of strong principles, extremely anti–Semitic and just as hostile toward Catholics, Islamic believers and any form of representative government. (“Parliament in our time produces the greatest of lies,” he wrote in 1896.) He believed in Great Russia’s divine mission and that the blessings were embodied in the highest autocrat—the Emperor of Great Russia.” Many, perhaps, would disagree, but looking at contemporary Russia it is hard not to think that a similar vein of thinking is quite strong. Many continue to feel blessed with a unique mission and an emperor of sorts exists. In huge, rich Russia with its many wise and talented people, the only alternative to Putin is… Putin.
Returning to historical events, Pobedonostsev had enormous power and he began his devasting imperial Russification program and the imposition of the Russian Orthodox religion. The historian Kristīne Volfarte wrote about this: “1888 and the next two years brought great changes to Rīga’s schools, since as a result of the government’s Russification policy, Russian replaced German and Latvian in the classroom. This was an enormous turning point for school children. All subjects, except for religious instruction, were taught in a language that pupils didn’t understand. The law allowed the use of a non–Russian language only in the beginning of the school year, as a temporary teaching aid. The situation became even more acute as a result of the 1893 law that declared that the Russian language was not only the language of instruction, but was the only one allowed to be used in schools. This meant that pupils and students, both during conversations among themselves or with teachers, could speak only in Russian.”
Beginning in 1887, almost all higher education institutions began using the Russian language. The notable University of Tartu in Estonian territory ended, replaced by the University of Yuryev. All legal and legislative matter had to be conducted in the Russian language. The ruthless Russification policy was imposed on all of Czarist Russia’s European lands—from proud Poland, through the Baltics, and even upon self–reliant and peace–loving Finland. In Latvian literature this era was strikingly portrayed in Pāvils Rozītis’ novel The Boys from Valmiera (Valmieras puikas)
This all evoked huge resentment, anger and protests. The Western–leaning, well–educated Baltic people refused to accept the brutality of Russian chauvinism. It was precisely at this time that these small nations understood that they had to escape from the Russian Empire. Palmer wrote, “On June 16, 1904, a young activist, a jurist who worked in the Senate, Eugen Schauman, shot and fatally wounded Bobrikov (Finland’s governor–general), and afterward committed suicide. While vacationing at the Finnish resort in Kotka, Czar Alexander II had once said, ‘Finland! What a wonderful place to live! No one makes bombs, there are no gangsters.’ The foolishness of Russian policy had provoked a member of the most pacifist of nations to engage in murder.”
Without Russification, everything would be different now
In fact, during this time period, a substantial seed of hatred had been sown that’s alive today. The situation became even more inflamed by the unrest of 1905 and the czar’s brutal, punitive death expeditions that ensued. The “White Russians” were never forgiven for this by the future Latvian Riflemen. During the Russian Civil War, the Russian monarchists and “White Cossacks” were especially hated. As the czarist regime weakened, it was precisely representatives of the minorities that were on the front lines of the extremists. After 1905, a constellation of notable Latvian anarchists appeared, some of whom found their way into Lenin’s regime.
Jews fought especially hard against the czar’s regime. Pobedonostsev had been especially evil toward them—arranging deportations, restricting freedom of movement and limiting education opportunities. The infamous pogroms against the Jews came into being at this time. In large measure that explains why Jews joined and supported the Bolshevik conspirators, since they’d suffered so terribly from the czar’s policies. The Finns, for their part, acted according to the principle: we will support the enemies of our enemy. They always provided sanctuary to those extremists who fought against the Czar’s regime. Precisely for this reason, Lenin found refuge in Finland, safe from the Czar’s secret police.
Of course, the czarist regime collapsed for other reasons as well, but the brutal Russification policy gave an enormous impulse for the minorities to oppose the Russian Empire. The language of one’s birth was the foundation on which all of these minorities used to bolster their self–confidence and dreams about freedom. The imposed Russian language was a symbol of repression and arrogant domination. The Russian Empire even as late as 1918-1919 still had hopes of ridding itself of communist conspirators and create a new, modern nation. Yet, they let this chance go due to this same arrogant conceit. The Finns and Estonians were ready to help the monarchist, the White Army General Nikolai Yudenich, crush the Red regime. But the White general and other monarchists refused to promise the smaller nations the freedom to establish their own governments. After hearing this, the Finnish General Carl Gustaf Mannerheim with his army and the Estonians, as well as others, refused to help Yudenich. Lenin, who promised freedom and independence, remained in power. Of course, Lenin had an entirely different understanding about the freedom of minorities, but at that moment, this was the deciding factor.
Leave the beautiful and rich Russian language in peace
What Lenin couldn’t accomplish, Stalin completed in 1940. He actually revived the old empire and once again, in a slightly different form, the Russian language was used as a weapon to oppress the smaller nations and their desire for freedom. A love for the Russian language was once again imposed from above. This time this wasn’t done only with bayonets, but also with tanks, the KGB and trains to Siberian labor camps. The Russian language again came to symbolize repressions, stolen freedom and the arrogance of those believing in their superiority. One’s language of birth became the last and only salvation for the oppressed nations. This is grandly demonstrated by the popular Raimonds Pauls song with Alfrēds Krūklis text, “Why should I sing a foreign song?” (“Kāpēc man dziedāt svešu dziesmu?”). The language of one’s birth was one of the most important values that the Balts and others needed to protect. Precisely for this reason they actively did all to wreck the Soviet regime. Of course, this wasn’t the only reason why it imploded. Even so, the Balts again were at the front lines of the empire’s collapse.
A variety of pseudo–historians and politicians will have a thousand versions of the “true” history, and will claim that “the whole truth is different” and so forth. But, Ušakovs and his supporters should be made aware that this is the Latvian understanding about our history. This is our experience. Latvians never make a joke at the expense of their language. It’s been a hard battle and one that’s occurred for almost 100 years, while experiencing the collapse of various empires.
The only place in the world where it is possible to protect and develop our language is in little Latvia. It’s incomparably smaller than the unimaginably large Russia. Isn’t it possible to leave it in peace?
Isn’t it also possible to leave the beautiful and rich Russian language in peace? It’s a truly wonderful language that Latvians have always appreciated. Isn’t it high time to stop abusing the Russian language for cheap political points? And isn’t it finally time to end using Latvia’s Russians as hostages to the Kremlin’s dubious geopolitical ends?
1 Palmers, Alans (2007). Baltijas jūras valstu un tautu vēsture. Rīga: Atēna.
2 Volfarte, Kristīne, and Ervīns Oberlanders (2004). Katram bija sava Rīga. Rīga: Izdevniecība AGB.
3 Palmers, Alans (2007). Baltijas jūras valstu un tautu vēsture. Rīga: Atēna.
(Editor’s note: This is a translation of a commentary in Latvian, Dižā krievu nacionālisma dievišķais uzdevums, that appeared Jan. 13, 2012, on the TVNET portal. It is published with the permission of the author. Footnotes are translated from the original Latvian text, not their sources.)
Otto Ozols is a writer and publicist, the author of the 2011 Latvian best-seller Latvieši ir visur. Has published over 200 articles and essays on politics, economics and culture. Has facilitated the political discussion program "100. pants" on Latvian TV.