Popular Russian singer and songwriter Boris Grebenshikov and his band Akvarium began performing in 1973. His first global release, Russian Songwriter, was issued in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors)
The summer of 1998 was a good time to be a young American-Latvian. Of course, any time is good to be a young American-Latvian, but that summer was particularly good, especially if you happened to find yourself in Rīga during the Song and Dance Festival.
For a couple of weeks that July, thousands of young diaspora Latvians—from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Sweden and Germany—descended upon Rīga to attend the festivities. Some came to dance, others to sing, though the majority were there simply to enjoy the show. But everybody, absolutely everybody was there to celebrate and have a good time in summery Rīga, where the sun shone almost every day and the cobbled streets of the Old City were filled with dancing and song.
At night, the central meeting place for the young crowd of American-Latvians was the courtyard behind Paddy Whelan’s, a bar on Grēcinieku iela. Practically every evening during the festival, the courtyard was packed with people hoisting heavy mugs of beer, bursting into spontaneous bouts of singing and occasionally pushing aside the wooden tables to perform an impromptu Latvian folk dance routine. As I recall, “Perkonītis duncināja” was the dance of choice at Paddy Whelan’s, and the preferred tune was a shaky rendition of “Ai, jel manu vieglu prātu,” a recently revived folksong made popular by Jauns Mēness, that we had learned for the first time that summer. For many of us, that song was one of the most important things we brought home to America, where it would be belted out, perpetually incomplete, at Latvian gatherings for the next several years.
But as soon as Paddy Whelan’s closed, not long after midnight, the crowd would shift to another favorite location: the beer garden in Dome Square, which stayed open all night during the festival. Everybody moved as a tightly knit group, weaving up Grēcinieku iela to Skārņu, then hanging a left and shuffling past St. Peter’s Church and the all-night grocery store on Šķūņu, a favorite stop for a microwaved kotlete on a bun. Eventually we’d all settle at a spot near the edge of Dome Square, at a cluster of tables conveniently located beside a row of pay phones, for which we had all prepaid calling cards, and across from the Lido restaurant, which had free restrooms inside. For many people that summer, those late-night walks were the only chance to see the local scenery, for they spent almost the entire week of the festivities sitting in the pubs of Rīga, where a frothy mug of beer, placed atop a thick coaster, cost just 60 santīms.
Sometimes, though, too many mugs of that hoppy brew would cause a few members of the young American-Latvian delegation to veer off the beaten path, so to speak, and find themselves in the terra incognita of the nocturnal Old City—meaning anything that wasn’t located somewhere on the way between Paddy Whelan’s and Dome Square. One evening an acquaintance of mine stumbled out of the midnight parade between beer gardens and somehow struck up a conversation with a group of teenagers sitting on a bench. I headed after him, to make sure he didn’t get into any trouble, and found my acquaintance quickly launching into a discussion about the moral dimension of sociolinguistics. For my acquaintance had discovered his new friends having a conversation that mixed two languages: Latvian and Russian.
This mixing of languages was too much for my acquaintance (let’s call him Andrejs) to bear. Never mind the fact that all of us had been mixing two languages—English and Latvian—our entire lives, and certainly all evening long. In fact, our accustomed linguistic cocktail had been the source of much amusement for the bartenders at Paddy Whelan’s, who always chuckled at our ability to switch flawlessly between English and Latvian, often within the confines of a single sentence. But somehow the fact that the young teenagers on the bench were using Russian as the second element in the mix—the orange juice chaser to the vodka shot of Latvian, or perhaps the other way around—caused Andrejs to erupt into indignant anger.
“Why are you speaking the occupier’s tongue!” he bellowed in heavily accented and slightly slurred Latvian as I stood beside him, futilely trying to get him to leave the matter alone and come back to the crowd. Looking back, I’m surprised that both of us didn’t get punched in the face, though I’m sure the two teenagers looked upon us as such oddities that the normal reaction to this confrontational situation simply didn’t register.
“Your thinking has been poisoned!” he continued. “Growing up in the Soviet Union has poisoned your thinking, and your language!”
The teenager who had been speaking Russian had a very simple explanation for his behavior. Very calmly, he replied to my friend, “The Russian language is a beautiful language. In what other language can you say…” And here he launched into a lengthy declamation in the “occupier’s tongue.” Of course, neither my friend nor I understood anything he said, because we had never learned Russian. At the time, I knew no more than two words: nyet and da, and these I had learned from popular American 1980s action movies, which always portrayed Russians as the bad guys. I was a little taken aback by the fluency of his speech, and the words did indeed sound quite ornate, albeit impenetrable.
But Andrejs certainly didn’t think so. His critique of this declamation was categorical.
“I thank God I was born and raised in America, so my thinking is still pure. And you can go back to where you belong. Go back to Russia.” Here he extended his arm and pointed his finger unsteadily to the east.
At this Andrejs’s two interlocutors simply smiled. Both of them had enough presence of mind to realize the irony of the situation: a college student born and raised in America telling two native Latvians to go back where they belonged. The natural answer to such an accusation would be to tell Andrejs to go back where he belonged, and then send him on his way with a swift uppercut to the jaw—just like in those ‘80s action movies—but they didn’t have enough time to finally decide on this course of action because I grabbed Andrejs by the elbow and pulled him back in the direction of Dome Cathedral. But he continued shouting, “Go back to where you belong!” and pointing toward what he believed to be the east. But in fact he just as well could have been pointing west, because one of the differences between Rīga and a typical American city is that the Latvian capital wasn’t built on a clear axis of cardinal compass points. In Rīga, it’s almost impossible to tell which way is west and which way is east. It’s not so simple to get your bearings.
* * *
A few years later, after I graduated from college, I packed up my bags and moved to Rīga. I had made several close “local Latvian” friends and acquaintances over the years, and therefore had a community of people waiting for me on the other end. Interestingly, the words of that teenager sitting on the bench back in 1998 would repeat themselves over the years, both before and after my move to Latvia. I would often hear my friends talk about the beauty of the Russian language, and the speaker’s ability to say things in Russian that just could not be expressed in Latvian, due to the wider, more colorful linguistic range of the Russian language, especially when dealing with the metaphysical and matters of aesthetics. They would weave Russian phrases into stories about their past, particularly of their childhoods in the late 1970s and ‘80s. They would regularly use words like “expansiveness” and “greatness of soul” to characterize the Russians they knew, and would regularly recount unexpectedly brilliant things that Russians on the street told them—of course, in untranslatable phrases of heart-wrenching beauty.
Another ritual that my friends indulged in, and which I was prevented from enjoying due to my lack of Russian, was communal sessions of listening to music by the Russian singer-songwriter Boris Grebenshikov. The scene reminded me of similar moments at college, when my roommates would sit around the stereo after late-night parties, singing along to Leonard Cohen. But instead of mournful tunes about lost loves and torn raincoats, Grebenshikov sang about life as a listless wanderer in Leningrad during the Soviet period, about drinking vodka in communal apartment kitchens and then waking up the next morning in a room filled with hazy cigarette smoke. All of this was explained to me by my friends, though the details, they always claimed, were practically untranslatable. So I would just sit back and enjoy Grebenshikov’s sweet, faintly trembling tenor wash over me, content in my ignorance.
And ignorant I remained. Though my friends always said that I should learn Russian, in order to understand Grebenshikov and finally comprehend some of those beautiful, untranslatable phrases, I always brushed it aside.
“Oh, Russian’s too hard,” I’d say, or I’d claim not to have any time, though I somehow always found the time to spend long mornings lying in rooms filled with hazy cigarette smoke.
But the real reason was something deeper. I was, in the end, a product of the same culture that produced my eastern-pointing acquaintance Andrejs. We had been raised not just to uphold the Latvian language (this was, after all, the point of the diaspora community: to keep the language and culture alive), but also, as a necessary corollary, to hate the Russians, who had occupied our grandparents’ country and forced them to leave for foreign shores. Ruck Fussia! Nyet, nyet, Soviet! Hands off Latvia! The Russians were the ones who had Russified Latvia and jeopardized the very survival of the Latvian people. They had contaminated the purity of Latvia, and had used the Russian language to aid its destruction—these were the catchphrases of the nineties, though many continue to uphold them even today.
But living in Latvia, it’s hard to uphold these conviction. Rather, maintaining them sooner impedes your progress in living here rather than aids it. They simply prevent you from experiencing the bountiful mix of languages and cultures that make Rīga a unique place. Rīga is a multicultural and multilingual city, and always has been. Latvian is the official language, and will certainly remain so, but you hear Russian everywhere you go—on the street, in stores, at the playground. You also hear it during late-night conversations with your friends, particularly when they have had a few drinks, decide to put on some music by Grebenshikov, and then go searching for just the right album in an old suitcase filled with scratched-up compact discs in broken cases, alongside other relics from their past. Without a knowledge of Russian, this communal past—my friends’ past and the stockpile of memories that defines who they are—as well as a very present dimension of the city in which I lived, would remain impenetrable to me, firmly shut in a dusty old suitcase, the keys lost forever.
* * *
What finally made me decide to change my mind about learning Russian arrived, oddly enough, in the form of the French language. Though I had no time to learn Russian, I somehow found the time to study French at the French embassy’s Cultural Center in Rīga, an effort that I hoped would lead to my finding a well-paying, comfortable job in Brussels (though all it would prove to give me in the end was a shelf full of French children’s books that I can read to my kids at bedtime, much to their dismay, and an ability to incorporate scenes of ordering fluently in French at a café into my wistful daydreams of Brussels-based bureaucratic paradise). But while I was studying French, I had the benefit of taking private lessons from my teacher, Olga, at a café in the Old City, in exchange for some lessons in English.
During one of our conversations over croissants and lattes, I asked Olga about why she, an ethnic Russian, decided to become a French teacher. What had attracted her to the French language? What it some sort of throwback to Tolstoy-era St. Petersburg, where the aristocracy spoke better French than Russian?
Her answer was quite surprising. Growing up in Imanta, a mikrorajons of squalid block-style apartment buildings near Jūrmala, Olga never though of herself as a Russian per se; she was simply a resident of Imanta, an area that she still spoke of patriotically, praising its traditional association with Soviet sailors and the wisdom they brought back from the sea. When she started school, at a predominantly Latvian school in central Rīga, she quickly discovered that she spoke Latvian with a strong Russian accent, and was eventually grouped in with the other Russian kids. This association probably would have been fine, if she hadn’t spent the early summers of her youth with a relative who lived across the border in Russia. It was here that she was taunted by the local children, who laughed at her Latvian accent when she spoke and the strange Latvianized phrases she used when speaking Russian. They chided her: “What kind of Russian are you, speaking like that?” At an early age, Olga was forced to realize that she was neither really Latvian nor really Russian: she spoke both languages imperfectly, at least according to the standards of those who considered the language their own.
This search for identity was strikingly similar to the stories often heard from American-Latvians, particularly the first and second generations. Many diaspora Latvians speak of being marginalized at school on account of their imperfect command of English, having spent the first few years of their lives speaking only Latvian at home. Later, even after perfecting English, they speak of feeling distinctly different from their peers, of feeling more Latvian than American—a conviction that is only heightened as they grow older and spend more of their free time with the Latvian community, as opposed to their American colleagues and neighbors. But the first contact with Latvians from Latvians—with their long-lost cousins and relatives—always proves the same thing: that they in fact speak the Latvian language rather awkwardly, and share few of the mores and mannerisms of those born and raised in the motherland. Latvians from Latvia often cannot hide their distinct impression that their brethren from across the sea are simply Americans through and through, regardless of their ethnic heritage.
In other words, Olga’s story—the story of many Russians in Latvia—is much like the story of American-Latvians. Except that Olga, in order to minimize her sense of lacking a firm identity in the Latvian or the Russian languages, sought refuge in French, which she mastered completely. Olga spoke of the comfort she felt being in the French language. It was here that she finally felt at home. In that language, she could finally be herself, without any imposed baggage of ethnicity or national identity. In the French language, she could speak without the burden of association with a particular ethnic group. She simply spoke French, perfectly. When she traveled to France, people simply accepted her as a fellow French-speaker and left it at that.
This insight into the difficult search for identity that many Russians in Latvia had to go through gave me a renewed, or at least a taste-it-again-for-the-first-time, interest in learning more about the people who wandered the same streets as I did. By learning Russian, I could hear many stories like Olga’s—stories quite different from those of my Latvian friends’—which would give me further insight into the experiences of those many people who call Latvia home. But if you don’t speak the language, these people remain simply faces in the crowd—Russians, a mass of people in fur coats and leather jackets, without individual characteristics. A mass of people who are therefore the perfect targets for paroxysms of anger on the part of many American-Latvians. For the frustration of not having an identity either in Latvia or in the United States—a dilemma that was driven home precisely when visiting in Latvia—needs a place to be directed. But unlike the frustration felt by people like Olga, who sought solace in learning French and assuming a new, neutral identity, the frustration of many American-Latvians is vented in anger at a third party, rendered into a muted, homogeneous mass: “the Russians,” “the occupiers.”
Of course, this invective is explained and rationalized in various ways. The Russians are threatening the existence of the Latvian language, for instance, or threatening the sovereignty of the Latvian state. These justifications remain largely unfounded concerns: the Latvian language is doing just fine, and is well protected by a couple million speakers and even its own Microsoft Office language pack, and the sovereignty of the Latvian state is guarded now by both E.U. inclusion and the strong arm of NATO. The adoption of Russian as an official language in Latvia is far from a real possibility, and remains the paranoid delusion of people who know little about the realities of life in Latvia. You can come to Latvia and live here for eight years without speaking a single word of Russian, as I did. (You can also live here for many years without speaking a single word of Latvian, as many American and British expatriots still do.) You can even get a job in Brussels translating speeches into Latvian for the benefit of delegates to the European Parliament, where Latvian is one of twenty-three official languages.
So why not learn Russian? Why willfully prevent yourself from conversing with more than a million inhabitants of Riga? Why deprive yourself of understanding the poetry of Grebenshikov, or even the jokes regularly told by most Latvians over the age of twenty-five? Why keep yourself from hearing stories from people like Olga, which remain an important part of the collective past of the Latvian nation? What is the point of keeping alive a prejudice passed down from previous generations? As an American-Latvian, it was particularly difficult for me to answer these questions, because America is a country supremely welcoming of differences and founded on respect for the other, regardless of ethnic heritage. Most of the Russians living in Latvia today are the children and grandchildren of parents who fled from the wretched mid-century living conditions of war-torn inland Russia, seeing the glinting shores of Latvia as promises of a better life. In many ways, their destiny is remarkably similar to the fate of Latvians who fled to America during the war. Then why do wartime refugees to America and their children chose to condemn, instead of seek to understand, their spiritual doubles in Latvia, even going so far as to demand that they return from whence they came, waggling a crooked finger in the approximate direction of the East?
* * *
After grappling with these questions and finally exposing my own inherited prejudices, I decided on a course of action. I sought out the oldest social networking site known to man—the barber shop—and inquired after a Russian teacher. My barber was eventually able to put me in contact with the very best teacher in the city—a poet, of course, as all the best Russian teachers must be, and a respected translator of Latvian verse into Russian. Not only has my world been enriched by knowing a fascinating and, of course, properly great-souled individual who I might never have known before, but I have also made progress in learning what I once thought was something forever locked to me. Pronouncing the complex knots of Russian words has unleashed whole dimensions of sound that I never thought I would hear coming from my lips, and given me the chance to exercise my brain with new words and linguistic constructions. Russian has provided insight not only into the Latvian language, which often functions according to similar principles as Russian, but also into the nature of language and meaning as a whole. With a little more work, the entire vast expanse of Russian literature—much of it written just a few hundreds miles from Riga—will be opened at my feet, along with an entire wealth of music, film, and culture.
Besides the insight it has provided into language and culture, Russian has also revealed entirely new vistas of the Latvian capital for me, uncovering parts of the city that I had never seen before, or rather never understood. I can read signs on the streets, messages posted on utility poles and bulletin boards, and labels affixed to products. I can catch words from the people who pass me on the sidewalk, and follow snippets of conversations they are having on their phones, making the simple act of walking down the street a more multi-dimensional experience than ever before. Most importantly, of course, I can also conduct simple conversations with the Russians I meet every day, with whom conversation was always stilted in the past, owing to our inability to communicate freely. We can switch between Latvian and Russian, using our combined knowledge of the two to arrive at a common understanding. I can finally be like my friends, who use their knowledge of multiple languages to enrich their lives and expand their circles of contacts, their sources of information, and their wellsprings of inspiration—in other words, to make the act of living an infinitely more manifold experience.
Now that I’ve learned some basic Russian, I can also understand many of the phrases tossed around by Latvians who grew up with the two languages, particularly when the conversations veers toward the past or the metaphysical. At the same time, I can also hear how poorly most younger Latvians speak Russian, with incorrect declensions, conjugations, and inflections, and sentences comprised totally of Latvian accents and intonations. So with a little work, it’s easy to surpass the Russian vocabulary of most Latvians under 25, and with a little more concerted effort it’s quite possibility to speak with more grammatical precision than most Latvians under 35, most of whom didn’t learn Russian formally in school and can’t really tell you why a phrase is or is not correct.
This discovery is a direct refutation of the oft-expressed belief in the American-Latvian community that it is impossible to get a job in Latvia if you don’t speak Russian. This simply isn’t true. Though most job descriptions list Russian as a prerequisite, this is more out of custom than necessity, particularly in the professional sector, and the bar that determines the level of Russian proficiency is rapidly descending with each passing year. What’s more, in the professional world, the bonus of knowing English perfectly outweighs the disadvantage of not speaking Russian, as you can always find someone nearby who does. Learning Russian as a American-Latvian will give you added value, as it will suddenly earn you grudging respect from those colleagues who previously used your lack of Russian as a reason to downsize your importance in their eyes and elevate their own significance in the ongoing battle between permanently wounded egos that defines the Latvian workplace. Navigating this war zone of Latvian low self-esteem, where everyone looks after his own interests and avoids collaboration for fear of being superseded, is the true challenge for an American-Latvian who wishes to work in Rīga, not a lack of Russian proficiency.
But if they wish to achieve this elusive proficiency of Russian, American-Latvians have a marked advantage over others. If you have spent the greater part of your youth—or at least Friday nights before Latvian school the next day—picking your way through Latvian declensions and conjugations, then you already have a leg up on Russian, as the language has a similar structure of declensional paradigms and prefixes. Most phrases follow the same syntactical patterns as Latvian, and many of the words in Latvian are exactly the same in Russian, albeit pronounced and of course spelled differently. If you can traverse the thick veil of Cyrillic, which gradually parts after the first weeks of learning (first for the eyes and later for the brain), then it’s smooth sailing from there, at least until you confront the thorny issue of accent placements. Russian would be a good minor course of study for an American-Latvian university student, as it would not only be relatively easier to learn—thanks to having a firm grasp of Latvian—but also give you an added skill if you decided to move to Rīga, where you could employ all three of your languages on a daily basis, just like the thousands of other progressive young professionals who call this multicultural city home.
However, learning Russian won’t earn you much respect from many older members of the American-Latvian community, some of whom would like to see the Russian language completely eradicated from the linguistic space of Latvian territory, sent back east to Russia. Most of these people never lived in Latvia, and certainly don’t live here now. They will never appreciate the mix of languages—Latvian, Russian, English—and the blend of cultures that make Rīga such an exciting place to live and work, and a stimulating environment to raise trilingual children. They’re too busy pointing their fingers out to the east, or to the west, searching for the right direction to channel out their anger. If they only stopped for a moment and straightened their waggling fingers, they’d realize that the breeze in Rīga was blowing in from all directions at once—north, south, east and west—just as it has for centuries.
Come to think of it, that reminds me of something in a song by Grebenshikov, something beautiful, just heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Now if only I could find that album. It’s in a suitcase somewhere, tossed in with some other mementos, right next to a Jauns Mēness CD, a hoard of old calling cards and a stack of coasters covered with my friends’ phone numbers, scrawled down by the light of the midnight sun on a warm summer evening long ago.