Ending Soviet legacy of school segregation

Although Latvia has made great strides in rebuilding a fair and democratic society since restoring independence in 1991, not all aspects of the Soviet legacy have been that easy to eradicate. One of those legacies was a segregated school system that divided ethnic Latvians and Russians. This year, the Latvian government enters the sixth year of an eight-year program designed to end this divisive situation. Although the program is designed to promote social integration, equal opportunity and citizenship for all of Latvia’s residents, it has encountered opposition from some politicians and segments of the ethnic Russian population. Why would ethnic Russians oppose a plan designed to enhance their opportunities for education, employment and civic involvement?

The answer is also part of a Soviet legacy that encourages some politicians to exploit social divisions and apprehensions.

During the Soviet occupation, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, mostly of ethnic Russian origin, established residence in Latvia and remained here after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many were brought in as part of Joseph Stalin’s Russification campaign. Most spoke only Russian, as did their eventual Latvia-born children and grandchildren. When Latvia restored its independence in 1991, they all found themselves in a country that had re-established its national sovereignty, state language and Latvian identity. They were former Soviets, mostly of Russian ethnicity, now living in the Republic of Latvia.

After adoption of the Law on Citizenship in 1994, a naturalization board was established in 1995, enabling former Soviets to apply for Latvian citizenship. All permanent residents of Latvia who could pass a Latvian language and history test could become citizens. The process of naturalization was slow, in part because a large segment of the ethnic Russian population could not speak Latvian. A national Latvian language training program was established in 1996 to help residents acquire the language skills needed to qualify for citizenship.

The rate of naturalization among older persons was low due to the difficulty of learning a new language. It was hoped, however, that younger Russian-speaking residents would not find it a hardship. However, since many ethnic Russians continued to study in the 159 exclusively Russian-language state schools, the rate of naturalization continued to lag even among the young.

While the retention of the Russian schools was initially considered a gesture of good will during a difficult transition period, it soon became clear that these schools were fostering segregation, which led to de facto discrimination. Pupils who could only speak Russian could not become citizens, had difficulty integrating into Latvian society, and had limited higher education and employment opportunities.

To correct this situation, a Law on Education was adopted in 1998. The law was designed to increase proficiency in the Latvian language, while preserving and protecting the rights of students to attend minority schools where instruction was also offered in eight minority languages. Pupils from Russian and other ethnic groups would receive a bilingual education that would enable them to retain their ethnic traditions and identities, while acquiring the language skills necessary for full participation in Latvian civic life.

The program to introduce Latvian language study in minority schools included a gradual phasing-in of bilingual courses over a period of years, giving parents and students sufficient time to prepare for the changes. Bilingual curricula were introduced to primary schools in the 2002-2003 school year. An increased proportion of Latvian-language curricula will be introduced to secondary schools this September.

The eight-year program was designed to provide pupils ample time to prepare for the transition to bilingual education. During the first five years no one objected. But in 2003, as changes in the secondary school courses were being prepared, political organizations emerged in opposition to the plan. Encouraged by a few radical parliamentarians and led by adult activists, some Russian secondary school pupils began to organize protests against the final phase of the program. They demanded that the law be changed and that state-financed Russian schools remain exclusively Russian-language institutions.

The size and aggressive nature of the protests have grown over the last year. Methods have become more sophisticated and confrontational, and have received sizable financial support from unknown sources. The Russian government has also weighed into the controversy, condemning the Latvian government’s educational program and expressing support for the protest movement. Politicians who support the protestors, both in Latvia and Russia, have also made additional demands. They not only oppose the educational reforms, but are demanding changes in Latvia’s language and citizenship policies. Both of these positions, which would increase segregation and reverse integration in Latvia, have long been Russian government policies toward Latvia.

Despite Russia’s protests, which amount to interference in another state’s internal affairs, the Latvian government’s language, citizenship and educational policies have received broad international support. Meeting international standards on these issues was necessary in order for Latvia to qualify for membership in the European Union and the NATO defense alliance. Latvia was welcomed into both organizations earlier this year. The Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have also endorsed Latvia’s policies, particularly in regard to educational reform.

Following a March 2004 fact-finding trip to Latvia, a Council of Europe monitoring committee noted that the protests “have little to do with a civil society or grassroots movements as understood in the western world,” but were instead led by radical forces said to receive moral and material support from Russia. The council strongly advised Russia to cease its counter-productive interference in Latvia’s internal affairs.

The protests are indeed counter-productive. Pupils who refuse to learn Latvian and are boycotting classes are impeding their own education, limiting their employment opportunities and alienating themselves from society at large.

International organizations that have followed this issue in Latvia have agreed that the social integration of former Soviets must be accelerated and that naturalization rates needs to be increased. This can only happen if the permanent residents of Latvia can speak and understand the Latvian language.

The Soviet legacy of forced Russification, ethnic segregation and repression during 50 years of occupation has done irreparable damage to entire generations of Latvians and Russians in Latvia. For some, the damage can never be undone. The Latvian educational reform program is designed to help the next generations prepare for a better life. One of equal opportunity, civic engagement and prosperity in a democratic Latvia and a united Europe.

9 thoughts on “Ending Soviet legacy of school segregation

  1. I think it would be at least fair to include http://www.lashor.lv on your website as well. While nearly everyone in Latvia can agree that Shtab is radical, unreasonable, and has ties to secretive financial sources, and a dubious agenda, there are reasonable members of the Russophone community that are opposed to the reform. who speak Latvian, who have no problem integrating, and who hold Latvian passports. Some of those views are heard, as well as alternatives to the education reform (many agree with the premise that their children need to know the Latvian language for the simple reason of jobs, and education) on the website posted above, a website that appears in Latvian, English, and Russian. Posting Shtab’s nearly monolingual website as a link is unfair, it paints all opponents of the reform as unreasonable, imune to logic, there are others out there.


  2. I agree with what Miķelis writes above. I’ve posted a response to Ojārs Kalniņš’ commentary at the Open Forum, in the “And the Mayhem Begins…” thread.


  3. The whole piece is a goebbelsian mix of lies, half-truths, small truths and – well sometimes truths.

    Some examples:

    The first para, beginning with headline:
    *Ending Soviet legacy of school segregation…*

    It is a blantant lie. Ethnically (linguistically, to be more precise) segregated schools system existed in Latvia in 1919-1940 as well and amounted to school authonomy for minorities. The legacy is NOT Soviet.
    Details: http://www.dialogi.lv/article.php?s=32&id=202&la=2

    * After adoption of the Law on Citizenship in 1994, a naturalization board was established in 1995, enabling former Soviets to apply for Latvian citizenship. All permanent residents of Latvia who could pass a Latvian language and history test could become citizens.*

    Half-truth at best. The real naturalization possibility for «all permanent residents» was legislated in 1998.

    *Pupils who could only speak Russian could not become citizens…*

    A lie and irrelevant lie besides. They could. Every non-citizen kid born in Latvia since 1991 can become citizens by registration, not naturalization, and registration has nothing to do with language proficiency.

    * To correct this situation, a Law on Education was adopted in 1998.*

    A blatant lie. The restrictive («only in the state language») law of 1998 was a clear tit-for-tat after relaxation of naturalization rules. It is almost a precise quote: «They will be Letts because they will be taught in Latvian; therefore there is no reason to block naturalization amendments». Saiema’s sessions stenograms are easily available and everyone can check for himherself.

    *The law was designed to increase proficiency in the Latvian language, while preserving and protecting the rights of students to attend minority schools where instruction was also offered in eight minority languages.*

    Blatant lie. The law of 1998 DEMANDED that teaching MUST be only in the state language in all high schools, INCLUDING minority schools.

    *Pupils from Russian and other ethnic groups would receive a bilingual education*

    A lie. The very word _bilingual_ was never used in the law – unlike words «tikai valsts valoda».

    * During the first five years no one objected. *

    A blatant lie. Lashor, the moderate organization author so brilliantly forget to mention, organized first protest events in 1998 even before the law cleared Saiema and held them in an every consequent year, including the year of 2003.

    etc etc etc

  4. Regarding Latvijan schools: it is a mistake to refer to Russians as “Soviets”. I have many friends in Latvija, whose roots go to 18th century. Generation after generation they lived and worked in Latvija, raised families. They know Latvijan language (which nobody outside the tiny country uses anyway), but want their children to get the education in their native language. What is wrong with this? Whatever anger Latvijans might have against the Soviets, but they have to admit: Soviets treated them in more civilized manner: at least, Latvijans could preserve their language from generation to generation, their children had an option to attend school in Latvijan language.

  5. Daria Filippova writes:

    “Whatever anger Latvijans might have against the Soviets, but they have to admit: Soviets treated them in more civilized manner…”

    Excuse me? There is nothing wrong with Russians wanting an education in their native language — that’s what they get, too, which they would not get in most countries. Everything about this comment of your is crazy, sorry (and I’m sorry I didn’t notice it until today). The reality is that only about half of the Russians in Latvia know Latvian, and mostly at an insufficient level. Most Latvians know Russian, a majority fluently.

    Less than half of the Russians in Latvia can trace their roots to before the Soviet occupation, let alone the 18th C. The Soviets did not treat Latvians in a civilized manner. The fact that Latvian is a language “nobody outside the tiny country uses anyway” is all the _more_ reason for the language to be protected and promoted — Russians can and do study in their native language, but they must also study in the national language. If this is so utterly impalatable — they can go to Russia.


  6. I am proud that the Latvian government is working so hard to preserve its language. The national language is Latvian, and everyone who wants to live, work, have citizenship should speak the language.

    I am Latvian but was put up for adoption at birth. I grew up in the US and never learned my language or culture.

    I am 50 years old and am now studying Latvian and plan on visiting as soon as I can speak well enough to get around and learn about my culture in what should have been my native language. Older Russians are never too old to learn unless they have Altziers.

    My newphew went to an immersion school in Eugene Oregon.
    By the end of 6th grade, he could read, write, and speak at a 6th grade level in two languages.

    If the Russians want to go to a private school and learn Russian as a second language then they can do it, but it must be second to Latvian. And really, if they don’t like it then they should have the opportunity to leave Latvia and go back to Russia.

  7. oh everything is so complicated… I am from lithuania and I am interested in this topic… after reading many papers, i can say only one thing- all of you are right and all of you are wrong. And that is for sure- you should put less emotions to you dialog! :)

  8. I grew up in the US. My mother is from Ecuador, my father was American. I spoke in Spanish at home, but my entire education was in English in the State of Maryland. My mother never expected me to have classes in Spanish, the way so many latinos do in the US today. I am in the US, I was educated in English. The Russians in Latvia who don’t want to learn Latvian nor become Latvian should go back to Russia. Russia is the biggest country in the world, and there is plenty of room for them there. Why doens’t Putin tell the Russians of Lativa that he and Mother Russia will welcome all ethnic Russians back to Russia. And leave Latvia to the Latvians and those who will respect the laws of the land they are in. The communists abused Latvia and supressed their language and culture. I am happy to see Latvia get off its knees and reassert itself both culturally and linguistically. Go Latvia! Go Latvians! (Oh, and in case you don’t know, I have met many Russians who have lived in Latvia for many years, and many of them WANT their children to speak Latvian!)

  9. In regard to Daria Filippova’s comment about the Soviets being “civilized”. I want to know what planet Daria is from. Does she consider the 100,000 Latvians who were deported by Russians to Siberia in the late 40s and early 50s, most of whom died, CIVILIZED? She is crazy. Or how about Latvians being a minority in their own county. Russians have a choice! Latvians do not. Russians can move to Russia, the biggest country in the world. But it is funny how Russians prefer to live with more organized and advanced Latvians, and complain about the language, than with poorly managed and heavily polluted Russia. Civilized? She’s nuts.

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