The Russian Rant

If you’ve been reading the comments on some of my posts, you might have noticed something of a pattern developing.

Me: “Most Latvians look like a leopard threw up on them.”

Latvians: “That’s not us. It’s the Russians.”

Me: “Why do Latvians look like they’ve been chewing on lemons?”

Latvians: “That’s because of the Russians.”

Me: “Latvian winters make me want to lie down in the snow and die.”

Latvians: “We blame the Russians.”

OK, so the last one is a stretch, but you get the idea. And now that I’m at a safe distance in England, I think it’s time I finally addressed the Russian issue.

Get the Russian look

First of all, who are they and why are they in Latvia? In a nutshell, most of these ‘Russians’ are migrants from the Soviet era and their descendants. A large percentage of them have non-citizen or alien status in Latvia.

If you do ever visit this fair land, be prepared for a conversation like the one I had not long after I arrived:

Me: So, where are you from?

Sasha: I’m Rrrrrrrussian.

Me: Oh, OK, whereabouts?

Sasha: Well, I was born in Riga.

Me: So, you’re Latvian.

Sasha: No, I’m Rrrrrrrussian.

Me: Do you have a Russian passport?

Sasha: No.

Me: Have you ever been to Russia?

Sasha: No.

Me: But you’re Russian.

Sasha: Yes.

You can see why a poor little expat might be confused. A lot of ‘Russians’ here manage to make it through their entire lives in Latvia without ever learning a word of Latvian.

Understandably, a lot of Latvians are less than impressed with this state of affairs. They are incredibly proud of their language and claim to be honoured whenever a foreigner attempts to speak it. Yet on a practical level, whenever I try to speak it, most Latvians answer me in English with a dismissive ‘Latvian is very difficult for foreigners’. Maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult if they actually helped us learn it?

They claim to hate that the Russians don’t speak Latvian, yet instantly switch to Russian whenever they’re speaking to one. The vast majority of Latvians also swear in Russian as the Russians are so much more creative when it comes to bad words and insults.

Some Latvians I’ve spoken to also freely admit that a lot of things were better under Russian rule – the education and healthcare system being just a couple of areas the Latvians have managed to run into the ground over the last twenty years.

Also slightly confusing is the Latvian attitude to the ‘Russians’. This is another actual conversation I’ve had:

Me: How do you feel about the Russians?

Janis: I hate them.

Me: OK, any plans for tonight?

Janis: Yeah, I’m going to a party with all my Russian friends.

Me: You have Russian friends?

Janis: Yes, of course. The Russians are way more fun.

Me: Being slapped around the head with a wet fish is more fun than the average Latvian.

Janis: Ja. Wait, what?

Me: Nothing. Byeee!

I’ve even been asked by Latvians why I’m bothering to try to learn Latvian at all, as Russian is so much more useful. To this, I always patiently answer that it’s because I’m living in Latvia, not Russia.

I wonder what ‘identity crisis’ is in Latvian. Or Russian for that matter…

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About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
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79 Responses to The Russian Rant

  1. Fuckrussia says:

    Hey, how’s it hanging, you Russian fascist?
    Still not seeing what a shit nation Russians are? Even today?

  2. emma purcell says:

    Hi Linda

    I’m enjoying reading your posts here having been living in Riga for a few months now. I’m finding it difficult to break through with my neighbours who stare blankly or look away when I attempt to greet them. Coming from lairy south London where people can constantly hassle and harangue you it can be quite relaxing to be left well alone but other times it’s a bit lonely. I thought that learning a few words in the local tongue might help to break down barriers, can you recommend anyone?

    Cheers
    Emma

  3. Well said about this hate-love relationship & Latvians talking to Russian-speaking Latvians in Russian! It has always annoyed me, but partially I can understand that it’s also a way for Latvians nowadays to practise their Russian.
    Maybe that’s the reason why mine is so bad as I was always talking in Latvian with Russians living there and in Russians only to those who were really from Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia etc. and have never even been to Latvia.

    • Expat Eye says:

      It’s complicated alright! I know a good few Latvians who think it’s a shame that the younger generation are choosing not to learn Russian anymore, and instead to learn English or German etc. I think it’s going to be a big problem for any of them who choose to stay in Latvia though as Latvian, Russian and English are practically essential for a lot of jobs. I’ve spoken to employers who have serious problems finding staff these days as well. They’re all qualified up to their ears but only speak Latvian OR Russian and that’s not enough – crazy situation!

  4. Ņina says:

    I’m a newbie in your blog, you’ve provided me SO many laughs throughout the whole blog, thanks for that! I am going to move to Latvia by the end of this year. I am from Finland. I simply started travelling there a couple of years ago and fell in love with the country, thanks to which I have also learnt Latvian which I consider the most romantic language there is. Russian I know from before (my work is Russian-speaking)… I often come accross the same things that you mentioned in this post, “I hate Russians” and at the same time Latvians enjoying many Russian things. I often think of these things, but I do understand Latvians very well about this.

    In Finland we have obligatory Swedish for everyone at school, and when I told a Lithuanian friend of mine that I rather would have that obligation dismantled, and let people choose freely between some languages, also Russian, (not as many people speak it here as there is need for) he went furious and could not understand why I thought so, “people could even choose Russian!” That is an attitude I don’t get instead… I have a lot of contacts with all Baltic states and I think people are the most calm about language in Latvia.

    I read your “about me” section, it made me feel SO GLAD, because I have someone to relate to now. I am also moving simply because I am not happy here, my life is so boring, more like existing than living in Finland. While every time I am in Latvia I have loads of fun. Not much Finns understand me, be it family or whoever, because in Finland I can earn 2500 euros a month even with the simplest job, while (not being an IT person… I’ve studied Nordic, Baltic and Russian languages at uni) in Latvia I will probably get some 300-500ls/month in an office job. But the interestingness of my life is THE motivator for me so I will do it. Well, I can do some freelance translations for Finnish customers on top of that which gives me extra income, I’m confident I’ll wor things out. Thanks for being such an inspiration!

    • Expat Eye says:

      Wow, thank you so much! Never thought of myself as an inspiration before ;) I really admire what you’re doing. It takes guts – I’m sure you’ll be successful, just keeping working hard and playing even harder. Latvia is good for that ;)

  5. Antuanete says:

    It’s interesting that you insist of using term “Latvian”, speaking about all the Latvian citizens or even inhabitants. For me (and, I guess, many Latvians) it seems very “American” approach, characteristic to countries which are typical melting pots of people of various origin. Here we have more clear difference between citizenship (Latvian citizen) and ethnic groups (Latvian, Russian, Belorussian etc.). We have yet to come to feeling as one nation, accepting that Latvian can be also nationality, not only ethnic characteristic.
    Unfortunately, ethnic approach sometimes is not fair to minorities which have immigrated from another Soviet Union republics, like Ukraine, Belorussia etc. – they are often named “Russian speaking”, as they had to use Russian for communicating with locals.
    I agree that our inner relationships may seem strange to foreigners, and the metaphor about family is really good :)

  6. John says:

    As an Irish person, surely you can understand Russians’ situation? Ireland is possibly the only country in Europe where Irish citizens living outside the country can’t vote in elections, since there are more people with Irish passports who’ve never lived in the country than there are Irish people living there! There are 400,000 of us nordies alone who can’t exercise the tempting choice between the blueshirts and soldiers of destiny.

    Latvians frequently blame Russians for everything while Russians insist that they are blameless and improved the place. The truth as usual is somewhere in the middle. Latvia would be much better off economically had it not been for the Soviet era, but ironically some things would also be much better if local politicians eased up a bit on some of the Russophobia. For example Riga would have a metro which Moscow would have largely paid for. Instead people protested against that in the late Soviet era, on the grounds that spending 2 hours a day travelling to and from work and having 555,000 Russians in your country is much better than spending 20 minutes a day commuting and having 559,000 Russians in your country. The logic of that one escapes me.

    Also the old “I blame the USSR” reason has less value obviously as time goes on. Latvia has now had its longest period of independence. The vast majority of people voting are Latvians and no one forced them to vote for corrupt oligarchs like Slesers, Lembergs and Skele, people more interested in lining their own pockets than improving the situation for ordinary people.

    Also one detail which a lot of people forget. The number of Russians in the population might be falling slightly year on year, but the percentage of Russians who can vote is going up and up as older Russians with alien passports die off and young Russians, who have Latvian passports take their place.

    • Antuanete says:

      You should get more information about that metro project before claiming that Latvians have ruined their commuting system in Riga by protesting against project. If started to build, it wouldn’t be even half-done by the time of breakdown of Soviet Union, and even if completed, would cost an enormous money to maintain, too much even in Soviet Union. Also, metro is not cost-effective in cities that are comparatively small, like Riga, and building this system was more politically motivated than economically.

      I can agree that health care, education and social insurance were in many aspects better in Soviet Union and today due to series of unsuccessful reforms they are no the best in the world – but also not the worst.

      • Uncle Lex says:

        “Politically motivated”? Riga was a growing city with its population going over one million. The general approach was to build a metro if a city fits this criterion, wasn’t it? But still, what would the political motivation be in this case?

  7. Have you ever met any of the American-Latvians? They are worth a whole blog posting alone…

    • Expat Eye says:

      I met a particularly annoying Canadian Latvian during song fest week. You know, the kind of person who left when they were one, still calls themselves Janis when they come back and thinks they know more about the place than I do! I don’t really know any American Latvians, I don’t think. Most of the foreigners I know are real foreigners usually married to/dating Latvians…

  8. Naphtali says:

    This is very funny. Lativa sounds more and more interesting to me everytime I read your blog. I enjoy your corky humour from an expats view.

  9. As always, a both interesting and humorous post. As some seem to have become offended, I think they should realize that your blog has not only made me realize that Latvia exists, but has made me want to learn more about it. Your posts are about your experiences and it is not as if you are stating that you are writing factual information to be shown in Wikipedia. ;-) However, I love your grace at handling criticism. :-)

    • Oh and I should further explain that I’m sure I’m not the only one who has become more interested in Latvia as a result of your blog.

      • Expat Eye says:

        Thanks for your lovely comment – I need one of those every now and then! I’ve never been described as having grace before – maybe it only comes across in my comment writing, not in any other area of my life ;) Thanks again and hope you’re settling in!

      • Bob Lewis says:

        As an innocent bystander I should point out that she does everything with grace! A more graceful leprechaun you’d have difficulty in finding anywhere on this side of the Irish Sea!
        As a slight repost to those few who pretend to be offended it must be made clear that she is far from being the only one to think that way. For instance, my problem is that she has such a way of being able to express what are exactly my thoughts, in words and phrases which I couldn’t hope to match for clarity and pertinence, that I’m more than content to leave it all to her genius to say it for me! And I agree with all of it, – so tough on them as doesn’t!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Thanks for the unwavering support! Not sure I’d describe you as innocent though ;)

  10. I’m not trying to be mean, but maybe you should have taught in Russia then. I’ve been following you for several months now and my initial interest has turned into dissappointment. You have yet to post more that one or two articles about anything positive about Latvia, and all of the ones I have read are laced with sarcasm and negativity veiled in sour humor. I understand that you say you only write what you see, but if all you see is negativity and the bad parts of our country, maybe it would be in your best interest to move somewhere else. You are a fantastic and quite humorous blogger, but all of the time you spend downing Latvia on your blog could be turned into writing something positive about another place.

    • Expat Eye says:

      I don’t think it’s especially negative – at least it’s not meant to be! And after 2 weeks in England, I’m really missing it actually. Wasn’t expecting that! The next one will be positive, promise ;)

    • Bob Lewis says:

      Are you really surprised that it’s only possible to write no more than one or two articles about anything positive to do with Latvia? What I find surprising, and I’m not the only one who is surprised, is that enough positive material was available for two articles!!
      Rather than suggest that the disciples of good manners, non-aggression, being pleasant to other people, and devising words in the Latvian language for, ‘I.m so sorry.’, ‘Please excuse me’, and other similar common courtesies, should leave Latvia for somewhere else (As most sensible Latvians have done already!), perhaps you should start a campaign to persuade more discerning people from other European countries to come here. They could then show by example how much better life can be with a modicum of civilised behaviour. eg. Don’t glare at everyone you meet – even if it is your mother-in-law; hold a door open for someone just behind you, rather than let it close in their face; (And if someone tries to dive through it for whom it was obviously not being held, then gently trip them up!); don’t avert your gaze from other people on a public transport vehicle. Make eye-contact and smile – you just might get a smile in return! And a thousand and one other things which might make Latvia a more pleasant place in which to live……….
      Perhaps you could begin by telling us where we can find these positive gems so that we can go to see them for ourselves. There can’t be many of them in and around Riga – not even tall, slim blonde ones!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Thought you were more of a short brunette man myself! I think I’ve definitely written more than 2 ‘positive’ posts. The road trip, expedition, Ligo, the song festival one, the Latvian man one… Of course, I don’t see any of them as especially negative. Merely telling it like it is. Guess you can’t please everyone!

  11. 1WriteWay says:

    As the Wandering Gourmand noted, you’ll see a lot of these same weird identity issues in the US, and I think especially in the South where you have “part-time” populations. Northern people will live down here six months out of the year, but have absolutely no interest in the culture. No, they just want the sunshine and beaches, and they think Southerns have a funny accent (unless they go way South like to Palm Beach or Tampa and then everyone sounds like them already). Of course, I’m actually originally from the North and I can’t wait to get away from the beer and guns :)

    • Expat Eye says:

      Sounds like when Brits go to Spain! They want everything exactly the same as it is back home (full English breakfasts etc) but in the sunshine! If they’re in doubt about making themselves understood, they just speak louder and add an ‘o’ to the end of every word ;)

  12. We have that same problem here in Charlotte with the damn New Yorkers who relocated. Only, we don’t think they are more fun. They tend to be frightened away by the combination of beer and guns…

  13. Most amusing! Living in India, one can completely get away with speaking only English. While I started flirting with my adopted home (India) in 1990, when I went to school in Delhi in 1995, took the time and effort to learn Hindi. And while today in Mumbai I don’t speak Hindi at home, work, with friends or even most every day interactions, it brings a completely different perspective and link to the world around me. Kudos to you for trying to learn Latvian! And probably some Russian too along the way. :-)

    • Expat Eye says:

      Mainly bad words – and ice cream ;) I could actually survive just by speaking English as most expats I know do, but have always felt that you should make an effort wherever you go! Well done to you for learning Hindi – that must have been a serious challenge! Thanks for liking and following and enjoy your adventure in Jakarta – I’ll be keeping an eye on your progress ;) Linda.

  14. brod says:

    1. “The Russian rule”. It is so obvious that the Soviet rule was Russian, isn’t it? But that’s not so obvious. In fact, ethnic Russians did not have any formal or real advantage over non-Russians. They were not richer, they did not occupy higher positions, many Soviet high-ranked officials weren’t ethnic Russians. For example Stalin was Georgian and spoke Russian with a foreign accent. There were Latvians in various Soviet institutions on high positions too. Russians suffered the same things as Latvians as well (for example prosecution of any kind of opposition and so on).
    2. About the language. It’s easy to say that the Soviet government wanted to russify everything. But if it were the case, why would the Soviet government allow state-financed Latvian TV, radio, newspapers, all levels of education through Latvian? The languages weren’t equal, but how could they be equal? The SU was a highly integrated country, where Latvian was spoken by a small portion of population, while Russian was spoken by most people.
    Now compare that to Ireland. The first official language is Irish, while English is only the second. But they are not even close to be equal! An English monoglot can live without Irish even in the gaeltacht, while Irish speakers need to speak perfect English even living in their native gaeltacht. The only Irish TV channel, TG4, was created only in 1996 (!). And what about the third level of education through Irish? What can you learn becides Irish language and literature? How many books are printed in Irish? Irish, being the first official language of Ireland, has a more narrow use in Ireland than Latvian in the Soviet Union. Latvians complain Russians did not learn Latvian. But they did not need it (well, they did not have much opportunity either)! It’s like accusing Latvians living in Ireland of not learning Irish.
    3. “dog’s language” is definitely a bad expression. But you can imagine how many insults Russians got.
    Why do you think in an obviously bilingual country there is only one official language, while the other is considered foreign? Do you think Russian is a foreign language in Latvia? Is it fair it does not have any recognition?
    I hope you understood everything in spite of all my mistakes.

  15. Bob Lewis says:

    I can’t see anything in that post which calls for an apology of any kind! If telling the truth as so many of us clearly see it causes offence, then so be it! I usually try to ‘dilute’ the situation, as I find it, by remembering that Riga is really a Russian town. The proportion of Russian speaking Latvians is much higher here than in other parts of the country – apart possibly from the ‘far east’, where ‘gun-law’ still prevails to some extent!
    If the City Council gangs up on you to get you deported as a ‘subversive’, then I’m sure a lot of us will gang up on them with a mass exodus. Spain sounds OK – ‘Spaniards vs. Catalonians’ can’t be any worse!

    • Expat Eye says:

      Thanks for the support, as always! They have to let me back in before they can deport me I guess ;)

    • Adam Gibson says:

      Living in said far east, I would appreciate some pointers on what type of flak jackets and helmets to stock up on :)
      Seriously though, I don’t think I’ve heard any Latvian here in Daugavpils, not even a paldies. It may be that I’m just tone deaf to it, though. Big difference to Riga – I think you hear 60-40 Russian-Latvian walking around central Riga.
      My Russian is vaguely functional although to be fair I’ve been learning it for years, way before I came to Latvia. As for Latvian, I find it academically interesting but it isn’t practical to expect foreigners to learn more than a few words, especially when Russian and English are both so widely spoken. I think the comparison to Ireland is apt.

  16. Laine says:

    I think it was in 1986 or 1987, when Mme Gorbachev visited Riga. In between other important events, she was received in either a kindergarden or a primary school, where she famously was quite surprised that the kid (who gave her flowers and who must have been like 5 or 6) did not speak Russian and stressed that the child has to learn Russian as it is a more important language. And to add to Juune’s comment, I was about 8 or 9 when I ended up with a doctor in my local clinic who asked me to address him in Russian, not in my dogs’ language.
    Generally, I tell my foreign friends to look at that whole latvian/russian/post soviet issue as they would at a relationship of another family . Something may seem annoying/stupid/strange, but those not involved do not really understand the whole of the history/story unless they are a very close friend who knows various details from different perspectives over a long period.
    I think the best part of growing up in S.U. was the naive belief in fairness and better life coming up. Anything over the absolute minimum of needs (shelter and basic food, and with the food – not always) and the good life myth evaporates.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Thanks for that comment – the family analogy is a good way of looking at it; never know what goes on behind closed doors and all that. Dog’s language – wow. Don’t even know what to say to that.

  17. Juune says:

    Yess, yess, healthcare was indeed awesome under Russian rule, no matter that the doctor quite often hadn’t bothered to learn a word in Latvian [imagine going to a gynecologist that doesn't speak a word in your language] and the education was awesome, too, dedicated to the russification of all the other nationalities. The Russian rule was such a nice oppressive regime, too, sending people to the gulag camps [some genocide can't hurt, no?] in Siberia and continuing with the persecutions even after the concentration camp like thingies were shut down. It’s such a wonder Latvians hold some grudge with all those awesome things that the “Russian rule” brought here.
    On the more serious side, if some of your posts a funny and some are worth reading just to get some idea what the society of Latvia looks like for foreigners, then this one is very close to being offensive and ignorant of the [quite painful] recent history of this country and people.
    As for the everyday affairs and “Latvians hating Russians”; it’s just that most people simply are smart enough not to bring up the already mentioned events of the history [of which each nationality has a somewhat different interpretation; with Russians feeling like liberators, yet Latvians considering Russians oppressors] in the everyday life, and that’s why everybody more or less gets along.
    And Latvians do speak Latvian to Russians, I do think it’s only a recent trend, though, and it does depend a lot on the circumstances. Not that long ago it could have easily caused the Latvian to be called a Nazi or a Hans, ’cause all good soviet people learn Russian and don’t push their national language. Old habits die hard.
    The world is indeed a complicated place.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Indeed. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The post wasn’t meant to cause offence in any way – it was just supposed to be a look at how confusing the Latvian/Russian thing is for a foreigner living there. To be honest, I had hoped to avoid the topic altogether and stick to the ‘light’ stuff but it kept cropping up in the comments.

      I think most people are aware of how horrific things were under Russian rule – but as a Westerner, I can only imagine or read about it. That’s why I was so surprised when people started telling me that actually, some things were better – I really found it hard to believe but I’ve heard it from quite a lot of people, so I thought it should go in the post. I’m sure not everybody feels that way.

      Apologies for any offence caused.

    • Uncle Lex says:

      Could you please elaborate, what did you mean by “the education was awesome, too, dedicated to the russification of all the other nationalities”? As far as I know, at least school education and higher education were available in Latvian. In addition, knowing the lingua franca of the whole USSR had its perks… e.g., if you wanted to work or travel outside of Latvia.

  18. Good luck with it, most impressed by the job switch.

    Did the same myself, chucked in the govt job and the bloody CELTA interview was sooo difficult, but I’m through – a year behind you, I reckon. Hope there is enough work to go round. See ya

    • Expat Eye says:

      There always seems to be plenty of work to go around with English teaching! Where are you thinking of going – Latvia???

      • No, well don’t know. Probably 6 months plus here then…well, still at the dream stage. They’re advertising Bali, and my backstory is surfbum, so…

        I know so little ’bout Latvia – hostility between the tribes goes back to the war, y’know. Twenty years ago I taught in Slovakia – they might have much in common: architecture, white spirits…whatever, it’s good what you’re doing.

      • Expat Eye says:

        If I had a choice between Bali and LV, I know which one I’d choose! Good luck with your decision!

  19. Pecora Nera says:

    I’m in total agreement with Lady of the cakes.

    P.S will they let you back into Latvia?

  20. The world is … a complicated place.
    I get the sneaking suspicion from the last dialogue that the line “I’m going to party with my Russian friends” is akin to “I’m washing my hair tonight”.
    You were hitting on that poor Janis, weren’t you? Probably even … smiled at him! How is he supposed to react to that, I ask you, if not with sheer panic?!

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