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Russian: The Language of a Coloniser

Millie Stere

Monday, 11 March 2024

Should the use of Russian language be legislated against in the Baltic states?

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, a series of legislations restricting the use of Russian language in the Baltic states have been created to limit its use and to establish strict cultural autonomy from their eastern neighbour. For example, Russian schools in Estonia have been closed and it has been made mandatory for all teachers to speak Estonian. In Latvia, use of Russian has been restricted in public places, and employers can no longer advertise if they ask for Russian speakers, with the aim of strengthening Latvians position as the national language. 


Why these countries should want to protect their national languages makes a lot of sense. However, when you consider that in a 2020 census, 24.7% of Estonians were recorded as being ethnic Russians, 24.9% in Latvia and 4.5% in Lithuania, you can see how the clamping down on the use of the Russian language may negatively affect many that use it as a first language. Should such a substantial proportion of society be prevented from accessing self-expression in their mother-tongue? To understand why these legislations have come into play, first we should look at the history.


The Baltic states have been in and out of Russian occupation for hundreds of years, firstly as part of its imperial empire, and then the Soviet Union. After the second world war, the USSR colonised these territories, deporting much of the original population and replacing them with ethnic Russians. When the Soviet Union was disbanded in the 1990s, Russians continued to live in these now independent states that have become part of Europe.


But how well-assimilated did the Russian population become in the Baltics? Plenty of ethnic Russians know the national language of the state in which they live. However, It is a common phenomenon that one cannot fully express oneself as well in a second language as they can in their own, even if they are fluent.


During my year abroad, I visited Narva, the third largest city in Estonia, on the border with Russia, where 95% of the population speak Russian as a first language. I was shocked when I found out that, after Estonia became independent, they did not provide the Russian diaspora with Estonian passports but instead the ‘Alien’ passport - meaning they are considered stateless and would need a visa to travel in Europe. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the Estonian government funded many cultural projects in Narva, encouraging a sense of inclusion with the rest of Estonia in the Russian-dominated city. Yet after 2022, investment in this sphere was cut and re-directed to the military.


Considering Russia’s colonial history, it is no surprise that since the war began in 2014, there has been a rush to protect the cultural individuality of the Baltic states as separate from Russia. However, is language a sphere that should be politicised? Should individuals be punished by the actions of an aggressor state? In the case of Narva, many find it difficult to find work since they speak very little Estonian. There is a similar case in Latvia’s Daugavpils, where, although there is an 80% Russian-speaking population. Additionally, many Russian speakers in the Baltic states consider themselves not ‘Russian’ but Russian-speaking Estonians, Latvians, or Lithuanians, yet are set apart from society by government legislation. The cultural individuality of the Baltic states must be protected and celebrated, but in a way that is inclusive to many individuals that are now struggling because of their heritage.

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Russian: The Language of a Coloniser

Millie Stere

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