The Russian minority in Riga

The Russian minority in Riga
23 October 2023

While you came to Riga to improve your Russian and are comfortable using it daily in the city, have you ever wondered how Riga became a bilingual city? If yes, continue reading as we dive into the history of the Russian minority in Riga and Russians’ contemporary life in the Latvian capital.

Beginning of the relationship between Riga and Russia

The connection between Riga and Russia has always been stimulated through trade, which flourished only after Peter I’s conquest of Swedish Livonia in 1710. This shift allowed for an influx of the rich Russian merchant class to settle in Latvia. For instance, the first Russian school was established in Riga already in 1789. With the development of Latvia’s industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, the country and its capital also attracted the Russian peasantry. Eventually, with the increasing number of Russians settled in Latvia, Russians slowly started developing a sense of community separate from Russia. In this sense, they viewed themselves as one of the many nationalities of Latvia. The Russian daily newspaper Рижский Вестник was founded in 1816 by Евграф Васильевич Чешихин bringing attention to the needs and wants of the local Russian population. Чешихин also founded Русский литературный кружок in Riga in 1876. At that time, Russians were welcomed to participate in town council elections and State Duma.

The 20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russians consisted of a considerable part of the working population in major Latvian industrial cities. When the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed independent in 1918, all the nationalities living on Latvian territory had the opportunity to develop as national minorities. Although Russians living in Latvia lost their connection to Russia, they were granted all rights, including voting under the newly established country. The following years witnessed significant growth of the Russian minority, and remained the biggest minority in Latvia. Even though the Latvian Republic attempted to integrate Russians, they remained largely autonomous. One of the decisive reasons behind their autonomy and the preservation of the language to this day was the right to teach children in their mother tongue, and as such, more Russian schools were established. As such, in 1935, 60% of Russians living in Latvia were educated in their mother tongue and had no motivation to learn Latvian. The dominant position Russians enjoyed in Latvia changed in the summer of 1940 when the USSR occupied Latvia. Russians soon lost their national periodicals, and many of their public figures were imprisoned or killed. Yet, in the following years, under Nazi occupation and the Soviet Union, the Russian minority has always found a way to flourish and adjust to the regime’s ideology.

Present 

When Latvia again gained independence in 1991, the country did not automatically grant citizenship to all Russians. If a Russian family arrived after June 1940, they would not officially receive Latvian citizenship. This rule eventually divided the society, which is very much evident in Riga, where around 46% of people speak Russian. Currently, a significant number of Russians living in Riga have alien status, meaning they are not citizens of Latvia. Russian language is also not recognized as the official language in Latvia. The Latvian government has continuously supported integration of Russians to achieve homogenous Latvian society. However, despite these efforts, it seems that Riga’s character as a bilingual city will persist! 

If you want to learn more about the life of the Russian minority in Riga, check out this article.

Anna 

This blog was brought to you by Anna, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz in Riga

The image was taken from Pexels 

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