Bokförlaget Atlas, 2016.
Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2016:2
Review Section: Non-fiction
Around one million Russian speakers live in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, making them a large minority within the European Union. In Sovjets barnbarn, the third in a series on Russian-speakers, Kalle Kniivilä, journalist and Russia expert, interviews a cross-section of Baltic Russian-speakers. While they are often referred to as ‘Russians’, it is worth remembering, as Natalja Belotserkovskaja, an interviewee in Narva whose own family history takes in Poland, Kazakhstan and Leningrad, points out, that many of them came from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
The opening and closing chapters are set in Visaginas, Lithuania, once home to a dynamic Soviet nuclear project, now in decline. Its power station might have made a more striking image than the grey tower block adorning the cover. The reportage then moves through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The geographical distinction between Estonia and Latvia seems fairly academic, partly because almost all those interviewed are Russian- speakers, but more because the attitudes and themes that emerge are very similar in both countries. Both have substantial Russian-speaking populations (30% in Estonia, 34% in Latvia, according to the figures in the book), and a significant percentage of non-citizens (6.5% in Estonia, 14% in Latvia). Contrastingly, in Lithuania, a more relaxed policy on citizenship (arguably due to the smaller Russian-speaking population, 7%), has resulted in a country where non-citizens account for only 0.08% of the population.
What is clear is that Kniivilä has mastered the art of getting people to talk freely. There is very little of him in the interviews. Likewise, he has found a wide range of interview subjects. For example, we meet Aleksandr the border guard, liberal politician Jevgenij Krisjtafovitj, National Bolshevik Vladimir Linderman (who claims to have helped one of ‘our boys’ fighting in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine), and Andrejs Faibuševičs, who has banned the Russian language in his bar in the Russian-majority city of Daugavpils.
Certain topics appear frequently, such as language requirements for citizenship, and the possibility of refugees being resettled in the Baltics. One interviewee, historian Maria Asseretskova, suggests refugees could shake up the way society is split into Latvians and Russians. While Ukraine and Putin also loom large, it is interesting that many interviewees think there is a ‘Baltic’ Russian identity, distinct from that of Russians in Russia. Jevgenij Linov, now living in Lithuania, but born in Tajikistan, thinks they behave differently. He describes feeling ashamed at the bad behaviour of Russians while on holiday in Egypt, and speaking Russian quietly so as not to be associated with them. Kjara, a Russian-speaker in Riga, feels she has far more in common with Russian-speakers from Lithuania than those from Russia. Aleksej, a journalist in Riga, believes that ‘most Russians here in the Baltic would never agree to move to Russia. They’re not real Russians.’ A few pages later, Jelena describes the dilemma of many Russian-speakers in the Baltic; if she had emigrated to the US, she would probably be able to call herself an American at some point, and Swedish, had she moved to Sweden. In Latvia, however, many people are constantly told they are Russians – however long they’ve lived there.
Kniivilä has enviable language skills. Finnish, Swedish, Russian, Polish and Esperanto number among his working languages, but not Latvian, Lithuanian, or, possibly, much Estonian. Given the topic of the book, this is hardly a major disadvantage. But as journalist Olga Dragoljova eloquently puts it, many young Russian-speakers in the Baltics are balancing between two worlds, adapting to Latvian and Russian environments. The ‘other’ world is missing here. A follow-up also involving speakers of Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian would be a fascinating read.