The online portal currenttime.tv quotes Olga, who fled Odessa because of Russian aggression against her homeland (11 March) ‘Don’t talk to the Russians, they don’t believe you. I asked what Vladimir Putin was saying and, you know, I wanted to smash the phone. Everything he says is not true! That we are blowing up houses, that our soldiers are covering peaceful people! But the Russians believe him very much – half of them do. It’s hard to convince them otherwise!”
After the Russian aggression, more than two million people fled Ukraine (the number is getting bigger as Ukrainians continue to leave in big numbers) – to Poland, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and other countries.
Often, to save themselves and their children, they left actually with no personal belongings. Volunteers in countries bordering Ukraine offer help to refugees, as do centres set up specifically for Ukrainians fleeing their homeland.
Also from currenttime.tv, so as not to appear biased. People started arriving in buses to one of these centres in one of the gymnasiums in Vilnius as early as 24 February, the first day of the war. According to the volunteers, the flow of refugees has never stopped, with between 2,000 and 4,000 Ukrainians arriving in Lithuania every day.
One of the refugees, Tatiana, from Kharkiv, a de facto almost non-existent city (the Russians have almost destroyed it by bombing) with a population of one and a half million, thanked Lithuanians on currenttime.tv for the excellent reception organisation, because people often crossed the border without a coin in their pockets.
The episodes presented here are about the refugee drama, but not only.
In our article “Latvia – an Oasis of Free Russian Speech”, we pointed out that in terms of the position towards Russia and Belarus, a kind of specialisation has emerged among the Baltic States in recent years – active initiatives of Lithuania in going further and further north are “summed up” by numbingly cold rationality of Estonia.
The policy of Latvia towards Russians (not Russia) is considered the most vigorous, which is also due to objective historical reasons – and according to 2017 data, about 240,000 out of almost 2 million inhabitants of Latvia were non-citizens, the absolute majority of whom were Russian-speaking.
Russians fleeing Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime love Latvia, especially its capital Riga. For example, editor of the investigative journalism publication The Insider Roman Dobrokhotov, who has moved to Riga, says he will only return to his homeland when Vladimir Putin is no longer President of Russia.
The fact that democratic, European Russian-speakers in the northern sister state of Lithuania feel comfortable is evidenced by a survey of the values of Russian-speakers living in Latvia, launched on 26 November 2020 in Riga by the Russian-speaking online magazine Spektr and the public opinion research centre SKDS, with the support of the Dutch and Swedish missions, which was designated to determine their attitudes towards Europeanness.
A survey of 1,100 respondents, citizens and non-citizens, aged 18 to 75, across the country found that 73% of them recognise European values to a different degree. Those who did not were 22% and those who strongly disagreed were four.
When asked what territory they associate themselves with, 68% of respondents mentioned Latvia, 70% supported its membership of the European Union and 32% supported NATO.
Actions of Russia in the east of Ukraine were then more or less fully supported by 24% of Russian speakers, while 39% did not support them.
Is it appropriate to ask what the Baltic Russians think about Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine?
We can start with a symbolic reference to the fact that the war that started on 24 February has personally affected Vitalijs Manskis, the organiser of the ArtDocFest documentary film festival in Riga, who has been living in Latvia since the well-known events of 2014 – although he had always communicated with the audience in Russian, the director, who comes from Lviv in the west of Ukraine, has now switched to Ukrainian, arguing that Russian is now the language of the aggressor, not Alexander Pushkin or Fyodor Dostoevsky.
There are Russian-speaking “Russian world” adepts in the Baltic States who insist on justifying the war, though they also point out that they are marginalised in direct proportion to the atrocities committed by the Russian army in Ukraine.
The Latvian opposition party Soglasie, which traditionally represents the interests of Russian- speaking people, has condemned actions of Moscow, its former leader and former mayor of Riga, Nils Ušhakovs, has called the war fratricidal, and the current chairman of Soglasie, Jānis Urbanovičs, has publicly assured that the party will work with the Latvian government to support Ukrainian statehood and to alleviate the suffering of civilians.
Soglasie has always taken a pro-European side and in 2014 condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea. However, this does not apply to individual party members, just as it does not apply to all Soglasie voters.
The other systemic Russian party, the Latvian Russian Union, has consistently taken pro-Kremlin positions at least until the current aggression. On 24 February, its chairman Miroslav Mitrofanov wrote on Facebook: “On the night of 23/24 February, war broke out in Ukraine (…) One always wants to hope for the best, but life shatters these expectations to pieces (…) One can only pray to God that the fratricide will end as soon as possible.”
Rather than simply condemning the aggressor and calling to rely on God, the leader of the Latvian Russian Union has indicated to journalists that the party is in favour of a cessation of hostilities and the start of negotiations.
The slogan “For peace, against war!” is not interpreted unambiguously by all. Latvian member of European Parliament Tatjana Ždanoka voted against the pro-Ukraine EP resolution on the basis of the slogan “I am for peace, against war! “ The resolution only encourages the escalation of the armed conflict when it calls for the strengthening of Ukraine’s defensive potential.
According to a survey conducted by the Latvian agency SKDS, 22% of Russian-speaking support Ukraine in the war, 21% support Russia, and even 43% do not support either side in the conflict.
On the other hand, a very large number of Russian-speaking people help refugees and go to demonstrations in support of Ukraine. For example, on 5 March, Riga hosted the biggest march against Russian aggression in recent years, attracting 30,000 participants.
A human rights activist Elizaveta Krivtsova, who once defended Russian-speaking schools in Latvia, went to the rally dressed in yellow and blue (the colours of the Ukrainian flag, however, hardly there are people who still do not know that), before she wrote on Facebook: ‘I used to despair when I was defending the rights of human beings and of national minorities – don’t civic methods work, it’s only the right of the strongest. But I have always told myself that the price of the right to education or the use of mother tongue must not be destruction, poverty and death. Yes, I have grievances against Ukrainian politics, but they are slipping into the background because military aggression against Ukraine is not allowed.”
The Metropolitan of the Latvian Orthodox Church Alexander, appealed to the faithful to pray for an end to the military action, unequivocally calling actions of Russia aggression.
On the other hand, an adamant adept of the “Russian world” Vladimir Linderman, says: “The Russian army will end its military operation and a new political reality will come into being, whether anyone likes it or not.”
And here is a writer Aleksey Gerasimov, who also wrote on Facebook: “I wanted something, I hoped for something. And suddenly the illusory picture of the world in my imagination collapsed. How to live on? I am ready to throw all the concepts of ‘Eurasian unity’ that I used to be dear into the dustbin, just to make peace stand still.”
Such a “scattering” of Russian-speaking sentiments signals a certain disruption and even confusion, at least initially.
When a resolution condemning Russia was adopted in the Estonian Parliament, the Centrist Party group representing the interests of Russian-speaking people voted against it. But all its members signed a declaration in support of Ukraine. The ratings of the party are falling dramatically against the backdrop of the drastic events in Ukraine.
Residents of Russian-speaking people in Tallinn in Lasnamäe district have been active in donating items to Ukrainian refugees. Young Russian-speaking Estonians admit that they are no longer able to maintain close contact with their pro-war relatives in Russia.
Mihhail Lotman, professor emeritus at the University of Tartu, and Andrey Makarychev, visiting professor, have issued the Tartu Declaration, stating that they, Russians by blood, language and culture, would like to make Russia proud. Instead, they feel other feelings: pain, anger and shame. It has only taken a few days for the word ‘Russian’ to cease to be associated with Alexander Pushkin, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Isaak Levitan, Dmitri Mendeleev or Nikolai Lobachevsky, and to be associated instead with gangsters of Vladimir Putin.
A petition “Baltic Russian-speaking community – against the war in Ukraine!” has been published on Chang.org. The authors of the petition, residents of the Lithuanian town of Visaginas, have decided to publicly state their position in order to prevent any attempts to encroach on the sovereignty of the Baltic States in the future and of Ukraine in the present: “We are overwhelmed by the fact that the war started by Russia will destroy the results of the long-lasting careful work of Russian-speaking minorities in all the post-Soviet space in the cause of intercultural dialogue and friendship with the titular nations“.
Lithuania hosts the largest number of Ukrainian refugees from the Baltic States. Juventus, a Russian-speaking gymnasium in Vilnius, has decided to provide its own premises for Ukrainian refugees forced to leave their homeland. The anti-war meeting of national minorities in Klaipėda was attended mainly by Russian-speaking people.
It is appropriate to summarise by repeating the thesis about the “dispersion” of the sentiments of the Baltic Russian-speakers as a sign of the disorder and even confusion that will haunt them for some time to come.
The consolidator of the “Russian world”, Vladimir Putin, has certainly succeeded in this.
The Baltic politicians have to “buy in”. President of Estonia Alar Kari, speaking at a meeting in Tallinn Freedom Square on 26 February, pointed out that this is not a war of the Russian people against Ukraine and Ukrainians. It is the war of President Vladimir Putin.
Arturas Krišjanis, the head of the Latvian government, has repeatedly said that society should not be in the business of dividing people and that being Russian does not mean supporting Vladimir Putin. President of Latvia Egils Levitas, in his address to the participants of the March 5 march, pointed out that the people of Latvia are united in their support for Ukraine, regardless of linguistic affiliation.
Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, Speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas, stated that the strictness of the law will prevent any attempt to blame Russians in Lithuania simply because they are Russian.
This is the case with Vladimir Putin’s formerly greedy, now blood-drenched “Russian world“, which is also a source of growing envy among Baltic Russians.