Shifting Identities: Russian Speakers in Latvia

Russian speakers
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: The laundress // Public domain

Europe, and perhaps the whole world, woke up in a different reality on February 24, 2022. Shocked, angered, frightened, stressed, outraged – we can probably find many words to describe the primal and visceral feelings of people. But there was one very clear-cut line: whether or not one supported Ukraine which fell victim to the barbaric and criminal Russian invasion. This was a turning point for many things, including shifting identities for many Latvian Russian speakers.

For the first time in the history of public research in Latvia, the Russian-speaking population favored a Western focus for the country’s foreign affairs over Russia: 41% of Russian-speaking respondents of the SKDS center research[1] preferred deeper integration within the EU framework (the figure nearly doubled from only 23% back in 2019) and 33% of Russian-speaking respondents preferred deeper ties with Russia (this result shrank from 55% back in 2019)[2].

These changes are extremely important and even historic. We can see how war shaped the opinions and aspirations of many Russian speakers. At the same time, we are not talking about the absolute majority. There is still a sizable group of people who fell victim to Russian propaganda, which is quite disturbing. Nonetheless, this clear historic shift of opinions gives the potential for optimism.

Another historic shift for the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia is their changed perception of Russia.

“Half of the Russian-speaking minority believes that Russia poses a military threat to the rest of Europe. That is an increase of almost 15% in comparison to 2022. Still, that is not even close to the 79% of the Latvian majority that views Russia as a threat. Interestingly enough, when asked about the threat coming from Russian disinformation or propaganda, only 40% of the Russian-speaking minority feel threatened, which is still an increase of 10% when compared to the survey a year ago.” [3]

We see that there are parts of the Russian-speaking minority that are changing their views on Russia and the West – they are evaluating their own identities and cultural ties. It is extremely important to use this momentum and address this group within the minority, otherwise, if we keep noticing only the part that supports the Putin regime, we risk turning the positive tide backward.

A different survey[4] from June 2023 shows that, when asked directly about stating that Russia committed an act of aggression against an independent state, 85% of Latvians agree, 6% think that Russia was forced to defend its interest, and 9% admitted that it is difficult to say. Among the Russian-speaking respondents, only 34% agreed with this statement, 38% believed that Russia was defending its interests, and 28% admitted that it is difficult to say.

If in the previous opinion poll respondents were asked to reflect on the destiny and development path of their own country and the preferred vector was the EU and the West in general, then when talking about the war in Ukraine, we see a different picture. Russian speakers repeated the main points of Russian propaganda’s narrative, stating that Russia was forced to defend itself concerning NATO.

Therefore, in their opinion, it means that NATO provoked the war. There is another important signal in these answers, namely 28% of Russian speakers refused to answer the question, instead diverting to the ‘difficult to say option’, which could plausibly mean that they support the position of Russia but are afraid to speak about it out loud.

It is important to note that Russian speakers in Latvia are not a homogenous group or community. It is extremely diverse and represents views of the broad political, social, and economic spectrum. For example, if we look at the results of the same questions divided by age groups, we see a stark difference – 48% of Russian speakers in the age group 18-30 years support the statement that Russia committed an act of aggression against Ukraine compared to only 29% in the age group 51-75 years.

The younger generation of Russian-speakers are better integrated with Latvian society. Their identities are still mixed, but they have fewer emotional ties to Russia, its culture, and its narrative. Although Latvia did not have a coherent integration policy during the last decades, the younger generation is closer linked to a broader European identity through popular culture (movies, music, social media), as well as various educational and exchange programs.

A newer study from July 2023 found that the younger generations of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia are indeed more eager to see the EU as an opportunity, do not regard NATO as a threat either to themselves or to Russia, and view the current Russian state as a destructive force that might at one point pose a threat to Latvia. They seem to understand that having a Russian background does not mean eternal loyalty to Russia but is rather simply a cultural bond that does not prevent them from being Latvian.[5]

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we can see new and important changes happening among the Russian speakers of Latvia. The war shock forced many to reevaluate their views on the East/West dichotomy, on the kind of future they want for themselves and their country, and on their understanding and acceptance of Latvia’s difficult past.

We are still not talking about the majority of the Russian speakers, but it is important to see the new trend and grasp this momentum. For strategic and long-term security of both Latvia and the EU (Latvia being on its Eastern border) it is important to seize the moment and address Russian speakers with strategic communication to help them break ties with the so-called ‘Russian world’ – informational and cultural bubble created by Russian propaganda. It is essential to spot that potential provocateurs, Russian agents, and even traitors, act according to law provisions and procedures.

These could be individual cases but not common guilt of an ethnic group that often has absolutely no connection to Russia besides the language. It is imperative to stress that those who share the values of the Latvian constitution and European values are our people despite their ethnicity. Not many Latvian statesmen have made such statements. Instead, we see a chain of restrictive policies that further polarize society.

This is an excerpt from the article “New Europeans in the Making?”’ by Jelena Jesajana, published in Hodun, M., Cappelletti, F. (2023). Putin’s Europe. Russian Influence in European Democracy. Brussels: ELF.


[1] A. Kaktiņš (2023), Survey of Latvian residents from March 2023, SKDS.

[2] A. Kaktiņš (2023), Survey of Latvian residents from March 2023, SKDS.

[3] R. Krumm , K. Šukevičs , T. Zariņš, (2023): ‘Under Pressure. An analysis of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia’, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Riga, July 2023, p. 19.

[4] A. Lisenkov, M. Kugel (2023), ‘“Poverty trap” or whether Latvian residents are ready to take risks. A survey by Spektr. Press and SKDS shows how income level affects social and economic activity of the population — in particular the Russian-speaking community,’ SPEKTR.PRESS, 20 June,

[5] R. Krumm , K. Šukevičs , T. Zariņš, (2023): ‘Under Pressure. An analysis of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia’, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Riga, July 2023, p.22.

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