500Latvian national guard in Riga

It’s an easy equation that too many journalists make too quickly: if a person speaks Russian in a former Soviet republic, they must be a supporter of Vladimir Putin’s programs. And it’s wrong.

Some probably are. But when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, those who felt strongly about such things moved to Russia. Those who stayed in the countries that had been Soviet republics felt some pull to those countries. In some cases, it was simply that they had lived there all their lives. In others, it was that they wanted to see what their new/old homeland would do with its freedom.

Vladimir Putin’s view is that if you speak Russian, you must be protected by the Motherland. It’s not clear whether he really believes that or simply uses it as a convenient justification for other ambitions. An uncritical acceptance of that view shows up in the media less than it did a year ago, but it’s still there. So we hear that the Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia are liabilities to those countries, and much reporting on Ukraine assumes that Russian speakers there lean toward Russian positions.

Russian speakers are pretty much like everyone else: of many opinions, not necessarily connected to their language. Think about how ridiculous it would be to talk about English-speakers in Germany as a political group. Or German-speakers in Hungary.

Two new surveys are helpful: one of Russian speakers in Latvia, and a more extensive one of Russian speakers in what Putin likes to call “Novorossiya.”

The Latvian survey is oriented toward military service. Almost 60% of Latvian men would be willing to take up arms to defend the country, which breaks down into 67% of those speaking Latvian as their first language and 41% of Russophone men. Not a majority, but a significant number who would defend Latvia against Russia.

The survey in Ukraine covers the popularity of politicians in southeastern Ukraine, excluding the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where polling is impossible because of the war. People speaking Ukrainian or Russian as their first language largely were indifferent to Petro Poroshenko, Barack Obama, or Vladimir Lenin. But they all strongly disliked that other Vladimir, Putin. There were no dramatic differences by language.

So please, could we hear less from the media lumping people by language? That’s basically a Russian propaganda trope.

Update (January 23, 2015): Video of Tartu University professor Andres Ilmar Kasekamp on Estonia-Russia relations and Russian speakers in Estonia. Short version: Narva residents are in the EU, unlike Crimea.

Update (February 6, 2015): Not much support for joining with Russia in Ukraine, either.


Image: Latvian national guard parades in Riga’s Old Town.

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  1. The Blog Fodder says:

    We are still hearing in Western Press how a “majority” of Crimeans wanted to join Russia and are so happy. Between 32% (FSB report to Kremlin) and 50% (Kremlin Human Rights Commission) voted and half voted for independence. The Crimean Ukrainians and Tatars did not vote in any numbers. So maybe 15% to 20% of Crimea wanted to join Russia, though it was not even a referendum question.
    People here speak Russian or Ukrainian as they wish. There never was a problem until Russia created one.

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