They Speak Russian, But Do They Support Putin’s War?

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One Ukrainian mother suddenly raised her hand. “What if my child was placed in a school with the children from a pro-Russian household?” she asked in Russian. The room fell silent and a TV cameraman from the local station zoomed in on her. “Should I worry about him being bullied?”

The question was an understandable one. Daugavpils has a large Russian-speaking population, one of the largest concentrations in the Baltic states, and is widely considered the capital of Russian-speaking Latvia. It was in the name of Russian speakers in places like Daugavpils that Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine, alleging that they face not just discrimination but “genocide” in Ukraine and Baltic states like Latvia, all former Soviet republics.

Thus if there were a part of Latvia that would support Putin’s war in Ukraine, one might think it would be Daugavpils, a city of 83,000 located on the banks of the Daugava River just 75 miles from the Russian border. Daugavpils (pronounced DOW-gav-peels) is the capital of the province of Latgale, where residents are heavily Russian-speaking.

Ieva Reitale, an instructor at an art academy, quickly dispelled the mother’s concerns.

“Just because most of us are Russian speaking doesn’t mean that we are for Russia,” Reitale responded with a smile. “We have many cultures here under our roof.”

About a quarter of the population of Latvia is predominantly Russian-speaking — about the same proportion as neighboring Estonia. The Kremlin and its agitprop machine has been trying to use the putative grievances of Latvia’s large Russian-speaking population to undermine the country’s democratically elected government since Latvia regained its independence in 1991.

If it had made significant progress in doing so, or if there was a major surge of support for Russia’s move against Ukraine amongst the general Latvian population, one might think that the first place to look would be this heavily Russian-speaking city.

So I decided to find out.

Daugavils is the second-largest city in Latvia, a three-hour train ride from Riga, Latvia’s capital. The first time I visited was in October 2017, a year after the BBC had broadcast a documentary that enraged the city’s residents. Titled World War Three: Inside the War Room, the film convened a conclave of former senior British military and diplomatic figures who war-gamed an imaginary scenario focused on Daugavpils in which Russia conducted an incursion into Latgale, the Russophone province of which Daugavpils is the capital.

In the film, in scenes that mirrored ones that had taken place in 2014 in Crimea and Donbas, a battalion of balaclava-wearing Russian soldiers without insignia — called “green men” — storm a local government building and hastily remove Latvian and European Union flags as a raucous crowd of indigenous Russophiles lustily cheers them on.

The real-life Russian-speaking residents of Daugavpils, the once-great Russian imperial city known as Dvinsk, were still livid about the BBC film a year later, complaining that it presented an incendiary and false picture of their community and how they felt about Russia.

Locals here also feel misunderstood by other residents of Latvia, and not without reason. Many of my acquaintances in Riga had never even been to Daugavpils. Although it would be inaccurate to call Daugavpils, which has its share of fine restaurants and shops, down and out, wages here do tend to be considerably lower than in Riga. The city’s gloomy train station could use some sprucing up; built in 1951 at the height of the Stalin era, one can still see the remnants of the Soviet red star that was clumsily extracted from its facade.

“I suppose you could say that we are the Appalachians of Latvia,” Olga Petkovich, a journalist who acted as public relations adviser to the mayor, told me in 2017 over breakfast at the Plaza, an elegant rooftop restaurant that featured a panoramic mishmash of elegant Imperial Russian, decaying Soviet and gleaming post-Soviet architecture.

“On the one hand, people from Riga see us as rednecks,” said Petkovich. “Meanwhile, the foreign media seem to think that we’re pining for Russia to invade and rescue our backward city. The fact is this is a fairly sophisticated city in its own right. And things are quite calm.”

Since then I’ve taken the rickety Soviet-era Latvian domestic railways train from Riga to Daugavpils a half-dozen times, and I have yet to witness any tensions between the city’s Russian community and its native Latvian one. Much if not most of the signage is in both Latvian and Russian. So are the menus. The city has a polyglot vibe; quite a few people speak Polish as well, a legacy of the time when the area was part of Polish-Lithuanian Livonia.

Indeed, I have found Daugavpils to be even better integrated than Riga, the capital, where the majority Latvian-speaking population and the Russophone minority tend to work and socialize in their own respective “bubbles.”

Nadezda Stahovska, the head of the local Ukrainian community center, describes Daugavpils as a multinational city, and the numbers back her up. According to the latest census data from 2020, 48 percent of the populace is ethnic Russian, while Latvians comprise 21 percent, followed by Poles (13 percent), Belarusians (8 percent), Ukrainians (2 percent) and “others” (8 percent).

Nevertheless, when I arrived to Daugavpils a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun, I wondered what might have changed in the last few weeks or months. How was the city’s varied population, including its large Russian community, getting along now?

Had Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the prospective absorption of that former Soviet province into Mother Russia, awakened Russian speakers’ dormant Russophilia? Or was Daugavpils’s reaction more like that of Riga, where buildings are draped in Ukrainian blue and yellow and a seething crowd of several thousand residents gathered to protest outside the Russian embassy?

That question was answered as soon as I checked into my upper-story room at Hotel Latgola and in the distance saw the facade of the main building of Daugavpils University bathed in blue and yellow lighting. The following evening, the campus hosted a demonstration of support for Ukraine attended by over five hundred protesters.

Laura Orlina, a graduate of the university and former student activist, called an impromptu drive a few days later for donations of clothing, blankets and other emergency supplies for Ukrainian refugees in Latvia as well as those still sheltering in their besieged cities. In an interview, Orlina told me that she was moved to act after hearing about the plight of the parents of one of her best friends, a Ukrainian national, who lived in Mariupol, which was under siege. The last her friend had heard from them, they were sleeping in the hallway of their battered building. Then their phone went dead.

“That’s when I knew I had to act,” the 25-year-old told me.

Orlina said that she had low expectations for her drive but wound up being overwhelmed by the response. So many people descended on the small room of the city’s Olympic Center that was designated as the drop-off place for the donated supplies that she had to hire an additional bus to transport the donations to Ukraine. “People from both the Latvian and Russian communities came,” she added. “And from all age groups.”

Orlina is a Russian speaker, but she said that was incidental. “In my family we speak Russian,” she told me. “But both Latvian and Russian cultures are close to me and form who I am as a person.”

In Daugavpils, as in other parts of the post-Soviet world, the language you speak doesn’t necessarily determine your ethnicity or your loyalties. “The young people I know,” she added, including Russian speakers, are “aggressively against Putin and condemn his actions.”

Daugavpils is located in the country’s southeastern corner, nestled not far from Belarus and Lithuania and closer to Ukraine than other parts of Latvia. But if anything, I found the mood there less tense than in Riga, which is further away but very much on edge.

Indeed, the conflagration seemed far away when I attended a rehearsal of the Daugavpils Sinfonietta, the city’s impressive symphony, on the 11th day of the war. But of course it wasn’t. The following day, at the insistence of conductor Aivars Broks, an avowed Ukraine supporter, the orchestra began its concert with a rousing performance of the “Ukrainian Bell Chorus.”

It was not hard to find support for Ukraine in Daugavpils, but I wondered about the other side. How much, if any, support was there for Russia in its war against Ukraine?

To find out, my interpreter and I went on a whirlwind visit of the center of the city, stopping and asking shoppers and pedestrians how they felt about the war, and who they supported.

As we did, a busload of refugees arrived, the first of an estimated 5,000 displaced Ukrainians. When we stopped to talk to a weary-looking family of four, we realized they were part of that group.

“Twenty five years of my life in one suitcase,” said a woman in her 60s, evidently the matron of the family, shaking her head and pointing to her lone piece of luggage.

We spoke to about another dozen people. Of those, seven, including older Daugavpilians, told us they either supported Ukraine or expressed horror at the war without indicating support for either side. Four refused to offer their opinion or ran away — we presumed they either supported Putin or feared answering the question.

“There is a culture of silence here,” an American acquaintance who lives in Daugavpils told me. “They probably think you are a spy.”

We did find one woman at the Latgola mall, an older woman in her 60s, who stated flat-out that she supported Russia in the conflict.

“I lived in the Soviet Union,” she said. “I speak Russian. I support Russia.”

I am sure that she is not the only one. I didn’t see any Russian flags while I was in Daugavpils. Nor did I see or hear any public demonstrations of support for the Kremlin. It is possible that those sympathetic to the Russian leader are keeping mum. The last time I was in town, last fall, I remember seeing a swath of colorful T-shirts with Putin’s smiling countenance for sale at a souvenir stall at one of the city’s malls. They were missing this time.

There is more than one reason Putin supporters might be keeping quiet. Latvia has a law against inciting violence; technically, anyone who participated in a pro-Russian demonstration would be in violation of that law, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me.

It is fairly safe to assume that there is a subset of Daugavpils residents, mostly pensioners who rely on Russia for their support, who stand behind Moscow. “Many of the older people I know here support Russia in this conflict,” the Russian-speaking head of one of the departments at Daugavpils University confided to me. “Of course, they would never come out in public in support of Russia,” added the administrator, who asked me not to print his name. “They see what the national trend is.”

How large this subset may be is difficult to assess, but they are certainly there. You can see some evidence on the Facebook page of Andrejs Elksnins, Daugavpils’ Russian-speaking mayor, where Ukrainian zealots and pro-Russians (or perhaps their bots) digitally duke it out behind the cloak of anonymity.
The mayor himself has expressed support for Ukraine while emphasizing the overarching importance of helping the new influx of refugees streaming into town.

On the final night of my visit to Daugavpils, I sat down at the bar of the Hotel Latgola with three young students, all Russian speakers, who lived in the same building as my interpreter. I asked them how they felt about Russia’s new war. One by one, they each expressed their opposition to both Russia and the war.

No one they knew, they said, supported Putin. “Only old ladies,” an 18-year old named Anastasia remarked with a laugh.

All of them were anxious. As another one of the group, Roman, a 21-year-old college student, put it: “I am afraid that the war will come here.”

In that respect, Daugavpils has changed since my first visit. People who were blasé just a few months ago are worried about war, including the possibility of conflict between NATO and Russia. After all, Latvia is now a member of NATO.

Indeed, if one of the objectives behind Putin’s invasion was to put the fright in all of the former so-called Soviet republics, including Latvia and its Estonian and Lithuanian neighbors, one could say that he has succeeded.

Last year, the three “Balts,” as they are known, joyously celebrated the 30th anniversary of their re-independence, as they call the regaining of their independence in 1991. (All three first became independent in 1920, then lost independence when the Soviet Union occupied them during World War II.) Now the Balts and their peoples are on notice that Russia once again has its eye on them, and they know it.

At the same time, I found that Putin has, despite himself, also succeeded in binding Latvia’s Latvian majority and Russian minority closer together, prompting the country as a whole to reconsecrate itself to democracy. That renewed bond was evident at Middle School 10 and at Laura Orlina’s clothing drive.

Orlina may have put it the best: “I may be Russian-speaking,” she told me, “but I am above all a Latvian and a Latvian patriot.”

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