Staunton, June 14 – Off and on over the last century, Russian governments have presented themselves as defenders of the Russian Orthodox Latgal nation in eastern Latvia against Riga’s efforts to unite what Latvians see as a subgroup of their own community into a modern Latvian nation.
Now, Aleksandr Filey, a commentator for the pro-Russian RuBaltic portal, has taken up their cudgels on their behalf, denouncing Riga for promoting Latvian language and recalling how much the Russian state has done for the Latgals (rubaltic.ru/article/kultura-i-istoriya/20210614-mertvye-yazyki-latvii-povtorit-li-latgalskiy-yazyk-sudbu-livskogo-i-kuronskogo/).
Between 1904 when the Russian Empire permitted publications in the Latin script to 1920 when the Latvian government reversed efforts to recognize the Latgals as a separate nationality, the Latgals flourished with numerous publications and an active civic and religious life, Filey says.
Over that period, many Latgals moved to Siberia in the hopes of building their own nation. The Soviet government initially supported them, opening 27 schools in the Latgal language between 1929 and 1931, in the hopes that graduates would be loyal to the USSR and work against independent Latvia.
After the first Soviet occupation in 1940, the communist regime gave official status to Latgal; but in 1959, the Soviet authorities ended all publication in Latgal and thus set the stage for the assimilation of the community which is now estimated to include approximately 150,000 Latgal speakers.
Moscow has played up the Latgal issue in the past for several reasons – to split the Latvian national movement, to insist that ethnic Latvians do not constitute a majority in their country, and to foster unrest in what is the poorest region of Latvia, which because it is located near the Russian border is where NATO forces have sometimes exercised.
Despite post-Soviet Moscow’s efforts, the Latgals have remained overwhelmingly loyal to Riga; and activists from among them insist that this will remain the case however much Moscow says otherwise (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/12/moscow-again-wants-to-play-latgal-card.html, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/05/latgals-want-their-place-in-sun-but-in.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/02/moscows-real-interest-in-latgals-to.html).
It is unlikely that any new moves of the kind that Filey clearly would like to see will change that or that there is any chance that the Latgals could become a cockpit of conflict (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/02/why-latgale-unlikely-to-trigger-world.html). But apparently some Russians still hope to stir the pot.
Moscow is not the only capital that has sought to reach out to the Latgals. Up until the 1980s, the Latvian Service of RFE/RL broadcast a weekly program in Latgal. When that was dropped, many Latgals in the West – and some 100,000 are estimated to live outside of Latvia – complained bitterly.