In the historic heart of Riga, Latvia’s bustling capital, there’s a boulevard that doubles as a timeline of this proud country’s turbulent past. When Latvia was part of Tsarist Russia, it was called Alexander Street. In 1918, when Latvia won its independence, it was renamed Freedom Street. In 1940, when the Red Army invaded, its name was changed to Lenin Street. In 1941, when the Wehrmacht marched in, it became Adolf Hitler Street. When Latvia was swallowed up by the Soviet Union, it became Lenin Street once more, and in 1991, when Latvia regained its independence, it became Freedom Street again.
2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of Latvian independence. There are celebratory events all over Latvia throughout the year. But as the story of Freedom Street reveals, Latvia hasn’t had a hundred years of independence. It was independent from 1918 to 1940, and independent again since 1991, but for half a century between it was occupied by the USSR.
Even though the Soviet Union is no more, Latvians are still fearful of Russia’s territorial ambitions in this contested corner of the Baltic, and no wonder. In a land that’s endured such suffering, memories run deep. At one end of Freedom Street is the Freedom Monument, erected in 1935 to toast Latvia’s independence. At the other end of Freedom Street is a bland office block where the KGB tortured Latvian dissidents. Euphemistically, Latvians used to call it ‘the House on the Corner.’ Today it’s a museum.
I first went to Riga in 2011, 20 years after Latvia regained its independence. In the city centre, it was hard to believe that this mercantile metropolis had ever been part of the USSR. Yet you didn’t need to travel far to find a different Latvia. On the other side of the railway tracks was the Russian part of town – an urban wilderness of anonymous apartment blocks, a throwback to the bad old days of the Soviet Union. After 20 years of independence, Riga was still a divided city. It reminded me of Belfast at the tail end of the Troubles. There was no violence, but the atmosphere was strained.
I’ve been back to Latvia several times since then, and I’ve travelled all around the country. It’s a fascinating place. The countryside is austerely beautiful and the windswept beaches are sublime. But it’s in the capital that you can really measure how much (and how little) Latvia has changed. I was back in Riga a few weeks ago, and I found it busier than ever, full of tourists and business travellers, spending money, doing deals. But on the wrong side of the tracks, where the Russians live, things still seem much the same.
The reason there are so many ethnic Russians living in Latvia is a result of Stalin’s attempt to wipe Latvia off the map. Stalin sent 94,000 people from the three Baltic states to Siberia (as many as 320,000 Latvians are believed to have been deported in total under Soviet rule). Many of them were opinion formers – writers, teachers, politicians – but you didn’t need to be an activist to find yourself in mortal peril. Anyone with any nationalist tendencies was suspect, even someone with an amateur interest in Latvian literature or folk music. Seventeen thousand died in transit. Many more never returned. Most Latvians you meet have a relative who perished in this pogrom. This ethnic cleansing is still commemorated by a day of national mourning.
To replace these native Latvians, Stalin shipped in Russian speakers from all over the Soviet Union. The aim was to eradicate all traces of Latvian identity. When the USSR finally fell apart, 900,000 ethnic Russians were living here. Today there are still around half a million, about a quarter of the population. In urban conurbations like Riga it’s a lot more – nearer half.
For Latvia, this large Russian minority has always been a worry. They watch Russian TV, they read Russian newspapers – they keep their own company. Many of them live in bleak suburbs, where few foreigners choose to venture. Few want to move to Russia (living standards are a lot higher here) but their cultural affiliations are far more Russian than Latvian. How can the state assimilate them? That nagging question remains unresolved.
After independence, the new government introduced Latvian language tests as a requirement for full citizenship. This prompted some Russian speakers to learn Latvian, but those who couldn’t or wouldn’t felt even more isolated than before. Those who don’t pass the test are given inferior so-called ‘grey’ passports with restricted rights. Marginalised and disenfranchised, these ‘non-citizens’ are prime targets for President Putin’s barrage of fake news.
Like its Baltic neighbour, Estonia, Latvia has embraced the internet. For a small country on the edge of Europe, the web is a great way of engaging with the wider world. It’s also been a great opportunity for Russian trolls and hackers. For every Russian language tweet in Latvia sent by a real person, five are sent by bots. The objective of this virtual assault is to aggravate the simmering sense of grievance in the Russian speaking population, and spread confusion and despondency among the Latvian majority.
When Russia invaded Crimea, in 2014, I was in Estonia, staying in a country hotel that belonged to a leading Estonian politician. When I dined with him that evening, he was aghast. ‘We are at war,’ he told me, gravely, but so far he’s only been half right. The subsequent invasion of the Baltic States has been a phoney war, fought out in the battlefield of cyberspace.
Lately, the focal point of Russian fake news has been the arrival of Nato troops in the Baltic States, from Britain and elsewhere. These soldiers have been sent here as a show of solidarity, to boost local morale and deter Russian aggression. Russia has responded with malicious falsehoods, in an attempt to turn the locals against these foreign troops. Some of this fake news is crude: Nato troops have raped local girls (untrue). Some is more subtle: Nato troops are staying in luxury apartments at local expense (also untrue).
Nato is taking this propaganda war extremely seriously. It’s compiled a report entitled ‘Internet Trolling as a Tool of Hybrid Warfare – The Case of Latvia.’ Latvia has a 200km border with Russia, and lots of ethnic Russians along this frontier. If Russia were ever to invade Latvia, this sustained cyber assault could be a big plus in terms of softening up local resistance. In the meantime it’s breeding doubt and weakening Western resolve.
Talking to influential Latvians on my latest visit a few weeks ago, none of them expect an actual invasion anytime soon, but they do see this fake news as significant – a powerful part of an important process. Russia is formenting the impression that Latvia is a failed state with a fascist heritage, rather than a core member of the EU with a higher GDP per capita than Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania, and a growth rate above the EU average (higher than Britain or even Germany). Its progress since it threw off the Soviet yoke has been phenomenal, but that’s not the story the Kremlin wants to tell.
As a full member of Nato, Latvia is protected by Article Five of its founding treaty, which states that an armed attack against one member will be regarded as an attack against them all. If Russia invaded Latvia, Britain would be duty bound to go to Latvia’s aid. Russia’s propaganda campaign is aimed at undermining that solidarity. If Latvians end up thinking Nato soldiers aren’t really there to help them, and Nato countries like Britain end up thinking Latvia was never really an independent country, with a unique history of its own, the ground will be prepared. Happy 100th birthday, brave little Latvia. Here’s hoping you make it through the next 100 years unscathed.