The below interview was conducted by Sergejs Pavlovs for LSM's Russian-language service and is reproduced here in part.
Until grade ten, you studied at the Rīnūži Secondary school, which was quite recently singled out among problematic schools by the Re:Baltica investigative journalism center. Is it really that problematic?
Vecmīlgrāvis is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rīga, and it can be felt. But all of us, the students, were on friendly terms. There wasn't anything particularly seedy at the school, but the neighborhood itself... They start drinking, smoking and fighting quite early on. In principle I am rather thankful for this experience. When I went on to study at the 1st Gymnasium, many children there were rather more "incubated", they hadn't experienced the risky circumstances of living in such a neighborhood.
Did you have any doubts over transferring to the 1st Gymnasium?
I did. I didn't speak Latvian that well at the time. I learned it at the age of 16 to 17, at the gymnasium. I was sort of a star in Rīnūži thanks to my success at different olympiads, but everyone's very smart at the gymnasium. [..]
For example, at the age of 16 I wasn't that well-versed in the matter of Latvian and Russian [coexistence]. I knew that there's some fuss with May 9, but I only felt it at the 1st Gymnasium when I...
... started wearing a St. George's ribbon?
I did not wear any ribbons, but there were students who attended the gymnasium wearing St. George's ribbon. I witnessed the other side of it there – a girl arrived wearing this ribbon and many classmates looked upon her angrily. You don't see the other side of the matter if you're studying in Rīnūži...
You should however understand that no-one owns a monopoly over objectivity. It hurts them, it symbolizes something else to them than it does to most Russians. But you can always talk it over.
You say you learned Latvian only at the age of 16 to 17. How is that possible if your first nine years of studies took place at a two-language school?
I was about the 3rd or 4th best Latvian speaker in my class, but I never felt confident. I think there are problems with the methodology. In Russian schools, they study Latvian like this: you have to read a bunch of 19th-century Latvian writers. I've read [Rūdolfs] Blaumanis through and through. But that's old Latvian, without the modern juiciness and spice. As a result, I was completely unable to keep a conversation early on at the 1st Gymnasium.
I've read that Russian children who've went on to study at Latvian schools have different experiences. From cases where everything's normal, where there are no inter-ethnic conflicts, to cases where other children pressure and even terrorize you for having opinions different from the Latvian discourse.
(Smiles.) Of course, children are like "animals". In grade 10, we had a dispute over LGBT rights at the gymnasium. The majority, some nine people, were, to my surprise, against them. They said, for example, that they wouldn't shake hands with [LGBT] people. Only some five people were on my side.
Wow. That's the best school, the future elite.
Well that was just my class. As soon as I said, "What are you talking about? It's completely normal!" they tried to silence me. But their opinion had changed by next year. It's understandable that children are unable to articulate disagreement well. I don't think that the disagreement over the topic of May 9, which has not been formulated well, actually carries weight in the relationships between Latvian and Russian children. It's just that they're children, they're sort of like prison guards. (Laughs.)
Is May 9 a celebration for you?
My family observes this date, and before moving to Britain I did attend the [Victory] monument in Rīga. They say that this date has gained currency since the year 2000, as part of political propaganda. But that's not true.
My grandmother, a child of the war, told me that, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the main celebration for their village near Pskov wasn't Christmas but May 9.
For Russians, it is a sort of a national celebration, and it's clear to me. Furthermore, in time I realized that I had to learn to connect this day with what it means to Latvians.
[Politician Aldis] Gobzems, whether you love or hate him, wrote a wonderful Facebook post before May 9. He said that it's not a celebration for Latvians as they associate it with losing their freedom. But Russians have no such association. It's bad faith to blame Russians for not having such an association. But it's likewise bad faith to blame Latvians for not having such an association.
In an interview with [former president Valdis] Zatlers, you said not only the occupation of Latvia is a sad fact but also the fact that "we didn't resist the occupation in 1940." I am stressing that you say "we". But over the matter of May 9 you associate yourself with family history and your grandmother from Pskov. You assume a sort of a double identity here – did "we" occupy "us"?
I didn't really feel that I was... (Pauses.) Hmm, that's interesting, yes. All my roots, all my grandparents and grandmothers were born outside Latvia... (Pauses.) It's clear that these identities are strongly conflicted. For example, I have spoken to Dainis Īvāns, whom I consider a very respectable individual, even though he continues saying that the Russification of Latvia under the USSR was a silent genocide. And again, you can totally understand this matter from the point of view of a Latvian individual. That the proportion of Latvians in this land was slowly reduced, to the effect of making people afraid they won't hold any political power there.
Then again, how do I deal with what he's saying if I'm a Russian and in principle the only reason I'm here in Latvia is the Russification he so demonizes?
I think that in terms of social etiquette you should simply stop talking about it. You should remember there was a point like that in history, but in the end I'm here because Russification took place. I don't have anything other than Latvia. I don't have Russia or Ukraine.
That's why I'm part of the Latvian nation. I'm Russian, and I have Russian roots...
You see, I'm unable to say anything worthwhile about this. (Laughs.)
In 2013, journalist Olga Procevska wrote an ironic "codex of good manners for the agreeable Russian". That includes not observing May 9, not being interested in the goings-on at the local Russian community, not reminding everyone that the People's Front of Latvia promised citizenship for all permanent residents, and making ironic remarks against the Harmony party and hating Vladimir Linderman's followers.
I've read it. I like Procevska.
I was unable to unearth any evidence there that would make you an "agreeable Russian".
I've never voted for Harmony – I've think they've made Rīga into a feeding trough. I have utmost sympathy for Latvian history in 1940. As for May 9... In grade 12 I was in an environment where everyone had negative feelings towards May 9, and it was then that I experienced the first inner conflict. Because I knew that my entire family attends [the monument], but all of my...
But you didn't have any such conflict until grade 12?
Perhaps I wasn't smart enough and sort of went with the flow before that. [..] But in grade 12 I realized it was important. I wrote a speech for my politics class but the teacher wouldn't allow me to read it. I got sad and went to see the most nationalist of my classmates and a teacher, revealing my heart to them. That it was so hurtful, that I can't even formulate it and I'm not smart enough to explain why I'm hurting. But that I realize that one person is telling me one thing, and the other one is saying the exact opposite. Who am I to believe in, and can I really forsake a familial tradition?
Right, "because you're Russian".
(Laughs.) Yes, yes. And at the end it was a very surprising day. My radical classmate, an uber-nationalist, hopped on a tram together with myself and my teacher, and we went to the monument. It was the first time I was there. He would always call the monument a phallus. And we went there. I laid down a flower, while they kept at a distance, thinking about their own matters. They probably saw that it's not like the place is full with "animals" who only know drinking.
I can understand, intellectually, that the victory against fascism is a great celebration. But I don't get emotional because of the celebration, as I think about my granddads at the monument. I can understand what my classmates feel, as they associate it with deportations. My heart is bleeding too, I can cry together with them. But it never crosses my mind to be rejoice, at the monument, over the fact Latvia was occupied in 1940. And my non-citizen parents, despite the stereotype that they're supposedly glad about the occupation, definitely don't think about it that way, they're not glad. The same applies to the other people I know.
You say you only have Latvia. But in a recent discussion you said that many Russians, you included, are rather mistrustful of the government.
When we had a chat with [Valdis] Zatlers after the interview, he told me about his theory of "ethnic instincts". All of us have a sentiment that's cultivated by what we hear on the news. For example, a thing that has stayed with me is what president [Egils] Levits said last year – that it's absurd that only 60% of the people in Latvia speak Latvian [according to data by Latvia's Statistics Office, in 2017 Latvian was the native language of 61% of the population – editor].
According to his logic, then, I'm part of the problem, part of the absurd.
Therefore, whatever Levits says on another topic will, on the level of instinct, make me mistrustful.
An intellectual has a duty to suppress instincts such as this. But you can't go on like this, and not everyone has the resources for that. I am trying, for my part. But when the Latvian-Russian matter is being discussed once again and they speak to me without tact, I sort of have to swallow the fly in the ointment. Do I really need that?
How did you feel when journalist Inga Spriņģe told you, without holding back, how difficult it was to find a character one would call a "reasonable Russian" for a TV show?
Yes, you can put a blame on Inga for this phrase, but I think it's part of a great problem. Inga, if one can say that, is a friend of Latvia's Russians. I believe her to be a very honest and good person. But in this case she yielded to the discourse, so to speak. Even though "a reasonable Russian" is an absolutely vulgar thing to say. When I told this to my Latvian associates, they didn't understand, asking me, "What's so special about that?" I told them, okay, let's take an unpleasant stereotype about Latvians and I'll tell you, "Now there's a real Latvian!" Would you like that?
I am unable to understand why none of the Latvians in my "bubble" lash back upon hearing this rubbish. But they aren't objecting.
Maybe it's a case of having a comfortable majority?
It's likely. Our progressives cause me some wonder about this. I agree with almost all of the views of the so-called Latvian liberal political powers. In Britain they would call me a libtard. And now they're protesting over an ice-cream called "Blacky".
I can understand it rationally. They're protesting against racism. But why haven't I heard anything about a fundamental of liberal democracy that says there are no benefits without representation, i.e., why don't we have any Russian ministers? The party isn't important. We had Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis, but that's the only example that comes to mind. It's part of the discourse, no-one is objecting, and in the end Inga Spriņģe intuitively feels that she can call someone a "reasonable Russian". And at that I think she's a good person.
You've had two interviews on your show, with Zatlers and with Spriņģe, as well as a discussion, organized by the Latvian office of the European Parliament, where you took part. What's common to all these discussions is that your Latvian conversation partners say that there are no problems, on a quotidian level, between Latvians and Russians. There are supposedly only a couple of matters that have been politicized. You disagree, sometimes sparking disbelief on the other side. You say there are "fundamental problems" and that there's xenophobia. Why do you think you see these problems whereas the other party does not?
I am afraid of assuming the role of an "ambassador for Russians" as I understand perfectly well that many Russians will disagree with me. For example, I have a cousin who doesn't feel problems such as this. But I do think that such people simply don't notice the problems or don't want to see them.
Why doesn't the other party, i.e., Latvians within my circle of acquaintances, see it? Well, if there's a mechanism of oppression or tactless conduct, which affects an object – the Russians – why should the subject, i.e., the Latvians notice it if it doesn't affect them?
You don't feel it because it doesn't hurt you.
At the same time, how can you prove that there's a systemic problem of discrimination, of the prevailing discourse? On principle, you keep your eyes peeled and gather anecdotal evidence. I've seen two over the past two weeks. I am walking on the street, and there's a man quarreling with a homeless person, and he's calling the police. I ask them, what's up? He tells me that the homeless person is bothering passersby and swearing in Russian. I answered that it's not important what language he's swearing in, right? But the man went silent and smirked.
The second situation was in Old Riga where I was walking with Latvian friends. Russian pop-music was blasting loudly from a motorcycle. My friends asked what should be the proper punishment for such hooliganism. I asked my friend, jokingly, whether if it was [the Latvian rock band] Pērkons playing, should the punishment be lower? And he told me, not in jest, that it should. I retorted that it's absurd that someone should face a harsher punishment for blasting music in Russian. But someone who has a university degree in politics, obtained in Britain, told me in earnest that that should indeed be the case.
These are two examples where you have indeed reason to call the police, but it's evident that the complaint will be lodged only because a violation of public order involves Russians. PM Kariņš recently said that Latvians can understand the Black lives matter movement as they were oppressed in the Soviet times. I think that it's the exact opposite, that the Russians are better situated to understand this movement. As black people in the US face problem that when they break the law they face harsher punishments. The police are prejudiced and detain black people more. And I don't know what's worse, if someone knows they're calling the police because someone's swearing in Russian or that they don't even realize there's an element of chauvinism.
I am afraid to say that it's not even conscious as they haven't been berated for it. But they should be.