Despatch from overseas

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Following a particularly unsuccessful placement in Russia, I had come to terms with the fact that my year abroad had reached a premature end. I had resigned myself to the idea of another term of online teaching and a serious lack of cultural exposure.

That was until the Russian department was able to secure some places at a Russian language school in Riga. As a former Soviet state, Latvia has obvious links with the Russian language and culture, and although speaking Russian can be quite taboo in certain social circumstances, it is clearly much easier to practice day to day than it would be in the UK!

With a much less complicated visa process and direct flights from most British airports it was a breeze getting to Latvia compared to the rigmarole we endured on our way into Russia. Having never ventured into the Baltics or much of Eastern Europe at that, I had no idea what to expect.

I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with beautiful architecture and centuries of rich history. The city offers a plethora of affordable museums which allow for a deep dive into the German founders of the largest of the Baltic cities and offer more information about life under Soviet occupation.

Riga as a city boasts a large number of higher educational institutions which means you don’t have to look far to find great international student communities. Despite being a capital city, Riga is far from large, which means that it is very much walkable and even from the deep Moscow District suburb it won’t take much longer than 45 minutes to reach the heart of the city.

I had resigned myself to the idea of another term of online learning

This does however mean that after only a couple of weeks you will have exhausted most of Riga’s main attractions and will likely be looking further afield for things to do to fill the long summer evenings. Thankfully Riga is well connected if not by train, then definitely by land and air. As the most central of the Baltic countries, reaching Lithuania or Estonia isn’t difficult at all and the cities make for the perfect weekend excursions.

Riga airport even has a direct flight to Tbilisi in Georgia which allowed for an idyllic break surrounded by delicious cuisine and cheap wine. Despite also having a difficult history with their neighbours to the north, Georgia has very effectively distanced themselves from their Soviet past whilst retaining more of the Russian language.

Having just submi!ed an EU membership application, the Georgian people clearly have Europe on their mind which made for a welcoming atmosphere and left me wondering why we don’t hear of more British tourists venturing across the Black Sea for their holidays. A weekend away in the Caucasus mountains under the sun was a welcome change from the rain and sea breeze in Latvia and offered a sense of eagerness to explore more of Georgia.

Despite all of the positives Latvia has to offer and all of the great things I have been able to experience in such a short amount of time, living in Riga has been far from easy. Not being familiar with the local language has left us subject to a great deal of intolerance. Being forced to converse in Russian or English has highlighted the deep-rooted sense of divide between the two sectors of society: those who speak Latvian and those who speak Russian. The native Russian speakers being outweighed almost twice over by those who speak Latvian and Soviet occupation being still very prominent in cultural memory makes for an interesting dynamic.

The marginalisation of Russian speaking Latvians has only been strengthened following the war in Ukraine but is definitely not a modern phenomenon and seems to have been legitimised by the government’s decision to transition away from offering educational institutions taught in the Russian language. Although studying here has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, it has made me think more about the links between language and identity within society.

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