Belarus – so close and so unfamiliar

Neighbor so close and yet so unfamiliar, or what Latvians and Lithuanians think of each other

“If we try to imagine a Lithuanian, we are faced with a vague image of a Baltic, inspired by Estonian jokes. Due to our illiteracy, we are used to think of a Lithuanian as an Estonian, an Estonian as a Latvian, and for us they are all Balts,” Ksenia Prokofieva accurately points out. There is a well-known joke about the same thing: If a Russian is asked who the Lithuanians are, he readily answers: “They are the ones who live in Riga and speak Estonian”. But Lithuanians and Latvians are especially “lucky” in this respect, most Russians do not distinguish them at all! And they are confused not only by those who failed in school in geography, and not only quite educated people, but even those who are not supposed to confuse their neighbors – the media. Even in Soviet times I was surprised how Pravda newspaper could write “the city of Klaipeda, Latvian SSR”, but over the years I got so used to it that I am not surprised when a travel agency invites me to rest in beautiful Lithuanian Jurmala. What about travel agencies! Recently, the news from Lithuania was broadcasted on the central Russian television, and behind the presenter there was a “corresponding” to the topic illustration – a map of Latvia, although the news broadcast included the views of Vilnius and the events that took place in the Lithuanian capital.

We, Lithuanians, know Latvia pretty well, and those who know it little, not particularly interested: oh, what is it, how is Latvia different from our Lithuania! But is it so? Yes, we are brothers, the only surviving Balts on the Earth, but we are different from each other, and considerably. First of all our geography is different – Lithuania is located to the south of Latvia, so it is warmer, at least a little, but the most important – Latvia has 500 km of coast, we have only 99. Latvia can be called a country of one city – Riga has 800 000 inhabitants and it can not be called a giant city (our Vilnius is slightly inferior to it – it lives about 600 000). But all the other most significant cities in Latvia start with 100 000, and life in them is very, very different. In addition to Vilnius, we have Kaunas, Klaipeda, Siauliai, Panevezhys, Marijampole, Utena and a whole list of no less important and important for our country cities. Generally speaking, Lithuanians are people of urban culture, this fact is reflected, among other things, in the network and quality of roads of our countries. Everyone knows that Lithuania has well-developed network of excellent roads, but in Latvia the roads are starry-eyed diverging from Riga, and in 30-40 km they look like our old Molėtai Bolshek. Riga produces 70% of Latvia’s goods and really has all the features of a big capital – it’s a beautiful old cultural city that recently celebrated its 800th anniversary, but there is no such Old Town in Riga as there is in Vilnius! In fact, who has such an Old Town as we do? When we complete all restoration works, you will see for yourself that Vilnius is a pearl of global significance. On the other hand, Riga is a major seaport, where huge cruise ships call, bringing in a thousand passengers and mooring right in the Old Town. But I have always remembered the words of my advisor, a professor at Vilnius University, at the very beginning of our independence movement: “What luck for Lithuania that its capital is not located on the seashore, and that Vilnius, unlike Riga and Tallinn, is not a seaport!

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In Vilnius and partly in Kaunas, nightlife and real traffic in general began only 4-5 years ago, while in Riga the psychology of big-city residents has always been – the orientation to accept tourists, to excitingly interesting events lasting several days, a huge number of excellent cafes and hotels. However, the level of trade and service in other Latvian cities is significantly inferior to the Lithuanian. In Riga, for example, there is almost no construction going on. During the whole period of Latvian independence not a single ultra-modern apartment house has been built. There is nothing to compare it with Lithuania. Our economies are not complementary, but rather competitive, the national product of our countries is about the same, but Lithuanians are able to supply to Latvia 2-3 times more goods than Latvians to Lithuanians. You may ask why? It is all about flexibility, resourcefulness and swiftness of Lithuanian businessmen. Concern Vilniaus prekyba (“Vilnius Trade”) eventually managed to break the resistance of the Latvian market and today it owns 20% – just imagine! – One fifth of all retail trade in Latvia! The Vilniusians already own 70 stores, including 10 Maxima supermarkets, and they’re also building the famous Acropolis. Another Lithuanian company “Aibe” owns about 400 stores, and the Latvian company “Lido” has also been bought by the Lithuanians. At the same time, small businessmen and private traders from northern Lithuania are not lagging behind – they reign at Latvian markets, especially in spring, and you can’t do anything to them! Spring comes to us a week or two earlier, and Lithuanians simply flood Latvian markets with their fresh vegetables, high quality and low prices of their products successfully competing with the Dutch. Latvian bazaars are also happy to buy excellent Lithuanian dairy products and our famous black bread, and even our bacon, although Latvian bacon is very tasty, too! Do you know a proverb in Latvia and Estonia? If someone is going to start his own business, to open a company, they say: “No, we won’t succeed if we don’t have at least one Lithuanian with us”.

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Do Latvians and Lithuanians have different mentalities? Yes, and quite significantly, and the reason for these differences lies in the different historical circumstances that shaped the brotherly peoples of the Balts. In the history of Lithuania there was a whole cohort of strong and wise prince-rulers – Vytautas, Gediminas, Algirdas, Kęstutis, whom every Lithuanian is justly proud of. And this is fine, but sometimes there is a bad thing in the good: it is from here that Lithuanians are confident that the people up there will solve all problems for them. Latvians, on the other hand, do not; they are much more self-reliant. Great importance for formation of the Latvian mentality had another historical fact, the fact that the serfdom in Latvia was abolished 40 years earlier than in Lithuania, and it is a lot – as much as two generations! As a result, large estates, farms and estates began to form in Latvia earlier. Latvians look at their state not as an oppressor, but as a friend. How many kilometers I have driven in Latvia, my Baltic brothers have never flashing their headlights to warn me of a lurking police patrol, and not because they are unfriendly towards us, Lithuanians. The Latvian reasoning is quite different: it is good that the offender will be detected and punished, and in addition, the native Latvian police will get a tidy sum from him as a fine! Latvians are more practical and reserved than Lithuanians, less romantic, and the reason is probably the centuries-long influence of Protestantism on their culture and life. Generally speaking, historical conditions, in which the Latvian nation was formed, were formed even if not much, but still more favorable than for the Lithuanian people. In the XIX century in Lithuania there were two revolts against the czarist power: after the first one we lost our university, after the second one not only the Lithuanian language was forbidden for more than 40 years, but also the name “Lithuania” itself, it was prescribed to call us North-Western region. And the Latvians were able to organize their first Song Festival back in 1873.

Latvia’s biggest political problem was its Russian-speaking inhabitants, who came here as a result of Soviet annexation. The Communist governments in every Soviet republic were stooges of Moscow, but Latvia’s tragedy was that the Latvian government of Vilis Lacis, which had made minimal efforts to defend the interests of its people, was swept away by Moscow in 1948 and replaced by apparatchiks not only from the capital, but also from Siberia and the Urals, who had already formed the Latvian party leadership and opened wide the gate to colonize the republic. It is true that many Russians had lived in Latvia before, especially in Riga and around Daugavpils, where colonization began as early as Tsar Ivan IV, who conquered these lands. However, only after World War II, Latvians were almost on the verge of extinction and almost became a minority in their own country. Lithuania managed to avoid such a fate, at first contributed to by the postwar partisan resistance, which lasted until the 1960s, and then by the flexible, balancing on the verge of possibility and impossibility, the policy of the puppet Lithuanian leadership – Snechkus, Paleckis, Gedvilas, Shumauskas, at least, having their head. Latvians can not give all the newcomers the citizenship like we do – otherwise one day the patriots of Russia, longing for its vast expanses, will take it and vote for annexation of Latvia to their historic homeland, and if not, they will pass a law to close all the Latvian schools in Riga, where the Russians are an absolute majority (!). Latvian citizenship is not available to 20% of Russian-speaking residents of Latvia, and of course, they are dissatisfied with this situation. When they have to fill in the questionnaire, they often don’t want to write “not a citizen” in the column “citizenship”, but they write in abbreviated Russian, with special meaning “Negro”. What do you want to do with them? Russia doesn’t take them back, particularly because it’s in its interests to keep the tension alive, and see if the time is right. And frankly speaking, they themselves aren’t eager to go back to Russia – most of them were born in Latvia, they’re used to the European way of life, but they don’t recognize Latvia as their motherland either. This situation is unique in all of Europe!

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And the Latvians decided to take a bold, even risky decision: from September 1, 2004, in Russian schools the compulsory teaching of some subjects in Latvian language is introduced. The goals are very laudable – fluent in the language, applicants will be able to study in Latvia, it will be easier for them to find a job, and in the future they will seamlessly integrate into the Latvian society. This national policy is also supported by the European Union, and if you think carefully, this is the only acceptable way out, because the EU does not want a million of these “negroes” one day to rush to the West. But Moscow is spitting hot water over this, and the Russian-speakers are also on the ropes – they’re protesting all the time. These demonstrations are clearly orchestrated, I can’t say exactly who is behind them, but you can guess. However, there are also understanding people in Russia – one of the Moscow democrats has rightly noted: “If Arabs would try to make demands to keep purely Arab schools in Paris, or if people from India – respectively in London” Russian speaking residents of Latvia are a constant trump card in the hands of Moscow: if Moscow puts pressure on Lithuania through its proxies, then on Latvia (and on Estonia) – through its former citizens. Lithuania behaves very differently towards Russians and Poles. At the beginning of our independence, we also pursued a similar policy, naively believing that a person who voluntarily chose our Lithuania as a place of residence, of course, wants to become a full member of our society, and that is absolutely impossible without free knowledge of the Lithuanian language. However, we have also met with a wave of protest and threats from Moscow. And now, non-Lithuanian schools are given full language freedom, but their textbooks are written by Lithuanian authors and published in Lithuania. Tensions have subsided, but . A lot of Russians, Ukrainians and Poles in our country, who were so ardently fighting for preservation of their national schools, still do not speak Lithuanian properly, and the problem of where and how their children can get higher education becomes a real headache for them when they graduate from Russian or Polish schools. And Lithuanian Poles are in the very tail end of the educational scale and occupy the penultimate place, slightly ahead of only Roma, who are, of course, in the very last place. Lithuania can afford a different national policy not because Lithuanians are smarter than Latvians, but because their problem is not as acute.

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Well, how do Latvians feel about Lithuanians? There are two words in the Latvian language to express the term “Lithuanian”, one is ordinary, neutral “lietuvietis” and the other is somewhat ironic – leišis, rooted in the 19th century and in the interwar period of independence of the Baltic states. At that time Latvia was richer than Lithuania, and Lithuanians were often hired to work for Lithuanian farmers, who looked down on them somewhat and might put it this way: “a Lithuanian will do first, think later”; or (if someone is in a bad mood): “why are you pining like a Lithuanian at the church,” obviously referring to our sad songs. And there is nothing unusual about it, because brotherly peoples who live next to each other love to make jokes about their neighbor, just remember Russians and Ukrainians! But in general, of course, despite some unresolved diplomatic problems, the relations between the Balts are very good. Latvians appreciate design and art of Lithuania, we admire their elegance and inner aristocratism.

Lithuanian is the only relative of the Latvian language, and linguistic scholars, especially comparativists and creators of linguistic theories, have always had a great interest in the Baltic languages, the closest Slavic relatives in the numerous and ramified Indo-European family of languages. However, our languages are not so close that a Latvian and a Lithuanian can easily understand each other. The most important difference lies in the nature of the accent: in Lithuanian it is mobile, but in Latvian it falls almost always on the first syllable (hence the remarkable melodiousness of the Latvian language). Endings in Latvian are shorter than in Lithuanian. On a side note, the famous Baltic joke about Sharikas, who didn’t want to bark like other dogs, is actually a purely Latvian joke, and the correct pronunciation is: “Shariks! – “Gavs-gavs!” The Latvian people are smaller than the Lithuanian people, and therefore the Latvians are more vigorous in defending themselves against foreign words than the Lithuanians. So, Latvians call computer – datoris (Lithuanians – kompiuteris), telephone – talrunis (Lithuanians – telefonas), hippo – Nilas zirgs (literally “Nile horse”, in Lithuanian – behemotas), and dragon – pukis baisoklis, Lithuanians laugh at this last word, but call their dragons simply drakonas. As in all kindred languages, in Lithuanian and Latvian there are so-called “translator’s false friends”, i.e. words that sound the same, but have a different, though similar meaning, for example, “nauda” in Lithuanian is “benefit”, and in Latvian “money”. This is the source of numerous jokes, and of cruelty-free mockery of one fraternal people at another. It should be noted that some Lithuanian words, and especially Lithuanian surnames sound so funny to Latvian, that hearing them, our brothers just clutch their stomachs. I won’t give any examples, because, after all, there are living people involved, or else children might get hold of this article!

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Both Lithuanian and Latvian languages are quite difficult to learn, but even a superficial acquaintance with them will give you pleasure. If you learn a dozen phrases before a trip to Lithuania or Latvia, you can count on an especially warm welcome in both countries – after all, the Balts deserve to be proud of the antiquity, beauty and poetry of their languages.

What does the future hold for our nations? Our accession to the European Union will bring Lithuania and Latvia even closer, because since May 1, 2004, an agreement on full equality of rights between them came into force – go wherever you want, live and work wherever you want, buy and sell whatever you want!

We are the only Balts left on Earth, we have every reason to be proud of each other. I am justifiably proud of Riga, one of the most beautiful and ancient cities in Europe, and of Latvian hockey. Latvians can join us in being justifiably proud of our ancient and postwar history as well as of our Lithuanian statehood which has celebrated its 750th anniversary. And all together we rejoice when the Lithuanian national basketball team wins. And if we are together – separately, but close to each other – we will become even stronger. Paldies uz uzmanību! Dekoju už dėmesį!

Authors: Marina Kulchinskaia, Algimantas Čekuolis (article uses material from A. Čekuolis’s program, shown on Lithuanian TV on 28 March 2004)

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