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Separate lives: Russian language media in Latvia

Past is present in Latvian media sphere. The Latvian majority and the large 25% Russian-speaking minority live in two separate information fields. How to brake the stalemate? Oksana Chelyseva looks at the Russian language media in Latvia.

By Oksana Chelyseva

To get an answer to a question how influential the Latvian media in the Russian language is in Latvia, I have interviewed a number of Latvian Russian-speaking journalists. They all collaborate with different types of media, from printing outlets to radio and TV. 

At the moment, there are two main TV-channels, TB7 and PBK (“The First Baltic Channel”), the Vesti daily, several media portals, including such different outlets as the state-owned lsm.lv and the public platform imhoclub.lv which provides a venue for discussion of various political and social problems as well as several private radio channels, Baltkom Radio which broadcasts not just music programs but also airing political debates live. Actually, the Latvian media market is clearly divided for the media in Latvian and in Russian. At that, there are a couple of projects which are trying to be bilingual, including delfi.lv and lsm.lv. There is still difference between the two portals versions in Latvian and Russian. Delfi.lv doesn’t coincide in either topics or articles while lsm.lv provides a similar content in both languages. 

The excursus into history… 

Konstantin Ranks by Ales MelentyevKonstantin Ranks, a journalist now running his own weekly program with Baltkom Radio, reminds that Latvian media in the Russian language is not something which appeared not because Latvia became part of the USSR.  Riga has been absolutely multicultural since the time of its establishment, Ranks explains. “Media in Russian has always existed in Latvia”, he tells. While the first newspaper in Latvian, Latviešu Avīzes, started to be published in Saint Petersburg in 1822. 

The first newspapers in the Russian language were founded in Riga, the city in which not just two but three languages, Latvian, Russian and German, flourished in the end of the XIX century. It was in 1816 when the first printed media started to be published in Latvia, “The Russian weekly in Riga”.

Ranks tells, “Journalists in Riga usually mastered all three languages, at least. At that, it was next to impossible to identify what ethnic group they belonged as Riga was a home city for people of various nationalities. That diversity contributed a lot to creating the atmosphere of Riga and broad-mindedness of people living there”. 

In 1918 Latvia got independence. It changed the status of the languages used in the country. Still, the Latvian media in Russian continued to come out. Konstantin Ranks explains that the Russian language in Latvia became something like “lingua franka”. 

One of the most influential newspapers of that period was “Segodnya” (“Today”) newspaper. It was published from 1919 till 1940. Such significant writers and people of art as play-writer and satirist Arkady Averchenko, poets Konstantin Balmont and Igor Severyanin and play-writer and theater director Vasily Nemirovich-Danchenko who later became a founder of Moscow Art Theater together with Konstantin Stanislavskiy contributed to the newspaper as its authors. After Latvia’s annexation due to Molotov-Ribbentop pact, many of its journalists were subjected to reprisals.

After the World War II the situation changed. Latvian Russian journalists I spoke to describe the post-war period as characterized by relative softness of the new Soviet regime to the Latvian media. One of the explanation of the relative softness was the attempt by the Soviet authorities to keep Latvia as a “facade” to the West. 

The Soviet Youth newspaper which was established in March 1945 in Riga. It soon gained popularity in other parts of the Soviet Union, due to less relative gripe of Soviet censorship. This newspaper gained peak of its popularity during the 80s. The circulation of the newspaper reached 900 000 copies. More than a half went to its subscribers in various parts of the USSR. I myself remember having read the newspaper published in Riga in the city of Togliatti on the banks of the Volga River where I was going to school. Konstantin Ranks reminds of the interview with then-disgraced Boris Eltsyn which appeared in the Latvian “Soviet Youth”. It was personal decision of the paper chief editor Alexander Blinov. The following day the interview came up in more than 150 Soviet and a dozen of Western media outlets.  

Latvia was also the first republic in the post-Soviet space which launched the project with the outlet oriented towards the sphere of business. There used to be underground businessmen in the Soviet time. However, their existence was rather limited by articles of the Criminal Code according according to which most of their business ventures were nothing more but speculation. Therefore, it was punishable in full accordance with the penal system, the maximum penalty being capital sentence. 

With the change of ideology during the perestroika time, the 500 Days program developed by Yegor Gaidar, referred to the Soviet shadow economy as a crucial factor in coming reforms. The opening free market absorbed most of the tacit businessmen of the previous era. It also gave birth to a whole new type of business dealers, the ones who used to be functionaries of the Komsomol and Communist party. They needed their own media which the Latvian media market offered. It was “Delo” (“Enterprise”) which later became known as “Business Baltia”. The outlet still exists but it was one of the first which refused from the paper version fully moving to the internet. 

It was at the same time when the post-Soviet Latvia opened such types of outlets as papers printing private advertisements for free as well as erotic editions. Among those, a real sensation throughout the former USSR was the first erotic and literary newspaper “Eschtcho” (“More”) established by Vlarimir Linderman, a poet and a dissident who at that time  was one of leading people in taking Latvia to the path of independence. “More” opened up opportunities to speak about sex which “didn’t exist in the USSR” and also to publish texts by such Russsian authors as Vladimir Sorokin and Eduard Limonov as well as Max Frei (the pen name of Svetlana Martynchik) and Petr Palamarchuk. Vladimir Linderman by Maris Morkans

The newspaper faced two big challenges, though. Firstly, organized criminality which quickly understood that their control over the newspaper might bring quite profit for them. As a result, Linderman finally sold off the newspaper and went into politics. Secondly, the problems started to be created by Rospechat, the body in charge of distributing subscription newspapers. Officially they accused the newspaper of failing to have supplied Rospechat with copies of the newspaper. At that, the general understanding of the roots of the problems for the newspaper was in the fact that it had published a story of Mikhail Gorbachov to be too affected to one of the first Russia’s beauty queens. A special board of experts ruled the newspaper to be “a pornography”. It was closed with reference to article 242 of the Criminal Code banning pornography which was introduced in 1935.

Being one of those Soviet intellectual dissidents who contributed  a lot to the cause of Latvia getting independent, being the editor-in-chief of the Atmoda Russian edition, he has led the struggle for the political, social and cultural rights of the Russian-speaking population of Latvia. Up to now, Vladimir Linderman remains quite a thorn in the side of the authorities. Being titled “a father of Soviet sexual revolution” he then led the struggle for traditional values. When asked what caused this move, Linderman tells, “There is no major change in my personal views. What I am against is public hypocrisy. At that time, it was aimed against sex being integral part of human life. Now it is sexual minorities rights what was one of topics in my newspaper of the 90s”. 

According to him, nowadays the role of the Russian-language Latvian media has significantly changed. Linderman tells, “Latvian Media in the Russian language started to act more as a voice of the Russian-speaking minority of Latvia”. In his view, “It was thanks to them that we managed to mobilize people to be so active at the attempt to initiate the referendum on recognizing the Russian language as the second state language”. The referendum was held in November 2011. It had been doomed to fail as the number of Ethnic-Russian citizens of Latvia is still less than the necessary 10% of the overall number of Latvian citizens. At that, Linderman tells it was a success as the fact that the petition collected 120,433 signatures of citizens means that all Latvian citizens of the Russian descend (who make around 27% of the population, including non-citizens) actually voted for recognition of the language rights. Ethnic-Russian voters of Latvia make almost half of the entire population of Latvia, either by birth or naturalization. The remaining ethnic Russians (with diverse ethnic backgrounds) whose number are estimated at around 280 000, have a complicated status of non-citizens which doesn’t let them cast their votes in either municipal elections or referendums.  opinions”. 

The present state of things with Russian-language media… 

Linderman’ opinion of the current state of the Russian media in Latvia is rather tough: he claims that the role of the media in the Russian language has decreased in the last few years. He explains it by a number of factors, including insufficient financing and obvious failure to catch up with Internet technologies. However, the main reason, in his view, is that the Russian media of Latvia “have lost many of their teeth”. Linderman says, “The most influential media channels in Latvia is television. The Russian-language PBK (The First Baltic Channel) is connected with the Harmony party which is social Democratic Party associated with representing the Russian-speaking Latvians”. He clarifies, “I don’t mean that they fully implement the directives of the party which policy inside the country is absolutely conformist. Still, the main principle behind its coverage is “don’t trouble until trouble troubles you”. 

Natalja Mikhaylova by Maris MorkansNatalia Mikhaylova, the editor-in-chief of the Baltkom radio, shares Linderman’s critical view, “I have also heard about attempts by some particular politicians or parties to influence the content of a media or form content of some programs as well as to select participants. Besides, there are politicians in Latvia who keep avoiding participating in programs by the media outlet their don’t like for some reason. In the case of Radio Baltkom, this is, for instance, Edgars Rinkēvičs, the minister for foreign affairs, who we have been trying to invite to our programs for more than a year. He is, actually, very creating in offering new excuses every time he gets a new invitation”. 

As for the question, why it is important for Latvia to have a variety of media outlets in Russian, Natalia Mikhaylova tells, “It’s undeniable that a person perceives information better if it is provided in a native language. If Russian-speaking Latvians get less opportunities to consume good-quality information in Russian made by Latvian media, they will easily substitute it with Russian-language programs made either by Russia or by any other producer. This is exactly what has been going on in Latvia for the last 25 years as the authorities have not cared at all about supporting local media in Russian. They let the media situation run itself and, consequently, the Russian-speaking Latvians lost. Besides, by ignoring interests of Russian Latvians the state failed to persuade them that they are of the same value to Latvia as compatriots of the Latvian descend”.  

As for weak and strong sides of the Latvian Russian-language media, Natalya Mikhaylova tells, “Due to the political reality, the media in Russian in Latvia fails to keep up with outlets in Latvian. If it goes for important political statements, Latvian politicians will always choose the media in Latvian to send it through. As a result, very often Russian-language media often publish translations from the Latvian outlets a day or even two after they first appeared”. 

However, according to Natalia Mikhaylova, these weakness also make Russian-language outlets stronger, “The necessity to remain competitive and simply survive in tough circumstances of the crisis and steady decrease of number of consumers due to demographic reasons and migration, Russian-language outlets keep searching for new formats, exclusive information and its alternative sources”. 

Actually, Radio Baltkom which Natalya Mikhaylova oversees and directs is one of the most versatile media channels in Latvia, also in my view. I have been following their work for a couple of years, also being a regular guest to their studio in Krišjāņa Valdemāra Street. Among those who the radio brings on the air are people of different views, often clashing with each other. Once Vadim Radionov journalist with Baltkom who also runs his live TV talk-program,  mentioned in our conversation, “Depending on who we invite, we are often labelled as “the fifth column” and “traitors of interests of the Russians”, “pro-Kremlin” and at the same time, “pro-Western”. 

Both Mikhaylova and Radionov who often co-host radio programs share the opinion that a listener, a viewer, a reader are smart enough to make their own opinion on the basis of information provided to them. No matter how difficult it is to interview those who often contradict one another not only in the air but also on a battlefield, journalists with Baltkom Radio keep on supplying “food for thought” by giving chances for Syrian refugees, Latvian politicians whose are now lobbying against EU policy to share refugees, rebels from the east of Ukraine as well as representatives of the Ukrainian government to speak.

Natalya Mikhaylova tells that “This diversity lets Russian Latvians get a lot broader vision of the world than Latvian consumers of information provided by Latvian media. Ethnic Latvians get very scarce information on how their Russian neighbors live which is different on the other sphere of the Latvian media market. The experts’ opinions are also a lot wider than in the outlets in Latvian. Local Russian-language media aren’t afraid to provide alternative views on, for instance, the Ukrainain conflict while media in Latvian publishes only what corresponds to the official stance”.

According to all people I interviewed, the popularity of a program or an outlets is in direct correspondence to their stance on the situation with Russian-language minority in Latvia. The more neutral a media outlet is, like the state-owned TB7 TV-station or lsm.lv portal which provide their consumers with rather similar content, the less popular they are with the people.  

Konstantin Ranks is sure that the financial crisis of 2007-2009 significantly damaged the positions of the Latvian media in Russian. Many of their readers left Latvia for other countries in Europe seeking for jobs. Those Russian Latvians who remained in Latvia were mostly elderly people or non-citizens (this status let people move through the Schengen zone but doesn’t provide the right to work elsewhere but in Latvia).  In the opinion of Ranks, in a new economical environment, it is the weekly MK-Latvia which enjoys the most stable situation at the moment, also because it is part of the same media-group which owns PBK TV channel. Ranks explains that they support each other by the practice of making notices of coming programs and topics which is the way to attract attention. They also practice doubling advertisements as well as being very selective with the choice of topics. Ranks tells that the MK-Latvia has managed to “become one newspaper for the whole family” edition in Latvia.  Kristina Khudenko by Karlis Dambrans

Kristina Khudenko, a journalist with Delfi.lv portal, specializes in interviewing people. She talks to politicians, musicians, businessmen and artists either in Russian or Latvian. All journalists and publicists in Latvia who I have talked to are bilingual. 

Kristina explains, “While running a media in Latvia, no one should ignore the fact that the significant majority of the Russian-speaking Latvians live in profound resentment of the state authorities. Some people due to the never-accomplished promise to grant citizenship which deprives them of the right to vote. Some others have not proven their excellency in the Latvian language and, consequently, went down the social scale. Others lost interesting jobs in big Soviet enterprises which used to operate in Latvia and which closed down after the independence. It means that in almost all families of Russian-speaking people are those who have suffered discrimination of some sort”. Kristina is of the opinion that Latvian media have to take their consumers’ expectations into account if they want to be stable in the media market. 

One of the factors which, according to Kristina Khudenko, affects the media situation even more is that many Russian Latvians don’t feel protected by the state due to their purple passports of non-citizens, language inspections at job places and deprivation of the political and social rights. In this context, Kristina tells, it is the authorities of the Russian Federation which are seen as some sort of psychological consolation although they don’t do much for Russian Latvians. Kristina concludes by stating that all these factors create a situation in which Russian-language media outlets take either openly pro-Russian stance or neutrally favorable to Russia while ironic and critical towards the authorities of Latvia”. 

Natalya Mikhaylova, the Baltkom radio editor, supports such a view by saying, “This year, because of the conflict in Ukraine, discussion started about the necessity to create Russian-language TV channel. At the same time, this discussion immediately led to the issue of “counter-propaganda”. The majority of Russian Latvians didn’t hide their skepticism over the issue and I would agree to that as such a blatant definition of the purpose for such a channel would never be accepted here. Those who make such proposals assume that Latvian Russians are simple victims of the Russian propaganda who are incapable of making their own independent opinions”. 

When asked how this stalemate might be broken, Natalya Mikhaylova tells, “Being an optimist, I feel there is a way out. But to find it, it is necessary for the state to start seeing the Russian-speaking Latvians as their equals but it is so tempting to leave the situation the way it is now…” 

The stance on Russia: two visions…. 

Vadim Radionov by Maris MorkansVadim Radionov gives such an overview of the stances taken by the Russian-language media, “The Vesti newspaper presents Russia as something absolutely divine. They don’t see any sins. Moderate Russian-language Latvian outlets, among which there is our Baltkom Radio, Russia’s image is kind of cloudy. Depending on a fact, we either criticize or give them a credit. The Russian TV service made in Latvia is also moderate in their criticism, no frenzy. However, in comparison with our radio, it is more blatant. As for the spheres of influencing the society, the Russia-made media outlets do influence the majority of Russians living in Latvia. The Latvian media makes impact on ethnic Latvians. And the auditory of the Latvia-made outlets in Russian are mostly those Russians who I would call “doubting”. Vadim also shares the view that in Latvia there are two separate informational fields which hardly ever intersect, “We are living our separate lives”. At that, Vadim stresses out that “these two nonoverlapping informational fields often make a choice in favor of absolutely different facts or while stating the same fact, they can offer their audiences their absolutely different interpretations”. 

Kristina Khudenko’s experience is similar to what Vadim Radionov tells about. She told me about her interview of Raimonds Vējonis, the new president of Latvia which she was taking together with her colleague from the Latvian-language edition of the same delfi.lv portal. “We had even agreed that we would share the most interesting parts of our interviews. But it happened to be impossible to use either our questions or his answers as the emphasis we had was absolutely different. In their questions it is Russia which is the only evil and it is the NATO which is supposed to rescue all. It would be absolutely inappropriate or unacceptable for our readers. Also because many Russian Latvians have friends and relatives in Russia”.

Kristina also agrees with Vadim Radionov adding that “Latvian Russian and ethnic Latvians’s expectations from the media are absolutely different. While Latvians are worried what they could do to protect themselves from aggressive Russia, Latvian Russians are more interested to hear if their new president is ready to speak Russian to them or appoint someone with the Russian descend to be the prime minister”. She also points to different types of “historical pains” as the background for the current situation, “It is important that Latvian Russians take offense at the Latvian authorities for their refusal to recognize their rights while most Latvians can’t forgive the USSR for what happened in the past and they project their resentment to the Russia nowadays. Consequently, all media outlets have to take their grief into account”.