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Europe’s New Iron Curtain: An Interview With Dace Dzenovska

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine surprised the world. As an ethnic Latvian, this advance scared me. Vladimir Putin finally made his move to reunite the Soviet Union. Putin has historically called the dissolution  of the Soviet Union, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He has had his eye on Ukraine to reincorporate into  Russia for a while now. 

The history of the region began approximately a hundred years ago. It started after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. Ukraine overthrew oppressive Russian rule and wanted to form its own independent country. Ukrainians fought against the Bolshevik Red Army until 1922, when they were overwhelmed and forced to be a part of what would become the Soviet Union. In the 1940s, during the Second World War, the Nazis invaded Ukraine and were viewed by many as liberators from the Soviet regime (this is an important fact to bear in mind). 

When the Second World War ended, Ukraine was once again involuntarily put under Soviet control and designated as a Soviet state. This was the fate many Eastern European countries faced, including the Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. However, one of Putin’s justifications for his invasion of Ukraine is denazification. He manipulated the history of Ukrainians siding with the Nazis in the Second World War to explain why Russia “needed” to invade Ukraine. This is a similar history to the Baltic states. They were torn between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany throughout the entire Second World War. Latvians sided with Nazis and Soviets alike. Given that Putin has already justified one invasion based on this history, who’s to say he won’t do it again?

The invasion of Ukraine has given many Eastern European people flashbacks to times under Soviet rule. Ukraine is a former Soviet state that Russia invaded thirty years after independence, but who’s to say the Russians will stop there? Regardless of what Putin planned, people in Eastern Europe are experiencing a change of life. Poland borders Ukraine, and Latvia and Estonia border Russia and are a stone’s throw from Ukraine. It would be the equivalent of a war going on in Canada; American lives would change drastically. 

The three Baltic states are well aware of the consequences of a Russian invasion. All three states are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which means that they have the support of countries like the United States, Britain, and France. Currently, NATO has four multinational battalion-size (500-1000 soldiers) battlegroups in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. Altogether, the Baltic countries have around 300 miles of border with Russia and 500 miles of border with Belarus, which is essentially a Russian puppet state. Both NATO and national troops are amassed along these eastern borders. Latvia’s military is composed of 6200 active-duty troops and almost 16000 reserves. Estonia’s military strength and capability are similar to Latvia’s. However, Lithuania boasts a military of 20,000 active members and about 7000 reserves. None of these Baltic militaries compare to Russia’s astonishing 1 million active-duty personnel and 2 million reserves. This is why NATO support is crucial to the Baltic states: they do not stand a chance without NATO if Russia invades.

While most of the media coverage focuses on the military operations in the Baltics, little has been published on the implications for civilian life. To better understand daily life for Lativian citizens, I met with Dace Dzenovska, an anthropologist, ethnic Latvian, and family friend, to discuss the implications of Russia’s war in Ukraine. This is the transcript of the conversation.


OR: Alright, can you just give a brief introduction to yourself, what you teach, what you specialize in, and what your focus is on?


DD: I’m an Associate Professor of Anthropology of Migration at the University of Oxford. I have worked on post-socialist transformation in Latvia, which has involved research on liberalization, tolerance promotion, and migration– both in-migration and out-migration. I’ve looked at the problem of migration historically and also in the contemporary political context. I’ve also written about the reception of refugees and political discussions around that.


OR: Well, that is super interesting. So right off the bat, we recently saw the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine has a long history with Russia, kind of similar to Latvia’s relationship with Russia. What do you think is the importance of Latvia’s history with Russia, given that Ukraine had a similar kind of history, and now that Ukraine has just been invaded? 

DD: What we see at the moment is how little people around the world know about the history of this region. Most people agree that Ukraine – and Latvia – are autonomous entities that are being occupied, that are under the threat of being occupied, and that are resisting. There’s a lot of talk about sovereignty, but there’s fairly little understanding of how these two polities actually came to be. If we look at how the Latvian polity was constituted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we see that there is a constant tension between German nationalism, cultural nationalism, and Russian socialist currents. At that time, Latvia was part of the Russian Empire, and Latvians were ruled by Baltic German landlords. The nation of Latvia wouldn’t probably exist if there weren’t different strands of social democrats, who thought that the best way to fight against the feudal regime of Baltic Germans was to either go the socialist route or to become independent and become like Germans, you know, to show that the Latvians were also a mature people who had culture and who therefore deserved political statehood. At that point, it is not yet a sovereign state fighting against something, but a people that are coming into being via resisting oppression. Latvia is being carved out of a very messy historical landscape where German and Russian influence had been intersecting for centuries and had been formative of the idea of Latvian nationhood itself.  The same with Ukraine. Ukraine was also being constituted during that time. It consists of various parts: western Ukraine, which was under the Polish influence, and Eastern Ukraine, differently. There was a sort of assembling of Ukraine that, many argue, was completed by Stalin. Today, what we see as the sovereign states of Ukraine and Latvia are historical formations that were solidified during the interwar period between 1918 and 1940 and, in the case of Ukraine, continued to be formed until after World War II. And they were upheld in this form during the Soviet period. Separate republics with their own language and administrative structures were part of the Soviet vision. Both of these states came into being through resisting competing geopolitical actors, and it was often the case that family members fought on different sides – for example, German and Soviet, both thinking that they were fighting for independence. During World War One, Latvian Red Riflemen fought for the Russian Revolution They thought that a true Latvian nation would mean liberating Latvians from Germans, but the Latvian nationalists in Latvia sided with the Germans, thinking the same. So this tension has been present historically.


OR: You’re in Riga, Right? 

DD: Yes. 


OR: Does it feel different right now? Is there a change in the atmosphere of the city?

DD: I mean, yes, and no. It’s one of these really strange things about war that happens next door, and also, you know, in Ukraine before the war, there is a simultaneity of the sense of extreme upheaval and danger, and of regular life going on. So I think it depends on what you read and who you talk to. During some periods of the war, you see certain things disappear from the stores, which is a sign of people’s panic. But generally, you can move in and out of a sense of panic. When you look at the news, when you look at – now we have a NATO exercise going on – what’s going on across the border, are there troop concentrations? And so forth. But you can also not look at that, and you wouldn’t know. 

OR: Yeah, that makes sense. In terms of  Latvia’s preparation, I don’t know how much you know about this, but if you know how Latvia or Estonia are preparing right now? Are they sending troops to border areas with Russia?

DD: Not quite. But there is the NATO spring exercise that started this week, which means an increased presence of NATO troops in various parts of the country, especially the border area. Equipment, soldiers, you name it. If we do not interpret military exercises as amassing troops, then no. If you remember what Russia said before the war, when they were amassing troops on the border, they said that it was a routine exercise. As a layperson, I don’t know what this means. I know this is an exercise that happens every year. Does it include any additional elements that I don’t know about? It’s possible. 


OR: Is there a particular feeling about the presence of NATO or a bigger EU power?  is there a positive perception? Is there a perception of, “NATO has our back?”

DD: It depends again on who you talk to. In the mainstream public discourse, yes, NATO has our back. Some people, especially in the borderlands where I work, fear that there might be some mistake, that somebody flies into somebody’s airspace, and then that might lead to a military escalation. I interviewed some border guards, and they were welcoming toward NATO. The border guard is subordinated to the Ministry of Interior rather than the Ministry of Defense. They wish for coordination and a clear understanding of whose responsibility the border is. They think that this is their field of work.


OR: And then, news-wise, do you turn on the nightly television news, or do you read your news? And what are you hearing from the Latvian government? 

DD: To be honest, I don’t turn on the nightly news, I read selectively – and obsessively – online. My parents, for example, turn on the news every night at seven. There’s a former military commander who explains the military landscape. The military movements, developments, and tactics, so people listen to that. In general, the media space has really become very split, let’s say, it feels like there are no gray zones, and it’s basically black or white. And you can feel that in the media, you can feel that on the street, you can feel that in social media. There is no tolerance of positions that are not clearly aligned. Even someone trying to suggest that both sides use propaganda, which would be a factual statement if one goes by the book definition of propaganda and doesn’t think of propaganda as something bad, but just as an instrument that governments and institutions use, even such a statement can seem as if you’re supporting the other side, or are not critical enough. What we are seeing is a wartime media space, I would say.


OR: And then my final question, is how the cultural differences between Latvia and Russia and Ukraine and Russia fuel conflicts or potential conflicts or how they could be used as justification for conflicts. An example would be one of Putin’s justifications for the invasion to denazify Ukraine. And that came from the Second World War when some Ukrainians sided with the Germans to kick the Soviets out. So I was just wondering, how do the cultural and social relationships between Ukrainians and Russians, and Latvians and Russians, speak to potential conflicts?

DD: There’s a lot in there. These are obviously very complex questions. As you know, one of the things that Russia has been able to mobilize its population behind is the celebration of its victory over fascism during World War Two. The victory of Russia is a valuable national narrative. Similar to what independence is to Latvians. The fight against fascism is constitutive of the Russian polity and its sense of historical mission. If you look at Italy, you also see that Anti-Fascist resistance is very important for people, in former Yugoslavia as well. It shapes identity, it gives political purpose, and it gives meaning. This is why talk of denazification works to mobilize the population and explain what’s being done. 

Let’s return to your first question, in response to which I said that different members of the same family in Latvia were fighting on either the German or the Russian side during World War Two. Going back even further, some people were part of the Latvian Red Riflemen during World War I and protected  Lenin and others became staunch supporters of German-style nationalism in Latvia. Both strove for independence. In this complicated historical landscape, in both Latvia and Ukraine, there were people that were part of Nazi battalions. They fought on the German side during World War II. And it’s hard to convince the world or to explain to someone that what they really thought they were doing when they were doing this was fighting for independence. And this fact can be used and is used during Putin’s denazification campaign. You can see that with the Azov Battalions in Ukraine. It’s a very complex history. We see in the Western media, meaning Western European and American media, attempts to change the narrative about these military units. 10 years back or so, there were quite a few articles saying that these Azov battalions actually have Nazis among them. And now, you will have the same venues saying, “well, you know, they’re actually much milder.” Part of the post-Soviet liberalization process was to examine this complicated history and take responsibility for dubious historical allegiances. Now recognizing these allegiances is perceived by some as playing into Putin’s narrative of denazification. 


OR: And then wrapping up, is there anything that you want to say that you think is very important about this conflict or is there anything important about the Baltics that most people wouldn’t know? What do you think people got wrong? 

DD: I don’t think there’s just one thing I mean, it’s hard to be analytical in the midst of these kinds of situations for various reasons. Many people didn’t know much about Ukraine or Latvia. And they kind of erupted onto people’s radar screens in this horrible way. We would have much preferred that it was something else. But this kind of Eastern European significance is very striking in the context of this, of this war. You can see that there are many, many kinds of claims and statements to the effect that Ukraine is fighting not only for its independence but for Europe, for Western civilization. So basically, what is emerging is not only a new Iron Curtain but really this very stark, civilizational line. The media is full of claims that “we are the civilized part of the world, and there’s barbarism across the border.” I think that this is historically very striking and very significant.


Featured Image: John Cole for the Pennsylvania Captial-Star

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