Monuments, cultural identity, and language

Soviet-era obelisk in Latvia recently demolished

Where I live, Richmond, Virginia, has in the US been a center of the recent movement to remove public monuments to individuals or movements associated with causes on the wrong side of history. In the case of Richmond, the monuments were statues of figures representing the breakaway Confederate States, determined to maintain the slavery of Blacks. The impetus to examine the appropriateness of public monuments celebrating racism came from the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Now in the Baltic states public monuments associated with Russia or with the Soviet Union are coming under increasing scrutiny and in some cases being removed. It is a phenomenon based largely on the Russian war on Ukraine.

However, the situation in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is complicated by language issues. While the majority of inhabitants of those countries support Ukraine in the war, each country has a sizable number of native Russian speakers. Many of those people, ethnic Russians, support Russia in the war and do not approve of the removal of Soviet-oriented monuments. In Latvia, one third of the population speak only or primarily Russian. Recently, the Latvian government dismantled a tall obelisk erected in 1985 as a memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II. According to a story in the New York Times, that obelisk was important to the Russian minority, with Russian speakers gathering at the obelisk each May 9 to commemorate the Soviet victory over the Nazis. It’s not just the ethnic Russians in Latvia who were upset over the demolition of the monument, the Kremlin accused European countries of attempting to rewrite history and disregarding Russia’s role in World War II.

According to the NY Times piece,

Latvia is not alone in seeking to dismantle symbols of the Soviet era: Other nations critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including Poland, have said they will do the same. Estonia recently removed a Soviet-era tank from a World War II memorial, prompting a wave of cyberattacks from a Russian hacking group.

We can’t know how the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine (and its possible outcome) will affect Russia’s neighbors, especially the former states belonging to the Soviet Union. We do see now Russian citizens becoming less and less welcome in many parts of the world or in particular domains such as sports competitions. The European Union is currently debating whether to prevent Russian tourists from visiting EU countries.

Secession fever

Demonstrating for Catalan independenceThe current difficulties in the EU to pass a new budget highlight the very different perspectives of the givers and takers among EU members in the flow of EU funds.  There’s a sense of injustice on the part of the countries who are net contributors:  why is our hard-earned money going to folks who aren’t as responsible or hard-working?  In northern countries such as Germany one can easily hear this point of view in reference to Greece.  In southern countries there is resentment over criticism of their way of life and cultural practices; they are proud of the more balanced approach to work and life they have achieved. The 27 countries that make up the EU do not only speak different languages, they have in many cases dramatically different cultures.

It doesn’t seem likely that the EU will be splitting anytime in the near future or that some Euro countries will leave the currency – there is too much at stake for all the countries in the EU for them to allow that to happen. However, within several EU members there is an internal struggle going on that is some ways parallels what’s happening in the EU, culturally distinct and prosperous regions who are dissatisfied with their relationship with the rest of the country.  Today elections in Spain appear to be heading for victory by pro-independence parties for Catalonia, the area in northern Spain with Barcelona as its capital.  Catalonia is overall better-off than the rest of Spain and has a distinctive language (Catalan) and culture.  In fact, the Catalan culture overflows into parts of southern France and Catalan is the official language of the small independent country of Andorra, between Spain and France.  In addition to the Catalans, the Basques, also a group represented on both sides of the Pyrenees, have been agitating for independence, sometimes violently.

Spain is not alone.  There is also an active movement for independence in Scotland, with a referendum vote scheduled for 2014.  Welsh nationalists have not been as active lately; Wales also lacks the economic strength that North Sea oil brings to Scotland.  Separatist sentiments are strong among many in Belgian Flanders as well as in South Tyrol in Italy.  With the economic problems today across Europe, it will be interesting to see how the separatist movements progress.

It’s not just a north-south divide – sometimes its culture, language, and politics that can lead to separatist sentiments. Quebec’s French-speaking population continues to agitate for more ability to guide their own affairs.  With the re-election of Obama several U.S. states such as Texas are making noises about secession. Those efforts are not likely to succeed and they are mostly not all that serious, more of a way to let off steam.