By Alexander Poole
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Not only do Churchill’s sentiment ring truer today following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also towards the Russian language itself. This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to study Russian in Daugavpils, Latvia with Learn Russian in the EU. This program was established in 2004 when Latvia joined the European Union and developed a public-private partnership between the University of Daugavpils and the city’s local LatinSoft Training Center. Daugavpils is one of the most Russian-speaking cities in the EU, whose name is Latvian for “castle on the Daugava River”. With a population of approximately 80,000 residents, it is the second largest city in Latvia after the capital of Riga.
Over the course of eight weeks, I took 107 Russian lessons with professors from the University of Daugavpils, along with 12 hours of structured speaking sessions with a university appointed speaking partner. My initial exposure to Russian was while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine from 2017 – 2019, and I made significant strides expanding my Russian vocabulary and refining my Russian grammar. I decided to continue my Russian language studies because my career goal after graduation is to work in economic development in Eastern Europe, and Russian is a useful lingua franca for much of this region and in post-Soviet countries. However, the war in Ukraine was always in the backdrop during my time in Daugavpils, and my love for Ukraine and its people often conflicted with the language I was studying. This was especially ever present in conversations with city locals, many who fondly remember the Soviet Union. My host mother, who is native to Siberia, often spoke disparagingly about Ukrainian refugees and the European Union while simultaneously clinging to Soviet nostalgia that never existed. She and her husband are members of a minority of ethnic Russians who are not Latvian citizens despite the government offering it for a language and history test. This was an important lesson that people’s identities are complex often take generations to reform. In Daugavpils, this struggle was evident over the course of my time there, where people were torn between their love of their Russian homeland and the values of an open, democratic European Union.
Beyond the backdrop of global political events, I enjoyed my experiences exploring the region and learning more about its history and culture. As I made friends with other students from the United States and Netherlands, I had the privilege of visiting the three Baltic capitals of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. Locally, I was able to visit historical sites on the Latgale region of Latvia where Daugavpils is located. This included visiting an Old Believer village and monuments dedicated to both World Wars. I also got to celebrate Ligo, Latvia’s traditional midsummer festival which included partaking in a village bonfire while singing Latvian folk songs. Overall, I had the privilege of learning about how the culture and history this region of Europe was influenced by Germans, Poles, Russians, Jews, and Balts. The infusion of different cultures is why Latvia, and the Baltic countries are exciting places to visit. For IPED students interested in learning Russian, I cannot highly recommend Daugavpils enough for an exciting linguistic and cultural experience in the Baltics.