Watching my friend get approached by a friendly looking old woman who told him in no uncertain terms that she was uncomfortable with him being in the supermarket was something that I didn’t expect to see. The reason for this was that he is of Indian descent. We were in Riga, the capital of Latvia which, along with its neighbours Estonia and Lithuania, still has a serious problem with racism.
Earlier this year a group of twelve friends and I visited the capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The blend of Russian and Scandinavian cultures create an experience unlike any I have seen before. You can feel like you are in a Northern European capital like Stockholm or Oslo one moment then minutes later, witness a country more akin to Soviet Russia. There is no shortage of things to see – from visiting a genuine Soviet bunker near Riga to the beautiful Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn there is plenty for lovers of art, history and culture. For these reasons, I cannot recommend the Baltics enough for any adventurous traveller. However, this article is about the animosity towards the five non-white members of our group that we repeatedly witnessed.
This came in many forms. We received many stares and annoyed looks from the locals but we initially wrote this off as a reation to a large group of tourists. More direct incidents quickly drew our attention to the real issue. In a restaurant a waitress casually implied that my friend was from the jungle and on a night out we were asked if some of the group were our slaves. While these comments were clearly offensive, others were far worse. The most shocking moment for us was at bar in Riga, when we were approached by a man who shouted in Russian that we should ‘go home’. This was racially motivated aggression that threatened to turn to violence. There was no reaction from anyone else in the bar as we left and I think we were all slightly shaken by the experience.
Estonia is by far the most progressive of the three countries, something reinforced by its close links to Finland. In Lithuania, however, the issue of racism isn’t widely acknowledged. The murder of a Somalian immigrant following his appeal about the situation in the country brought race into the public eye, but little has been done since to deal with the problems. In Latvia, the media have shown themselves to be more aware, particularly since in 2005 a speaker at the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance stated that racism was a ‘feature of daily life’ in Latvia. The far-right nationalist party Visu Latvijai won their first parliamentary seats in 2010 showing that nationalism and xenophobia have significant support among the electorate.
The three Baltic States had a troubled twentieth century. They experienced over fifty years of occupation from 1940 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They have faced invasions by both the USSR and Nazi Germany. The deeply affecting Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in central Riga is a chilling reminder of this. My friend Liva who grew up in Latvia says this can give us a real insight into why. As she puts it, the people of the Baltics are suspicious of outsiders and those who are different. The experience of occupation demonstrated how fragile a nation’s freedoms are and with only a mere twenty-two years of independence it is understandable that many are afraid of losing it again. Although their animosity towards non-white visitors is misplaced their history brings us a little closer to understanding where these attitudes come from.
Despite our experiences being marred by racism, we did enjoy our time in the Baltics, and travellers should definitely try to visit. It seems that the issue is becoming more visible to the public, but racism still has a firm grip on the Baltics.