Racism in the Baltic states

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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.

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Comments (9)

  • Sorry to hear about your experience. I wonder if behavior like this is more likely from the Russians living in Latvia, than from the Latvians themselves. If the idiot was shouting at you in Russian, I suspect this was the case.

    • i must agree …. and another reason could be because of lack of knowledge from both ; the latvians and the visitors …

  • Eh sounds like a bad excuse to justify racial prejudice with preoccupation, the people that occupied them were white to begin with. Just saying…

  • I am planing to go and study there, I hope by now things should be improving especially for someone like me from South Sudan

  • Why would Africans, Asians or anyone with a bit of self respect want to visit countries where they could be insulted or even assaulted? Especially after hearing and reading so much bad rap about them? The Baltics are not the last Coca-Cola in the desert but a bunch of insecure countries with cruel history, horrible weather, lame food, and sour attitudes. There are beautiful countries out there with benign weather, real cuisine, and welcoming locals. Go to Nicaragua, South Africa or even Cambodia! Don’t waste your time and money going to the Baltics! Vacations are supposed to be about happy times and treasured memories!

  • Well I disagree that usually the racism comes from the Russians living here. I’m a Latino young guy living in Latvia now, I’m an entrepreneur so I do not look for jobs here, I actually create them. The thing is, I’m not white, I’m not black either, I’m a mixed Latino, more brown skin like natives in South America. I’m dating a Latvian girl, she is white as the snow. She is a little bit progressive (tattoo artist) and she says that there is no racism here, I disagree once I experienced that at the very first day here and I keep experiencing them sometimes. Like people asking my ID when I’m buying WATER (pretty sure just to see where i’m from) or sometimes in bars some men talking about nationalism and saying how bad immigrants are or that Latvian women only should date them. Got even in a fight with two of them (physical fight) because two guys (LATVIANS not Russians) started to say my girlfriend only dates me because I’m a foreigner (which is very normal in these countries) but I know thats not the case and they started to shout some words to me and to her, so we had a fight. Somehow one of them got my number and sent me a message: “See you when you get back to Latvia.” And I sent back “I live here” so he never contact me anymore. I Also have noticed some stores that do not allow me to have Lease in some products even when I show all the necessary documents, they say they can’t and do not give me any decent reason. And locals can have these Leases with far less documentation. So the thing is, they don’t think there is Racism because they are all white or 99% of them. + the average Latvian earns like 300-600 euros per month, so no travel to see how the world is outside of this little country. Usually men have this horrible attitude, afraid of other cultures. I personally have my thoughts about immigration, I think need some restrictions or regulation, like other people learning the local culture and etc. But treat someone bad just because this person isn’t a local? What makes me angry is the fact I’m helping this country, not getting advantage. And thats how I’m treated sometimes. Not everyday, but at very least once in 2 weeks I can notice something ‘weird’.

  • I am Asian and I lived in Latvia for 4 years. However, from my experiences, I can clearly tell you that Latvia is a beautiful country where full of beautiful souls live. Yes, it’s super tiny country and the weather is shitty for like 70% of the time. Yet, it is still a wonderful country to visit and live in. Of course, there are some jerks who are racist but racism exists everywhere so it’s not just about Latvia. From my 4 years in that country, I experienced racism 3 times only. I went to the center like every day and I even went to the school there but I rarely experienced it. People might think that they are not welcoming because it’s a super rare thing to see Latvians smiling on the street. BUT in general, Latvians are nice and open-minded. Thus, I hope not everyone will think Latvia as a racist country just by reading these comments! There are more people who are extremely friendly and ready to accept international people!

  • I was there for 4 days, pretty much felt alright. Attributed the staring my friends and I (they’re of Chinese ethnicity, and I’m of Indian ethnicity) received to the fact that people were not accustomed to seeing Asians. In fact we saw very few Asian tourists around. Anyway, the 2nd last day I entered a small Rimi supermarket at the old town and I received very hostile stares from both the cashiers. They were still staring at me as I walked out. I thought nothing much of it, maybe they were suspicious that I was walking around the store, not buying anything, while waiting for my friends to purchase food. The next day it clicked, when I was at the airport, after security clearance, two immigration officers appeared out of nowhere and requested to see my passport and asked where I was headed to. I told them, and he asked “You’re living there?” and I replied, “I’m studying there.” He flipped through my passport and handed it back to me and they disappeared again. So it was then I figured out that I had this special passport check probably because of racial profiling, which has never happened to me anywhere else in Europe. I basically look like an unthreatening teenage schoolgirl, so the encounter with the immigration officers was really unexpected. Make of that what you will.

    It’s a pity that these two incidents have sort of tainted the nicer memories I’ve had of Latvia (the peak-end effect). I try to remember the friendly Latvians I’ve encountered early on in my trip – we were on a walking trail in Gauja National Park and the bridge was apparently closed off, but the workers signalled to us that we could cross it and it was safe.

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