By Richard Pooley
What do I know of Ukraine? Little, even now. I have never been there and have only been to Russia three times, always to Moscow. So, I am not about to bore you with tales from, say, Kiev (or “Keev” as everyone on the BBC seems to want us to pronounce it now) and join the many newly-minted experts on Putin’s War.
Instead, let’s travel north-west of Ukraine, across Belarus, to somewhere I do know, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I first went to Latvia in 2009 and spent around twenty weeks there over the next nine years. During the same period I visited Estonia six times and Lithuania once. More importantly, perhaps, I must have got to know over five hundred Balts, and some forty visiting Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.
It started with a phone call to my London office on Monday, 19 January 2009. Karlis Kreslins, then Executive MBA Programme Director of the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) in Riga, had got my name from a Swedish banking client. SSE is one of the top business schools in the Nordic region. One of Karlis’ visiting professors, an Irishman, was not visiting; he was ill. Could I step in and teach his Friday-Saturday EMBA module? Still struggling to locate Riga in my mind’s European map, I asked what the title of the module was. “Marketing”. “Not my expertise”, I said. “No matter, he replied, “you can teach whatever you like.” I could hear the desperation in his voice and wondered what fee to charge. “Cross-cultural skills? International Negotiation skills? Presentations?” I ventured. “The first”, he said, “Our students are businesspeople, mostly from Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, but they have many cultures. They need to understand each other better.” Intriguing, I thought. The only thing I knew about those little countries up there was that they were, well, little. How could they have “many cultures”? Time to find out. “Okay but when?” “This week” Gulp. I cleared my diary and booked the flights.
I flew in to a frozen, snow-choked Riga airport on the Thursday evening. Karlis and his assistant, Maira Rjabinia, met me.* They took me to a restaurant on the edge of the city. It was not safe to go to the centre. The week before there had been riots, smashed windows and burning cars, and an attempt to storm the parliament building. Ten thousand people had demonstrated against the government’s package of austerity policies designed to cope with the financial crisis. The cabinet had resigned on Tuesday. There could be more unrest. Best to wait before going to the “professors’ apartments” where I was staying for the next three nights (a dingy place **, as I soon discovered, run by a sullen babushka left over from Soviet times). Instead Karlis and Maira gave me the first of the many Baltic history lessons I have received from the people of these lands.
For over eight centuries since the crusading Teutonic Knights arrived at the end of the 12th Century to convert or kill the pagan inhabitants, Latvia has been an independent country for just fifty-four years (1918 – 1941 and 1991 – now). For some 750 years what is now Latvia was ruled locally by descendants of those German crusaders, under the auspices of various empires – Swedish, Polish-Lithuanian, Tsarist Russian, Soviet, and Nazi German. During the Second World War most of the Baltic German aristocracy were persuaded by Hitler to resettle in Poland. From 1944 to 1991 the Latvians were forced to be part of the Soviet empire and had some 400,000, mostly Russian, settlers imposed upon them by Stalin and his successors. A few years later I was sent a YouTube cartoon version of Latvian history which sums it up perfectly – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcKIeD3RxRQ. No wonder the Baltic countries have “many cultures”.
I once found myself able to use the outsiders’ cultural stereotypes of the Balts when starting a course for thirty supermarket managers from the three countries. It was held in SSE Riga’s main auditorium. I arrived a few minutes early and watched the participants come in and sit down. After being introduced by one of SSE’s staff, I stood in front of them:
“Good morning. I am standing in the Baltic sea looking east.”
“Just before Ingrida started the course, I noticed that all of you on the left were totally silent, some in the middle were talking, and you people on the right, you were making a lot of noise. So, I am in the Baltic sea and you to the left, the north-east, are from Estonia, you in the middle are Latvian, and you to the right, in the south-east, the noisy ones, are from Lithuania. Am I correct?”
I was. They had, typically, sat with their national colleagues. We got into a long and fruitful discussion on culture led, of course, by the Lithuanians.
There is always some truth in any stereotype. The Estonians are like their neighbours, the Finns, in speaking sombrely, monotonously and only when absolutely necessary. Until they get into the sauna; or, more exactly, knock back several beers in between sessions in the sauna. Their language is close enough to Finnish that when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, those in the capital, Tallinn, were able to watch and understand the uncensored television news programmes beamed across to them from Helsinki. The Finns themselves regard their southern cousins as unnecessarily bouncy and garrulous. But I must be careful when writing “the Estonians”. 25.2% of people living in Estonia in 2021 were classified as Russian and if my Russian-speaking Estonian friend and former business agent, Leena Kivisild, is any guide, these Estonians strongly identify culturally as Russian (but have no love for Putin and his cronies).
The Lithuanians are culturally, though not linguistically, close to their southern neighbours, the demonstrative, hierarchical and talkative Poles. No surprise there. Whilst 84.2% identified themselves as Lithuanian in 2021, 6.6% said they were Polish (and 5.8% Russian). Moreover, present-day Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus formed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at its greatest extent in the 15th century. The Duchy existed from 1260 to 1795. The Poles and Lithuanians now welcoming Ukrainian refugees with genuine warmth have not forgotten their recent history of brutal subjugation by the Soviet empire (which, of course, included Ukraine). But, unlike that amateurish and deluded historian Tsar Putin, they know the real history of their countries down the centuries.
So where does this leave the Latvians? In the middle, confused and confusing. Karlis is right: their country has “many cultures”. How can there not be when the 2021 census shows that out of a (dwindling) population of 1.9 million, 24.5% label themselves Russian, 3.1% Belarusian, 2.2% Ukrainian and 2% Polish? Even among the 62.7% who call themselves Latvian, there are stark differences in religious, linguistic and regional affiliation. Don’t be fooled by the similarity between the Latvian and Estonian breakdown of population identities. 290,660 people in Latvia in 2015, nearly all Russian speakers, were neither citizens of Latvia nor of any other country, even though many had been born in Latvia. Conversely, nearly all Estonian Russians have Estonian passports.
On one of my early visits to Latvia a client asked me over lunch in Riga how long I thought it would take Russian tanks to get from the Latvian-Russian border to the street outside. It was a rhetorical question. “A day at most,” he said. “It’s 300 km by road from the border. A tank carrier could do that in ten hours.” “Surely”, I replied, “the Russians are not going to invade Latvia?” He grimaced. “Are you sure? How many Russians here feel Latvian? How much do you Brits know of our history with the Russians?” Another Baltic history lesson ensued. This was before the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. From then on the hotels to which I moved after abandoning the professors’ apartments always had their quota of burly NATO soldiers. I remembered that client’s remark on 24 February this year. The distance by main road from the Belarus border to Kiev is only 200 km.
In 2014 and subsequent years, SSE managed to attract more students from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. This changed the dynamic of all my courses, not least the cross-cultural skills module. The Russian participants had the big-country attitude to cross-cultural training: "this is not for me. Why do I need to understand about the values and behaviour of these other countries? If they want to do business with me, they can do it my way." However, the Russians loved the negotiations courses. These allowed them to show the little people how it should be done. The Belarusians and Ukrainians kept their true thoughts to themselves. The ‘little people’, the Balts, including the Russian-speaking Latvians, told me that the cross-cultural training was one of the most useful modules on their two-year programme.
I changed the format of that module as a result. One year I had 26 students of whom 18 had Latvian addresses (including two Russian Russians). I began the course with this question:
“How many consider yourselves to be Latvian?”
Seven people raised their hands. I repeated the question. Eventually eleven admitted to being Latvian. I looked at one who had not raised her hand but who lived, I knew, in Riga. She was a young, heavily-pregnant woman. “And you?”
"And your … partner?"
“My husband is a Latvian-speaking Latvian.”
I pointed to her abdomen.
The laughter that followed led to another Baltic history lesson. The Estonians, Lithuanians and non-Balts listened intently as the Latvia-based students revealed their origins and family histories. We learned that grandfathers had fought either with the Germans or in the Red Army in World War 2. Some had changed sides. Some had gone to Siberia, never to return. Some had been forced to come to Latvia from other parts of the Soviet Union after the war. If there was any anger at these revelations, I did not notice it. As the one Swede on the course said to me afterwards: “They had to do whatever they thought necessary to survive.”
There was one question I never asked the Russian-speaking Latvian students, not even in private: “What would you do if Russia invaded Latvia?” Many Latvian-speaking Latvians I met reckoned they knew the answer. That is perhaps why tiny Latvia decided to deliver Stinger anti-aircraft missile systems to Ukraine on 23 February, a day before the Russian invasion. If Putin succeeds in his war, many Latvians are convinced he won’t stop at Ukraine. They think they will be next.
*Ever afterwards I have had to choose between the lime-green taxis, driven by Latvian-speaking Latvians, and the red ones, driven by Russian-speaking Latvians. I always choose the former.
**Next door was the 1909 birthplace of Isaiah Berlin, one of the greatest political thinkers and philosophers of the twentieth-century (and not to be confused, as Winston Churchill did in 1944, with the US American songwriter Irving Berlin). Isaiah became a British citizen and was often called a British philosopher. But he insisted otherwise: “I’m a Russian Jew from Riga”.