Russians in the Baltic states

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Percentage of Russians by county in Estonia and municipality in Latvia and Lithuania, according to 2011 censuses.

Russians in the Baltic states describes self-identifying ethnic Russians and other Russian-speaking communities in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, commonly referred to collectively as the Baltic States. In 2011, there were 1,052,520 ethnic Russians in the Baltic States (556,422 in Latvia, 321,198 in Estonia, 174,900 in Lithuania), having declined from 1,726,000 in 1989, the year of the last census during the Soviet occupation.[1]


Most[2] of the present-day Baltic Russians are migrants from the Soviet era and their descendants, whereas only a relatively small fraction of them can trace their ancestry in the area back to previous centuries.

According to official statistics, in 1920, ethnic Russians (most of them residing there from the times of the Russian Empire) made up 7.82% of the population in independent Latvia, growing to 10.5% in 1935.[3] The share of ethnic Russians in the population of independent Estonia was about 8.2%, of which about half were indigenous Russians living in the areas in and around Pechory and Izborsk which were added to Estonian territory according to the 1920 Estonian-Soviet Peace Treaty of Tartu, but were transferred to the Russian SFSR by the Soviet authorities in 1945. The share of ethnic Russians in independent Lithuania (not including the Vilnius region, then annexed by Poland) was even smaller, about 2.5%.[4]

Following the terms of the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied and subsequently annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as Soviet republics in 1940. Germany invaded and occupied the Baltic states in 1941 a week after the first Soviet-conducted mass deportation. Communist party members who had arrived in the area with the initial annexation in 1940 and the puppet regimes established evacuated to other parts of the Soviet Union; those who fell into German hands were treated harshly or murdered. The Soviet Union reoccupied the Baltic states in 1944–1945 as the war drew to a close.

Immediately after the war, major migration from other USSR republics, including much migration of ethnic Russians, took place in the Baltic region. Many of the Russians, along with a smaller number from other ethnic groups, who migrated from other parts of the USSR to the Baltic republics, arrived to transform the pre-war Baltics' largely agricultural economy to an industrial one. Mostly they were factory and construction workers who settled in major urban areas, as well as military personnel stationed in the region in significant numbers to staff the military bases established owing to the Baltic states now acting as Soviet borderlands facing Europe. Many military retirees chose to stay in the region, which featured higher living standards compared to most of the USSR. This would lead to bitter disputes with Russia regarding the issue of their military pensions after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After Stalin's death in 1953, the flow of new migrants to the Lithuanian SSR slowed down, owing to different policies on urbanization, economy and other issues than pursued in the Latvian SSR and the Estonian SSR.[4] However, the flow of immigrants did not stop entirely in Lithuania, and there were further waves of Russian workers who came to work on major construction projects, such as power plants.

In Latvia and Estonia, less was done to slow down Russian immigration. By the 1980s Russians made up about third of the population in Estonia, while in Latvia, ethnic Latvians made up only about half of the population. In contrast, in 1989 only 9.4% of Lithuania's population were Russians.

Scholars in international law have noted that "in accordance with Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the settlement of Russians in the Baltic States during the period was illegal under international law" ("The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies").[5][6][7] The convention was adopted in 1949, including by the Soviet Union. However, as the Soviet Union maintained the Baltic States joined the USSR voluntarily, it did not consider the convention applicable to the Baltic states.

Continuing the position of their legations or governments in exile, and based on international law and treaties in effect at the time of initial Soviet occupation, the Baltic states view the Soviet presence in the Baltic states as an illegal occupation for its full duration. This continuity of the Baltic states with their first period of independence has been used to re-adopt pre-World War II laws, constitutions, and treaties and to formulate new policies, including in the areas of citizenship and language.

Some of the Baltic Russians, mainly those who had come to live in the region not long before the three countries regained independence in 1991, remigrated to Russia and other ex-Soviet countries in the early 1990s. Lithuania, which had been influenced by immigration the least, granted citizenship automatically. In Latvia and Estonia, those who had no family ties to Latvia prior to World War II did not receive automatic citizenship. Those that failed to request Russian citizenship during the time window it was offered were granted permanent residency "non-citizen" status. (see Citizenship section).

Current situation[edit]

Lithuanian Russians live mainly in cities. In the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, they make up 14.43% of the population, in Lithuania's third largest city Klaipėda no more than 19%. Other Lithuanian cities, including the second-largest city Kaunas, have lower percentages of Russians, while in most small towns and villages there are very few Russians (with the exception of Visaginas town). In all, 4.9% of Lithuania's population are ethnic Russians.

Russians make up almost a half of the population of Latvia's capital, Riga. In the second largest city Daugavpils, where already before World War I Russians were the second biggest ethnic group after Jews,[8] Russians now make up the majority. Today about 27.6% of Latvia's population are ethnic Russians.

In Estonia, Russians are concentrated in urban areas, particularly in Tallinn and the north-eastern county of Ida-Virumaa. As of 2011, 38.5% of Tallinn's population were ethnic Russians and an even higher number – 46.7% spoke Russian as their mother tongue.[9] In 2011, large proportions of ethnic Russians were found in Narva (82.02%),[10] Sillamäe (about 82%)[11] and Kohtla-Järve (69.68%). In the second largest city of Estonia – Tartu – ethnic Russians constitute only about 16% of the population.[12] In rural areas the proportion of ethnic Russians is very low (13 of Estonia's 15 counties are over 80% ethnic Estonian). Overall, ethnic Russians make up 24% of Estonia's population (the proportion of Russophones is, however, somewhat higher, because Russian is the mother tongue of many ethnic Ukrainians, Belarusians and Jews who live in the country).

Demand for industrial workers drew Russians to settle in larger cities. In all three countries, the rural settlements are inhabited almost entirely by the main national ethnic groups, except some areas in eastern Estonia and Latvia with a longer history of Russian and mixed villages. The Lithuanian city of Visaginas was built for workers at the Ignalina nuclear power plant and therefore has a Russian majority. A 2014 study found that many Russians identified with the place where they lived.[13]

After the accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the European Union on 1 May 2004, many Baltic Russians moved to other EU countries. In particular, tens of thousands of Baltic Russians (especially those with EU citizenship) moved to the United Kingdom and to Ireland, who were the first 'old' EU countries to open up their labour markets to the new members of the EU. Thousands of Russians from Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius, holding EU passports, now live in London, Dublin and other cities in the UK and Ireland. They make up a substantial part of the Russian-speaking community in London. No reliable statistics on their exact numbers exist, as in the UK they are counted as nationals of the Baltic countries, and not as Russians.


After regaining independence in 1991, Latvia and Estonia restored the pre-1940 citizenship laws on the basis of the legal continuity of their statehood throughout 1940 – 1991, automatically recognising citizenship according to the principle of jus sanguinis for the persons who held citizenship before 16 June 1940 and their descendants. Most of those who had settled on the territory of these republics after their incorporation by the USSR of these states by the USSR in 1940 and their descendants received the right to obtain citizenship through naturalisation procedure, but were not granted citizenship automatically. This policy affected not only ethnic Russians, but also the descendants of those ethnic Estonians and Latvians who emigrated from these countries before independence was proclaimed in 1918. Dual citizenship is also not allowed, except for those who acquired citizenship by birth.

Knowledge of the respective official language and in some cases the Constitution and/or history and an oath of loyalty to established constitutional order was set as a condition for obtaining citizenship through naturalisation. However, the purported difficulty of the initial language tests became a point of international contention, as the government of Russia, the Council of Europe, and several human rights organizations claiming that they made it impossible for many older Russians who grew up in the Baltic region to gain citizenship. As a result, the tests were altered,[citation needed] but a large percentage of Russians in Latvia and Estonia still have non-citizen or alien status. Those who have not applied for citizenship feel they are regarded with suspicion, under the perception that they are deliberately avoiding naturalisation.[citation needed] For many, an important reason not to apply for citizenship is the fact that Russia gives non-citizens preferential treatment: they are free to work[citation needed] or visit relatives in Russia. The citizens of the Baltic states must apply for visas.

The language issue is still contentious, particularly in Latvia, where there were protests against plans to require at least 60% of lessons in state-funded Russian-language high schools to be taught in Latvian (in the first version of the Law on education this was 100%).

In contrast, Lithuania granted citizenship to all its residents at the time of independence redeclaration day willing to have it, without requiring them to learn Lithuanian. Probably the main reason that Lithuania took a less restrictive approach than Latvia and Estonia is that whereas in Latvia ethnic Latvians comprised only a small majority of the total population, and in Estonia ethnic Estonians comprised about 70 percent, in Lithuania ethnic Lithuanians were about 80 percent of the population. Therefore, as a matter of voting in national elections or referendums, the opinions of ethnic Lithuanians would likely carry the day if there were a difference in opinion between Lithuanians and the larger minority groups (Russians and Poles), but this was less certain in the other two Baltic countries, especially in Latvia.

Some representatives of the ethnic Russian communities in Latvia and Estonia have claimed discrimination by the authorities, these calls frequently being supported by Russia. On the other hand, Latvia and Estonia deny discrimination charges and often accuse Russia of using the issue for political purposes. In recent years, as the Russian political leaders have begun to speak about the "former Soviet space" as their sphere of influence,[14] such claims are a source of annoyance, if not alarm, in the Baltic countries.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have since 2004 become members of NATO and the European Union (EU) to provide a counterbalance to Russia's claims to speak for the interests of ethnic Russian residents of these countries. Furthermore, to satisfy a precondition for their admission to the EU, both Estonia and Latvia slightly adjusted their citizenship policies in response to EU monitoring and requests. Claims of discrimination in basic rights by Russians and other minorities in the region may have less effect now than they did during the years when the Baltic countries' membership applications were still pending with the EU.[citation needed]

Political activity[edit]

There are a number of political parties and politicians in the Baltic states who claim to represent the Russian-speaking minority. These parties support Russian language rights, demand citizenship for all long-term residents of Latvia and Estonia and tend to be left-wing on other issues. These forces are particularly strong in Latvia represented by the Latvian Russian Union which has one seat in the European parliament held by Tatjana Ždanoka and the more moderate Harmony party which is currently the largest faction in the Saeima with 24 out of 100 deputies, the party of the current Mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs and with one representative in the European parliament currently Andrejs Mamikins. In Estonia there is similarly the Estonian United Left Party however that party is not represented in the Riigikogu and the Estonian Centre Party is overwhelmingly the most favoured party among Estonian Russians. This is in part because of its co-operation agreement with United Russia, its advocacy of friendlier ties with the Russian government compared to other mainstream Estonian parties and the prevalence[citation needed] Russians and Russophones among the party's municipal councilors and parliamentarians.

In 2011 pro-Russian groups in Latvia collected sufficient signatures to initiate the process of amending the Constitution to give Russian the status of an official language. The proposal was rejected by the Saeima and the question was put to a national referendum in February 2012. The proposal gained support of 24.88% of voters and was rejected. The non-citizen community (290,660 or 14.1% of Latvia's entire population) was non entitled to vote.

Notable Baltic Russians[edit]

Famous modern Baltic Russians include:

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Key provisional results: Population and housing census". Latvian government. 2011. 
  2. ^ Idzelis, Augustine (1985). "Soviet Russian Colonial Practices in the Baltic states". In Pap, Michael S. Russian Empire: some aspects of tsarist and Soviet colonial practices. John Carroll University. Institute for Soviet and East European Studies. p. 79. 
  3. ^ "Data on population of Latvia in 1920–1935". 
  4. ^ a b Vaitiekūnas, Stasys, Lietuvos gyventojai per du tūkstantmečius 
  5. ^ Ronen, Yaël (2011). Transition from Illegal Regimes Under International Law. Cambridge University Press. p. 206. 
  6. ^ Benvenisti, Eyal (1993). The International Law of Occupation. Princeton University Press. pp. 67–72. 
  7. ^ "ICRC". 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Statistical yearbook of Tallinn". 
  10. ^ "Narva in figures" (PDF). 
  11. ^ "Sillamae". 2010. 
  12. ^ "Tartu arvudes" (PDF). 
  13. ^ Matulionis, Arvydas Virgilijus; Frėjutė-Rakauskienė, Monika (2014). "Идентичность русской этнической группы и ее выражение в Литве и Латвии. Сравнительный аспект" [Identity of ethnic Russians in Lithuania and Latvia] (in Russian). Mir Rossii. 
  14. ^ Vladimir Socor, Kremlin Refining Policy in 'Post-Soviet Space', Eurasia Daily Monitor 8 Feb 2005


External links[edit]