Mirosław Jankowiak: education in mother tongue is crucial for preserving national identity

Mirosław Jankowiak: education in mother tongue is crucial for preserving national identity

According to the most recent population census of 2011, more than 44 thousand of Latvia’s residents declared their Polish ethnicity. Addressing Latvia, scientists and media usually concentrate on the Russian minority. In addition, the Latvian Poles are in the shadow of their ethnic kin in Lithuania and Belarus. ICELDS discusses the situation of Poles in Latvia with Dr. Mirosław Jankowiak, a research fellow at Institute of Slavonic Studies of the Czech Academy of Sciences and an editor of the portal “Przegląd Bałtycki“.

ICELDS: Common people don’t know much about the Poles in Latvia. Where do the Poles reside in Latvia and how did this community emerge in these territories?

Mirosław Jankowiak: Unfortunately, there is still quite little knowledge about Latvia’s Poles. However, in comparison with the 1990s, interest towards this group has increased significantly among scholars, analysts, and even among ordinary people who are potential tourists. Historically, the Poles were predominantly concentrated in Latvia’s south-eastern region of Latgale (historically known as the so-called Polish Livonia), although they also lived in other regions (Zemgale) and major cities – Riga, Jēkabpils or Liepāja. Traces of Poles in the territory of today’s Latvia date back to the 16th century. Some of them were Polonized German noble families (for example, the Manteuffels, the Borchs, the Hilsens, or the Platers), who subsequently influenced the local rural population, including the communities that spoke local dialects of the Belarusian language. The second group consists of those who came from other regions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

ICELDS: What other ethnic groups in Latvia are the closest to the local Poles in terms of culture?

MJ: Latvia, and in particular its south-eastern part, is multinational, multicultural, multireligious and multilingual. Latvia’s Poles slightly differ from their co-ethnics in from Lithuania or Belarus. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvia’s Polish minority politically and socially allied with Latvians and evidently supported the country’s independence. However, culturally and linguistically they are closely related to other Slavs and above all to Belarusians. The entire Belarusian-Lithuanian-Latvian borderland is characterized by the centuries-old co-existence of Poles and Belarusians, connected not only by common history, but also by the religion (the majority of Belarusians in Latgale are Roman Catholics) and the language (the Northern Kresy dialect of Polish is the closest to the Belarusian).

ICELDS: Thus, we can say that Poles and Belarusians in Latvia are autochthonous groups who have been living in these areas for generations. But what does the Latvian law say in this regard?

MJ: This conclusion is correct in relation to the Latvian Poles. They should definitely be considered an autochthonous group which has been living on the territory of today’s Latvia for many generations. The same applies to the Belarusians. The last major migration of Poles and, above all, Belarusians, took place during the Soviet period of Latvian history, i.e. after 1945, when many people arrived in Latvia from the Belarusian SSR. The Latvian Citizenship Law (Pilsonības likums) of 22 July 1994 is very clearly formulated: all persons and their descendants who relocated to Latvia after the Soviet invasion in June 1940 shall not automatically become Latvia’s citizens and shall pass a special exam to acquire citizenship. In the case of Latgale, the Poles and Belarusians who arrived there after the war originate predominantly from the regions bordering Latvia. In general, it is also quite logical to consider them as autochthonous population in a certain sense, since they migrated only a few tens of kilometers towards the north, while the state border reappeared only with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

ICELDS: There were no schools with Polish or Belarusian language of instruction in the postwar Soviet Latvia. Why did the Soviet authorities decide to close or not re-open these schools?

MJ: The last Polish school in Daugavpils was closed in 1948. The local Poles began to painstakingly restore their social and cultural life only at the end of the Soviet rule in Latvia. There were also no Belarusian schools in Latvia after World War II. This policy of the Soviet authorities was aimed at the Russification and, above all, the Sovietization of the peoples who inhabited various republics of the USSR to control them in line with the principle “divide and rule.” In Soviet Latvia, there were schools only with Latvian and Russian languages of instruction. Slavs mostly opted for the Russian schools. Several decades were enough for linguistic, cultural and mental Russification and Sovietization of Poles, Belarusians or Ukrainians. This process has particularly affected Latvia’s Belarusians. We are still reaping the fruits of the decisions made by Stalin and his fellow associates. After almost 30 years of independence, Latvia remains in the Russian-language media zone. Several Latvian TV programs that are poorly received in eastern Latvia with its significant Slavic population compete with several dozen of Russian-speaking programs. The Slavic population of Latvia typically prefers to watch TV programs in Russian.

ICELDS: What consequences for these minorities were caused by the lack of education in their mother tongue?

MJ: My long-term studies of Belarusian and Polish dialects, conducted mainly in Latgale and Lithuania, as well as in the southern part of Russia’s Pskov region and Poland’s Podlasie, clearly demonstrate that education in the national language is one of the most important factors to preserve the native language, national culture and identity in the long-term perspective. There were neither Polish, nor Belarusian schools in the southern part of the Pskov region. Therefore, only the relics of the Polish language and the disappearing Belarusian dialects can still be found there, while nearly nothing remained of the Polish or Belarusian national identity. In Latvia, the situation of the Belarusian minority is not the best. Belarusians have only one school and several organizations, where I often hear Russian language. The situation of the Polish minority looks much better, because it is substantially supported by Warsaw. Where Polish schools remained (like in Lithuania), the Polish identity is being preserved and there is no fear about its future. Another example of this kind is the Belarusians in Poland. This minority has many schools, media and organizations. They have the opportunity to maintain their traditions and possess a strong sense of their national identity.

ICELDS: How does the situation with the preservation of the Polish language and local Polish dialects among Poles in Latvia look like? Is the Polish language present in Latvia’s public space?

MJ: The restoration of Latvia’s independence provided the local Poles with the opportunity to establish their public associations and develop their traditions and native language. Latvia’s Poles, unlike Belarusians, are quite successful in it, despite quite problematic situation with the Polish education due to the unfavorable demographic situation in the region. The Polish school in Krāslava was threatened with liquidation due to the lack of children. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak about a certain revival of the Polish language. While the local Northern Kresy dialects of Polish gradually disappear with the depopulation of the villages (these dialects are less and less passed on from one generation to another), the urban version of the language (studied in school or in Polish organizations) is experiencing certain revival, being supported by the availability of the local Polish media, cultural events and public associations. These factors altogether help to support the Polish language in Latvia.

ICELDS: What are the main areas of support for Latvian Poles by the authorities of Poland?

MJ: Although the assistance to the Poles of Latvia is small if calculated in Polish Złotys or Euros, the local Polish activists in conversations with me emphasized that this amount is enough to support current cultural projects. The Poles are especially active in Daugavpils, where they have their own radio and TV programs, a dance group, etc. A positive example of support was the struggle to preserve the Polish school in Krāslava several years ago. Due to the demographic hole and a small number of pupils, local authorities decided to close it. Warsaw intervened to support the school financially so that it could continue to exist. When the school was created, the local Poles received significant financial resources for its infrastructure. Poland mainly supports the Polish media in Latvia and partly the education sector. It should also be noted that, unlike in Lithuania or Belarus, Latvia’s Poles are not a bargaining chip in political conflicts. For decades, they maintain good relations with Latvians.

Interview conducted by Dr. Kirył Kaścian

Note: This text was prepared in cooperation with InBaltic.

Image: Counts Platers Castle in Krāslava, © Mirosław Jankowiak

Share this post