“The collapse of the Soviet Union: 20 years on”

“What is my country for me?” Identity construction by the Russian speakers in Estonia and Lithuania

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5. “What is my country for me?” Identity construction by the Russian speakers in Estonia and Lithuania

This paper discusses ethnolinguistic vitality of Russian-speakers in post-Soviet Estonia and Lithuania. A comparative approach to sociolinguistic realities in the Baltic countries is highly relevant. The two countries have a lot in common. Both countries were parts of Russian Empire, both experienced a short period of independence in 1918–1940 and subsequently were occupied and annexed by USSR. Both re-established independence in 1991 and a radical change in language policy took place: Estonian and Lithuanian became the only official languages in the respective countries. Both capitals, Tallinn and Vilnius, have a significant share of non-titular populations (slightly under 50 % in both cities). In both countries, Russian-speaking settlers and their descendents had to master the official languages. Still, there are important differences as well: 1) for Lithuanian Russian-speakers, proficiency in Lithuanian is not a problem (unlike in other two Baltic countries), and 2) in Estonia, the share of Russian-speakers is about 30 %, while in Lithuania it is only 6 %, almost equal with Polish speakers in this country.

Ethnolinguistic vitality is a property that expresses group’s potential to act collectively in intergroup settings. This study presents the results of qualitative focus-group interviews that shed light on identity construction and ethnolinguistic vitality of Russian-speakers in contemporary Estonia and Lithuania. All of informants were from regions with different sociolinguistic concentration and with different backgrounds (age, social status etc). The results show that, in both countries, the Russian-speaking community is quite diverse in respect of their beliefs and attitudes. Diaspora identity is gradually moving apart from the mainland Russian identity.

Linguistic environment is a very strong determinant of ethnolinguistic identity of Estonian Russian-speakers. The data show that the Narva informants have a very strong local identity. Other identity categories identified in the responses may be summarized as “Estonian Russian”, “Estonian”, “European” and “Russian”. Last but not least, non-withstanding their desire to belong to the Estonian community and high level of Estonian language competence, Tallinn and Narva Russian-speakers with “Estonian” identity feel negative attitudes on the part of other Estonian speakers. In Lithuania, Russian-speakers move towards Lithuanian civic identity and try not to bring out their heritage cultural roots. These findings are discussed in relation to ethnolinguistic vitality theory as well as language maintenance issues.

Current research is part of the project “Ethnolinguistic vitality and identity construction: Estonia in Baltic background” that received funding from the Estonian Science Fund under grant agreement no ETF7350.

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