Insights through excursion: field trip to Latvia

This past spring, our MARS and ExpREES students embarked on a field course to Latvia. As a part of the course, we the students plan the program of the trip—which allows for it to be wholly unique as well as entirely tailored to the interests of the group.

MAREEES BLOG 6/2023. During the trip, we met with local professionals from the media, politics, and third sector organizations. Our aim for the excursion was to learn more about the role of the Russian language in Latvia. Specifically, we focused on the current and future status of Russian speaking residents in Latvia—a timely topic considering recent government initiatives to phase out minority language education, and to potentially expel those who do not pass a basic Latvian language exam.

The week began with an early 7 am (!) train from the Riga Central Railway station. Despite the lack of air conditioning, the train was a cost effective and lovely way to see the Latvian countryside, especially all the small villages and towns along the route! Our destination was Daugavpils, the second largest city in Latvia, which is located over 200 kilometers south of Riga, close to the Belarussian border. In recent years Daugavpils has become well known for being home to one of the highest percentages of Russian speakers in any city outside the Russian Federation—making it the perfect location to hone our language skills!

After our arrival and a quick lunch, we headed to the campus of Daugavpils University for two days of Russian language instruction, where we discussed literature, stereotypes, and reviewed grammar. Upon leaving the classroom, our language studies weren’t over! Russian language was all around us: in restaurants, shops, and heard on the street, providing many opportunities to use what we had learned.

We left Daugavpils on Tuesday evening, basking in the sunset on a more modern (and air-conditioned!) train. On Wednesday, we began the Riga leg of our trip by meeting with the head of the youth organization Young Folks followed by a tour and presentation at the studios of Latvijas Radio 4, which broadcasts in Russian. It was especially inspiring to hear about all that Young Folks has done to help the Ukrainian refugees, both those who are settling in Latvia and those who are in transit. Their volunteers staff a reception center in Riga around the clock, 24 hours a day, working with limited funds and buoyed by generous donations from local companies and restaurants.

Thursday found the group on familiar territory: the Embassy of Finland! (Fun fact: it has a sauna.) There, we heard from 3 different speakers who work for NATO StratCom or the Finnish Embassy on the topic of information warfare, and how it is being used by Russia and other actors to try to control the narrative of the war in Ukraine. On Thursday evening, we were hosted by the LGBT+ organization Active Rainbow. On Friday, we met with members of Progresīvie, a social-democratic party which presently holds 10 seats in the Latvian parliament. They provided valuable insights on the current political climate in Latvia, and shed more light on the practical policy side of the language legislation. For our final event, we visited the offices of Delfi, a news website for the Baltic region. The presenter explained why sometimes the content and coverage differs between the Latvia and Russia sites—particularly when it comes to sports, as basketball is much more popular with the Latvian language audience!

All in all, the course provided real-world context to our studies that was invaluable. In addition to being a fun trip with our classmates, we were able to go places and meet with people and organizations that would not have been possible on a tourist trip to Latvia. As the program evolves from MARS to MAREES this autumn, this excursion was the perfect introduction to the wider Eastern European and Eurasian region.