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Quiet Revolution in the Classroom

Latvia's ethnic minority youngsters are adjusting well to the mandatory use of Latvian in schools, although some adults complain children are losing out. [Also in Russian.] by Elizabeth Celms 30 October 2006 RIGA, Latvia | On 7 October 2006, Latvia held its ninth parliamentary elections since regaining independence in 1991. For the first time in 10 years, the party that represents the Baltic state’s ethnic Russians abandoned its most vociferous weapon – railing against the law on education.

The legislation, which has been repeatedly amended since adoption by Parliament in 1998, aims at gradually increasing Latvian as the language of instruction in all state schools. For years, the law served as a rousing voting incentive for Latvia’s Russian minority, which makes up nearly 30 percent of the population.

In 2004, the news of parliamentary approval for an amendment to the law mandating that 60 percent of classes in all minority high schools, beginning in the 10th grade, be taught in the Latvian language sent much of the Russian community, egged on by Moscow, into a storm of protest. Angry parents, teachers and children took to the streets. They marched outside the Education Ministry shouting through megaphones and waving gigantic posters that read “Hands off Russian schools” and “No to the reform.”

Many wondered if the issue would be raised again during this year’s election campaign. But in the days leading up to the vote, the streets of Riga were almost quiet.

“Finally, a success story for Latvia – the minority education reform is no longer a political issue,” says parliamentarian and former education minister Ina Druviete, who represents the center-right New Era party. “It wasn’t even mentioned during the pre-elections this year.”

60/40 VISION

This wasn’t the case during the 2002 general elections, when the country’s Russians were quaking with apprehension over proposed amendments to the education law. In response, the party For Human Rights in a United Latvia, the Pied Piper of Russian minority rights, whistled songs of sweet promise to defend the use of Russian language in minority schools. And the voters followed.

The party garnered 19 percent of the vote, behind only New Era, which won 23.9 percent. And discussion over the proposed minority education reform made the top of parliament’s agenda.

For the next two years, opposition to the language law was conducted in a diplomatic and sensible manner. That is, until members of the unofficial radical organization Shtab (Russian Schools Defense Headquarters) joined the legislative battle.

In mid-2004, just months before the reform was scheduled for introduction, Shtab leader Alexander Kazakov rallied thousands of schoolchildren to protest the language law. The government shunned his actions, and later deported the Russian citizen as “a threat to the state.”

Yet despite Shtab’s radical efforts against the reform, the so-called 60/40 law was introduced on 1 September 2004, the official first day of school in Latvia.

It was a historic moment in the Baltic state’s history: ethnic Russian children, along with children of every other minority group, walked into classrooms with Latvian writing on the board.

Two years later, the law has been fully adopted in high schools across the country. And besides a few failed legislative efforts against the constitutionality of the law, little protest has been heard.



“It’s hard to protest against something that’s already begun,” says Svetlana Djackova, a specialist in minority issues at the Latvian Center for Human Rights, a nonpartisan monitoring and advocacy group. “In 2004, society was completely split over the issue. But since it has become less politicized, tensions have decreased.”

According to Druviete, the term “reform” is misleading, as the Latvian government has been taking steps toward bilingual minority schools since before independence. In 1988 education authorities developed a plan to introduce Latvian Language as a subject in all minority schools, from Lithuanian to Russian. The goal, Druviete explains, was to eliminate Latvia’s linguistically segregated and unequal education system.

The government introduced the first elements of bilingual education in 1995 – based on programs used in Canada and the United States – where the minority language serves as the basic tongue of instruction and Latvian as a “course complement,” Druviete says. Step by step, the state increased the number of subjects to be taught in Latvian.

Since 1999, minority schools have been free to develop their own curricula, as long as they meet state standards. The only requirement is that all minority high-school students take their final examinations in the Latvian language.

According to the Central Statistical Bureau, early in 2006 Russians constituted 28.5 percent of the population, Belarusians 3.8 percent, Ukrainians 2.4 percent, Poles 2.4 percent, and Lithuanians 1.4 percent. The numbers of minority schools roughly correspond to these figures.

“Now every school in Latvia shares a unified system of education,” Druviete says.

But many would agree that the system is far from perfect.

Riga's Secondary School No. 40 is known as one of the country's best minority high schools. The historic brick building on a quiet downtown street boasts more than a century of academic excellence and attracts Russian students from across the capital.

According to head principal Galina Yefremova, the school’s faculty is made up of Riga’s most qualified teachers, and its academic curriculum competes with that of Russian minority schools across the Baltics.

But the school now faces an obstacle in its pursuit of excellence: the 60/40 language law.


“I’d rather call [the education reform] a project instead of a program because it demands more experience and plenty of correction,” Yefremova says with pursed lips. “Nobody has taught us how to do anything. We were just told that starting in 2004, 60 percent of subjects would be taught in Latvian. That was all.”

And at least two of the high school’s teachers agree.

Jelena Rubens is a middle-aged Russian woman with a kind smile and serious disposition. She teaches culture, which includes music, literature, and art, and she delivers her lessons in Latvian.

“We decided to teach these subjects in Latvian because they are visual and, therefore, easier for students to understand in a second language,” Yefremova explains.

Although Rubens describes her Latvian proficiency as nearly perfect and says she seldom struggles to communicate with students, she also believes her pupils would learn more from classes taught in Russian.

“At a very early age, children create a picture of the world within their minds, and this picture can only be perceived through the native language,” Rubens says, her voice gentle with sincerity. “This is why the education process, if taught in a foreign language, is damaged a little. It takes much more time and effort for students to understand the world as seen through another language.”

Rubens adds that, in order for a child to fully absorb the subject of study, not only must he be proficient in the language of instruction, but he must also comprehend the essence of what is being taught.

“It’s easy to learn a text and recite the content, but it’s another thing to comprehend, question, and analyze what’s being read. It’s important for a student to read between the lines, and this is very difficult to do in a foreign language,” she says.

Jelena Givovarova, a much younger colleague of Rubens, says teachers struggle more than students with Latvian. She says her students seldom complain about the language law.

“I’ve had no problem learning in Latvian,” says Igor Polezaev, a 12th-grader at the school.

“Besides,” he adds. “If we want to stay in Latvia, [being educated in the state language] will help us succeed in the future.”

Polezaev’s classmate, a bright-faced girl with braces, agrees.

“We started learning Latvian in first grade,” she says. “By the time I got to high school, I had pretty good absorption. Biology is a little bit tough in Latvian, but the teacher helps a lot.”

When the 60/40 law was introduced to 10th graders in 2004 – teenagers whose lives mirrored Latvia’s budding independence – most had been learning the state language since they started school.

It’s the ethnic Russian teachers, most of whom grew up speaking Russian in communist Latvia, who struggle to master the Latvian language.

“I must admit that I don’t have problems teaching in Latvian. But I know other teachers who do,” Givovarova says.

“For me, the hardest thing is finding quality material,” the economics teacher adds. “The Latvian textbook we were given is absolutely horrible. There are many, many mistakes. I’ve spent hours online looking for the correct answers in Russian and then translating them into Latvian for my students.”


According to Yefremova, the new system is badly lacking in proper resources and methodology.

“This is why our teachers work like horses,” she says, her cheeks flushed with emotion. “I’ve done my utmost to make this procedure easier for the teachers and students. Nobody in the government helps them. The EU, the Education Ministry? They do nothing.”

Parliamentarian Druviete rejects this claim.

“There are many state-financed classes to help teachers become proficient in Latvian,” she says. “Plus, the [government] has developed a special agency whose main task is to ensure that minority schools have the proper textbooks. We offer a number of education models, and a good teacher will find the appropriate one for her students.”

In her opinion, the reform has so far been successful.

“Of course there are some shortcomings, as with any new program,” she says, adding that when she served as education minister from 2004 to April 2006, "I spoke personally with teachers and parents about their concerns, and was very glad that I managed to solve some problems.”

Djackova, referring to Latvian Center for Human Rights interviews with Russian parents and teachers, says their main concern is over the quality of education.

“Many parents are concerned that their children are being robbed of knowledge, and do not see any opportunity to influence the education system,” she says. “That was the main problem with this reform: there was little opportunity for Russian parents and teachers to discuss and design the language program. The state should have done more to involve them in the process.”

“But the reform has already been passed,” she adds. “We can only work on improving it.”
Elizabeth Celms is a journalist based in Riga.

This article is also available in Russian.
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