Stateless in Latvia
Father Ivan Zhilko slowly and lovingly lights the candles in front of the 17th Century icons. We are in the church of St Nicholas of the Resurrection and the Birth of the Virgin Mary, in Pushkin Street. But we are not in a Russian town, we are in Daugavpils, in the south-east of Latvia.
After Riga, it's the biggest city in the country and the vast majority of its population are Russian-speakers of Russian origin. Many of them feel they're victimised, denied citizenship by a state punishing them for the sins of the past.
Citizenship tests to shut out the linguistically challenged and insufficiently culturally aware are all the rage all over Europe, including Britain, but they are perhaps more controversial here than anywhere else. Here the aliens are their former conquerors, liberators, partners.
Father Ivan and most of his congregation don't have to worry. They are Old Believers, a group of Christians who broke away from the Russian Orthodox church after the tsar backed changes to rituals some 300 years ago. They fled to Latvia then, and so have been here ages. When Latvia became independent in 1991, citizenship was automatically granted to anyone whose family arrived here before 1940. People who arrived from Russia after that are regarded as part of an illegal occupation, and their loyalty to the new state is questioned. Many Russian-speakers have gone, but about 20% of the population are still non-citizens who can't vote.
This earnest, bearded young priest tells me: "The majority of Old Believers are citizens, but of course there are non-citizens as well, because during the Soviet era people came here from all over the USSR. When that monster was destroyed, those people stayed here. And the laws of the state prevented them automatically becoming citizens. Most of them are older people and it's difficult for them to take exams. They've demonstrated their loyalty by staying here for the last 15 years: anyone who wants to go back to the old homeland has already done so."
He adds that there is no racial tension and no-one cares what language you speak at home. But some politicians try to stir things up. "They try to divide society but thank God they haven't succeeded and God willing they won't," he says.
From what I can see through the rain, Daugavpils is a rather drab town with fair share of grim concrete flats and half-dug-up tramlines. But the upper room where the Russian Association meets is bright, laid out for a welcome cup of tea, the walls lined with exuberant amateur art.
On a mantelpiece, a Russian flag stands incongruously alongside a model of a blue plastic pig. Grigori Gontmakher took the citizenship test last year, when he was 69. He was born in St Petersburg and came to Latvia after serving in the Soviet army in the late 1980s. His sister was living here and said there were good jobs.
He says he was active in the movement for independence and feels insulted by the way he's been treated. He was a press officer for the local council and some people thought it was wrong that he wasn't a citizen, so he decided to take the test. He says the test is easier for people over 65, otherwise he wouldn't have passed.
"I found it very difficult because although I understood some Latvian I don't speak it day to day. The first thing you have to do is learn the national anthem by heart. Not only to learn it, but to write it down word for word. Then you have to read a text in Latvian and answer questions about it.
"Then you have to take a test about the constitution and Latvian history. We had to answer questions about the birth of the nation, Latvia's national heroes, the wars the country was involved in, what happened during World War II, after the war, and the period of independence."
Without knowing exactly which answers get a tick and which get a cross, it's hard to be sure - but this certainly could be a test of ideological purity, or at least of whether someone subscribes to a certain view of history.
There are those who want a simple history test for British immigrants as well, and it would be interesting to know if they would require answers that were not only factually correct but also demonstrated a certain attitude. Would it be good enough to know that Wellington fought at Waterloo, or would one have to be convinced that Napoleon was in the wrong?
Yevgeni Drobot would be excluded from Latvian political life even if he took and passed the test. That's because he was a member of Latvia's Soviet-era parliament, and so can't stand for the new, post-independence parliament. Instead he's an assistant to an MEP. He's also a non-citizen. He too was born in St Petersburg but arrived in Latvia in 1947, a babe in arms. He says the state is trying to give the Russian population here a guilt complex about the aftermath of World War II, in which Latvians fought on both sides.
He says he got his passport when he was 16 from the Soviet state, but in 1991 he was stripped of his rights. "The political elite still want to get their own back on us," he says.
Another non-citizen, Vladimir Abrazovich, chips in: "It's not just me, there were 600,000 of us. The political elite are scared of giving us the right to vote because they are scared of losing power."
Yevgeni agrees. "The problem is not with everyday social life. The problem is that they are trying to drive us away form political activity. It's discrimination," he says.
But perhaps what officials are worried about is revealed by his answer, when I ask if he feels he is being blamed for the evils of the Soviet Union.
"I don't believe that after the war this country was damaged. A lot was developed here. So you can't talk about the Soviet Union damaging Latvia, most of the people here don't think that way. Quite the reverse, there was a lot of development and in fact production has dropped from the levels of the 80s."
His is an unfashionable view and one that ignores occupation and oppression. But is an understandable anxiety about language being used as an excuse to exclude those with such awkward views from politics?