Latest Publication of the Summer: Russian speakers’ media engagement and acculturation in Finland and Latvia

The context of the research

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, around 10 percent of its population found themselves residing outside of the Russian Federation. In Latvia, Soviet era immigrants and their immediate descendants were not granted automatic citizenship, but instead were suggested to go through a naturalization process, proving some knowledge of Latvian language, constitution and history. They were given a status of ‘permanently resident non-citizen’. As Selga (2016) describes the rights and benefits under this status are different in two major terms: non-citizens cannot vote in main elections or hold certain public positions in government. However, non-citizens do not need a visa to travel within the European Union and also, they can travel to Russia without a visa. In 1991, non-citizens in Latvia amounted to 715,000. Today, 209,007 non-citizens are living in Latvia (10.1% of residents), of whom the largest ethnic group are Russians. The decrease in non-citizens’ numbers is due to the fact that the vast majority of Latvia’s ethnic Russians, 71.1% or 398,549 people, have received Latvian citizenship over time, while some have pursued Russian citizenship. In 2021, 2.53% (52,271) of Latvian residents were citizens of Russia (PMLP, 2021).

In Finland, Russian speakers form the largest group of immigrants speaking a foreign language. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, there were 6,000 people with Russian background, holding a Finnish citizenship (Baschmakoff & Leinonen, 2001). In 2021, there were 84,000 people (1.5% of the total population) who considered Russian to be their native language (Official Statistics of Finland, 2021). Most of these Russian speakers have a recent migrant background, with 55,552 being born in the former Soviet Union and 12,766 being born in the Russian Federation.

In this study, we specifically focus on Russian speakers of Russian origin, whether they were born in Latvia or Finland, or moved there later on in their lives. The motivation to study Russian speakers stems from the peculiarity in the historical and current interstate relations (Berzina, 2018) and the distinctive position that Russian speakers held in Latvia and Finland in different times of the history, e.g. during the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and after.

In diverse European societies, understanding the triggers of division, conflict and cohesion is an important aspect to consider. For example, conflicting media landscape (Muižnieks, 2011) between the countries can pose challenges for the news media user, from the perspective of their country of origin and the society they currently live in Davydova-Minguet et al. (2019). Both in Latvia and Finland, apart from the national media, there is also Russian language media that provide news both from inside and from outside the country (Rozukalne, 2017). This work explores which types of news sources are used predominantly by the participants of this study and whether and how news media consumption relates to cultural involvement and cultural preference of the participants, in between the country of origin (Russia) and destination (Latvia or Finland).

Russian speakers’ news media engagement in Latvia and Finland

One of the prevalent conversations about Russian speaking minorities living in Europe concerns their media preference, whether they exclusively follow and trust Russian media, especially news (Davydova-Minguet et al., 2019). This question has become of importance due to the fact that tensions within and in between media landscapes are commonplace in bordering countries with historically strained relations and politicized diaspora (Davydova-Minguet et al., 2019; Marcus, 2018; Sotkasiira, 2017).

Russian-language news media continues to be of importance in countries with Russian-speaking populations, especially those which border Russia. From the time of independence, in Latvia and Finland, the status of Russians and its media within each has changed. For instance, the so-called ‘Russophone diasporic media’ developed naturally and by small steps in Finland, while it had to be restructured and reformulated under new conditions in Latvia.

To note, the concentration of the currently available Russian-language news media in Latvia is markedly higher than in Finland. Looking at the diversified media landscape in Latvia, Rožukalne (2017) found out that Latvia’s Russian speakers consider the variety of information provided by Russia’s TV and radio channels to be sufficient, and therefore do not express a need for additional information channels. Although each news media outlet may differ in its approach and intensity, one thing most of the diasporic Russian-language media in Latvia have in common is that they tend to confront the narratives of the Latvian-language media (Muižnieks, 2011). Typically, they offer different interpretations of the same incident, which then becomes a ‘picky’—a term used to denote the negative portrayal or an opposite narrative to the Latvian-language content (Muižnieks, 2011). It has been claimed that the Russian-language media in Latvia is filled with disinformation, and that its contents are divisive especially concerning politics and international affairs (Kozlovs, 2020). This often results in a steadily ‘picky’ portrayal of Latvia and the EU (Zakem et al., 2018) that goes beyond simply “being critical” and crosses over to being constantly negative (Muižnieks, 2011). Arguably, this state of affairs can be seen as a reflection of the historical, ethno-political competition reproduced in the media and, sometimes, by the media.

Meanwhile in Finland, studies show that the Russian diaspora often describe the Russian media as propaganda and the Finnish media as less propagandist (Sotkasiira, 2017). In times of war (e.g., between Russia and Ukraine in 2014), when the conflict in the media landscape intensifies, some Russian speakers have also opted for transnational and diverse media use as a strategy to minimize polarization. These are the individuals that actively expose themselves to multiple versions of reality in order to develop their own realities through comparison of various media (Sotkasiira, 2017). According to Viimaranta and Protassova (2018), consumption and demand for Finland’s public media in Russian (Yle Novosti) has been growing in recent years, though another study revealed that the Russian diaspora would wish to see more a positive portrayal of Russians in the Finnish media (Davydova-Minguet et al., 2016; Sotkasiira, 2017). In contrast with the high demand for the Russian-generated content in the Latvian case (Rožukalne, 2017), the majority of the Russian diaspora in Finland seem to follow both Finnish and Russian media productions (Davydova-Minguet et al., 2016), and the demand for media made in Russia is lower.

News media engagement

Comparing the two data sets, we could see that in Latvia, (61%) of respondents leaned towards ‘Non-Russian’ news, (33%) were more engaged with ‘Russian’ news, and (5.5%) did not trust any news (‘Not engaged’). In Finland, (73%) of respondents leaned towards ‘Non-Russian’ news, (19%) leaned towards ‘Russian’ news, and (8%) did not trust any news media (‘Not engaged’). The most notable practical difference between the samples is that the Latvian respondents were somewhat more inclined towards the ‘Russian’ sources (33%) than the Finnish respondents (19%).

Discussion

A point of difference in the data comes from the result that the Latvian respondents differed in a statistically significant way from the Finnish sample in terms of preferring the culture of origin (here: Russian) more. This finding resonates with stronger presence of diasporic media and more severe discontent in the political and information space in Latvia as compared to Finland. This is an interesting finding when one takes into consideration that half of the respondents in the Latvian sample were born in Latvia, whereas all the respondents in the Finnish sample have been born outside of Finland. It is possible that this finding is a consequence of the high number of Russian speakers in Latvia who originally moved to nowadays Latvia while it was still within the territory of the Soviet Union. Later on, when Latvia regained its independence in 1991, they effectively turned into involuntary migrants. On the contrary in the case of Finland, all of the Russian speakers have themselves chosen to emigrate. The variations within the population of Russian speakers in Latvia were also discussed by Brubaker (2000), who suggested distinguishing between traditional diasporas from ‘accidental’ ones, where the people do not move but rather the borders move around and over them.

Overall, the majority of the respondents in both countries reported being engaged more with ‘Non-Russian’ news media sources than with ‘Russian’ ones. In the case of the Latvian sample, this was somewhat against the expectations laid out by earlier literature. However, a recent study examining Latvia’s Russian-speaking audiences by Kaprāns and Juzefovičs (2020) provides support for this finding. According to their study, the exposure to the ‘Russian’ news media sources is not to be taken for granted. They propose that contrary to the older TV era generation, the younger generation Russophones use less ‘Russian’ news media sources in their daily lives.

Another interesting finding is that those respondents who reported engaging more with ‘Russian’ news media sources scored higher on the Cultural Preference index. As Carlson and Güler (2018) point out, scores close to zero on the CP scale indicate biculturality, whereas scores deviating from zero indicate monoculturality (pp. 630–631). In our data, the direction of this deviation (positive), indicates a higher preference towards the culture of origin (Russian) within those, whose media preferences also lean towards the Russian point of view. While some scholars have proposed that the use of diasporic media may play an important positive role in the adaptation process (e.g. Croucher & Kramer, 2017), the findings of our study are more in line with DeFleur and DeFleur (2003), Kim (2001, 2012) and Moon and Park’s (2007) work, where they discuss the potential that the media of the country of origin can influence immigrants to oppose the destination society’s stance, and that relying on diasporic media can be a barrier to a tighter relationship with the destination country.

As this study illustrates, there are several ways in which Russian speakers in Latvia and Finland report approaching news media. The majority of the respondents reported being engaged predominantly with ‘Non-Russian’ news sources. They also showed positive cultural (both origin and destination) preference. A similar cultural preference pattern was presented by those respondents who reported choosing to limit their media engagement altogether. Finally, we witnessed a pattern where respondents who reported engaging more with ‘Russian’ news sources also leaned more towards Russian culture.

Ilkhom Khalimzoda and Marko Siitonen.
Comparative Migration Studies volume 10, Article number: 28 (2022)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑