Baltic Grudge Match; More Than a Decade after the Fall of the Soviet Union, Bad Blood Still Runs Deep between Latvia and Russia

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Byline: Kevin O'Flynn

It was a football match, yet more than a game. When Russia took to the field against Latvia in Riga recently, a shot at football's World Cup wasn't the only thing at stake. For both sides, it was a chance to score a blow against a neighbor who has turned into enemy No. 1.

Before the game, police checked the stadium for bombs. When the national hymn of Russia was played--the old Soviet national anthem, albeit with different lyrics--Latvian fans unfurled a poster reading mutin pudak, a spoonerism of the insult "Putin Mudak," or, "Putin is a dick." Meanwhile, a number of Russians wore jerseys emblazoned with the letters CCCP or USSR. Others donned Bolshevik civil-war hats--a red flag, so to speak, for Latvian nationalists who remain bitter about the suffering the country had faced under 60 years of Soviet rule.

More than 14 years have passed since Latvia declared independence from the Soviet Union, yet divisions between the two are growing wider. Latvia, whose population is 29 percent Russian, wants an apology from Moscow for both its annexation in 1940 and the deportations and repressions that characterized Soviet rule--65,000 sent to the gulags, most never to return. President Vladimir Putin curtly noted that Russia already apologized in the 1990s, and that there was no need to do so again. Both sides have since lapsed into a sort of siege mentality, glowering suspiciously at the other. "I don't know any Russian who says 'I love Latvia and I want to live here'," says Ieva Gundare, 35, the education coordinator at the Museum of Occupation in Riga, which documents Soviet-era atrocities. On the day of the big game, in fact, several Russian fans came into the museum and started shouting "O Stalin!"

Grievances run the gamut. There are minor but pesky border disputes. Moscow has repeatedly attacked the Baltic state for its treatment of 400,000 Russian-speakers--specifically Riga's refusal to grant them citizenship unless they pass exams in Latvian language and history. It also objects to education reforms which force ethnic Russian schoolteachers to conduct classes in Latvian. Annual parades of Latvians who served in the Nazi SS, fighting against the Soviet Army, do nothing to soothe relations. "In any civilized European country, if you are born there you automatically get citizenship," said Latvian-born Russian Sergei Marvenkov, 26, as he entered the stadium for the recent match. …