Spheres of migration: a tale of two empires from the Latvian periphery

A talk by Dace Dzenovska hosted by the Department of Anthropology and the Migration Research Group, McGill University, on 7 Nov 2022.

Concerns about migration shaped Latvian resistance to Soviet-cum-Russian power for much of the 20th century and into the 21st. When the National Communists of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia tried to assert autonomy from the Communist Party in the 1950s and 1970s, they demanded less immigration of Soviet workers, functionaries, and military personnel. One of the first pieces of legislation adopted by the independent Latvian state in 1992 was a law limiting immigration and calling for the repatriation of military personnel. Having one’s own state, as many Latvians thought about independence from the Soviet Union, meant being in control of migration. But having one’s own state also meant integration into Western political and economic structures, such as the European Union and NATO. This led to a renewed loss of control over migration. Contrary to what the national-liberal elites had feared, namely immigration from the Global South, it was Latvia’s citizens who packed their bags and went to work on Irish mushroom farms, in English meat-packing factories, and on Norwegian fishing ships. In the meantime, Danish, Swedish and other western European investors bought some of the land Latvians had regained as a result of post-Soviet land restitution. In this talk, I examine the shifting patterns and regimes of migration as Latvia left the Soviet-cum-Russian sphere of influence and integrated into ‘the West’. I consider what these patterns of migration and struggles to control them reveal about post-Cold War geopolitical shifts and the symbolic and political efficacy of claims for sovereignty in the periphery – or on the frontline – of two global empires.

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