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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reflections on Latvia Then and Now

Your husband hasn't been issued a visa," the travel agent told my wife, who along with our daughter had received a visa for the New Year's holiday we had planned in Latvia.

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The agent then dictated the following statement for me to submit to get my piece of paper: "To the Consular Department of the Embassy of the Latvian Republic in Moscow, Russian Federation. I, Alexei Borisovich Pankin, will be vacationing in Jurmala with my wife and daughter Jan. 4-8, during the Russian official holidays. I promise not to engage in any activity connected with my profession during that period." I then had to sign and date the document.

Although my wife is also a journalist, for some reason the consulate did not demand a similar statement from her. The only explanation the travel agent could up with was that the Latvians believe a mother's place is to mind the children, so vacationing mothers pose no threat.

I don't know which upset me more, the discrimination I faced as a result of my profession or that faced by my wife. It really made me wonder about the mores of the European Union.

During the communist era, the Baltic republics -- and Latvia in particular -- were islands of Western civilization for Soviet people. Mikhail Gorbachev's program of glasnost took root there faster than in Moscow.

I can still remember the elation with which our democratically evolving press reacted to the appearance of the first personal-ads section in a Riga newspaper. It was like a fresh wind of freedom blowing over us from the Baltic coast.

The Moscow intelligentsia used to read and reread the wonderful articles in Rodnik magazine, which was published in Latvia in both Latvian and Russian, while Moscow journalists could only envy the freedom enjoyed by the magazine's journalists. Articles were regularly published in Latvia written by Muscovites whom even the most courageous editors in the capital would not publish.

Working as a journalist and as an editor, I wrote and printed articles supporting the legal right of the Baltic republics to secede from the Soviet Union. I did hope, however, that having gained the freedom to choose, they would opt to remain as the proud western rim of the Soviet Union, rather than become a confused eastern province within Western Europe. I even went to rallies in favor of their freedom of choice.

And now look what we have ended up with: "I promise not to engage in any activity connected with my profession!"

Despite my anger and misgivings, I provided the required signed statement for the consulate, not wanting to cancel our long-planned family vacation. My feelings toward Latvia, however, were not particularly positive that day.

But I did end up enjoying Riga, and particularly its cosmopolitan feel. People there speak Latvian and Russian on about an equal basis and, regardless of their ethnic origins, appear to switch back and forth between the languages without prejudice. They don't only do this when speaking to tourists but between themselves as well.

Just as it was in the Soviet era, Russian-speaking Latvians -- even those without citizenship -- enjoy privileges still denied to citizens of Russia. As of this January, Latvian residents no longer need visas to travel within the European Union. Meanwhile, Russian citizens will have to continue to trudge through consulate lines.

I admit that by writing this column I have broken the solemn promise I made to the Latvian government. Although I wrote this piece in Moscow, I formed and ruminated over these impressions while still in Latvia. Even worse, I had a conversation with a taxi driver there, which is pretty standard behavior for journalists traveling in foreign cities. And I'm not going to repent for this sin, even if it means being declared a persona non grata.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Mediaprofi, a monthly magazine for regional media professionals.