On Ethnic Minorities, Russian Matryoshkas, and Finding Home Within Yourself

“So, why the hell do you call yourself Russian if you’re from Latvia?” She stared at me, with stubborn perplexity in her eyes.

“It’s because I am. Russian, I mean.” I stared back, not really understanding the question.

“But if you’re from Latvia, doesn’t this mean you’re Latvian”? She kept interrogating. “Aren’t you a Latvian citizen?” Gosh, I was starting to dislike her already.

“I am. My Latvian passport has this special ethnicity line that still indicates that I’m Russian, though.”

“I don’t understand. So what are you?”

“I don’t know.”

Such is a typical structure of many confusing conversations that I get to have when I’m travelling the world and need to introduce myself to new people. Normally, everybody manages to get by with a simple “Hi I’m Franzi from Germany, Hi I’m Tara from Ireland”, or whatever it is. In my case, it’s always a bit more complicated. I start with the expected word order — Hi I’m Olga from Latvia — but feel somehow incomplete if I don’t end it with a short “But I’m Russian” note. The but-I’m-Russian changes everything, though. The but-I’m-Russian creates lots of confusion. The but-I’m-Russian, as short of a remark as it is, makes my life so uncomfortable sometimes. It makes people ask me questions that I don’t have the answers for.

“So, where does your family come from?” She was inquiring again, hoping that a quick background check would clarify everything. Little did she know.

“Well, I was born in 1991, in Riga. My father was born in 1970, in Riga. My grandfather was born in 1939, in Riga. My great-grandmother was born in 1929, in Riga. In fact, if I trace my whole bloodline (which I can do down to six generations), all my ancestors have been living in Riga even before Latvia existed as a country. I mean, it only became one in 1918.”

“Oh! So you are a true Latvian then!”

“No. I’m Russian.”

The truth is, when you’re born into a family of an “ethnic minority” in a country so ironically small that it itself can be considered as an “ethnic minority”, the layers of your identity start resembling a Russian Matryoshka: you try to uncover the core, exposing it layer by layer, only to find this teeny tiny wooden doll that is so small it doesn’t even have a properly painted face. It is a joke of a doll. So at the end of it, your most obvious, and most natural, question is to ask: “WTF is this?!!”

Hello from the other side.

And indeed — WTF am I? An imposter, who’s trying to take over the country and occupy the Latvian land? I hope not — it’s not 1940 anymore, after all. Please let us not forget: I was born in 1991, in Riga, my father was born in 1970, in Riga, and his father was born in 1939, in Riga, and his mother was born in 1929, in Riga. So my family and I do not really “qualify” as “occupants”.

But then, maybe I’m an equal? Maybe I’m just like all the other Latvian citizens? A peer? With equal rights to my homeland? Receiving an equal treatment in the society? Again — not really. They hear me speak Latvian with a Russian accent and right away they think: “A foreigner. She’s not one of us.” Sometimes I wouldn’t be told off about it. Sometimes I would. Sometimes I’d have my grammar corrected. And sometimes, I’d be told to buy a one-way ticket from Riga to Moscow where I supposedly belong to.

(As a Russian, I’ve never even been to Moscow. Only to St. Petersburg. Didn’t like it. They heard me speak Russian with a Latvian accent and right away they thought: “A foreigner. She’s not one of us.”)

How does this make me feel?

Stateless. Countryless. Homeless.

And so I decided to travel, thinking that if there’s no home at home, then I might find it somewhere along the dusty roads, somewhere in between the pages of my own travel book. I moved to Germany, and from there, my journey began: I ate Belgian waffles in Brussels, I ice-skated in Venice, I saw Paris from the Eiffel Tower, I hiked in the Andes, I completed an English degree in Leipzig, I expatriated to Ecuador, I came back, I cliff-climbed in Thailand, I ate hummus in Israel, I backpacked solo in Bulgaria, I settled down in Berlin, but I couldn’t put my roots down, I came back home, but it didn’t feel like home anymore.

Traveling the world just made it all more confusing.

So instead of looking for a place to call home, I decided to look elsewhere.

Seven Rila Lakes: postcards from my hike

Travel won’t bring you home, but at least you’ll get to enjoy some beautiful views

I look for home in people I fall in love with. I turn to them, asking “Can a piece of me live in you? Please? You’re warm and pretty and I like your laughter and you feel like home and I want to come back to you whenever I can”. And it works. For a while. Until you realize that the world doesn’t work this way. The world spins, and it makes people spin too, and makes them spread in all different directions, lose connection with each other, and make your newfound home disappear again.

“Many relationships only function on a touchpoint basis, my dear. Try looking somewhere else.”

So I turn to the digital travel community, which resides in the world of social media. Social media is this place where real people don’t exist, but where they are somehow still present in the form of instas and snaps (just in case you were wondering). Living in social media is like having imaginary friends — not really healthy, but can help. And social media, with its numerous digital nomad communities, tells me, “Olga, don’t stress. Chill, honey, chill. Just proclaim yourself to be “the citizen of the world” and swear to never belong to anything or anybody. Just scream “the world is my oyster” from rooftop bars in the world’s highest skyscrapers. Just post “to travel is to live” quotes on Pinterest. Just say “quit your job and travel the world” on Facebook. Honestly, this will make you feel SO much better!”

And it works! For a while… Until you realize that all these promises are fake and that the community of the “alike minded people” is just as lost as you are and that the whole idea of connecting with others through the feeling of disconnectedness is just delusional.

Alas, finding home is harder than it sounds. Practically impossible.

And that got me thinking.

Maybe “home” as such doesn’t even exist? Maybe it’s our upbringing, our stereotype-like thinking that makes us feel like we NEED to relate to something in order to make sense, in order to explain ourselves, to understand ourselves? Relate to a country, relate to a nation, relate to a person, relate to a cause, relate to a thing, relate to anything, really. Maybe “home” is just a void — an empty space, a borderless galaxy of nothing — which we fill up with things we pick up along the road? “Things” being: families we didn’t choose to be born into, countries of origin we are forced to associate ourselves with, childhood friends we didn’t plan to make, schools we somehow ended up in… If you think about it, these “things”, important things that define us and shape our identities, are kinda random. 

And this element of randomness returns me to the original question: WTF am I?

If you take away all these random “things” that are supposed to define me, label me, categorize me, what’s left?

The answer is: nothing. Just this void, an empty space, a borderless galaxy of nothing.

The truth is, home just doesn’t exist. In fact, it never existed anyways.

However, as pessimistic as this sounds, maybe the non-existence of “home” is a good thing?

Maybe, if you accept that home doesn’t exist, the burden on your shoulders will disappear on its own?

Maybe, if you accept that home doesn’t exist, you stop defining yourself in categories, stop perceiving yourself based on random elements that you were never in charge of?

Maybe, if you accept that home doesn’t exist, you’ll be free to create yourself, the way YOU want yourself to be?

Maybe, if you accept that home doesn’t exist, you’ll manage to build a home of your own within yourself? And maybe, just maybe, that will be the only home you’ll ever need.

What do you think?