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? 

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  • Ana

    Preach girl! I relate to this so much. I’m a Russian born Ukrainian who grew up in the US and now lives in the U.K. My identity is so confusing, I’ve had to just settle for telling everyone “I’m American” just to avoid the eye rolls, long explanations and awkward questions. I struggled with this so much as a teenager because I didn’t belong in any group. I wasn’t Russian in the Russian community but I wasn’t American with the American kids. And Brits are much happier labeling me as an American than an Eastern European.

    • Hey Ana!

      I’m happy I’m not alone with this! I think it’s kinda ridiculous that people really need that one specific, crystal clear label — as if it really tells who the person really is. But I guess that’s just part of our self-definition, if I may say so.

      It was quite funny the other day when I was on a tour in Rome and there were people all over the world and the guide was asking us where we’re all from, and there was this American couple that said: “We’re from Texas” — so they didn’t even say “we’re from the US” because I guess it appeared too broad of a term for them :D

  • Michael Dodge

    Home is where you hang your hat. When people ask me “Where are you from?” I reply, “I live in Cuenca” and then of course have to add the BUT originally from the U.S. As long as you try to adopt to your location and not try to change the world around you to match where you came from then the “Home is where you hang your hat” works.

    • Yeah I guess so!
      I recently started telling people that I’m from Germany, because this is where I’ve been “hanging my hat” for the last year and a half or so, but then people assume that I’m German and speak fluent Deutsch hahaha :D So this is also a bit complicated!

      I guess next time I’ll just sat that I’m from the planet Earth!

      • Michael Dodge

        I always try the “I live in” response and hope that is good enough. Most of the time I am always feeling lame since I only speak 1 language and it seems everyone (outside of the U.S.) speaks 2 or more. Maybe someday all these Spanish classes will do me some good :)

        • haha, they will! Spanish is a beautiful language, and in a city as beautiful as Cuenca, it must be a pleasure to learn :)


  • Judith Sichlinger

    Olga, this is beautifully-written. “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”.”
    I think, everybody living away from their original “home” town kind of feels this way.
    I want to feel home with the people that I care about. And yet, sometimes, when relation ships fade, friendships fade, you’ve got this notion of “wtf am I even doing here and where do I really belong?”
    I often wonder, too, living in London, far away (or so it feels) from family and some of my best friends.

    There’s no explanation and no solution. But sometimes I feel home. I feel home having wine with my flatmates in London, seeing my friends in Berlin over dinner, seeing my family in Hamburg, travelling to NZ.

    I also want to say, no matter how little we talk or see each other, I hope you know that you have a little spot in my heart that you can call home ever since we met at this Anglistik seminar.

  • Hey Olga,

    this is really deep and beautiful!

    I can totally relate to your story, although mine is a bit less complicated than yours ;)

    The problem is, the people we meet usually need to put us into a category and label us… But we don’t need this. And that confuses them. But that’s their problem, not ours. We can be whatever and whoever we want, they can’t.

    So don’t worry too much about where you belong, because as long as you feel good some place, it is your home. It doesn’t need to be where you’re from, because “home” is not just a place, but a feeling of safety and belonging.

    Not sure if I make any sense, so I’ll stop now :)

    Cheers and happy travels!

    • “So don’t worry too much about where you belong, because as long as you feel good some place, it is your home.” — thank you!! it’s so true I think! Makes me also feel a bit more free :)

  • Leanne Gorman

    I feel this is how a lot of Americans feel. They (including myself) often say they’re “part Irish” “part Italian” etc. even though they’ve never been to Ireland or Italy. Many Eurpoeans seem to hate this. They’re like, “You were born and raised in America, you’re American!” I don’t know why we Americans have this obession. Most of my ancestry came here in the early 1600s from Europe the ones that didn’t were here for longer (the Wamponoag tribe) and the ones that were here later came between 1850-1920. Basically all of my ancestors were here for a very long time so I guess I really am all American.

    If you want to find out what you are ethnically (no matter what country you claim) you can find out just how Russian, Latvian, or something else you are through a DNA test. I did ancestry DNA and here are my results.
    63% Great Britian

    26% Finland/Northwest Russian

    4% Ireland

    3% Europe West

    2% Iberian Penninsula

    1% Middle East

    <1% Asia South

    <1% Native American


    It's kind of vague, so I'd go with 23 and Me or some other company if you do decide to do it.

    • Oh this is super interesting! I used to be into genealogy back at school, actually, the test would really give more background to my family tree findings haha :D

      I’ll check it out!

      And yes, I also notice that among Americans! I guess it’s just the urge to belong to something more specific than huge, vast, space-like America.