By JARI TANNER , Associated Press
TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Latvia on Thursday paid tribute to Mikhail Baryshnikov by granting citizenship to the ballet dancer, choreographer and actor who was born in the Baltic nation when it was part of the Soviet Union and later became a U.S. citizen.
The unanimous decision by lawmakers was made in recognition of Baryshnikov's civic involvement and his "voicing of political beliefs in support of democratic values and human rights."
Baryshnikov was born in Riga in 1948 to ethnic Russian parents four years after Moscow reoccupied the small nation. He spent his first 16 years in Latvia, starting ballet lessons at the age of 11.
Baryshnikov, described by the Latvian Parliament Saeima as "one of the most iconic ballet dancers of our time," joined the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad in 1964, now known as the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg.
In a citizenship motivation letter obtained by The Associated Press, Baryshnikov said that "my childhood in Riga was not necessarily easy, as the son of the Russian parents."
"My father, in fact, was stationed in Latvia to occupy the nation," Baryshnikov said of his father's background as a Soviet army officer, and he referred to tense relations between ethnic Latvians and Russians in the country. In spite of "this fraught circumstance," the dancer said he developed a strong bond with the Latvian people over the years.
Baryshnikov, 69, defected to Canada in 1974 while on a tour with the Soviet state ballet and moved to the United States a year later.
He returned for the first time to Riga in 1998, seven years after the nation became independent amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some 30 percent of Latvia's current population of nearly 2 million is ethnic Russians.
Baryshnikov was in Riga on Thursday to attend the citizenship ceremonies.