Travels in the Shadow of the Curtain: Part I

Despite it feeling like almost yesterday, a fortnight has already passed since I returned from this year’s travels. With the jet-set revolution in full swing, and RyanAir’s European footprint under continuous eastward expansion, I took the opportunity this year to expand my own carbon footprint and head to the east. Armed with a smattering of Russian, an able German companion and a small roll of banknotes, this year’s travels took me to Riga, third largest industrial city of Imperial Russia, and capital of one of the more vibrant economies in Europe today. After five days in a bed & breakfast there, it was followed by a stay in probably the most famous cultural and historical city in Poland: Krakow.

The history of Latvia is almost inextricable from the history of her powerful neighbours. Sandwiched between Russia and Germany in more recent memory, and looking further back Sweden and Poland-Lithuania in addition, the country’s history is often brushed over as historians try to paint ‘the bigger picture’. The city of Riga features many hints which point to a rather colourful history; from becoming a member of the Hansa in the late thirteenth century, through embracing the Reformation in the sixteenth century, to its position between the vying powers in the Thirty Years’ War, the Russo-Swedish and Great Northern Wars, eventually becoming pride of the Russian Empire towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Much of what is visible in Riga and Latvia today, however, points to her more recent history, under Soviet (i.e. Russian) domination. Whilst the reassertion of her national identity harks back to her shortlived independence between the World Wars, Latvia has assumed a more western-oriented outlook, aiming to ‘rejoin Europe’, and many gains have been made in this direction. Obviously EU accession comes high on the list, and before that acceptance in NATO and the WTO, with the uptake of the Euro planned for 2008-9. Yet there seems to be plenty under the surface in Riga which hints at greater underlying tensions.

What is striking about arriving in Riga is the discrepancy between the visible and theoretical economic position. Apparently basking in one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe, there appears to be little external activity in the city which is typical of a European growth area. Survey the horizon in Dublin, Figueres or even Krakow (see later), and the first thing that is usually noticeable is the number of cranes in operation. Further investigation usually finds the projects are in large part funded by the EU directive. In Riga this is distinctly lacking, and whilst construction is underway around the city, it feels to be on a much smaller scale.

Certainly the prices in Riga appear to be much more comparable to places in western Europe, at least where they aren’t subsidised. Public transport in Latvia might seem like something out of the past, but it is sturdy, reliable and extremely affordable. Despite this service, evidence of Riga’s wealth (or at least of some of her populace) is manifested in the great density of her high-powered, expensive motorcars. Some streets read more like car showrooms, with many examples of today’s VW Touaregs and Audi Q7s.

A trip on one of Riga’s trams, however, reveals a more interesting Latvian characteristic than the rustic nature of her public transport system. Often attributed to any form of totalitarianist society, inter-personal relations in Latvia are, shall we say, Spartan. You are generally more likely to catch the eye of a passing dog than a stranger; buying a ticket on a tram requires not a word, not a smile, not a single acknowledgement of the conductor’s existence. This kind of behaviour tends to be more prevalent amongst the older generations, suggesting that Latvia’s youth is at least softening, but it nevertheless seems much more evident in Riga than Krakow, for example.

Latvia’s history of recent external domination lies heavy on the hearts of its masters. The capital’s Museum of Occupation (Latvijas Okupācijas Muzejs) enjoys a central location and free admission, and focuses on the invasion of her sovereignty during the Second World War, and her implied subservience thereafter. Yet despite the long history of a multi-ethnic population, and the present proportion of non-Latvian speaking peoples in her borders, Latvian policy has been extremely nationalist (or at least, anti-Russian) in outlook. Riga was founded by German-speaking merchants, and the German language continued to dominate until enforced Russification in the late-nineteenth century. Even today, with the great upheavals of twentieth-century warfare, over 40% of the population speaks a first language other than Latvian, yet this remains the only official language.

Whilst it seems to be perfectly possible to survive in Riga speaking only Russian, with enough people speaking it as their mother tongue, and newspapers and other media available in Russian, the ludicrous lingual bigotry of officialdom prevents Russian appearing on many official signs and notices. Indeed if there were a second official language in Riga it would be English, which appears (occasionally in a rather haphazard form – boiled cancer anyone?) on all manner of menus and signs. This form of lingual persecution only perpetuates the necessity of the nation state and fuels the animosity between them. Whilst this may not prove as dangerous as it happened to be in the past, this policy when taken in context illustrates an almost petty level of nationalist government, with naturalisation laws that despite relaxation leave almost one in five of Latvia’s population as non-nationals.

This hidden policy of de-Russification, perhaps better classed as the more palateable policy of de-Sovietisation, can be seen almost anywhere one chooses to look. The Art Nouveau architecture which perhaps makes Riga so worthy of its place on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list is well marked on the tourist guides, but a rare guide indeed mentions the Stalinist architecture of the Academy of Science (Latvijas Zinātņu Akadēmija). Whilst some landmarks were removed outright, others have been simply brushed over. A trip to the Soviet memorial at Salaspils, built on the site of a German wartime KZ, is symbolic of this break with the past. A quiet aside in a German guidebook mentioned its whereabouts. Whilst the nearest train station was reportedly at Dārziņi, the poor sign posting in the region meant we ended up trying to reach the memorial from Dole, but the difference between the two for ease of access is almost negligible, as the only signposts remaining were old Soviet-era ones. Little wonder then that despite the beautiful weather, and aside from a few people gathering mushrooms, the site was virtually deserted.

This kind of begrudging respect for the past is exhibited in other formerly occupied territories. In Dublin for example, Nelson’s Pillar which symbolised the greatness of Britannia, the pomp and ceremony of the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars, was blown up by the IRA in 1966. Yet the Fusilier’s Arch on Stephen’s Green, a memorial to the casualties of the Boer War, a much more emotive subject in Irish history, remained intact. It is barbaric to destroy a monument to the fallen, but perfectly legitimate to hide its existence.

Random Quote

Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds.

— The Joker