Riga, Latvia – Tugged between two worlds, an Introduction

I thought that Latvia’s old town would look like any other European town, I was wrong.

Something about the old town of Riga and the city around it was different. It was European but merely continental and Nordic, it was Slavic, Livornian, Rus (it was Eastern European). It was a tug between east and west, and not a disharmonious one.

Latvia, together with Lithuania and Estonia are called the Baltic States. And its history has been shaped by competing influences from the East and West of Europe. Two vastly different cultures.

Recent reminder of Latvia’s communist past can be found all around the city.

A statue of the Latvian Riflemen Unit (Latvian Rifle Square)  that was used to defend Russia against Germany during WW1

Latvian Academy of Science building the background, also known as Stalin’s Birthday Cake

Riga is the capital of Latvia, one of three Baltic nations that received their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fate hasn’t been kind to the Latvian and Livornian peoples, it’s recent independence is only the second time in the 800 year history of the Latvian people’s that they have been able to determine their own future. It’s list of foreign rulers is too long and hopefully does not lengthen: Crusaders, Holy Roman Empire, Polish-Lithuanians, Swedes, Russians, Germans, Soviets, Nazis…

It was independent from 1918 to 1940 the interlude between the two world wars. And again from 1991 to the present. May this state of self-determination last longer than the previous time.

Riga was founded in the 1200s by Catholic Archbishops and run as their own personal fiefdoms. The formation of the territory was vicious and obtained through the Livornian Crusade, a holy war by German and Danish christians (during the Northern crusades) to make these territories Christian. These terriroties were known as the condominium of the Archbishop, in this case the Archbishop of Riga. Riga’s economy developed with its inclusion into the Hanseatic League, a northern European fore-runner to the European Union and European Economic Zone. The Hanseatic League was a collection of commercial and defensive guilds in many towns along the Baltic Stretch centered along the German city of Lübeck.

House of the Blackheads in Riga Old Town

As it became rich, Riga became a prize. A treasure of a city coveted lustfully by larger empires all around.

As part of the Hanseatic League, Riga spilt from the Catholic Archbishop in 1522 and became a proud Lutheran city. The Lutheran outpost however raised the ire of the strongly Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and was made part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1582. Polish rule lasted less than 50 years when the lands of Riga were lost to the fast expanding Swedish Empire.

The decline of the Swedish Empire was precipitated by its war with Tsarist Russia and under Peter the Great, Estonia and Latvia capitulated to Russian rule. But the imposition of political power is not as strong as the generations of ingrained culture. Despite being a Russian possession, the majority of Latvia and Riga was German and German-speaking hence in the 1800s, Tsar Alexander III imposed a policy of Russification (not unlike the modern sinicization of Xinjiang). Latvian’s and Russian speakings moved to Riga and Latvian centric, nationalist movements rose. Then came World War 1 and a short-lived 1 year occupation by the German Empire.

Independent Latvia, after World War 1 was conquered again by Soviet Russia and later Nazi Germany before being returned to Soviet Union in 1945. The fall of the USSR was the sign of the reformation of the Latvian Republic.

1991 was a historic and tragic year. It was a year of great darkness and also of the bright light of hope. Known locally as the Year of Horror, 1991 was the year when a failing Soviet empire attempted to retain control of its territories, by any means possible.

Only human spirit, and the desire for freedom stopped the encroaching shackles of tanks and guns from subjugating the Latvian people again.

The balcony of Radio Latvia in Dome Square, the site of mass protest and human barricades against the blind arms of the Soviet forces

Independent Latvia has come to know much better days. It fast growing economy gave it the name Baltic Tiger. The lives of the people have begun to change for the better. The peaks and troughs of global economuc flux caused a downturn in 2010 but the country has began to rebuild and develop once more.

And that vision of rebuilding can be see  by the activity in its buildings.

Nightlife has come to occupy stoic old buildings, injecting a sense of excitement that was once filled by guns and bullets.

Cultural activities dominate the city culminating in Riga being the European Capital of Culture in 2014.

Markets and market places have been rebuilt and a lively hue of colours replace the monochromatic grey.

20 years is nothing in the scheme of things however, and the dark scent of a tortured past emanate through the nostrils of unsusepcting tourist from underneath the worn-out paths in the old town. Despite the excitement of nightlife and clubs the crushing silence of history lies all around.

But a new Riga arises around the old town, a Riga that reinvents its history, making the tug between East and West the reason to be a different and unique. Recognising that immense good can shine forth from the sadness of conquest.

This is the Riga of today and tomorrow, where the silence of history is not suppressed but expressed, understood and improved.


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