Tracking Soviet Spirits in Riga, Latvia
“In Soviet times, you could get arrested or shot for staring at this monument,” Liga, our lanky guide for the Soviet tour of Riga, pointed out as we watched the changing of the guards at the foot of the soaring Freedom Monument.
I shivered and tried to imagine living amidst such brutal surveillance. Growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1970’s, the Cold War had simmered throughout my days, kindling a chronic fascination and fear of the Soviet Union. Latvia, as part of the European Union, didn’t require the VISA needed to enter Moscow or St. Petersburg, used the pervasive euro as its currency, and featured far lower prices for hotels and restaurants than other, more touristy parts of Europe. Riga also happened to be the birthplace of my maternal great-grandparents, deported to Siberia in 1905 for taking part in a January demonstration that turned into a massacre and led to 70 people killed.
Curiously, 2018 marks 100 years since Latvia became an independent state, yet it has only been “free” for less than half of these years. This is one of many intriguing contradictions I encountered in Riga, where the symbol of Soviet Communism, the hammer and sickle, can still be found in the iron fence lining the Daugava River, though citizens are not allowed to wear any clothing bearing this ominous image.
Liga joked about being, “Liga from Riga,” explaining that her name was common in Latvia, and that her parents chose it because it was associated with the Summer Solstice, a major celebration during the Soviet era, when she was born. She then gave us a two-minute, abbreviated history of Riga, while the two guards, in crisp, olive-green uniforms, were replaced by identical-looking soldiers, the heels of their polished, black boots clicking against the pavement while they marched.
Red and white flowers, the colors of the Latvian flag, surrounded the base of the monument, a practice that has only been permitted since Latvia re-gained freedom in 1991. Not only were flowers forbidden during Soviet times, but a statue of Lenin was built, backing onto the Freedom Monument. For decades, Lenin faced east, towards Moscow, and the Freedom Monument faced west.
Lenin is long gone, but Soviet spirits endure within clumps of bland, rickety apartment buildings, which Liga complains are, “ugly as occupation.” Today, 80 percent of Riga’s population lives in Soviet housing, comparable, on the outside, to deteriorating public housing in North America. Inside, however, people can tear down walls, put in new kitchens, and decorate to their own taste and budget.
“My great-grandfather and his two daughters were deported because they owned a house,” Liga says. Her thick, russet bangs hang over her eyebrows, concealing her eyes. “People often lived in communal flats, with two adults and two children in one room. You couldn’t choose your neighbors, and could spend 15 to 20 years in the same apartment.
“There were communal bathrooms which you could only use during certain times of the day, and there would be seven refrigerators locked in the kitchen. If you were loyal to the Communist party or snitched on a neighbor, you might get a better apartment or even a trip somewhere in the Soviet Union.”
We followed Liga through narrow, winding, cobblestone streets, lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes, to 4 Amatu iela, a nondescript building the KGB used for interrogations and executions.
“One man was arrested for making false passports,” Liga explained, as we stared at the stone facade. “He was arrested and didn’t deny the charges. Every night he was hit with rubber sticks and burned with cigarettes, and when he tried to escape, was shot in the leg. He had to stand in one position for 36 hours and was finally exiled to a hard labor camp for ten years.
“This took place in the basement and nobody had any idea until it was a nightclub in the 1990’s, and rooms were found with bullet holes and blood. Forty-five thousand people were arrested and brought here, and only ten percent made it out alive.”
Now, this location is used by the city council for issuing building permits.
We made our way to the Daugava River, which divides Riga into right and left banks, and is commonly known as the River of Destiny.
“Good times come and go, like the river, which keeps moving,” Liga explains. “It has carried Poles, Swedes, Germans, and Russians. People come to the river to cry and, like a mother, it washes our tears.”
I lean against the iron railing, adorned with hammer and sickle emblems, and have a new appreciation for the swirling turquoise water below, embedded into Riga’s history, like the stones on the roads, and the Soviet office buildings dotting the skyline on the other side of the river.
Soviet apartments are clustered near the river, white brick with black, steel doors, peeling window frames, precarious-looking balconies, and flat exterior walls that lack embellishment of any kind. We meander through these buildings that emit a forlorn sadness with their disrepair, a striking contrast from the ornate, UNESCO-designated Art Nouveau buildings in another part of the city.
“In 1989, two million people joined hands from Talin, Estonia, to Riga, Latvia, to the Ukraine, in protest against Soviet occupation. It was the longest human chain in the world,” Liga says, proud that she was part of this event, The Baltic Way. “One-third of the total population took part. Not many owned cars so it was a real challenge in the country.”
Two years later, the occupation ended and Latvia became independent. But forty-eight years of Soviet occupation left its indelible mark. Today, 40 percent of Latvia is Russian, and a Victory Monument, constructed by the Soviets in the 1980’s to celebrate the end of WWII, rises prominently from a park in the suburbs of the city.
In the 1990’s, three people tried to bomb this monument, but killed themselves instead. A blatant example of poetic irony, I thought, as I turned from the monument and saw two young girls glide across a track on long blades. They were getting ready for the cross-country ski season. I took one, last look at the monument, and followed Liga to the train station. We would be taking the train back to the city center, to a Soviet-style bar, and I was thinking a drink would be just the thing to end this unusual tour.