The Tangled History of Riga
Riga has loads of churches, loads of scooters — and loads of museums. When I was there last week, I decided to break my usual habit, and visit a couple. Latvia has a tangled past, which lurks behind the decorated facades, and colours how people today view their city. I wanted to learn more, so visited the Barricades Museum, which aims to tell the story of the barricades set up in 1991.
The museum was the first floor of a small building, in the middle of the old town, and was spread across three rooms. There was no cost, but a man sat behind a desk, staring pointedly at the donations pot when people entered.
The first room attempts to give a glimpse of life under Soviet rule. Apparently, the Soviet Union attempted to standardise everything, which meant that everyone owned the same furniture and kitchen appliances. A lot of people moved to Riga (from what was previously Russia) and sometimes several families shared the same space. The museum had a reconstructed kitchen, showing what it was like. Arranged around the room were keyholes, and if you peeped into them you could see scenes from the West. They were awkwardly placed, to show how although people were interested by what was happening in the rest of the world, it was difficult to see the whole picture, they just caught wisps of news.
The other rooms consist mainly of photographs and newsreels and paintings of the 1991 barricades. There is also a van (no idea how they got that up the stairs) and lumps of concrete and hunks of tree trunks around tissue-paper bonfires, enabling the visitor to perch on a bench and imagine they are part of the protest. The rooms are dimly lit—some of them so dark that you can barely see the exhibits, and for a moment you might become confused, and think you are shopping with teenagers in Hollister. I am guessing this is meant to add to the atmosphere, but as in Hollister, I simply found it annoying (I am of the grumpy generation). Of course, it’s possible that they had just run out of lightbulbs.
So what, you might be asking, were the barricades of 1991? I had the same question, and it was not properly answered by the museum (perhaps the full explanation was in one of the dark rooms). I knew that it was a protest against Russian occupation, and that after a call to action on Latvian radio, whole families took to the streets of Riga, and set up barricades around key sites (such as Latvian Radio). However, was it to stop the Soviets invading? –I thought Riga was already under Soviet rule?
The history is as follows: After WW II, Latvia was part of the Soviet Union (previously, it had also belonged to Russia, before the revolution). However, in 1989, Latvia gained its independence, as did the other Baltic states (Lithuania and Estonia). Then, in 1991, Russia, overnight, sent tanks into Estonia, alerting Latvia that their borders were vulnerable. Thus they sent out warnings on Latvia Radio, and told everyone to go into the streets of Riga. The idea was that the Russian army was unlikely to open fire on civilians (because the rest of the world was watching) and so they staged a peaceful protest. Everyone flooded to Riga. Farmers arrived with agricultural trucks, builders placed huge boulders of concrete on the roads, so that vehicles couldn’t get past; whole families—from granny down to babies—camped outside strategic sites (like Latvian Radio) protecting them by their presence. There was some shooting, and a few people were killed (I think 14 people) but it was successful, the Russians left, Latvia remained independent.
However, if you talk to Latvian citizens today, the threat remains very real. A lot of people living in Latvia are Russian, and the fear is that Russia will use this as an excuse to invade again, under the pretext of ‘protecting Russian citizens’. This happened in Cyprus, when Turkey invaded. It could happen at any time, and very quickly—it does not take many hours to get from Russia to Latvia. They hope that by belonging to NATO and being part of Europe, the rest of the world will protect them.
If you visit other key places in Riga, you begin to understand the fear. Another museum is in the old KGB headquarters, so I went to look.
The building is, on the outside, beautiful. Part of the Art Nouveau* section of the city, it has carved figurines, decorations, patterns, and was clearly built by someone rich who wanted a wealthy-looking house. But then I went inside.
The entrance is a small, heavy door on the corner of the building. Inside is a wooden box. This was the only means of (attempted) communication with people who were taken there. Relatives could place requests for information, or letters or packages inside this box, and hope that they were delivered.
The inside of the building was lined with dark veneer, and was dimly lit. There were bars at the windows (placed there after several prisoners had thrown themselves out, preferring suicide to remaining inside). Boards of photographs showed the people who had ‘disappeared’ after entering the building. There was also a film of an elderly lady, explaining her own experiences as a prisoner. What you heard was a description of mental and emotional abuse, how psychologically cruel the system was.
There were also photos of key KGB members, and one featured the famous British spy, Kim Philby.
The prisoners were people who refused to submit to the regime. Religion was outlawed, so although you were allowed to practise your religion, you would be demoted at work, paid less, open to abuse. Many religious leaders were tried in the KGB house before being deported to prisons in the Soviet Union. There were also teachers, journalists, civil servants—anyone who threatened the regime. Western art and culture were deemed to be ideologically harmful, and the people found exploring them were ‘re-educated’. It was not possible to travel outside of the Soviet Union. People simply disappeared, and the only hope of news was through the KGB, as organisations such as the Red Cross were banned. As time went on, even attending a church meant you would lose your job and your children would be excluded from education. Any interest in Latvian history was frowned upon. All written publications were censored.
The museum offered a tour of the cells, and the places where people had been tortured and executed. I declined the offer.
I emerged into sunshine. The sky was blue, the buildings smiled down, all seemed peaceful. I am unable to make sense of the horrors that humans can inflict on each other. Perhaps, now the world is ‘smaller’ and countries are more entwined, we can all help to ensure that small countries are protected from the radicalisation of powerful nations. But I fear it could happen again…
I want to tell you about the Jews in Latvia, but that’s another heavy topic, so tomorrow I will tell you about my visit to the Central Market—that should be a little more cheery!
I hope you stay safe today. Thank you for reading.
Love, Anne x
*Art Nouveau is a style of architecture popular in France in the 1890s. It tends to have stylised leaves, vines, flowers etc decorating the building. There is a section of Riga where many buildings follow this style. It should not be confused with art deco, which was popular in 1930s, and tends to be more geometric in style.