The first thing I did after checking into my accommodation in Riga was to go for a walk in the city just after sunset. The temperature was dropping and the dense, heavy air reminded me that I was in a much wetter climate than much of Eastern Europe. Latvia was a land of mist and frost, humidity and water. Riga stood astride the Daugava River and was not far from the shoreline of the Baltic sea. I could almost taste the water vapor on my tongue. This was a land where the cold bit hard, going straight to the bone. Soon I could feel a chill perspiration develop on my forehead. I was already suffering at the beginning of what would turn out to be a terrible cold. The climate in western Latvia was only going to make it worse. Despite my state of sickness, I could hardly wait to see something of the city.
Exposure To A Wider World – Delinquent Depravity
In the encroaching darkness I lost my way to one of the most revered spaces in the nation. After a few minutes of walking, I found myself in front of the vaunted Freedom Monument. Close by stood a couple of police officers chatting among themselves. When I walked by them they eyed me warily. I spoke and received no reply. They had good reason for suspicion. With my red hair, I probably looked a bit too British for their liking. The British did not have a good reputation in Riga and Riga had a reputation as the scene of occasional depravity. Two outrages had taken place at the Freedom Monument during the first decade of the 21st century. These had caused an up swell of anger among Latvians and cast suspicion on foreign visitors, especially English speaking one. Thus, the terse reception I received from the police officers keeping a watch over the monument area. I was not to be trusted and in their mind they had good reason for that attitude.
In the space of a few months in the late autumn and early winter of 2006-2007 two British males had engaged in outrageous behavior at the Freedom Monument. The reason for this behavior could be chalked up to public drunkenness, but the underlying reasons were more complicated and did not reflect well on British citizens or the Latvian capital. Riga had become a tourist destination for thousands of British lads who came to drink, hang out in strip joints and attend stag parties. And Riga was just the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Eastern Europe was ground zero for British boys to act out their foolish impulses. Cheap air fares offered by discount airlines took these young men to places they could never have imagined and after a hard weekend of partying could hardly remember. Long before I visited Eastern Europe, I read about such behavior. My first experience with it was hearing a group of British twenty somethings announce themselves through the streets of Bratislava, Slovakia. It was barely past noon and they already were on an epic bender. They looked ready to expose themselves to the world that day.
Out Of Their Mind – Out Of Their Pockets
Not long after I set foot out the door from my hostel in Riga, I found myself walking past glitzy strip joints. Lights flashed illuminating darkened windows and doorways, silhouettes of neon lit women advertised the temptations on offer inside. It was in these establishments that unwary foreigners had been getting their pockets emptied throughout the 21st century. Unsuspecting, passion loving men would awake the morning after a night of intense debauchery with searing headaches and fuzzy memories. They had been scammed. Lesser lights got off by just drinking themselves under the table, followed by a bit of sinful frivolity. These young men were not in Riga for its splendid architecture, fascinating history or a relaxing holiday. They were in Riga for holidays that could turn very bad. A few of these foreigners did see some sites. Unfortunately, at the Freedom Monument they managed to distract from the attraction.
In 2006 a thirty-year old British male was arrested for urinating on the Freedom Monument. He was charged with a misdemeanor violation, but to Latvians his crime was tantamount to treason. He had desecrated a public monument and harmed national sensibilities. A little over four months later, another British citizen was caught urinating in Freedom Square which surrounds the monument. While engaging in this act of public depravity, the culprit’s friends snapped photos. Obviously, he did not mind getting caught in the act, including by Latvian authorities. These disgraceful acts made international headlines, casting a light on the poor behavior of immature British males and lad culture. Latvians were rightfully outraged.
The Gathering Place – Independent Movement
Standing in the square looking at the Freedom Monument, I found myself less than impressed. The copper toned lady Liberty stood atop a six-story high travertine column. She was brightly lit, but shrouded in mist. Her hands were raised toward the sky and in her grasp she held three gilded stars. I had expected that Latvia’s Lady Liberty would have been more spectacular, somehow soaring higher and giving me a feeling of transcendence. The monument was nice, but nothing great. My opinion though, was just that. What really mattered was how Latvians felt about the monument. They made those feelings clear every November 11th when they came to the monument and celebrated National Independence Day. This was a yearly spectacle, but there had been other events even more important. Such as in the late spring of 1987 when 5,000 Latvians gathered in memory of those who had died due to Soviet tyranny. This gathering re-enthused an independence movement which led directly to the reconstitution of the Latvian nation a few years later.
The most important event in the history of the Freedom Monument was one that never occurred. Its planned demolition by the Soviets in the 1940’s and 1950’s. For some reason – the myths and stories are legion – it was never taken down. The monument is a microcosm of Latvia and its people, both have staying power. They have weathered the storms of fascism and communism to soar above all would be conquerors. This is a point of national pride and the Latvians do not tolerate the desecration of a sacred national icon. The honor guard standing at its base demanded respect, for the nation, its people and their national symbol. Fun loving foreigners and fascinated tourists would do well to keep that in mind.