Free Tour To World War 3 – Riga, Latvia & Ethnic Russians: Cataclysmic Possibilities (Travels In Eastern Europe #58)

On my first full day in Riga I headed straight to the heart of the Old Town. In the late morning I joined a Free Tour of the city that began beneath St. Peter’s Church, a Gothic styled slice of Teutonic architecture topped with a Baroque tower that provides a magnificent panorama of the Old Town and adjacent Daugava River. The tour was led by a Latvian woman with sad eyes and a talent for dispassionate discourse. In her right hand she carried a yellow suitcase, which for no apparent reason was the eclectic symbol of the Riga Free Tour. She led our group of fifteen curious foreigners to various sights that illuminated the diverse history, peoples and cultures that had sustained Riga since its founding by the German Crusader Albert in 1201. He has since come to be known Albert of Riga, such was the success of his enterprise. Riga was now a part of Latvia, but that was a much more recent development. The city had been under the sway of Baltic Germans, Tsarist Russian officials and Soviet apparatchiks during its long and storied history.

Lady with the Yellow suitcase - Leader of the Riga Free Tour

Lady with the Yellow suitcase – Leader of the Riga Free Tour

Little Moscow – The Dark Side of Riga
At the midpoint of the two-hour tour we ran right into some living history. The tour happened upon one of the peoples who had so influenced Latvia’s history and still were today. Surrounding a park bench were a group of Russian men conversing loudly with a single woman. Though it was not even lunchtime, they were imbibing vodka from a dreadful looking bottle. From their wrinkled, red faces and bellicose behavior it was obvious they were drunk. It looked like this was not a passing fancy, but a way of life for them. Inga told us that this section of the city – south of the Old Town and on the right bank of the Daugava River – was known as “Little Moscow”. She said, “as you can see” they have a very different culture here. In so many words, she was saying that Latvians and Russians were not very compatible. There was a marked contrast between quiet, humble, Latvians who were still very much connected to their rural roots. As compared to Russians who were city dwellers, inhabiting what had once been thriving industrial areas in Latvian cities, but were now increasingly marginalized and living in blighted post-communist landscapes. In a nutshell, the Free Tour was providing me a window into the greatest divide in Latvia and Riga today. It was also the greatest threat to Latvian independence and strangely enough, also a threat to world peace.

Russians have been living in the land that is now modern Latvia since medieval times. At the turn of the 20th century they made up one-tenth of the population, largely located in the Latgale region of eastern Latvia. The Red Army’s occupation of Latvia near the end of World War II and its reincorporation as a republic in the Soviet Union led to a dramatic change in the ethnic composition of Latvian society. Intense Russification was carried out in tandem with a policy of rapid industrialization. A massive influx of Russians moved into the cities, including Riga, where they lived in high rise, concrete apartment blocks and worked in heavy industry. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, one-third of Latvia’s population was ethnically Russian. In Riga, their presence was even more pronounced, with ethnic Russians making up almost half of the population.

Demographic Destiny – Creating Latvians
Today, one-quarter of Latvia and 37% of Riga’s population is ethnically Russian. That figure is a bit deceptive because Russians still punch above their weight in the city. The lingua franca of Riga, even after 25 years of intensive Latvian language education, is still Russian. According to the Latvian Central Statistics Office, exactly half of Riga’s population uses Russian in their daily interactions, as opposed to 43% using Latvian. What do these numbers mean? That for a tiny nation like Latvia, in a constant struggle to maintain its identity, the ethnic Russian population is perceived by many as a threat. Such a perception had only been exacerbated by the rise of Soviet revanchism under Vladimir Putin. Unlike Ukraine which has a large enough population to stand up to mighty mother Russia, the Latvians are in a much more vulnerable position. Understandably, but with predictably negative consequences, the Latvian government has made it compulsory that all those seeking citizenship must pass tests showing fluency in the Latvian language, in addition to knowledge of Latvian history and the Constitution.

This has led to a situation where 12% of the Latvian population are non-citizens. The majority of whom are ethnic Russians. Russian is also classified as a foreign language. The Latvian government’s policies have created the unintended consequence of a potential fifth column inside the country.  Add to this the fact that ethnic Russians suffered disproportionately in the post-Soviet era economic transition, due to their employment in heavy industry. Thus, it is little wonder that the Free Tour I was on ran across a group of ethnic Russians drinking themselves into oblivion. I wondered what it must be like further inside this area, within the concrete apartment blocks looming on the horizon. We were not going to find out, as the tour turned its back on that scene, much the same as I assumed many Latvians do. Soon thereafter I could see the Stalinist architecture of the Latvian Academy of Sciences Building looming above the city. Legacies of the Soviet era in Riga were hard to escape.  The experience was unsettling for me, an American. Unlike Latvians, I was not worried about losing my country. I was worried about losing the world in a nuclear conflagration that could start over Russians in Latvia.

Legacy of Soviet Latvia - Latvian Academy of Sciences in Riga

Legacy of Soviet Latvia – Latvian Academy of Sciences Building in Riga (Credit: Panoramio)

Leaps Of Imagination – The Path To Oblivion
In 1996, the doyen of American Cold War diplomats, George S. Kennan, sat down for an interview. He was 92 years old at the time, but his mind was still razor sharp. In the interview, he warned that the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into the Baltic States was a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” This might lead to the United States and its allies having to decide whether to defend Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia against a Russian military incursion. What Kennan meant when he used the phrase “epic proportions” was the possibility of nuclear war. His logic is not hard to follow.

Would Americans really fight for the territorial integrity of a remote country, such as Latvia, in what could lead to World War 3? All because of the perceived rights and slights to an ethnic Russian minority. The idea seemed absurd, but it was possible and only has grown more so in the 21st century. On that Free Tour in Riga I saw that this idea was not an abstract one. It was standing around a bench, an hour before noon, drinking itself into oblivion. Later when I reflected on that scene, I hoped this was not where Latvia and the world were heading.

The Silence Of Latvia – For A Time Being: Those Who Rule Riga (Travels In Eastern Europe #56)

The close to empty airport terminal followed by a packed, yet silent bus ride to the city center were my first impressions of Riga and Latvia. Later I would discover more emptiness and silence in the city. It was autumn, winter felt like it was only a day away. This was not so much sad, as it was reality. The people were truly northern in demeanor. They were quiet, stoic and seemed to silently go about their business. The lack of noise was disconcerting, but I would later learn that Riga had grown increasingly quiet since Latvia regained its freedom in September 1991. In that year 900,000 people lived in the city. Twenty years later that number had dropped to 658,000. If current birth rates, emigration and demographics stay the same, it is estimated that forty years into the future, Riga may have half as many people. What that means is more silence. And what a shame that would be, most of all for Latvians.

Germanic legacy still stands in Riga's Old Town

A Germanic legacy still stands in Riga’s Old Town (Credit: Dezidor)

Destiny Realized – Right In Front Of My Face
The Riga I visited was amazing and not for the most obvious reasons. Yes, the eclecticism of its Art Nouveau architecture was magnificent and the Old Town evoked the splendor of a wealthy Hanseatic fueled past, but the most marvelous aspect turned out to be so obvious that it was easy to overlook. It was right in front of my face, walked past me a thousand times that first day and spoke to me in an unintelligible language. Riga was, for only the second time in seven centuries, a city dominated by Latvians. With no conquerors on the immediate horizon, this situation looked like it just might have staying power, unlike the period between World Wars I and II when Latvians were first ascendant. Back then their hopes were crushed between the totalitarian forces of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Now Latvia was well on its way to joining the European Union, it was a member of NATO and despite flare-ups with its large Russian minority, the threat of another invasion from Russia seemed unlikely. To see Riga in its current state was to witness a moment of grand historical import. A destiny finally had been realized, even if the flame of that destiny may flicker and fade due to a falling birth rate, it was still worth celebrating.

The fact that Latvians were in control of the largest city in the Baltics was not lost on me as I visited Riga’s Old Town on a blustery autumn morning. Its architecture was overwhelmingly Germanic, soaring reminders shaped and sculpted in stone by those who ruled this northern outpost for many centuries. It was Germans who first founded the city back at the turn of the 12th century. Riga soon became wealthy from trade and was a major city in the Hanseatic League – that trading network that enriched much of medieval northern Europe and Scandinavia. The Germans were just the first in a series of conquerors of Riga and by extension Latvia. Then came the Swedes, then Russians and towards the end of World War I, Germans once again. Seven centuries worth of occupation. During that seemingly endless epoch there were not very many Latvians in Riga. They were to be found inhabiting the rural hinterland. They lived in the countryside, among dense forests studded with lakes. The city only came in to their possession for a short and tenuous time during the first half of the 20th century. Soon enough they were again invaded.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (Credit: J. Sedols)

Monumental & Intimidating – An Unforgettable Space
Despite the non-Latvian nature of the architecture, there was one building that stood apart from all the glory and grandeur of Teutonic architecture that could be found throughout the Old Town. A large and ominous rectangular shaped, black building hovered just above Latvian Rifleman’s Square. Brutalist in style, it cast a dark shadow over its surroundings. The building was The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. I could tell by its block shape and expansive girth that it was straight out of the Soviet Union. The building was meant to be monumental and intimidating. It could not pull off the former, but was a frightening example of the latter. Latvians may have tolerated other occupiers, such as the Germans, Swedes and Tsarist Russians the best they could, but the Soviet-Nazi-Soviet Occupation from 1940 – 1991 was insipid in the extreme. For the native Latvians Soviet rule was so harsh that it could not be wished away or forgotten.

Tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia or murdered. The innocent, including entire families were arrested. Meanwhile the Soviets moved waves of loyal Russians into the Baltic states. The was done to dilute the population. Riga suffered under this diabolical plan. No native Latvian was safe, everyone was under suspicion. It was a tragedy that unfolded over decades rather than years, a tragic imposition that embedded itself in the collective memory of an entire nation. When independence finally arrived, Latvians regained control of their own destiny and history. They took the building that was constructed to celebrate Lenin’s 100th birthday and subsequently had become a museum to the Latvian Red Rifleman, turning it into a memory bank of the suffering experienced under occupation. It stood in the heart of Latvia’s Old Town, an unforgettable space that was front and center for anyone to visit.

Latvian dawn in Riga

Latvian dawn in Riga (Credit: davisbarbars)

With The Odds – Far Into The Future
And yet Latvians have overcome a history of oppression by imperial overlords to become the majority force in their own country. Since 1991, they have taken the reins of power in Riga and the countryside. The peace and relative prosperity they now enjoy is unprecedented, a just reward for weathering the conquering forces that occupied their home for centuries on end. How long will Latvians retain control of their homeland’s destiny? For as long as there are enough Latvians to hold onto a majority. Much depends on the present and future birth rate. No matter what happens, one thing is almost certain, Latvians will still be inhabiting this Baltic land far into the future. After all, they have sustained themselves in the region for well over two thousand years despite incredible odds. And this time the odds are with them.