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.

Baltic Flight Of Fancy – Landing In Latvia: A Between Time (Travels In Eastern Europe #55)

Kiev was the end of one thing and the start of another. I had not planned on coming to the Ukrainian capital, but the chance to visit Chernobyl proved worth the detour. Now I had to decide my route back to Warsaw. It was not simple. I could backtrack through Lviv, then head into eastern Poland, perhaps to Lublin for a visit. I could purchase a visa to transit through Belarus, then back into Poland. While Belarus interested me, paying an extortionate fee for the quick turnaround on a visa did not sound appealing. Furthermore, the visa fee would go to a dictatorial, anti-democratic government. Belarus had been in the iron grip of Alexander Lukashenko ever since the Soviet Union fell apart. Some called it the last dictatorship, though Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime would soon supersede Lukashenko in the villainy department. I decided against Belarus, but scolded myself for not taking the opportunity to visit a proto-communist state. Minsk would have to wait.

In transit - airBaltic

In transit – airBaltic (Credit: Dmitriy Pichugin)

Mutually Elusive – Losing My Way To Latvia
I spent an evening studying the map. Above Belarus and to the northeast of Poland lay the Baltic states. I had enough time to visit a couple of them if I so pleased. The question became how to find a last-minute flight at a decent rate. The advent of cheap carriers across all of Europe has been a boon for those looking to country hop. Baltic Air, the flag carrier of Latvia, offered a reasonable one-way fare from one four letter capital to another. I proceeded to book a flight from Kiev to Riga. I knew next to nothing about Latvia. For many years, I got the locations of Latvia and Lithuania mixed up. Latvia was an in between state, wedged in by Estonia and Lithuania. Often forgotten because it did not offer the medieval treasures of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital or the splendid history of Lithuania, which once ruled a kingdom stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Latvia did have Riga, by far the largest city in the Baltics. It was known for a splendid Old Town, an extremely restive Russian minority and a climate somewhat akin to Scandinavia. It also had quite a pagan heritage, as one of the last places Christianized in Europe. I imagined Latvia as a land of misty forests, rough shores and mysterious villages. Imagination informs reality, but also can betray it.

Flying to Latvia from Kiev was not the least bit difficult. I turned up at Boryspil Airport in Kiev with ticket in hand. The flight was short and uneventful, taking about two hours. The airline I used, airBaltic was cheap, but the flight accommodations were not spartan. It offered just as good or better service than major American airlines, which considering the comparison is not saying much. If a country that had been under the iron grip of the Soviet Union for three generations could learn to run an airline well after just two decades of capitalism, then surely America’s airlines could do the same. From my experience, airBaltic seemed to believe that quality service and profitability were not mutually exclusive, in America profit triumphed over service. If there is one thing I have learned from my travels in Eastern Europe, it is that America is more than often not the best, but the biggest.

A Baltic approach - Riga International Airport

A Baltic approach – Riga International Airport (Credit: Avio2016)

Perpetual Autumn – Where The Sun Rarely Shines

Looking down from the plane I noticed the Baltic Sea in the distance with white caps breaking under leaden skies and heavy clouds. Leaves were turning on the trees. Kiev had been enjoying an Indian summer, Riga looked to be suffering a perpetual autumn. From above this looked like a land where the sun rarely has shined. All of nature’s colors were deep and penetrating. There was an ominous magic to this landscape. The kind of place where the forest consumes and the sea swallows. A land always on the verge of winter. The kind of landscape that silently envelopes everything and everyone. I felt the allure of this dark magic, I could hardly wait to land as the plane began circling the Riga airport.

Once on the ground I made my way to passport control. I was surprised by the fact that it was all but deserted. I was one of only a few non-Europeans to be entering Latvia and by extension the European Union here in Riga. The officer was almost silent as he scanned and subsequently stamped my passport. The airport was pristine. All the surfaces shined. Cleanliness of public spaces was something Latvians obviously took very seriously. The condition was helped by the fact that hardly anyone seemed to be in the airport. I walked down a nearly vacant corridor, picked up my luggage and made my way to a bus stop. The air was chilly, my nose immediately started to run and I felt the start of cold suddenly coming on. A likely product of both the climate and the flight.

Latvian Official Currency from to 1992 to 2012

For want of the correct Lats – Latvian Official Currency from to 1992 to 2012

A Welcoming Silence – Down Payments
As I stood in the chill air shivering I was suddenly heartened by the sight of a bus fast approaching. This would transport me to the city center or so I thought. I dug into my pocket for money. All I had were a few larger denominations of Latvian currency. This would not do as I soon discovered. The bus driver demanded that I pay in smaller bills or coins. His demeanor was stiff and unyielding. Though I understood the driver’s point – after all he was not a change machine – I hoped he would show a bit of leniency. No such luck.  He stared at me in silence, as did every passenger in the bus. I felt like I was being watched and I was. Stares are the opposite of welcoming, they imply guilt. I was certainly guilty of not having the correct currency and the penalty was that I did not have the proper means to pay. Thus, I had to leave the bus.

This introduction to Latvia would inform my opinion of the country going forward. A pervasive silence, small frustrations and a dreadful cold would stalk me in the coming days. I had no other choice, but to make the best of a less than desirable situation at both the airport and in the immediate future. I stomped back to the airport and promptly got change. Soon I was on the bus heading into Riga. Everyone on-board was silent, including me.


Metternich In Lviv – “How Happy I Am To Leave This Place” (Lviv: The History of One City Part 39)

“I cannot tell you, my dear, how happy I am to leave this place; I am dreadfully weary of it. All my life I shall remember the month of October 1823.” – Prince Klemens Von Metternich, private letter to his wife, written from Lviv on October 21, 1823

To get sick in a foreign country is an experience that I do not wish upon any traveler. There is nothing that can bring about such a longing for home and the comfort of familiar surroundings as illness in a faraway land. Waiting to get better demands an excruciating patience. The illness abates only with rest and the passing of time. Sickness warps the traveler’s perspective, prejudicing opinion against the place where they are inconveniently situated. The course of suffering runs ever so slowly. I know this from personal experience. My opinion of Riga, Latvia has never recovered from a terrible cold I caught while visiting the city. It was likely brought on by flying from a warm and dry autumn climate in Kiev to a wet, cold and blustery Riga. I woke up on the first morning of my visit with a throat so sore that I could barely swallow. I made my way to a pharmacy for what would turn out to be a thrice daily cocktail of Robitussin and Tylenol. For several nights I awoke with cold shivers followed by drenching sweats. Congestion, an endlessly runny nose and a dull, relentless headache are my most enduring memories of Riga. Another memory concerns melancholy walks through the old town while nursing cough syrup and trying to appreciate the beauty and history of the largest city in the Baltic region. It was not to be. I longed for the familiarity of home. Sleeping in my own bed was a nagging desire, an unrequited dream among those nightmarish restless evenings spent in a hostel. I missed my mother terribly. There was no one to take care of me other than me.

Prince Klemens Von Metternich

Superiority Complex – Prince Klemens Von Metternich (Credit: Thomas Lawrence)

Laid Low In Lviv – Metternich Takes To The Bed
Why do I bring this experience up? After all this is an article concerning Lviv. I have never been sick in Lviv, one of the many reasons I hold warm thoughts and feelings for it. If I had been taken with illness there, perhaps my attitude toward the city would have been irreparably altered. To be sick in Lviv, I cannot quite imagine. That is until I came across the experiences of a famous Austrian laid low there by illness. In the autumn of 1823, Prince Klemens von Metternich, the statesman par excellence of his time was waylaid by a bout of rheumatic fever in Lemberg (as Lviv was officially known at the time) for nearly a month. During this time Metternich’s opinion of the city deteriorated. His state of mind can best be summed up as hypochondria infused with a healthy dose of crass egotism. His health would eventually recover, but it is doubtful that his opinion of the city ever did.

In 1823 Metternich was making his first trip across Galicia. This was not a familiarization visit, but a diplomatic trip. He was traveling to Czernowitz in the Bukovina where he was to join Emperor Franz at a meeting with Russian Tsar Alexander I. Franz was trying to convince the Tsar to negotiate peace with the Ottoman Turks and avert a Russo-Turkish war. This bit of international diplomacy would take place without Metternich. The master diplomat never made it beyond Lviv. He arrived in the city after midnight on September 28th in a state of ill health. This became the main subject of a series of letters he wrote to his wife over the next four weeks.
September 28th – Lviv – “Here I awoke with one of those rheumatic feverish attacks which keep me in bed for two or three days without rhyme or reason. The doctor does not think my pulse bad, but I am in a continual perspiration. Today I am better that is to say, I perspire less. I shall, however, remain in bed for three days, to prevent a return of the malady. I can tell you nothing of Lemberg, for I have seen nothing”

Metternich would only see a very limited amount of Lemberg over the coming month. His opinion of the city was influenced by his illness from the very start. He spent much of his time bed ridden. When the local aristocracy invited him to attend a social gathering, his sickness became a convenient excuse to not venture forth. An element of snobbish condescension was detectable in his attitude.

September 29th“I remain in bed, however, for two days; first to make sure of my recovery, and then to avoid being overdone with audiences, presentations, and fetes of every kind. (Countess) Potocki made a point of my passing the Rubicon. I only just escaped having to get up from my bed to be present at the ball, by means of the most vigorous protestations.”

It can be inferred from Metternich’s own words that he could have attended the ball, but he had little interest in Lviv’s high society. Meeting and greeting local notables was not why he had traveled the to empire’s eastern fringes. The only reason he ended up in Lviv was due to rheumatic fever. Sickness had stranded him in the city and sickness would make him a veritable prisoner to the house he occupied throughout the visit. He also seemed to suffer from hypochondria.

October 2nd – “I have not written to you for the last two days, for I have nothing to say but to complain of annoyances here… You can understand how this accident annoys me. My illness is nothing, and I must take it patiently, for it seems to be part of my nature periodically to pass through these crises. I only suffer from annoyance, for I have not even any fever; but business weighs upon me, body and mind. No one else can do what has to be done, and this thought is in itself enough to cause fever.”

Metternich’s self-centered nature manifested itself in egotism. How could diplomatic compromise be achieved if he was not present in Czernowitz? Everything depended on him or so he wanted to believe. He scarcely mentions Lviv because he is so self-involved. He has greater matters to worry about. Peace or war depended on him or so he wanted to believe. What did that have to do with Lviv?
October 10th“I was fortunate enough to fall into the hands of a straightforward, practical physician. I feel that he at once seized on the peculiarities of my nature, and especially on the singularities and anomalies caused by so trying a life. My illness was partly from cold and partly the consequence of the anxieties of the Congress. Now, to cure the first of these maladies is very possible, but I defy any physician in the world to cure the second; so that my nervous system fell into a state of febrile agitation.”

Reading passages such as these is painful. Metternich craved power, enforced imperial absolutism, yet here he complains of how his role places an immense burden on his health and welfare. He sees everything through the prism of his personality. The reader is also left to wonder, where is Lviv?

October 17th“I am quite myself again now. My illness was one of those tiresome affections, catarrhal or rheumatic, which always send me to bed for ten days or a fortnight. In the usual state of things the incon- venience (for it is not a real illness) would have passed off as on former occasions. But just imagine my situation. Alone the only man knowing anything of the business in bed at Lemberg, and the two Emperors tete a tete at Czernowitz. Two results only possible, immediate war between Russia and the Porte or immediate peace; and I, holding peace in my hands, and alone knowing the means of securing peace, ill in bed ! I swear to you that no common strength of mind and will was needed to keep me from giving way. I did not succumb morally, but my physique received a terrible shock. I was fifteen nights without sleeping, and I was on the brink of a nervous fever. Now I have told you everything. I am still weak, but as my appetite is returning I shall soon regain my strength. Heaven has protected me in the midst of these troubles and anxieties.”

Only after matters are settled to his satisfaction in Czernowitz does Metternich’s health recover in earnest. This also leads him out into the city where he casts a critical eye. His impressions are influenced as much by prejudice as experience.

Lviv's Ratusha (Town Hall)

Lviv’s Ratusha (Town Hall) – as it looked when Metternich stayed in the city for a month in 1823 (Credit: Jerzy Głogowski)

October 21st – “I have never seen people so in love with their native town as they are here. The road to the right is said to give a view like that of Naples; that to the left is like the Briihl near Vienna. A nearer view shows a town in a hole, and this hole wants both water and trees. The town is half fine and half ugly. There are many houses in it better constructed than those in Vienna, for there is some architectural style about them; then intervals either empty or crowded with barracks. The Eastern aspect begins to make its appearance.”

He compares Lviv to Vienna. The provincial city has a bit of architecture to recommend it, but this is corrupted by its more unsightly areas, which are blamed on the “Eastern aspect.” He infers that the city is Oriental in design, a byword for backwardness. Metternich also condescends about the locals for their love of the city. It is rather obvious that he feels superior to this provincial outpost. Yet it was the same outpost where he could have died. That thought probably crossed Metternich’s mind during his self-imposed quarantine. Such fears would have made him loath Lviv. This would be his last letter to home from Lviv, less than a week later he was gone from the city.

Lviv two decades after Metternich's visit

The unloved city – detailed painting of Lviv two decades after Metternich’s visit (Credit: А.Гаттон)

Goodbye With Extreme Prejudice
For Metternich, Lviv was little more than a setting for his illness. In the end his visit there only served to confirm his prejudices about the east. This place was not for him, it was backward, provincial and irritating. Much of his attitude toward Lviv was undoubtedly due to his sickness, but it was also a stinging indictment of his elitism. Metternich was better than Lviv or so he thought. He escaped from the city with his health and prejudices intact. He was never to return.