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Soviet Riga (and Beyond)


Mass murderer.
Mass murderer.

5 minute read

Latvia had a tumultuous 20th century, replete with wars, occupations and terror. But it also won its freedom not once, but twice - not a bad effort for a nation of just 2 million souls. Here is a brief rundown of places in Riga which mark milestones on this complex, tragic but ultimately successful journey. 


free latvia

Milda.
Milda.

Latvia was ruled for centuries by foreign powers. But in the wake of the First World War, on 18 November 1918 Latvian patriots declared independence in Riga's National Theatre.

 

They then won the War of Independence against the Bolsheviks and renegade German generals, commemorated in a memorial to Colonel Oskars Kalpaks, the first commander of the Latvian army, and the Freedom Monument, the beautiful lady affectionately called Milda.

 

Latvia was a prosperous country between the wars - you can get a sense of this in the mansion of Emīlija Benjamiņš, press queen and patron of the arts. Another big figure of the time was Kārlis Ulmanis, controversial father of independence and later authoritarian president, who has a statue on Valdemāra iela.


occupation and terror

Cattle wagon at Torņakalns Station.
Cattle wagon at Torņakalns Station.

On 23 August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a pact carving up eastern Europe, with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia given to the Soviet dictator.

 

The Baltics were invaded and occupied by the USSR on June 17 1940, who began a reign of terror, arresting, torturing and executing thousands of people. You can learn more about this black chapter on a tour of the KGB Headquarters, the dreaded "House on the Corner." It had the best views in Riga, the joke went, because from there you could see Siberia.

 

There is a plaque on the wall at Amata iela 4 in Old Riga, which was the HQ of SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency - here many members of the Latvian resistance were tortured. On 14 June 1941, the secret police rounded up over 15,000 people and shipped them to the gulag in cattle cars - there is a monument at Torņakalns Station in Pārdaugava.

Riflemen and Occupation Museum.
Riflemen and Occupation Museum.

A week later the Nazis invaded the USSR, bringing another brutal occupation and the Holocaust to Latvia, followed by the return of the Soviets at the end of the war. The Red Army's triumph is celebrated in the Liberators Monument in Āgenskalns, a concrete extravaganza hated by Latvians but revered by some Russians.

 

These events are examined in the Occupation Museum - it's Soviet brutalist-style home in Old Riga is currently under renovation, and the exposition is temporarily in the former US Embassy.

 

History is complicated - the statue of three soldiers in the Old Town was put up by the communists to celebrate the Red Riflemen, Latvians who fought for Lenin, but today it is considered a monument to the Riflemen who fought for Latvia's freedom. Locals joke that they are just three guys waiting for their friend to come back with a bottle of vodka.


STAGNATION

Lenin for dinner.
Lenin for dinner.

After Stalin' s death in 1953, mass repression was eased, but life was blighted for decades by censorship, travel restrictions, shortages of everything from meat to shampoo, and deeply resented Russification.

 

The regime's self-glorification is still on show in the Academy of Sciences skyscraper (with hammers and sickles carved into the facade), the boxy 1970's Hotel Latvija, and the Stalinist Baroque interior of the Hotel Riga. Check out the socialist realist plates and vases in Riga Porcelain Museum (pictured here and at the top). Cold War paranoia found expression in dozens of bunkers, like the bomb shelter on Radio iela

Want fries with your new word order?
Want fries with your new word order?

For a sense of what life was like for ordinary people, visit retro cafeteria Bufete 9 and admire the Soviet electronics in Leningrad cafe. Riga is still ringed by Soviet-era housing projects - to see some, visit the Motor Museum then wander around nearby Mežciems.

 

An even more depressing icon of life under socialism was the communal apartment - flat sharing with total strangers for years at a time. For a taste of that, watch the "Communal Blues" video by early 1990's rockers Remix.


independence again

One small step for man.
One small step for man.

In their hearts Latvians never accepted the occupation. On the wall of the courthouse at Brīvības iela 34 is a memorial to dissident Gunārs Astra. At his trial in this building in 1983, he spoke the defiant words, "I believe that this time will pass like a bad dream... Our people have suffered much, which has taught them to also survive this dark period."

 

On June 14 1987, the human rights group Helsinki-86 broke a taboo by laying flowers at the Freedom Monument, sparking huge demonstrations calling for independence. This culminated in the Baltic Way on 23 August 1989, when two million people joined hands from Tallinn to Riga and Vilnius. The footprints on Kalķu iela in the photo here commemorate that epic human chain, and the video also takes you back - the song "The Baltic is Awakening" was sung in all three local languages.

But the road to freedom was a rocky one. In January 1991, hard line Soviet forces seized key buildings in Riga to crush the independence movement. In a brave, non-violent response to overwhelming force, thousands of people came out and formed barricades around the city. These events are recalled in the Barricades Museum (best seen with a museum guide as the material is mostly in Latvian), and a monument outside the Parliament.

Memorial to Andris Slapiņš.
Memorial to Andris Slapiņš.

On the night of 20 January, Soviet Black Beret troops seized the Interior Ministry and opened fire on Bastejkalns Park. Several people were killed there, including cameramen Gvido Zvaigzne and Andris Slapiņš. There are memorial stones in the park to the fallen. 

 

The footage below was captured on Slapiņš's camera as he lay mortally wounded (watch from 0:28).

Happy hundredth, Latvia!
Happy hundredth, Latvia!

There were more barricades and bloodshed in August 1991 following the Moscow coup. Thankfully, the putsch collapsed, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia declared complete independence, and western countries, starting with Iceland, recognised them.

 

The giant flag on a 60 m high pole over the river from Old Riga is dedicated to the centenary of the first independence declaration in 1918, another chapter in an epic story - to be continued...

 

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