Today we started off with a bus tour of New Riga. Our guide showed us the Art Nouveau buildings constructed in the 1900’s. Approximately every 3rd building is Art Nouveau. There are two styles, a National Romanticism style which is slightly plainer than the full out Art Nouveau, which has statues of nude women and lots of decorative scrolls and flowers on the outside of the buildings. Our guide told us that to purchase an apartment in one of these buildings would cost 7,000 to 10,000 Euros per square meter. She also said that times are very tough in Latvia at the moment. One hospital was just closed down last month with more than 500 doctors, nurses and support staff all out of jobs. Teachers salaries were just reduced by 30% to approximately 450 Euros per month. And unemployment is up to 20%. But in spite of all the cutbacks, Riga is a gorgeous city and the people of Latvia are very friendly and very nice. Our driver Edgars is leaving Riga and going to work in Australia for six months to work as tourism has slowed down for the winter.
We stopped at a Linen factory watched how they wove their fabric. The owner of the factory is a textile designer and she weaves in various natural materials with the linen. It was very interesting and looked like hard work! Next we toured The Museum of Occupation of Latvia 1940 – 1991. This was very interesting, poor Latvia (as well as Estonia and Lithuania) have all been occupied by one country or another throughout time. According to our guide, Riga was the 5th largest city in the Russian Empire behind Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and Warsw during the 20th Century before WW II. It was also the 3rd largest port and the Dougava River (where Riga was settled) runs from Russia to the Baltic Sea. This river is very important as it links the East to the West for trading purposes.
The museum was extremely interesting because it told the history of Latvia and why they only received their independence in 1991! Here is my quick synopsis of the Latvian History (again only my view after scanning a few guide books which will be close but may not be 100% accurate). Latvia’s name originated from the Lavonian Order which was a German millitary contingent. The Latvian people at one time were nomads and consisted of tribes. Because of Latvia’s strategic geographic location beside the Baltic Sea and in between Europe and Russia, the Latvian territory was frequently invaded by it’s German, Polish, Swedish and Finnish neighbours. There was an area called the Baltic Germans, as well as Latvia, Estonia, and Lthuania. The city of Riga, the capital of Latvia, was started by a German Bishop in 1201. The German’s came here to liberate the Pageans by introducing Christianity. This Bishop Albert built the first Church in Riga. Riga, Latvia became the largest and most powerful city on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.
In the mid 16th Century the Lutheran Religion became the 2nd religion after Roman Catholic. The church built by Bishop Albert became Lutheran. and in 1621 Latvia became under Swedish rulership. Then in the 1700’s Latvia came under Russia’s rulership. But in the 1900’s there were political undercurrents in the Latvian Society. In 1904 the first Latvian Political party began to demand improvements in worker’s social conditions and turned against the existing social order in the Baltic Provinces of the Russian Empire. After WW I Latvia received it’s first but short lived independence in November 1918!
However, at the same time as they got their independence, Russia and Germany were still trying to overtake Latvia. Finally in 1920 Latvia signed a Peace Treaty with Russia. By the 1930’s Latvia achieved one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Agriculture was the largest sector of their economy and employed 2/3’s of the population. In August 1939 Germany and Russia signed a treaty (an illegal treaty) dividing up Eastern Europe and Latvia once again became part of the Soviet Union. 30,000 Red Army soldiers were sent into Latvia and Russian ships were sent into their ports. In order to avoid bloodshed the Latvian Government decided to agree to Moscow’s demands, hoping the Western World would come to their defense. They did not. The Red Army seized control of all the strategic positions and took control of their country.
By 1941 over 15,000 Latvins were exiled by the Soviets to Siberia; land, buildings and businesses were all confiscated by the Soviets. Those deported were the elite such as teachers, scientists, businessmen, politicians, army officers, etc. Then shortly after this, the second WW II happened and Germany invaded Latvia. Latvia was still occupied but this time by Nazi Germany. Anyone who disobeyed or had previously co-operated with the Soviets were killed or sent to concentration camps. The Nazi’s exterminated 90,000 Latvians. Later but still during WW II the Soviet Union pushed back the Nazi’s and again Soviets occupied Latvia in 1944. During this time the Latvians were forced to fight in the war and because they were in the middle of a scrimmish between the Nazi’s and the Soviets. Latvian famillies were split up and sometimes fathers and sons (or brothers) were on opposite sides and had to fight each other! Latvia lost 25 to 30 percent of it’s population during WW II.
After the war Latvia was part of the Soviet Union and the Soviets began “The Russification of Latvia”. Again many civilians were persecuted and 44,000 were exiled and 190,000 people suffered reprisals for being hostile to the Soviet regime. Censorship was a way of life. Forced collective farming plus all of the economic infrastructure developed during Latvia’s brief independence was destroyed by the Soviets. Factories were established by the Soviets and 800,000 Soviets were brought into Latvia to work in the factories. Manufacturing of chemicals, electronics and textiles needed labourers and because so many of the Latvians had been killed or exiled Russians had to be imported to work in Latvia! Materials and instruments were manufactured for the Russian armed forces. During this period approximately 40% of the population was not Latvian and the language spoken was Russian. The Latvians struggled to keep their language and culture alive. The Soviets tried to brainwash their children by organizing clubs. Young children were called the October children, middle aged children were called the Pioneers and teens were the Youth of Communism. All these clubs wore the Communist pins with Stalin’s face on them and red scarves.
Then in 1986 the Soviets were planning to build a hydroelectric plant on Latvia’s Daugava River and a subway in Riga. Latvians reacted immidiately to stop this and formed “The Environmental Protection Club”. This club also began a mass movement demanding Latvia’s sovereignty. Then other groups began springing up with the same message. in 1988 “The Latvian National Independence Movement”, also “the Lativian’s People’s Front” and “Citizen’s Congress” were formed. All these organizations had a common goal, the reinstatement of Latvia’s independence. On the 50th anniversary of the Soviet occupation, all three of the Baltic Countries made a human chain more than 600 km. long from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania. This demonstration was called “The Baltic Way”.
New elections were held and the supporters of Independence won. They developed a Declaration Of Independence which called for renewal of pre-war Latvia and it’s 1922 Constitution. Moscow did not like this and lauched an attack to overthrow the lawfully elected government. But the Latvians organized a non-violent resistance by baracading the town square in Riga. Soviet tanks came into the square (you can see bullet holes in one of the buildings still today). Our guide said that some people were killed, mostly journalists. But then a car drove up and a mystery man got out of the car and walked up to the tanks to speak to the army. The tanks then turned around and left with the mystery car. No one knows who that man was or what was said. But the Baltic States demonstrated to the world that renewal of Independence can be achieved in a peaceful manner without war. This is known as the “Singing Revolution” (there is a movie about Estonia’s singing revolution, who went through the same process as Latvia without any bloodshed).
When the Soviets pulled out of Latvia, collective farming stopped and farm land and other real estate was returned to it’s rightful owners. Edgars said that if a person could prove through documentation that their grandfather (or another relative) once owned a piece of land then that land was returned to them. Lat currency was brought back and Latvia joined the United Nations plus the European Union. Today there is a big gap between the rich and the poor because all the factories collapsed and Latvia has had to reinvent their economy. People had land returned to them but they were not farmers so the land remains vacant. There are many things to work out but at least the Latvians can live without censorship or fear of being exiled.
We visited a huge market, part of it consisted of stalls outside and the rest was located in four or five huge hanger like buildings. There was anything you could possible think of to buy. Pork is the most popular meat in Latvia. Lots of cheeses and honey. Jurate said that a traditional breakfast would be cheese with honey on it. Another frequent dish is cottage cheese mixed with sour cream and jam. We bought some raspberries which were delicious. Flowers, vegetables, candies, fudge anything you wanted to eat seemed to be at this market.
There was an organ recital in the Lutheran Church which we were privileged to attend. The sound was amazing as this organ has over 6,000 pipes. Next we visited a chocolate factory where they gave us truffles and dark chocolate to decorate and drink.Chocolate has quite the history it was used as currency and armies drank it because they believed it gave them strength! I didn’t realize this but the cocoa plant has two coloured flowers, one white and the other red. The white is female and the red is male (I would prefer it if the girls were red, but that is beside the point). I am pretty sure our guide was telling us that this one plant pollinates itself. That is why chocolate is the symbol of love!! I think this was Kari’s favourite part of the day as she is a chocoholic and has been missing her Starbucks!
For dinner we went to a restaurant that was a wine cellar in the 1200’s. I really liked it but our guide refused to stay and eat with us as she doesn’t like cellars and Ray didn’t like it either, too dark and too hot. I thought it was great, there was no electricity and they had candles everywhere to light up the restaurant. There was even a well in the center of the room which still worked and was used to collect water 800 years ago. I thought it was cool, high vaulted ceilings, old wooden floors and very big with several different rooms to eat in.