Riga: a History of Opulence and Oppression

Riga, the capital city of Latvia, offers a rare glimpse into the history of the twentieth century from an utterly unique perspective. The streets of the Old Quarter are filled with landmarks and monuments, each of which once played a part in the country’s long and harrowing journey towards independence. Medieval buildings like the Great Guild Hall and the ornate House of the Blackheads (pictured above), as well as the nineteenth century Nativity Cathedral, testify to the city’s early prosperity as a thriving port by the Baltic Sea. They withstood brutal bombing during the Second World War and fell further into disrepair during the decades of Soviet rule, but now at last can be seen in their full glory. Many carry stories just as original and impressive as their exteriors; the roof of a building nicknamed the Cat House, for instance, bears statues of small cats whose rears still point towards the Great Guild Hall, purportedly as a display of the owner’s rage at being excluded from the local guild.

This legacy of architectural grandeur continued into the twentieth century, with the construction of private apartments modeled after the fashionable Art-Nouveau style (pictured below). With their pillars and arches, interwoven garlands of leaves and flowers, and rows of armless Greek heroes and Gods, the sheer extravagance of these buildings rivals even that of their medieval predecessors.  Add to this Riga’s enormous opera house, its separate concert hall, and its various museums, and one is left in little doubt of the city’s cosmopolitan nature.

But this unusual emphasis upon culture and art, upon the country’s unique traditions and achievements, is partly a legacy of the darker aspects of Latvian history. Although the dilapidated Old Quarter has been largely repainted and restored, the bombed areas rebuilt, and the massive statues of Lenin taken down, years of political turbulence and oppression have left their mark upon the city. In the center of the main square, in stark contrast to the intricately adorned towers and parapets of the House of the Blackheads, stands the bare, box-like structure of the Museum of Occupation. Housed inside a former museum of communism, it is a stark reminder of history that cannot be undone. With a mixture of photographs, eyewitness accounts, and original historical artifacts, the exhibits inside vividly recreate the century long ordeal of the Latvian people.  They follow Latvia’s progression from a state newly granted its independence after the First World War, to a target of the invading armies of the Soviets closely followed by those of the Nazis, to a territory deprived of all rights and sovereignty as a member of the Soviet Union.

As I viewed the architecture left behind by Latvia’s long and eventful history, I was strongly reminded of my visit to the equally ancient city of Prague. Although Riga’s streets are much quieter, blissfully free of swarming crowds of tourists, its sights and sounds are just as accessible to international travelers, with plenty of provisions for English language speakers. But the help of people who have a thorough knowledge of the country’s present and past is indispensable; in that respect I am grateful to the family who I stayed with during my visit. Not only was their hospitality consistently generous, but their insights into the history of the country and its role in current politics ensured that my visit was memorable and complete.

PHOTOS/Rachael Goddard-Rebstein