It was already light outside by the time I crawled into bed in Tallinn. A few hours later, my alarm went off. I got up, got ready, and dragged my hungover and exhausted self to the bus station, which was luckily only a short walk from where I was staying. I then got on the bus to Riga, the capital of Latvia.
Riga is the largest Baltic capital and home to one third of Latvia’s population. The city is now, admittedly, very touristy—and for a good reason. The city center of Riga is just incredibly beautiful, a medieval Hanseatic pearl dotted with majestic examples of Art Nouveau: Northern European Brick Gothic architecture meets facades you would otherwise expect to see in cities such as Prague or Brussels. And then we have the Russian Orthodox churches, the Communist buildings, and the small wooden houses typical of Northeastern Europe.
Visually, Riga is as pleasant as it gets, but look beyond the architecture and the city center and you’ll find one of the most interesting cities in Europe.
So what makes Latvia so fascinating? Why, its history and multicultural character—which is as rich as it is both tragic and complicated. Here’s a grossly condensed overview of it:
Riga is a multicultural capital. A trading city by tradition, Riga has changed hands more than a few times throughout history: the Teutonic Order, Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, and Russia among others all controlled the city at some point in time.
The demographics of the city have also changed over time: Baltic Germans made up a majority of the city’s population (and the local land-owning aristocracy) until the eve of World War I—and left their imprint on the city’s architecture. Virtually all Baltic Germans were resettled in the wake of Hitler’s pact with Stalin from 1939, and those who remained were expelled after the war. Latvia’s once vibrant Jewish community was brutally decimated during World War II, and many of the survivors were deported afterward. As part of the Soviet Union, Latvia saw thousands deported to Siberia on Stalin’s orders—while also receiving a constant influx of Russian-speaking workers. By 1989, Latvians made up only 36% of the city’s population but now form the majority.
Nowadays, Russians make up roughly a third of the city’s (and country’s) population—although not all of them are Latvian citizens. After Latvia regained its independence in 1991, the country’s Russian population was not automatically granted citizenship—only their descendants born after 1991 received a Latvian passport. I had a chance to hear arguments from both sides while drinking with Latvian and Russian friends in a sketchy basement bar, which was particularly interesting for me as a Mexican-American.
Like in the other two Baltic States, the enthusiasm in Latvia for all things traditional and folkloric is, for Western European standards, very high—almost reaching Latin American levels. This is in part due to the oppression experienced under Soviet rule—and it’s not hard to imagine why, really. After all, they were an occupied country and only regained their independence 25 years ago.
What I found most striking in Riga was just how common pre-Christian folkloric elements are—particularly symbols. It was striking because that’s not something you see often (or at all) elsewhere in Europe, especially here in Germany.
I don’t know how present these symbols are outside Riga, but they pepper the streets of the capital: They can be seen on flag masts, on restaurant signs, and are sold as souvenirs. I walked into Rocket Bean, a hip café in the city center, and saw wooden pagan symbols hanging behind the counter. There is also folk-themed bar named Ala (which many locals recommended), where pagan symbols are ubiquitous and folkloric music is played live. One of the most popular beers in the country is called Lāčplēsis, after the Latvian folk hero. Songs, too, are held in very high esteem in Latvia—with Latvians often boasting that the country’s catalog of songs is the largest documented in the whole world. The Song Festivals of the three Baltic Soviet Republics served as a safe zone to display national symbols in the 1980s.
Anatol Lieven, a prominent English historian, devoted much attention to this “neo-pagan revival” (his term) in his book The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence. He noted that “while these modern pagan elements are obviously very different from the original paganism, most are also quite distinct from the neo-paganisms of modern Western Europe, so often either profoundly foolish or deeply sinister.”
This should nevertheless not be seen in terms of religion but rather of identity. Think of the Basque Country or even Ireland here.
While the popularity of folklore in Latvia might come as a culture shock to many visitors, especially Germans, it should not be seen from a Western European perspective. Of course, there are political organizations, right-wing and otherwise, that have tried and continue to try to instrumentalize folklore for their own ends, but luckily Latvians in general seem to be able to separate folkloric cultural elements from politics—often an anomaly in Europe. In this sense, an appreciation for neo-pagan symbolic in Latvia is not limited to fringe extreme right-wing nut jobs like in other European countries.
What I personally experienced from the locals I met was a genuine interest to tell me about their country, about their culture, and about their history—and they really knew about all three. This was kind of a throwback to Mexico, since this attitude toward folklore, while controversial in Western Europe, is basically just normal throughout Latin America.
Lieven identified a couple of causes for this development; among others are the deep roots of nature and folklore in rural Latvian culture and identity, the juxtaposition of folklore as antithesis to Soviet urban and industrial life, and the role of allegorical references to folklore by Latvian intellectuals as a way to get around Soviet censorship. According to Lieven, “today, this is reflected not only in straightforward uses of traditional forms and motifs, but in sophisticated post-modern reworkings of them.”
Latvia had a heavier Soviet presence than Lithuania or Estonia. Like in the other two Baltic countries, the government has taken measures to play down or erase the Soviet past of the capital city while also bringing its medieval past to the forefront. This, especially in Latvia, has lead to political confrontations with Moscow in the past. Riga is likewise proud of its trading past, and references to the Hanseatic League are also found in the city. Riga truly is a multicultural city—and has been shaped by the centuries-long interaction between cultures.
Riga is home to a couple of awesome-looking churches. I’m not a religious man myself but really appreciate both red-brick Gothic architecture as well as the decoration of Orthodox churches. The inside of the Orthodox Church of the Nativity is exquisitely decorated. The smell of incense adds to the experience, and the combination of Byzantine-style portraits with Cyrillic calligraphy is something that could trigger Stendhal’s syndrome on me—especially when blinded by the effulgence of gold.
All in all, my experience in Riga was amazing. Not just because the city is incredibly beautiful but also because of its character and contrasts—from its architecture to the social interaction between Latvians and Russians. Also, the fact that people there are so open and happy to tell you about their country was incredibly refreshing.
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Have you been to Latvia? How did you like it there? Share your experiences in the comments below!
Next up: Estonia.
Special thanks go out to Peter from the mighty Skyforger for helping me promote this post!