Riga, Latvia

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A beautiful, intriguing, and somewhat unknown part of Europe, I have long yearned to visit the Baltics. Closer to my heart, being a student of international relations (and now international business), the rich architecture, cheap prices, chaotic and often tragic histories made visiting a real priority. Finding tickets for €30, visiting, however short the notice, turned the idea into a reality. Riga, Latvia with its stunning, vast expanses of 19th-century architecture, mind-bogglingly cheap beers, murky Soviet past, and legions of tall, fake blonde women clad in rainbow-colored coats and knee-length leather boots, would be my first stop. For the above reasons and others, Riga endures in my imagination as one of the more mysterious European capital cities. 

Riga is a lovely and underrated city - certainly one of the most in all of Europe. An Art-Nouveau masterpiece, Riga is one of the most attractive cities I have come across. Detailed guilds, scrolls, and ornaments dominate even the most meek and humble of buildings in the city. The medieval core is a delight, even if full of budget airline tourists and Erasmus students. Indeed, Ryanair and the elimination of visa requirements have almost single-handedly spurred tourism in the Baltics. It is unfortunate, as Riga certainly has the amenities to appeal to and attract a more cultured and responsible traveler. 

The Art-Nouveau district, among the largest and best-kept anywhere, is a stunner and is unique for any city. The scale of it is impressive: it goes on and on, and easily puts Paris to shame as the preeminent Art-Nouveau destination. A bit sad, though, to see much of it in various states of dilapidation and disrepair. Accordingly, the further one leaves the historic center, the more run down and typically post-Soviet things become. Still, there is a magic in Riga - one that would only become more apparent if things were better taken care of. Were these buildings renovated, I have full confidence Riga would be among the great centers of European pre-war architecture. 

Surprisingly, Riga is a mostly Russophone city, even 25 years following the dissolution of the USSR. In spite of Latvian’s status as an official language and efforts to de-emphasize or weaken the Russian language, a slight majority of Riga’s citizens appear to use Russian in everyday conversation. There is still considerable tension regarding the status of both the language and its speakers, and some 300.000+ persons are stateless in Latvia, largely the result of Soviet-era migrants refusing to adopt Latvian citizenship. Russians still call the shots, and oligarchs and other banking industry refugees can be found speeding across town in their Mercedes GL-class SUV’s and long-wheelbase BMW coupes, while Latvians scoot around in more modest Skodas, or take the bus. 

Indeed, the Russian population in Riga more or less exists as ethnic Russians who happen to “live in a foreign country”, than say, Latvians of Russian ancestry or Russian-Latvians. Precisely because of this, parts of the city felt more like an outpost of gaudy Russian oligarchs abroad than the capital of an independent country. Troublingly, a sister party of Putin’s Russia United party won recent elections. Given this lack of concrete Latvian identity, and its confusing history of Swedish, Polish, German, Russian and Soviet occupations and influences, Riga is akin to a city “somehow” bestowed upon the Latvian people moreso than being the center of that people and their civilization. Vilnius, Lithuania, my other stop on this trip, felt much more organic and Lithuanian in identity. 

This is not a problem somehow unique or limited to Riga, though - which, btw, is a city I enjoy and look forward to visiting again. Throughout the former Soviet sphere, national and ethnic identities are seemingly constructed out of thin air, given the Soviet-era suppression of language, religion, and national histories/cultures. While understandable, some of this national identity searching is so top-down and fabricated that it borders on cartoonish. While “Latvian” culture doesn’t have the questionable and haphazard selection and reincarnation of national heroes in, say, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, it does seem a bit at odds with reality, in light of the Russian-dominated status-quo.