I have been going to bed so late that I have fallen a couple of days behind in this blog. This is not so good because one event tends to mix with the other, but has the advantage of letting me develop a more synthetic view of Latvian geography, history, and economy.
Our first adventure was to take the hop-on hop off tourist bus, with the idea that it would give us a good panorama of the city.
Riga is much smaller than say Paris
or Lisbon, so
there is only so much you can see before you start repeating yourself. Still,
we got a good view of the Daugava River (the for the Russians).
The city was developed along the east bank of the river, about 20 km inland
from the shores of the Baltic Sea, initially by the migration of groups from Donn
River Finland and Estonia (ca. 900 BC), but it was
not until the Vikings came into the picture (700 to 1200 AD) that Riga became a
permanent settlement. The Vikings loved it as the stage from which they could
pillage and plunder Russia,
using the as their access. Daugava
We made a stop at the
market place, which we were told was the largest in Europe
and one of the largest in the world (Latvians, like Texans, like having the
biggest and best of just about anything). Yes, the market has four large halls,
and the farmers market on the outside is fairly large, but from there to being
the largest could be a lively topic of discussion. After the market I walked to
the central plaza, where two merchant houses of the Middle Ages have been
reconstructed and gilded with gold to celebrate the Golden Age of Riga. From 1200 to 1580 AD, Riga
became a part of the Hanseatic League, a
network of wealthy cities between which there was very active trade.
Traditionally associated with German merchants, the Hanseatic League extended
all along the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.
Riga was a key member of the League as the hub
of commerce with Russia.
The Russian quarter of the city, now known as the Little Moscow and of dodgy
reputation, was well established in the Middle Ages. In 1570 The Reformation
came to Latvia, which became
Lutheran, and to date about half the people of modern Latvia are
I later visited the
a memorial to the hardship suffered under the Nazi invasion (1940 to1945) and
the Russian Communist regime (1945 to 1991). Poor Latvians have really had a
hard time at it. Being in a very desirable location at the mouth of the
Daugava, just about everyone and their mother has taken a crack at them: Occupation Museum
1580 – 1620 Annexed by the Polish Empire (after a suitable war)
1620 – 1710 Annexed by the Swedish Empire (after yet another suitable war)
1710 – 1918 Annexed by the Russian Empire (yes, after yet another suitable war). The Russian Orthodox Church becomes very important, to the point that nearly half the population of modern
Latvia is Russian Orthodox.
1917 – The Bolshevik Revolution and the end of World War II
declares independence, and for the next two years fights with the new Russian
Communist regime to uphold its independence.
1920 – The
recognizes the Latvian state, and promises never again to occupy it.
1920 – 1940 Peace and prosperity of the
. Latvian Republic
and the Soviets Union agree to specific spheres of influence. Latvia falls within the sphere of influence of
Soviet Union, who promptly establishes military outposts throughout Latvia.
The Cheka (KGB) starts operating as a secret police in Riga.
declares war on the Soviet Union and invades Latvia. The Cheka flees the city
(great sigh of happiness heard throughout the nation, only to be followed by a
groan of agony as the SS takes its place).
1940 – 1945 Germany occupies
Latvia, and carries out the
Holocaust of the Jews here as well.
hopes the victorious allies will recognize it as a sovereign state, only to find
itself under the Soviet yoke. The Cheka comes back with a vengeance. Thousands
are deported overnight for the gulag camps of Siberia.
To make up for the missing labor force, thousands of Russians immigrate to Latvia,
in the well known pattern of colonization by “diluting” the local population
with people from the colonizing country.
1991 – The Soviet Union is dissolved, and the Baltic countries (
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) are recognized as
sovereign states. To date, Latvia
is an ethnically diverse country. About 60% are native Latvians, 30% Russian
Latvians, and 10% of others, including German, Polish, and Jewish Latvians.
Most schools teach in Latvian and offer English as the second language, but
there are some where the instruction is in Russian with Latvian as a second
language. Both Latvian and Russian languages are heard throughout the city, and
all printed signs are in Latvian and Russian.
So, as you can see,
Latvia is quite a young republic,
with a lot of room to grow.
To close a busy day I took a 3-hour bicycle tour of the city. It was wonderful! Our guide was a smart young man who knew a lot about the country and the city of
and humble enough to candidly say he didn’t knew the answer to the odd
question. He first took us along the banks of the Daugava, but eventually
plunged into the dodgy streets of Little Moscow. This part of the city has
existed since the Middle Ages, but the powers that be always kept the Russian
traders outside of the walls of the city and would not allow them to build
stone structures. So, they built traditional wood Russian houses, which
periodically were burnt, either by accident or on purpose. For example, during
the Napoleonic wars the Fathers of the city saw a big cloud of dust coming from
the south and, panicking with the idea that Napoleon was coming, set fire to
the Russian district only to find that the dust cloud was nothing more than a
farmer bringing his animals to market. In any case, this is now the low rent
district of Riga, has a very large Russian population, and you would not want
to promenade yourself here after sunset.