Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 44. Around Riga 1

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.

Latvia is one of the Baltic countries, which from north to south include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Estonia and Latvia share the fact that they are Lutheran, while Lithuania is Catholic. On the other hand, Latvia and Lithuania share closely related languages, while Estonian is more closely related to Finnish.

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 Donn River 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 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 Daugava River as their access.

We made a stop at the Riga 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 Lutherans.

I later visited the Occupation Museum, 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:

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
1918 – Latvia declares independence, and for the next two years fights with the new Russian Communist regime to uphold its independence.
1920 – The Soviet Union recognizes the Latvian state, and promises never again to occupy it.
1920 – 1940 Peace and prosperity of the Latvian Republic.
1939 – Germany 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.
1940 – Germany 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.
1945 – Latvia 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 Riga, 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.

From there we went to the Jewish Ghetto established by the Nazis (almost as dodgy an area as Little Moscow), and visited the Jewish cemetery (which like all the other city cemeteries was “beautified” into a park by Russian bulldozers during the 1960’s). Moving up on the social scale we biked through the working class suburbs, and eventually worked into the recently manicured buildings of the early 1900’s. Great tour that I would highly recommend to anyone coming to Riga!

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