Pushing through the Baltic States, Justine Gosling finds a Latvia still bearing the scars of history
The border town I’m cycling through between Estonia and Latvia is a strange one with a complex, cross country, history. Valga and Valka are the same town, however Valga is in Estonia and Valka is in Latvia. When Estonia and Latvia ﬁrst gained independence from the Russian empire after the October Revolution in 1917, the town sat exactly on the boarder of the two new states with a mixed Estonian and Latvian population. Negotiations between the two countries on which country the town should reside in were unsuccessful, therefore, the British Commissioner for the Baltic provinces, Colonel Stephen Tallents was bought in to chair the discussions. In 1920, when they were unable to reach a decision, Tallents decided to spilt the town by the small river that ran through it. Neither country contested the spilt and they now advertise themselves with the slogan “one town, two countries.”
Initially, this spilt did have its problems. Many families, living on the same street, had different citizenships, meaning that they had to go through customs and border controls to visit each other. With the town using two currencies and under two jurisdictions the situation also created a thriving black market and resentments.
Like all three of the Baltic states, independence didn’t last long. Firstly, with the illegal Soviet occupation in 1940 as a result of the 1939, non aggression, Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany swiftly followed by the occupation of Latvia by Nazi Germany in July 1941. Then again by the Soviet Union in 1944 after their defeat of Germany. The Soviet occupiers immediately staged rigged theatrical elections with a pro-Soviet winning party. The resulting people’s assembly immediately requested admission into the Soviet Union, which was granted. The result was that Latvia had a puppet government which was essentially controlled by Moscow, all its resources were nationalised and Latvia was renamed the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, bringing the country behind the Iron Curtain.
Under Soviet communist control, all Latvian farms, factories and businesses were collectivised to provide for the state. Russian was imposed as the main language and schools had to follow the Russian curriculum. There was an inﬂux of labourers, administrators, military and medical personnel and their dependants from Russia and other Soviet republics in an attempt to further “Russify” Latvia. Latvian history and culture was effectively banned. The Soviet Union gave Russians incentives to migrate to Latvia to “dilute” its Latvian population, culture and language.
Ironically, the Soviet occupation of Latvia and Estonia from 1940 to 1991 essentially reuniﬁed the Valga/Valka town for 51 years. Border controls were re-established again in 1991 after independence which broke well established community and trade relations. It was only when both countries joined the EU in 2007 that border crossings and check points were ﬁnally removed in accordance with the Schengen agreement allowing free movement and trade. Today all that is left there is the small, dilapidated border ofﬁces and EU sign posts.
There was a lot of off roading cycling through the peaceful forests of Latvia. I got wet feet on the ﬁrst day of the cycle not by the rain, but by cycling through streams to get to Ligantne. It was the one time classiﬁed, Soviet nuclear bunker at Ligantne that is now a museum that was of interest to my Iron Curtain expedition.
The bunker was authorised in 1968 by the Latvian Central Soviet Committee but didn’t become operational until 1982. The 2,000 square meter Soviet nuclear bunker at Liagantne is nine meters below ground, of which five meters are made up of steel and concrete plates and gamma ray protection lead plate. It is concealed by a rehabilitation centre above ground that is still in use today. It was of such importance that the secrecy grading of the bunker was only removed in 2003. The bunker was built for the needs of up to 250 communist political and state elite in the 1980s for state administration in case of nuclear war. It is a huge, self-sustaining, underground structure with all the necessities to survive and communicate in the event of a nuclear war for three months without outside intervention.
On the tour we were shown the food stores, the 1980s style kitchen and canteen, the air puriﬁcation and the ventilation systems which are similar to that of a submarine. Water was provided from the natural underground reservoir 150 meters below. We were also shown the electricity generators that can produce 200kw of power and uses 50 litres of fuel per hour. Over the course of three months, in the event of a nuclear war, 1,800 tonnes of fuel would be needed to supply the bunker. It’s a massive Soviet design fault that the bunker only allows for storage of 40 tonnes of fuel, which is only enough for two day’s worth. Luckily it never had to be put to use.
We toured the large map room with wall to ceiling maps of areas of importance, mostly of the Baltic states. I even sat in the original secretary’s chair in the KGB ofﬁce. The phone in that ofﬁce doesn’t have numbers with which to dial, it was simply a direct line to the authority in Moscow. In this original ofﬁce the following philosophy demonstrating the Soviet totalitarian control is written in Russian on the wall:
“Without communication there is no order. Without order there is no victory.”
I was told by our guide that this is meant to be understood as: “Without communication with Moscow there are no orders from Moscow. Without orders from Moscow no orders will be delivered”. There is a whole room full of retro communications equipment and another for the gas masks that all personnel completing their mandatory military service had to be able to run 5km wearing whilst holding a riﬂe. I couldn’t bear a minute standing still wearing one with the tight, musty smelling rubber against my face never mind whilst getting a sweat on running 5km. Outside there are two helicopter landing sites disguised as swimming pools and another is hidden as a basketball court.
Unlike Estonia, Latvia’s neglect during the Soviet times is still clear to see. Riga feels chaotic and shabby, the buildings either desperately in need of repair or poorly restored. The roads are so badly maintained that they all have a valley to guide each car tire along. Cycling became a game of dodging pot holes and trying to decide which out of the million trafﬁc lights affected me whilst avoiding the decrepit trams. The electrical wires over head look like a bowl of spaghetti thrown into the sky. This shabbiness represents Riga’s life story with many chapters. Among the rags however, are many gems. Its past is not forgotten but embraced and makes this capital exciting to explore. It seems like every street corner has its moment in history.
The central market in Riga is where the locals bustle. Housed in the old Zeppelin air craft hangers it is a destination worth visiting itself just to appreciate the architecture of the huge metal framed space now lined with traders selling tones of meats, pickles and pastry goods. The former KGB ofﬁces in the centre of town are now a museum. The building and its contents detail the brutal treatment of anyone who was considered against the regime and is a chilling reminder of how restrictive life was during communist times.
Riga was an important strategic port in World War 2 and was therefore destroyed in the war. The re built, pebbled old town is quaint but mostly littered with loud, brash bars, even my hostel was above a bar offering me a free beer with breakfast.
A little known fact is that Riga was the birthplace of the Christmas tree. It’s is said that on Christmas eve in 1510, a group of drunken bachelors hauled a pine tree to their local pub in central Riga and decorated it with ﬂowers. After mid night they ceremoniously set it alight and burnt it to the ground. From this year on, decorating a pine tree has become an annual Christmas tradition world wide and the idea of a festive tree was born. Thankfully the burning of the tree at mid night never caught on. There is a plaque in the paving stones in the old town on the spot where this ﬁrst tree was said to have been. The pub has long gone.
Since independence, Latvia has a multi-party political system, where no one party has a chance of gaining power alone, and parties must work with each other to form coalition governments. Coalition governments have consisted of up to six parties. Parties have very frequent re shufﬂes and have been blighted with accusations of corruption, mostly owing to political leaders holding positions in large, sometimes Russian, owned businesses in Latvia. Fighting corruption is often the dominant feature in most political campaigns I’m told. When speaking to Latvians they don’t like to talk politics with some suggesting that corruption and Russian inﬂuence remains.
On 20 September 2003, Latvia voted to join the European Union in a referendum. Virtually all of major political parties and major Latvian-language media supported the ‘YES’ vote. The Latvian government spent signiﬁcant amount of money on the ‘YES’ campaign. The ‘NO’ campaign was virtually non-existent and lacked funding. According to government statistics, 66.9 per cent of voters in the referendum cast votes in favour of joining the EU. It is estimated that 84 per cent of ethnic Latvians voted ‘YES’, while 91 per cent of ethnic Russians voted ‘NO’ signifying a historical ethnic divide.
I got the impression that Latvia is still trying to ﬁnd its way in the EU with political corruption remaining an issue. I’m cycling onto country number six on my Iron Curtain expedition, Lithuania, the last of the three Baltic countries to explore. I’ve now been away from home for two and a half months and have cycled nearly 1,000 kilometre, it feels like no time at all. My world is deﬁnitely expanding but big distances on maps are seemingly so much smaller the further my legs take me.