I had to be forced onto the first date, but by the second evening you’d already taken my breath away. A long-distance relationship? Shall we give it a shot?
The kids at the beach are squealing. No, no, please! Not into the water! No, mom, pleeeaaase, no! The water is freezing cold, a current carries it from the polar sea here to the Gulf of Riga, to the beach of Jūrmala. Chilling needles pierce my legs. It’s the hottest weekend of the year, but no swimming in the sea today. Although it is often the opposite in Latvia, the Latvians assure me. Even when the sun is out, the wind is whistling while owing to other currents, the water in the bay is of a pleasant temperature and with its few waves, also very swimming-friendly. But as the old people in Jūrmala like to say:
The sea is not your friend.
They say it shrugging their shoulders. That’s how Latvians accept realities that cannot be changed. The nature of the sea as much as hot or freezing weather, low pensions or even occupying forces.
Russian czardom, Soviet Russia, German Reich, free Latvia, Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, new free Latvia: within the 20th century, Latvia experienced seven different periods of rule, most of them by conquerors and occupiers. It is a small country between Estonia und Lithuania, with borders to Russia and Belarus.
Since 1990, it has been independent and democratic, since 2004 it’s been in the EU and the NATO, and since January 2014, everyone is paying with Euros. The EU calls Latvia a “model student“, but also Wladimir Putin flaunts his power towards the Baltic, testing fighter jets and naval vessels, to see how far he can go.
If all Russian-born citizens in Latvia enjoyed full suffrage, they would be the majority group of the country and could put down a “Lexit“, similar to the inhabitants of the Crimea which voted for Russia and took leave of the Ukraine. However, the vast majority of Russian-born citizens in Latvia don’t have the slightest desire to do so and see themselves as Latvians who happen to speak Russian.
On a hot Sunday on the beach of Jūrmala, one can hear Latvian, Russian and even German from the Baltic tourists and the few old people who have stayed. Except for those children whose mother made them take a dip in the freezing water, all bathers are relaxed about the heat and the cold sea. They are camping out on blankets and getting sunburnt.
Everyone who has ever been here loves the white beach. The small fishing villages such as Majori, Dzintari or Lielupe became Jūrmala, the city whose name simply means beach. Everyone, even the occupiers, could agree on this. Walking through Jūrmala is like experiencing history, mis-colored. Taking pictures of Jūrmala with a superimposed single-use camera is like creating a museum of the moment in which the past also appears in the picture.
Old bathing villas, skewed gingerbread houses, designer apartments or the new magnificent buildings in the Bauhaus style with Russian security guards in the front: the building and social history of the country is reflected in Jūrmala. Many of the houses, even the very recent ones, are up for sale: investment graves of the 21st century are standing next to former Soviet recreation homes. Anyone who wants can see Jūrmala as an open-air museum of shattered dreams of different eras, ideals which were carried away by the waves of time.
The water in Latvia whispers.
The Baltic Sea, the rivers, the lakes; they are all whispering their calls of temptation into the wind which then carries them to the small cottages and villages. To the water, to the water, come to the water. Bring blankets, a picnic and barbecue grills, bring soccer balls and fishing rods. Recreational fun without water is only half-baked. No water, no recreational fun. And so one travels over bumpy unpaved roads to the water.
Perhaps a campground that rents out canoes for a paddle tour on the river. A swimming platform from which water skiers can start from. A tower where one can do some great waterbird watching.
The waterfall of Kuldiga is even a free waterpark. In a rushing arc, Lake Venta plunges about a good meter deep down behind a rock fall. With its 240 m width, it’s Europe’s biggest open-air shower on a hot day. When it’s less hot, the bold – barefoot but otherwise fully dressed – teeter along the entire waterfall, sticking strictly to the ridge.
The northern fortifications of Liepāja, in the very west of Latvia, are sources of shade, BBQ areas and a diving platform at once. Here, the Baltic Sea comes booming, unbraked. Yet, it hasn’t been able to raze the concrete stronghold at the beach. The czar had this Baltic Sea wall erected in order to protect his naval port from the German Imperial Marine.
The gun emplacements are now popular places for kissing, the tunnel system an adventure playground.
Now, teenagers jump off the concrete constructions into the sea and walkers enjoy the great view from the roofs of the old artillery emplacement.
History is nearly omnipresent in Latvia, and the way people deal with it is sometimes surprising because the narrative is always that of an oppressed nation that makes the best of what others have left behind.
* * *
“And now, get ready for the pig dance!,“ the singer orders.
“Oh, the pig dance. That one’s exhausting,“ mumbles one of the dancers next to me. Her partner just nods; like most of the people who stand in groups of four on the big dance floor. The band gets started, a brisk polka, the singer counts off eight beats and then: pig dance!
Hopping slowly twice, hopping quickly three times, thereby alternately kicking your right and your left leg toward the centre of the dancers‘ square. Clapping once, and then everyone: right arm in, forming a square of arms, hopping to the left in a circle for four beats, clap your hands, now other way round, and then start again: hop! Hop! Hop, hop, hop!
Beaming faces on the dance floor. The big floorboard stage lies in the park of the cultural center Ziemeļblāzma (polar light). It is four days before Līgo, the national holiday where everyone celebrates solstice and already, people are giddy with excitement. On June 23, on Līgo, the routine is clear: all night long, people will be dancing, celebrating, drinking lots of beer and eating a flavorful cheese with lots of caraway around the bonfire. A little warm-up dancing on the days before is part of the game. Everybody can instantly learn the easiest form of the “pig dance“ and participate. And then, anyone who has not had too much to drink, yet, can teach it to others on Līgo, as far as they haven’t had too much to drink, yet.
At the dancing party in the park of Ziemeļblāzma no beverages are sold, just a beer mug made of expanding foam is up for decor. The cultural center is on the very outskirts of Riga. It has its own dance regulars, but on this evening there are also groups coming from other parts of the city. Many young families are here. Toddlers who can hardly walk on their own who want to dance, too.
All that sounds terribly folkloric. And it is. But folklore in Latvia is not cheesy or outdated but a serious affair, even supportive of the state. It’s worth digging deeper. Folk dances, garments made of linen, folk songs, ribbons and knitted fabrics with traditional roots – that’s what modern Latvian culture and identity is based on. Now that sounds terribly pathetic, but it’s true.
It was only around the turn to the 20th century that Latvians, who for centuries had been under foreign rule, had to define what “Latvian“ meant to them. In addition to the language, there was, above all, what today sounds like folk. That is why the songs, dances, poems and legends, the uncouth garments and the traditional patterns became an integral part of Latvian identity, and have again since becoming independent from the Soviet Union. Sharing songs and dances – and sharing means that a few thousands of people may come together – is an affair of national treasure.
It’s in the song, in the poem and in the pattern that the Latvian soul and the Latvian cosmos are reflected, so the belief.
The chant day in the summer is just as important as the celebration of Līgo. And when they sing and dance, the otherwise so stoic Latvians break out in an emotional fire of a sopping sweet melancholy, an overflow with love for all that is near and the universe as such, an unstoppable lust for life that is in urgent need of schnaps and beer because otherwise, it might burn them up from the inside. All this to the beat of polka and gallop.
Once the hearts of the Latvians are on fire, they’re ablaze. But they are hard to inflame.
Being laid back up to showing complete lack of emotion is the aim of self-representation. Being cool is what that’s called elsewhere.
If it weren’t for the highly emotional poems, the jubilant folk songs that need to be sung just as gleefully, for the heartbreaking hits, one would think the Latvians a bunch of bores. But of course they aren’t, in the eyes of the Latvians that’s the Lithuanians and Finns.
And to not leave out any cliché: in case of doubt, a Latvian man is named Jānis (Johannes, name day on June 23rd) and a woman Liga (the one born on Midsummer, name day June 24th) – these names are highly common, and again, it’s about Līgo, the great summer celebration, that takes place on exactly these days. One isn’t quite sure, but translated, its name could mean: day on which one sings. Or also: day on which one staggers. No kidding.
Nevertheless, a lot of preparation that goes beyond the dance lessons is needed for the celebration. It’s almost like the time around Christmas. The supermarkets broaden their range of goods with particularly many beer mugs – even Bavarian beer mugs can be seen. Torches, thick candles, BBQ equipment, mosquito spray, hit CDs, plastic dishes, even rain pelerines and garden parasols should help to celebrate into the wee hours.
In the fresh produce section, whole freezers are reserved for brats and Ķimeņu Siers, the caraway cheese. Midsummer without this cheese would be like the Oktoberfest in Munich without pretzels.
Those who don’t make the caraway cheese for Līgo themselves go to one of the several Līgo markets. The biggest one is right at the cathedral square in the old city of Riga and offers cheese, ham, honey and hand-carved objects. The palm-sized ornaments made of wood are especially popular at the moment; they look like a mix of runes and broken bits of a run-over rustic fence.
But most important of all are the flowers.
In plastic tubs. In large sheaves. On triangular stands. Market- women are binding wreaths from cornflowers, red poppies and daisies for the ladies. Men with large crowns made of oak leaves are selling oak leaves to other men so that they, too, can be summer kings on the holiday. After jumping over the fire, they will go “searching for fern blossoms“ in the undergrowth with the ladies. Another such custom which, after several liters of beer, indeed requires the strength of oaks.
Onstage at the market children are singing in a choir. Birch twigs and a poster with daisies are the stage setting. Children and teenagers are singing and dancing. Hop, hop. Their parents are delighted. Several elderly ladies have tears in their eyes. There it blazes, the Latvian fire – even days before the actual St. John’s fires burn.
* * *
Chuckling and clicking already reveals them although they are just talking to each other without wanting to share anything with their environment. They are somewhere up there in the treetops. Chuckle. Gah. Caaaw! Now they have revealed themselves. The common ravens are schmoozing. In Germany, they are almost extinct, in Gauja National Park and elsewhere, they circle over the woods, making clear with their loud caw-caw who has sovereignty over each airspace. The areas are big, big enough for extensive scenic flights on gleaming wings. National parks protect the landscape, but it is often allowed to do as it pleases anyways because many spaces, many forests are not cultivated. It is where storks stalk through wildflower meadows, snatching frogs. Their nests sit on power poles, in the summer their chicks peek over the edge out into the wild world.
Latvia is a birds‘ paradise.
Bird watchers from all over the world already have it marked on their map of favorite destinations. But it must also catch the attention of the non-birder. In the summer in the city, there’s a warbling and squealing in the air, groups of black little fellows flit over the sky: a swallow and swift ballet. In every bush, on every square there’s chirping: a sparrow concert.
It’s in the often crumbling Latvian cities full of old buildings where birds find the best breeding grounds. The dirt roads and farms with their muddy puddles are nesting material-hardware stores for swallows. And yes, real bird lovers also get excited about the sparrow on the roof. In Latvia, it’s worth looking up.
Nature lovers enjoy that, but of course they are drawn out into the national parks. For example, in Ķemeri National Park in the summer, there’s the largest open-air buffet that birds could possibly ask for. From swamps and lakes a myriad of mosquitos ascends, in the forests and dunes beetles and flies of all kinds are scraping and scratching. All the swallows have to do is open their beaks and fly straight ahead, and it could be a spectacle to be enjoyed in the evening on the terrace, but… the mosquitos, oh, the mosquitos.
Latvia’s air is brimming with life and its cities are so rich in abandoned and dilapidated houses that urban exploring, exploring and taking pictures of such forlorn places, is by far not as hip in Latvia as it is in Germany. It’s just not exciting enough. At least for the most part.
Some abandoned houses have absorbed so much darkness and pain in their walls that they are mute monuments.
The house in Rigaer Brīvības iela 61 is such a dark monument. With its mirrored panes it stares out onto the big arterial road. “Stūra māja“, corner house is what the Rigans call it, or also black house. The bulky house, which was soot-blackened for a long time, was built in the period of promoterism and towers over the junction. Here, the “chekka“ had their seat, as the Latvians called the KGB. After the Wende, the collapse of the GDR, the police took the building. In 2008, it was cleared out and sealed. Up until 2014, when Riga was the European Capital of Culture and the Black House was opened for one season for exploring.
The light in the long corridors is pale. The wallpaper is half-way torn, the linoleum is creaking.
Heavy, white-lacquered doors, some are padded from the inside, some are still sealed. Safes with briefcases full of filing cards which could reveal which highly regarded members of Latvian society today worked for the KGB. Ruts in the floor from the wheels of desk chairs. In the interrogation room, a club on the table. Dark cells with cots for dissidents and those who were denounced. Under the floorboards of the execution room there is still the drain for the blood of the dead. The black house is also black from the inside. In 2014, artists and historians showed exhibitions, contemporary witnesses came by, sometimes they had been invited, sometimes they just happened to come. They told of torture, of transports to Siberia, to labor camps.
Again, tears fell onto the beaten hardwood floor. And what else might be lurking behind the doors that are still sealed? What terror is sleeping under the floorboards?
* * *
The moor is old. It has wrinkles and cracks, deep creases that have filled up with black water. The wind is sweeping across the plain, shakes the cripple spruces and tousles the little birches that dare to grow here. Most of the plants are ducking: the mosses, the lichens, and the sundew. Millionfold it stretches out its little leaves in hope of catching a mosquito. The corncrake scurries across the mossy pillows.
Here, it is good to be small and light because the chances of a big animal never to be seen again are pretty high in the moor of Kemeri. Being swallowed by the earth that is so ancient and so alive that the bedrock sways, the lakes just seemingly have a shore, mosses on the wet bedrock only swim. Earth and water blur and become one here and form a landscape that even goes beyond the view from the swaying observation tower.
Footbridges made of long planks traverse the seeming prehistoric plains, so that hikers don’t just find their way in, but also out, alive. It is the kind of swamp that, since time immemorial, has frightened humans, because it devours man and sometimes mice, because it exhales foul smells and its bottom is so treacherous, in short, because nature here is more powerful than the human mind.
Most of these moors today have been drained and the peat from their bottoms was burned in ovens. Not so in Latvia, where national parks such as the one of Kemeri protect these exceptional swamp landscapes and where swamps elsewhere are also tolerated because there is still enough room for humans, forests and swamps.
The earth – in Ķemeri Park it has so many physical states like nowhere else in Latvia.
It is black water and black soil, lets marsh areas grow and neglected grassland, reed and lawn. As mire, it devours the boardwalk behind the historic forest house, as breeding ground it gives birth to so many pests that the same forest house once had a restaurant called “The Merry Mosquito“. It breathes sulfur and is the stage for the little ballerinas named sundew which dance here in their tutus of sparkling beads. As sand it trickles into the sea and at the beach, it creeps into your shoes, your backpack, your bag of cookies.
In Gauja National Park, the earth opens its doors. Lake Gauja has dug itself a nice valley here, cliffs and caves are luring in the surrounding area. In front of the famous Gutmanns Cave, bus tourists are literally stepping on each other’s toes. Almost no one follows the path to the other two caves which the sandstone cliff has also opened here.
Not as devious, but therefore even further remote is the sanatorium in Līgatne, a spooky place in the forest. Even in Soviet times the trees whispered that something was not right with the sanatorium. That it might actually be a missile base.
In fact, the Soviets dug the biggest bunker Latvia’s into the high shores of the Gauja.
Beneath nine meters of cement and rock, there is room for 250 people which would be able to survive for three months without having any contact to the outside world. After the Wende, the Soviets dropped everything as it was.
The sanatorium is still in operation and has kept its Soviet charm, the bunker can be visited.
Almost every day, guide Oskars, a Latvian, shows groups around in the “most safe and secret place of whole Latvia,“ as he says. In the control room, there are still maps and plans of action on the wall from 1988 – hand-drawn – as the information they contained were so classified that no one wanted to trust a printer with them. Even today, it is not allowed to take a picture of them, unless Oskars allows it. He thinks the job in the command center was the toughest one in whole Soviet Latvia. Because, year for year, the guards would stare at the little lights and alarm phones – and nothing ever happened.
Oskars explains that the walls were painted green so that in case of a nuclear war the people who would have been jammed here together wouldn’t have gone mad in their subterranean isolation. Green has a calming effect, they say. Only men were supposed to find shelter here, important men of the Soviet regime, each in his own office that was also a bedroom at the same time. Only the general secretary of the Communist Party had real wallpaper and in addition to his office with a heavy desk, also a bedroom with a real bed.
The last general secretary of the Latvian CP is still alive. Oskars would like to bring him here, into his old office, that looks exactly like he left it, and take a picture of him.
But that’s probably not going to happen, he says. Which is a shame, really.
* * *
With a loud bang, the heavy door falls shut. It becomes pitch dark and completely still in the room. Two students and the jovial Latvian are standing outside, but the room is disconnected from the world and from life. No sound, no ray of light. The cold creeps up my legs. The walls, invisible but still present, draw closer together. This is the “hole“, the punishment cell in Karosta Prison. Whoever was locked up in here, rebelled, fought, possibly only complained in prison. The “hole“ of Karosta is a dreadful place.
The walls breathe misery, the floor is drenched with despair.
The jovial Latvian opens the door again. “So, wanna stay in here for another three weeks?“. The man, who doesn’t want to reveal his name and is actually a professional photographer, is the last prisoner of the military prison Karosta. Until 1997, the building of the czarist period served as a prison for soldiers. It was used by seven armies in a row. The brick building is now a museum and whoever wants to can also experience it. There are overnight accommodations, re-enactments, interactive history shows, bachelor parties, so that the memory and the history of this place are kept alive.
The jovial Latvian has a room upstairs in the building. Whenever someone would like to spend the night in one of the cells, he also has to spend the night here. He’s been doing this for ten years. He sighs. “Of course this does do something to me. And when I’m here by myself in the fall and maybe have to fix something then I realize that I am not really alone here.“
At least the cell for the visitors is painted blue and has glass bricks instead of bars – but still, no windows. Inside, the light is forever dim. Even in the high summer bare feet get cold on the floor. No WLAN, no cell phone network, no TV, no reading lamp. The dim light on the ceiling is still turned off as it was in former times: from the outside, with the help of a long broom stick. The iron bed is a little more than shoulder width. A night in Karosta prison is a night for reflecting. About suffering. About despair. About inner strength.
Tiptoeing barefoot across the gloomy corridors of the prison at night is more real than any show could possibly get. Shadows in the corners. Dark-brown walls. Graffitis of real prisoners in the museum cells. Is that the sound of boots in the side corridor? Is the cold chill really only coming from the floor? It is still in the corridors, a deathlike silence, and the history of the place, like a dark-brown blanket, heavily sinks onto the soul.
It remains to look inside and remember the fifth element: freedom.
It has been so rare in Latvia that it is a force here that does not drive the people and society apart, but moves them closer together. Freedom, the most precious good of the community.
Freedom, that was not fought for, but yearned for, waited for and a little sung for in a stoic serenity.
Freedom that in Karosta was always farthest away, even outside the prison walls. For nearly 100 years, the whole neighborhood that belongs to the city of Liepāja on the west coast was a restricted military area. A swing bridge separated it from the rest of the city. For the most part, the Soviet industrialized apartment blocks are abandoned, but in the morning you can already see some shirtless guys leaning out the windows and swearing, with a bottle of vodka in one hand. They are remains of an old time, caught in Latvia’s Soviet past. Young families have moved into the other houses, remodeling them as well as possible, planting flowers in the front yards. They are making use of the new freedom.
Some of the inmates were here in the brick prison for months. Others only for a few days. Until they were sober, or their souls broken or the execution squad of the Wehrmacht came in order to shoot all those who were believed to be deserters, not caring in which army they had served. Today, where there used to be the mass graves of WW2, there are now garages for the nearby industrial apartment blocks, just across from the entrance of the prison. The memorial site for the killed soldiers of all armies that were court-martialled and shot in Karosta as deserters is hidden in a little forest, hardly visible from the street.
“We didn’t want to be in the war,“ it says in several languages on a stone.
The jovial Latvian with the gentle eyes thinks it’s ok that the deserters who didn’t want to stand up for their country were not commemorated more elaborately. In the morning, when the disheveled looking overnight guests crawl out of their cells, he puts on a Soviet uniform and waits with a cup of tea for visitors of the museum. “Maybe they would like to buy a souvenir,“ he says. There are t-shirts with a boot print and a swastika. “An old Latvian symbol,“ the man says, “it used to adorn the airplanes of the Latvian air force. Very archaic, very powerful. It belongs to us.“ The swastika is one of the symbols in Latvia which is also available on the market, made of wood.
They have already overcome the separating element, the river; the former problem neighborhood makes them a community of fate. In other parts of the country the places are more homogenous and the groups keep among themselves. For example, the cheese vendors in the central market, diving up to their fat elbows in a bucket with fresh cottage cheese, almost exclusively speak Russian. But, by law, they are required to label their goods in Latvian. Despite the fact that it’s a bilingual country, bilingual labeling is not allowed. The reason being that there are still Russians and inner Soviets in Latvia who refuse to speak or even learn the national language, Latvian. That’s about 300,000 citizens of Latvia – who don’t count as citizens and only have limited civil rights. “Nepilsoņa Pase“ (non-citizens) and “Alien’s Passport“ stands in their passports; they don’t have a nationality, aren’t allowed to vote, don’t get any pensions.
Though it’s really easy. “Labdien!,“ says the sturdy young lady, and asks “Kā Jums sauc?“ (Hello, what’s your name?).
Next comes “How are you?“, “Where do you live?“ and “What is your line of work?“. Standard questions of every beginner’s language course. Anyone who can answer them has already passed a good part of the oral language exam. They take place once a month in Riga; there are also other Latvian cities that offer these exams on a regular basis.
About 100 examinees huddle in the hall of a Riga middle school. Almost all of them are speaking Russian. It’s Saturday morning, everyone is nervous. The examiners and observers are wearing name pins in the Latvian national colors and are instructing the waiting crowd with Soviet abruptness. Hurry, hurry, give me your registration confirmation! The three parts of the written exam take place in a crowded school room. It smells of old socks. Listening comprehension, reading comprehension, writing, everything normed, everything exactly as it was practiced at the preparation course and in the textbook, be it application as a temp or Email to a friend.
In front of the classroom on a bench in the hallway sits an old woman with the hands of a farmer’s wife and holes in her shoes. A fat biker in a leather jacket and ponytail next to an Asian student. A Ukrainian mother of two children who wants to get a better job as she reveals during the break. Being fed up with being non-persons is what they all have in common.
Anyone who then sings the Latvian national anthem in another exam and passes the history test in which for example all periods of occupation, can become Latvian – and with that a citizen of the EU.
To be Latvian means a lot in Latvia.
It means that you didn’t lose yourself in the Soviet era. It means that you have an idea of what this Latvia is and what Latvian could be. It means getting your picture taken at Brīvības piemineklis (freedom monument) in Riga after a passed exam or on your wedding day and stopping to listen to a Latvian choir that’s singing in the mall.
Also free to continue speaking Russian with Russians and free to think that these angular old symbols are not cool and that Putin is great. If Russian, Latvian or anyone else in Latvia: The hard-won freedom is what holds them all together.
* * *
Translation by Kate Weyerer.