Exploring Riga’s Past and Present

View of Riga's Freedom Monument at dusk

On the flat, sandy plains where the Daugava River rushes into the gulf lies Riga, largest of the Baltic cities. At first sight, the Latvian capital looks worn around the edges and none too cheerful, but gently peel back the frosty layers of chrome and steel and an inner vibrance will reveal itself.

Along the embankment on the rim of the Vecrīga, the city’s historical kernel, a cacophony meets the eye. Gargantuan arches of grim looking hangars hide a sprawling bazaar: at the time of its inauguration in 1930, Riga’s Central Market was Europe’s largest. Today, vendors continue to peddle every conceivable kind of consumable, from an infinite array of wild berries to smoked eels and sauerkraut juice. Surveying the scene staunchly from a distance is the imposing Stalinist vessel of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. Many of the nearby monuments are hallmarks from another epoch. They hearken back to a not-so-bygone era, when zeppelins ruled the air and Europe trembled from the ricochets of falling empires and shrapnel.

Former zeppelin hangars have been transformed into Riga's Central Market
Riga Central Market and the Latvian Academy of Sciences

It’s been almost thirty years since Latvia regained independence, and a generation which has never experienced life under occupation now plays an active hand in shaping the country’s future. But the path to self-determination has not been an easy one.

The conquest of Latvian lands began in the early Middle Ages. As the last stronghold of the old gods, this heathen corner of Northern Europe became a primary target in the Crusades. Riga, first emerging from the riverbanks as a trading post during the Viking period, was claimed, consecrated, and fortified into a base from where the Church christianized the Baltics. The city’s standings and subsequent joining of the Hanseatic League bolstered its growth and prosperity. This, however, only benefited the town’s German-speaking gentry: the Livonian peasantry—predecessors of modern Latvians—were gradually stripped of their rights to guild membership, land ownership, and representation in the local administration.

“Livonia was hell for the peasants, paradise for the clergy, and a gold mine for the squires and merchants.” —Arveds Švābe, The Story of Latvia

In the centuries that followed, the surrounding lands were parceled and partitioned, and Riga was passed from power to power—first to Poland, then to Sweden, and finally to Russia. Under Tsarist rule, the Baltics served as a bridge between Saint Petersburg and Western Europe. They led the wave of industrialization as well as the abolition of serfdom, and by the turn of the twentieth century, Riga had become one of the most developed parts of the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, for all the region’s successes, the Latvians still lost: emancipation was gained at the expense of their land, which had now become the private property of Baltic German barons.

The Riga Cathedral in Latvia under waning daylight
Riga Cathedral

The course of World War I shook the plane of power in Europe and seeded the idea of an independent state. What used to be an unfathomable fantasy now seemed within reach. On the heels of the Russian Revolution, Latvia declared independence in 1918. Autonomy was sweet, but short-lived: the onset of World War II saw all three Baltic nations coerced and eventually reclaimed by Russia. As a part of the Soviet Union, Riga and the rest of Latvia were subject to considerable sovietization, and the country’s ethnic composition was altered dramatically. By the time of the restoration of Latvian independence in 1990, over a third of the population were ethnic Russians.

Old town square of Riga, Latvia
Līvu Square

Despite eight hundred years of foreign influence and hegemony, the Latvian people have managed to preserve not only their language, but a unique folkloric culture: the traditions of their ancestors live on through song and handwork. Pre-Christian poems recount stories of celestial deities and cosmic rivers. Intricately woven mittens conceal hidden invocations of strength, health, and fertility in their geometric patterns. And in June, as the summer solstice approaches, Rigans and other city folk flock to the countryside to celebrate the shortest night of the year with bonfires, singing, and wreath-making—flower crowns for the girls, and oak leaves for the boys.

Krišjāņa Barona iela, Riga, Latvia
Krišjāņa Barona street

The Latvian affinity towards pagan motifs and floral details can be found in the blueprints of Riga as well. Aside from its other cultural accolades, Latvia’s capital has the distinction of being the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Almost a third of all constructions in central Riga date back to the early twentieth century, when the hyperbolically embellished style was in its heyday and Riga was in the midst of an urban bloom.

The reconstructed House of the Blackheads in Riga, Latvia
House of the Blackheads

Strolling though the old town center, it’s hard to believe that the cobbled streets and cinnabar buildings suffered critical damages during World War II. Many spots of cultural and aesthetic value were reduced to rubble, and tremendous efforts have been made to restore Riga’s heritage after the war. The incomparably charming Līvu Square, with its soft billows of flowerbeds and gentle pastel façades, is an astounding example of one. Just around the corner, Riga’s Town Hall Square is another: the central plaza’s iconic House of the Blackheads—often mistaken for an authentic fourteenth-century masterwork—was painstakingly replicated and only assumed its current reincarnation in 1999.

Latvia's old town center at nighttime
Līvu Square at nighttime

Perhaps it’s due to history, or perhaps it’s due to the sunlight which still clings to the skies late into the summer nights, but time is an illusive concept in Riga. Things are more complex that they appear and life is lived in subtler shades. However, when the lamp posts do light up and illuminate the alleys and boulevards with their sepia-like glow, it’s easier than ever to see how Riga must have enchanted its inhabitants, visitors, and conquerers of the ages past.

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