From year of Terror to Year of Culture

Latvian-Russian tensions are brought to the forefront of the city as Riga named a 2014 European Culture Capital.

The KGB, moved into this house in 1940 when the Soviet Union occupied Latvia for the first time. ​ Now it's re-opened for visitors as part of Riga's European Capital of Culture projects.

The KGB, moved into this house in 1940 when the Soviet Union occupied Latvia for the first time. ​ Now it’s re-opened for visitors as part of Riga’s European Capital of Culture projects.

For outsiders, it appears simply as a normal corner apartment which has passed its expiry date. But for locals, this place is often a painful reminder of what used to be and hopefully will never happen again. This former KGB house on the corner of former Lenin and Friedrich Engels streets is the place where the Russian secret police would interrogate and shoot Latvians who were against the Stalin regime during the Soviet occupation. Due to the status of Riga as one of the Capital of Cultures 2014, it was re-opened for people to take a look and learn about history—the first time it has ever been open to the public. “Finally people talk about this and no longer pass the building. Also people who were imprisoned here visit this place, they do tend to find it very difficult’,” explains the young girl who works here as a summer job. “It’s badly paid, but I learn a lot.”

Just a few kilometres outside Riga’s city centre where the former KGB building is located, the grey buildings and poorly maintained roads look dangerously at you like an intruder. At least, that’s how Latvian people tend to think of this specific area. “You went to Moscow St. and you survived?” Three pair of eyes look at me in horror.  This response could be exemplary for the problems surrounding the large Russian minority in Latvia. It was only a few days before the shocked reaction that I had enjoyed my Sunday afternoon in this oldest ghetto of Riga, not knowing where I was. Not the danger but the Russian language, many beautiful churches and coffee for €0,85 was what surprised me the most. But was I wrong? Is this ‘Little Moscow’ area truly a dangerous place due to its inhabitants?

The contradictions haunted me through my week in Riga, where I spoke to many people — both Russian and Latvian — to find out if Riga’s status as European Capital of Culture 2014 mentions anything about the cultural division in the city. I met Daina Ruasato, the spokesperson for Riga 2014, on a walk to discuss a few highlights of the cultural event. We’re accompanied by her big dog. “He’s afraid of small dogs, really,” she tells me confidentially. Daina herself, young and energetic, is refreshingly honest about current issues in her city. “It’s still a sensitive topic to some people, which is also shaped by personal experiences. Some feel our culture needs to be protected. That’s an opinion that I think a lot of Latvians have.” Daina tells me about her idea that accepting Russian culture and language would add to peoples’ wealth of knowledge. “But, talking to several people you’ll hear different stories,” she says.  Later on, I find out that these diverse stories are caused by an incredibly complicated history. I realise that still these events are very recent (Latvia regained independence of the USSR in 1991). Daina, however, is positive about the future: “Hopefully problems will be solved soon, but with this younger generations I think it will.”

“The perceptions last longer than you want them to”

Later on, Daina’s dog spots a small and hairy animal and intervenes between the two and the other dog’s owner, but speaks in a different language. “Was that Russian?” I ask. She nods: “I have a grandmother from Moscow so I speak both languages. One of the girls in my job has a Latvian mom and Russian dad. She says she feels Latvian but when she’ll say that to Latvians they will say ‘No, you’re Russian.’  The perceptions last longer then you want them to.” When asked if Riga’s 2014 Culture Capital status could be the bridge that overcomes these differences, Daina is cheerful yet again and claims that it unites people: “It’s a great way to overcome integration barriers. You realize it’s people and not the stereotype.”

The inside of the KGB house on the corner, open for visitors.

The inside of the KGB house on the corner, open for visitors.

The streets of Riga have a very unique cultural character, caused by a rich history of diverse occupations during the past centuries. Because numerous countries have ruled Latvia (Germany, Russia, Sweden), modern Latvians are very motivated to maintain and protect their national culture, especially from Russian influence. According to many online articles, Russian speakers (50 per cent of the population in Riga) have their own cultural life as well as schools, jobs and media channels. Is their culture then also being reflected in Riga as the capital of culture? Ingus Berzins, editor-in-chief of Latvia’s biggest online news channel, Delfi, points out that perhaps Russians feel a gap between themselves and the projects running for Riga 2014. But it’s not only Latvian culture that’s being represented. “Look at the ballet: there is no division; the dancers are often Russian, the audience is Russian, Latvian, anything,” says Ingus. But what about the media messages about all these separate life-spaces? Ingus, whose online newspaper appears in both Russian and Latvian, explains: “We obviously know that the media and information spaces for both nationalities are divided. There are not many Russians who listen to Latvian radio. Looking at Riga as the capital of culture I think that the organization wants it to be mixed with both high and low culture. But if we neutrally look at the event it’s obviously high culture.”

Sure, if the officials and the media write about these difficulties it must be true. But how do you see this in the everyday life? Sit back, relax and watch a movie because even the cinemas can’t seem to escape to the needs of their audience. Two subtitles —– Latvian and Russian — pop up on the big screen. Ingus writes about these contradictions on a daily basis and although he himself is a theatre lover, he tends to have a slightly more pessimistic view regarding the role of culture in this culture-dilemma. “With every new generation, new Russian people are more integrated and so on some level the media will mix. I do however think it’s too strongly put that culture is ‘the answer’ to our issues. I think that somehow these contradictions between Russians and Latvians and the understanding of history is so different that I can perfectly imagine that. However a Russian person visits the theatre, he will still vote for a Russian party.”

Latvia, as one of the former Soviet Republics, has the biggest Russian population than anywhere else. With recent Russian expansion in Crimea, how ‘scared’ should everyone be? Ingus explains, “If we exaggerate a little bit, I think it’s natural that every Latvian is afraid of Russia right now.” Are they feeling supported by other countries? “At some level they do feel supported by the EU, especially since recent events in the Ukraine. Everybody understands now even more so that it’s a reasonable fear.  I think in the near future people will be more integrated into Latvian society. But of course we can’t predict what Moscow will do because of the big sentiment in the Russian federation about their previous territories that have been lost.”

“Finally people talk about this part of our history”

The remembrance of earlier Soviet times that’s still present does not only have a stinging effect on the population. As I sneak a peek in the House on the Corner myself, the young working girl explains people are not only able to look at the past but also to the future with the opening of the house. But: “There are still ongoing discussions about the destiny of the building. They don’t know what they’ll do with the house after this year. Some say it should be built into a hotel.” She smiles,”tourists won’t know what happened here.”



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