As you enter the old KGB building, at the end of Freedom Street, the first thing that hits you is the cold. Outside it’s below freezing. Inside it’s even colder. The cells are in the basement, down a dank and narrow corridor. Upstairs are the offices where the KGB filed away the details of the men and women they kept below. In the foyer, where people used to come in to enquire about their next of kin (who might be dead or in Siberia or in a cell downstairs for all they knew), there’s a letterbox where visitors could leave incriminating memos about their neighbours. ‘During the Soviet occupation the State Security Agency imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims in this building,’ reads a plaque outside. Since Latvia won its independence this art-nouveau apartment block has been empty. This year it will reopen, as part of Riga’s year as European Capital of Culture. ‘The House on the Corner’ (as Latvians still call it, euphemistically) will become a museum.
Invaded by the USSR and then the Nazis and then the USSR again, Latvia has been a nation for fewer than 100 years yet it spent more than half of the last century under occupation. No country deserves a party more, but returning to Riga late last year the timing felt all wrong. Latvia was about to swap its lats for euros, forsaking the currency that symbolised its hard-won independence. The supermarket collapse that killed 54 people had prompted the resignation of the prime minister. Latvia has the biggest growth in the EU (over 4 per cent) but in the economic crisis it lost 18 per cent of GDP, more than any other EU country. Can this little nation really afford a year-long artistic jamboree?
Conceived in 1985 by Melina Mercouri, the Greek minister of culture, the idea of Cultural Capitals was an EU plan to ‘foster a feeling of European citizenship’ (whatever that means) and ‘encourage a sense of belonging to the same European family, by making us aware of our common European roots and our shared ambitions for the future’ (hardly a mission statement designed to please British Eurosceptics). To Conservatives, it sounds a lot like one of those grands projets beloved by Continental socialists — yet another excuse for politicians to spend more of other people’s money. Yet participating cities have boosted tourism by 12 per cent on average. And unlike the Olympics or the World Cup, you don’t need to build any expensive new stadiums to qualify. Perish the thought, but might this crackpot Keynesian scheme actually make a profit?
For all the publicity it buys you, becoming a Cultural Capital isn’t quite as costly as you might imagine. The average spend is €39 million, but Reykjavik got by on less than €8 million. Liverpool was the biggest spender, blowing over €83 million in 2008, but tourism increased by a third and hotel sales by a quarter. Research by Liverpool and John Moores Universities calculated that the festival generated over £750 million. Riga has spent €24 million — mostly state and city money, plus €2.5 million in private sponsorship and €1.5 million from the EU. Latvia earns €476 million a year from tourism. A 5 per cent increase would cover Riga’s costs.
Since they’re mainly spending their own money, it’s hard to begrudge the Latvians their festivities — especially as they’re celebrating a culture that their Soviet overlords tried so hard to eradicate. As well as all the Latvians who died, countless more — particularly artists and intellectuals — were transported to Siberia and replaced by foreigners from far-flung corners of the USSR. Indigenous traditions were systematically undermined. Even leaving wreaths on Riga’s Freedom Monument — Latvia’s equivalent of the Cenotaph — was forbidden. Today it’s awash with flowers. The boulevard on which it stands has been called Alexander Street, Revolution Street, Freedom Street, Lenin Street, Adolf Hitler Street, Lenin Street once more and finally Freedom Street again. The ‘House on the Corner’ is just up the road.
A Hanseatic port, colonised by Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians, Riga has been an international city ever since the Middle Ages. Its 2014 programme reaffirms its cosmopolitan credentials. The opening event was a performance of Rienzi, the opera Wagner wrote while he lived in Riga. Subsequent treats include a series of Bach recitals in Riga’s robust medieval churches, built by the Germanic traders and crusaders who founded the city in the 13th century. The most dramatic event so far has been the ‘Chain of Books’, in which 15,000 Latvians formed a human chain to transfer books to the new National Library — echoing the peaceful protests of 1989, when two million people linked arms right across the Baltic states. ‘Culture isn’t a luxury — you need it, you can’t survive without it,’ says Anna Muhka from the Riga 2014 Foundation, as we leave the KGB building where so many Latvians disappeared. When her homeland was wiped off the map of Europe, when it vanished for half a century, art and language were the forces that kept the idea of Latvia alive. Literature was more resilient than journalism, more resistant to state censorship. Dissidents could say through poetry what they could never say in prose.
And now the UK has come up with a homegrown version of this EU project. Last year, Derry became the UK’s first City of Culture. For a city on the very edge of the United Kingdom (in several senses) it was an audacious choice, but the experiment seems to have paid off. The programme cost £20 million but it attracted more than a million visitors — not bad going for a city with barely 100,000 residents — and hotel bookings increased by a quarter. Though the festival is now over, the structural improvements remain. The Guildhall has been revamped, the riverfront has been revitalised and an army barracks has become an innovative arts space. During the Troubles, who would have thought this place would end up hosting the Turner Prize? This could be a rare occasion where splashing public cash may actually make good business sense.
Last weekend I went to Mons, next year’s EU Cultural Capital. For Britons it’s still synonymous with the battles that began and ended the first world war, but the city is surprisingly attractive — a compact citadel crisscrossed by cobbled alleys, lined with handsome merchant houses built of mottled brick. Like a lot of Belgian cities, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s already getting a good spring-clean in preparation for next year’s festivities. Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava is building a new train station. Cultural highlights include Van Gogh in the Borinage — a retrospective of the artist’s formative work in the city’s bleak coalmining hinterland.
Back in London, the Latvian Embassy hosts a party to mark Riga’s year as Cultural Capital. Located in a terraced house just off Marylebone Road, it’s a modest contrast to the palatial embassies in Belgrave Square. After a presentation by the Latvian ambassador Andris Teikmanis, the young Latvian pianist Reinis Zarins plays a medley by several Latvian composers: Jazeps Vitols, Janis Ivanovs and Peteris Vasks. Never heard of them? Me neither. But as their plaintive melodies carry me back to the windswept beaches of the Baltic, it strikes me that these composers deserve to be far better known. If Riga’s year as Cultural Capital introduces a few more Britons to this haunting music, perhaps this is one EU initiative of which we can approve. ‘We wanted to share the culture we have, and we wanted also to inspire people in Latvia to be creative,’ the ambassador tells me after the recital. ‘I think we have a lot of art to share, a lot of music to share, and we wanted to show it — to Europe and to the world.’