In Ratslaukums, Riga’s central square, there is an ugly brutalist building which encapsulates the contested history of Latvia’s beautiful, battered capital. This modernist eyesore was erected in 1970, when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union. It was built as a museum dedicated to Lenin’s crack troops, the Red Latvian Riflemen, who helped him overthrow the Tsar and win the resultant civil war. Without them, the Russian Revolution might have been stillborn.
Today the content of this museum is completely different. The only relic of the Latvian Riflemen is the Soviet statue in the street outside. Now this building houses the Occupation Museum, which tells the story of Latvia’s Nazi and Soviet subjugations: by the Soviets from 1940 to 1941, by the Nazis from 1941 to 1944, and by the Soviets (again) from 1944 to 1991.
It hardly sounds like a barrel of laughs, but in fact it’s surprisingly uplifting. You’re confronted by a catalogue of totalitarian brutality, but there are also numerous accounts of courage and resistance. And incredibly, against all odds, this is a story with a happy ending. Despite the Communists’ best efforts to subsume them into the Soviet Union, the Latvians retained their sense of nationhood, and then in 1991 something amazing happened: the USSR collapsed, and Latvia regained her independence.
Riga feels like a young city, the capital of a country that’s barely 30 years old (at least in its current incarnation), yet its antique architecture confirms this is an ancient place. It was founded by the Teutonic Knights in the 12th century, and in the cobbled alleys of its medieval old town you get a strong sense of its Germanic roots. But that cluster of gingerbread houses is just a small part of this diverse city. The Art Nouveau district is one of the biggest and best preserved in all of Europe.