Our Diary News from Riga, Latvia

The trip from Tallinn to Riga took us through well-cultivated fields of cereals interspersed by beech and pine forest linking small hamlets - all looking verdant in the summer sunshine. The second Baltic state, Latvia, looked much the same as Estonia on the outside but inwardly there were huge differences.

Whereas Estonia capitulated to all the invaders, proud Latvia stood its ground. The city fathers adopted an interesting defensive strategy - not huge city walls, but rather a rule that all buildings surrounding the city must be built of wood. If an invader came then the whole town was to be set on fire! This strategy worked and kept them semi-independent, although a few false alarms created havoc in the city!

In 1938 everything changed - the Nazis took no prisoners and brutalised the inhabitants, creating concentration camps and rounding up Jews and partisans - Latvia had a large Jewish population. Eventually liberation came and the Soviets moved in. What few partisans were left fought a guerrilla war against them.

In retaliation the Soviets adopted a policy of "Sovietisation" which entailed knocking down heritage buildings and replacing them with concrete, unadorned structures. They also resettled the Latvians to Russia and resettled Russians into Latvia. In all 30% of the Latvian population was replaced or killed during Stalin's era.

Perestroika came as welcome relief for Latvia, but the wounds run deep. Today Russia is still feared - to the extent that the displaced Russians in Latvia are not allowed to claim Latvian citizenship and obtain a passport. It is our opinion that because of these issues Latvia has not yet 'found' itself. In a stark, black, Soviet building is housed the Occupation Museum, which graphically illustrated the impact of these occupations on Latvia's culture.

Having said that, there is a degree of affluence; the market, located in five old zeppelin hangars, was full of shoppers and lots of lovely produce. A walk around Riga gave us a mixed impression - Soviet-style buildings including a good example of a "Stalin's Birthday Cake" -style building, mingled with original timber structures and medieval warehouses. Things to do and places to see were minimal; we took time to catch up on laundry and book our next leg of travel to Vilnius in Lithuania.