Bless me blogosphere for I have sinned. I should’ve posted this a couple of weeks ago. Had other things to do. Sorry, sort of.
I calibrated my recent travels in Europe to be in Riga for Latvia’s indepdence celebrations. Like the other Baltic states, Latvia celebrates when the first sovereign Latvian state was declared at the end of WW I–in 1918. Ethnic Latvians and ostensibly international law view the period from 1938-1991 as an occupation–by the Soviets, briefly Nazi Germany, then the Soviets again. This is also the basis for one of the more controversial aspects of post-Soviet Latvia: citizenship laws that view anyone who arrived in the country during the occupation years as being occupiers–and therefore not entitled to (automatic) Latvian citizenships. That goes for their progeny as well.
Roughly one third of the population of Latvia are not ethnic Latvians. Most are Russians; most of the rest are russophones from other parts of the Soviet Union. They were shipped to the Baltics to work in industry and collective farming. Many never learned the Latvian language, since russification was an integral part of Soviet policy. These people could gain Latvian citizenship if they could pass a Latvian language test. Latvian, if you’re unawares, is a rather complex language to learn. Many claim the complexity of the original exams for citizenship were purposely designed to make it nearly impossible for “occupiers” to pass.
Latvia is 1/3 ex-Soviet. Riga, the capital, is nearly 50 per cent ex-Soviet. All of which makes “indepence day” in Riga very interesting.
During the day there was the obligatory quasi-militaristic ceremony (I sorted of went, but couldn’t be bothered to find a spot where I could see). Throughout the old town persons of all ages–schoolchildren, adults, seniors–were wandering around with paper flags and lovely fabric flag lapel pins for revellers.It all had a rather nice, low key vibe to it–although, to be fair, I was unable to understand any of the rhetoric of the day.
Like Vilnius, Riga has a museum dedicated to the years of occupation–and it’s a very good museum. Visiting it on their national holiday was particularly special: parents and grandparents old enough to remember the Soviet era leading children through the exhibits.
After many hours enjoying the old town in the day, I went back to my hotel and rested a bit before heading back out for the evening. All told I walked perhaps 15km that day and night. In lovely, bracing, +2C weather.
There were fireworks over the river, but what I really came out for was Riga Lights. Each year on indepence day–where the days are already very short, with perhaps 6 hours of full daylight–the old town is turned into a multimedia festival. Images, video, animation and light shows are projected onto buildings. There’s performance art, music, it’s a wonderful evening. Some installations are up all evening; many others pop up for perhaps 30 minutes and are then shut down. So wandering around is very much a good thing to do.
This installation featured a bahia riff, Latvian spoken word, the sound of a typewriter, and all sorts of cool imagery (like this sound wave). My photos don’t really do it justice.
This is the Saeima (parliament) dolled up with lights so it becomes a Latvian flag.
Eventually my legs were rubbery so I went home. I got a bit sidetracked and ended up near the Russian orthodox cathedral–well outside the old town–which seemed to be hosting a different party for folks not as thrilled about Latvian independence.
Complete photo set found here.