As we cannot go on holidays for the foreseeable future, we can nevertheless look back on those we have enjoyed.
A few years ago my wife and I visited Latvia in The Baltic.
We stayed in the seaside resort of Jurmala, about half an hour by train or bus from the capital, Riga. Jurmala was developed at the end of the 19th century as a holiday destination for Russians. At that time, and since the 17th century, Latvia had been part of Russia, a fully integrated part of the Romanov Empire. But the first thing to say about Latvian history is that, from the point of view of buildings and monuments, there is surprisingly little to see that is old. Of course ‘Old Riga’ is ‘sold’ as a medieval city, yet it is largely medieval in a Disney sense – rebuilt post 1945 and post 1991. That doesn’t mean that Riga hasn’t beautiful buildings and is rich in history. Indeed if my home city of Bristol had been rebuilt after 1945 in the way that many cities in mainland Europe were rebuilt then we would still have today an historic medieval core to Bristol.
Oddly in Riga there are two distinctive and beautiful sets of ‘real’ buildings. These are sadly being left to decline. One set are the art nouveau buildings, which are indeed quite spectacular. It is true however that some of these are now at last being cared for. The other set of buildings, which are in dire need of renovation and repair, are the unique wooden town houses, some are two storeys high. The Latvians are beginning to realise the importance of these (they already care for the grander wooden houses of the Russian pre World War One elite in Jurmala).
The modern history of Latvia can be said to have begun in 1905, when along with the rest of Russia, Latvia rose in revolt against Nicholas II in the 1905 Revolution. There is a splendid monument on the riverside in Riga commemorating this failed Revolution and the thousands of Latvians killed, executed, imprisoned or banished to Siberia. During the First World War the country was fought over by both the German and Russian Armies. When Revolution finally came in 1917, Latvia became a scene of further fighting as the Latvians declared their national independence and had to see off The Red Army of the new USSR. The Russians weren’t finally expelled until 1920, following the declaration of independence made in November 1918 at the end of the war. Along with its Baltic neighbours, Estonia to the north, and Lithuania to the south, Latvia enjoyed a brief period of nationhood until the Russian invasion in 1940. But that is only part of the story because in 1934 Latvian democracy had already been internally overthrown when the dictator, Ulmanis, seized power.
The Latvians refer to the period 1940 to 1991 as the Time of the Three Occupations – firstly that of Soviet Russia from 1940 to 1941 (the time of the German- Russian Pact), secondly, that of the Nazi Occupation from 1941 to 1945, and finally the decades of Soviet rule from 1945 to 1991. Latvia again became independent in 1991. This independence, since 2004, has been strengthened by Latvia’s membership of The EU and of NATO. Both significant in the light of a renewed Russian threat. Indeed while we were in Latvia we saw the laying of white and red flowers outside the Georgian Embassy in Riga as a sign of anti-Russian solidarity during the Russo-Georgian War.
Of course, the ethnic mix of Latvia is far different now than it was prior to 1940. The Holocaust saw the elimination of the Latvian Jewish community, and to this horror of horrors has to be added the number of ethnic Latvians who died in Russian camps. Before 1940 some 75% of the population was Latvian whereas today it has fallen to 59%. Moreover, the total drop in population was in the order of 35%. This loss of population was made up post 1945 by the moving of ethnic Russians into Latvia by the Soviet regime. This means that today the population of Riga, approx 1/3rd of the national population, is equally divided between Latvians and Russians. Across the country as a whole nearly 30% of the population is Russian. This means there is a problem at the very heart of Latvian society, which won’t go away for a long time yet. The question to ask, is how will the Latvian Russians react to the attempts to Latvianise them, and, more importantly how will Russia act. In truth, Latvia is probably as safe and secure as it can be, but it clearly needs to address the problem of the two ethnicities or else it will begin to create a Baltic Belgium. Moreover, there is the further question of endemic corruption in a state which shows few signs of dealing effectively with it.