Roberts Romanovskis was a primary school student in a suburb outside of Riga. He was forced to disregard Latvian culture for decades, which encouraged him (and many others) to have a significant abhorrence for anything Russian. But this censorship of Latvian culture is a sensitive topic in the hearts of many residents. Paradoxically, he is of partial Russian descent which complicated his family’s social arrangement once the iron curtain had fallen.
Romanovskis’ grandfather was killed in combat by Nazi intruders, while defending Eastern Europe, but in the aftermath of a major political shift in Latvia, his bravery was worthless. This seems unfair, but after the obliteration from Soviet occupation in this tiny country, their logic is worth considering.
“Latvia’s past is …unique,” said Romanovskis.
“Almost every inch of this country is related to World War II, and eventually the Russians paraded over all of it during the height of their intervention in the ‘40s. But out of all the satellite states, Latvia was the most ungovernable of the whole Russian Empire.”
There are some who wish to scrape the disgusting filth of Russian influence right out of society, but time is the sweet enemy of those who wish to re-root their Baltic heritage. During the five decades of Soviet occupation, Latvians saw Russian immigrants as a dwindling minority, as about one-sixth of the population was Russian. But as Soviet troops invaded and were ordered to “Stalinify” the groundwork of Latvian society, Russians were able to constitute a majority of cities in Latvia and exile over 70,000 Latvians to Siberia, executing thousands more in secrecy.
“After the Soviet Union collapsed, our newly independent government enacted [a]series of laws to restore lost property to the victims of oppression,” said Romanovskis. “There are still fights over the rationality of these from the Russians who were evicted in Riga, but they are right in my eyes!”
Though evidence of the Soviet occupation remains in the streets of Riga, Russian culture rests in the fabric of the country as well. About a third of the country’s population today is Russian, and many of them are the offspring of the same soldiers who secretly murdered thousands after World War II. Though, interestingly enough, Latvia’s population has been in decline since 2006. According to the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, the population has declined by 1.01% from 2018 to 2019.
Despite the tattered political timeline and decline of population, Latvia’s capital city of Riga is restructuring and emerging as a tourist destination. Modernization has increased the amount of “niche” amenities one European destination may have, and suburbs full of hipsters and new-age globalists are now developed enough to be considered a cultural attraction in brochures for the city. People are friendly (not to mention extremely good-looking) and enjoy the occasional discussion of their past if you put in the time or shove a local lager in their hand.
“I think Latvian’s are friendly because we have persevered so far, and [been]through so much,” said Stasya Munizekis, a local bartender of Latvian heritage. “My generation learned English as sort of a stab to the Russians, and to move to better places, but I have many friends here who are Russian as well.”
“The occupation was not so nice I would say; it left our culture in shit” said Romanovskis.
“But as Latvians, we are responsible for the future of our country and heritage. It’s everyone’s second job.”
If you’re looking for a quaint mom-and-pop vacation to sightsee some fine-looking churches, well-known landmarks, and a great hotel pool…go to Rome or somewhere else. But if you want to see the fresh creases on a newly folded society and comprehend the grit of the Soviet occupation in a beautiful country, book the next flight to Riga and send a postcard.
–And if your heart desires, visit Roberts in “The Corner House”, the former K.G.B. Headquarters now turned into the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga.
In-Text Image 2: https://unsplash.com/photos/IcR2pSSIOg0 by Priyank P