Riga is an old trading port on the Baltic, across the Baltic Sea from Sweden and too close to Moscow. It is the capital of Latvia, which was crushed between Nazis and Commies for much of the disastrous 20th century. Since the Communists won World War 2 in the part of the world, Latvians and Balts generally had to endure the forced Russification of their countries and the dreariness, hopelessness and general decrepitude of socialism, a fate from which Margaret Thatcher helped Britain escape, for a time. Russians still compose about a quarter of the country’s population. The United Kingdom, by contrast, imposed socialism on itself, without any invasion. Says something about the Latvians, that socialism was something imposed from without and rejected with every fiber of their being.
On the way in from the modern airport, one passes boarded-up 19th century buildings that have yet to see the hand of restoration, but in the downtown, the architecture is largely scrubbed and restored, and beautiful.
Riga was originally a German city, as were so many of Eastern Europe’s trading centres. The cathedral is Lutheran, and is now reopened for services and for concerts. The Latvians are Protestants, in the main, and given their choice, they would prefer to associate with higher rather than lower cultures. Ethnic Russians are here to stay, but, judging by the superficial evidence of drunk Norwegians laughing through the streets at night, even in the chill of April, Latvia is again re-oriented towards its Baltic and Scandinavian neighbours.
I had a couple of drinks tonight with a young couple and their adorable 14-month old child at a posh bar. Father flies airplanes as a commercial pilot, stationed in Riga. He was Flemish, his wife Spanish, and their friend who joined us was Italian. Their common language was English. For an English-speaker especially, the notion that English is the language in which an Italian converses with his Flemish friend is startling.
More tourism tomorrow. I do not know whether to avoid or join the wandering over-refreshed Norwegians. If I do join them I will probably have little I can recall to report. But just as in Prague, civilization is resurgent here.