I arrived in Riga Latvia on Sunday April the 14th, some days before my conference. Riga has an Old Town that has had to be very extensively recreated after World War 2. I wandered happily throughout it for a couple of days. Riga is an old German town, part of the Hanseatic League, which was a kind of trade treaty organization of the Middle Ages. By old I mean that the cathedral there went Lutheran from early in the Reformation.
Many of you will have been to Amsterdam, so I would like you to imagine Amsterdam, and then do the following: remove the druggies, the red light district, the dirt in the streets, the Muslims, and the touristic riff-raff, then improve the architecture, clean the buildings, increase the politeness, provide totally awesome busker bands, and then you have Riga. You still have choral concerts, great beer and food, perfectly good shopping (from what I could see) and splendid architecture: everything you liked about European cities, without the dirt, the menace, and the Bangladeshis selling trinkets.
Consequently it was with a high degree of happiness and interest that I was able to walk about for a couple of days in the brisk April air, looking up at late nineteenth century statuary of posh hotels, or the rebuilt trade halls of the medieval times. Outside the Old Town was a layer of 19th century apartment buildings in the Parisian style, where tramcars ran, and more smart shopping was available. The city had the air of a place that had been eminently prosperous until World War 1, to which it had now mostly returned. Upscale fashion magazines in Russian and Latvian advertised bathroom and kitchen makeovers, the world’s obsession for those with a spare $30,000.
What a dreadful century for the Baltics! The Communist revolution of 1917 in neighbouring Russia was a disaster, the take-over of the country by Stalin in 1938 led to the usual mass deportations and executions of the social core of the citizenry – the ten percent who make a society run, the Second World War brought the Nazis into power, who slaughtered a different set of people, and then the Soviet reconquest slaughtered even more people. (Read Bloodlands for all the appalling details.) How they have managed to restore and recreate their town since the fall of Communism demonstrates the underlying strength and intelligence of the Latvian people. Some people seem to come out on top of cataclysmic disasters.
I did not think about it at the time but it strikes me now that Riga was one of the whitest European cities I have ever been in. There were no recent Arab or African immigrants, as you can find in Oslo, or Stockholm, or almost anywhere in western Europe these days. Ethnic Latvians still drive taxis. The clash of civilizations is not to be found around the corner or down in the subway. It is as safe as Tokyo. The largest risk is running into drunk Norwegians, and by drunk I mean Scandinavian levels of drunk.
The busking was tremendous. A six piece brass band performed on one corner, and another a few blocks away. At a bar there was a Buddy Holly type of singer doing the most authentic reproductions of American rock and roll from the period 1955-1962.On my first day there, I was standing at an enormous war memorial outside of the Old Town when I felt the urge to phone my friend Fred in California, whose mother had been Latvian. I told him where I was standing, and he said “So you can see the MacDonald’s!” (tastefully discreet in an old building at the edge of Old Town). Fred had been there to settle his mother’s property, which the Latvian government had returned to her. I was wondering how he had kept the secret of what a great place the city is. The parents of another friend Alex the Bear also came from Latvia. In the course of the year I had occasion to deal with Moses Znaimer, the television entrepreneur, and found that his parents had come from there, too. Small world. Talent will flee to where it is free.
[This letter has not been sponsored by the Latvian Tourist Authority].
When you compare what has happened to Latvians in this century, and the Poles, Finns, Estonians, White Russians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians, to what has happened to our French Canadian compatriots in the previous three centuries, you are forced inevitably to conclude that the eastern Europeans have a real cause of grievance, which they have overcome, and our compatriots have had none whatsoever.