Friday, December 15

The Many Layers of Riga

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Latvia is a country that has been ruled by a variety of different nations over the centuries – Russians, Germans, and even Swedes and Poles have had their fingers in the Latvian pie. While remnants of these influences that remain in the culture and traditions of the land may be less visible, it is easy to spot their physical traces throughout the landscape as one moves about the nation’s cities and towns. One often takes for granted the fact that he face of Riga is merred by reflections of the past. As we go through our daily routine, we rarely notice the signs that are all around us, yet if we stop and look a bit closer, we will be amazed by what we might find.

Riga began as a medieval city, in a time when stone massons built the city up from the ground. While many old buildings from these days remains, ruins of others can be found lurking in corners or behind the settling dust on a building site. In a dark courtyard of the Old Town, off Laipu iela, these arches appeared as if out of nowhere, a sign that here, some time in the past, there was a building, perhaps a church, that had a certain cultural significance. Oer time it became coverd and hidden, but the simple act of rebuilding and renovating brought it back in our view. It is difficult to spot traces of the former Imperial powers that ruled over Latvia. Until 1918, Latvia was part of the Russian Empire and a glance at the Riga of the early 20th century would reveal a multitude of signs in Russian, as well as some in German, owing to the city’s large Baltic German population. In those days, it was Russians and Germans who held positions of power, as most ethnic Latvians were peasants and farmers. A crumbling sign on he pediment of what is now the Energy and Electrical Engineering Department of the Riga Technical University, at 1 Kronvalda Boulevard, reveals that it used to be teh “Realnaia Uchilishchi Imperatora Petra”, a sort of technical secondary school of the days of Peter the Great. And a stone-carved gilt sign on Kalku iela in Old Town tells us that this was a branche of the Vidzeme Mutual Credit Bank located here in the 19th century, as the sign is only in German and Russian. Although people were quick to remove any traces of the Soviet regime once that foreign occupying power was removed, evidence of the Soviet presence in Riga still remains. If you look carefully at the facade of the Academy of Sciences, the Stalinist wedding cake building behind the Central Market, you can discern a few hammer and sickle emblems that most likely would have been too difficult to chisel off. Riga’s Lenin statue, which was a presence in every good Soviet capital, stood at the end of the traffic island at the intersection of Brivibas Boulevard, across from the Hotel Latvia. Valdemara iela isn’t the only street that had undergone a series of name changes over the years. What is now Brivibas Boulevard iela was Lenina iela during the Soviet period; Basteja Boulevard was Soviet Boulevard (and has recently been renamed Zigfrida Annas Meierovica Boulevard, to honor Lavia’s first foreign minister); and the sign from the National Art Museum reveales that Valdemara iela was then Gorky Street (Gorkija iela).

Owing to the Soviet Union’s claim to respect the individual nationalities of its union, Raina Boulevard, named after Latvia’s famed writer Rainis, remained the same, as did many other streets with Latvian names, such as Lacplesa iela, named after Latvia’s mythological hero, the Bear Slayer. Gertrude iela, however, named after the church at the end of it, was known as Karl Mrx Street back then, and the next street, which is now Stabu iela, was aptly named Friedrich Engels Street. The next street, now Bruninieku iela (Knight Street), maintained its fighting theme as Red Army Street, and the next road on he grid was Revolution Street. But it was not just the names of the streets that changed in 1991, it was also the signs themselves. While during the communist period all of the street signs were labeled in Russian and Latvian, in the 1990s they were almost all replaced with Latvian-only signs. A few bilingual ones, however, remain, such as this one on Dzirnavu iela. It is not only signs of the Russian or Soviet past that remain in this city.

Traces of he early period of independence, in the 1990s, can be found as well. If there is one thing that Latvia can boast nowadays, it is one of the largest number of banks per capita, many of which sprang open in the early 90s. Several of those banks have since closed or merged with others. One of these was Saules Banka (Sun Bank), which merged with Rietuma Banka (Western Bank) in 2001. The advertisement to go “around the world with Saules Banka” however can still be seen, peeling away on a hand-painted billboard on the side of a house in Livu Laukums, just above the public toilets. These are by far not the only vestiges of days gone by in the city of Riga, but they are the ones that happenes to catch the eye on a walk about the city. Signs like these exist in every nook and cranny of Riga, you only need to be aware and try to glean them yourself. If you look up and you look closely there’s no telling what kind of interesting artifacts the eye may discover.

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