A rainbow shone further on down the street, flanked by old, tall buildings. Aija and I walked to her apartment so I could drop off my backpack. I had just arrived in Riga and already, I was learning a lot. As we made our way along, Aija expertly kept up with my curiosity and related various facts about the city to me. She was a professional guide, truly—she works for the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. So thus we chattered away as the rainbow faded and the sun began to drift lower.
The wind whipped our hair around—even my short hair—an hour later as we stood on the roof of the mall, peering over the skyline of Riga. The sky was turning a deep, dark blue. The Academy of Science building poked up in its Stalinist style, towering over most of the other buildings, and second only to the piercing radio and TV tower. Once back on the ground, we made our way to Ezītis Miglā, a bar/café named after the wonderful Soviet animation Ежик В Тумане (Hedgehog in the Fog), and ate French fries and fried rye bread dipped in cheese while surrounded by hipsterish decorations of grumpy cat and her ilk. After that, a bar called Leningrad, and then a (quite nice, I thought) folk club called Ala. Riga, it’s all there—from the shadows of Soviet domination to the assertions of traditional Latvian cultural elements to the mundane that would not be out-of-place even further west in Europe. Aija and I went to bed quite late after our hopping around from one place and mood to another.
The next day, a far darker activity: a stroll through the free section of the newly- and not-for-long opened KGB museum in the real former KGB headquarters. A large Latvian flag loomed overhead in the courtyard. We read through the exhibits and left, passing by the execution room. The floor was slightly tipped so blood would run down the drain. In this very room. It was grey. We stepped out into the sunlight, the flag bright overhead. During Soviet rule, this flag certainly did not fly. Here it was now, twisted, flowing upward. Plenty of others passed by, entering and exiting the exhibit.
It is hard to shake that glum, KGB feeling, but we couldn’t ignore grand Riga either. There is more to it. Aija brought me to Alberta iela to see the intricate art nouveau buildings. Then we had tasty potato pancakes. And then frozen yogurt. After that, we met up with Aija’s Austrian friends and their Polish couchsurfer and had dinner together. The conversation was light. That evening, it poured rain.
On my last full day in the city, Aija gave me a personal tour of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which I had been very much looking forward to. A Ukrainian flag flew above the museum and another was draped on the door, in a message of solidarity. We know what this is like, the museum seemed to say. The tour guides had blue and yellow ribbons tied around their wrists, and Aija gave me one too. She showed me through the museum, which documents the Soviet, then the Nazi, and again the Soviet occupations. I lingered over a display showing items made by prisoners who were sent to the gulag, far far away, in Siberia. Messages on birch bark, laboriously scratched in, the writer so terribly far from a home that was no longer theirs.
During Soviet rule, there was a concerted effort to diminish the Baltic populations and languages. Similar happened in other areas under Soviet control. In 1935 Latvia, Latvians made up 75.5% of the population, while Russians consisted of 10.6%. Fast forward to the end of Soviet rule in 1989—52% Latvian, 34% Russian. These forced shifts—Latvians out, Russians in—aren’t easily undone, or comfortably settled. Latvians remain wary, and there’s a reason for that. The staff of the museum routinely face objections from Russians who tell them Latvia was never occupied.
On the street the day before, a crazy old lady shouted, “it’s a pity Stalin isn’t still alive!” We should be well over a half-century removed from him. But you see, we might be further removed by time than by mind. Molotov-Ribbentrop’s lines drawn in ink have left lasting smudges, for ink can’t be so easily erased.
After my tour, leaving Aija at work, I sheltered from the lingering chill in Ezītis Miglā, eating fries and sipping coffee. After warming up, I battled the wind to make my way over the Daugava River, from old town to the new national library. Inside, a choir dressed in national costume sang positioned high and higher on the balconies. I watched, and then wandered back across the river. Rain threatened but did not come. The streets of Old Town, filled with tourists and street performers, provided entertainment until I need quiet, and I sat in a park near the Freedom Monument and across from the museum’s temporary location until Aija finished work. We ate dinner at home and she got some blueberry flavored Latvian treats for me to try.
I left the next morning. The rain held off as I lugged myself and my backpack to the bus station. All sides of Riga watched as I laboriously walked by, the facades alternating between grey and bright with the sun.