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Traveling in Putin’s Shadow: A Visit to Riga, Latvia

by Aaron Hamburger Oct 9, 2014

“The Baltic States and Poland are doomed. They will be wiped out. Nothing will remain there.”
— Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Deputy Speaker of the Lower House of Russia’s Parliament, in an August 11, 2014 speech.

On my way from the Riga airport to the city’s heavily touristed Old Town, I passed a car with two bumper stickers, one with Russia’s red, white, and blue flag and another which said “Fuck Fuel Economy.”

A few hours later, while joining five other Americans on a walking tour of the city’s striking Art Nouveau district, our group’s attention was momentarily diverted from our Latvian guide as a Bentley came careening to a sudden noisy stop along the curb. A burly-faced, heavyset man in a navy blazer and black loafers without socks got out and started tinkering with his cell phone.

“He wants to show off how rich he is,” said our guide in loud, clear English. “But real rich people don’t drive cars such as this.” The heavyset man looked in our direction. “Yeah, he understands me,” said the guide. “He knows what I’m saying.”

I experienced several similar reminders of the constant tension of life in a small, vulnerable country located next to a large, rapacious empire throughout my weeklong stay in Latvia, which in addition to bordering Russia is sandwiched smack between the two other Baltic Republics, Estonia and Lithuania, on the Baltic Sea.

Most of my time was spent in the country’s capital of Riga, whose colorful mix of Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture has earned it the nickname “Paris of the East.” Tourists can happily while away their time there wandering the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, admiring the pretty buildings, and shopping for amber. However, I was interested in exploring the country’s dark history, beginning at the former KGB Headquarters, just north of the city’s Freedom Monument, which commemorates the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920). A site of terror for decades, the Headquarters is currently host to a temporary exhibition due to close this fall.

For years, foreign powers (Russians, Germans, then Russians) have deported and/or killed significant portions of the local population. Now many young Latvians are leaving the country, whose lackluster economy can’t compete with those of other EU countries for job opportunities.

While touring the narrow, stuffy, claustrophobic basement prison cells, I learned that one reason Latvians might feel precarious about their country’s continuing existence is that they’ve only existed as an independent nation for a sum total of less than half a century. After centuries of being occupied by Swedes, Germans, Russians, Poles, and Lithuanians, Latvia became a sovereign nation after World War I. Their independence lasted for 20 years, after which they were swallowed up by the Soviet Union, thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made between Stalin and Hitler. It was during this time that Latvians first experienced Russian hospitality, which included various gruesome forms of torture and executions, often for the crime of being a Latvian patriot. Also, in Kafkaesque fashion, many Latvians were arrested for having violated Soviet law before the Soviets had even come to power in Latvia. It’s little wonder that when the Nazis came calling a year later, many Latvians mistakenly welcomed them as liberators.

One member of our tour group (this one was all European except for me) asked the young woman guiding us through the prison cells if Latvians were worried about the current situation with Russia and the Ukraine. “Very,” was her immediate answer, and then she quoted Zhirinovsky’s threat to wipe the Baltics off the map, a threat I heard quoted several times during my trip to Latvia.

Threats by a known blowhard like Zhirinovsky may seem idle talk, but when you share a border with Vladimir Putin, you’re quick to be on your guard. The fact that Lativa, like her two Baltic neighbors, is a full member of the EU and NATO is not of much reassurance. As I learned in the city’s Museum of the Occupation, located on its main square, Latvia has sought protection from the West and been disappointed before, for example after World War II, when America and Britain looked the other way as the Soviet Union gobbled up the Baltics once more.

“The West, they believe Putin’s lies,” a Lithuanian professor told me in frustration over dinner one night. “But we have firsthand experience of the Russians’ occupation.”

Another pressure on Latvia is that demographics are not on their side. For years, foreign powers (Russians, Germans, then Russians) have deported and/or killed significant portions of the local population. Now many young Latvians are leaving the country, whose lackluster economy can’t compete with those of other EU countries for job opportunities. Add to this a declining birthrate and a significant Russian-speaking population, and you have a situation that could seem ripe for a Ukraine-style insurgency.

In fact, as recently as 2007, Latvia was forced to cede claims to a sliver of the eastern part of their country called Abrene by Latvians and Pytalovsky Region by Russians, under pressure from Putin, who during negotiations said dismissively, “They’re not going to get the Pytalovsky Region; they’ll get the ears of a dead donkey.”

As I flew home from Latvia, President Obama was flying to Latvia’s neighbor Estonia in a show of NATO solidarity. However, despite the president’s usual eloquent words, I was left to wonder, are we really ready to put American lives on the line to protect the territorial integrity of the Baltic Republics? And if not, where do we draw that bright red line?

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