Lett it be

A fine example of fascist brutalism, a style popular in Riga. This statue celebrates Red Latvians.

Journalists often deceive themselves when claiming they learned a lot about a country after visiting it for a few days.

They don’t look for knowledge. If they did, it would take much longer to acquire. What they look for is the confirmation of their pre-existing bias, and in this mission they usually succeed.

My flying visit to Riga had no autodidactic purpose: I was simply curious to see how the place had changed in the 45 years that I hadn’t seen it. That curiosity was satisfied: it had changed a lot – and not at all.

But then I fell into the journalist’s trap, thinking I had learned everything there was to know about the place. However, clutching the edge of sanity with my white fingertips, I stopped myself just in time from claiming to have learned everything.

But I did learn something, which achievement was facilitated by a long life sporadically linked to Latvia. After all, for my first 25 years I lived in the USSR, of which Latvia was then a part. And for the past 14 years Latvia has belonged to the EU and Nato, to which Britain also belongs – to the former, one hopes, not for long.

Hence it was important to see whether Latvia had changed enough to be an integral part of the West, to whose defence the West is committed according to Article 5 of the Nato treaty. Or had it remained Soviet at heart?

My impression is that the changes have been numerous but mostly superficial.

There are many mock-Western restaurants, whose waiters stop just short of asking you to taste your water before pouring it. The Gothic and Art Nouveau buildings have received a lick of paint. Tourists swarm everywhere, stolid Germans and drunken, tattooed Englishmen, typically of the kind who pronounce their favourite word to rhyme more with ‘book’ than with ‘buck’.

Yet, as the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Hard though the Latvians tried to erase the civilisational stigmata of their Soviet past, they still have a long way to go. And even the external scars are still there for all to see.

This, although the Rigans have tried to get rid of them. Statues of communists starting with Lenin have been removed, streets have been renamed, the university is no longer named after the leading Bolshevik Pyotr Stuchka (ne Pēteris Stučka).

Yet passing by a theatre I caught sight of the memorial plaque informing those wishing to know that “the great proletarian writer Maxim Gorky, the founder of Soviet literature” assisted the production of his plays on that very stage.

If in 1991 they managed to pull down the 30-foot statue of Lenin disfiguring the city centre in my youth, how hard would it have been to remove a small plaque commemorating his acolyte? Not very, is the answer to that. But they haven’t.

And then there’s another 30-foot statue, honouring the Latvian Riflemen. (That’s what Latyshskie strelki means in English, not the more romantic but ignorant ‘Latvian Sharpshooters’ favoured by Anne Applebaum.)

Solzhenitsyn called them ‘the midwives of the Bolshevik revolution’. And, leaving obstetrics aside, they certainly did play a key role in protecting Lenin’s cannibalistic regime.

The Latvian Riflemen units were formed in 1915 out of the socialist volunteers who had fought against the tsarist troops during the 1905 revolutions. When the Bolsheviks usurped power in 1917, the Latvian Riflemen formed the most professional core of the ragtag bands going by the name of the Red Army.

They defended not only Lenin’s revolution but also Lenin’s person, serving as his bodyguards. And Col. Jucums Vacietis of the Latvian Riflemen became the first Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, working hand in glove with Trotsky (for which cooperation Stalin had him shot in 1938).

I don’t get the logic of it. Why remove the statue of Lenin but keep in place one of his dogs of war? When queried, the Latvians say that some of the Riflemen were actually on the White side.

Quite. And some Waffen SS officers tried to save Jews. Should we then erect a monument to the Waffen SS? Also, considering that the monument in question was erected in 1970, you get no prizes for guessing whether it commemorated Red or White soldiers.

Then there’s the unmistakable style of the granite statue, which can be best described as fascist brutalism. Back in the Soviet Union (or for that matter in Nazi Germany) this aesthetic perversion was highly productive in art, and not only depicting military personages.

Riga proves this versatility. Take one of those granite Riflemen off their pedestal, dress him in mufti, put him in an armchair, and what do you get? A monument to Jānis Rainis, Latvian national, not to say nationalist, poet adorning one of Riga’s central parks.

One doesn’t have to be an art expert to see what kind of ideology produced the two statues. And a bit of expertise would even reveal that they are the work of the same hack. I didn’t know his name, but Google helpfully provided it: Dzintars Driba.

Another telling detail: all street signs are exclusively in Lettish, which language is totally incomprehensible to anyone not born in Riga – and even quite a few of those who were.

Yes, Lettish is the state language of Latvia, but then French is the state language of France – and yet announcements on the Paris Metro are both in French and English. This, though even linguistically challenged visitors can figure out what, say, Place de la Concorde means. Not so with, say, Marijas iela.

This is of course a spurious comparison, for in France this is purely a linguistic matter. In Latvia, it’s a political one. For when Latvia split away from the USSR, speaking Lettish became one of the requirements of citizenship.

One nation, one language sounds like a good idea, and I wish we had that in London, where one has to be a veritable polyglot to negotiate one’s way through many a service outlet. But Riga is no more London than it is Paris.

In both Russian and Soviet empires it was steadily Russified. Russians now make up a third of the country’s population, and half of Riga’s. And half of them never bothered to learn Lettish, which now makes them disfranchised, in Latvia at any rate.

They are welcome to vote in Russian elections, and many do – for Putin. In fact, Putin’s share of the vote among that group is even higher than in Russia proper: close to 85 per cent.

Those Russophone Latvians never learned Lettish for the same reason many Raj administrators never learned Hindu: they assumed that, if the colonials had anything important to say, they’d say it in English.

Now those Russian Latvians feel like the English who never left, say, post-colonial Kenya: as barely tolerated aliens.

They have my sympathy, for Putin doesn’t want them either, not really. He just wants to use the supposed plight of the Russian diaspora as a pretext for re-occupation, the way Hitler used the Sudeten and Polish Germans.

This brings us to the only genuine interest I have in Latvia. It’s that Article 5 again.

Latvia was welcomed into both Nato and the EU in 2004, which was either a noble gesture or an irresponsible one. It was noble if the West was truly committed to protecting Latvia from Russian aggression. It was irresponsible if that commitment was at best tepid.

Putin recently had an instructive conversation with Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of one of those window-dressing opposition parties. “Do you realise,” asked Yavlinsky, “that your policies are pushing the world to the brink of war?” “I do,” replied Vlad. “And we’ll win it.”

Since the West isn’t going to attack Russia, such a hypothetical war could only start if Putin attacked the West. And the likeliest target would be the tripwire Baltic countries.

Would the wire be tripped if Russian tanks swept into Latvia? Would Nato honour Article 5 and go to war? Are we prepared to die for Riga any more than we were prepared to die for Danzig in 1939?

I don’t know – and neither does Putin, which is why he hasn’t yet given the marching orders. But I suspect, and so probably does he, that Nato would do nothing beyond perhaps filing official protests and imposing more sanctions.

If our suspicion is correct, then inviting the Baltics to join Nato was criminally irresponsible, for it exposes the three countries to the same brutality they suffered at the hands of the Soviets in the ‘40s, when a fifth of their population was exterminated. If our suspicion is wrong, then the whole world is in danger.

Yet there’s no doubt that Nato would respond with everything it has if Putin attacked, say, Denmark. Why not Latvia then? Aren’t we supposed to defend our own?

Because, and it pains me to say so, Denmark is indisputably our own and Latvia isn’t. Nato leaders won’t say this out loud, but they all realise it. So does Putin. So, after my trip, do  I.

3 thoughts on “Lett it be”

  1. I sincerely hope you enjoyed your odyssey despite all this unpleasantness. Call me naive, but is there any practical reason why a man like Putin cannot look into his own soul and find some compassion?

  2. The reason isn’t so much practical as metaphysical: he has no soul in any other than the purely theological sense. A proud member of the organisation covered with the blood of 60 million in Russia alone is incapable of compassion. Would you have asked the same question about Heinrich Himmler? As to my odyssey, it was quite enjoyable, as far as anthropological expeditions go.

  3. “And the likeliest target would be the tripwire Baltic countries.”

    The actual tripwire would be American soldiers on the border between Latvia and Russia. As it is in Korea and as how it was in Germany during the Cold War.

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