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Latvia’s 90th Anniversary Blogs 1-7

In 2008, the Latvian government created a web page to mark its 90th anniversary. It contained daily news about events as well as background information, history, interesting stories and, of course, bloggers. As Latvian Institute Director, I was asked to be one of them. I wrote about one blog a week from spring until the celebration itself on November 18th, totaling 34 in all. I wrote them all in English, and they were all dutifully translated by someone into Latvian as well. Many later developed into longer pieces, and continue to get recycled for different contexts. This is all of them, pretty much in the order that they appeared.


#1    Why are we here?

Is the 90th anniversary of the Republic of Latvia important? It is if we think it is. How do we know? One way to find out is to talk to others about it. How do they feel? Does it mean anything to them? Will they be observing it in any special way?

We all know that the government of Latvia will be highlighting, noting, observing and celebrating it throughout 2008, because that’s what governments are supposed to do. The Latvian government of 2008, regardless of who’s leading it, represents the same Republic of Latvia that was founded in the National Theater in Riga on November 18, 2008. That’s continuity, and that is something to celebrate.

So we can expect the Latvian state government, as well the regional municipalities to be holding parades, concerts, exhibitions, festivals and fairs throughout 2008. And all 2.3 million people who live in Latvia will be able to participate in these events in any way they choose. So will others who visit Latvia this year.

We created this webpage so you could know what’s happening in Latvia during this 90th anniversary year. It’s also a place to hear what others are thinking, doing and writing. A birthday celebrates the past and welcomes the future. That’s what we will be doing here in 2008.

#2    What is Latvia?

Has anyone ever asked you ‘What is Latvia’? Ironically, it is probably easier for a non-Latvian to answer this question. Someone looking in from the outside can simply use some handy labels – a country on the Baltic Sea, a place where Latvians live, a member of the EU and NATO.

But if you live in Latvia, it’s a lot harder. Latvia is all around you. It is everywhere you look and includes everything. Where do you start? Is it Riga? Is it the wheat fields of Zemgale? The windswept dunes of Kurzeme? Is it politics, culture and economy? All of the above and then some?

This year we celebrate the 90th birthday of the Latvian State, but Latvia has been a state of mind for much, much longer. For those of us who live here, Latvia is defined by our state of mind. Some see it as a good place to live. Others as a place to do business. Some value it for its culture, and others for its naturalness. Some want to govern it and others want to exploit it. Many see it as a good place to catch a plane to Glasgow.

Latvia has been a lot of things in the past, it is several new things in the present, and will be something slightly different in the future. At the moment, it is a place where 2.3 million people have chosen to live.

#3    Latvia’s colonies

No, the Latvian Republic never had any colonies. But the Duke of Courland did back in the 17th century, and Courland today is a part of Latvia. Duke Jacob bought the Caribbean island of Tobago in 1640 and used Latvian sailors on Latvian-made ships to bring sugar, tobacco, and coffee back to Jelgava. Back then Jelgava was a major distribution point for these precious West Indian goods to Eastern Europe.

In 1651 Duke Jacob added to Jelgava’s riches by buying the Island of Andrew at the mouth of Gambia river in West Africa. From here he used Latvian sailors and ships to bring ivory, pearls and other treasures to Jelgava from the Dark Continent.

Bringing goodies from his colonies wasn’t enough so in 1654 Duke Jacob filled the warship ‘Duchess of Courland’ with 80 Latvian families and settled them in Tobago. They even built a Fort Jacob there in his honor. Today you can still find people and even a bay called ‘Courland’ in Tobago.

The Duke’s hold on Tobago ended in 1664, when the British took it for themselves. Today young Brits seem to prefer the streets of Riga to the beaches of Tobago. It surely can’t be for the climate.

#4    Innate victory

In 1951, the late Latvian diplomat Alfred Bilmanis described Latvia, Lithuana and Estonia as the ‘three natural guardians of the freedom of the Baltic Sea’.  All three were occupied by the USSR then, and the world was entering a bitter Cold War that would bring a political Ice Age to half of Europe. At the end of his book, ‘A History of Latvia’, Bilmanis wrote this:

“And still their selfhood lasted on, and still they thought their national personality and their stubborn determination to own themselves might some day be made to count. Should this ability to drink life from rock-bottom despair survive the immense inhumanity of 20th century terror, the men of any democracy, large or small, may rightly judge that victory was innate in the very stuff of their material and spiritual society.”

Forty years later, in 1991, the three Baltic countries had not only survived the 20th century, but transformed it. The Baltic singing revolutions contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and led to a restoration of independence in all three countries.

In 1939 Bilmanis was Latvia’s representative to the League of Nations. Today, Latvia is a member of the United Nations, European Union and NATO.

#5    The oldest place in town

The Latvian Institute’s new offices are located on the busiest street in Riga. Kaļķu street runs through the heart of Riga’s Old Town, from the Freedom Monument to the Stone Bridge that crosses the Daugava River. It’s lined with stores, restaurants and currency exchanges, and it is always filled with people. A lot more people in June than in January, but even on the most blistery bitter winter nights, Kaļķu iela is always alive with laughter, music and activity.

What’s interesting, is that it has been that way for a thousand years. Just down the street from the LI’s offices is the intersection of Kaļķu and Šķūnu streets, which is where Riga began some 800 years ago. Šķūnu street, which means ‘shed’, came first, as a row of buildings facing the Daugava river. Kaļķu street came next, because ‘kaļķu’ means lime, and this street once led to some old limestone pits.

Since the Livs already had a settlement here, long before the Germans founded Riga in 1201, chances are these two streets have been the center of activity here for thousands of years.  So why is the oldest street in town still the busiest, even now in the globalized world of the 21st century? For Latvians, the answer, is usually hidden somewhere deep below the cobblestones.

#6    There’s something about Riga…..

The Livs created a settlement here. Rumour has it the Celts did too. The Vikings stopped here on their way down to Constantinople. The German Crusaders liked it so much they gave it a name. The Holy Roman Empire claimed it, the Hanseatic League recruited it, and the Russians and Poles attacked it. When the Swedes ruled it, it was bigger than Stockholm. British and French ships once helped liberate it and both Stalin and Hitler invaded and occupied it.

It has survived Czarism, Nazism, Communism, Eurovision and the NATO Summit. John F. Kennedy came here as a Congressman and both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush came as Presidents. Mikhail Baryshnikov learned how to dance here, and Catherine Deneuve, Elton John, B.B. King and Sting have all partied here. The world’s best hockey players held their championship here in 2006, and the World’s Ornithological Organizations came to gaze at birds in 2007. Music clubs and discos close around 5am, but the flower market never does.

While Latvia celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, Riga is celebrating its 807th. But if you talk to the local Livs (yes, they’re still around) they’ll tell you it’s much, much older.

There’s something about Riga that’s hard to explain. Don’t try. Just enjoy.

#7    Flower people

Latvians are obsessed with flowers. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that anyone with at least one ounce of Latvian blood in his family tree is genetically programmed to give and receive flowers all his life.

It doesn’t matter why, where or to whom. If you are Latvian and you haven’t had a bunch of real flowers in your hands for one reason or another in the last 72 hours, you begin to feel tribal withdrawal pains deep down in the roots of your genetic code. Latvians need a constant flower fix and will use any excuse to satisfy it.

A Latvian gives flowers on birthdays, names days, holidays and anniversaries; openings, and closings, weddings and funerals, concerts and sporting events. Put yourself in the centre of any Latvian occasion and prepare to be beflowered. Ice hockey player get them, opera singers get them, poets get them and politicians get them. Latvians give flowers to men, women, children, cows, even rocks – they don’t discriminate. An event cannot be an event if it is not bedecked in flowers.

After a careful unscientific analysis I have concluded  that in Latvia, someone is giving some kind of flower to someone else, for some very Latvian reason, every 15 minutes. I can’t prove that, but it’s obviously true. Cut that estimate in half on weekends.

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