As I’m writing this in my 12th story apartment room, I’m thinking about all the things I did, all the places I saw, and most importantly, all the people I’ve met. When I booked my flight to and from Estonia, I never realized that it would’ve been that amazing. I’ll admit that I was a bit apprehensive, being the introvert that I am, that this vacation would be a vacation, if that makes sense; I was worried I’d run out of things to do and/or money, which is my ultimate fear working/living abroad. Thankfully, it didn’t (despite an early hiccup), which was exactly what the doctor ordered!
My last ‘day’ (I use the term in the sense that a) it was daytime and b) I was in Riga) was limited to the morning, as I wanted to budget enough time for the bus trip back to Tallinn. I initially set out to find a free walking tour of the city, but due to either my incompetence (which I hope it wasn’t), it being Saturday and the tour possibly not being offered, and a gaggle of German/French tourists hogging the attention (I say that in an entirely non-aggressive way. Those groups were big, but I’m glad they got to experience the magic of Riga’s old town.) meant that I ended up not making it. No worry, I decided to head off to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which was relatively small, covering one half of the second floor of its building, but very, very interesting. When we hear about the Soviet Union, we don’t think about the Baltics per se. One of the goals of the museum is to educate visitors, and the videos and firsthand items and pieces of memorabilia definitely helped. I got to see uniforms, weapons, and excerpts from the various orders and treaties signed by both the Latvian, Soviet, and German leaders alike. That’s right: Latvia (and Estonia; I’m not quite sure about Lithuania, as the information that didn’t pertain to Latvia didn’t mention it pretty much at all) were both occupied by the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Even though the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact meant that nominally, the Baltics were off limits, that obviously was broken. At first, the Latvians welcomed the Nazis as saviors, but the status quo under the Soviets was essentially maintained under the latter. Okay, so maybe people weren’t getting sent to the gulags (which, as it turns out, isn’t a word but rather an acronym that became more common), but either way, life wasn’t a picnic. Another fun (in the loosest sense) fact was that ethnic Latvians used to be about 87% of the population pre-World War II, but thanks to deportations as well as the massive flood of Russians brought in, they only consisted of roughly 55% of the populace about 35 years later. While off the top of my head I’m not sure about how accurate the numbers are, the point stands that the Latvian populace absolutely plummeted. Fortunately at the very end, the exhibit ended with optimism for the present and future of Latvia. Unlike other former Soviet satellites who gained their independence, Latvia was able to weather the economic transition to the free market as they temporarily issued their own version of the ruble. This lasted for a year before they switched over to the lat. They joined the European Union in early 2004, heralding in a new era for the country, and only switched to the euro just last year. From declaring independence in 1918 to losing it in 1939 to finally enjoying the second ever and longest stint as an independent country, Latvia has been through a lot. Without this fine museum, many people wouldn’t have been able to understand or even hear about the tumultuous times. I definitely recommend this museum not only as a history buff, but as someone who wants to learn more about the local culture and mentality, this is the place for you. The website is http://okupacijasmuzejs.lv/en and the entry fee is a simple donation.
Oh yeah, so just walking around the city on the way to and from the museum, I noticed quite a few Estonian and Norwegian soldiers strolling around, in uniform no less. While at the time I thought it was a bit strange, apparently there was/is a huge military exercise taking part on Latvian soil. And speaking of soldiers, I got to witness a changing of the guard of sorts at the main memorial. Before I move on about this, the memorial essentially separates the old part of town with the shopping center. It is massive, and you can see it from a way’s away. When I first arrived, I didn’t see the soldiers there, so maybe the day’s mini-spectacle was due to the presence of foreign troops. It wasn’t anything spectacular, especially when you compare it to, say, the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, but it was awesome seeing how the Latvians have a tradition of their own.
I wish I could add more about what I did after the museum, but the basic truth is that I went back to my hostel and headed on out to the bus station. It was a bit of an anticlimactic end to my time in Riga, but rest assured, I will be back sooner rather than later!