I’ve heard for years how beautiful Riga was – I remember studying political science during the Cold War and even then it was supposed to be beautiful. So I was ready for the beauty. What I was not prepared for was to be greeted by the President – and the President of Germany!
We caught the bus here, checked into the hotel, and started wandering around. Within minutes of starting to amble we noticed some military procession, so we went towards it. We watched for a bit and it was apparent something was up – part of the square was blocked off and there were secret service-looking people standing around, the whole ear-bud thing going on and all that. Soon Mark notices that the building in front of us is flying both the Latvian and the German flag.
Sure enough, after a few minutes out walks President Andris Berzins with his trophy-looking wife Dace Seisuma. (Sure enough, when I Google them, she’s his second wife, married days before he took office.) Moments later comes the motorcade with German President Joachim Gauck and his wife Hansi Gauck, his childhood sweetheart. We had gotten there at just the right time so we had a great view of the welcome, the national anthems, the whole thing. Nice introduction to Latvia!
From there it only got better: we discovered that today is the last day of the Latvian Song and Dance Celebration, something held only once every five years. There are tens of thousands of Latvians singing and dancing in traditional costumes, a very festive place. Part of what I’ve learned over the last few days in Estonia and now Latvia is that across the Baltics traditional music played a key role in the national liberation movements. Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds were a key site for the movement there, and in fact the whole movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s that led to independence for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is called the Singing Revolution. So this is a big deal here indeed.
We finished the day’s touring with nearly two hours in the Museum of Occupation, chronicling the Soviet and German occupations from 1940 to 1991. To call it a downer is pretty mild. You have to realize that unless you were Jewish the German occupation was the easy one. Traveling through Siberia and reading a biography of Stalin, and now spending time in two of the Baltic countries, I have a genuinely new appreciation for just how awful the Soviets were.
Part of what intrigues me is that I remember studying political science and paying attention to politics during the Cold War, when the Republicans were measurably more hostile to accommodation with the Soviets than the Democrats. Is it possible they were right? Don’t get me wrong – Republicans were in control of the White House for much of that period and it’s not as though they did anything directly to roll back the Soviet empire. But still, I once was working with some reformers in Azerbaijan who surprised me by saying they liked Republicans. When I asked why, they reminded me that Republicans were more interested in helping them break free than my side was. I’ve thought of that conversation many times over the last 10 years, and understand it even better now.