Hidden Latvia will seem a strange turn of phrase to the thousands of tourists meandering through Riga Old Town during much of the summer. The Latvian capital has become a mainstay of many eastern European itineraries. Many of the places that have featured over the years in this magazine are genuinely hidden, so remote from regular tourist trails that few venture to such spots.
But scrape the surface and you will find another side of Riga, a lesser-known Latvia, where concealment was so long a high political art. To appreciate this less obvious side of Riga life, we need to understand something of the city’s history.
The German community enjoyed a largely uninterrupted sway over Riga from 1201 until 1939. While the Baltic Germans were never a numerical majority, they nevertheless dominated many aspects of civic life and were a reminder of Riga’s Hanseatic history. German influence in Riga was respected by the Swedes just as much as by the Tsarist Russians who never tried too hard to exert their imperial authority in Riga.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when the German community in Riga numbered some forty per cent of the population, the dominant German elite could not face the fact that talent might be found amongst the Jewish, Latvian or Russian communities. The German perspective was that they could create an industrial revolution on their own, by building railways to St Petersburg, by launching steam ships and by giving Riga a sewage system. But that revolution changed the Baltic States, and the region’s German community was not so adept at handling its aftermath.
They would maintain German as their business language, they would not give shops Latvian names and they built their houses in Jugendstil, the style of building that had become the vogue in many German cities. But they resisted to the hilt any idea that non- Germans should have a serious role in running Riga. Even George Armitstead, whose grandparents came to Riga from Yorkshire early in the nineteenth century, and who served as Riga’s mayor from 1901 to 1912, spoke and wrote only in German. Armitstead surprised his German colleagues by inviting Latvians and Jews to dinner, a rare gesture to members of those communities who would otherwise remain marginalised in Riga life.
The end of the First World War in western Europe did nothing to temper the unbending views of the Riga Germans. In fact it made them more determined; Germany had resoundingly defeated the Russians in 1917 and there was no armistice on the Eastern Front. What might be lost in the West could perhaps be gained in the East. With luck, the Bolsheviks and the White Russians might fight each other to exhaustion. However by 1920 independent Latvia was established and German armed forces were obliged to withdraw, although most members of the German business and artistic communities stayed in Riga. If Riga’s public façade stayed German, at least behind closed doors in the Parliament Building, in the Town Hall and in the former Governor’s Palace, Latvians started to rule and their language finally appeared in street and shop signs.