Under the Boots of the KGB

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June 28th 2017
Published: July 12th 2017
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Hello my fellow travellers!

I had a bit of a slow start this morning but I got a nice little walk through Siauliai together with Ugne and Paulius where she told me more interesting things about some of the buildings in the city. Because of that though I didn't arrive in Riga until around two in the afternoon but it actually wasn't that bad because Riga's old town is quite compact, there is a lot to see but there aren't any large distances to traverse between the sights and even the bus station is right next to the old town.

The first thing that caught my eye when I stepped of the bus was a tall and massive building standing a bit away from the centre so I decided to start with that one so I didn't have to double back for it later. It turned out to be the Latvijas Zinātņu Akadēmija, an academy of sciences famous for it's observation deck which I unfortunately didn't visit. The building itself was impressive enough to warrant the detour though. Quite close to it was a small church, Dievmātes Pasludināšanas Baznīca, which I also used the opportunity to make a quick visit to.

After that I made my way into the centre of the old town, following the river until I reached the impressive Brīvības Piemineklis, a monument dedicated to the freedom of Latvia. It is absolutely gorgeous, a tall and imposing statue standing on a column adorned with several magnificent statues and frescoes. It even had an honour guard of two armed soldiers standing in attention at it's foot.

From the monument I crossed the bridge and went to the old tower, Pulvertornis, which also houses Latvijas Kara Muzejs, a really interesting museum about the history of war in Latvia. I hadn't planned on visiting this museum but when my eyes fell on the sign informing me of the free admission I couldn't resist, even though I knew that my time was limited. So, I went inside and boy am I glad I did! This museum is the oldest and largest in Riga and it is very well organised with several exhibitions and much of the information is available in English.

It follows a path throughout all of Latvian history, starting with the old Livonia ancestry, to the time of being caught between Swedish and Russian occupations and through both world wars and the following Soviet terror regime and ending with modern times and it's current NATO membership. I definitely recommend a visit to this museum, it's really good and it's free of charge, that's the best combo possible. Don't miss to make a donation for it's upkeep though, there is a box located by the exit. If you, just like me, found it worthwhile I'd recommend that you support it's continued existence.

This is a perfect template for how museums should be run in my opinion, it is free of admission but you can pay for audio guides and you can donate to it's upkeep if you liked the experience. This means that the history and culture contained here is available for everyone, there is no paywall hindering anyone from enjoying the experience and learning from it, but if you have the means and will you can help keep it available for everyone, this is a perfect setup and I certainly made a donation as I left!

Right next to the museum are a series of yellow houses called Jēkaba Kazarmas, which used to serve as the barracks of the various armies occupying Riga between 1782 and 1990. These days it house a number of bars instead. There is also a statue close to here called Ghost which is pretty cool. Another nice little spot here is Zviedru Vārti, a gate from 1698 named after the former Swedish rulers. There are also some remains of the old city walls, known locally as Vecpilsētas Mūris.

Just a stone's throw away from the gate is Svētā Jēkaba Katedrāle, an imposing cathedral dating from 1225 that venerates Saint James. It's an imposing structure but due to some construction works I wasn't able to get really good look at it. Across from it are three connected houses that have the honour of being the oldest dwellings remaining in Riga, dating from the late 15th century. They are known as Trīs Brāļi which translated means three brothers.

Close to the cathedral stands a rather inconspicuous little monument simply named Barikādes, the name means barricades and it refers to a series of confrontations known as Barikādes that unfolded in January 1991. Latvia decided to declare it's independence from the USSR in 1990, they expected that the USSR wouldn't let them go peacefully but decided to attempt their independence anyway. It turned out to be a warranted fear as the Soviet special police force, OMON, attacked Riga in early January 1991. At first they seized the press house and telephone exchange and after this the police force was followed by military forces as well as commando troops that entered invaded on January 11. Upon this a call went out from the Latvian government for the people of Latvia to build barricades and prevent the Soviet forces from advancing.

On January 13 the barricades had been constructed and fighting soon broke out as the Soviet police began assaulting the obstacles as well as several government installations throughout Riga. The confrontations claimed the lives of several people at the hands of the Soviet forces. On January 20 a large protest with over 100.000 people was held in Moscow for the Soviet authorities to cease hostilities, to leave the Baltic states in peace and for the government to resign. By January 25 the hostilities came to an end and the defenders dispersed and by December the Soviet Union had finally dissolved and Latvia had at long last gained it's full independence.

Next I headed down to the river to take a look at Rīgas Pils, an imposing castle dating all the way back to 1330. It is a beautiful landmark that have been reconstructed several times throughout history and it currently houses the President of Latvia. Next to the castle stands the small Sāpju Dievmātes Baznīca, a small but beautiful church which is also worth a quick visit.

I then made my way to Rīgas Doms, the main cathedral of Riga, which I couldn't enter since it's now a museum that I wasn't interested in visiting. My final goal of my day was the Latvijas Okupācijas Muzej, a museum that is dedicated to the occupations of Latvia. I was really interested in this one, but unfortunately it was closed and the exhibits had been moved to the KGB Stūra Māja, an infamous corner house where the KGB resided.

Instead I decided to check out Rīgas Dome, the city hall of Riga, and I also took a good look at the beautiful Melngalvju Nams, a house formerly occupied by the Blackheads, a guild of unmarried German merchants in Riga. It was originally built in the 14th century but it had to be completely rebuilt after it was destroyed in World War II.

After that I decided to buckle up and hustle to make it over to the KGB Stūra Māja before is closed. I still did a couple of brief stops, first at Svētā Pētera Baznīca, a beautiful church from 1209 that venerates Saint Peter, and Svētā Jāņa Baznīca, a picturesque church from 1234 that venerates Saint John. Both of them have been severely damaged and reconstructed throughout the volatile history of Latvia but are still standing as beautiful monuments in the city to this day some 800 years after they were built. Svētā Pētera Baznīca was closed due to a private event but at least I could check out the very interesting statue Brēmenes Pilsētas Muzikanti standing next to it.

The statue, which depicts a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster, is a major attraction here and it's based on a fairy tale by the famous Grimm brothers. The story is about four animals that have past their prime and that have therefore been discarded by their owners. They decide head to Bremen to find a better life as musicians, while on their way there they come upon some robbers residing in a cottage.

They decide to scare away the robbers from the cottage to use it for shelter themselves. In order to do so they stand on each others backs and cause a major commotion while breaking through the wall, scaring the wits out of the robbers that flee into the woods. The statue depicts this moment, but it also has another meaning, it was erected in 1990 and is meant to represent the fight for Latvian independence where the animals represents the people of Latvia peaking through the iron curtain and unto a world free of communist terror.

Having visited a couple of sights related to the resistance to communism I was pleased that actually managed to reach KGB Stūra Māja before it closed, I was sweaty and half dead, but I made it. Unfortunately I found out that the cell blocks, the most interesting part, was closed and the rest of the museum wasn't really that special. It contained a few informative panels and photos but no real artefacts. Still, it was interesting to read about the atrocities of the KGB, or Cheka as they were known back then, and see where the occupying power resided.

Communism has indeed cast a terrible shadow over this region. Everyone I talk to are very aware and very wary of socialism these days because they have learned first hand what it means to live under an extreme socialist government and the oppression that follows. Several of the people I've met here have had relatives or relatives of friends who where executed by the communists for no other reason than having been to successful. It casts a frightening shadow even to today when there is again much talk of taking money from the rich and redistributing it to everyone in the name of equality. High taxation has always been the first step on the road to totalitarianism and the extermination of those who don't follow the politically given narrative.

Communism and it's various bureaus such as the KGB has much to answer for yet somehow never seem to really be held accountable for all the deaths it has caused around the world because it happens in the name of the greater good. This is really baffling to me considering how we can easily hold Nazism and Christianity accountable for their previous atrocities.

After my tour around the historical centre of Riga I made my way over to my host Katrina. Unfortunately she wasn't feeling very well so we just slumped down in the couch and watched the some Netflix before I headed out to grab something to eat. I started by checking out Vecā Svētās Ģertrūdes Baznīca, and old church venerating Saint Gertrude, and Kristus Piedzimšanas Katedrāle, an orthodox cathedral that venerates the nativity of Christ. With my belly rumbling I decided to eat at the Shogun Restaurant for some Japanese food, getting a slight taste of my favourite cuisine and dreaming of my next trip to Japan coming up soon.

Tomorrow I will head out to Sigulda, it has been recommended to me by several people as there are no less than four castles and it boasts a really medieval aura!

Until tomorrow I wish you all peace and happy travels!

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