Friday, September 16, 2005

Old Riga, Then and Now; or Soviet Socialism v. Post-Soviet Capitalism

Old Riga from a Bridge over the Daugava, February, 2005


I was out last night with Zinta, my daughter's mother, for a walk in Vecriga (Old Riga), the part of town that was more or less built in Medieval times. Old Riga has undergone some dramatic changes in the past 14 or 15 years of Latvian independence of course, just as it has in many other periods of its history, of course. We chatted about that last night. I turned to Zinta and said, while we emerged from a narrow street that no car could have driven down onto a wider one, something like, "Imagine what all of this looked like without all the neon signs in the Middle Ages." She cleverly responded, "You don't have to go back to the Middle Ages to see what Old Riga looked like without signs, you just need to go back to Soviet times." Of course she was right, duh, but then I thought more and said, "Well, not really, because I imagine that in the Middle Ages, there would have at least been signs hanging on rods jutting out from the buildings, just not neon ones; and there probably were many more shops than in Soviet times." Zinta then said, "Yeah, most of these stores were empty but for a few, and when you went in, the shelves were bare but for the 7 or 8 items that you could get everywhere else, depending on the type of store. There was no advertising. You couldn't even see in through the windows into most shops. You were not supposed to want to buy anything. You were supposed to only have needs to be fulfilled." To want was decadent and capitalist, I suppose; or that was the case, ideologically speaking, since the best communists had the right to entertain wants like no one else could. . .

Riga is much--incomparably--more vibrant than that now, of course; but I am merely adding all of this here for the sake of any reader of my site who may think that, given my clear left wing politics, I am nostalgic for Soviet times or am a willy-nilly anti-capitalist. Not at all. But it is also stupid to assume, willy-nilly, that because the Soviet system collapsed, the system that was its dialectical other is the best and only way. Capitalism is a wild beast that, untamed, will devour the majority of human beings while producing a great deal of wealth for just a few. A deregulated market is just an ideological way of talking about a market regulated for top-up accumulation, while the notion of a trickle-down effect that off-sets that accumulation is just a way of adding a salve to smooth over the bad conscience one gets (or should get) from telling the less wealthy, and especially the poor, "Screw it, y'all are on your own!" Capitalism, tamed and humanized, or in some way socialized, is a powerful tool for producing a decent life. What matters is what one considers to be a decent standard of living. The American one is, to my mind, beyond excessive. For example, feet and public transit for everyone, not cars for all. . .

6 comments:

Veronica Khokhlova said...

Riga seemed very dark back then, most of its buildings covered with soot, so unlike Tallinn, which had been washed for the 1980 Olympic Regatta... This must be why we always went to Jurmala then. Well, also because there was a really cool tennis center there - I played my very first competition in Jurmala in 1981, when I was 7 - lost my very first match to a huge Muscovite two years my senior, 1/6 0/6, still remember the tragedy of it :-) And the European championship, either in 1982 or 1983, big deal, wonderful ice cream :-))) (Great, now I'm feeling so nostalgic for Latvia...) Just two more things: we spent part of the post-Chernobyl summer in Apshutsijems (I'm sure the real spelling's different) - an amazing place, hope it's still there, thriving; and I also remember Sigulda - like some absolute magic - the river with red shores...

Now, back to Moscow... :-(((

Best wishes,
Neeka

Stefan said...

Riga has changed so much in just the 3 1/2 years since my first visit here in January, 2002. At least half the cars if not more on the roads were Ladas or other Soviet makes; today you have to go to the outskirts to see any such cars, and even there that is rare. Only half or less of the buildings had been bathed, and had remained rather sooty. It's interesting, but Kyiv may have a more washed look, but there are many, many more Ladas, etc., on the roads there, everywhere. Perhaps that is a reflection of the fact that wealth in Latvia is more evenly distributed than in it is in Ukraine--cars are owned my more average people than buildings. Anyway, Riga has really been bathed a lot more recently, and is indeed an amazing city. Also, given its central European architecture and charm within the city center, it very much so is what L'viv could be, if there was more money and government attention to public appearance there.

Sigulda is a fantastic place where Latvians love to start camping trips. And of course Jurmala on the Bay of Riga. We tried to swim there other day, but the Bay of Riga was under sway that day of currents from the Baltic, which means the water was f r i g i d. Jurmala, however nice it is, is one controversial place--a great vacationland full of retired ex-Soviet officers and cadre who call it home, it now is a sorely lost gem of Empire for many a Russian chauvinist. I recall seeing a few times last year a Russian comedy show that is filmed in Jurmala which always began with a few comments making fun of supposedly-dumb Latvians. But anyway, Jurmala is great!

I will have to check out Apsuciems (the s should have a hachek). Zinta does not know much about it, but there are two such hamlets that she knows about--one on the sea and one inland. (In Latvian, the ending -ciems indicates that the place, at least originally, was a hutor, or hamlet, a settlement smaller than a village. . .)

Also, one of these days we will head to Tallinn. I have never been there, but mny say that it is just fabulous.

You and your family really got around quite a bit during Soviet times. It is really interesting to hear about your experiences. . .

Veronica Khokhlova said...

It's so nice when the country's small - the population of Latvia is about the same as the population of Kyiv...

Yes, Apsuciems was a hutor - you had to take the Jurmala elektrichka to the end of the line - I think there was I place called Tukums there (isn't it where Victor Tsoi got killed in a car accident in 1990?) - and from Tukums, if I'm not mistaken, you took a bus to Apsuciems. It was by the sea. Raymond Pauls had his dacha nearby.

And Moscow intelligentsia loved Apsuciems, too - it was there that I first heard about Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago - I remember following my mama around while she was walking with an elderly, dissidentish Moscow lady who was retelling the book to her in half-whisper. It was 1986, a very stressful year, and I was 12 - so I don't remember much more. Oh, and Boris Pasternak's granddaughter was there that summer, too! Liza, a young painter. Just like his, her face had something from a horse, beautiful (though hers wasn't as pronounced as his). Liza had a dog with her, a skinny mutt that she had found in Moscow right before departure - and she felt so sorry for the poor thing that she very quickly did all the shots and certificates for it so that she could take it with her to Apsuciems on a train - and we were all so impressed with such kindness! If you asked my mama about Liza now, 19 years later, she'd still tell you about this doggie, too - we are both still charmed!..

Thank you for letting me talk and recall things here - it comes so naturally and I'm really enjoying it!

All the best to you, Zinta and the little girl!

Veronica

Stefan said...

Yes, Latvia's population is so smalll--the size of Kyiv, or the size of the entire Minneapolis metro area (my hometown)--and the number of ethnic Latvians in Latvia even smaller, such that I have often pondered the paradox of just how many people does it take to have a nation? It is a variant of the paradox concerning when does a pile of sand become a pile of sand paradox? What is the critical mass necessary? Latvians are amazing for their fierceness in the face of such demographic challenges (add to them negative birth rates and immigration out of the country), and they are fierce to the point that Russian foriegn minister Ivanov says that Latvia is Russia's #1 enemy!

Anyhow, and I will have to look into this, but I think that either Eisenstein and/or Trotsky were born in Riga. Riga had a most vibrant Jewish community, from what I have heard.

And even further back, I know that Johanne Gotfried Herder spent 6 years in Riga as a Lutheran minister, and it is said that his observations of the pre-"Latvian" Baltic peasantry in what then was known as "Livonia" was the impetus for his claim that peasants were not mere animal-like creatures living almost instinctually but had a sophisticated culture of their own that was the true soul of a nation. So the early modern Latvian peasantry played a kind of role in the birth of romanticism and modern nationalism, albeit unknowingly. . .

Then there is the Soviet-era dissident filmaker Andris Slapins who was killed when Soviet Black Berrets opened fire on pro-Independence demonstrators on January 20, 1991, about a week after the 14 people were killed in Vilnius. The world knows more about that massacre than it does about the 6 or so people killed and estimated 700 wounded in Latvia, since the first Gulf War had started and world attention was elsewhere. . .

Well, thanks for allowing me to blab in response as well. And oh, I forgot to respond to another comment of yours, but my daughter's name is Julija. I know, I know, it sounds like I am obsessed with Tymoshenko, and maybe I am a little, but as Zinta and I talked about names for our little one before she was born, we drew up a list of boys and girls names that were compatible in both Latvian and Ukrainian, and after she was born (we didn't want to know the gender in advance), Julija was the one that we both liked the best. And the OR had just happened, and we both liked the idea of honoring it. . .so Julija is the name! I do really like the name, regardless of who else has it, and for some reason it makes me think of the word "jubilee," which she truly is for me.

We also call her "joku pele," which means "funny mouse," and "prieka pele" or "happy mouse," and "gudra pele" or "smart mouse," and "silly mouse," and "sad mouse," and "sleepy mouse," and all kinds of mouses depending on her mood. . .

Veronica Khokhlova said...

Julija is a beautiful name, and somehow the first person who comes to mind isn't Tymoshenko but my best high school friend's daughter, who's 10 years old, an amazing girl...

If we have a girl, we'll call her Marta: it's beautiful, and fairly Ukrainian (well, more Diaspora and West Ukrainian than Kyiv Ukrainian but that's even better 'coz it's relatively rare but not weirdly so), and I really admire Martha Gellhorn, one of the greatest war correspondents who also happened to be Hemingway's third wife (and he was her second husband, I guess). Marta is a pretty common name in Latvia, isn't it?

Anyway, we're in love with the name Marta but can't find an equally appealing boy name. Our current choice is Grisha, Grygoriy - but we aren't all too crazy about it, so we hope it'll be a girl!..

Oh, and the real reason it's so difficult to find the right name is Mishah's last name - Smetana... :-)))

Stefan said...

What an unfortunate--or is it fortunate?--surname! I am trying to think of something funny to say about it, but I think, maybe, my brain is too tired. . .I just came home from a long and relaxing pirts, or banja, or sauna, etc., and am ready for bed. . .

Which reminds me, that Zinta explained to me earlier today why she started with the mice-based nicknames for our little one. As they do in many eastern European folklore traditions (and probably in many other parts of the world), mice play a big role in Latvian lore. There are songs about the "miega pele" or "sleep mouse" that brings sleep to little ones. Of couse, this makes me think about the song with which my baba (who was an Ostarbeiterin kidnapped from her hutor near to Dykanka, in Poltavshchyna) used to sing my siblings and I to sleep when we were little. She would sing--I have forgotten the words--while running her fingers up down our arms, backs, necks. At any time of the day, one of us was likely to run to her and shout, "Baba, baba! Do myshka! Do myshka!" while holding out an arm. . .

Also, Zinta says there are some folksongs about a little mouse that can go underground to see what life will be like in the afterlife when someone has passed away.

Someone she knows wrote an entire dissertation on the theme of mice and Latvian folksongs. . .

Thanks for the links on your blog to mine. . .anyone else reading here should definitely check out Veronica's blog at http://vkhokhl.blogspot.com, of you have not already. . .