September 2011: As part of a longer two-week adventure that includes Afghanistan and Tajikistan, I visited Latvia on 3 days stop over since I was flying to Tajikistan via Riga Air, which disembarks from Riga, the capitol of Latvia. Prior to visiting Latvia, I had traveled extensively in Eastern Europe but not in the Baltics. Latvia was my first trip to the Baltics. This is the story of my short journey in Latvia.  

Riga-Meeting of Soviet & Mideivel European Architecture

Location of Latvia

I expected cold looks from despondent Eastern European people as I had experienced before in other Ex-Soviet countries, however the people really surprised me with their hospitality and kindness. The kindness began at the airport. A guy I met in the taxi que, and I agreed to split the cost of the taxi from the airport into town and in the end the guy wouldn’t accept my money and welcomed me to Riga.

I stayed at the old Soviet hotel, Hotel Riga. I have always had a special affection for all things Soviet, and so I had to stay at this hotel. In the Soviet days this hotel was one of the few where foreigners could stay and diplomats, businessmen alike stayed here under the close eye of the Soviet authorities, who monitored the rooms with bugging devices, and all sorts of other cool cold war era spying instruments.

Soviet Hotels usually have the same architectural blueprint, long spacious hallways, classic 70’s looking decor, abuse of unusual colors like pink, peach combined with the depressing undertones of communism. The dining hall was equipped with 50’s style chandeliers and a drudgery that only a Soviet hotel can capture.

 

Riga Hotel

Riga Hotel

Long Halls of the Riga Hotel

My room/ Riga Hotel

I spent a lot of time walking the old streets of Riga. I wondered the streets just getting purposely lost admiring the old architecture trying to imagine all of the history that these old buildings witnessed over decades passed. The weather was perfect, and the architecture was beautiful. Riga originated about a thousand years ago first as a Viking’s trading center and then it and the rest of Latvia was gobbled up many times through-out the history of Europe by its neighbors, Poland, Germany, Russia and others. Only in the 90’s did it finally achieve independence atlas.

Riga was absorbed into the Russian Empire throughout the 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s and after WWI it managed to obtain independence only for a short while until it was invaded by the Nazis and then again by the Russians this time as the Soviet Empire. The Soviets left all kinds of reminders of their presence throughout Latvia such as these statues of Soviet soldiers standing guard in the entrance to the old town square. Soviet statues always are always huge with broad shoulders and strong imposing brows. The aim I suppose is to remind the people how small and insignificant they are as individuals in comparison to the government.

Old Riga

This rather ornate and colorful building in Riga’s historical center is difficult to miss. Built in 1344, as a house for un-married German Merchants, the House of the Blackheads was ransacked during World War II by the Germans themselves, and then again by the Soviets only to be re-built again in the 90’s during Latvia’s independence.

Old Riga

In the background is one of the ancient Lutheran churches in Riga’s old town.

This really cool looking monument was built TO honor the people fighting for Latvian independence between 1918 and 1920. Evidently the Soviets never really appreciated this monument as it stood in direct defiance to their rule, however the Soviets never dared to demolish it.

Statues of Soviet soldiers standing guard in the entrance to the Old town square.

Currently a marketplace, in the 1930 and onward these old buildings were hangars for Zeppelin blimps built and used by the Nazis.

Silaspils Nazi Concentration Camp/One of the Most Northerly Concentration Camps

I love taking trains and so I had to go someplace in Latvia by train. I chose Silaspils a small town in the forests 30 or so miles outside of Riga. Silaspils has a bloody history, the location of a gruesome battle with Viking era Swedish armies and then the location of a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.

The train I took across Latvia

I sat down here and ordered a beer thinking I had visited the concentration camp in town. Tony, the Latvian guy in the picture below with his very limited English started talking to me and immediately ordered beer and shots of vodka for us both. He and the bar lady informed me that the concentration camp was somewhere else and that I needed to go back on to the train to get there. Tony offered to go with me and after he purchased some beer and vodka to go, we set off again on the train drinking as we went. I asked Tony if the police would hassle us for drinking in public and he said not to worry, no police on train.

We got off at a desolate stop in the middle of the forest and Tony led me down a trail through the woods, which in mind I thought was either to the concentration camp or into an ambush where I was going to be robbed and murdered. After 30 minutes of chugging vodka, we finally arrived at the concentration camp. I didn’t really feel it was appropriate to drink here but since no one was here and Tony kept urging me to drink I reluctantly kept drinking with him.

Tony at the train dept bar

The concentration camp was a quite peaceful and naturally beautiful place in a forest. There were few reminders remaining from the concentration camp. The buildings were long gone but the memorials and mass graves remained. The horrors of what happened in this place defied imagination and were some of the most unspeakable of the Nazi regime.

Soviet monument symbolizing the defeat of the Nazis by the invading Soviet armies during WWII

As many as 100,000 people were exterminated in this camp. Jews were forced to build the camp and then were killed here with political prisoners, mostly Soviet soldiers. The camp was also the site of horrible medical experiments on people, mostly children. One experiment was to observe the effects of pumping all of the blood out of the body to see exactly when a person dies.

We visited the spot where prisoners were marched out to the woods and executed by the Nazis. The bodies were buried near this spot and when the invading Soviet armies entered the area during the downfall of the Hitler, the Nazis in the camp ordered the prisoners to incinerate all of the buried remains of those that were killed here in order to hide the evidence.

When the Soviet soldiers took the camp from the Nazis and liberated the remaining prisoners, they left these enormous statues to symbolize the strength and resilience of the Soviet prisoners of the camp that were tortured and killed but in the end were freed and picked themselves back up again returning to the Soviet fold.

View of the concentration camp from a distance

Me under the statues

Another great Soviet monument symbolizing the defeat of the Nazis by the invading Soviet armies during WWII.

Soviet monument symbolizing the defeat of the Nazis by the invading Soviet armies during WWII

Memorial to the camps victims 

Tony standing beneath a Soviet statue

Tony was kind enough to take time out of his day and help me out by taking me to the concentration camp and even though his English was very limited it didn’t stop him from trying to talk and get to know me. All of the vodka may have contributed a little to this too.

I thought it was funny when Tony asked me where I was travelling to and I told him I was going to Afghanistan. His response was, You crazy.” He then showed me a wound that he said was a shrapnel wound from Afghanistan from when he was a NATO soldier there. He had a matching wound on the other arm from Iraq.

Tony was a good man, and I was pretty moved when after the concentration camp he took me to a cemetery located near the camp, where his father sat drinking beer next to a fresh grave. Tony and his father both became teary eyed and then poured vodka over the grave. It turns out the grave was of Tony’s older brother who had recently died in a construction accident.

Afterwards Tony took me to the road where he waved down a bus for me and some babushkas and Tony and I parted our ways after a pretty interesting day of hanging out together. The bus took me directly back to Riga, where I spent one more night before departing to Tajikistan and onward to Afghanistan the next day.

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