Sunday, January 31, 2010

Latvian Pilgrimages or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love Capitalism

Mēs esam kā starp vārtiem,
Starp vārtiem uzcēluši savas mājas
Kur tautām pāri staigāt.

We are as if between gates,
Between gates we have built our home
For other peoples to trample over.
— Anna Brigadere, Latvian poet

"The Nazi invasion interrupted that brutal occupation—one horror replaced by another. When the Germans retreated, a choice of one evil over the other was the only option to escape the coming Soviet onslaught."

He came into the store to buy coffee and to complain about the bran muffins, which he insisted contained no raisins. His lapel bore the words, ‘Latvian embassy.’
Dillo: Do you speak Latvian?
Muffin man: Yes, I speak Latvian and Russian.
Dillo: My mom was born in Riga.
Muffin Man: Have you ever been?
Dillo: Yes, once during the occupation and once after independence.
Muffin Man: Occupation, that’s a funny thing to say, though, I guess, it was.
Both: Sveiks!

My first visit to Latvia occurred in 1978, the year I entered college. In 1978 the country showed on maps as Latvia, S.S.R. Military officers could be found on every corner, and it was common to see tanks drive down the street sporting trench-coated officers in black leather boots. The oppression was stifling; you saw it on people’s faces and the way they walked; shoulders stooped, steps plodding. It’s hard to move with a gun in your back.

The Statue of Liberty (seen above, holding three stars, one for each Baltic state: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) stood in the town square, facing outward. At the opposite end of the square stood a statue of Lenin also facing outward. The running joke was that there was a reason they stood back-to-back.

As tourists we could buy groceries in approved stores. These stores had a decent supply of groceries by soviet standard. You could find your bread, rice and salad makings. What’s more, you could get in and out in an hour or two. A citizen living in Latvia shopped at approved stores also. For them this meant long lines with no guarantee of finding what they needed once they actually entered the store. For the tourists and locals each was small with few shelves and minimum variety.

The zoo in Riga was a collection of animals in boxes. Some of the animals may have had runs and some space, but basic at best. The entire city was like this. No bright colors only grey and a pigment which Sherwin-Williams catalogs as Ancient City Poop Brown.

On August 21, 1991, Latvia claimed Independence. My second visit to Latvia took place in July, 2001. The first full day after arrival I went out for beer. After some strong encouragement and some, “You need to see this,” I also went shopping for groceries.

The grocery store took up nearly a block. Grab a cart and enter through the shiny glass doors. Right into the produce department which is bright with color, full of fruit of every type. If you had a child, you could push them around in the carts which were shaped like big cars, horns included. Whatever you wanted, whatever you needed. No approval necessary, and the tourists and the locals shopped side by side.

We took the bus to the Riga zoo. The old zoo has a new look which rivals anything found in San Diego, Portland or New York. The special exhibit that day was South African frogs and insects, I think. A huge display of grotesque and fascinating creepy-crawlies. As you meandered along a trail winding through tunnels each animal was displayed with appropriate lighting, and cages that were clean and spacious.

My conversion came at the lions den. Here were these large cats in a life-like setting with ample space, clear signage and interpretive video displays. Displayed behind the cats on the main wall were a number of large posters. Each poster was a brightly lit ad for the Latvian version of Friskies. It hit me then. Capitalism and a free-market supported an environment that allowed for growth.

Walking through Riga we could see a number of positive changes brought about by the new government and freedom. On the street though you could also see the older folks. They were easy to spot by their drab single color clothes, hopeless gait and bent bodies. It would still take some significant time for the oppression to lift. The shackles of coercion are not easily cast off.


Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Sveiks! There have certainly been a many positive changes since 1991, but the "growth" you refer to was in large part a bubble. The type of capitalism practiced in Latvia -- partly imported from the US -- and the kleptocracy it created has also had a dark side, and Latvia today can best be described as a disaster. Education is a shambles, health care is horrible, the percentage of people in poverty is the highest in the EU (higher even than in Romania), and there's a massive exodus of people of working age. There's almost no real economy at all. You can find Friskies, though, sure.

Dillo said...

That is a sad state of affairs---It is unfortunate that capitalism and freedom are restricted, as you also mention (on your blog)regarding restrictions on media, esp. print media. Seems we may be headed down that road as well....