The Anglosphere is inclined to congratulate itself on its commitment to free speech, free markets, the rule of law, opposition to tyranny. And quite rightly. But a few weeks in Latvia or its Baltic neighbors might cause one to wonder if the Anglosphere is as unique in those respects as it thinks. In living memory, the Baltic peoples have risked their lives for those freedoms in ways that English-speaking people have not had to do. Today, a visitor to Riga, in Latvia, and the other Baltic capitals—Tallinn, Estonia and Vilnius, Lithuania—finds cities where freedom is assumed and exercised but valued more explicitly than in the West.
Only twenty-five years ago, Riga was an integral part of the Soviet empire, a dismal and repressed city that had very limited contact with the West. Foreign travel was restricted to Communist Party members, and people often joined the Party for just that reason. The difference in mentality between then and now is evident to the visitor in the countries that are currently most on the minds of Latvians. Russia is still thought of frequently—and its government’s antics are a worry—but it is very much “the other side of the border.” The relatively upmarket hotel in which I stayed during my recent visit had a heavily Russian clientele and the staff were perfectly civil to them, but the signage is in Latvian and English only. Young people speak English better than in some nominally Anglospheric countries such as India and Hong Kong, and have their eye on jobs in Ireland and England (as E.U. citizens, they have the right to work anywhere between Riga and the Atlantic). The departure board at Riga airport includes frequent mention of Gran Canaria—entirely understandable, especially in the winter. By contrast, almost out of mind is a country next door: Not much more than 100 miles southeast of Riga is Belarus, a country still frozen in its Communist past. Apart from a few Belarussians selling cheeses at the Riga market, colorfully situated in old zeppelin hangars, Belarus is invisible. Perhaps strangely, there is not a great deal of attention paid by the Baltic states to one another: Except in border areas, it is not worth learning another one of the Baltic languages, so people are more oriented to foreign cultures. Rigans have always learned well the main international language of the eastern Baltic. Long ago that was German, later Russian, now English.
High culture is Western too. At the beautifully restored opera house, the winter season included Lucia di Lammermoor—excellently sung, but it should be pointed out to European costume designers that Scotland did not have fascists—and selections from operetta. Operetta in these parts of course means not Gilbert and Sullivan but Offenbach and Lehár. The staging perfectly evoked the Central Europe of the Hapsburg era, except that there was no German. That is in accord with the Baltic states’ perception of geography, according to which they are not part of Slavic Eastern Europe. The tourist information in Tallinn claims with a straight face that it has “one of the best-preserved old towns in Western Europe.”
Latvia has taken several recent opportunities to increase its integration with the West. It contributed to coalition forces in Afghanistan, and, after demonstrating sufficient fiscal rectitude, was recently allowed to join the Eurozone. The Latvian currency was abolished on January 1, 2014 and replaced with the euro. All went smoothly with the overnight changeover, although some establishments had to do it at the same time as they coped with rowdy Russians in town for New Year. The decision is generally popular, except for some fears that it may increase electricity prices.
Still, only twenty-five years . . . the younger generation is not taught much at school about the years under Soviet rule, but the older generation remembers very well. Stories introduced by “In Soviet times” or “In the time of communism” are bleak. People remember with particular loathing the extremely cramped living quarters with inadequate numbers of communal bathrooms. That is the generation that risked their lives from 1986–1991 and unexpectedly caused the Soviet Union to fall apart.
While the broader story of the end of the Cold War is well known—Reagan and Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, the revolutionary wave of 1989 and eventual dissolution—it takes on a somewhat different complexion when seen close up. The local view can be obtained in the large Museum of Occupation, which looks at the whole period of Soviet and Nazi rule, and the smaller Museum of Barricades, which deals with the events of 1991. The local perspectives offered in these institutions highlight regional events and changes, revealing their importance in relation to better-known, world-scale political moments.
The Anglosphere, it is true, did play a role several times in helping the Baltic states gain their freedom. In 1919, Colonel (later Field-Marshal) Harold Alexander commanded a Baltic German force that expelled the Bolsheviks from eastern Latvia, helping to make possible the Baltic states’ independence between the Wars. (Latvia’s two twenty-year periods of democracy have been successful despite a lack of democratic traditions, surely calling into question the pessimistic Anglocentric theory that developing a stable constitutional polity requires signing Magna Carta and waiting five hundred years.) The second major Anglophone contribution to the freedom of all Europe came in 1945, when the Anglo-American armies installed Christian Democracy in Western Europe; it took, and the resulting European Union became both the model to which Eastern Europe aspired and the polity which it eventually joined. And of course the last contribution was Reagan and Thatcher’s firmness at the end of the Cold War.
The Anglosphere has made contributions since independence, too. At one point in 2006, all three Baltic countries had heads of state who had spent most of their adult lives in North America. Baltic airspace is patrolled from the NATO base at Šiauliai, the USAF being the force on rotation in 2014.
Nevertheless, to see the events from closer range in Riga’s historical museums is to be reminded of how much the main causes of change were internal. The Baltic peoples were creating trouble for the Soviet Union well before the Berlin Wall came down and before they had any prospects of outside help. By the mid-1980s, the Estonians had come to accept that the sausages on Finnish television were real. They and the Latvians and Lithuanians began work on fuzzifying the line between what was permitted and what was not, the artform perfected by those municipal councils in Eastern Europe who first voted to remove their statues of Stalin “for cleaning.” The “Latvian Environmental Protection Club” protested about a dam; the “Estonian Heritage Society” began tidying up cemeteries, then memorials to the war of independence.
Looking at the local story also brings into focus a cause of success in revolutions that is not much discussed—a lack of resolve in the forces of repression. It may be true that, as Mao said, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, but it is equally true that the goons pulling the triggers are not the ones holding the power. The kingpins at the top of the chain of command hold the power—but only so long as the chain of command holds firm and the orders to fire do not get scrambled or delayed or ignored on the way down.
When Baltic citizens started behaving non-standardly in 1986–87, the local party leaders asked for tanks on the streets, but Gorbachev’s government did not grant their wish. Soon it was too late. National flags and songs reappeared, political parties formed. On August 23, 1989—almost three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall—2 million people formed a human chain along the 370 miles from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga. No one was shot. A repressive regime that gives up without firing a shot has some explaining to do.
As it turned out, one group did have the resolve to continue repression. The Russian troops in the Baltic states rightly feared they would be expelled after independence. Some of them took action. In January 1991 they killed fourteen unarmed people defending the television tower in Vilnius, and another five civilians during their sacking of the interior ministry in Riga. In a very tense two weeks, thousands built barricades in the streets in central Riga. Similar demonstrations took place in Vilnius. Things slowly returned to normal. The Soviet Union fell apart.
For the people of the Baltic states, going onto the streets in 1991 was risking one’s life. Things could easily have turned very ugly, as they did in Tiananmen Square. Lovers of freedom in English-speaking countries have not had to face anything like that in recent history, and, in the Baltic states, the memories of those times give the idea of freedom an urgency that it does not have in countries far to the west. Still, in the end, the total deaths were only about twenty. Someone was not very serious about repression.
Present-day Latvia certainly has its problems. One is the large Russian minority left over from the immigration of the Soviet period. Some Russians have taken to the new ways—indeed, older Latvians sometimes say that the young Russians work harder because they do not have Latvian youth’s sense of entitlement. Others are suspected of being disaffected and yearning for reunification with Russia. A considerable proportion of them do not have the right to vote or run for civic office, though they are not citizens of any other state. The birth rate is very low, and Latvia has had a declining population for decades—it is easy to buy cheap real estate in Latvia but as a long-term investment it is not recommended. Latvia has indeed propped up its real estate market by offering Latvian residence (read: European residence) to those who buy enough real estate, but without great success. The Latvian economy, while in reasonably good shape at the moment, has had problems with boom and bust cycles since the painful transition to a market economy. The older generation who endured Soviet rule still endure a poor deal on pensions.
Nevertheless, Riga is a very pleasant place to visit, offering both engaging tourist attractions—don’t miss the large Art Nouveau quarter which dates from the boom before World War I and largely survived the destruction of 1917, 1941, and 1944—and the opportunity to see world history on the local scale.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 10, on page 32
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com