by Will Mawhood, RIGA

27th April, 1988; Arkādijas Park, Riga

Arkādijas Park is in the district of Torņakalns on the far shore of the River Daugava – a compact, slightly hilly stretch of greenery set around a pond. Not quite arcadia perhaps, but in normal times, it’s one of the most tranquil and picturesque spots in the city. But it wasn’t at all tranquil on the 27th April. Seek out the limited photographic and video footage that survives of the event that took place in the park on that day, and you’ll see people swaying in a defiant but somehow exultant way, chanting “metro – no!”, inexplicably brandishing spades. Those assembled are harangued and fired up with imperatives and negatives in both Latvian and Russian, signatures are collected, signs are waved. One placard, somewhat oddly, compares the metro to AIDS. People seem to be enjoying shouting. There’s a palpable sense of release that breaks through the grainy, frayed footage.

This was the first large-scale protest against construction of the metro system in Riga – a system which by the late ’80s, following the long and frustrating succession of delays and complications detailed last time, finally seemed ready to go. In 1985, Ivars Ulmanis, chairman of the Riga city executive committee, had taken a trip to Moscow, where it was confirmed that construction of Riga’s metro would begin in 1988. On the southern edge of the city, trees and bushes were cleared in preparation for the metro base, which would have been built first, and two blocks of flats were constructed to house the initial influx of workers.1

The organisers of the protest in Arkādijas Park were the environmental protection group VAK (Vides aizsardzības klubs – Environmental Defence Club); they resorted to Pārdaugava only as a back-up option, after the pro-metro mayor of Riga, Alfrēds Rubiks, prohibited them from holding the rally at Esplanāde, in the very centre of the city. The number of participants was estimated at around 10,000.2

So why was a protest against a rapid-transit system – notionally, at least, a pretty green form of transport – being spearheaded by an ecological pressure group?

Well, the history of the drive to restore Latvia’s independence is inseparable, in its earliest stages at least, from the environmental protection movement.

Latvia had seen little open opposition to the authorities following the crushing of the forest brothers, the anti-Soviet partisan movement, in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. There certainly were individual dissidents, such as Gunārs Astra, who openly accused the Soviet state of forcibly occupying and russifying Latvia. However, the punishments most received were sufficiently harsh as to dissuade all but the bravest from doing likewise; Astra himself served over twenty years in work camps in two separate stretches from 1961 onwards.

However, this started to change in the mid-‘80s, as the new General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, began talking of glasnost (“openness”) and dissidents were freed from prison (Astra himself was released in February 1988, having served five years of his seven-year sentence, but died just a couple of months later). In theory at least, the potential was thus opened up for protest about a range of grievances; in the Baltic states, however, public dissatisfaction was at first channelled into environmental concerns – a motive for protesting that could be presented, whether truthfully or not, as being untainted by nationalist or counter-revolutionary urges. And for Latvians opposed to the occupation, this seemed to be bearing fruit: 1987 had brought a significant and unexpected victory over the Soviet state when a plan to construct a huge hydro-electric dam on the Daugava, close to Latvia’s second-largest city, Daugavpils, was formally abandoned after sustained scrutiny and protests from sections of the republic’s population.

The initiator and leader of that campaign, journalist Dainis Īvāns, had been alerted to the sheer scale of the project during a trip to Slutiški, a village alongside the Daugava. There, he noticed that posts had been driven into the ground at certain elevated points along the banks of the river. Making enquiries locally, he learnt that they were indications of the expected water level following the construction of the dam. Īvāns realised that this would lead to the inundation not only of local towns and villages, but also of the Daugavas loki, a series of pronounced meanders in the river close to the border with Belarus that forms a unique ecosystem.

The subject was especially sensitive within the republic given Latvia’s past experiences under Soviet rule: the Pļaviņas hydro-electric power station, constructed upriver a couple of decades earlier, had drowned stretches of the riverbank of deep importance to Latvian tradition and folklore – most painfully, the cliffs of Staburags, which play a key role in the Latvian national epic, Lāčplēsis. As a child, Īvāns had been taken to visit the area by his parents shortly before it was due to be flooded, and it had clearly left a profound impression; in a recent interview, he remembered: “At that time I still didn’t really understand it, but the sharpness of the pain was really palpable in people’s conversations. We went there as though going to a funeral, to the funeral of Staburags and the Koknese canyon”.3

People taking their leave from Staburags, c. 1965 [Image: Jānis U. Used under a CC BY-SA 2.5 Licence]

Īvāns poured his observations and fears into an article he penned together with the writer and former engineer Artūrs Snips, “Thinking About the Fate of the Daugava” (in Latvian, this title carries resonances and implications that cannot be translated adequately: the Daugava in Latvian tradition is “likteņupe” – the river of fate or destiny). This was published in the October 1986 issue of the Riga-based journal Literatūra un Māksla (“Literature and Art”) and sparked a furious reaction: experts criticised the likely ecological damage that would result in Latvia and Belarus, and tens of thousands of signatures were collected from people opposed to the project.

The reaction from the authorities, when it came, was heavy-handed: mention not only of the planned hydro-electric plant but of the river itself was barred from publication – an exhibition of old photographs of the Daugava at the Museum of History in Riga was abruptly closed,4 and a chocolate bar named after the river was even briefly taken off the market.5

But the damage had been done – partially in response, an expert commission was set up to consider the likely economic and ecological consequences of the hydro-electric plant’s construction. Its conclusions were negative, and in November 1987, the decision was taken to formally abandon the project.

Dainis Īvāns against the backdrop of the Daugava [Image:]

The apparent defeat of the state and bureaucracy by concerned activists seemed unprecedented – not just in Latvia, but in the Soviet Union as a whole. VAK, which had been established earlier that year, took full advantage of the suddenly defiant, confident mood, and further protests took place throughout 1988. A demonstration in Riga under the slogan “for clean air!” singled out the chemical and pharmaceutical works in the purpose-built, and extraordinarily polluted, town of Olaine just outside the capital. Over 300,000 people demonstrated along the coast in an event with the title “Praying by the Sea”, which was intended to draw attention to the severely polluted state of the Baltic Sea – the resort of Jūrmala just outside Riga had been declared unsafe for swimming that summer, likely due to effluent from a nearby paper factory. Not-yet-completed and even hypothetical projects were also picketed, such as a projected site for a nuclear power plant near the western city of Liepāja, at this point seemingly still on the drawing board.

Although in many cases the concern about environmental damage was evidently sincere, and the movement was by no means exclusively the preserve of ethnic Latvians, there is no question that these movements drew on and profited from nationalist sentiments of varying forms and degrees of intensity.

Calculated use was made of loaded language and emotive symbols – often very lightly veiled. The interwar flag of Latvia – crimson bisected with a narrow horizontal band of white – had been banned since the beginning of the Soviet occupation. VAK made the decision to use as their own emblem a green-striped flag, but in the same proportions as the Latvian standard, meaning that on the black-and-white televisions that almost all Soviet citizens owned, the two would be indistinguishable.

“Praying by the Sea” in Latvia, 1988 [Image: Valters Ivanovs. Used with permission of Latvijas Nacionālais vēstures muzejs]

And statements from the leaders of the movements make it clear that, for a great number, the protests expressed more than simply fears about the despoliation of the land of Latvia. Valdis Turins, who served as vice-president of VAK, stated in a documentary about the Latvian green movement: “I was never really a “green” in reality – although I wouldn’t say that I don’t care about nature. I do care about nature, but first and foremost I saw this as an opportunity for politicisation. As an opportunity to fight against a power that was unacceptable to me.”6 Remembering the battle against the Daugavpils hydro-electric station, Īvāns himself recently said “in truth we were defending ourselves, not the Daugava”.7

That’s not to say there weren’t genuine grounds to fear that the metro would have a negative impact on Latvia’s natural and built environment – as well as possible damage to the historic structures of Riga Old Town, it was undoubtedly the case that some buildings would been destroyed to make way for stations or other pieces of infrastructure. In a roundtable held on the subject, Guntis Eberhards, a doctor of geographical science at Pēteris Stučka University in Riga, warned of the risk that water held in the sandstone below the city could become polluted with oil, as well that the digging of shafts and stations could cause houses to collapse.8 These are serious concerns, although it’s hard to imagine that they could not have been precluded by sensitive and careful engineering.

But for many, it seemed difficult to conceive of the Soviet Union sponsoring a project that was anything other than ugly, dangerous and noxious.

“Why destroy Riga with a metro? Pollution in the River Lielupe is hundreds of times above permissible norms. Scientists recommend against swimming or relaxing at Jūrmala because both the air and the water are polluted.”9 That was from an article by Dace Zvirbule, presenting the metro less as a transport system than an agent of destruction, so clearly one of a kind with the other environmental ills that had been visited upon the country that the links didn’t need to be made explicit.

Plan of the city with the three projected metro lines included [Image: Public Domain]

Zvirbule’s views appeared in Padomju Jaunatne, a Latvian magazine that became known for its painstaking coverage of the metro project. Throughout the opening months of 1988, Padomju Jaunatne ran stringent interviews with engineers and officials involved in the project, solicited comment from other transport experts and publicised details of protest actions. Its articles delved into questions of transport policy and the technical advantages and drawbacks of various transport systems, often in considerable detail, and while officials involved in the project were given space to voice their opinions, readers could have been in little doubt that the editorship was opposed to construction.

It’s one of the ironies of the time, and a measure of just how fast things were changing, that the publication that set itself most firmly against the construction of the metro system, and the regime that was pushing it, had a name that translated as “Soviet Youth” – only in 1990 would it become Latvijas Jaunatne (“Youth of Latvia”). 

For Padomju Jaunatne was one of the old guard – the first issue came out in September 1944, less than a month after the Soviets had driven German forces out of Riga. And you can find quotes from just three years earlier in which the magazine obediently echoes the government line, agreeing that “a metro system becomes more necessary in Riga with every year that passes”.10

An issue of Padomju Jaunatne from 1986 [Image:]

What had happened in the interim, in 1987, was that Andrejs Cīrulis had been appointed as editor. This was actually intended as something of a punishment for Cīrulis, who had been demoted from the Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party after the publication of an ideologically unacceptable book for which he had taken primary responsibility for bringing into the world. This book was a transcript of the Chautauqua Conference, a remarkable public discussion between US and Soviet officials which had taken place the previous year in Jūrmala (described by the New York Times at the time as “about as close as the Soviet Union gets to a jet-set resort”)11 – during which, at least in theory, a free exchange of views was to take place, with no subjects off-limits.

It’s now best remembered, in Latvia at least, for the contributions of Jack Matlock, a senior adviser to then-president Ronald Reagan, who opened the discussion by saying “we, both Americans and Russians, are guests in your land”. Matlock also revealed that the United States had never recognised the legitimacy of Soviet rule over the Baltic states – something that Latvians had unsurprisingly not been informed of by their government. Although the conference received extensive coverage in the Soviet Union and sections of the proceedings were broadcast, TV channels in Latvia omitted Matlock’s announcement; this claim, however, was included in Jūrmala Dialogues, the book whose publication Cīrulis had facilitated, which was put out in an edition of 40,000.

The Chatauqua Conference in Jūrmala [Image: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia]

Punishment or not, under Cīrulis’s editorship, the paper swiftly refashioned itself as a sharp critic of the existing order. It was in Padomju Jaunatne, in the summer of 1988, that a call was made to form the Popular Front of Latvia (Latvijas Tautas Fronte) – the organisation that would become the foremost advocate of renewed independence for Latvia. A month earlier, the paper had been singled out for particular criticism at a plenum held by the Latvian Communist Party – condemned along with Literatūra un māksla, the Russian-language Sovetskaya Molodezh and Latvian Television and Radio (Latvijas Televīzija/Latvijas Radio), all of which by that point were giving ample space to opponents of the regime and publicising inconvenient protest and commemorative events.12

Still, reading Padomju Jaunatne just a few months before the protest, you would have had little idea that the project would soon be a theme of such enormous contention. In a late 1987 response to a reader who asks how Riga can afford a metro when so much of the city is in a state of disrepair, and when kindergartens lack the necessary resources, the author, Arnis Blodons, gives a mild, equivocal answer. He demurs on the question of whether a metro will or should be built in the city, declaring that he would leave that to the specialists, but counsels “about the shortages – those we will always be able to find if we look. I agree that there are many run-down corners in our city. But aren’t we ourselves to blame for that? After all, every instance of disorder starts with a small thing.”13

But this mildness was not to last. A series of articles and interviews early the following year put the metro project under forensic scrutiny, and conveyed to those in power the firm disapproval of what appeared to be the overwhelming majority of its readers.

Of these articles and interviews, a large proportion were the work of journalist Elita Veidemane, who would go on to work as the editor of Atmoda, the official newspaper of the Popular Front of Latvia.

Veidemane was mentioned by a number of the people I interviewed for this article as being in some way exemplary of the forces ranged against the metro, and it’s true that she made little secret of her personal opposition to the project. In a February 1988 opinion piece entitled “Only the Over-Confident Will Have No Doubts”, she claimed a large majority of Latvia’s population were opposed to construction, and set out and elaborated on a series of counter-arguments made by readers and experts. The standard concerns about the slippery conditions below the city recur, but there are many others. Those listed include that Riga would be reduced to the state of a building site for years to come, that the cost of construction (estimated by this point to be approximately 20 million rubles per kilometre) was exorbitant, that the metro would require enormous amounts of energy, potentially straining the city’s already over-taxed infrastructure, and that local specialists had largely been excluded from the process. Referring to the ecological impact assessment for the metro, which had been carried out by experts from Kyiv, Veidemane comments “it seems that absolutely everyone knows better than Rigans”.14

From the protest against construction of the metro in Arkādijas Park [Image: Ints Kalniņš]

Still other reasons for concern I found ranged from fears that the stations were too far apart for the system to be efficient,15 to observations that the general plans for the city from the ‘60s and ‘70s had still not been completed (promises to build a national library, as well as a number of other cultural venues had not been realised),16 to anxiety that the likely influx of workers would further increase the wait for accommodation for the large numbers of Rigans without flats of their own, or living in residences lacking basic amenities.17

But among the most pervasive reasons for opposition was a fear of being left behind, saddled with an obsolete mode of technology. As Veidemane put it in that article: “the metro is a child of the 19th century, but – possibly! – in Riga we will be riding it only in the 21st century, when a new mode of transport will long since have been created.”

The view that the metro was a thing of the past, soon to be superseded, was common currency at the time, and not only in the Soviet bloc. But it was a particularly potent line of argument in Latvia, where a sense of having been dragged back and held back by the Soviet Union was and still is pervasive – it’s often mentioned that in 1939, before Soviet troops crossed its borders, the Republic of Latvia was at a similar level of development and prosperity as Finland.

Design for Oškalna metro station by M. Ģelzis [Image: the Latvian Museum of Architecture]

Veidemane reiterated this concern in a Padomju Jaunatne interview that she conducted with Edgars Bērziņš, the chief architect at Pilsētprojekts, which was published in March 1988 under the headline “A Tangle of Problems – Not Only in the City Centre”. “But the metro is and remains a technical wonder which came into existence in the previous century in England.” This particular misgiving was clearly shared by others; as a sign at the protest in Arkādijas Park declares, “metro – retro!”

For his part, Bērziņš mounted a stout defence of the relevance and potential of rapid transit systems in the modern age, arguing “there is no obstacle stopping metro systems becoming one of the most modern modes of transport of the next century.” He provided the examples of Kyoto in Japan, a city with a broadly comparable population to Riga, which earlier that decade had completed a metro of its own – as well as Helsinki and the Spanish city of Seville, which at that time had either recently constructed or were preparing to construct metro systems.18

Shortly before being interviewed by Elita Veidemane, Bērziņš had spoken at a conference convened to discuss the metro, held in the Great Hall of the Latvian State University (now the University of Latvia). There, he had criticised what he saw as the emotional tone of the discussion, stressing that there was not yet a state of consensus among those involved in the project, and that much still had to be researched and developed. During the conference, a member of the Riga Soviet accused Padomju Jaunatne of deliberately giving a slanted account of the discussion, alleging that they only printed letters that expressed opposition to the metro project. Veidemane, in the account of the proceedings that later appeared in the magazine, responded “unfortunately WE DON’T HAVE ANY OTHER LETTERS”.19

In a further update in Padomju Jaunatne later that month, readers were informed that the publication had since received 172 letters on the subject of the metro. “In total, these 172 letters were signed by 1,965 people. There were 1,964 votes against the construction of the metro. In favour of construction of the metro there was one vote. The editorial board would very much like responses from those who are in favour of building the metro.”20

After this was printed, the paper did apparently receive a small number of letters from readers who were in favour of the project. On 15th March, 1988 Padomju Jaunatne printed a selection of these. They begin with reader Lilija Kaže, who says that on her trips to Moscow, Leningrad and Kyiv, she always travels by metro; she says she feels confident that once the metro is actually built Rigans will prefer it to other modes of transport. One reader opens on a sarcastic note: “I really have to marvel at how many people in Riga are metro specialists!”; another complains of the sudden fad for voting and collecting signatures: “maybe we should also vote for how many times a day we should milk the cows, when to sow and when to plough. The government is giving us the means to build a metro – we must use it!”

Others refer to the strained state of Riga’s existing transport system, still little changed from the mid-’70s, when the metro project was first initiated – one A. Sīpols, whose occupation is given only as “worker”, writes “every morning in the cloakroom I hear complaining about crushes on trolley-buses, buttons being torn off, travelling to work ‘in a herring barrel’.” He claims that most local workers are in favour of the project, but that as they don’t write letters to the newspapers, their views are not registered.21

Were these voices genuinely under-represented in the magazine’s coverage?

I exchanged emails with Veidemane about her memories of the period. When I ask whether she thinks that the public was correctly informed about the project, she defends the quality of the work done by Padomju Jaunatne on the subject – “I think that at that time society was precisely informed about the construction of the metro. We didn’t just write emotional appeals – we interviewed specialists, who carefully analysed the situation.”

Asked about the overall significance of the protests to the eventual restoration of Latvia’s independence, Veidemane told me “the campaign against the metro was extraordinarily important during the Atmoda period because it united people in a powerful way. Of course, a struggle “against” something always unites people – this time it was against the metro. Journalists precisely described the negative impact the metro would have on Riga, and this negative impact was due not only to the particulars of the ground underneath Riga, which was unsuited to metro construction, but also that thousands of immigrants – metro workers – would be brought to Riga (and Latvia in general). Riga had already become predominantly Russian-speaking; Riga was Russian, so why make it still more Russian?”

Veidemane’s comments clearly bring out the final factor in opposition to the metro project – the large-scale migration and cultural change that the Soviet Union had brought to Latvia, and the resentment and fear this brought about among some of the inhabitants of the republic. This one, it’s now accepted, was the overarching motivating factor for many, if not most, even if it was rarely presented as such. And, indeed, it is almost impossible to write about Latvia in the late ‘80s, and the various movements and currents afoot, without writing about language, without writing about ethnic affiliations.  

The cartography and statistics website has put together a useful map, overlaying the final design of the Riga metro onto the current Google Maps representation of the city. This is accompanied by an article setting out the history and reasons for opposition to the metro, with relevant facts and figures. The first graphic that appears shows the proportion of ethnic Latvians in the capital. From a rate of 63% before the war, it shrinks each time a survey is carried out; by 1989 it’s down to 36%, after which it starts to increase again (the population of Riga is now almost precisely split between Latvian and Russian-speakers). If it’s possible for a graphic to look worried, this one does.

Latvian share of the population in Riga (data from the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia) [Image:]

Riga had never been a monolithically Latvian city – far from it; built by German crusaders and ruled from various imperial capitals during its history, there were sizeable and long-standing communities not only of Germans and Russians, but also of Jews, Poles, Estonians and Lithuanians, among many other smaller groups. However, Latvian-speakers had always formed an overwhelming majority throughout most of the surrounding countryside, and with industrialisation and the increased need for urban labour from the mid-19th century onwards they become the largest ethnic group in Riga and in most other cities. This process had been further consolidated by the gradual development of a Latvian middle-class and intelligentsia, and thereafter by the creation of the Republic of Latvia in 1918.

What was taking place in Riga very closely reflected what was happening throughout the country – especially in its cities. Latvia experienced extremely high levels of immigration, primarily from Russia, throughout the entirety of its occupation by the Soviet Union – not, it’s important to stress, particularly high in purely numerical terms, but for a country of just two million people, enough to profoundly alter its demographics. By the ‘80s, Latvians were a minority not only in Riga, but also in Daugavpils, Liepāja, Jelgava, Ventspils and Jūrmala – all of the six largest cities of the Latvian SSR. And by 1989, ethnic Russians made up 34% of the population – up from a pre-war percentage of around 10%; when one adds other non-Baltic and predominantly Russophone ethnic groups such as Belarusians and Ukrainians, whose numbers also increased considerably, the rate very nearly reaches half.

This was, to quite a large extent, an unstable, fluctuating population, often made up of people there for short-term work in this relatively prosperous outpost of the country and without the intention of staying permanently – throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the outflow from the Baltic states lags not far behind the inflow. As a study of the period by Rein Taagepera and Romuald Misiunas puts it:

“The notably transient nature of the Russian-speaking colonies in Latvia and Estonia helped to reduce their vested interest and social power, but it also impeded cultural integration. They were guests who chose largely to ignore the republic’s language and culture and expected their hosts to adjust themselves”.22

Latvia was by no means the only Soviet republic that experienced significant levels of predominantly Russian immigration, but the backlash was particularly strong there (and continues to shape much about the country’s politics). Part of this can be put down to history: Latvia had, it’s true, spent a couple of hundred years under the Russian Empire, but it had always been a slightly semi-detached region, never successfully culturally or linguistically russified in the way that large stretches of Ukraine and Belarus had been – and as a non-Orthodox culture speaking a non-Slavic tongue, there were firmer dividing lines with Russia than existed in those countries. Even under the Russian Empire, the prestige language in most of modern-day Latvia remained German, the language of the aristocracy. And the twenty years Latvia had spent as an independent country between the wars had institutionalised Latvian as a language of administration and culture, and created the expectation that the nation’s minorities would master it. Seeing Russian become the lingua franca – and maybe, before long, the language of the majority – was clearly a shock for many Latvians.

This lack of cultural integration and ignorance of Latvian was, however, hardly the fault of those arriving – there was little expectation from the system that they would learn it. But this had not always been the case. At the end of the 1950s, the “Latvian national communists”, an unofficial faction in the Latvian Communist Party centred around deputy chairman Eduards Berklavs, had pushed for greater economic autonomy, arguing for limiting inwards movement and stemming the relocation of skilled Latvian workers elsewhere in the Soviet Union, as well as calling for more defence of Latvian culture and the Latvian language. The group briefly exerted considerable influence on policy, albeit often covertly, but in 1959 Berklavs was removed from his position and exiled to the city of Vladimir in Russia, as were a number of other senior party members viewed as sympathetic to him, such as First Secretary Jānis Kalnbērziņš. The purge of nationalists extended to rural organisations, and eventually several thousand party members were forced to resign.

Kalnbērziņš’s replacement, Arvīds Pelše, was a known Russophile and opponent of localism. In his speech to the Komsomol the year after the purge of the national communists, Pelše took aim at the policies of his predecessor, declaring:

“The friendship of the Latvian people with the other nationalities of our country, and primarily with the great Russian nation, is the object of national pride and one of the great sources of happiness for the Latvian people.”23

This was the official line, certainly, and the periodic attempts made to promote competence in Latvian in schools or workplaces were vulnerable to accusations of nationalism – not least by prominent members of the Latvian Communist Party, an organisation where the “titular nationality” remained a minority for most of the period. However, the official line was not always reflected lower down in Latvian society – while open resistance to the state and official policies was rare after the 1940s, passive displays of resentment and non-cooperation were much more common: Taagepera and Misiunas cite instances of Latvians and other Balts loudly celebrating the defeat of Soviet sports teams by international rivals, and claiming ignorance of the Russian language in public settings. Such an approach would have made any kind of communication with many of their fellow citizens difficult – by the late ’80s, it was estimated that only around 20% of non-Latvians resident in the republic spoke Latvian fluently.24

One of the few who did speak out against government policy on this subject was Gunārs Astra. At his sentencing in December 1983, accused of a range of offences including the possession and dissemination of works of anti-Soviet literature (a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 among them) he decried the russification of Latvia, placing primary emphasis on the role of language and painting Latvians as a people at risk of extinction.

“It pains me, and I feel degraded, when I have to observe that my native language is having to retreat to reservations – the Open-Air Museum, a few theatre stages… And even there, it is being slowly and convincingly pushed back by the great Russian language. It pains me, and I feel degraded, when I have to observe that the overwhelming majority of Russians born and raised in Latvia don’t learn and don’t want to speak Latvian. That to secondary-school leavers, the Latvian language is an object of scorn and mockery, and not a single examiner asks for proficiency in the language from Russian students, while for Latvian students proficiency in Russian is absolutely obligatory.”25

Gunārs Astra photographed on his arrest in 1961 [Image: Latvijas Valsts Arhīvs]

It’s worth mentioning that, unlike a number of other republics, Latvia entirely escaped inter-ethnic violence during the break-up of the Soviet Union, and that a significant numbers of the ethnic minority population openly expressed their sympathy with the independence movement, as well related contemporaneous struggles like environmental protection. (Dainis Īvāns estimated Russian support for the Popular Front of Latvia in the 1989 elections at 30% – among other historic non-Latvian minorities such as Lithuanians and Poles it was almost definitely significantly higher).26

Still, even if ethnic relations were better than in some other parts of the Soviet Union, it’s clear that they were in places decidedly frayed – and perhaps more so in Riga than elsewhere. The perception that Riga had become a hostile space for Latvians was undoubtedly played up by certain forces, but it clearly wasn’t wholly imaginary. In her book Imagining the Nation: History, Modernity and Revolution in Latvia, sociologist Daina Stukuls Eglitis cites examples of violently anti-Latvian graffiti seen in the capital,27 as well as relating an event in 1987 where during a school dance in Riga, Latvian students were attacked and beaten by approximately two hundred teenagers, who had assembled outside the building where it was being held and who were chanting “kill Latvians! Kill fascists!”. The incident was not reported in the official media, and there were no prosecutions of those youths who had been taken into custody. During a demonstration of around five hundred Latvian-speaking youths in the centre of Riga a few days later pro-independence slogans were shouted, and (this time, at least) press attention ensued.

It does indeed seem to be the case that at least a small number of specialists and construction workers would have come from the neighbouring Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Belarus), whose capital Minsk had seen the opening of its first metro line earlier that decade. It was widely presumed that large numbers of others would follow while the construction of the metro was taking place, and that their families would most likely come to join them.

Metro design for Centrālā Stacija by P. Purviņš [Image: Latvian Museum of Architecture]

Attempts were made by those tasked with selling and defending the metro project to assuage Latvian-speakers’ fears on these grounds: Ivars Ulmanis tried one tack when speaking in the magazine Cīņa [“Struggle”]. He dismissed the estimate of 30,000 immigrant workers that had been mentioned by many, claiming that no more than two and a half thousand should be needed. Besides, he says, Riga is producing its own, home-grown experts in metro-building – since 1986 each year group studying at the Leningrad Rail Engineers’ Institute has included 30 Rigans, he claims.28

In his interview with Elita Veidemane, Edgars Bērziņš took a more jocular, unconcerned approach to the subject. Asked about readers’ fears of a further flow of immigration from neighbouring republics once construction of the metro was underway, he answered: “people worry that Riga is unceasingly growing, that the number of inhabitants will increase. That’s urbanisation! And it’s also the standard of living, which in our republic is relatively high compared to some other parts of the Soviet Union. It’s natural that people will aspire to live where life is better.” (Although later on in the interview, he suggested that the workers from Minsk could operate on a kind of shift rota, and gradually be replaced with local specialists).29

It’s doubtful that either approach was successful. A placard clearly visible at the first anti-metro protest declared “metro – a green light to migrants”. The effects of migration and russification are presented in even more dramatic, existential terms on other banners: “metro – another step towards the destruction of the Latvian people” and “metro – a weapon of genocide”.

But all of this placed Riga in an odd position, a victim of its multiple identities, incapable of fully satisfying all the expectations different groups had of it. On one hand, it was among the most developed, prosperous, forward-looking cities in the Soviet Union, a multicultural metropolis and among those most suitable for further development. However, its status as the largest city of a small and culturally distinct republic meant that its very growth and success was perceived as a threat: for if the city became larger, the very Latvianness of Latvia could be at risk.

This line of thinking was expressed most clearly by the Latvia-born American architect Sigurds Grava, who visited Riga during this period and expressed opposition to the metro. This was done in terms that would be surprising if used to speak about most world cities. “If a metro network is developed, the threat of becoming a multi-million-inhabitant city will inescapably arise… the city and republic will still further lose control over its territory, and Riga will be developed as a regional centre disproportionately large for the scale of Latvia.”30

A profound sense of insecurity send tremors throughout the culture of the period, often turning up in the most unexpected places. One curiosity of the period which reflects this is a music video protesting the construction of the metro system recorded by the popular (and still-touring) Latvian group Jumprava.

The song, “Metro Nav Draugs” (“The Metro Is Not a Friend”) is bleepy but foreboding electropop: primitive synthesiser lines gleaming up and down like a circuit board lighting up. It’s a little like the early, tinny and eager-to-please Depeche Mode, if they had been deeply exercised about transport systems.

The only instrument on stage is an electronic drum kit – the singer occasionally plays a fill but mostly just uses his drumsticks to emphasise his points, while sort of dancing in a hurried-seeming way. He is flanked by two young men, hands in their pockets and stone-faced, as though barring your way onto their property, who bark out “metro nav draugs” in unison. The group are backed by giant silhouettes of hammering and shovelling workers, creating what is, I assume, an intentionally socialist realist aesthetic. The key message, aside from the metro not being a friend, is repeated: Above the ground, many foreign people are called here. None of them will leave”.

Jumprava weren’t the only band to inveigh against the metro in song – the hard rock group Vaidava, who had already achieved some popularity among Latvian audiences, recorded a tune called simply “Metro” – a mid-paced, slightly dragging composition heavy with synthesised horns, which warns of “destroyed houses, cobbles dug up” and asks “is nothing sacred to us anymore?” before launching into a chorus of: “no, I don’t want that – to ride in a metro train”. The instrumental passage that follows is overlaid with a mocked-up Russian-language station announcement for Zasulauks, one of the proposed metro stops, delivered in a tone that sounds deliberately taunting. “A great scar will remain on the face of Riga”, they declare in the final stanza.

But the movement wasn’t driven only by fear and foreboding; there were opportunities for imagination and creativity too. For all that the independence struggle often took the interwar Republic of Latvia for its model, there were many associated with the movement who clearly saw a chance to fill in the undefined future with their own colours.

It was this atmosphere that fostered the appearance of charming oddities like “What Is a Kelāns?”, an article that appeared in Padomju Jaunatne that February. This piece, prefaced by a slightly baffled-sounding disclaimer on the part of the publication, is essentially a description and promotion of an entirely new system of transport, penned by its creator, Ilgaitis Prūsis, a technical science graduate.31

Prūsis opens in bold, though familiar fashion, declaring “the metro is an invention of the previous century”, before detailing various perceived failings and inefficiencies of the metro as a mode of transport – not least the repeated waste of energy and momentum that results from having to brake when approaching stations. “Will we be able to afford such wastefulness in the 21st century?” he asks.

His solution is the kelāns. This would be a contraption somewhere between a lift, a tram and a minibus: a small carriage, carrying between six and ten people, who would be able to select precisely which stations they wanted to stop at. These stations would be linked by a complex mesh of tunnels, as far below ground as 100 metres, through which these machines would travel at speeds between 150 and 200 km/h – a velocity at which travel between central Riga and its suburbs would be reduced to as little as five minutes. A uniform speed would be ensured, and collisions prevented, by the presence of an air pocket between each of the carriages. All of this is set out in enthusiastic fashion, and accompanied with seemingly hurried hand-drawn sketches.


It’s presented with absolute certainty, but it’s one of those things where I don’t have anywhere near sufficient knowledge to judge if it is a work of brilliance, or of madness – although the fact that I know of nothing remotely similar having been developed in the three decades since makes me suspect, rather regretfully, that it probably falls closer to the latter.

And for many, the protests were expressions of togetherness and defiance that had a value in and of themselves. Pēteris Blūms, a Latvian architect, remembers the sense of exhilaration and collective power that the protest against the metro brought into existence.

“We felt together as a people. We finally could loudly think and speak about what we actually thought… An attitude towards reality came into being as a protest against Sovietism, one that had been accumulating for the whole of our lives up to that point.”

Among other things, Blūms is known for his work to promote and preserve the UNESCO-recognised wooden architecture of Riga – a picturesque feature found throughout the capital, if often in sadly run-down condition. When we exchanged emails about his role in the movement and his memories of the time, I asked Blūms whether the likely destruction of some examples of Riga’s wooden heritage (the proposed station in Zasulauks, in particular, was and remains surrounded by largely wooden housing) was a significant factor in his opposition to the project.

He briefly admitted that it played a part, as did concerns over the safety of the technology used, but devoted the most space in his reply to the question of immigration and cultural assimilation: “one of the biggest worries was the imported work force – there was lots of talk about many thousands of workers from all over the USSR. Riga was already full of Russians and the Russian language… Together – myself and my family included – we were against the further russification of Riga. About urban planning we did not think so much. Rather, about the fact that this would have been a big and long-lasting project, but life and the construction process was slow”.

Ploshcha Yakuba Kolasa station in Minsk, Belarus. The city’s first metro line was opened in 1984, just a few years before construction in Riga was due to begin [Image: Antares 610. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 Licence]

It had indeed been slow – the project had suffered so many delays and complications that virtually no progress had been made in the almost two decades that had passed since its announcement. It had seemed that 1988 would be the year that would change all of that, the year when the project would finally take a leap into physical reality. The opposite was the case – this was the year the project came up against the new Soviet reality, and lost.

And for something trailing so much opposition and such bold claims, that was so bold and adventurous, so defiant of seeming constraints, the manner of its demise was underwhelming – ending not even with a whimper, but with no sound at all, at a moment that few can conclusively identify. There are no articles about the metro in Padomju Jaunatne after summer 1988, and there were no further large-scale protests after the meeting in Arkādijas Park. Different accounts exist of how it was abandoned, or if a decision was taken at all; it was allowed to quietly slip below the surface, as, increasingly, others were distracted by other, more pressing problems. Then-mayor Alfrēds Rubiks doesn’t remember any decision to abandon the project being formally taken,31 while Ivars Ulmanis claims that during a meeting of Pilsētprojekts at the end of 1988, Boriss Pugo, the First Secretary of the Latvian Communist Party, decided to cancel construction.32

As well as the vocal opposition to the project from a significant section of society, most likely a majority, another factor that almost definitely played a part was that expected costs had ballooned over the previous few years. In 1985, the Central Committee of the Latvian SSR and the Supreme Soviet asked for one million rubles to be included in the following year’s budget to cover metro-related costs. Two years later, they asked for three times that. While Moscow would have paid for the cost of construction, it became increasingly clear there were multiple related expenses that it would have been up to the Latvian SSR to cover, such as the demolition of buildings, and the relaying of cables and utility connections, as well as the construction of a depot, substations and infrastructure such as power lines. In total, the sum on Latvian shoulders is estimated to have amounted to over 50 million rubles.33

Politics had turned increasingly inconvenient and uncontrollable too: the interwar Latvian flag, still technically illegal, was being displayed with increasing frequency and brazenness in public. In August 1987, arrests had been made in Riga as the Helsinki-86 human rights group led 10,000 demonstrators in commemorating the anniversary of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed between the Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers in 1939 – an action that had consigned Latvia and the other Baltic states to Soviet domination; in 1988, the anniversary was marked by at least six times more. On November 18th that year, Latvian independence day was publicly celebrated by tens of thousands. The Popular Front of Latvia was formally established in October 1988 (Dainis Īvāns, still riding a wave of popularity from his role in the defeat of the Daugavpils hydro-electric plant, was elected leader), with a paying membership of 110,000. A wave was swelling, and the trends were clearly ominous for the authorities; one can see the metro as one of the first superfluous items thrown overboard in an attempt to stop their ship from sinking.

From the protest against construction of the metro in Arkādijas Park [Image: Ints Kalniņš]

Riga’s metro would have been the most expensive metro system ever constructed in the Soviet Union, at 23.2 million roubles per kilometre – higher than Moscow (which had cost 20 million per km), and significantly above nearby Minsk (15 million per km). But like something that could not endure sunlight, at the first instance of large-scale attention from the public and genuine debate, the project dematerialised. A little like the Soviet Union itself – audacious but creaking, undeniably impressive at points and undeniably illogical at others, defined by sweeping gestures but weak at the foundations, and increasingly dependent on an appearance of inevitability for its existence.  

The story of the metro was over, it seemed. In May 1990, the Latvian Supreme Soviet – where, following free elections, the Popular Front now had a majority – voted to restore Latvia’s independence, as Estonia and Lithuania had already done, meaning parallel and contradictory structures of authority now existed in Latvia and the other Baltic states.

At the beginning of 1991, an attempt by Soviet special forces to reimpose control over key administrative and communications centres in Riga left several civilians dead after shooting broke out in the centre of the capital. And in August the same year, a coup to depose Gorbachev was staged in Moscow by anti-perestroika Communist Party hardliners – Pugo, by that point the Soviet Minister for Interior Affairs, among them – which briefly brought tanks onto Latvian streets; when the coup failed after a few days, world powers began to recognise the Baltic states as independent, and the Soviet Union lost even nominal power over the region. By the end of that year, there was no longer a country of that name.

Design for Zasulauks metro station by P. Purviņš [Image: Latvian Museum of Architecture]

1. From an unpublished interview with Ivars Ulmanis conducted by Mārtiņš Eņģelis

2. The figure of 10,000 for the Arkādijas Park protest comes from “Pirms 20 gadiem Rīgā apturēja metro būvniecību” by Egīls Zirnis

3. Quote from “Dainis Īvāns: Daugavas krastos esam veidojušies par tautu”:

4. Mentioned in this overview by the TV programme Atslēgas of the protests against the Daugavpils hydro-electric plant:–stils/vesture/atslegas-daugavpils-hes-tautas-dusmu-sluzas.a296467/

5. Mentioned in this article on the environmental protests about the Daugava, “Daugavas liktenis: izglābt sevi un tautu caur neiespējamo”:

6. Quote taken from an interview during the Latvian TV programme Melu Laboratorija, episode “Zaļā Atmoda”:

7. Quote taken from Atslēgas:–stils/vesture/atslegas-daugavpils-hes-tautas-dusmu-sluzas.a296467/

8. Quote from “Rīgas metro – svaru kausos”, originally published in Cīņa, February 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

9. Quote from “— Es piedalos!”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne, April 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

10. Quoted in the article “Metro nav draugs!”:

11. Referred to in “Reporter’s Notebook: Gleaming Baltic Resort”, published in The New York Times, September 1986:

12. The official criticism of Padomju Jaunatne and other media outlets is mentioned in this article by Andrejs Cīrulis, “Andrejs Cīrulis: Par skaisto 1988. gadu Latvijā”:

13. Quote from “Vai būs…?”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne, December 1987; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

14. Latvian title “Nešaubīsies vienīgi pašpārliecinātais”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne, February 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

15. This concern was shared by Pilsētprojekts lead engineer Ija Niedole, according to an unpublished interview conducted with Mārtiņš Eņģelis. As she mentions in that interview, the distance between the planned Raiņa and Oškalni stations in the centre of the city would have been almost 2 km, after an intervening station was removed for being too shallow. The members of Pilsētprojekts tried to get the Moscow-based institute Megiprotrans, which had come up with the route, to change their mind about this, but seemingly to no avail.

16. Details from “Šis ir kompetentu cilvēku laiks”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne in February 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

17. Details about lack of amenities in flats in Riga comes from “Emocijas rāda attieksmi”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne in February 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

18. Quotes from the interview with Edgars Bērziņš are from “Problēmu kamols – ne tikai pilsētas centrā”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne in March 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

19. Quote from “Šis ir kompetentu cilvēku laiks”; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

20. Quotes from “Turpinām domu apmaiņu par Rīgas metro”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne in February 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

21. Quotes from letters are taken from “…bet es esmu par metro!”; originally published in Padomju Jaunatne in March 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

22. Both quote and details regarding inflow and outflow of migrants from the Baltic states from The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940-1990 by Rein Taagepera and Romuald Misiunas

23. Quote cited in Years of Dependence

24. Mentioned in “The Language Situation in Latvia: 1850-2004” by Baiba Metuzāle-Kangera and Uldis Ozolins:

25. Gunārs Astra quote taken from “Vārdi kas joprojām saviļņo: Leģendārajai Astras runai tiesā – 30”:

26. Īvāns’ claim regarding Russian support for the Popular Front is cited in The Baltic Revolution by Anatol Lieven

27. Those mentioned in the book include (in Russian) “Every dead Latvian – [like] one planted tree” and “Riga for Russians, nothing for Latvian fascists”

28. Quote from “Rīgas metro – svaru kausos”, originally published in Cīņa, February 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

29. From “Problēmu kamols – ne tikai pilsētas centrā”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne in March 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

30. Sigurds Grava is quoted in the book Rīga, kuras nav by Jānis Lejnieks

31. Quote from “Kas tas ir – kelāns?”, originally published in Padomju Jaunatne in February 1988; accessible via the Barikadopēdija website:

32. Details from unpublished interview with Alfrēds Rubiks conducted by Mārtiņš Eņģelis

33. Details from unpublished interview with Ivars Ulmanis conducted by Mārtiņš Eņģelis

34. Information from unpublished research conducted by Mārtiņš Eņģelis

The full three-line route of the proposed metro system, 1986

Will Mawhood is the editor of Deep Baltic

With profound thanks to Mārtiņš Sīlis for clarification about translations, and to Mārtiņš Eņģelis for clarification about technical details.

This is the second part of a three-part series on the story of the Riga metro. You can read the first part, “Beginnings”, about the birth of the project in fast-growing post-war Latvia here. Part 3, “Traces“, which will look at the unexpected ways that the theme of the metro resurfaces in the contemporary city of Riga, will be published soon.

© Deep Baltic 2019. All rights reserved.

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