by Owen Hatherley, KULDĪGA

Kuldīga is a small Hanseatic town in the Courland area of Latvia, and I spent a summer there on a “writers residency programme”, those wheezes that give you a quiet place to write in, on the proviso you write about them. Quiet is the most conspicuous thing about it; although in simple terms of distance, it isn’t far from a major European metropolis (Riga, by far the biggest city in the three Baltic republics), the fact that it has no rail connection, and is linked only by a bumpy country road, means that you can almost forget, when here, that you’re in the European Union in the early twenty-first century, with all the tensions, contradictions and possibilities that entails. That’s why they have a writer in residence programme: because this is considered to be an appealing idea for writers. What this says about us may not be complimentary. Naturally, if you explore just a little, you find all the paraphernalia of contemporary Europe, the free Wi-Fi, the out-of-town retail parks and the Western-owned chain stores — in fact, one of the most picturesque aspects of Kuldīga, its cobbled roads, are a recent intervention, an EU-funded infrastructure upgrade deliberately calibrated to recall the historical texture of the town. On the weekend of the annual Kuldīga Fair, you can also get a sense of a place that has marketed itself with moderate success as a tourist destination, with German, English and Russian all audible. But, walk down, say, Ventspils iela on a weekday afternoon, and the only thing that really tells you that anything much has happened since the eighteenth century are the cars parked outside the attractively faded wooden houses.

The scarlet and white Latvian flags flying from outside many houses date the town, too, given that these could hardly have been displayed before 1918 or between 1940 and 1990. Part of the town’s appeal, nevertheless, is that this is a place where nothing much appears to have happened. Duke Jacob of Courland is the main, or only historical figure worth honouring, part of an almost impossible history where a small Baltic Duchy managed to colonise parts of West Africa and the Caribbean (this they did — the Dutch and British soon muscled in and took Courland’s colonies over, however). As for twentieth-century history, Kuldīga appears on the face of it to have been blissfully absent, its fabric barely touched. This sits oddly with an overwhelming fact about contemporary Latvia. This small country, dominated to an extreme degree by its capital city, underwent very recently the sort of economic contraction usually seen in the aftermath of total war or environmental disaster. After a real estate boom in the 2000s — at one point, property prices in Jurmala, for instance, “matched those in Monte Carlo”1 — in 2009, the Latvian economy contracted by 18%, the largest single crash among the EU countries affected by the financial crisis — larger even than Greece. Whereas Ireland, Greece, Spain, Slovenia, Portugal, Italy and eventually even Britain responded to the crisis with a surge in strikes, activism, and the formation and electoral success of new left-wing protest parties, Latvia, and similarly, if not as severely stricken Lithuania and Estonia, were remarkably peaceful. Aside from one 2009 protest that ended in a spontaneous riot in Riga, this crash on a historic scale coincided with complete social peace. Within a few years, impressive economic growth had resumed, helped to a degree by mass emigration (in 2013, Latvia’s population was 7.7% lower than it had been in 2008) and by what economists call “internal devaluation”, that is, the driving down of wages and working conditions. This shouldn’t be overstated. As Paul Krugman pointed out,

Latvia suffered a huge, Depression-level economic contraction after 2007, followed eventually by a fast but as yet incomplete bounce-back — which the latest data suggest may be slowing — that has left unemployment much higher than it was pre-crisis. Actually, Latvia’s numbers from 2007 to 2013 look fairly similar to those for the United States from 1929 to 1935. Today, everyone considers America in 1935 to have been still in the depths of the Great Depression, so if one looks at Latvia through the same lens the country doesn’t look very good — better than Greece, perhaps, but not good.2

But the fact remains that, in comparison with, say, the continuing drama of Greece, even a huge economic collapse passed peacefully in twenty-first-century Latvia. Aside from the depopulation brought on by emigration, and a lack of maintenance of many houses that actually enhances the place’s picturesqueness, this crisis is totally invisible in Kuldīga — to a degree that not only contrasts with southern Europe, but also, for instance, with the streets of central Riga, with their empty flats, casinos and charity shops. There are some possible explanations for this phlegmatic response. One, for instance, is the fact that in living memory, Latvians experienced an economic contraction on an even larger scale, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a recession of -10.4% in 1991, an unbelievable -34.9% in 1992, and -14.9% in 1993.3 The eventual pay-off for that, after a decade or so of misery, was EU membership, well-stocked supermarkets, EU-funded infrastructure improvements and the safety valve of emigration. Latvians have become well trained at coping with crises that would have led to insurrection pretty much anywhere else.

In that case, Kuldīga is a place where you can almost pretend there is no crisis; the pace of life is slow, the signs of modernity are subtle to non-existent, the houses, right down to their carved doorways, have stood for centuries, their paint peeling off elegantly, and could do so for another few centuries more until they’re finally eaten away as the wood degrades.

KUL2 The Catholic church-min
KUL3 The Orthodox church-min

The churches are timeless — Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox, rustic and emblematic, forming an elegant skyline. So far, so sleepy. Spend a little more time there, however, and you may notice something unexpected. Here, on the Kuldīga Law Courts, is a plaque that tells you the site of the Revolutionary War Committee in 1919.

Here is another plaque, commemorating where a Red Army leader taught in a school. Here is another, on Baznīcas iela, telling you that on this site, revolutionaries were massacred. And in the main park, you’ll find a monument where two rugged men carrying a flag surmount a plinth with the year “1905”. You’ll also find another, newer plaque, telling you that in the lovely Biedermeier building you’re looking at, the NKVD tortured and humiliated its victims, in the 1940s and early Fifties, and another, which you could almost miss entirely, on the site where the town’s Jews were taken away to be slaughtered. These signs of social unrest, revolution, revolt, counter-revolution and ethnic genocide are placed almost imperceptibly onto the wooden houses and plastered classical public buildings; a couple are translated into Russian, another couple into English, and most, into neither.

Explore a little more and you’ll find legacies of the USSR, in a town which could otherwise fairly advertise itself as one of the least visibly Soviet towns in the Baltic states.4 There’s a large housing estate, stretching along both sides of Piltenes iela, and another, smaller, off Mucenieku iela; there’s the remnants of large factory complexes; there’s a peculiar personal museum; and there’s the sculpture park of a local artist, whose work will be instantly identifiable for anyone who knows the public art of the late-Soviet era. All of these are not only evidence of the ways in which Kuldīga has been deeply shaped by the events of the last 110 years, beginning with the sudden explosion of 1905, but they may also help explain exactly why the town is now so quiet, in the face of events that have elsewhere led to countries experiencing their own “1905”s. There is a carefully conserved absence at this town’s heart, and this essay will be an attempt to fill it — something which is not so hard, so long as you pay attention to its inscriptions.

The Relics of 1905

During the Kuldīga Fair in July 2016, there were events in the 1905 park; folk singing and dance contests were held in a marquee built onto the plinth of a monument; the two figures on that monument stared impassively as Kuldīgans and tourists loitered and enjoyed themselves. A few days later, the paraphernalia was removed, and the monument stood alone in the park again. Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with the Stalin-era artistic school known as “Socialist Realism” will straightaway know what they’re dealing with here.

Hewn from grey granite, the statue depicts two full male figures; one, younger, very handsome, with a quiff, high cheekbones and dramatic eyebrows, and a shorter, older moustachioed figure. Between them they carry a banner, which you can be quite sure was coloured deepest scarlet when the events the statue refers to were taking place. Both wear crude, ill-fitting clothes, the garb of the early-twentieth-century factory labourer and peasant; their gaze is aimed firmly forward; behind them is the signature of the sculptor, Livija Rezevska, and the year, 1955. Beneath them is the year “1905”, with no further explanation; and that’s what the park and the street are named after too. What is this, and what is it (still) doing here?

Whereas monuments to the revolutionary events of 1917-1920 can be rare in those EU countries which were once, entirely or not, part of the Russian Empire (Finland, the Baltics, Poland), monuments to the 1905 Revolution appear with remarkable regularity. In a sense, this is strange. In Marxist historiography — whether official Soviet, dissident libertarian or Trotskyist — 1905 was the “dress rehearsal” for 1917. Beginning with strike waves in St Petersburg and Poland, it was a pan-imperial working-class uprising, culminating near the end of the year in a failed Bolshevik insurrection in Moscow. Unlike 1917, it was successfully suppressed, in a combination of carrot (the Tsar’s “October Manifesto” promised various liberal freedoms, mostly honoured in the breach) and stick (thousands of protesters were killed in 1905, and on into 1906 and 1907). Some of the revolutionary leaders in 1905 would later become central to the nation-building projects of the interwar years, such as Jozef Piłsudski in Poland, or Kārlis Ulmanis in Latvia; and the anti-imperial aspect of this explosion means that it can be seen in a sense as a nationalist uprising, although at the time it was largely interpreted in socialist terms. But, surely, pretty little Kuldīga could not have been much of a part in the rising? At this point, it is worth referring to another plaque, this one on the front of Kuldīga’s mid-nineteenth-century neo-Gothic Town Hall. It reads: “In this building in Autumn 1905 was based the Kuldīga Revolutionary Committee”.

Kurzeme, Kurland Gubernia, was one of the most turbulent provinces in the entire Russian Empire during the 1905 Revolution, and within that, the dominant political trend was not agrarian populism, as it was in much of Russia itself, and there was no Father Gapon figure promising to intercede with the Good Tsar. On the contrary, 1905 was dominated by the Latvian Social Democrats, the local wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, then only vaguely divided into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. In Anatol Lieven’s account, the centrality of this avowedly revolutionary Marxist party to the events owed something to Latvia’s proximity, both economically and physically, to Germany. More industrially and agriculturally developed than most of the Russian Empire, Latvia had — Kuldīga, or then, usually, Goldingen, included — a large factory proletariat, who had been further radicalised with the Marxist literature brought back from Germany by Social Democrats such as the poet couple Rainis and Aspazija. “Based on the large Latvian (and Russian) working class in Riga and Liepāja, the Latvian Social Democratic movement in 1905 is said to have been bigger than the Russian Menshevik and Bolshevik organisations combined”.5 An active working class, organised in large factories, with ideas being circulated by radical, peripatetic intellectuals — it’s a fairly classic revolutionary scenario. You can also get a sense of why it occurred when you look at the larger houses in turn-of-the-century Kuldīga, such as the sprawling, redbrick Dutch Baroque residence on Mālu iela, with the fateful year “1905” inscribed onto its gable.

The impression of Social Democratic dominance is also stressed in the work of Andrew Ezergailis, who describes the 1905 Revolution as “perhaps the most important event of the twentieth century to Latvians” (in the early 1970s — opinions may have changed since). He argues that “among Latvian historians of 1905 and in the memoir histories of the participants, the general conclusion is that Latvia showed more enthusiasm, violence and revolutionary maturity in 1905 than any other area of the Russian Empire”.6 Widespread strikes of farm-hands were organised across Kurzeme by the Latvian Social Democrats, and events soon escalated even out of their control — the province was hit by a series of “church demonstrations”, where priests were dragged out of their churches and made to carry red flags or flogged. In August 1905, Martial Law was declared in Kurzeme, and the revolutionary committee which occupied the Town Hall was the response to that.

The extent of the events is an enduring contrast with the smallness of the canvas — an armed rising in Tukums is obviously less celebrated than one in Moscow, but both took place. As everywhere else, the revolution was violently suppressed, but it left long-lasting legacies. According to the Latvian Social Democratic leader, and brother-in-law of Rainis, Pēteris Stučka, naturally not an unbiased observer, 1905 may have appeared at the time like a national uprising, with Latvian liberals and populists joining in a struggle against Tsarist administrators and Baltic German landowners, but whereas they compromised afterwards, accepting some paring back of Tsarist restrictions on Latvian language and culture, the socialist demands carried by the Latvian workers naturally could not be fulfilled.7 The immediate effect was emigration — Latvian exiles from the later Chekist Jēkabs Peterss, born just outside Kuldīga, to the mythical “Peter the Painter” found themselves crammed into the slums of London’s East End or New York’s Lower East Side.8 Around twelve years later, however, many would return.

The continuity between the two revolutions can be read, too, in the inscriptions on Kuldīga’s Soviet-era plaques; at the corner of Liepājas iela and Baznīcas iela, you find that “in this house in 1905 lived Janis Septe (Žanis Millers), chairman of the revolutionary committee and President of the Soviet in 1918”. The second revolutionary sequence, from 1917 to 1919, is not a part of Latvian historiography today in the way that 1905 is; the legitimate government, it is assumed, was that set up by the Latvian Declaration of Independence in late 1918, signed by members of 1905’s populist and liberal parties, and the Menshevik wing of the Social Democrats; the subsequent Latvian Soviet Republic, merely a facet of a “Latvian-Soviet War”. Of course, for the USSR, after 1940, this brief Republic was the legitimate government and the liberal government a foreign plant; something which has very probably discredited it in the eyes of post-Soviet observers. Even so, Kuldīga has not removed the many 1919 plaques and monuments around the city, and from them, you can piece together aspects of the much more murky revolutionary events that took place in the aftermath of the First World War.

The Relics of 1919

Livija Rezevska’s monument representing “1905” and her later sculptural ensemble on “1919” are strikingly different, linked only by the events described, and by the fact that neither work has any added commentary, just a simple year appended to the figures and the plinths. It is placed in a courtyard just in the corner of, but contiguous with, 1905 Park.

This courtyard is entered through the very early, timber-framed house at the junction of Liepājas iela and Baznīcas iela, where you can find another of Kuldīga’s revolutionary plaques. This one, unlike most, is bilingual in Russian and Latvian, on a stark black plaque with angular sans serif letters, in a style much more immediately recognisable as “Soviet”. It reads: “in the courtyard of this house in 1919 the Landeswehr killed more than 100 revolutionaries”. It is this act which Rezevska’s sculpture draws attention to, rather than the (briefly) victorious seizure of power in the town by Bolshevik revolutionary committees; rather than triumphalist, like the two men of 1905, this is instead an image of suffering and defeat; perhaps it is the fact we’re dealing with an image of victimhood that has enabled this monument to survive, given that the events it deals with are enduringly controversial, in a way that 1905 is not.

As you can find in the progression of Rezevska’s works in her Sculpture Garden at the heart of the town — which we will come to later — the 1919 monument marks a major shift in style. The 1905 monument is traditional Soviet Socialist Realism down to its chiselled cheekbones, musclemen with their eyes set with total focus towards the future; they are realistically rendered, with their clothes and hairstyles modelled with historical veracity. By the mid-1970s, when she created the 1919 monument, Rezevska shifted towards a more stylised kind of figurative sculpture, with some ancestry in early-twentieth-century modernism, of the sort that was proscribed in the USSR from the mid-Thirties to the mid-Fifties — Gaudier-Brzeska, Brancusi, Lipschitz, are all possible influences, as well as a continued remnant from more approved sculptors like Maillol. The body remains recognisable in work like this — it is not abstract sculpture, which remained extremely controversial in the USSR from the Thirties right up until the very end in the late Eighties, but it is abstracted, so that the recognisable bodies are reduced to sharp lines, their faces sketched in rather than realistically rendered, and organised as formal, pattern-like groups. In painting, this shift, visible as early as the mid-Fifties under Khrushchev, was called the “severe style”, and this describes well what happens to Rezevska’s work. You can also see this in monuments from the entire Soviet space, so it isn’t unique to her, by any means. But the 1919 monument is an intelligent, subtle example of the severe style, particularly in the way it integrates with architecture.

This is paralleled by the materials Rezevska used for this ambitious work. Approached from the 1905 Park, all you find is a stark, crumbling wall — this monument to a hundred revolutionaries killed by German military adventurers immediately recalls Mies van der Rohe’s monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two rather more famous revolutionaries murdered by Freikorps in 1919. The rugged brick wall of Mies’s monument was selected to evoke the wall against which the two were shot; it seems likely Rezevska’s use of poor-quality bricks was for similar reasons. Walk within this, towards the building that bears the plaque, and the wall is revealed to be a two-part composition, made up of two hard, black beaten metal panels. In one, six naked male figures stretch and writhe, their bodies reduced to the lines of chests, their faces just noses and jaws; they are pulled into a formal composition, with the tallest figure embracing his comrades in agony. In the adjacent panel are the mourners, a group of head-scarved women looking in sorrow over one of these murdered naked men. Aesthetically, this is all considerably more radical and ambitious than what the younger Rezevska had produced to commemorate the earlier failed revolution, but the iconography here is conservative, with struggling men and women left as mourning mothers. The headscarves of these women became something of a motif in Rezevska’s work, an item of clothing that abstracts and depersonalises the wearers to much the same effect as the diagrammatic features of the men. Flowers had been laid in front of the memorial.

This is maybe surprising, as official Latvian history quite unsurprisingly ignores or downplays the revolutions that took place here in 1917 and 1919.9 As in, say, Poland or Czechoslovakia, the important thing is the declaration of independence that immediately followed the collapse of the German Army at the end of the First World War. The subsequent two years of chaos were simply a War of Independence, where the new state bravely established itself against Bolshevik invaders, German Freikorps and White Russian nationalists. This is not wholly untrue, but it neglects one obvious fact — the events can also be considered, in Anatol Lieven’s description, as a civil war, caused in large part by the huge popularity of socialist revolution in Latvia,10 and particularly, the overwhelming popularity of the Latvian Social Democrats, who were by mid-1917 the local branch of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. In the work of Andrew Ezergailis on 1917 in Latvia, it is clear that this was actually one of the most solidly Communist parts of the Russian Empire, comparable in that respect with the factories of Petrograd or the mining areas of Donbas, rather than with more conservative provinces nearby such as Lithuania or eastern Poland; given how much the Bolsheviks’ organisation rested on the Baltic Fleet, it would be strange were it otherwise. Latvia, with its ethnically diverse, tightly organised and literate working class and its modernised agriculture, was natural territory for early-twentieth-century socialism. However, in 1917, Kurzeme was occupied by the German Empire, who had plans for a puppet state of Courland on the territory; many Courlanders were in exile, or fighting in the famous Riflemen’s Division. It was later, in 1919, that it was itself affected by revolution.

Nonetheless, it’s necessary to understand what happened in the unoccupied Vidzeme, Latgale and Zemgale in 1917 to understand what happened in Kurzeme two years later. 1917 was peaceful in Riga, with power falling into the hands of the local Soviet with ease. Latvian exiles in Britain or the US made their way home, no longer in fear of arrest or torture by the Okhrana. One gave an account of a depopulated capital:

Was it really Riga, the busy, industrial city? The silence that reigned in the streets made me doubt it. The factories which we passed did not work. The slender factory smokestacks had not belched for some time. It seemed like a metamorphosis had changed the entire city into an old, paralytic invalid.11

The Latvian Social Democrats had hitherto occupied a “Unionist” position, advocating co-operation between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; the course of events, with the Bolshevik emphasis on immediate transfer of power to the workers and soldiers’ councils, and on immediate abolition of capitalism, had more appeal than the Mensheviks’ support of a coalition with liberals and populists. This is perhaps strange, as the Latvian Riflemen, so many of them Courlanders, could have been expected to be sceptical, given the Bolshevik insistence on immediate peace — something which one Latvian Bolshevik worried “would place Kurland outside the blessings of the revolution”12 — but the desire for revolution seems to have overrun nationalism or patriotism, something which Ezergailis is keen to stress. The Latvian Social Democrats of 1917 wanted a “free Latvia in a free Russia”, nothing more. It is worth pausing over the reasons why, as Ezergailis argues, it was the apocalyptic, visionary aspect of Bolshevik rhetoric — rather than the more prosaic promise of national autonomy — that really convinced the population.

A mid-1917 article in the paper Social Democrat, for example, justified the union with the Bolsheviks as follows: “We will merge our work with our mighty proletariat. Our petty fanciful ‘I’ will disappear, and brightly and forcefully will ascend the demolition of the past and the builder of our beautiful future — we.”13 A hostile liberal observer, in the paper Lidums, examined this in greater detail:

The Social Democrats loom large not only because they know how to appeal to the psychology of the Mob, but mostly because they are inspired by an eschatological sense of the world. Each and every Social Democrat believes that the doomsday of the old world has arrived and a new everlasting life has begun. And it depends on every individual member, on his unceasing activity, whether the new life will arrive or not.14

This is especially crucial because, as Ezergailis puts it, “in Latvia there was no right wing to speak of; there were only competing views of progress, change and social transformation… Moreover, Latvia in 1917 was a socialist country, which, considering the circumstances, meant that it was a Marxist country”.15 If this was the case, the party that offered the most complete vision of transformation, the most unadulterated socialism, and the most convincing promise of its swift achievement, was unsurprisingly the most popular. To give some measure of how popular, the Social Democrats won elections to Latvian Soviets from early 1917 onwards, and in the unoccupied part of the country, won the Constituent Assembly elections with a landslide 72%16 — compared with just over 25% in the Russian Empire as a whole. All this of course meant little when the whole of Latvia fell to the Germans over the next year, with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk envisioning it as a German satellite. The collapse, as the German army mutinied and Soviets sprang up along Germany’s Baltic Coast, enabled the Declaration of Independence in November 1918, but it also meant that the Latvian divisions of the Red Army could cross over and retake what they considered to be rightfully theirs. After all, the Red Army’s first commander-in-chief, Jukums Vācietis, was a Courlander. You can still find a plaque honouring him in Kuldīga, along the sleepy, dusty, wooden curve of Ventspils iela.

The mood of the Latvian Communists in January 1919 was, it would seem from most accounts, unforgiving. They had to fight for the country with the same German Freikorps that were then violently suppressing Communist revolution in Germany itself, in the Spartacist uprising in Berlin and the Bavarian Soviet Republic, and they also had to fight against the centre-left government established with the Declaration of Independence, backed by British gunboats. The year appears to have been one of apocalyptic carnage, the “doomsday of the old world” truly made apparent. But it will not do to make this a local event. What happened in Kuldīga that year is comparable with what happened in Kiel, in Helsinki, in Munich, in Budapest, in Glasgow, in Turin, as Europe convulsed into a flurry of failed revolutions and equally, if not more, violent counter-revolutions. David Mitchell’s lurid history of that year, 1919 — Red Mirage, gives Latvia a particularly central role. Relying on hostile, mostly German accounts, he sees the Red Army’s entry into the country in terms which evoke the account of late medieval chaos in Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium:

On January 3rd, 1919, the Red Army appeared in the streets, terrifying in its very dirtiness and raggedness (rifle slings made of pieces of string, greasy red banners with unintelligible inscriptions, a military band whose instruments, musicians and music produced an impression of almost incredible dilapidation and cacophony). The sight of a detachment of women soldiers, rumours of whose more-than-male ruthlessness had flown ahead of them, struck a special chill into bourgeois hearts. Were not these Bolshevik gunwomen said to be recruited from the ranks of strumpets and ungrateful female domestic servants?17

Aside from giving a very different picture of revolutionary gender roles to that depicted in the sculptures of Livija Rezevska — women as an active and angry revolutionary vanguard rather than as mourning, head-scarved ghosts — this helps elucidate what a strange place Kuldīga must have been in 1919, as its attractive little streets, evaporating within a couple of miles to pasture, forests and (crucially) Baltic German manor houses became the setting for a ferociously fought revolution and counter-revolution, and as the Kuldīga Courts, a beautiful, idiosyncratic classical building set on the canal, became the headquarters of a committee of revolutionary war — something still immortalised on a plaque, and by the small memorial to the revolutionary fallen in the town cemetery. The strange combination of horror and anticipation that Kurzeme must have been undergoing is particularly well captured in a 1919 poem, published in the Social Democratic paper the Red Flag, which gives a sense of a world turned upside down:

We are the Vandals of Justice,

We are the barbarians of Right,

We carry freedom on our shields

The freedom of the human race!

There is a trembling and a groaning,

Through the empty spaces of a worn-out civilisation,

There is thunder and lightning where we step,

And fertility rises like vapour from our tracks.

We are the modern Vandals,

Wandering with heavy tread,

In iron-spiked sandals,

Along the highway of the future!18

In Kurzeme itself, this fervent, eschatological air, this sense of the final righting of some historic wrongs — the oppression over hundreds of years of the poor by the rich — was expressed in some drastic actions. The tombs of the Dukes of Courland — including Duke Jacob, now Kuldīga’s candidate for a figure for a useable past — were opened in Jelgava by the Red Guards in early 1919. Locals threw objects at them or shot at them, as if in doing so they could finally achieve a redress of their ancient grievances.19

The Relics of 1940

What happened after this is probably better known. With major assistance from first the Germans, and then from the British, the Communist threat was seen off (something which was hardly helped by Bolshevik land policy, which saw the Communists essentially starved out, as the country was wracked by famine). A liberal democratic republic — whose most popular party, for as long as democracy lasted, was the Latvian Social Democratic Labour Party, i.e. the Latvian Mensheviks — was set up instead. One of its first acts was to nationalise the Baltic Germans’ estates, something which immediately fulfilled one of the main demands of 1905, and was, incidentally denounced by Washington and London as a Communistic measure.20

The official line, as expounded in a small propaganda guide on the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, was as follows:

In the second half of June 1940, a tide of demonstrations swept the country, calling for a Soviet Latvia and its Union with the USSR. The fact is that a revolutionary situation had developed in 1940 […] Of course, the very existence of the Soviet Union and its historic achievements, which were of world significance, exerted a revolutionary influence on other peoples, including the Latvian people.21

Although there was widespread discontent with the right-wing dictatorship of Kārlis Ulmanis, there’s no evidence whatsoever for this narrative — not that there was either any genuine call for union with the USSR, nor that there was any sort of popular revolution. In 1919, the Red Army — commanded, after all, by a Latvian — sent its Latvian divisions into the country, as if to stress the point that this was not a colonial occupation or a return of the Russian Empire. Latvians had been targeted so heavily in 1937 that there were few respected leaders left who could have served to head the new puppet Republic; at first, its driving force was the Pole Andrey Vyshinsky, the notorious prosecutor at the Moscow Trials — who was, it is worth noting, a Menshevik in 1917. According to Anatol Lieven, even the Latvian Communists who organised the “spontaneous” demonstrations22 to welcome the Red Army were shocked when they realised the country was simply going to be annexed, and tried unsuccessfully to convince Moscow to give it the “autonomy” enjoyed at that point by Mongolia.

And whereas actual opposition to Stalin existed by 1940, if at all, in the concentration camps, in Latvia, as in the other areas annexed under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, there were thousands of potential (more than actual) counter-revolutionaries, who were deported en masse in 1941. On their arrival in Kurzeme, the Nazis would expose locals to the bodies of prisoners killed as they approached, and, in the usual fashion, make an entirely spurious association between Jews and Communists,23 something which may at least have contributed to the passivity of most of the local population as the Latvian Auxiliary Police and the Einsatzgruppen between them killed nearly all the Jews of Latvia, by far the single greatest atrocity to have happened in the country’s history.

This is remembered in Kuldīga — where, Ezergailis notes, Jews were exterminated by the local police — only by a small, and recent plaque on the Synagogue, an elegant and well-restored building that now serves as the municipal library. Unusually, though, in a country which today is assiduous in sustaining the memory of the deportations, occasionally and offensively conflated with the Holocaust as a “double genocide”, there are also very few memorials in Kuldīga to the atrocities which came with the first phase of Stalinism. In the Catholic Church, there is a panel on one martyr who was killed by the Soviets during the deportations in 1941, but that aside, there is only one major example. That is, a recent plaque — like that on the Synagogue, translated into English — on the building where the NKVD had its cells, from 1945 until 1956. The text is unusually elaborate and affecting: “here people were humiliated and tortured. They were deprived of home and family, freedom and life”; next to it are verses about freedom. This emotional tenor contrasts with that on the Synagogue, which simply tells you that there were Jews here, and then that they were killed. The town is so minuscule that it’s impossible to imagine that anyone in the city could have been ignorant of what happened to the Jews, and equally impossible to imagine anyone passing the NKVD building without being fully aware of what happened inside.

The main monumental legacy of this “revolution”, the atrocities it perpetrated and the (often equally atrocious) resistance to it, is two graves at either ends of St Anna’s Cemetery. At the main entrance is a 1970s memorial to the fallen of the Red Army. Presiding over a great grass circle of Soviet dead — nearly as many people as in the entire rest of the cemetery put together — are two more of Livija Rezevska’s head-scarved, and here practically hooded, figures.

Here is maybe one case in which Rezevska had been allowed to dissent just a little from the accepted monumental norm, insofar as there is no image here of heroism, of the eventual victory over the Third Reich, but another image of women — here, one older woman, and a little girl — left in mourning after their menfolk have been sacrificed. They’re made up of hulking great polygons of granite, their bodies indistinguishable from their headscarves, and their faces could be considered to be contorted in mourning, or equally plausibly, be making little inscrutable Attic smiles. Since the late 1990s, they’ve faced off against a much smaller — both in terms of amount killed and space taken up in the cemetery — grave of anti-Communist partisans. In some ways, the response to the Soviet advance in 1944-5 resembles some of the tactics used by the Latvian Social Democrats in 1905 — guerrilla warfare in the forests, and escapes into exile through Ventspils and Liepāja. That shouldn’t imply any similarity in their politics, but it does mean that some aspects of Latvia’s revolutionary history were still remembered, even or especially by those who refused to accept the rule of the (however grossly degenerated) heirs of 1905. The graves are laconic, around a single gaunt cross. Some of the names are first names, with patronymics unknown. Some, in fact, just read “unknown”. Outside here though, you can walk throughout the town from end to end without being aware of the fact these events ever happened. That’s not the case with the later aspects of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Relics of 1968

In terms of architecture and new space, the interwar Republic of Latvia left very little in Kuldīga. A Neoclassical bank just off Liepājas iela with the year 1934 on its pediment (which could quite easily have been constructed a century earlier), and the milestone at the edge of the city marking the construction of the Kuldīga–Skrunda highway — and that’s about it. That isn’t a comment in itself on an era that was, in economic measures, mildly successful, whatever its democratic deficit in later years, but it is a conspicuous absence. On the other hand, the USSR saw quite widespread construction in Kuldīga, although it can take a little while to discover it. Most of it dates from the years after 1956, as the Khrushchev “Thaw” started to ease the grip of Stalinism on the USSR, although its application to Latvia outside of aesthetics was fairly limited — terror ended, but a quasi-colonial migration of Russian-speakers continued, as did repression of any attempts at “national Communism” in the Soviet Republic — something that led to an official “Letter of 17 Latvian Communists” in protest, forwarded to the Western Communist parties. Accordingly, the results of the “Thaw”, broadly conceived to be the period from 1956 to 1968, can be quite ambiguous.

The transformation of the wooden Baltic German Villa Bangert on the edge of the municipal park into the Kuldīga District Museum in 1940 was the earliest act of the occupation authorities in the new Latvian SSR; the construction in the late 1970s of the Livija Rezevska sculpture garden around it provides a more ambiguous Soviet space. But there are also some much less pleasant Soviet interventions into the town. There’s the radio tower behind the post office that disfigures an otherwise lovely skyline, its spindly metal outline rising way above the spires of the Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox churches; and there is the department store on the oversized town square, and although that incongruously vast parade ground-cum-car park was actually laid out in the 1930s, the over-restored modernist department store that dominates it is a Soviet construction of the early Sixties. There was also a Lenin statue here once — not, unlike nearly every other major piece of public sculpture in the city, designed by Livija Rezevska. It was removed in 1990.

The sculpture park, however, is an excellent way to track Rezevska’s journey, and its parallel with Soviet art of that era in general. Like more celebrated sculptors such as Ernst Neizvestny or Lev Kerbel, she embraced the possibilities offered by the “Thaw” to shift away from monumental pomposity into a more subtle kind of figurative work.

KUL9 The Villa Bangert and the Rezevska Sculpture Park-min
KUL10 Moomin Singers-min

The earliest work in the sculpture garden, the “Violin Player” of 1951, has the extreme, almost cartoonish veracity that can be seen in much of the public sculpture of late Stalinism, comparable to the work of heroic sculptors like Matvey Manizer or the Latvian-born Vera Mukhina. This strong-featured young woman involved in strenuous creative labour could be imagined as the centrepiece of pretty much any Stalinist Palace of Culture. Within less than a decade, in the 1960 piece “Contemplation”, the figure has gone from a specific, verifiable, dressed female figure with the prop of her work, to a tightly composed, abstracted, almost faceless feminine body, with thought implied by posture, not by the furrowing of the figure’s brow.

One could usefully compare these with later work like the 1986 “Path of Sorrow”, with its clustered, angular bodies bunched into one hulking mass of granite, or the 1980 “Suitu Folk Singers”, with another mass of head-scarved, depersonalised women, and you can see what has changed in Soviet aesthetics as much as in Rezevska’s own work. However, in the sculpture garden, the propaganda aspect of Rezevska’s work is absent, unlike in the monuments left elsewhere in the city for the heroic deeds and great sufferings of 1905, 1919 and 1941-45. A text in her small studio, preserved for the last fifteen years, describes the sculpture garden as “22 sculptures characterising the Latvian nation, its unity, musical talent and love”.24 This is pretty much how it could have been described in the Soviet era, although perhaps then it might have been described as the “Latvian SSR”. What is more notable in them, perhaps, is a talented sculptor with an unfortunate bent to sentimentality trying to experiment within very tight limits.

Another important monument to the “Thaw” era can be found in the small housing estate that begins along Piltenes iela. The first phase of it can be dated quite easily to the very end of the Thaw, from the dates that are placed on the gable ends — 1967, 1968, outlined in a red brick that deliberately contrasts with the grey-beige of the rest of the buildings. These are “Khrushchevki”, the standardised housing that was built en masse in order to solve the housing crisis created by Stalinist industrialisation and wartime destruction. Though there would soon be experiments, inspired by the French example, with prefabrication and mass production, at first these were built at extremely rapid speed out of standard bricks, without lifts.

The bricks and the doorways varied from area to area, but that’s about it — here, we have the white bricks and pitched roofs that were common to Khrushchevki in the Baltic states — in north-eastern Estonia, for instance, there are almost entire towns made up just of these. The innovation, in so far as there is one here, is in layout. In Kuldīga, this is actually quite a sharp break. Kuldīga’s housing is characterised by single-family houses, usually, of course, of wood, though the more cramped, working-class housing that can still be found along Mucenieku iela is often in red brick. The houses often have large gardens, in which you can grow produce, as many people still do — the “green space” is there to be used, as a kind of production for food and sale, but in the 1967-68 housing estates in Kuldīga, it is there to be contemplated passively — trees and open space to bring birdsong and light into your cramped fourth-floor walk-up flat. Standardised and identikit as it is, it’s also a totally different typology to anything else in the city up to that point.

So what is it doing here? Kuldīga, already with some industry in the early twentieth century, expanded as a small industrial town in the Soviet era — there was even a concrete panel factory, the results of which we will soon see. One paradox is that these construction projects, as was often the case in towns that hadn’t been substantially damaged during the war, left the old towns neglected, but largely intact. New construction — largely aimed at skilled workers and intelligentsia — was begun on virgin sites just outside towns, while the town centres and inner suburbs were usually left alone, and remained as a dilapidated concentration of private ownership and commerce, with most housing still privately owned, as opposed to the state ownership of the new Mikrorayon.25 So on that level, one of the reasons why the old town of Kuldīga is so well preserved — more so, than a similar town in, say, the UK, might be — is precisely because the Soviet preference for showcase construction on untouched sites meant that it could avoid the results of the property speculation that usually goes along with economic growth. That is — the reason why Kuldīga appears as such a time-capsule, is because the growth in population and industry that happened here between the Fifties and the Eighties was accommodated elsewhere.

Relics of 1989

The sheer fact that a concrete panel factory was built at all on the outskirts of Kuldīga reveals the sheer reach of the Soviet mass housing programme, penetrating even into this small town of wood and, more seldom, brick. Aside from the obvious fire safety question, there is no rational reason why Kuldīga could not have continued to build in much the same way as it always had, expanding a little further out into the countryside, on an Anglo-Saxon suburban model; it would make more sense than using a heavy-industrial technology to build high-density housing on the town’s edge, but this is exactly what happened.26 However, as the Mikrorayon at Piltenes iela expanded, the approach to architecture in the new district became ever more determinedly local, veering away from the interchangeable designs of the first, 1960s phase, towards more elaborated, more sophisticated architecture — while remaining prefabricated in its components. Eventually this would end on the literal eve of the USSR’s collapse and Latvia’s regained independence, with a shift towards Postmodernism. Arguably, this could be paralleled with the political history of the town during the same time. In the Kuldīga District Museum is a short film showing a demonstration marching through the town in 1990 demanding independence — there are enough people there that you could imagine at least half of the town was on that demonstration, which would make it the largest political manifestation in the town since 1919. The turn to Postmodernism and localism in architecture could be presented as a deliberate move from Soviet universalism and a Russified “internationalism” towards more local values; or, equally plausibly, it could be seen as proof that there was a little more mileage in the system’s approach to architecture and planning than it was given credit for.

As Philipp Meuser and Dimitrij Zadorin write in their dry, obsessive catalogue of prefabricated housing in the post-Stalin USSR, the layouts and approaches of the different eras of the micro-district can be compared to kinds of games — the straightforward “chessboards” of the first Khrushchevki, laid out in banal grids, the more spaced out “Ville Radieuse” of the Sixties and Seventies as “dominoes”, and the last, more complex, articulated structures as “Tetris”.27 Of these, the Kuldīga Mikrorayon is mostly dominoes, with a bit of Tetris creeping in. But probably more significant is something else, which Meuser and Zadorin point out — the development of different regional variants of the large panel housing estate. Here, the Baltic states were by some way more advanced than the bulk of the USSR, with a local enthusiasm for the new towns and new suburbs of nearby Sweden and Finland (both of which also made extremely extensive use of concrete panel systems) spilling over into both the layout and the aesthetic of their new estates, something that became obvious mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, which was, paradoxically, a period of particularly acute Russification in Latvia and Estonia. So, to the street, facing Piletenes iela itself, is a row of five-storey blocks using a series developed in the Lithuanian SSR, with abstract patterns in the concrete relief; some of these have been painted and insulated.

These look only slightly more differentiated, but it’s inside the estate that you really notice a difference. One thing that has been added to most of the blocks is individually designed entrances, where brick and concrete steps, often with built-in benches, lead to patterned screens as a perhaps vain attempt to introduce variety in the standardised buildings.

Then, you’ll notice that things have changed in the buildings themselves. Many of them use wood as a decorative device, something very widespread in Scandinavian modernism, either to create rhythms in the façades or to create balconies and loggias; like the tall pines which run between the buildings, these are ornamental, not “useful” like the wooden houses and the fruit trees of the old streets a few yards away. Other blocks boast redbrick stair-towers emphasised against the yellowing concrete panels, creating a slightly medieval rhythm.

At the far edge of the estate, where it meets a stream, a series of garages and the end of the town altogether, the stair towers have been emphasised further with fluted brickwork, reminiscent of German Expressionism and brick Gothic. A Hanseatic kind of Gothic is of course a vernacular architecture in much of Latvia, and especially in Riga, but bar the early-twentieth-century Lutheran church, there is actually very little of it in Kuldīga. The real architectural vernacular here is a slightly folksy version of Neoclassicism. So while the building committees of the Latvian SSR were able by the early 1980s, when these blocks were built, to have a kind of system-building that displays an engagement and continuity with the traditions of Latvia, it couldn’t do the same with individual towns, preferring a general “Latvian” look that didn’t necessarily suit everywhere.

Or, at least, not until the end of the 1980s. Cross the road from the large estate and past an empty space which was very probably going to be more housing before 1991, and you’ll find two more redbrick Soviet tenement blocks, one of them insulated and painted an unsympathetic pastel green. Beyond these are two terraces of single-family houses. This is a type which might be normal in, say, Britain or the Low Countries (or as “row houses” in nineteenth-century America), but is rare anywhere in continental Europe — including in Kuldīga, where the pre-twentieth-century type is detached houses, however small some of them may be.

Some of the design gestures are similar to those on the Mikrorayon, especially the stepped entrances, but the articulated solid-and-void rhythm of the houses themselves is something else, indebted perhaps to De Stijl, Dutch rather than Finnish modern; though where the wooden towers that crown some of the houses come from is anybody’s guess — most likely the private invention of the architect. The year is outlined on the gable: 1989. At the centrepiece is an office block for the local Forestry Commission, which is even more elaborate, to the point where it is obviously a work of Postmodernism, a “complex and contradictory” (as Robert Venturi put it) montage of historic forms — a bulging, modernist corner, a traditionalist gable, all tilted at conflicting angles.

And then it all stops, there and then, in the year that the Soviet Empire fell in Central-Eastern Europe, two years before it would leave Latvia. What has happened since turns to a more ingratiating wood-cladding commercial architecture, or something more banal in the new retail parks; but there’s no more housing, bar the odd single house. The expansion of Kuldīga stops here, the end of its history. And certainly, given the amount of empty houses in the town, a housing shortage is the least of the contemporary town’s problems.

Relics of an Alternative Present

There are a few places which offer a good explanation of why history ending might have appeared rather seductive. One of them is the extraordinary homemade museum on Baznīcas iela, Cits Laiks, or “Other Time”, as it translates itself. This one-man collection of Soviet memorabilia is all of the things that the town is otherwise keen to forget or regard as a terrible mistake breaking out all over the place, a chaos of giant busts of leaders (Marx, Lenin, “the Georgian, Stalin”), flags laid on top of each other, a mini-library of Latvian Communism and a repository of forgotten or repressed iconography. In one room, an impressive photograph mural of Lenin, taken from the Party headquarters in Jēkabpils, takes up one wall, and a series of hagiographic panels on the Latvian Riflemen takes up another. Some of it has personal meaning — the museum’s owner/founder/collector points to a map of the “Russian” Civil War, and points out that three million were killed, including his great-grandfather — I didn’t ask what side he was fighting on, but given his fixations and the allegiances of most Latvians in 1917, it wouldn’t be hard to guess. The map, which was mounted on the classroom of a Kuldīga school in the 1970s, shows the international interventions that aimed to suppress the Bolsheviks — armies coming from Britain in the north, France up the Black Sea, the US and Japan in the east, Poland in the west. It’s entirely in Russian.

These were “very hard times”, he tells me at the start, with a well-practiced patter; “Christmas was criminal, only New Year”, as he points to a selection of rather pretty New Year’s Cards on a table, under glass. It’s hard to concentrate, though, with this historical pile-up of pomposity, optimism and kitsch. A painting of the young Lenin walking through a forest, paintings of landscapes with smoking chimneys, a Latvian-language primer in Dialectical Materialism, portraits of Gorbachev, Gagarin and Brezhnev, a mock-up “Party leader’s table with vodka glass and telephone”, the flag of the Kuldīga District Communist Party.

A lot of this would just be rubbish in any other context, and the small selection of Soviet ephemera in the Kuldīga District Museum gives a strong impression of why this society might have felt so oppressive, even after the terror from 1945 to 1953 ended. That effect is created through the sheer concentrated weight of cultism — more Lenins than you could ever want to see. Yet, when the museum’s director points to the “hardest times”, he reaches through the piles and piles of tat to several printed strips of ration cards from 1992; here as elsewhere, the collapse was economically disastrous; the fact that this didn’t lead to much of a neo-socialist reaction is proof of just how discredited the system was by that point.

It’s also a useful reminder that what happened here in 2009 had very recent precedents. Either way, if anti-capitalism means what is on display as an example of the “Other Times”, it’s little wonder it has so little appeal. It’s not all hideous — some of the posters and pamphlets show an optimism and modernity that contrasts with the morbidity of the rest — but the most radical response it could elicit is “hmm, well, those were the days”.

In the same room as all the many and varied busts of Lenin, is a set of matchbox lids, with different designs on them, mostly on Soviet themes, with odd little surprises, like a set on the architecture of Sverdlovsk/Yekaterinburg (see Part Three of this book). These have particular significance, because the Vulkans match factory was the town’s main employer, before, during and after the Soviet era.

Some of the EU funding mainly intended for re-cobbling the streets went into a commemorative vitrine on Liepājas iela, where you can learn about matches, Spartakiadas and the Komsomol, all as things which happened to be done by employees of the factory. Much of the factory itself still exists, but you might find it entirely by accident, as I did. The Vulkans factory’s remains are down a back street, off Skrundas Iela. The monumental redbrick chimneys still stand, but the buildings around them — Soviet and pre-Soviet — are either in ruins, destroyed or part-destroyed. That particular kind of social change, that which happened in 1905 — workers in large factories and landless peasants taking action against a repressive state, agitated and organised by a leadership of factory agitators and intellectuals — is obviously never going to happen here ever again, and wasn’t open as an option to protesting about what happened here in 2009.

One possible way out of this is to look at the history of this place more critically, and to think about some of the things that didn’t happen. Outside the Synagogue/library at the time of writing is a giant wooden cat. Inside the adjacent building, the Art House, is “the Grand-land’s Museum”, and an accompanying text promises the following:

The “Grand-land’s Museum” working group has received a fragmented information from the Universe about a mysterious story that has silently been developing in parallel to our “reality”. That other “reality” that we are dealing with, in general tells the same story as the one we live in. Except, something surprising happened there during the first decade of the 20th century. After the World War I, the fathers of the idea of an independent Latvia joined forces with the founders of the Soviet Union and together changed the course of history in an ideologically more innovative direction than the history we are familiar with. Grand-land was founded. Thus, the entire global landscape of the geopolitical history that followed in this parallel reality, looks completely different compared to the history which is familiar to us. We can only speculate on how the representatives of these seemingly different, even opposite ideologies, found a common language and it is our task to find it out. One thing is clear — Latvian virtues of hard work in combination with Russian comradeship has produced a unique chemistry and led to the establishment of a civilised state never previously known in the history of civilisation — the Grand-land. The famous Latvian poet Aspazija was unanimously chosen as the ruler of the Grand-land. Considering the fact that Aspazija was one of the first Latvian feminists, Grand-land was created on the basis of matriarchy, which has considerably reduced the number of unnatural deaths in society, replaced competition with cooperation as one of the main values of the society and elegantly combined industrial progress with deep and true love of nature.28

So how is this vision of a transnational socialist-feminist-environmentalist state that never actually existed translated into actual exhibits, like that giant cat? It’s “the Grand-lander Cat, and is a multifunctional object that has served also as a tribune for Aspazija to address the nation. It was also a boudoir for the ruler on her annual journey across the borderless country, while currently it serves as a shrine, since the legendary stateswoman left her physical state of being more than half a century ago, and has joined the eternity. Mysteriously allured, the famous Latvian sculptor Aigars Bikše undertook the restoration of the Cat following the instructions from the parallel reality.”

To approach history like this is quite different both from how the official history of the town and the country proceeds — that is, to ignore the revolutionary history of the area completely — and also, from how this essay has progressed, in which we’ve tried to find real traces left by those events. The reason for this has been to make clear that in Latvia — even, or especially, in a town as “deep Latvian” as Kuldīga, with a nearly non-existent Russian population and comparatively little industry — there is actually an abundant revolutionary history, an apocalyptic, utopian heritage which is only inadequately represented by the Soviet state that the country first narrowly escaped becoming part of, and then was annexed by. But these objects left around — the housing estates, the sculptures and the plaques — are quite easily read, as easily understood as they are easily ignored. The Grand-land project is considerably more cryptic. Its authors suggest that the relics genuinely left by a different civilisation from ours might be totally incomprehensible. However, as time goes on, the relics left by the revolutionary movement’s very ambiguous heirs may become equally baffling. All it would take is a repainting of the housing estates, a removal of ten or so plaques, the removal of three statues and practically the entire twentieth-century history of Kuldīga would be impossible to read in its built landscape. And that’s not an implausible prospect; one day, all there will be here is a waterfall, pretty houses, supermarkets and Duke Jacob.

1. Joachim Becker, “Europe’s Other Periphery”, in New Left Review, Vol. 2, 99, May/June 2016, p. 55

2. Paul Krugman, “Response”, in Olivier J. Blanchard, et al, Boom, Bust, Recovery — Forensics of the Latvian Crisis, (IMF, 2013)

3. Becker, “Europe’s Other Periphery”, p. 45

4. Will Mawhood describes it “Latvia’s most Latvian town” in a 2015 article for UpNorth

5. Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolutions (Yale, 1994), p. 51

6. Andrew Ezergailis, The 1917 Revolution in Latvia (East European Quarterly, 1971), p. 5

7. Ibid, p. 79

8. For a grim account of this exile milieu, with its traumatised revolutionaries, generally unable to speak English, and many of them left scarred physically and psychologically by torture from the Tsarist authorities (including Peterss, whose fingernails were ripped out), see Donald Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (Macmillan, 1988)

9. A useful example here is Mara Kalnins’s recent Latvia — A Short History (Hurst, 2015); or the account in the exhibition catalogue The Motherland Calls! (Maksla. Mits. Dokuments, 2011), which explains away both the Latvian Riflemen and the Latvian SS legion as misguided “fighters for their country”; curious given that neither the Bolsheviks in 1917, nor, by even the wildest stretch of the imagination, the Third Reich in 1944, promised any kind of independence to Latvia. The latter didn’t even promise the sort of deeply circumscribed autonomy Latvia had under the USSR. It’s evidently too disturbing to imagine that at any point large groups of people could have believed in socialism, or for that matter believed in Nazism.

10. Liliana Riga’s recent The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire (Cambridge, 2014) finds Latvians disproportionately represented in the Bolshevik leadership, the Latvian Social Democrats disproportionately large as a Party — larger, at one point than the Russian Bolsheviks and Mensheviks put together — and also, most interestingly for Kuldīga, argues that Latvia was the only place in the Russian Empire where there was significant rural support for the Bolsheviks.

11. The 1917 Revolution in Latvia, p. 21

12. Ibid, p. 103

13. Ibid, p. 52

14. Ibid, p. 138

15. Ibid, p. 139

16. Quoted in Otto Lacis, “Farewell to the Communist Party of Latvia”, New Left Review, 182, July-August 1990

17. David Mitchell, 1919 — Red Mirage (Jonathan Cape, 1970), p. 88

18. Ibid, p. 89

19. The incident, deriving from an account by a Freikorps officer, is cited in Jean-Paul Kauffmann, A Journey to Nowhere (Quercus, 2013), p. 14

20. See Lieven, The Baltic Revolutions, p. 390

21. The Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (Novosti, 1972), pp. 30-1

22. In The Holocaust in Latvia (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1996), Andrew Ezergailis points out that actual spontaneity was anathema to Vyshinsky, and the “welcoming” of the Red Army was tightly controlled and organised.

23. According to Ezergailis, there is no evidence Jews were either prominent in the 1940-1 Latvian Soviet Republic, in the NKVD or otherwise, or that they were disproportionately represented in the occupying regime in general.

24. Unpaginated English text appended to A. Volanska, Livijas Rezevskas: Darbu Katalogs Izstazu Zale (Darbnica a Projekti, 2004)

25. This is the argument of Ivan Szelenyi, Urban Inequalities Under State Socialism (Oxford, 1983)

26. On the puzzling nature of Soviet concrete construction in areas with a lot of high-quality wood that could be used more easily and cheaply, see Adrian Forty’s notes on Estonia in Concrete and Culture (Reaktion, 2012)

27. See Dimitrij Zadorin and Philipp Meuser, Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR (Dom, 2015)

28. Quoted from “Grand-land’s Museum” leaflet, given out at the Kuldīga Art House.

All images credit – Owen Hatherley

This piece is taken from Owen Hatherley’s recent Latvian-language book Baltijas Atklātnes (“Baltic Postcards”) published by Orbīta, a collection of his writing about the Baltic Sea region over the last few years

Owen Hatherley writes on architecture, culture and politics for Architectural Review, the Guardian, Jacobin and the London Review of Books, among others. He is the author of several books, including Militant Modernism (Zer0, 2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010) Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015), The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016) and Red Metropolis (Repeater, 2020). His most recent books are a collection of essays, Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances (Verso 2021), and the forthcoming Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer (Penguin, 2021). He is also the editor of The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs (Open House, 2020), and the culture editor of Tribune.

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