A Life in a Year – 9th March, not one of the Great Train Journeys of the World

We have been to Jūrmala both by mini-bus and by taxi before but this time on 9th March 2008 we decided to travel by train.  Thankfully this only involved a journey of about thirty minutes or so because take it from me; this was not the Orient Express and certainly not one of the great railway journeys of the world.

Latvia’s national railway company is Latvijas Dzelzceļš but the development of the Latvian railways since independence in 1991 has not been a great priority for the Government and due to lack of investment the system has suffered badly as a result.  Many trains are poorly maintained and delays are common, but luckily for us the routes to the satellite towns and villages around Riga on an electrified line generally have a better service than the intercity and international routes.  Riga’s central station is Centrala Stacija and although it has been modernised in a fashion it still appears stark and authoritarian with an alarming absence of modern customer care basics.  I shouldn’t complain however because to put things into some sort of perspective the return journey to Majori was only one Lat, twenty-five cents, or about £1.40 in real money.

We found the platform and the waiting train in its bright blue and yellow livery and got on and found a seat and one thing that can be said about Latvian railways is that they are punctual because this one left dead on time.

This train was not the best one that I have ever been on; it was utilitarian, grey, uncomfortable and a living testimony to finest Russian engineering and style.  The interior of the carriage was a no-frills affair with hard bench seats and a complete absence of modern travelling refinements.  It was grubby and without charm and it creaked and groaned as the tired old engine pulled the carriages out of the station and out of the city over the river Daugava and into the outskirts of the city that were a total contrast to the cosmopolitan city centre.  Here it was easy to understand why people from Latvia give up a life in their own country to come and live in Lincolnshire.  Progress between worn out stations was painfully slow and the train passed through suburbs strewn with litter and rubbish and with a marked absence of civic pride.  About half way to Jūrmala there was a huge estate of decaying communist high-rise apartment buildings that had probably been constructed hastily in the 1960s to house the seven hundred thousand Russian workers who were sent here by the Soviets to colonise Latvia in a deliberate policy of Russification.   Life must have been quite good for these privileged colonists under the old regime but when Latvia gained independence in 1991 they were in for a shock because it only granted automatic citizenship to those who had lived in the first independent Latvian state, between 1918 and 1940.

There was good reason for this because Latvia had suffered hugely under Soviet rule. During the Stalin years thousands were arrested and sent to Siberian labour camps, or simply executed for being part of the Latvian partisan groups who opposed occupation. To replace them, hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians flooded into the republic and the Latvian language was squeezed out of official use.  Latvians were resentful citizens of the USSR and by 1991 they comprised only half of the population of their own country, while in Riga itself only a third were Latvian.

Today, the government is determined to revive the Latvian identity and it says that it’s policy towards Russians who immigrated here during the Soviet period is aimed not at punishing them for the sins of the Soviet regime (as some suspect) but at ensuring that they learn Latvian and integrate fully into the new society.  In order to naturalise, Russians must take a test in Latvian, and pass an exam about Latvian history, in which they must ‘correctly’ answer that the country was occupied and colonised, not liberated, by the Soviet Union in 1945.

The train lumbered on and a lady ticket collector examined our tickets.  This appeared to be a throwback to the Soviet days because each carriage seemed to have its own ticket inspector, which seemed to be a very generous staffing allocation.  There were not many tourists on the train and the announcements were made in impenetrable Latvian and the stations had a confusing absence of any helpful place names but luckily there was an old lady sharing our bench seat who guessed that we travelling to the town of Majori and gave us helpful advice on where to get off.

Getting off of the train was another interesting experience because there was no platform in any sort of fashion that we would recognise and it was necessary to leave the train down steep steps that stopped about fifty centimetres from the tarmac that involved a final jump that only the most able bodied would ever be able to manage.  There were no signs of measures to combat disability discrimination here I can tell you.  In fact, on account of the lack of engineering refinements on board, the whole railway journey experience seemed fraught with danger and this was well illustrated by a sign on the heavy metal doors that seemed to indicate that male passengers in particular should be careful not to trap their man bits in between the closing doors as this could be very, very painful indeed.  And to emphasise this the letters can be rearranged into that well-known warning ‘tite bals nastie’.

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