Tag Archives: russia

Tallinn Christmas Market

On account of the grey skies we wrapped up in an appropriate way to tackle the bleak weather and set off for the old town and we retraced our steps from the previous night and repeated our visits to the viewing platforms overlooking the Baltic and the islands.

With one of the most completely preserved medieval cities in Europe, the seacoast capital of  Tallinn is a rare jewel in the north of Europe and a precious city on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  It was once a medieval Hanseatic town and for long periods in history dominated by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians and even today contains lots of influence from those days but as we walked we could tell that there was a uniqueness to the place, reminiscent of Riga but at only roughly half the size certainly very different.

Tallinn is a city with a long and proud tradition dating back to the medieval times and it was first recorded on a world map in 1154, although the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050. In 1219, Valdemar II of Denmark conquered the city, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285. After joining the League Tallinn enjoyed unprecedented prosperity because its position as a port, a link between mainland Europe and Russia, enabled it to grow rapidly in size and wealth and many of the City’s finest buildings were constructed during this period.  This lasted until the sixteenth century when Sweden moved in and claimed the city and during this time of Swedish rule more fortifications were added and the architecture took on the baroque style of the times.

Just like the previous evening we were confused about how to find our way to the centre of the city not least because where we were was an elevated spot with limited access to the streets of the old town.  We wandered about and corrected ourselves a couple of times before finally walking through a medieval entrance to the city and descending steps behind the city walls before finding ourselves finally at the Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square.

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.  This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.

This would be rather like any town in the United Kingdom on New Year’s Eve if the tree wasn’t taken down as a precaution in the afternoon before.

Today the market is included in the Times newspaper top twenty European Christmas markets and here in the square there were more than fifty wooden huts and stalls where visitors and locals were being tempted by (traditional? well maybe) artisan products from all over Estonia. Surrounding an enormous Christmas tree hung with lights and decorations, the vendors were selling a variety of original products including woollens, felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, home-made candles, wreaths and other decorations.  Traditional Estonian holiday food was also on the menu such as sauerkraut and blood sausages, hot soups, stir-fries and other seasonal treats such as gingerbread, marzipan, various local honeys, cookies and, best of all, hot mulled wine poured from copious wooden barrels.

It was approaching lunchtime and therefore, because of the nervousness of finding somewhere that Sue and Christine would approve of, a potential crisis time in a new country with unfamiliar cuisine.  Without Micky the anxiety was all mine and weighed heavily because traditional Estonian Cuisine has developed over centuries with Germanic and Scandinavian influences and some of it is not for the faint hearted and certainly wouldn’t suit Sue’s delicate dining preferences.  For a girl who turned her nose up at a plain fish salad in Portugal I was certain that she wouldn’t like sült, a sort of jellied meat dish made from pork bones, trotters and heads, or the marinated eel, Baltic sprats, sauerkraut stew or even the Christmas speciality of verivorst or blood sausage.

There was no real need to worry however because although Estonians speak fondly of their traditional food they are no more likely to eat it on a regular basis than in England we are to order pease pudding, jellied eels or brawn and the according to the menu boards displayed outside the pubs and restaurants had a good selection of acceptable offerings.

A Wintery Day in Riga

My first visit to Riga was on 29th November 2005 and I was hoping for snow!  Not the couple of centimetres that we get in the UK which disappears after an hour or so but really deep snow that would come over the top of my boots and lays thick and frosty on the ground.

On the first morning the sun was shining and the roofs of the buildings opposite were covered by a white blanket of snow with a cold frosty sparkle.   Outside the hotel front door an old lady was efficiently clearing the snow from the taxi rank and the footpaths by scraping away with an oversized plastic shovel that seemed to be most effective.

First of all today we found the fabulous Art Nouveau buildings that were all quite close to our hotel.  There had been a lot of restoration activity and the pace of regeneration to repair generations of neglect was very impressive.  The buildings were bathed in soft winter sunshine with snow on the roofs and when we had done enough neck craning to peer upwards towards the statues and friezes we left this part of the city and walked through the spacious parks towards the city centre.

The snow was still largely undisturbed and looked sensational in the bright sunshine.  The canal, which runs around the city, was frozen solid where hooded crows were scavenging unsuccessfully and stranded ducks were optimistically looking for running water.  After an aimless wander through the parks we emerged at the Freedom Monument just in time to see the eleven o’clock goose-stepping changing of the guard ceremony where the young soldiers that had stood there in the cold for the last hour looked mighty relieved to see their replacements.

Next on the itinerary was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which had also been recently restored in an ugly duckling transformation from a grimy communist grey to a resplendent sandstone yellow under black domes with gleaming crosses.  The renovated brickwork was clean and sharp with red brick stripes and elaborate white columns soaring into the blue sky above.  The communists had closed the cathedral as a place of worship and had converted the building into a planetarium but the place was surely more heavenly than ever now that it had been returned to its intended purpose.

The interior was bright and cheerful, was adorned with shining icons and smelled of incense and to one side there was a service of some kind attended by a standing congregation who were in a very solemn mood.  We discovered that it was a funeral service because there was corpse laid out in a casket but I wasn’t tall enough to see over the shoulders of the congregation and I though it rude to intrude to close to the front because of a macabre interest.  The service was attended by nuns in black robes and pointy hats who looked like extras from the Lord of the Rings and was led by a priest in a lavish scarlet and gold robe.

At the market square we watched people skating and strolled through a small winter market.  There was a lot of snow clearing activity with a man in a tractor with a snow plough working quickly and efficiently to clear the square and he made a really good job of it too.  The city clearly had an efficient risk management strategy with a comprehensive snow clearance plan.

Next stop was a trip to the top of a church tower to see the city from an elevated perspective and from here we could better appreciate the patchwork quilt of coloured roofs and pastel facades looking even more attractive under the snowy mantle that decorated them.  Luckily we didn’t have to climb to the top and there was an attended lift that raised us to the summit.  We had ten minutes at the viewing platform which was about nine more than we really needed considering how cold it was with a bitter wind that felt like icy needles being driven into our faces so we were careful therefore that we didn’t miss the descent when the lift came back to collect us and return us to the ground floor and back to the street.

We resumed our walk through the city and made for the old Jewish Quarter called Little Russia, which took us through the market on the way.  This area of the city was interesting for consisting of buildings constructed of timber that are fighting a losing rearguard action against decay and neglect and caught in a catch twenty-two situation, too expensive to repair and restore and too culturally important to be demolished.  Adjacent to this area was the Academy of Sciences building, constructed by the communists in the style of the Seven Sisters skyscrapers in Moscow  and although impressive in its appearance was seriously ill conceived in respect of location.

The sky was still clear so we decided to make the Skyline bar for the sunset, which the guidebooks described as not to be missed.  We walked back through the market, this time through the old zeppelin hangers that had been converted into a huge indoor market with an impressive array of produce.

The Skyline Bar is a great place to relax in the early evening after a day sightseeing and a good spot for watching the sunset.  At the bar we found a grandstand seat by the window and settled down for the sunset that we estimated to be due at quarter past four.  We got that wrong and had to wait until five o’clock but there was a pleasing atmosphere in the bar and we watched the last puddles of sunshine laying on the rooftops of the city until the sun quickly dipped below the horizon and it went dark.

Latvia From A Russian Taxi Driver’s Perspective

For evening meal we choose the out-of-town Lido amusement park where we had been before on our previous visit.  After the meal the journey back to the hotel was one of the highlights of the holiday! We left the Lido and looked for a taxi and it was just our luck to select one with a lunatic escaped from an asylum for a driver.

Kim made the first approach and asked if he could take some of us back to Riga and to our surprise he indicated that he could take all five of us in his Renault Megane.  This was a vehicle that was clearly unsuitable for accommodating five passengers and probably not licensed to do so either!  Kim doubted this and just for clarification enquired a second time and clearly running short on patience he gave her his “why can’t this stupid woman understand look”, and immediately increased his carrying capacity to an absurdly optimistic eight!  Kim looked even more startled by this and even examined the interior of the car for concealed seats by sticking her head through the open window.  He responded by raising his eyeballs so far into the top of his head that if he’d had laser vision he would have fried his brains.  This was our cue to accept the five in a taxi invitation and we piled in.

Then the fun really started!  He immediately quizzed us about our national origins: “Where are you from?” He enquired, “England” said Micky, “London?” he followed up.  This is a standard opening conversation with a European taxi driver that frequent travellers will be familiar with; the only place they really know in England is the capital, and sometimes Manchester, so they always make reference to it “No, Lincolnshire” Micky informed him without managing to raise a flicker of recognition and immediately closing down this topic of conversation.

Taxi driver “Do you know Tony Blair”                                                                          Micky “Well, not personally, no”

The scary driver went on to explain how from his personal perspective life was desperately unfair in Latvia.  From his explanation of conditions we discovered that he was a Russian living in Riga and by his own self-assessment suffering all sorts of discrimination (which is hardly surprising really when they (the Russians) had spent forty years or so kicking holy shit out of the place!   His solution to the problem was the advocacy of a red revolution and I for one thought it sensible not to disagree too robustly.   He spoke with a thick Russian accent and had the unfortunate habit of preceding each statement with an unpleasant phlegmy hack that was half cough and half retch and definitely only half human.

Times are hard, it is very expensive to live in Riga”, “No way” said Micky, half mocking him now, “This place is very reasonable!” This led to a few seconds of choking laughter and uncontrollable hacking by the driver and after a few more cost of living exchanges Micky, fully mocking him now, did eventually concede that life was getting a bit tougher in the west; “Yes,” he said “I have to agree, things are getting harder in England too, look at us, we used to have two wives each but now we can only afford one and a third to share between us!

Then the driver lamented that it would cost him a month’s wages to stay three nights in a Riga hotel and again Micky put him straight and corrected his estimate to just the one night. This man was good fun and he even thought it was amusing when we directed him to the wrong hotel and he had to make readjustments to his route to get us to our intended destination.  And it only cost ten Lats, that’s what I call good value, a taxi ride  and excellent entertainment thrown in.

Actually Russians have had a bit of a hard time since independence because when Latvia broke free in 1991, it granted automatic citizenship to those who had lived in the first independent Latvian state, between 1918 and 1940, but not to those who immigrated here after the war, when Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet rule during the Stalin years thousands were arrested and sent to Siberian labour camps, or executed. Later, hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians flooded into the republic under a deliberate policy of Russification. 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 only a third were Latvian.

Today Latvia is determined to revive the national identity. It says that its policy towards Russians who immigrated there during the Soviet period is aimed not at punishing them for the ‘crimes’ of the Soviet regime but at ensuring that they learn Latvian and integrate fully into 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 on 5th August 1940.

A Russian Perspective on Latvian Independence

On a visit to the Latvian capital of Riga in May 2008 we had an educational ride in a taxi on the 4th.

Kim made the first approach to the driver and asked if he could take some of us back to the city from an out of town restaurant  and to our surprise he indicated that he could take all five of us in his Renault Megane.  This was a vehicle that was clearly unsuitable for accommodating five passengers and probably not licensed to do so either!  Kim doubted this and just for clarification enquired a second time and clearly running short on patience he gave her his “why can’t this stupid woman understand look”, and immediately increased his carrying capacity to an absurdly optimistic eight!  Kim looked even more startled by this and even examined the interior of the car for concealed seats by sticking her head through the open window.  He responded by raising his eyeballs so far into the top of his head that if he’d had laser vision he would have fried his brains.  This was our cue to accept the five in a taxi invitation and we piled in.

Then the fun really started!  He immediately quizzed us about our national origins:

Where are you from?” He enquired

“England” said Micky

“London?”

This is a standard opening conversation with a European taxi driver that frequent travellers will be familiar with; the only place they really know in England is the capital, and sometimes Manchester, so they always make reference to it.

No, Lincolnshire” Micky informed him without managing to raise a flicker of recognition and immediately closing this topic of conversation.

“Do you know Tony Blair?”

“Well, not personally, no”

The scary driver went on to explain how from his personal perspective life was desperately unfair in Latvia.  From his explanation of conditions we discovered that he was a Russian living in Riga and by his own self-assessment suffering all sorts of discrimination (which is hardly surprising really when they (the Russians) had spent forty years or so kicking holy shit out of the place!)   His solution to the problem was the advocacy of a red revolution and I for one thought it sensible not to disagree too robustly.   He spoke with a thick Russian accent and had the unfortunate habit of preceding each statement with an unpleasant phlegmy hack that was half cough and half retch and definitely only half human.

“Times are hard, it is very expensive to live in Riga”

No way” said Micky “This place is very reasonable!”

This led to a few seconds of choking laughter and uncontrollable hacking by the driver and after a few more cost of living exchanges Micky did eventually concede that life was getting a bit tougher in the west;

“Yes,” he said “I have to agree, things are getting harder in England too, look at us, we used to have two wives each but now we can only afford one and a third to share between us!”

Actually Russians have had a bit of a hard time since independence because when Latvia broke free in 1991, it granted automatic citizenship to those who had lived in the first independent Latvian state, between 1918 and 1940, but not to those who immigrated here after the war, when Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet rule during the Stalin years thousands were arrested and sent to Siberian labour camps, or executed. Later, hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians flooded into the republic under a deliberate policy of Russification. 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 only a third were Latvian.

Today Latvia is determined to revive the national identity. It says that its policy towards Russians who immigrated there during the Soviet period is aimed not at punishing them for the ‘crimes’ of the Soviet regime but at ensuring that they learn Latvian and integrate fully into 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.

A Life in a Year – 4th December, Tallinn Christmas Market

On account of the grey skies we wrapped up in an appropriate way to tackle the bleak weather and set off for the old town and we retraced our steps from the previous night and repeated our visits to the viewing platforms overlooking the Baltic and the islands.

With one of the most completely preserved medieval cities in Europe, the seacoast capital of  Tallinn is a rare jewel in the north of Europe and a precious city on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  It was once a medieval Hanseatic town and for long periods in history dominated by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians and even today contains lots of influence from those days but as we walked we could tell that there was a uniqueness to the place, reminiscent of Riga but at only roughly half the size certainly very different.

Tallinn is a city with a long and proud tradition dating back to the medieval times and it was first recorded on a world map in 1154, although the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050. In 1219, Valdemar II of Denmark conquered the city, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285. After joining the League Tallinn enjoyed unprecedented prosperity because its position as a port, a link between mainland Europe and Russia, enabled it to grow rapidly in size and wealth and many of the City’s finest buildings were constructed during this period.  This lasted until the sixteenth century when Sweden moved in and claimed the city and during this time of Swedish rule more fortifications were added and the architecture took on the baroque style of the times.

Just like the previous evening we were confused about how to find our way to the centre of the city not least because where we were was an elevated spot with limited access to the streets of the old town.  We wandered about and corrected ourselves a couple of times before finally walking through a medieval entrance to the city and descending steps behind the city walls before finding ourselves finally at the Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square.

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.  This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.

This would be rather like any town in the United Kingdom on New Year’s Eve if the tree wasn’t taken down as a precaution in the afternoon before.

Today the market is included in the Times newspaper top twenty European Christmas markets and here in the square there were more than fifty wooden huts and stalls where visitors and locals were being tempted by (traditional? well maybe) artisan products from all over Estonia. Surrounding an enormous Christmas tree hung with lights and decorations, the vendors were selling a variety of original products including woollens, felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, home-made candles, wreaths and other decorations.  Traditional Estonian holiday food was also on the menu such as sauerkraut and blood sausages, hot soups, stir-fries and other seasonal treats such as gingerbread, marzipan, various local honeys, cookies and, best of all, hot mulled wine poured from copious wooden barrels.

It was approaching lunchtime and therefore, because of the nervousness of finding somewhere that Sue and Christine would approve of, a potential crisis time in a new country with unfamiliar cuisine.  Without Micky the anxiety was all mine and weighed heavily because traditional Estonian Cuisine has developed over centuries with Germanic and Scandinavian influences and some of it is not for the faint hearted and certainly wouldn’t suit Sue’s delicate dining preferences.  For a girl who turned her nose up at a plain fish salad in Portugal I was certain that she wouldn’t like sült, a sort of jellied meat dish made from pork bones, trotters and heads, or the marinated eel, Baltic sprats, sauerkraut stew or even the Christmas speciality of verivorst or blood sausage.

There was no real need to worry however because although Estonians speak fondly of their traditional food they are no more likely to eat it on a regular basis than in England we are to order pease pudding, jellied eels or brawn and the according to the menu boards displayed outside the pubs and restaurants had a good selection of acceptable offerings.

A Life in a Year – 29th November, A Wintery Day in Riga

 My first visit to Riga was on 29th November 2005.  On the first morning the sun was shining and the roofs of the buildings opposite were covered by a white blanket of snow with a cold frosty sparkle.   Outside the hotel front door an old lady was efficiently clearing the snow from the taxi rank and the footpaths by scraping away with an oversized plastic shovel that seemed to be most effective.

First of all today we found the fabulous Art Nouveau buildings that were all quite close to our hotel.  There had been a lot of restoration activity and the pace of regeneration to repair generations of neglect was very impressive.  The buildings were bathed in soft winter sunshine with snow on the roofs and when we had done enough neck craning to peer upwards towards the statues and friezes we left this part of the city and walked through the spacious parks towards the city centre. 

The snow was still largely undisturbed and looked sensational in the bright sunshine.  The canal, which runs around the city, was frozen solid where hooded crows were scavenging unsuccessfully and stranded ducks were optimistically looking for running water.  After an aimless wander through the parks we emerged at the Freedom Monument just in time to see the eleven o’clock goose-stepping changing of the guard ceremony where the young soldiers that had stood there in the cold for the last hour looked mighty relieved to see their replacements.

Next on the itinerary was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which had also been recently restored in an ugly duckling transformation from a grimy communist grey to a resplendent sandstone yellow under black domes with gleaming crosses.  The renovated brickwork was clean and sharp with red brick stripes and elaborate white columns soaring into the blue sky above.  The communists had closed the cathedral as a place of worship and had converted the building into a planetarium but the place was surely more heavenly than ever now that it had been returned to its intended purpose.  The interior was bright and cheerful, was adorned with shining icons and smelled of incense and to one side there was a service of some kind attended by a standing congregation who were in a very solemn mood.  We discovered that it was a funeral service because there was corpse laid out in a casket but I wasn’t tall enough to see over the shoulders of the congregation and I though it rude to intrude to close to the front because of a macabre interest.  The service was attended by nuns in black robes and pointy hats who looked like extras from the Lord of the Rings and was led by a priest in a lavish scarlet and gold robe. 

At the market square we watched people skating and strolled through a small winter market.  There was a lot of snow clearing activity with a man in a tractor with a snow plough working quickly and efficiently to clear the square and he made a really good job of it too.  The city clearly had an efficient risk management strategy with a comprehensive snow clearance plan.

 Next stop was a trip to the top of a church tower to see the city from an elevated perspective and from here we could better appreciate the patchwork quilt of coloured roofs and pastel facades looking even more attractive under the snowy mantle that decorated them.  Luckily we didn’t have to climb to the top and there was an attended lift that raised us to the summit.  We had ten minutes at the viewing platform which was about nine more than we really needed considering how cold it was with a bitter wind that felt like icy needles being driven into our faces so we were careful therefore that we didn’t miss the descent when the lift came back to collect us and return us to the ground floor and back to the street. 

 We resumed our walk through the city and made for the old Jewish Quarter called Little Russia, which took us through the market on the way.  This area of the city was interesting for consisting of buildings constructed of timber that are fighting a losing rearguard action against decay and neglect and caught in a catch twenty-two situation, too expensive to repair and restore and too culturally important to be demolished.  Adjacent to this area was the Academy of Sciences building, constructed by the communists in the style of the Empire State Building and although impressive in its appearance was seriously ill conceived in respect of location.

 The sky was still clear so we decided to make the Skyline bar for the sunset, which the guidebooks described as not to be missed.  We walked back through the market, this time through the old zeppelin hangers that had been converted into a huge indoor market with an impressive array of produce. 

 The Skyline Bar is a great place to relax in the early evening after a day sightseeing and a good spot for watching the sunset.  At the bar we found a grandstand seat by the window and settled down for the sunset that we estimated to be due at quarter past four.  We got that wrong and had to wait until five o’clock but there was a pleasing atmosphere in the bar and we watched the last puddles of sunshine laying on the rooftops of the city until the sun quickly dipped below the horizon and it went dark.

 

A Life in a Year – 5th August, Latvia From A Russian Taxi Driver’s Perspective

 

For evening meal we choose the out-of-town Lido amusement park where we had been before on our previous visit.  After the meal the journey back to the hotel was one of the highlights of the holiday! We left the Lido and looked for a taxi and it was just our luck to select one with a lunatic escaped from an asylum for a driver. 

Kim made the first approach and asked if he could take some of us back to Riga and to our surprise he indicated that he could take all five of us in his Renault Megane.  This was a vehicle that was clearly unsuitable for accommodating five passengers and probably not licensed to do so either!  Kim doubted this and just for clarification enquired a second time and clearly running short on patience he gave her his “why can’t this stupid woman understand look”, and immediately increased his carrying capacity to an absurdly optimistic eight!  Kim looked even more startled by this and even examined the interior of the car for concealed seats by sticking her head through the open window.  He responded by raising his eyeballs so far into the top of his head that if he’d had laser vision he would have fried his brains.  This was our cue to accept the five in a taxi invitation and we piled in.

Then the fun really started!  He immediately quizzed us about our national origins: “Where are you from?” He enquired, “England” said Micky, “London?” he followed up.  This is a standard opening conversation with a European taxi driver that frequent travellers will be familiar with; the only place they really know in England is the capital, and sometimes Manchester, so they always make reference to it “No, Lincolnshire” Micky informed him without managing to raise a flicker of recognition and immediately closing down this topic of conversation.

Taxi driver “Do you know Tony Blair”, Micky “Well, not personally, no”

The scary driver went on to explain how from his personal perspective life was desperately unfair in Latvia.  From his explanation of conditions we discovered that he was a Russian living in Riga and by his own self-assessment suffering all sorts of discrimination (which is hardly surprising really when they (the Russians) had spent forty years or so kicking holy shit out of the place!)   His solution to the problem was the advocacy of a red revolution and I for one thought it sensible not to disagree too robustly.   He spoke with a thick Russian accent and had the unfortunate habit of preceding each statement with an unpleasant phlegmy hack that was half cough and half retch and definitely only half human.   

Times are hard, it is very expensive to live in Riga”, “No way” said Micky, half mocking him now, “This place is very reasonable!” This led to a few seconds of choking laughter and uncontrollable hacking by the driver and after a few more cost of living exchanges Micky, fully mocking him now, did eventually concede that life was getting a bit tougher in the west; “Yes,” he said “I have to agree, things are getting harder in England too, look at us, we used to have two wives each but now we can only afford one and a third to share between us!

Then the driver lamented that it would cost him a month’s wages to stay three nights in a Riga hotel and again Micky put him straight and corrected his estimate to just the one night. This man was good fun and he even thought it was amusing when we directed him to the wrong hotel and he had to make readjustments to his route to get us to our intended destination.  And it only cost ten Lats, that’s what I call good value, a taxi ride, interesting back seat companions and excellent entertainment thrown in.

Actually Russians have had a bit of a hard time since independence because when Latvia broke free in 1991, it granted automatic citizenship to those who had lived in the first independent Latvian state, between 1918 and 1940, but not to those who immigrated here after the war, when Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet rule during the Stalin years thousands were arrested and sent to Siberian labour camps, or executed. Later, hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians flooded into the republic under a deliberate policy of Russification. 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 only a third were Latvian.

Today Latvia is determined to revive the national identity. It says that its policy towards Russians who immigrated there during the Soviet period is aimed not at punishing them for the ‘crimes’ of the Soviet regime but at ensuring that they learn Latvian and integrate fully into 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 on 5th August 1940.

A Life in a Year – 4th May, A Russian perspective on Latvian Independence

On a visit to the Latvian capital of Riga in May 2008 we had an educational ride in a taxi on the 4th.

Kim made the first approach to the driver and asked if he could take some of us back to the city from an out of town restaurant  and to our surprise he indicated that he could take all five of us in his Renault Megane.  This was a vehicle that was clearly unsuitable for accommodating five passengers and probably not licensed to do so either!  Kim doubted this and just for clarification enquired a second time and clearly running short on patience he gave her his “why can’t this stupid woman understand look”, and immediately increased his carrying capacity to an absurdly optimistic eight!  Kim looked even more startled by this and even examined the interior of the car for concealed seats by sticking her head through the open window.  He responded by raising his eyeballs so far into the top of his head that if he’d had laser vision he would have fried his brains.  This was our cue to accept the five in a taxi invitation and we piled in.

Then the fun really started!  He immediately quizzed us about our national origins:

Where are you from?” He enquired

 “England” said Micky

“London?”

This is a standard opening conversation with a European taxi driver that frequent travellers will be familiar with; the only place they really know in England is the capital, and sometimes Manchester, so they always make reference to it. 

No, Lincolnshire” Micky informed him without managing to raise a flicker of recognition and immediately closing this topic of conversation.

“Do you know Tony Blair?”

“Well, not personally, no”

The scary driver went on to explain how from his personal perspective life was desperately unfair in Latvia.  From his explanation of conditions we discovered that he was a Russian living in Riga and by his own self-assessment suffering all sorts of discrimination (which is hardly surprising really when they (the Russians) had spent forty years or so kicking holy shit out of the place!)   His solution to the problem was the advocacy of a red revolution and I for one thought it sensible not to disagree too robustly.   He spoke with a thick Russian accent and had the unfortunate habit of preceding each statement with an unpleasant phlegmy hack that was half cough and half retch and definitely only half human.   

“Times are hard, it is very expensive to live in Riga”

No way” said Micky “This place is very reasonable!”

This led to a few seconds of choking laughter and uncontrollable hacking by the driver and after a few more cost of living exchanges Micky did eventually concede that life was getting a bit tougher in the west;

“Yes,” he said “I have to agree, things are getting harder in England too, look at us, we used to have two wives each but now we can only afford one and a third to share between us!”

Actually Russians have had a bit of a hard time since independence because when Latvia broke free in 1991, it granted automatic citizenship to those who had lived in the first independent Latvian state, between 1918 and 1940, but not to those who immigrated here after the war, when Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet rule during the Stalin years thousands were arrested and sent to Siberian labour camps, or executed. Later, hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians flooded into the republic under a deliberate policy of Russification. 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 only a third were Latvian.

Today Latvia is determined to revive the national identity. It says that its policy towards Russians who immigrated there during the Soviet period is aimed not at punishing them for the ‘crimes’ of the Soviet regime but at ensuring that they learn Latvian and integrate fully into 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.