Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reflections While Waiting on a Bus in Riga

by James Fleener

A product of the profit motive:
Trilingual menu in Riga.
“If you feel to be a cat…”
(source: author’s personal collection, picture taken in Riga)
On a cold and snowless February dusk, I found myself in Riga with a couple of hours to spare while waiting for a bus to Tallinn.  I had been making rather brisk progress through the cities of Eastern Europe in my attempt to be a proper flâneur in Balzac’s sense of the word.  I started in Prague where I immediately bought a train ticket for the latest night train anywhere else.  With ticket in hand, and therefore lodging determined for the night, I spent the next 14 hours feasting my eyes on the streets of Prague.  I strolled up and down Wenceslas Square dozens of times, imagining the events of the 1968 Prague Spring with sadness and the 1989 Velvet Revolution with consolation.  After walking around Prague late into the night in snow bathed by the yellow street lights, I boarded the train to Bratislava where I woke upon my arrival in the wee hours.  I took note of the train schedule there so that later, when the ticket counter opened, I could later buy passage to Budapest.  The next morning in Budapest, I realized that I was going to need a longer sleep and booked my next leg all the way through to Warsaw.  Once in Warsaw, I covered many miles of territory in spite of the deep snow there.  Eventually I found myself a perch at the edge of the Stare Miasto where I stayed for an hour, staring across the Vistula into the trees on the other side until I could bring 1944 into focus and see the Red Army at camp, doing nothing while the Uprising died.

A product of policy makers:
Protests in Riga to Preserve Russian schools. The Russian sign reads:
“[Prime Minister] Straujuma, leave the children alone!” (2014)
With the next morning, I woke in Riga with a hangover from imbibing too many historical perspectives.  After gorging on the gastronomy of the eye for days, I needed pause.  I was from a place where a one hundred year old building was considered ancient and age was a bad thing, and now I was overpowered by how far I could see into the past by looking up at buildings and making their memories my own.  I tried walking the streets of Riga early in the morning and found that I kept losing my sense of direction because the streets bend and connect at odd angles in the old town.  Every time I came out of a street, the morning sun was not at all where I expected it to be.  J’ai perdu mon nord not only literally, but figuratively I thought.  As soon as the Occupation Museum opened, I went there and spent the next four hours, hoping to learn something while letting my internal compass recover.  Latvia was amongst Stalin’s spoils of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, only to be taken by Hitler a year later…so much for “honor amongst thieves.”  The Soviets took it back in 1945 and kept possession until the Singing Revolution ended it in 1991.  The museum was full of photos and artifacts from that long journey from the end of post-WWI sovereignty, through five decades of occupation, and back again.  When I took to the streets after, I knew already that I couldn’t contemplate the 1940s which were far too full of killing and subjugation.  Instead, I started chronologically near the end of the occupation years.  I went to the Freedom Monument and thought about the decades under Moscow’s rule that Latvians were arrested for laying flowers at her feet.  The walk through the surrounding park takes you past monuments of those who died at the Barricades as Gorbachev’s forces did what they could to hold power from Moscow right up to the end in 1991.  The 1990 Nobel Peace Prize certainly tarnished quickly.

Walking around Riga, one finds the public signs in the Latvian language as expected, just as there are Czech signs in Prague, Slovak signs in Bratislava, Magyar in Budapest and so forth…with a fair representation of English in most places where international travelers are likely to be.  You will also soon notice in Riga that many of the young men walk with the same stilted, to and fro swagger as Putin, swinging only one arm while keeping the other still.  According to 2012 figures, 39.1% of Riga is of the Russian ethnicity.  Immediately I wondered if this peculiar gait that I witnessed was strictly Russian and if so, does it have its basis in genetics, military training, or mere hero worship.  Up to this point in my trip, I was able to leave each city with a residue of hope for their futures.  Now, suddenly in this first visit in a city of Russia’s “near abroad” I felt something decidedly different.  On the one hand, it was 2007 and I was in a NATO and EU member state.  Soviet military badges and hats were being peddled as kitsch in the booths beneath the overpass on Gogola iela.  On the other hand, gas prices and Putin were pirouetting inexorably upward together, forming storm clouds which could resurrect derelict warships, tanks, and bombers and burnish the decay from rusting Kalashnikovs.

Ethnic Russians numbered only 5% less than ethnic Latvians in Riga, yet there are no bilingual public signs.  I felt like I was in a place of tension where something had to give way someday, sooner or later.  Over the previous days I had already too acutely imagined the history of too much war and for the moment I was happy to console myself that the threat of Russian revanchism and irredentism seemed hollow and distant.  Still, what value is there in the Latvian government needlessly disenfranchising such a large population of ethnic Russian residents by imposing a language policy that discounts them?

My time in Riga was up.  I had purchased my ticket to continue north and just needed to find a way to pass a little time indoors as the temperatures began dropping quickly.  I would have sought refuge in a coffee shop as I often do, but I already had too many espressos for the day.  Also, I had forgotten which coffee shop to avoid after causing a blackout when I pushed too hard while trying to plug in my laptop using the wrong adapter.  So instead I ducked into the cinema a block away from the station and sat back in my warm and cozy theater seat to watch King Kong in English but with both Latvian and Russian subtitles.  It occurred to me at that moment the extent that economic considerations can certainly drive equanimity and egalitarianism in minority language practices.  The newsstands, restaurants, and cinemas represented Latvian and Russian languages equally, why not the streets and schools too?  

The author of this blog entry is James Fleener, a senior at the University of Illinois in the spring of 2014. James was majoring in political science, planning on continuing his education at the University of Illinois, and returning to Europe for extensive study in the future. He wrote this text in the seminar PS 418: Language and Minorities in Europe.


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