Hi derby friends! While we wait for a Riga team, why not check out the action in Aarhus, Denmark? If you’re in the country or somewhere nearby, come for a great day of love and shoves.
Well, we’re off to a good start - some girls have already expressed their interest, and we hope to start practicing in late April (if the weather is sympathetic). The only problem is - not everyone has skates! So, if you or anyone you know has some skates they don’t mind lending or donating,…
So, we’re starting a roller derby team in Riga, Latvia, and would love to have your support! Please share to those who would be interested - I’ll be forever in your debt. Click above for the team’s tumblr, or find us on Facebook under ‘Riga Roller Derby’!
I know, I know. I have no excuse for my prolonged absence, but life has a way of interrupting the consistency I often intend. In any case, please accept my offerings of a link to a short article about the photographer behind one of Salvador Dali’s most iconic images. And, as it turns out, Philippe Halsman was born in Riga in 1906. Do click the title for a sampling of the wonderful images he has captured.
I know it’s been a while since I’ve written anything, but I can claim new travels as the reason for my absence. Earlier this month, my mother was reading a lecture at the University of Copenhagen as part of a methodology course and had encouraged me to participate. I was hesitant – the students, I suspected, would be considerably older, and the subject wouldn’t be entirely relevant to my own research interests. Nevertheless, I acquiesced, and am incredibly thankful that I did.
As fantastic as the experience in Copenhagen was, it didn’t leave much time for tourism – and, in the instance that it did, I preferred the company and conversation of my coursemates to ceaseless photography. Therefore, I’m afraid I have nothing to show for my few days there – likewise for Lund, to which I returned for a weekend prior to Riga.
Now, I realise it’s a week late, but I want to share my photographs and impressions of the Staro Riga festival in honour of Latvia’s Independence Day on November 18.
Side note: On November 18, 1918, Karlis Ulmanis and his council proclaimed independence for Latvia, and began the fight to establish their government as national and legitimate. Karlis Ulmanis, may I say, is a rather mysterious figure – not much is known about him, but rumours abound. Furthermore, he is either loved or reviled by the Latvians themselves, depending on the historical narrative they recognise.
In any case, my friends and I joined in with the festivities, and were pleasantly surprised to discover that Riga is not as empty as it initially appears. Indeed, I encountered more than one human traffic jam following the fireworks by the Daugava. The light displays, of course, were simply phenomenal.
The first one we saw was called ‘Fundamental values of the constitution through the ages’, and was projected onto the facade of the Parliament building.
Some buildings did not have a motif, but were simply lit up in a bright display of colour.
The National Museum of Art had several of its most famous images on display, with accompanying music.
Rātslaukums was full of people eagerly awaiting the fireworks and admiring the exchange of light between the House of the Blackheads and the City Hall.
Though there were many more points of interest all throughout the city, the quality of my photos is too poor to include. Therefore, I leave you with this last display from beside Kongresu Nams, entitled ‘Never ending story’.
Staro Riga brought out the best in the city - so much so that I wish the lights would stay on year-round. Then again, if it were to become commonplace, it wouldn’t have the same effect, and I like to be reminded every once in a while of just how beautiful Riga truly is.
When I set about selecting a photograph to accompany this article, I wanted a simple panorama of Riga’s skyline, or perhaps a recognisable tourist attraction, but instead stumbled across this seemingly insignificant shot of four friends standing beside a plaque featuring the four regions of Latvia. Though at first glance, it remains a snapshot from any tourist album, it captures something important to Latvia’s future: the friendship between people who would have, at one point, been considered enemies simply by nature of their heritage. Two pairs of feet in this photograph belong to German girls, one pair to a Latvian, and one pair to a Russian.
In an email correspondence, Valters Nollendorfs, the director of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, summarised Latvia’s 19th-20th-century master narrative as that of:
“…the small emerging Latvian nation under the rule of Germans and Russians. It has to use all its cunning and strength manoeuvring between both, at times collaborating with one or the other until it succeeds in establishing an independent sovereign state with the help of distant friends in the West when the warring German and Russian empires collapse and no longer can control Latvian aspirations to be free.”
In other words, Latvia has consistently been torn between Germany and Russia – at one point constructing the enemy of Germans, and now constructing the enemy of Russians. In the paper I presented at the Negotiating Ideologies II conference in Edinburgh, I argued that it is precisely this disparate construction of historical narrative between Russia and Latvia which continues to creates problems for the two nations. However, using the example of the Latvian-Russian border disagreement, concluded in 2007, I demonstrated that narrative can be deconstructed for the sake of compromise.
Latvia and Russia immediately differed – and continue to differ – on their understanding of the Soviet Union’s legacy. When Russia accepted the USSR’s foreign assets and liabilities, it was perceived by Latvia to be a statement as to the Russian nation as a continuation, rather than a succession, of this entity – the difference being whether it also inherited the crimes committed by the former regimes, and must apologise for them.
Of course, the existing relationship between the two countries developed within a context influenced by history, memory, and by the unbalanced power relations of the past, and cannot be divorced from it. Because the Soviet narrative was – and is – often repeated by Russia, which has historically held the authority to speak for Latvia, the dispute between the two countries in regards to collective memory is intensified by Latvia’s national historiography having been repressed or censored within the USSR. Latvian independence, above all, meant the right to assert and seek recognition of its own construction of history and memory.
The main point of contestation was Russia’s insistence that Latvia joined the union voluntarily in 1940, as opposed having been occupied and its self-determination illegally suspended. Latvia’s historiography paints the interwar years as a flourishing, cultural awakening of the country and its people, whereas Russia continues to invoke the Latvian Riflemen’s role in the creation of the Soviet state – thereby challenging Latvia’s attempts to dictate its past.
Latvia’s government sought to establish a new identity, and to manifest and legitimise national aspirations and concerns internationally – an identity distinctly separate from the Soviet identity mandated previously. At the foundation of this identity lies the 1920 Soviet-Latvian Peace Treaty, which affirms Latvia’s grand narrative: the country was a modern, independent state, economically stable, with additional territory, and was betrayed by Soviet Russia, who went against this treaty in order to force Latvia into the USSR. In these terms, Latvia views its Soviet period as a suspension of independence, and the theme of its regained independence becomes the restoration of assets from this 1920 treaty. It is this document which Latvia attempted to justify, legally, in the physical manifestation of narrative incongruence.
The area which I refer to as Abrene-Pytalovo is the reason for the lengthy border dispute between Russia and Latvia. Though the territory historically belonged to Russia, in the 1920 treaty, it was signed over to Latvia and renamed Abrene. Shortly after Latvia joined the USSR, it was ‘gifted’ back to Russia. If Latvia were to win the legal case and regain Abrene-Pytalovo, it would go a long way in legitimising the Treaty, and hence its construct of identity.
Russia’s counter-argument relied on the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and claims that the 1920 treaty was voided following Latvia’s entry into the USSR. As Russia believes itself to have inherited the Soviet Union’s treaties on the basis of succession principles, which simultaneously prompts Latvia to regard it as the continuation of the Soviet state, the 1920 treaty is arguably valid and applicable to contemporary Russia.
Stalemate, stemming from a confrontation of Latvia and Russia’s separate historical recollections and narratives and entering the physical realm through dispute over a territory which either are legally entitled to, continued. Latvia recognised its weaker position – both in the need to demonstrate to the European Union its ability for compromise, and through economic pressure from Russia – and officially renounced all claims to Abrene-Pytalovo in 2007.
Latvian political scientist Nils Muiznieks explains that, “politically, it was very difficult for the Latvian political elite to renounce all claims to Abrene, as this appeared to run counter to the grand narrative of restoration…it was only when the Constitutional Court engaged in some legal acrobatics and ruled that Abrene had not been a traditional part of core Latvian territory and that legal continuity was not at risk that the issue was resolved within Latvia and the border treaty could enter into force”.
Though, inevitably, the tensions arising from incompatible narratives will remain – Latvia and Russia, due to their reliance on these narratives as a means of national identity, may perhaps never agree on history – both have realised that relations must improve, and have used narrative compromise as a method of solving or bypassing these disagreements. The signing of the border treaty depicted a progression in how conflict is resolved between the two countries. Latvia demonstrated an ability to rework historical narrative for the benefit of improving foreign relations. If the improvement of this relationship is to continue, these compromises must emanate from both parties.
It’s a good sign that, in the interpersonal realm, four friends have managed to avoid the weight of their own historical context and to come together for an unforgettable trip to Riga.
 Muižnieks, N. (ed) 2011. The Geopolitics of History in Latvian-Russian Relations.
Riga: Academic Press of the University of Latvia.