This is Riga, Latvia. The Baltic Republics had a particularly difficult time during the twentieth century with Nazi Germany invading in 1941 and Soviet Russia occupying them until 1991. What had been a prosperous group of small Scandinavian style countries became relatively impoverished and isolated.
This is nothing new. The Baltic has been repeatedly dominated by larger nations since the 1200’s. Riga is equidistant from both Berlin and Moscow. It’s a rough neighborhood and it seems likely there will be more such impositions in the future. The region is too important to left alone. But the people will adapt as they always have.
Between the various wars and occupations when the country was allowed to flourish on its own Latvia proved to be industrious and highly cultured. The buildings that survived the tumults of history attest to the quality of the people, economy, and place.
It was a matter of national pride for the Latvian people to completely restore the historic core of Riga after the Soviets left things in Havana style dishevelment. This is their homeland and the repository of their culture, language, music, and history. It was also an excellent business model. The city is a dynamic and highly profitable venue for foreign investment, trade, and tourism. Every inch of the old city is productive.
But then there’s all that left over communist stuff ringing the city. What exactly do you do with it all? Pulling it down and replacing it is too expensive. And many of these buildings are occupied by ethnic Russians not Latvians. (Latvia is a quarter Russian as a result of the Soviet occupation, but the city of Riga is closer to half Russian.)
This was top down bureaucratic central planning at its finest. Residential buildings were isolated from industry and from each other for health and safety. Operating a business of any kind in these apartment buildings was strictly forbidden. Tightly regulated shops were provided at convenient but segregated locations. Highly consolidated schools and isolated office and manufacturing parks were constructed in their own little pods at some distance.
The preservation of green open space was a hallmark of Soviet design. Grass and trees were necessary for recreation, health, and social tranquility. There’s also a coincidental side effect of this kind of land use planning that worked in favor of central authority. Where exactly would people organize a protest rally in this environment? There is no prominent central square or iconic rallying point. What exactly would the rebel cry be here? Rise up and storm the shrubbery!
Honestly it’s not that different from American suburbia. Communists just preferred concrete tower blocks to wood framed tract homes. If you’ve ever been inside an original 1947 Levittown house then you’ve essentially been inside one of these Soviet apartments. I spent a chunk of my childhood in a beige stucco apartment in Los Angeles that was nearly identical on the inside. The kitchens are small, there’s only one bath, the ceilings are low, there’s no craft or workmanship in the architecture. It’s utilitarian. It’s not terrible. People can and do live perfectly comfortable lives in these places. It’s just bland and there’s never anything to do in the neighborhood. It’s the precise opposite of the historic city center. No tourist ever ventures out to this part of town and you’ll never see photos of these neighborhoods in brochures.
So here’s what the pragmatic Latvians are doing. First, these inherited communist buildings are given a quick skin job. They’re scrubbed clean, fitted with new cupboards and fixtures, painted, given new windows and doors, and generally made to feel fresh. If you squint these buildings look like the lesser offerings of 1960’s Sweden or Germany. There are worse places to live in the world. A tidy apartment in a boring suburb of Riga is what some people genuinely prefer. There’s plenty on offer here for them. And there isn’t much else that can be done with these places.