Year of Culture Part 1: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

Year of Culture Part 1: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

7 January 2023

It might be a bad idea to make this public, but my goal for 2023 is to visit at least one cultural event per week. I began the year with a visit to a destination I have been wanting to see for years—the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.

Backstory

In 2005, I took a short trip to Latvia and one of our stops was the Museum of Occupation. I don’t remember much about it except that I know I cried at some point and felt very moved by the whole story of occupation. I remember taking a picture of the lonely guard who sat by the door. I have a few grainy photos, but I know that it wasn’t anything like the museum is now. It is nice to see the signs of progress in right direction.

Guard in 2005
Museum Display 2005

The Museum in 2023

I have watched the construction around the museum happening for a few years now, and I think it was finally finished fairly recently, so I was excited to see how it has changed. I do not think it looks or feels anything like it did in the past. It is now an impressively modern museum that incorporates multimedia to tie the sad history of Latvia together in a thematic way that is both moving and emotionally challenging.

My tour begin at the entryway which is very modern and nice. There are lockers for clothes and bags, and everything is clean and new. It cost 5 euros, which seems pretty acceptable for a museum these days.

To access the museum, I had to get an electronic ticket with a QR code. This seemed a bit excessive, but I guess it is modern. Then I climbed a flight of stairs to get to the actual exhibit.

First Floor

On the landing of the staircase, there is a large room with photographs and mirrors all around. Immediately I was immersed in this sound that was simple and deep. It gave me a sense of awe and dread. I saw families of free Latvia before the occupation, and read stories some important Latvians of the time.

Latvia before the Occupation

Then, immediately out of this room, I faced a giant circular screen that played a 3-minute video which gives an overview of how the Occupation happened. Basically, there was a secret treaty signed between Germany and the USSR that said Germany could take part of Poland and start a war with Europe, while the Soviets would take the rest of Poland and the Baltics.

Then the museum gets very sad, very quickly. The ominous music got louder, and I read the tales of the few who tried to oppose the invasion from Russia including one brave border guard who refused to just give up and ended up taking his own life rather than succumb. Karlis Ulmanis, the leader of Latvia at the time, allowed the Soviets to enter, hoping that it would at least keep more bloodshed from happening. Sadly, he was deported and died in prison shortly after.

It is hard to describe the combination of nausea and anger I felt as I walked through the displays, stopping to read, and just getting filled up with this sickness for how incredibly cruel and deliberately evil the occupation was. There was a small room off to the side with a cage that explained how the KGB would take prisoners and kill them including the documents of several of the prisoners. The museum used rebar prominently throughout this section of the museum that effectively gives the feeling of being imprisoned and a part of something that you just have no control over.

Soviet Prisoners

Siberia

Throughout the museum, there are displays that are right at the height of a child with a little teddy bear named Miks, and children can interact with the bear in different ways.

When I got to the part of the museum where people were sent on trains to Siberia, these mass deportations of citizens, I was openly crying. Miks was in a crowded car with all these other bears, and there was a large mockup of a train car so you could imagine what the experience was like.

During this first occupation, 15,443 people were shipped off. Later, the Soviets would deport over 40,000 more people. They just came to people’s homes, rounded up entire families and shipped them off with no explanation or any sort of trial or anything.

Reimagining the Deportations

Nazis

In 1941, Hitler broke the treaty with Stalin and started his war with Russia. The German Army was able to quickly move through the Baltics and “liberate” Latvia from Soviet rule. At first, many Latvians saw this as a good thing because the Soviets were so horrible, but the Nazis had their own sinister designs.

First, they rounded up all the Jews and either shipped them off to camps or killed them outright. This was also an incredibly difficult part of the museum to get through.

Then, they forced any able-bodied young Latvian men to fight for them, and shipped them off to die on the Russian front. Reading about the body counts is devastating. This is such a small country to begin with, and then you read about thousands and thousands of people just dying for no reason.

Latvia’s sad history of the Holocaust

Soviets Return

In 1944, as Germany started losing the war, my father was forced to fight for the Germans as were some of my uncles. My mother’s family left the country along with about 200,000 Latvians who could get away. They had seen what the Russians did the first time they took over, and they didn’t want to be a part of that again.

Many of these refugees ended up in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, and then they ended up immigrating to several different countries including Canada, the US, England, and Australia, among others.

The people who were left behind faced almost 50 years of Soviet rule that meant more deportations and closed borders. A few kept fighting and hid in the forests attacking Soviet troops now and then. They were called the Forest Brothers. This part of the museum had canvas straps hanging from the ceiling to mimic the feeling of walking through a forest.

Then the museum had a guard tower with a spotlight to mimic what it was like to be in a Soviet Gulag. The lights became blue and dark, giving a feeling of general oppression.

Soviet Gulag tower

The Soviet Occupation

As I walked through the Gulag and turned the corner, the lights turned red, and the soundscape changed to sounds of Soviet times. Then I heard the Voice of America radio. The problem with these sounds as opposed to the earlier eerie music is that these loops were very short and distracting. It made me less inclined to want to stay and read all the placards because I just wanted to get away from the sounds.

The red lights were well done, giving a Soviet glow to the displays of Stalin, and Lenin.

Gas mask and Soviet star

The indoctrination of children and the worship of Soviet “heroes” like Stalin and Lenin was especially disturbing. I think this is something we have to watch for at all times. Never let us hold anyone in such high esteem that we start to worship them because I don’t think it ever ends well. Someone recently told me that people are always seeking these powerful father figures, and they don’t care about truth or reality, they just want someone to give their devotion to.

After Stalin died, Lenin became the Father of the Soviet Union, and everyone was expected to give their allegiance, devotion, and even love toward him.

Fuck Lenin. Fuck all of this.

Resistance

During the occupation, there were pockets of resistance. At first, even the slightest resistance was met with death. There were stories of student agitators who were shot and killed.

But as the Soviet began to thaw after Stalin’s death and a series of weaker rulers, some Latvian dissidents were able to make little waves. One of these was Gunars Astra who made a powerful statement before his death:

Gunars Astra, Latvian poet

The End of the Soviet Union

The museum moves you chronologically from the 50s through the 80s, and then you climb the stairs as the Berlin Wall falls, and there is hope. I really like that physical experience of rising above the Occupation toward a newly free Latvia.

One of my favorite photos is the human chain from the Baltic Way where thousands of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians joined hands to show their unity and desire to be free on 23 August, 1989.

Things happened pretty quickly after that. There was an attempt of the Soviets to hold onto power, as they rolled tanks and troops into Riga killing a few people. Latvians resisted by building barricades and guarding them. At one point 500,000 Latvians protested in Riga, and it was clear that the Soviet Union was a thing of the past.

On May 4, 1990, Latvians voted in a referendum to split from Russia, and it passed with 74.9% of the population voting for succession. This was the start Latvia’s new independence.

Here there was another poet on display, and I found Knuts Skujenieks words to be quite inspiring.

From above, I could look down and see the occupations lit up in the blue and red color. You can see the rebar and how the displays are behind bars throughout the musuem. 

The final room was back on the main floor. There was a sign that said something about a Silent Room, and after all of these powerful emotions, I really wanted to go sit in a quiet room and contemplate, but it was locked.

I did see this big empty exhibition space that they added with the reconstruction. This hall is beautiful with giant windows looking out over Old Town.

Conclusion

With the war raging in Ukraine, this museum has a very prescient place in the world, reminding us that occupiers are never good, and it is always better to let people rule than to have dictators control them. I know it sounds obvious, but we always need reminders.

Here are some more photos:

 

 

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