Resistance to Russia reaps rhetorical rewards in Riga.

I usually wait more than a few weeks before I offer a follow-up from an earlier post.  But if I learn something new almost immediately after posting—sometimes as a direct byproduct of the initial article—then I’m more than happy to revisit the subject, offering new insights or corrections as necessary.  More often than not, the follow-up is location-driven: that is, I wrote Article A about a certain site, and then additional details emerge nearby that prompt an Article B.  Or I contemplate on two seemingly unrelated subjects that happen to share a single point of reference: a stretch of road in Washington DC (Wisconsin Avenue NE), for example, that offers both a student ghetto and unbridled support for the effort in Ukraine.  This latest article is NOT location-driven at all, but that same block of Wisconsin Avenue NE with the Ukrainian support in people’s front yards prompts the topic.  I reveal more defense of Ukrainian sovereignty, but far removed from the nation’s capital.  Instead, the example of resistance to Russia is in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

There it stands, right along Kalpaka bulvaris; and since one can probably guess what “bulvaris” means based on its street-naming context, then congrats: you know some Latvian.  The majority of the imagery features the now widely known yellow and blue signifying the Ukrainian flag.  A single anomalous Latvian flag—a white horizontal stripe (or fess, to the vexillologists) resting on a burgundy field (or carmine red, again to vexillologists)—protrudes near the tree.  And while the Latvian national flag flies proudly throughout Riga, at this precise location the favored national flag is that of Ukraine.

In 2024 (and 2023 and 2022), support for Ukraine nearly always signifies resistance to Russia.  But Riga, and Latvia as a whole, have a lot more skin in the game than a row of homes in a posh part of Washington DC.  This small Baltic nation—no bigger than West Virginia—shares a border with Russia and was formerly a Soviet state for much of the 20th century.  During the Soviet era, the Kremlin encouraged ethnic Russians to populate the peripheral frontier territories, leaving Latvia with a population that to this day remains nearly one-fourth culturally Russian, with its highest concentrations in this capital and largest city.  As vivid of a display as these sky blues and sunflower yellows present amidst the wintry city park, they represent a fraction of Riga’s resistance to Russia.  Just a bit up the Kalpaka bulvaris is a much more overtly political display.

The Ukrainian flag hangs in front of a rudimentary prison with a coffin inside, while the Riga Congress Centre serves as the backdrop on the righthand side of the photograph.  Although today the Congress Centre is the city’s prime multipurpose convention and performance venue, its initial use after its 1982 construction was to serve as a convening place for the communist party, back when it had the benevolent name “House of Political Education”.  As Soviet control weakened during perestroika, the Congress Centre hosted meetings (presumably often clandestine) that explored the eventuality of Latvian restoration of independence.  In short, it’s an unsurprising civic platform for resistance to Russia amidst its current aggression in Ukraine, a distant brother nation to the south also long under the yoke of Moscow.

The activistic displays are unequivocally more provocative here than in the US.  Of particular interest was the blue and yellow playground equipment surrounded by caution tape.

Resistance to Russia in downtown Riga: playground metaphor

Not a real playground, this temporary installation operates as a metonym for stolen childhood.  It’s part of a campaign to raise awareness of the Russian military’s tactic of kidnapping children: almost 20,000 according to the sign with the QR code, for which it is no doubt intentional that “Ukrainian” is capitalized and “russia” is not.  (The website does not reproduce this solecism.)

Riga’s resistance to Russia injects a degree of political precision largely absent from the displays in Washington DC.  

Resistance to Russia in downtown Riga: Ukrainian flag

It features considerable content written in either Russian or Ukrainian—or perhaps a little of each.  Both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet, unlike Latvian, and I’m not well-versed enough to distinguish more than a word or two, so I certainly can’t translate.  But English appears to be the third most common language on display.  For those who cannot read enough from my enlarged photo, here are some of the phrases referenced:

  • RUZZIA IS A TERRORIST STATE
  • DEATH TO RUSSIAN OCCUPANT
  • WE DON’T NEED NO OCCUPATION
  • YOU CAN STEAL A WASHING MACHINE BUT YOU CAN’T WASH AWAY THE BLOOD

And, of course, it’s impossible to overlook the lynched effigy to the right of this wall.

The displays on the ground assume a more funereal tone.

The countenance on display in these commemorative photos became a lot more familiar in recent weeks; it is Alexei Navalny, the highest-profile face of political opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Homegrown resistance to Russia.  At the time of these photos in early March, the news of Navalny’s death in prison was still fresh, though I expect it will resonate for many months to come.  His face is everywhere at this plaza on the edge of Kronvalda parka strūklaka.

Resistance to Russia in downtown Riga: pro Navalny

I don’t feel well-informed enough to pontificate on the merits of Navalny’s views as a genuine foil to the authoritarianism within Russia’s current leadership, nor do I wish to throw my hat into a deeply politicized ring.  Suffice it to say that Navalny was 47 years old at the time of his death in a Siberian prison, after an initial sentence in February 2021, and he had no significant health complaints prior to the sentencing.  He most likely died from the treatment in prison, elevating his visage to martyrdom within the Ukrainian war, even though he had no apparent connection to Latvia.  Although not Ukrainian himself, his vocal and unapologetic opposition to the war kept him far distant from the Kremlin’s good graces.

While the Ukrainian flag flies in abundance throughout Riga, no other site within the Centrs includes such a concentration of anti-Russian sentiments on display.  So why this location for resistance to Russia?  It’s not just its proximity to an old Soviet relic like the Congress Centre; I have a sneaking suspicion that most artistic productions taking place in that building these last few years show a similar pro-Ukrainian bent.  Why here specifically?  Pivot 90 degrees across Kalpaka bulvaris and it becomes more obvious.

Resistance to Russia in downtown Riga

Draped on a building across from a road intersecting Kalpaka bulvaris is a two-story tapestry mocking Putin, superimposing a death skull on his face.  More political activism through bitter mockery, coming from a different angle (both geographically and artistically).

Of greater importance is the pink-tinted building in the foreground.  Here’s another view:

If viewers can overcome their admiration (or disdain) for the hyperbolized Baroque references that characterize Riga’s signature Art Nouveau style—it offers more buildings belonging to this early 20th movement than any other city in the world—they should scrutinize the flag flying out front.  Yes, it’s the white, blue and red fesses of the Russian flag.  This is the Russian embassy.  Just like that row of homes facing the Russian embassy in Washington, the protest movement’s strategic location means Russian diplomats working in the facility must stare down the mockery: the resistance to Russia and support for Ukraine. Also of note is the heavy fortification surrounding this embassy, a characteristic shared with the huge facility in Washington, but not characteristic of most other embassies in Riga (or Washington, for that matter).  I used Google Street View to see if archived photos of either embassy revealed a recent change in the fortification.  Nope.  In both cities, the Russian embassy has stood with tall wrought-iron fencing and a guard station in front since at least the early 2010s, well before the latest invasion, and even before Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.

Returning to my side of the bulvaris, one final observation deserves more clarity.  But only a tiny bit more.

I deliberately withheld reference to one item that appeared on this collage of resistance to Russia: AZOV, referring to Azov Battalion or Brigade, which appears to be functioning as a sort of special forces unit within the Ukrainian National Guard, depicted as pivotal in Ukraine’s continued standoff against Russia.  But the ideological alignment of Azov is shadowy, to put it nicely, and the hyper-politicization of the entire enterprise makes it impossible for me to draw from sources that won’t themselves elicit strong, emotionally charged reactions.  Suffice it to say (a phrase I’m using for the second time in this article), Western media coverage of Azov is much more sympathetic since early 2022 than it was prior to the Russian invasion of Ukrainian sovereign lands.  Nonetheless, the battalion’s pivotal geopolitical role has obscured its controversy in a loosely similar way to that of Novalny.

In terms of sheer visual impact, this political protest puts the one in the United States to shame.  It articulates Latvian resistance to Russia far more potently than the row of private residences across from the Russian embassy in DC.  In fairness, the Riga example takes place on public lands, featuring a clearly organized, collaborative effort, with installations both deliberative (the playground) and more slapdash (the collage).  Conversely, the effort among those homeowners in Washington DC is presumably mostly grassroots; they elected as individuals to decorate their front yards with pro-Ukrainian imagery, and from what I can tell, the effort has lost a lot of steam in recent months.  Perhaps the same can be said about the display in Riga; maybe the display was bolder and angrier a year ago.  But amidst the drabness of late-winter grays, the vivid blue and yellow still sings in descant.  Whether Wisconsin Avenue or Kalpaka bulvaris, the Russian embassy workers in both US and Latvia must stare out at homegrown defiance from within their property’s gates.  It probably makes them feel all the more like they’re working in a prison.  Touché.

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