Looking up at large stone sculpture of a soldier
Latvia,  Photographing Public Art

Introduction to some monuments in Riga

Riga was a city in which I quickly felt very comfortable. It has a compact old town with plenty to see but not too ‘aspic-like’; by which I mean that it felt both touristy and homely at the same time, somewhere I could imagine that the locals don’t feel too overwhelmed by the history and the visiting population. It is also a city of monuments.

I have posted previously about the giant snails and many cats I encountered in Riga, and its Art Nouveau treasures. Here, for the Photographing Public Art challenge, are a few of its other striking monuments.

The Monument to the Latvian Riflemen

Looking up at large stone sculpture of two soldiers
Monument to the Latvian Riflemen

In the Ratslaukums near the Museum of the Occupation is this very solid-looking, brutalist-style granite monument dedicated to the Latvian Riflemen. The Latvian Rifles was a division of the Soviet Army formed during the First World War to try to repel the advances of the German Army. After German occupation of Latvia they fought in the Russian Army. By 1917 there were eight Latvian Riflemen regiments. The majority of them transferred their loyalty to the Bolsheviks and became known as Red Latvian Riflemen. Today we might view them as traitors, as they fought for Soviet rule on the side of the Red Army in the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920). It was to these Red Latvian Riflemen that this monument was originally erected by the Soviets.

Looking up at large stone sculpture of a soldier
Monument to the Latvian Riflemen
Looking up at large stone sculpture of a group of soldiers
Monument to the Latvian Riflemen

Some of the riflemen, however, sided against the Bolsheviks, and fought on the opposite side in the War of Independence. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of independent rule in Latvia, people like to regard this monument as dedicated to riflemen of both colours. There are some people, however, who would like to see it taken down; it speaks too forcibly of Soviet times and oppression. Others though believe that it should remain as a tribute to those who fought for Latvia in the First World War; or simply as a fine illustration of Soviet monumental style. I am in the latter camp; I have a (possibly strange) fondness for Brutalist monuments, and this is a great example.

St Roland

Statue of a man with sword and shield

In complete contrast to the Riflemen is the much more traditional statue of St Roland, the patron saint of Riga. Like the buildings of the Ratslaukums or Town Hall Square in which it stands, this is a replica of an older statue erected here in 1897 which was pulled down by the Soviet powers in 1945. Damaged by the air raids, that original now sits in nearby St Peter’s Church, the spire of which can be seen in my photo. This new version was erected in 2000.

Roland was a nephew of Charlemagne and considered to represent justice and freedom; so his statue is deliberately situated so that he faces the town hall where just decisions must be taken. Traditionally this statue marks the city’s centre and distances in Riga and Latvia are measured from here.

The Freedom Monument

This is easily the most eye-catching monument in Riga. If like me you have a certain fascination with 1930s design, it is likely to appeal to you. It sits just outside the old town on one of the main arteries of the city, Brivibas Bulvaris and was erected in 1935 to honour soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918–1920). The monument is 42 metres high overall and the column 19 metres. It bears a copper figure (some sources say this is Liberty, some Milda, a symbolic feminine Latvian image) holding aloft three gilded stars which represent the 3 regions of Latvia during the first republic.

The base of the monument is of red granite. In its four corners are groups of figures depicting concepts such as Work, Scholars and Family. Around the column itself are more figures, this time in the grey travertine stone that forms the column itself.

Symbols and meanings

My photos show the monument as a whole and also some details. One is of one of the corner groups, Family, showing a mother and two children; the photographer tourist helps to show the scale. Another shows the figure known as Latvia at the base of the column at the front; and another, one of the figures in the group at the base at the rear, Chain Breakers (three chained men trying to break free from their chains).

It is noteworthy that this great symbol of Latvian freedom survived the period of Soviet occupation. They might well have torn it down; instead they used their propaganda machine to promote other symbolisms around it. As wikipedia explains:

The three stars were said to stand for the newly created Baltic Soviet Republics – Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR – held aloft by Mother Russia and the monument was said to have been erected after World War II as a sign of popular gratitude toward the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for the liberation of the Baltic States.

Of course most Latvians would not have bought into this twisted version of events. Privately at least they would have continued to consider this a monument celebrating the independent country they hoped one day to again become. Flower-laying ceremonies were revived in the late 1980s, against the will of the ruling Soviets; and the monument became a focus for pro-independence activities, and more recently again for celebrations of that independence.

Berlin Wall Memorial

On the northern fringes of the Kronvalda Park, near the World Trade Centre on Elizabetes iela, is a fragment of the Berlin Wall, incorporated into a monument. This was a gift to the city from the Mayor of Berlin. It serves as a symbol of their shared experiences under Soviet occupation and their release from it when the Berlin Wall fell and the old union fell with it. Its location here is not coincidental; the trade centre used to be the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Latvia.

Slabs of stone in a park
The Berlin Wall Memorial
Slabs of stone in a park
The Berlin Wall Memorial

Interestingly I have seen older photos of this monument with the wall fragment retaining the graffiti from when it was part of the wall. Apparently in a recent clean-up of the monument the city authorities also removed this graffiti which I think is a real shame as it would have been part of the fabric of history that the wall represents.

My Latvian friend Rita told me that the slogan on the monument reads:

‘The Berlin Wall divided us, Riga’s Wall brings us together’

I visited Riga in 2014 and 2015; my photos are a mix of those taken on both visits

25 Comments

  • Tanja

    My best friend recently visited Riga and liked it so I’m curious about it too now. Fascinating read about meaning behind these monuments

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I find it fascinating and I like how coming across the sculptures prompts me to research the background and learn more about a city’s history

  • Forestwood

    The statues do have a certain style to them. As art pieces they can be celebrated, as reminders of history, they are educational. It is the symbolism one attaches to the statues that changes over time, and that it what may provoke offense or applause.
    I very nearly visited Riga but ended up in Talliin. So nice to see a town where my Latvian friend hailed from.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Riga and Tallinn are both lovely but very different – Tallinn is much more obviously picturesque but I think Riga has just as much to offer! On both occasions I combined the two cities, taking the excellent bus service between them 🙂

  • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter

    Ah, I couldn’t think of a suitable phrase other than “very blocky” then I saw your comment about “bombastic brutalism” – so much better! I don’t think removing statues is erasing history – both art and ethics change over time and nothing should be guaranteed a place for ever. There are far better records of history. Books for a start! And I know they change too …

  • sustainabilitea

    I enjoyed seeing the statues and your remarks about them as well as Marsha’s and Lisa’s comments on trying to revise history if we don’t agree with it. The Berlin Wall coming down is something I never thought would happen during my lifetime and what a joy it was to be alive when it did! I like the slogan on the wall piece also.

    janet

  • lisaonthebeach

    Very fasinating, and interesting to see. I agree with Marsha and was thinking myself of how we are removing important pieces of our history here. We need to remember some of the bad to hopefully not repeat it again in the future….

    • Sarah Wilkie

      There’s a big debate on those lines over here, linked to colonialisation and the role Britain played in the slave trade. We have lots of statues some people would like to see taken down, because they commemorate men (almost always men!) whose exploits we would consider unethical today even though they were celebrated in their day. Do we take down the statues so as not to appear to perpetuate that celebration of dubious deeds? Or keep them because they are reminders of a past we shouldn’t shy away from, and because we can’t ignore the past or brush events under a carpet – as if by removing a statue we can pretend things never happened!

      • lisaonthebeach

        Yes, that is the debate. We have statues of people who did amazing things for our nation, but also had some bad in their past. I say we leave them, celebrate the good, and don’t repeat the past. …but that’s my opinion…

  • margaret21

    I often find it hard to get engaged with Monuments, whoever and whatever they commemorate. But I should change my perspective, because they tend to offer an insight into the politics and attitudes prevalent at the time they were erected. It’s certainly true of this selection.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Sue 🙂 Yes, some cities seem to be so focused on their admittedly interesting pasts that they feel more like museums than lived-in communities – Riga isn’t like that at all!

  • Marsha

    Sarah, not only are the statues so different than most statues we see of humans – lots of clothes on both males and females, they depict Russia in so many ways. The history you presented along with the statues, shows how emotionally charged public art can be and how it can change meaning over the years. It reminds me of the removal of history taking place in the United States over Civil War issues – removal of key Confederate leaders, the Ten Commandments and other art that offends some. The statue of Mother Russia reminds me, not in appearance, but in having a notably symbolic statue that is female, the Statue of Liberty in the U.S. Your posts bring so much to the table, Sarah – great photography, an unbiased version of history, and a reflection on the history and the statues.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for this thoughtful response Marsha. Yes, so much public art is charged with meaning – well, so is any art, but when it’s ‘public’ it’s more open to challenge and debate.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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