March 01, 2010

Russian Riga

The history of Riga, capital of Latvia, has been intertwined with Russia for centuries. Russian settlers, accompanied by Orthodox priests, established themselves in the Baltics long before this city was founded in the ninth century, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, Riga was an important trading port for the Russian Empire. Later, under the Soviets, Riga developed as a center of industry, and the neighboring town of JĊĞrmala became a popular resort area. Today Riga is a thoroughly European city, whose ethnic Latvian residents are often eager to focus exclusively on the city’s distinctly Latvian aspects. But traces of Riga’s Russian past surround them.

In 1201, the German Bishop Albert established a fortress on the site of present-day Riga with the help of 24 ships of crusaders. They had been sent by the Pope to convert the pagans and/or to compete with the Orthodox priests already established there (sources differ). It was a battle that gave Albert no rest. In a letter to Pope Honorius III written over 20 years later, Albert expressed his concern that many of the newly-Catholicized Latvians were in danger of slipping back into Orthodoxy. As a result, many of the priests representing the rival church were banished from the city or killed. By the mid-16th century, with its inhabitants fully subjugated and fully converted (willingly or unwillingly) to Catholicism, the bishops were firmly in control of this garrison town.

But the Russians couldn’t stay away. Beginning in the 16th century, merchants especially were drawn to Riga, although only Germans were permitted to trade within the city limits. Forced to live and set up shop outside the city gates, these early Russian biznesmeni hawked their wares up and down the fittingly-named Moscow (“Maskavas”) Street. The ramshackle encampment they built to live in, known as the Moscow Suburb, later welcomed Old Believers fleeing religious persecution in Russia. Throughout the 19th century, the Moscow Suburb buzzed with the sounds of old-fashioned Russian street life – the din of shops, restaurants, voices of cab drivers, the tolling of Orthodox church bells.

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