Kuldīga: Latvia’s Most Latvian Town

Will Mawhood follows up his visit to Latvia’s most Russian city, Daugavpils, with a visit to one of its most Latvian, Kuldiga, for UpNorth

Stand in Kuldīga’s main square on a sunny day and you could be forgiven for thinking you had wandered into a town designed specifically for a children’s TV programme. Prettily-painted buildings of wood and stone line the road, just this much short of immaculate. A scarlet-and-white flaps atop a miniature town hall. A tiny rushing stream sneaks between the close-packed houses. Behind you, the well-kept shops stretch off into the distance. It doesn’t seem like what you’d expect from a small town in the third-poorest country in the EU.

Maybe that’s because this is undoubtedly Latvia’s “showcase town”. Not too big, too dirty or too Russian, Kuldīga is Latvia as it would like the world to see it. Unfortunately, it’s far enough away from Riga – 150 km, or around three hours in a rattling bus over dodgy roads – that few tourists make it this far out. It’s a shame, because Kuldīga has more going for it than just winsome beauty.


The Old Town is the best kind of warren: an inward-facing little community, braced against the surrounding world, with lines of houses huddled together as though for warmth, streets branching off with a kind of random logic, like roots of a tree. The couple of small, rushing streams that intertwine themselves with the Old Town’s network of streets lend a fresh, pure quality to the air. Apart from the scrubbed-up buildings on the main central arteries, the houses are survivors, scuffed and scarred, in weathered, muted browns, buffs and creams, mostly low-slung with dark overhanging roofs, like battered hats pressed down firmly over weathered foreheads.

St. Ann’s Church

St. Ann’s Church

I go for a bit of a wander, and find myself in a wonderful sculpture park, watched over by the turquoise church spire of the city’s Lutheran church. Figures approximated in strong, heavy-set shapes – beshawled old ladies, massed choirs, a girl drinking from a water fountain –are assembled in ranks, widely spaced-out, so that they appear to be advancing slowly, imploring or singing or drinking. Below them there is a several century-old cellar, where a cheerful woman dispenses tasters of wine; she seems unusually chipper for someone who spends all their time underground.

Heading back to the Old Town, a crumpled red banner catches my eye. I do a double-take when I look closer and clearly make out folded-over bits of Lenin’s stern bald head. This is Latvia, isn’t it? Latvia, where Soviet history is firmly consigned to museums. I go round to the relevant door and discover that the building is host to an exhibition of Soviet life, which, sadly, is closed.

Kuldīga seems an especially ironic place to host such an exhibition, because here in its Old Town, as barely anywhere else in urban Latvia, one could believe the Soviet occupation just a troubling, unsubstantiated rumour. Here the Soviet Union secreted none of its grim, grey apartment blocks – so out of keeping with the Baltic obsession with tidiness and quiet prettiness – well, I say none; I did find one down a side-street at one point, but it was of moderate size and had something of a sheepish air. The city centre is one of the few populated areas in Latvia to have experienced extremely little visible change since the 1930s – the country’s second – and final – decade of full independence, though of by many Latvians, rightly or wrongly, as a “golden age” – an anomalous time of not only national sovereignty, but also relative prosperity and Europe-leading literacy rates.

There’s a website called Zudusī Latvija (Lost Latvia), seemingly funded by the national government, which is dedicated to preserving the country’s past in pictorial form. You can select a Latvian town or some related theme and be shown hundreds upon hundreds of pictures that fit the bill – some commissioned for official purposes, others clearly personal photographs or postcards.

Image of 1920’s Kuldiga from zudusilatvija.lv

A great majority of them come from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and show a neat, small-scale, houseproud country, all spotless wooden houses and clean streets, where the people who walk the streets seem somehow out of place, like they don’t quite belong there. For cities like Jelgava or Daugavpils, which were flattened by the back-and-forth of World War II and then rebuilt to be homes for Soviet people, the pictures are revelatory, proof of something that has vanished; for Kuldīga, all that you’re struck by is the improvement in photographic technology – all you’d have to do would be fill in some of the streets with some cars, switch some of the shop signs and wear out a few of the buildings and you would more or less have the modern city. Indeed, on the website, there are almost no photos from Kuldīga taken between 1940 and 1990; it’s as if it just took itself off somewhere for that whole troubled time.

This sense of being out of time also applies to one of the most vexed issues that confronts Latvia, and all of the Baltic republics – specifically, how to deal with the results of the huge influx of Soviet citizens to these comparatively wealthy, comparatively desirable states between the return of Soviet troops in 1945 and the country’s final departure in 1990 – more overwhelming, in purely proportional terms, than almost any othercountry has ever had to face in such a short time.

Ethnic Make Up Of Kuldīga Region

    But even this is barely registered as a problem in Kuldīga. Just 2.8% of the inhabitants of Kuldīga district – or a little over 700 souls – are identified as ethnic Russian, only a little ahead of the second-largest minority – the Lithuanians.  I looked hard on the net for evidence of Kuldīga’s Russian-speaking community, not having coming across any evidence at all during my two visits, but all I could find was an article from the regional newspaper from 2002 – the number of students attending the Russian part of the school dropped from 2000 in 1985 to single figures by the start of the new millennium – the higher figure were probably not all ethnic Russians, but also included Latvian kids whose parents decided their children would be better served by immersion in the all-union language. Latvia still maintains a state-funded system of education in Russian, although a certain proportion of lessons have to be taught in Latvian. But in Kuldīga, the school closed its final Russian stream in 2002, apparently for the principal reason that it was neither cost-effective nor necessary. One ethnic Russian woman says that her daughter Jekaterina attends a Latvian-speaking kindergarten, where she is Katrīna, not Katja – and frequently switches to Latvian half-way through a sentence. She concludes that Kuldīga has no nationality problems, but that what worries her is that there are not jobs in the town – that affects everyone, she says, Russian and Latvian.

    Support in the 2012 referendum for making Russian a second state language:

    Actually, in an odd generational reverse, after 25 years of Russian not being compulsory in Latvian schools, it’s increasingly Latvians who find themselves at a disadvantage in the jobs market. Latvia was the most comprehensively Russified of the Baltic states during the occupation, and it remains the one where Russian is the most important, due to a combination of factors: a larger Russian minority, policies that encourage investment from Russia, and the greater willingness of Latvians, when compared to Estonians and Lithuanians, to speak Russian to people who don’t speak the native language. Latvian friends from small towns like Kuldīga and Cēsis, where Russian is of little day-to-day use, report finding things difficult jobwise when they move to Riga or Liepāja, where private employers – if not the government – very much expect them to be able to communicate with the large chunk of their clientele who speak Russian as a first language and are unwilling or unable to switch to Latvian. I speak Latvian everywhere in Kuldīga, and although I get some funny looks, no one switches to English or Russian – not something that would happen in Riga.

    Gotthard Kettler helped create the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

    Latvia’s long-standing status as the least confident, most hesitant of all of the Baltic States can, I think, partly be put down to its greater history of internal division. All three of its cultural regions – Vidzeme, Latgale and Kurzeme (Zemgale is sometimes included as a fourth) – have significantly different histories and cultural backgrounds. Kuldīga sits plum in the middle of Kurzeme, the western chunk of Latvia which sticks out into the Baltic Sea, and which has the most interesting and idiosyncratic history of the three – shown by the fact that it’s the only one of the three also to have a name in English: Courland. The reason for this can largely be put down to an extraordinary family of Baltic Germans, the Kettlers, who managed, in the 16th century to negotiate the creation of a semi-independent fiefdom in Courland from the then-dominant Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Over the next 250 years, the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia achieved striking economic success by taking advantage of the region’s favourable location and extensive coastline to develop an extensive merchant fleet and promote trade with Scandinavia and Western Europe. They also, bizarrely, pursued overseas territories, establishing short-lived settlements in Tobago and on the Gambia River in West Africa; some sources even claim Jacob Kettler, the most successful of all its rulers, had plans to colonise Australia.

    Jakob Kettler

    The most visible evidence of this strange but illustrious history in Kuldīga, which served for a few years as capital of the duchy, is a sculpture showing an extravagantly moustachioed man (intended to be Duke Jacob) emerging from a sheet of what is apparently beaten silver. Any man capable of building a Couronian empire, it seems to say, probably possessed willpower sufficient to stride straight through a wall.

    The duchy has left relatively few perceptible imprints in modern-day Kurzeme. It was, after all, not in any way a Latvian state, but an ethnic oligarchy maintained by a statistically insignificant sliver of the population, the Baltic Germans. Few people I speak to in Kuldīga know much about Duke Jacob other than that he was a German, a “muižnieks” – a hard word to translate, but basically an overlord and owner of property – and tentatively approved of. Traces of their independent state may have been left in the contemporary character, however: inhabitants of Kurzeme are perceived by the rest of the country as proud, self-reliant and stubborn.

    The region also has an oddly self-contained, self-sufficient air, despite having two of the Baltics’ largest ports in Ventspils and Liepāja. Most Latvian cities are constructed around a central street named Rīgas iela, pointing to the nation’s capital and only true metropolis; in Kuldīga, the main street Liepājas iela, directs you the other way, to Kurzeme’s largest city, and to Western Europe. The feeling of remoteness seems more a state of mind than an actual physical fact; it’s somehow like being becalmed deep inland. At points among Kuldīga’s worn but pretty nineteenth-century houses, the narrow and sinuous streets, you could believe that somewhere before the Industrial Revolution, this corner of Europe had taken a different turn. This feeling is even stronger out in the great forests and fields that make up 99% of this part of the world – here, mankind’s effects seem almost comically ineffectual; roads seem transitory, a line drawn in sand with a finger; two or three years of neglect and the forest would take it back.

    But this sense of the world being eternally far away is illusory, as plaques stuck up on buildings all over Kuldīga prove. Far from being wadded in tight to keep everyone out, larger neighbouring powers have rolled to and fro over Kurzeme many many times. Still in peaceful, sunny Kuldīga they seem scarcely believable. Strikes, revolutionary meetings, battles for independence? Over 100 revolutionaries burnt in a basement by the Landeswehr? An innocuous-looking building is identified as KGB headquarters for the region. In one of the city centre’s several parks, I come across two stern-faced men with austere cheekbones hoisting a flag, above the date “1905”. The synagogue, now a library, reminds visitors that, like much of Kurzeme, Kuldīga once had a vibrant Jewish population – 26% before World War II – which came – as almost everywhere in Eastern Europe – to a hideous end, being almost totally destroyed.

    Kuldīga synagogue was built in 1875 during the reign of Tsar Alexander II. The synagogue used to have an adjacent prayer house and a Jewish chapel which have been preserved till nowadays. After remarkable reconstruction work, the synagogue today hosts Kuldīga main library, but the former prayer house has been transformed into the Art House, where various exhibitions and concerts are held frequently. The 3rd floor of the Art House offers well equipped premises for seminars or conferences.

    Heading down from the Duke Jacob statue on Liepājas iela I come across an unusual public display which reveals a bit about the unexpected industrial history of Kuldīga. The first thing I notice is many pictures of people marching forward, holding banners. The pictures date from different times, were taken under different regimes – the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s but there is little clue as to this, aside from the gradually decreasing degree of discolouration and graininess: all feature grim-faced labourers (of both genders) hoisting aloft flags bearing exclamation marks and strong, working-class lines. All are monochrome – the black-and-white era lingered long in Latvia. Texts in jerky English explain their significance. Below the pictures are scattered match-boxes in two-tone autumn colours, stamped firmly in a variety of languages with their city of production: Goldingen, Russian Empire; Гольдинген; Kuldīga, Latvija.

    Under the glass is displayed the history of the Vulkans factory, once Kuldīga’s principal employer, back when it was a world production centre for matches. An attached information sheet runs down the company’s successes and setbacks, the former of which do seem to thicken noticeably during the Soviet period, before mentioning that the factory burnt down in 2000 and has not been rebuilt. All of this is included under a glass diving-bell-shaped display the diameter of two people’s armspan on Kuldīga’s central thoroughfare. It’s midday on a weekday and only a small trickle of pedestrians wander down Liepājas iela. No one turns off to join me in examining the display.


    Liepājas street Promenade. Pedestrian street with several unique 17th – 20th century buildings, fascinating doors and skylight windows above them demonstrate the development of different architectural styles.

    It’s nearly time for me to go; I’ve scurried through the little winding streets, photographed fading stencilled Cyrillic letters on old buildings, admired the fine old buildings, aged into winter colours. I start ranging further beyond the city centre, and outside it, surprisingly, things become more ordered. The houses are still wooden, and their frontages are still scratched and scarred but they somehow seem better-fed. They have gaps between them, unlike those crammed together in old Kuldīga. Trees wave in the breeze; there are few in the cheek-by-jowl old Town. I’m just gazing at a guesthouse, advertised in that jaunty scrawled faux-handwriting that dates like little else when I notice a great looming building beyond, a red-brick rectangle. Windows poked out, roof colonised by plants, it looked despairing.

    Intrigued, I forget the guesthouse, and scurrying past some kind of guard building and passing some workmen, I approach the building itself. It’s open – literally, since there’s no longer any outer wall at all. I enter, and begin to pick my way through the detritus that has built up over time: wrappers, glass perhaps brought here specifically for the purpose of smashing, bottles – a lot of bottles. Aspiring trees have pushed their way up through the asphalt. Plants fur up the inside like a diseased lung. Something has taken great chomps out of the walls, which remain standing in odd shapes here and there. Ducts in the floor here and there are filled with irrelevant rubbish. I realise that this must be the largest remaining chunk of the old Vulkans complex and wander around, trying to picture it filled with people intent, officially at least, on building a worker’s utopia, one match at a time. It’s tricky. What the building does not look is especially fire-damaged; it must have been a pretty superficial blaze, certainly not putting the factory beyond rebuilding. I feel somehow on edge, that I’m trespassing, even though any value the site could ever have had is long gone.

    That’s when the air is filled with dull clangs, a couple of breaths apart. A figure is outlined in a dusky doorway at the end of the room that leads to some similarly ruined room beyond. It’s thudding something chunky and solid, something that could cave in a skull, and I guess was never used in match manufacturing, against what I assume is sheet metal. I move uneasily nearer, tentatively. The sound stops and echoes flatly out into the room. The figure half-shouts something over, but the dying echoes scramble the meaning. I come closer; he’s a big guy, dressed for manual labour or undemanding leisure. I decide for some panicked reason that he’s a security guard, and start apologising and asking if I should leave; he gets confused and talks too fast, and I pretend I understand. I turn to leave, and then replay the conversation in my head and realise that the reasons for my doing so are at best inconclusive, so turn around. Returning, I decide to do some more research:

    Ši ir rupnīca? (This is a factory)

    Bija rupnīca (Was a factory) he corrects in the matter-of-fact, uneffusive way that Latvians do.

    I turn and look around the wrecked building, a broken-open, used-up capsule in a showcase town.

    Un ko Tu dari šeit (And what are you doing here) I follow up, a little more bluntly than I had planned

    Esmu ar domām (I am with thoughts)

    Will Mawhood’s follow-up to his previous piece about Daugavpils and Latgale in UpNorth.

    Despite all of the troubling words coming out of Russia, I would stand by the final contention of the previous piece – that Latvia is, formally at least, safer than ever before. If it were to be attacked, it would provoke a global crisis beyond anything in most people’s memories. That is not something that could have been said in 1939 – or indeed in the ‘90s – at that time, Latvia, and its Baltic comrades, were a long way down anyone’s list of priorities.

    The article on Daugavpils underlined the Great Latvian Fear of the last century – that they would be numerically overwhelmed; like the many ethnic minorities to their west, swallowed up in Russia, granted at best their own autonomous region and allowed to teach their language at their schools, or that like the Belarusians and the Ukrainians, they would become Russified and divided among themselves. That war has been won – I have met only a small handful of ethnic Russian young people in Latvia, including in majority-Russian areas, who do not speak Latvian to conversational level. Thirty years ago, there would have been hundreds and hundreds of thousands. The need to learn Latvian in Latvia is no longer seriously contested by any but the most unhinged. This is serious progress in 25 years, and bearing in mind Latvia’s small size and limited cultural power, it’s quite unlikely that it would have been achieved by a Finland-style stance of official bilingualism – although to claim that the language policy hasn’t also caused a lot of distress and turmoil would be dishonest. Nonetheless, Latvia is, very slowly, becoming more like Kuldīga and less like Daugavpils.

    And, to be clear, this is very much not meant to be a requiem for Soviet industry, which was, by all accounts dirty, dangerous and inefficient. But it can’t be ignored just how wrenching a transition to capitalism all three Baltic republics experienced in the early ‘90s – arguably even more other Eastern Bloc nations, as they not only had to switch to a wholly different economic system, but also extricate themselves from the infrastructure of an empire. All three were very different entities coming out from going in. One of the most striking parts of this was the extent to which Latvia and Estonia, prior to the occupation agriculturally focused economies whose GDP was comparable with Finland, had been industrialised under the Soviet Union. By 1988, out of the fifteen Soviet republics, Latvia was in sixth place for industrial production, despite being the second-smallest of all in terms of population. At that time around 40% of all workers were employed in industry; that has shrunk precipitately over the last 25 years, and now hovers around 25%, according to the last set of figures available. That’s a lot of people suddenly finding themselves without jobs or valuable skills – the majority of whom, no doubt, supported independence.

    This trauma informs Baltic policy on industry more than their fiercely free-market governments would have you believe. Why does Estonia continue running its outdated and environmentally ruinous oil shale plants, against the advice of the EU and environmentalists – I’m sure there are a number of reasons, but one of the biggest must be that they are concentrated in the heavily Russian region of Ida-Virumaa. A large number of suddenly jobless, increasingly nihilistic ethnic Russians open to all options is something that neither Prime Minister Rõivas, nor President Ilves, nor the vast majority of Estonian society wants. The Latvian government were so desperate to get the giant metallurgic plant Liepājas Metalurgs – the largest industrial enterprise in the country – back to work that they facilitated the sale to some allegedly dubious Ukrainians early this year, who now seem to be effectively holding the country to ransom.

    Not unrelated to this dramatic recasting of itself, Latvia’s population is now falling as fast as any country in the world, although it’s important not to overestimate Latvia’s predicament, as many have done, by relying purely on context-free numbers. All of the Baltic States experienced significant, and highly engineered population growth and industrialisation under the Soviet Union, and to at least some extent the subsequent decline in population and closing of many factories is simply them reverting to agrarian, sparsely populated type. For example, a big part of the reason why Latvia’s population has dropped so precipitately is the large numbers of Russians who chose to move back to Russia more or less as soon as Latvia became formally separated from it (in numerical terms, the Russian minority is barely half what it was at independence). The decline in the number of ethnic Latvians has not been nearly so considerable – 100,000 from 1989 to 2011. But this is not to deny that there is a problem, however. The EU that theoretically guarantees its safety and that has genuinely done a lot to boost its infrastructure and life conditions is also charming away its young people, to the West, where they will be paid more. Deaths continue to considerably outnumber births, and there is a sizeable demographic lump visibly moving through the population graph; sooner or later it will burst out towards the end, leading to economic and social demands that the country doesn’t seem equipped to deal with.

    This is not to sound totally despairing – Latvia, and all the Baltic countries – have achieved vastly more than anyone could have expected in the early ‘90s, when their aspirations to join the EU and NATO were roundly mocked, and they were urged by those who knew best to focusing on developing their relationship with the CIS. Latvia is lucky to have Estonia as a neighbour and potential model – a country with similar, if not quite so dramatic problems which has managed to control, if not totally stem population decline, has identified a natural selling point – IT innovation and e-services – and has taken considerable steps towards redefining itself as a self-evidently European nation, albeit one with an unusual past. Nonetheless, a weak, fast depopulating Latvia is a boon to Russia, and an inadvertent threat to its Baltic neighbours. I remember a Riga-born Russian nationalist I met in St. Petersburg a couple of years ago telling me, in between dubious accounts of how happy the Latvians deported in the 1940s were with their lives in Siberia, that Russia posed no military threat to Latvia at present; they were playing a long game, and it was just a process of waiting.  That hesitant, ethnically split Latvia, the weak link in the Baltic chain, is a success must now be a priority for not only the Baltic States, but for Europe as a whole.

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