Daugavpils: A Complicated Latvian Future Haunted By The Soviet Past

I’m aboard the Riga-Daugavpils train, and we’re rattling along in an unhurried way from Latvia’s capital to its second-largest city; a distance of roughly 140 miles that takes us around four hours. Watching the forests and fields of the sparsely-populated country drift slowly past the window is a pretty satisfying way to pass the time, but the landscape changes precious little, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the end of the line is cut from much the same cloth as the start. 

But while there’s no physical evidence to show it, no looming sign or break in the trees, after around three hours we cross a significant border: from Latvia proper into the region of Latgale. Why is this such a significant border? Latgale is, in constitutional terms at least, one of the four provinces of Latvia, nothing more, occupying the eastern swathe of the country along the Belarusian and Russian borders.


Its difference from the other three provinces of Vidzeme, Zemgale and Kurzeme is palpable, however, almost something in the air. This is because Latvia, on the whole, differs quite a bit from the outside world’s perception of it, in so far as the outside world is even aware of it: a simplistic summary of this attitude would be, essentially, that it is a small part of Russia that for some reason doesn’t want to be part of Russia. It’s true that this part of the world was ruled by Russia from the 18th century until 1989, which the exception of Latvia’s twenty years of independence between the two world wars, but the culture of this country (and neighbouring Estonia) retains very strong imprints of the two hundred years it spent as part of the Swedish Empire: the national religion is Lutheranism, the average Latvian reserved, pragmatic and hard-working, and their folk customs mirror those of Scandinavia more closely than those of Russia. However, although the Swedes controlled the eastern Baltic coastline in the 17th and 18th centuries, but they never made it as far inland as Latgale. This means that this part of Latvia consequently had an almost unbroken history of Polish and Russian domination.

Excluded from the abiding Westernising influence of Sweden, Latgale remained predominantly Catholic or Russian Orthodox, and is much more ethnically mixed than the rest of Latvia, with very prominent Russian, Polish, Belarusian, Lithuanian and (historically) Jewish communities. Even the Latvians here, who are the largest ethnic group but still don’t make up an overall majority, speak Latgalian, which is, depending on who you talk to, either a weird Slavicised dialect of Latvian or a completely different language. It is the poorest part of Latvia, the butt of jokes from Rigans, and dances to its own tune politically. Latgale was the only region of the country to vote against EU accession, and it also stood alone in 2012 when a slight majority supported making Russian an official language in the referendum on this subject – in the other three provinces over 80% rejected the idea. If the rest of the nation is straining towards the luckier countries on the sunnier side of the Baltic Sea, Latgale casts at least a few nostalgic glances back towards Moscow.

Source: CVK

Shortly after we enter Latgale, I notice two people talking in the vestibule. One of them is a teenager who had until recently been sitting opposite me, conversing in Russian at a volume that made me suspect he was aurally impaired. The other is a blond, stocky man carrying a capacious rucksack. They’re talking about something, but I can’t hear what exactly. After a few moments, the man comes through the door into the carriage; as he does so, he says, out loud, but apparently to himself, “krievs” (Latvian: a Russian man). He passes down the carriage, but comes back a few minutes later with a cigarette. He unsmilingly presents it to the young Russian, who silently accepts. They both come back into the compartment, and that seems to be that. After maybe another twenty minutes, the train begins to imperceptibly clank slower and eventually we stop at a weathered-looking collection of wooden houses. The Latvian gathers together his possessions and begins to walk back towards the vestibule; but before he goes, he bends down to the Russian lad, now sprawling across a number of seats across the aisle from me, and says, in a surprisingly unaggressive, conversational tone: “macies latviešu valoda” (Latvian: “learn Latvian”).

Daugavpils, capital-I-guess of Latgale and second-largest city in Latvia, is not a pretty city so much an interesting one. People in Riga will laugh at you when you say you want to visit it, and most travel guides will only grant it a couple of withering paragraphs. Still, it’s not nearly as bleak as many make it out to be; in fact, the centre of the city is as pleasant as any Eastern Bloc post-war creation is ever likely to be, alternating functional Soviet boxes with half-hearted Art Nouveau imitations. True, it lacks the pastel medieval buildings and phantasmagorical Jugendstil of Riga, but then so do most cities.

Lutheran and Catholic churches on Cathedral Hill. Photo: Will Mawhood

Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that the most interesting thing about Daugavpils is its people, both contemporary and historical, the colourful mix of nationalities that have called it home at one point or another: like Lviv or Istanbul, Daugavpils is the capital of a Venn diagram of cultures, marking the point where, for hundreds of years, Polish, Latvian, Russian and Belarusian spheres of influence overlapped. Architectural evidence of these blurred borders can best be appreciated by taking a twenty-minute trek from central Daugavpils over the railway lines to the logically-named Cathedral Hill. Crushed together on this hill are churches of four denominations, colour-coded as though for ease of reference. Appropriately for this Russian-speaking city, it is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral that takes pride of place, perching on top of the crest of the hill, visible from most of Daugavpils; long, low and baby-blue, looking inconceivably shiny and pristine in that way that Orthodox churches always do, as though it is spit-polished by cherubs every morning. Across the road, there’s a blindingly white, vaguely Italianate Catholic church and a pointy red Lutheran one.

Cross the main road from the Catholic edifice, and pass down a street of creaking, atmospherically decomposing wooden houses and you’ll find the most unfamiliar of Cathedral Hill’s occupants: the spiritual home of the Old Believers, a salmon-pink building surmounted by several randomly sprouting bright blue bulbs. These are the descendants of those 17th century Russians who took issue with the Tsar dicking about with the liturgical rites. This small but stubborn percentage of the population was refused to countenance the idea that the Tsar and his priests might have a say in the word of God suffered terrible persecution, which continued on and off until the 20th century. As a result of this, many of them fled to the fringes of the vast empire, to places distant enough that the Tsar would have to stretch uncomfortably to exercise his will; for many, this meant the Far North or East, little villages amongst the endless trees of Siberia; others, perhaps more sensible, fled to the (comparatively) gentle Baltic shores, settling by Lake Peipsi in Estonia or throughout Latvia.

The Daugavpils Synagogue

There is of course, another important religious minority which doesn’t appear on Cathedral Hill. Jews. Typically, this is unrepresentative of the important role which Jews played in Daugavpils’ history – and which Daugavpils played in Eastern European history as a great centre of Jewish culture and learning. Jews were here in large numbers for much the same reason that Old Believers were: it was culturally and geographically distant enough from Moscow and St. Petersburg that problems dumped here were considered to be not entirely Russian problems. During the late 19th century, Latgale was just a small part of a vast region administered from the city of Vitebsk, which is now in Belarus. As a result, unlike the rest of Latvia, it lay inside the Pale of Settlement: this was somewhere Jews were allowed to settle, and settle they did, in great numbers. By the turn of the 20th century, almost half of the town’s population were Jewish.

This, of course, came to an end as a result of the Holocaust. The Jews had always suffered as a result of being the least popular group in a borderland where there were only insecure minorities; the Poles and Latvians considered them pro-Russian; the Russians considered them to be dubious importers of foreign ideas – “rootless cosmopolitans” in Stalin’s notorious words. These days, there are only around 6,000 Jews in Latvia– barely a tenth of their pre-war population.

As Latvia’s only majority-Russian city Daugavpils has an odd place in the national consciousness, treated with suspicion and sometimes fear, as a vision of what could have been. Latvia, as a whole, almost became majority-Russian, or at least minority-Latvian, due to massive Soviet-era migration from the other constituent republics. From a nationalist point of view, independence came literally in the nick of time – by 1989, Latvian speakers made up only 52% of the population of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (compared to 80% at the end of World War II), and were in a minority in every one of the seven largest cities, including Riga, the capital. Latvian dominated in the countryside, but the language of the street, the factory, the soviet was Russian, and only Russian. A few more years, it is often implied, and the statistical justification for the country’s existence would have gone. Twenty years on, after decades of Russian emigration and low birth rates, and Daugavpils is the only one of those eight still minority-majority.

A sign in Russian language in Daugavpils market Photo: Will Mawhood
A sign in Russian language in Daugavpils market Photo: Will Mawhood

According to Latvian law, the sole state language is Latvian – a tongue which is not mutually intelligible with Russian, or a Slavic language at all. Twenty years on from independence, Daugavpils is a study in incongruity. The language of street signs, instructions, adverts, shop fronts, and any other signifiers affected by the state law is Latvian and only Latvian – and yet the language of the street, the language of shops, the language of the markets, just about the only language you hear, in fact, is Russian. The whole thing makes you want to doubt at least one of your senses. What’s more, anything informal enough to be outside the reach of the law also tends to dispense entirely with Latvian and the Latin alphabet – ragged announcements and pleas pasted up outside ragged blocks of flats featured only the shouty capitals of Cyrillic.

I speak Latvian in a haphazard and ungrammatical way, but, to my shame, I know very very little Russian. In Riga, where I live, English and Latvian is more than enough to get by in the vast majority of situations. It didn’t take long to discover that English and Latvian are definitely not sufficient to get by in Daugavpils. At one point, fleeing a chill(ier) turn in the weather, I found myself in one of the covered markets that the city abounds in. A fancy took me to buy an apple, so I picked up one particularly tasty-looking example, and asked the keeper of the stall, a woman of maybe fifty-five, “cik maksa?” (Latvian: “how much?”). Her expression went hard and she motioned me over to the till, a few paces to the left. Tapping in the figure, she pointed to the till’s display and then held out her hand: fifteen cents. Could she really not count to fifteen in the language of the country where she lived? It seemed not.

In a shabby café we visited for inedible pastries, the patron responded to my (Latvian) friend’s very slow questions in Latvian by repeatedly demanding “что” (“what?”) until we had to resort to first-lesson Russian and pointing. What I found striking was not her lack of comprehension, but the seeming absence of any recognition of the language at all; she gave my friend a look rather akin to the look that you give to people who are totally insane. In Daugavpils, unlike almost anywhere else in Latvia, it is just about possible, with sufficient determination, to keep up a private version of the Soviet Union without being too inconvenienced by reality, and the Latvian SSR was a place where the national language was midway between a curiosity and an irritation: tolerated by the Soviets but certainly not encouraged. A minority of hypernationalist Russians continue to deny Latvia’s independence: a strangely frequent – and just strange – complaint I have heard from Latvians about Latvian Russians is that they set off their fireworks on New Year’s Eve at 11 p.m. (i.e. at Moscow midnight). This simple act of denial of both Latvia’s independence and its geographical relationship to Greenwich seems to infuriate a certain kind of Latvian like nothing else.

Mark Rothko Art Center in Daugavpils
Daugavpils’s most famous son, artist Mark Rothko

Daugavpils’ most famous export to the world is the abstract artist Mark Rothko. However, the link is a little tenuous: he was born in the city in 1903, true, but his family left the city for the U.S. in 1913, after which he never returned. Neither would he have considered himself Latvian – at that time, cobbling together a nation from the ethnically favourable bits of the Courland, Vitebsk and Livonian governorates of the Russian Empire was still just a germ in the heads of some intellectuals in far-off Riga. Neither were his memories of the city entirely positive: one of his earliest memories was apparently of the local Cossacks amusing themselves by Jew-baiting.

The Rothko Memorial

The new Mark Rothko art centre outshines its surroundings by an almost blinding degree – as though it’s promoting some kind of impressive preservative for buildings. EU money plunged in to help create the centre, which opened in 2013, outnumbered funding from the city by about twelve to one. It presents – like much of Daugavpils – an incongruous picture, brash and shiny in bleak, rotting surroundings. The centre sits in a box-fresh, canary-yellow building in Daugavpils Fortress, a vast structure built in the Napoleonic era, and filled with all the bric-a-brac of the last two centuries. It lies at the end of a very long road from central Daugavpils to the city’s edge, which powers perpendicular past row after row of mid-Soviet apartment blocks, grey and brown outside and looking rain-sodden and as though they are rotting from the inside.

Source: CVK

The fortress these days is really a grab-bag of the last two centuries: long, low 19th century barracks alternate with countless scuffed-up blocks of flats, disused warehouses and administrative buildings. These kind of flats change precious little anywhere in former Communist Europe – disregard certain climactic and landscape characteristics and all you would be able to say for sure is that you are somewhere within a stretched rhombus whose corners are Tallinn, Tirana, East Berlin and Vladivostok. Building blocks of a new civilisation, they eyeball you from a thousand and one incongruous locations in the Baltics. Few are in terribly good nick anywhere, but the ones in Daugavpils Fortress, however, are unusually run-down: cracks run crazily down many of the buildings, balconies seem precarious, their wooden frontage rotting; glimpses through the lower floors reveal that many flats are also abandoned and piled with detritus.

As we walk away from the Rothko centre, deeper into the fortress, we begin to come across stray dogs, something I have never previously encountered in Latvia. Raggedy and wiry, they patrol the streets, preoccupied and attentive. Others stick close to various objects or sites with sentimental value, rising up onto their haunches warningly when we stray too close – their patch, even if their patch is nothing more than a hulking dead-eyed building whose purpose has long been forgotten. There’s a nice, perfectly square park, with a soggy, but multi-coloured rotunda alongside a war memorial made up of the barrels of four cannons, pointing upwards, fronted by the old name by which not even Russians now refer to the town: Dvinsk. Graffiti scrawled on a wall declares “CCCP,” and if you took away the shiny new art museum and added some jobs, and it really could be.

Beyond the park, the buildings are all abandoned, windows smashed and jagged. Through them, we get glimpses into rooms, whose function remains ambiguous: walls scarred where shelves and attachments have been ripped off, snapped-off pipes indicating a residual plumbing system. We walk tentatively up to the first floor of one building that I think must have once looked imposing, expecting to find rabid animals or angry former tenants. Up there, the floors creak but don’t give way, mould stretches across the ceiling like a skin infection, fallen planks and rubble cover the floor.

We scramble up a slope to take a look at the spires and chimneys of Daugavpils in the distance; a dog circles irritably at the bottom, and makes a few half-hearted attempts to join us before giving up. It occurs to me that the USSR is Daugavpils’ true homeland: here, we’re in a hazy borderland: not really Latvian, culturally or linguistically; not Russian, and the Latvians will take it to the UN if you argue otherwise; where did it really make sense but Soviet in the Soviet Union? It’s a city that was moulded by an obsolete country.

What will the future bring for Daugavpils? Well, that’s hard to say. Despite its demographic uniqueness, the longer it remains part of Latvia, the more tightly bound it becomes to its host country in all kinds of ways. The older “Sovietised” Russians are something of a lost generation, almost invariably having not bothered to learn Latvian after their arrival, most struggled when – post-independence – knowledge of the language suddenly became a prerequisite for many jobs. Their children, however, do, for the most part, speak the language, whether fluently or brokenly, enthusiastically or reluctantly. This is palpable even in Daugavpils: in many shops and restaurants, especially those which are parts of chains, you will be greeted not with “zdravstvuytye” but with “labdien” – just in case.

Happily, however, despite its social problems and increasing integration into the nation, it does seem to be holding on determinedly to its multicultural identity and heritage; the net provides ample evidence of entrepreneurial Daugavpilites who are determined to make the most of the odd hand they have been dealt. Numerous websites offer the chance to “learn Russian in the most Russian city in the EU”. This is, largely irrelevantly, not a factually accurate claim: Narva, the third-largest city in Estonia takes that title, if title it be, as almost 90% of its inhabitants are ethnic Russians. Nonetheless, there’s something heartening about the attempts.


    Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs, daugavpils.lv

    Despite Russia’s continued sabre-rattling and panicky, ill-informed Western European journalists keen to label Latgale as “Latvia’s Crimea”, who ignore its vastly different history and economic conditions, Latvia is, when considered purely on its own merits, actually more secure than it has ever been before – strapped firmly into NATO, the EU and – since the start of last year – the Eurozone as well. Latvia seems finally to have staked a claim to be European, not merely “post-Soviet”. Riga was the European City of Culture 2014, and in 2013 Latvia passed an important milestone, when it officially outlived the pre-war republic that was annexed by Stalin just before World War II. Despite all the Western worrying, I am pretty certain that nothing will happen here without external pushing and shoving; Russians in Latgale are not all entirely happy with Latvia’s government and laws, perhaps reasonably, perhaps not, but I do not, from my repeated visits, sense a pulsating desire to be in another country. It’s also always, crucially, worth remembering that Russians are not a homogenous group with identical values, preferences and impulses – I know Latvian Russians who are ferociously anti-Putin and who never fail to wear little pins in the colour of Latvia’s flag come the (two) independence days, the same way I know Latvians who agonise over their stern post-independence treatment of the ethnic minorities and enjoy haranguing nationalists. Things are not as simple as anyone would like them. Whatever – Latvia, I would bet, is here to stay, and Daugavpils is coming with it.

    Even Soviet cities are not immune from the future.

    Tags from the story
    Written By
    More from Will Mawhood
    Russia’s New Dissidents in Baltic Exile Pt. 1
    Artemy Troitsky has, for thirty years, been the international face of Russian...
    Read More
    Join the Conversation


    Leave a comment
    Leave a comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.