Postcard From Latvia

9 August 2020  /  Updated 11 August 2020

by David Lewin

Riga, Latvia

I realise that tourists often view the place they’re visiting through rose coloured sunglasses, but Riga does definitely feel very different to most of the UK – and much more pleasant.

My trip got off to an inauspicious start when the person next to me on the plane was a young female who sat down and immediately requested I made sure my mask was covering my nose. I readjusted it and uttered words along the lines of, “Of course. I’ll make myself feel unwell just to please you.” (I have lung scarring from an illness 19 years ago). Perhaps I should have been nicer. But she was a mask militant. After the flight I saw her in the airport’s outside car park, still fully masked up, getting picked up by her (what I presumed to be) dad, who was also fully masked up. Neuroticism must run in the family.

My taxi driver from the airport and I bonded over a loathing of masks. He told me that in Latvia they’re only mandatory in airports or healthcare facilities. He also strongly recommended I try eating bulls’ balls on my visit, but that’s another story. His demeanour suggested no virus phobia. He was a sceptical sort to be sure – he told me that he doesn’t even trust weather forecasts!

Visitors from a few select countries, including Sweden and Russia, have to quarantine for 14 days on arrival. I’d taken a risk because at the time of booking Latvia wasn’t in the travel corridor, but from July 28th it has been. My trip was a gamble but the gamble has paid off.

So I soon hit the town. There is a two metre distance recommendation here but it is barely adhered to. Everyone is very relaxed. No one leaps away from you in the street when you approach like they’ve had an electric shock. Parents don’t yank their child away from you in the street like you’re the ghost of Jimmy Savile.

Outside the airport I have seen almost no one wearing a mask. There are no streets that have been mutilated for social distancing purposes. There are Perspex sheets on hotel receptions and the like, and some hand-sanitising stations, but it is the mood of the country that feels so different to ours. Admittedly, they have only reported a total of 32 deaths, which may explain some of the casualness, but they haven’t been subjected to the campaign of psychological terror and crazed paternalism that us Brits have. More on that later.

There are COVID-19 warning signs around but they are much less screamy than the UK’s. The colours are more subdued for one thing. It’s difficult to exaggerate how the feel of daily life here is so different to ours. Same virus, totally different reaction.

I chatted with a bar waitress who had similar sceptical views to me. She told me that her country had a short, moderate lockdown followed by various tweaks. One of these was when there was thought to be an infection spike caused by nightclubs. So their closing time was brought forward from 2am to midnight! This caused much mocking. She said that Latvians have a similar media to us but are not as “brainwashed” and make sensible decisions. She was quite well informed about the UK situation: she had heard of the nutty idea of shutting pubs if schools opened. This brought home to me the influence Britain still has in the world, possibly explaining why so many countries have followed our eccentric course of action. She told me she was an air stewardess but lost her job three months ago. Our conversation made me think that perhaps in Latvia the education system still encourages rational, critical thinking – to find a young woman in the UK with similar viewswould be a lot more difficult.

The capital of Latvia is bustling, welcoming and easy to enjoy – quite a contrast to the capital of the UK. There’s lots of traffic and almost everything is open. They have not destroyed their high streets, their economy, their kids’ education or their citizens’ mental well-being. There is no lift phobia, coin phobia or buffet phobia.

I paid a visit to the KGB Museum (the Corner House), which everyone should do, and when you enter, on the wall in front of you is the following:

During Soviet rule anonymous denunciations about supposedly disloyal persons were encouraged. They could report neighbours of communal flats who listened to Western broadcasts; co-workers who were telling political anecdotes, etc. The creation of an atmosphere of fear and betrayal was an essential means by which the totalitarian regime intimidated, subjugated and controlled society.

A little later in the exhibition is the following:

The main enemy of the Communist regime was an independently thinking person who doesn’t blindly follow instructions ‘from above’. Anyone could be ‘guilty’ in the eyes of the Communist regime.

Does some of this sound a little like Britain in 2020?

After the KGB museum I visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. It is incredibly moving. It features the stories of those who knew proper oppression and pure hell under fascism or communism. In the UK we should have museums like this, ones that celebrate freedom and bemoan authoritarianism. Latvian schoolchildren are taught valuable lessons about how the state can corrupt.

And then it all came together for me – why Latvia hasn’t succumbed to the hysteria and inanities that Britain has. The ordinary Latvian has little time for state propaganda. They had enough of being told what to do in the Soviet era and they know that political masters are prone to filling them with nonsense. Yes, the regulations are there – the art gallery I visited was not short of OTT instructions on how many people should be in a room or which way you should walk along a corridor – but the visitors often ignored them and staff didn’t intervene. Between 1940 and 1990 the Latvian people were either under the heel of the Nazis or the Soviets. Like so much of Eastern Europe, Latvia has had a taste of totalitarianism in recent memory and the people don’t want to go back to it. They also have no time for identity politics or any other dumb trivialities – there are no debates about gender neutral loos here.

One exception to the sanity of Riga was the Radisson Blu hotel, which had been recommended because of the spectacular views from its skyline bar. As it happened, I couldn’t get up there because the lift wouldn’t work. But when I was in the lobby I noticed that the poor staff were masked, preventing them from giving a welcoming smile to their visitors. Big chain I guess.

For now I’ve escaped the psycho-circus that is the UK. I’m dreading returning to our anxious, masked, misinformed, divided, cowed nation. How I wish we were more Latvian. It is a country which is so much more at ease with itself than we are, in so many ways.