In the early 1980s, when I first visited Riga, the capital of the Latvia, it was part of the Soviet Union. I was a correspondent in Moscow then, and I would go to the Baltic area to gauge the seriousness of ethnic resentment in the U.S.S.R. and the possibility of secessionist unrest. It was never hard to find Latvians who, sotto voce, would talk about the communist regime as “occupiers,” and their dream of an independent Latvia.
By the late ‘80s, that resentment broke into the open, and I would come to Riga to cover rallies in favor of independence. But the rallies surprised me. I expected fiery speeches. Instead, I heard choral music. The Latvians seemingly could not have a mass meeting without a choir performance that ended in a mass singalong. When I got someone to translate the Latvian lyrics for me, I was surprised again. The choirs were not singing battle hymns. They sang about about fields and forests, about the warm summer sun, about strong horses and the girls waiting at home. Their music seemed at first apolitical. But even an outsider could tell there was more to it than a first reading of the lyrics revealed. I felt the emotion generated on the edge of a big Riga square, seeing and hearing a throng of thousands of people, joining in with the choir and singing their patriotism.
Had I known more about the history of the Baltic area, I would have known that for more than a century, group singing had been essential to the Baltic peoples’ sense of self. Necessity had dictated this. Whether their rulers were Germans, Poles or Russians, Tsars or Fuhrers, these small nations (Latvia has about two million people in a territory the size of West Virginia) had generally been denied open political expression. So in the 19th Century, they began holding national song festivals every five years or so. (Even the worst totalitarian regimes find it hard to justify a prohibition on seemingly apolitical folklore.) These festivals were all about the subtext. They were a way to band together, sing folk songs in their native language and tacitly express their belief that they, just as much as Germans or Poles or Hungarians, were a nation that deserved to be free. After they at last escaped from the dissolving Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic peoples remembered their liberation movement as “The Singing Revolution.”
Since gaining their independence, the Baltic nations have preserved and enhanced the song festival tradition, and this summer I decided it was time to go back to Riga and see one.
The city, of course, has changed since the days when it was a provincial outpost in the Soviet Empire. It has a few new glass office towers, and the dining and shopping scene is immeasurably better. The central market is full of food, and there are sidewalk cafes and microbreweries. There’s an embassy area befitting the capital of an independent country and the 19th Century Art Nouveau facades of the residences on Antonias Street have been carefully restored. But there are still blocks with bumpy cobblestone streets and wooden houses, their paint weathered and peeling. Fifty years of Soviet economics tend to linger.
It was easy for me to ignore the buildings, though, because on a warm, sunny July weekend, Riga was awash in music. Saturday afternoon was vocal ensemble day in the Old Town, and revolving groups of singers performed in the shade cast by the city’s old churches and fortifications. Women wore traditional country dress, long skirts and head scarves, topped by garlands made of things like daisies and wheat sheaves. The men had bow ties and jackets. Their voices sounded sweet and pure.
In a temporary band shell in lovely Embankment Park, what seemed like every brass band in Latvia crowded onto a stage and played in unison. The next day, little kids, dressed in folk costumes, took the stage to perform traditional dances. At every performance I saw, thick crowds of people, many of them white haired, listened and watched. Sometimes, as when a choir sang “Blow Wind,” they stood, sang along, and even cried. “Blow Wind,” is an old sailor’s song, a prayer for a fair wind to take him home to Latvia. When Latvia wasn’t allowed to have an official national anthem, it was the unofficial national anthem, and it was a staple of the Riga song festivals. It still is. (The people in the picture at the top of this post were responding to a performance of "Blow Wind.")
If this sounds a little saccharine, it’s because it was indeed sweet and sentimental. Not all Latvians share these tastes, of course. Walking back to my Airbnb rental one night, I came across a little pop-up nightclub in a vacant lot. The cover charge was two Euros. The entertainer was a guy named Abra, who did freestyle hip-hop riffs in English, with lyrics like, “I’m gonna take a baseball bat and hit you on the head and put you to bed.” It seemed very weird, which was maybe the point. Abra raised questions in my mind about cultural appropriation, but he at least demonstrated that you don’t have to play an accordion or wear wheat sheaves in your hair to make music in Riga.
All of this was taking place just a week before Donald Trump was scheduled to meet with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Baltic countries have unpleasant memories of meetings between larger powers. In 1939, representatives of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany met and cordially agreed to carve up the Baltic area. Hitler got Poland and Stalin got Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Decades of trauma ensued.
Putin has made no secret of the fact that he considers the dismemberment of the Soviet Union a tragedy. And he’s steadily gone about reversing it when he finds an opening, annexing Crimea and fomenting a civil war in eastern Ukraine, where a lot of the citizenry is ethnically Russian. It’s not hard to imagine Putin trying a similar strategy in Latvia. For decades, the Soviets pushed Russian migrants into Latvia, simultaneously extracting Latvian dissidents and sending them to Siberia. The population now is mixed just as in Ukraine; I heard a lot of Russian in the streets and in the market. So there’s an opportunity for Putin to make trouble.
Against this possibility, Latvia has membership in NATO. There is a small contingent of NATO troops stationed here, and there are joint exercises. Until the arrival of Trump, that might have seemed a sufficient guarantee against the Russians. Now, however, Trump seems to consider NATO a collection of grifters and freeloaders, and he wants to be Putin’s friend. Who knows what will happen when they meet in Helsinki? Who knows how seriously Putin will take the threat of NATO retaliation while Trump is in the White House?
At a band performance in Embankment Park, I asked a naval officer in a white uniform about this. (He was a pianist and he performed in the Latvian Navy band.) He shrugged. “Russians is Russians. We know who they are, what they do. They have many weapons, many people.” When I asked whether he thought Latvia could rely on NATO in the Trump era, he declined to say. “That is above my level.”
In fact, I didn’t find many Latvians interested in discussing Trump, Putin and NATO. Maybe it was a long-ingrained habit of discretion; maybe they could be said to prefer singing in the dark to confronting reality. But as my weekend in Riga came to an end, I decided it was something else. Latvians find strength in choral singing. The massed voices tell them they are not so perilously few in number, and they are united. Singing may not seem like much of a defense against the likes of Putin. But back in 1939, it probably didn’t seem like much of a defense against Hitler and Stalin.
Hitler, Stalin and their regimes lie unmourned in the dustbin of history. Latvia is still here.