Latvia Under the Soviets

Part One: To Visit or Not to Visit?

A nationwide Song Festival was coming up in Riga. They’ve been held every five years since 1873. Song Festivals are older than the Latvian Republic. I wanted to go. I’d been to Song Festivals up and down the West Coast of the United States, but I’d never been to Latvia. This would be one of the most memorable events of my life. A Song Festival on its native soil. A first time ever chance to meet relatives, who’d stayed in Latvia. Mind-blowing.

Although my visit to Latvia during the waning years of the Soviet Union happened decades ago, my memories are still vivid.

I’d been wanting to go to Latvia for a long time, but I had to wait until my father passed away. He loathed communism and for very good reasons, feared the Soviets. He might not have wept in fear for me, the way the father of one Latvian acquaintance had when she told him she wanted to go to Soviet Latvia, but my father would no doubt have been very upset, possibly even angry. That was something I wanted to avoid.

My father and I, a long time ago.

I would have liked my mother to go with me for the company and to reunite with relatives she had not seen in more than forty years. The youngest of her three brothers was still alive and living with his family in my grandparents’ house. My mother still had cousins living in Latvia. In those days there were specific regions where tourists were allowed to visit, the capital, Rīga, seaside resort towns, and a few other places of historical or cultural interest. My mother’s hometown, Limbaži, was not in a tourist zone, so we assumed visiting there would be impossible. Another reason she didn’t want to go was that she wanted to remember Latvia as it was during her youth. She did not want to see what war and the Soviets might have done to her beloved homeland.

My mother and I in the garden of the first home my parents owned in the US.

Like my father would have been, my mother was afraid for me, too, but she did not try to talk me out of going, although we did talk about the advisability of such a trip. There was good reason for such anxiety. As the child of former Latvian citizens, I was considered a Soviet citizen, even though I was not born there. We all had that distinction, even though all of us had acquired United States citizenship many years before. Once a Soviet citizen, always a Soviet citizen. And your kids, too. Another reason to fret was that there had been recent stories in the media about an American citizen, with roots in the USSR, who had visited the country of his heritage and not been allowed to return to the US. I reasoned that in the era of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (a movement to reform the communist party) the Iron Curtain had lifted a little. I believed that an uninterrupted flow of tourist dollars to the USSR would be more important than keeping one traveler. Besides, I wasn’t going alone, I would be traveling with a large group of Latvians from my area, who were also heading for the Song Festival. Latvians from all over the world would be converging on Rīga.

It was well-known in our community that our passports would be confiscated for “safe-keeping” until we were ready to go home. We were also advised not to bring our driver’s licenses. There was no way I was going to enter the USSR without some sort of proof that I live in the United States. I took my driver’s license, just in case.

No surprise that people like to steal these.

More than just a passport and visa were needed to travel to Latvia. I need to fill out a form requesting permission to visit. I had to include information as to whom I would be visiting, where they lived, and why I wanted to visit. I needed an invitation. It felt as if I were fingering one of my relatives as a sacrificial lamb. Having contact with someone in the Free World was not good for a Soviet citizen’s health. I finally decided on one of my father’s relatives. I no longer remember which one. Once all that was done, all I required was a plane ticket, tickets to the Festival, and a hotel reservations. Although I had numerous relatives who had let me know I’d be welcome to stay in their homes, it was not allowed. There’s no profit in allowing travelers to stay in private homes.

My mother drove me to the airport and I was on my way. Destination: Rīga.

House of the Order of Blackheads, Old Town, Riga.

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