Latvia Under the Soviets, 3

“The Blue Monstrosity”

It’s now called the Hotel Reval-Latvija. The Freedom Monument is in the foreground.

The Blue Monstrosity, aka Our Hotel

A major advantage of staying at the Blue Monstrosity, the Hotel Latvija, is that it has no view of the Blue Monstrosity. Instead, Laima and I had a view of this Eastern Orthodox church from our window, a much nicer view.

Yes, I’m the one who dubbed our hotel the Blue Monstrosity. It’s still there, under new management. I hear it’s much nicer now. It may be nicer on the inside, but on the outside, it’s still a blight on the cityscape. Not that it’s the only one.

It had taken twelve years to construct this undistinguished slab of a building.

A hotel’s a hotel, what’s the big deal? There are many ugly buildings in cities all over the world. This is true. I find the BM offensive not just because of its appearance, but because of its location in the heart of Rīga, a beautiful, historic old city full of gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture. But in the Soviet Era, there was more to differentiate Hotel Latvija from hotels in the Free World than its looks.

Locals were not allowed inside.  Registered guests were issued hotel passes–about the size of a postcard. The passes had to be showed to the doorman whenever guests entered the building. The intent, we were informed, was to keep the riffraff (my words) from bothering paying guests. Local visitors could enter only when accompanied by a card-carrying guest. Isn’t that consider? So much concern for our well-being–keeping our passports safe and making sure we could relax and enjoy our stay undisturbed by locals.

Of course, the real reason for the policy was to minimize contact with visitors from the Free World, so locals couldn’t find out things that would make their supposedly ideal lives seem less than ideal. To hide the lies they were told about the miserable conditions endured by travelers from the West.

When we checked in we were issued a key. One key. There was no need for each of us to have her own key. It was to be left at the check-in counter each time we went out. So that there was no chance of forgetting, a lead weight, the shape, and almost the size of a pear, was attached to the key fob.

My uncle, Andrejs, had no interest in entering the hotel anyway. I understood why he wouldn’t want to be seen in a hotel reserved for foreigners, such association would be enough to arouse official suspicion. 

One of my mother’s bolder cousins wanted to see the interior of the hotel. She’d arrived without realizing that a pass was required to get in. Somehow Rita barged past the doorman/guard without showing him a guest card and looked around as much as she pleased. I don’t think she was very impressed. I was impressed that she’d made it past Cerberus.

One of my own cousins wanted to see my room. I flashed my card at the doorman and escorted her upstairs. She didn’t say much. The room was littered with the belongings of two women–clothes, shoes, suitcases, hairdryers, curling irons, make-up, lotions, all sorts of touristy odds and ends. Even though I was not the only occupant of the room it was embarrassing to have all that stuff lying around We’d probably brought more things for a two-week trip than my cousin had in her entire wardrobe. Gaida stood at the window and silently looked and looked at the view of the city spread out before us. She’d probably never seen her city from such a height.

Laima’s and my room was on the fourteenth floor. There were elevators. I don’t remember how many, But the hotel was full of tourists attending the Song Festival and the elevators were small and slow; we didn’t bother waiting for them. It was faster to climb the stairs to our floor.

The room itself was a bit–odd. The beds were narrower than a twin bed and placed head to head against one wall, with only a low divider between them. We didn’t know for sure if our room was bugged, but we assumed that someone was listening. When we didn’t want to be overheard, we’d lie on our bellies on each bed, put our heads together, and speak in low voices.

Our window stretched wall-to-wall. The translucent curtain did not. It was high summer and it never got really dark at night–not outside and not inside.

The room was provided with a radio, which could not be turned off. However, the volume could be turned down to the point where we couldn’t hear it. We never listened to any broadcasts.

No telephone directory had been provided. When I wanted to call one of my cousins, I had to go down to the guest services office on the mezzanine and ask for a phone book at the desk. It was in Russian! It made me uneasy to tell the clerk my cousin’s and ask her to look up his number and write it down for me.

There weren’t enough clothes hangers in our small closet. If I remember correctly, there were three. Even after we bribed the maid to bring us more hangers, we still didn’t have enough for all our garments. We wound up hanging our clothes from floor lamps and chair backs. Funny, I can’t remember if there was a chest of drawers. We probably wouldn’t have used it. Drawers can’t be locked, suitcases can.

Even though we regularly bribed the maids with stockings and chocolates, we still had to do some things ourselves. When I needed to have a dress ironed, one of the maids showed me to a utility room where there were an ironing board and iron. I ironed my own dress.

Curiosity prompted me to wander down to the far end of the corridor where there was a door to the fire escape. The door had no handle. I think it was chained, too. The indoor stairway, next to the fire door, had holes for balusters drilled into each step. However, only every third step had a baluster; the other holes had been patched.  with some compound. The builders must not have had enough balusters.

I needed a drink. At the Beriožka (Russian for little birch)  gift shop, which was open only to tourists with Western currencies to spend, I’d bought a bottle of cognac to take to my uncle, Aleks, whom I’d never met. Laima and I guzzled the entire bottle together, straight, albeit not in one sitting–maybe it took a week. I could always buy Aleks another bottle. When my bottle was empty, we still had another week to go in Rīga, so we tackled a bottle Laima had bought. I’ve never consumed so much booze in my entire life, or stayed as sober, as I did on that trip. I guess adrenaline must burn alcohol. While the visit was wonderful, a trip of a lifetime, it was also stressful from all the petty bureaucracy we had to put up with. Every strange man in a suit who seemed to be following me and my relatives made me anxious. Was he a KGB agent? I’ll never know. No one ever accosted us. Thank goodness. Life was stressful enough. After only a week, I was ready to beg, “Scotty, beam me up,” and drop me in the USA. Despite all that, Latvija still tugs at my heart: “Come home, my child!”

Some Reasons the Blue Monstrosity Offends Me

Of course, I don’t expect all buildings to look like this. They didn’t look like this when I visited. They were much shabbier. If a city is to thrive, it needs new, modern buildings, but they don’t have to be ugly. In recent years the square where the House of Blackheads stands has been desecrated by an ugly black box of a building. Rīga city government needs some kind of aesthetics board to maintain the city’s historic architectural integrity.

House of the Order of Blackheads
Art Nouveau facade of an apartment building
Another apartment building
The Opera House
A street in Riga

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4 thoughts on “Latvia Under the Soviets, 3”

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