Reviews Contradicting national narratives of Riga. A city through its streets

Andreas Fülberth, Riga: Kleine Geschichte der Stadt, Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2014

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 113-114
Published on on June 23, 2016

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Andreas Fülberth divides his excellent “little history” of Riga into five parts: beginning with the medieval city, he passes on to the Riga of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then (over a larger stretch of the narrative) to Tsarist Riga from its acquisition by Peter the Great in 1710 to the Revolution, following with Riga in the first Latvian republic and during the Second World War, and concluding with a chapter that describes the city through the period of Soviet rule as well as traces its fortunes “up to the present” in its renewed status as the capital of an independent Latvian state.

This is much ground to cover and in doing so Fülberth, currently a researcher at Leipzig University, has produced a compact historical study rather than a tourist guide, a potential use which his demanding writing style would hardly encourage. Other than the challenge of packing over eight hundred years into less than three hundred pages of text, there is the difficulty of distinguishing city history from that of the nation: can the two be told separately, or must Riga inevitably stand for an emerging or lost Latvian statehood? The author’s handling of the first challenge has obviously entailed some choices: of the various lenses through which one could look at the history of a city, he has given preference to the perspectives of urban architecture, city administration and prominent city personalities, trade and industry, and inter-ethnic relations. While already this is a lot to account for, there is little in the book on art and literature, a lacuna somewhat made up for by the space given to theatre and music. As for the second challenge, Fülberth manages well to prevent the national narrative from dominating the story of Riga. He does this by zooming in on the Riga scene even in the midst of events — such as large-scale armed conflicts — that had an effect on much wider territory. So, for example, in chapter two we hear in some memorable detail about the “calendar riot” that erupted in the 1580s when the ruling Polish king briefly attempted to replace Riga’s Julian calendar with the Gregorian (and bring in the Jesuits at the same time).

The book’s first chapters remind us of the numerous international connections that were essential to Riga from its very beginnings: to the Swedish island of Gotland, the German cities of Hamburg and Lübeck, and the Russian Pskov. Riga’s subsequent history was marked by the contending great powers of Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, Tsarist and Soviet Russia, and Nazi Germany. As Fülberth himself points out, his is the first comprehensive survey of Riga history to appear in German since the 1890s. One therefore feels called upon to comment on the German dimension. While the author is far from adopting any one of the contradicting national narratives of Riga history, he is particularly attentive to the legacy of the Riga Germans. This is natural and necessary for a city whose magnificent National Opera was originally called the German Theatre and where — among so many other contributions — German architects built, while German professors taught. Yet this component of Riga history has been all too often downplayed since Latvia’s first declaration of independence in 1918. In chapter four, the author offers some nuanced reflections on German-Latvian relations, as well as subtle changes in the urban landscape. In the last section of that chapter, he spares his readers nothing of the monstrosities of the mass annihilation of Jews in Riga under the Nazi occupation.

Fülberth has an effective way of relating the historical information he delivers to the topography of the city today: reading him, one wishes to walk again through the familiar streets so as to look at them with fresh eyes. Fully in control of the maze of Riga streets and their changing names under successive regimes, Fülberth is surely their ideal observer: the hypothetical “Betrachter” appearing on page 190 in the midst of a fine analysis of building and demolition policies in the 1930s is of course the author himself. Especially in the early chapters, he tends to present history less as fixed knowledge than as conclusions emerging from the sources and subsequent research. Throughout the book, such weighing of plausible explanations will often make readers feel that they are sifting through the layers of history together with the author. Besides making sure that we get the factual information — and this is a history of the kind that really tells you what happened — our author finds the right moment to highlight the suggestive detail, or the little-known biography of a favorite city landmark such as the Laima clock. In the closing chapter, Fülberth gives a colorful account of the cat-and-mouse games between the Soviet regime and the Latvian resistance movement in Riga in the years leading up to the dramatic events of 1991, and a frank one of the various problems that post-independence Riga has faced.

This book is part of an original series by Böhlau, the only disadvantage of which is the decision made against the use of footnotes. Helpful chronological tables, comprehensive indexes and many illustrations are nonetheless provided. The series makes an important contribution in reintroducing readers of German to European cities that were cosmopolitan hubs in the age of empires, but are now little known outside national borders and striving to reestablish their international ties. The present reader has already had an opportunity to review a “little history” of Tallinn, and there is also one for Vilnius. Winners of the title European Capital of Culture, which Riga held in 2014, have had good chances of getting a monograph from Böhlau, the most recent addition being Breslau/Wrocław. Everyone interested in urban history in multicultural settings will be well advised to read Andreas Fülberth on Riga as well as check the list of this publisher’s  other city histories. ≈

  • by Mark Gamsa

    Associate professor at Tel Aviv University, where he teaches at the Department of East Asian Studies and is also involved in the Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies.

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Andreas Fülberth, Riga: Kleine Geschichte der Stadt, Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2014