PARKS AND RECREATION. The past, present and future of the Victory day curse in Riga.

Named after the final victory over the last intruders in Riga during WWI, Victory "Uzvaras" park became a symbol to a different military success, when in 1985 the 5-starred obelisk, representing 5 years of fighting against Nazi forces by Soviet Union, was erected. Today, the latter meaning overshadows the seminal reason for the park's existence, culminating on 9 May - the Europe Day for a big part of the West, and Victory day for parts of communities in Post-Soviet countries. Where did this overshadowed curse began, and what can be done to make the park shine again?


OLD STORY SHORT
The Uzvaras park itself is actually 110 years old, beginning its story when being open to public in 1909 as the Park of Peter I. Why "Petrovsky" Park exactly, one would ask? Because 1909 was the year of bicentennial anniversary of the actual accession of the Governorate of Livonia (read - partly and then fully the territory of Latvia) to the Russian Empire. And it was credited by no one else but the first self-titled emperor of Imperial Russia - Peter I (here it is important to remember - never really Peter The Great as glorified during the Soviet era. If a person is a mad, analphabetic and ruthless alcoholic, who created penal battalions, laid foundations to Gulags, and would set bribing and snitching as national sports -  then there was nothing really "great" about him).

The concept of the Petrovsky park was to become an another forest town with greens and residential area for prominent citizens - similarly to Mežaparks, the very first forest town in Europe located in the North-East of Riga and opened a few years prior. The dream died after 1915, when WWI marched in the city and stayed for three more years. In 1923, the whole half-developed park was renamed Victory Park to honour the defeat of the volunteer Western army under the command of Colonel Pavel Bermondt-Avalov in Riga, 1919. In several years the whole territory was finally irrigated and developed further, becoming a regular green area and killing this dream to become another forest town.

Then, by the end of the 1930s the authoritarian head of Latvia, Kārlis Ulmanis, ordered a master plan to turn the whole area into a massive majestic complex for sports, national celebration and water transport. Legends say the size of the stadium planned here would be 25 000 seats - a close capacity to the similar Olympic venue in Berlin. Other large scale visions would also involve velodrome (proving of cycling being an essential part of Latvian culture already back then), as well as an open-air stage for the already-then-famous Song and Dance festival.

The plan of Uzvaras park with residential, green and mass event area. Frīdrihs Skujiņš, Georgs Dauge, 1938.

Although money was not an issue when realizing national-scale plans envisioned by Mr. Ulmanis, the country wanted to build up a security pillow and issued another national lottery in order to collect extra funding. Why another, you might ask? Because the most important structure in the history of Latvia, the Freedom monument across the river Daugava was financed and erected exactly the same way, therefore - it worked! Sadly all collected 3 million Lats disappeared in thin air immediately after the Soviet occupation in 1940. Call it a speculation with data, but we believe the average value of the lost money could represent more than 13'000'000 Euro today.

"The big lot"! A ten Latvian Lats lotery ticket. End of 1930's.

1940 - 1985
The park might have gained its legendary meaning of today, when in 1946 the present location of the Victory monument became a stage to execute seven Nazi officers. Rumour has it the day of 3 February was announced as an official holiday and your presence to this last public execution in Latvian territory was "advisable" (read - mandatory). The dead, hanging in the park for a few days more, were then robbed from their clothes and boots and became the main symbolic reason for the present memorial complex to be build exactly in this spot 40 years later.

The execution at the Victory park. "Soviet Latvia Nr.8" movie chronicles, 1946.

Let's be clear - the celebration of the Victory was not always a tradition in the Soviet Union itself. In fact, during the time after Stalin's death, starting from his predecessor Nikita Khrushchev since mid-fifties, the celebration was not welcomed, was forbidden or ignored for several decades. The reason was simple - any idea of 9 May was pro-Stalinist, and was not sympathizing to Khrushchev and later to his replacement - Leonid Brezhnev. Only by the very end of the seventies, when the Soviet Union started to show first signs of approaching crisis, then was the idea of Victory Day reincarnated as the only logical thing, that presumably should bring people together. After all - the defeat of Nazi forces was uniting all Soviet proletariat despite any nationality.

The park though was left generally untouched. In 1961 it was renamed to XXII Congress park (the event when Khrushchev openly discredited Stalin's heritage) and was dedicated to the future "construction of communism". Although a large pond being dug, and the area irrigated again to prepare space for once planned, but never executed first Contemporary art museum in the Baltics, no "construction of communism" ever happened in the Uzvaras park. After this idea of being an area of culture begun in 1967, the culture as priority died itself along with other major non-practical construction plans. By the end of the 1970's the territory was still used to feed animals of pasture and the grass was cut for feeding cattle.

A plan of the art museum located North of the present Victory park. Marta Staņa, 1967.

1985 - 2007
The controversy of the memorial complex as seen today begun during its creation already. Despite being a symbol of an alien power (a monument to honour soldiers of the Soviet Army fighting over Nazi forces), it was planned and designed by renowned Latvian artists, architects, and craftsmen (Aivars Gulbis, Ļevs Bukovskis, Edvīns Vecumnieks, et. al.). The sculptor Ļevs Bukovskis himself was actually fighting against the Soviet forces and was mobilized in the German legion. Maybe this was the reason for a legend to be born of him pointing a group of Soviet soldier sculptures i a way that they seem to attack "Soviet motherland" on the other side of ensemble. Another gossip is that, because of lack of decent materials, the good-looking concrete tiles and other materials were laid around the ground and pavements, while the poor-looking ones were put at the end of the spire, so no one could tell any difference from afar. Finally, there is a myth of the "Soviet motherland" being planned to hold a child thus symbolizing a humane character and the future of the USSA. The censorship though started asking questions like - where is the baby from? All men were at war, while Latvia was under Nazi rule, so - shouldn't that be a Nazi baby? Obviously, after so much over-thinking the idea of the child was ditched, while artists in e.g. Ukraine and Belarus sorted the problem with a flame in her hand.

Soviet motherland. CAPITAL R, 2009.
The space was renamed Victory park again, but didn't live long as a Soviet-themed monument, when the Union collapsed, and Latvia gained independence in 1990 - 1991. Despite the mostly Latvian-born artistic crew as well as a generally well designed and neat looking complex (let's be honest - the whole ensemble looks good!), the State Inspection of Cultural Herritage didn't approve the monument as a protected value. This was a time, when the general reason of the obelisk not being dismantled was also born - due to diplomatic reasons. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia still remind today about an agreement between Russia and Latvia that was signed in 1994 in order to withdraw all Russian military from now an independent Latvian state in return to one paragraph that stated an understanding between both states - no burial and commemorative objects can be destroyed or torn down and must be maintained. This theoretically also includes the Victory monument, although now many criticize the whole agreement, and are ready to prove the paragraph being invalid. It also says nowhere anything particular about the Victory park complex.

The first tension resulted in a DIY activity in 1997, when a pro-Latvian national radicalist group tried to bomb the monument down. The planted explosives went off earlier than expected killed two of the saboteurs, including the conductor of the explosions himself. The monument was hardly damaged and was repaired and upgraded with CCTV, while one of the organizers was hiding in forests like a partisan until 2000 to be captured by the police. Despite the debatable purpose of the bombing, the radicalist group were also recruiting juveniles as well as fomenting to cause street violence.

The damaged obelisk after explosion. Unknown mass media source, 1997.

The monument area became a more peaceful place after 2007, when a new roller-skating and then skiing track was opened around the South part of the Uzvaras park. Some say, this renovation was serving as a hidden green light to all "festival-goers" to come and celebrate 9 May in crowds. On the contrary, many admit - without such renovation the park would still be looking like in Soviet Union - forgotten, undeveloped and totally not contemporary. Now many admit the idea of having such track just a dozen minutes away from Old Town (especially during wintertime) is more than welcoming.

PRESENT DAY
In the recent decade or so, the presence of Victory monument and the celebration of 9 May has been one of, if not the most controversial topics in Latvian history. The society in Latvia is split in two mainly because of it. Ones, a big part of Russian-speaking minority want the complex to stay forever. The others - Latvian-speaking majority have shown intolerance toward its presence. One of the biggest clashes happened after two petitions - one after another published on the unique and successful Manabalss.lv public petition platform, they were submitted to the parliament in order to decide whether the monument should be torn down or not.

At first, one was created in 2012 calling out to sign a petition in order to rebuild the Uzvaras park into its seminal shape as designed in 1938. That would also include dismantling the monument. The petition gathered 12'000 signatures, but was rejected by the parliament, but it backlashed deeply in the Russian-speaking community and also involved Russian mass and propaganda media.
The pressure peaked when, during the campaign, there was a phone call to the studio of Russian-speaking Latvian Radio 4 during a public discussion about the future of the park. An anonymous caller, significantly - on 9 May, admitted, that "it would be easier to destroy those 12'000 people rather than the monument".
By the end of 2017, another petition was published, that also gathered 10'000+ signatures (now - much faster) and was again submitted to the parliament this April. A a counter-reaction to that, the country's most known pro-Kremlin politician Tatjana Ždanoka also registered her petition in order to protect the monument. It gathered a whooping 21'000 following and was submitted as well. The Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs though examined all signatures to find out at least 4000 of them being inappropriate to the law.

Many pro-Soviet individuals are very eager to know, what is the problem with Latvians not liking the fact of Europe (including Latvia) being liberated from the terrible Nazi forces!? Well... It's important to mention that Latvia was not an independent state both during WWII and the time when the monumental complex was erected (1940 - 1991). Thus any "victory" or "liberation" by any of the sides would always mean "lose - lose" situation to Latvians.

Although some locals might not like it still, but we are a part of European Union for 15 years already. The whole idea of finally being the West, being democratic and independent makes us believe that our voice might mean something. The country is not being controlled by the government any more (some say it's lies), but the people are controlling the government instead - what a fantastic option the European Union brings. The belief in law, liberty, democracy and humanity rather than corruption and suspicion brings a wonderful feeling along with an ability to say what we want and do what we want if only it does not bring harm. So, maybe these are very obscure, yet emotionally sensible reasons of why Europe Day becomes more essential to Latvia.

Some still criticize the now ex-mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs for causing all this. Many admit he is to be blamed for creating environment for pro-disagreement between Latvian and Russian-speaking communities during the last 8 years. One of his infamous slips on a speech during 9 May several years ago also made many believe he trully might not careabout European values at all. When meaning to say " the best is that all of us is United Europe!", he made a slip saying "the best is that all of us are in United Russia!".

A stylized version of the obelisk using the infamous RIGA heart rebranding commissioned by the pro-Kremlin ex-mayor Nils Ušakovs. Žanete Eglīte, 2018.

9 MAY
After all it is definitely true what it's said on many posters during the march of Soviet Victory day - "as long as we remember, the war heroes will live forever". For sure, no one could deny - there were hundreds of thousands of grandparents lost at battle, and it indeed is heartbreaking. The controversy still grows though. The annual Victory day event on 9 May gathers, some say, 10 - 15'000 thousand people to sing, dance and get drunk to Russian, mostly patriotic and war songs performed or played in popular arrangements. The Russian propaganda helps a lot with media coverage and boosting up the statistics to 100 - 150 thousand visitors(!). For many, especially from the West, this whole concept is rather exotic. Some don't even believe there could be a "festival" based on military reasoning, where people try to sell and eat cheap quality products and souvenirs that are most of times totally unrelated to the whole idea of celebrating the death and sacrifice of tens of millions of people in XXI century.

Another issue is the ribbon of St. George. Everybody can read an article on Wikipedia on how its creation in Imperial Russia was transferred as a thing in present day Russia, and how "it is much more controversial in other post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), due to its association with Russian nationalism and irredentism". There have been multiple cases through years, when cars with such ribbon have been damaged, e.g. spider-webbed or totally smashed windscreens or ripped antennas. While the pro-9-May celebrators have returned "the favour" by damaging many vehicles with a Latvian flag, this type vandalism has been quiet in the recent years. Time to grow up.

Some have noticed many are already celebrating the day at home by commemorating their lost relatives to avoid all the mental, and physical mess on the media and streets. Some bunch of visitors are tourists from Russia and Belarus, where the Victory day is joint together with individual vacations; thousands choose it to be spent in Riga. Yet majority are locals and, despite 9 May not being a holiday of any sorts in Latvia, some still get dressed into stylized Soviet military uniforms. A few paint or remake their mostly German cars (thanks grandpa for the import) into cheaply looking DIY tanks. Many still cover the chests with medals issued to true war heroes, while their present carriers were still in nappies or were more of a concept rather than a newborn. Or many clip on medals that look impressive and round from distance, but generally say "good boy at work" according to Soviet "distinction of everything" cult. Otherwise - there is almost no chance one could join a parade as a real war hero still being alive.

This year the 9 May event seemed more quiet and more neutral. The flow of people was solid, constant and large, yet it seemed that there were less visitors than previous years. Also no aftermath followed on streets - all was silent and quiet. One can notice more and more alternative, maybe curious youth in older suburbs and the centre spending this day by hanging around on their own in different places, parks, industrial areas, bars, wherever other than the Uzvaras park. The overall feeling at the venue is still interesting, different, but, nonetheless -  very uncanny, eerie, uncomfortable.

Gathering at the Victory Day. CAPITAL R, 2019.

Still there is a constant feeling that the vast majority of visitors of the park are people from the micro-rayons. The folk from massive soviet panel structures outside the central Riga, folk, who seem not doing well in their lives. Most of visitors are either old or generally uninterested in what happens outside the Russian TV channels. Many represent "the proletariat" architype as imagined by many in post-Soviet states - dressed in mundane bootleg clothing, with predictable habits, unhealthy face skin, and problematic communication in Latvian that leads to more moderate working and living conditions than the average inhabitant of Latvia. Those who are doing well are here most likely because of political or religious reasons (and we are talking about the "New Generation" type of religion rather than the Orthodox that was oppressed by the Soviet reign).

Eventually, the whole complex still gets covered in red carnations (what a weird choice of flowers still) as well as in tulips and narcissi. Seems that only a few can and want to afford roses. The majority of flowers are cleaned off the next days along a massive plastic trash pile left behind the "festival-goers". The same goers, that line up along the Victory boulevard and create traffic jams and dangerous situations on the road. This year though, as mentioned earlier, the flow seems more organized, timid or simply - much smaller.

Passing by with a tour during the 9 May celebration. CAPITAL R, 2016.

THE PATH OF TOMORROW
The latest drop of tar to settling things down came earlier in 209 in a form of an announcement by the pro-Kremlin city council of Riga. In February it was clear that there would be 3,81 million Euro spared to renovate the whole area after being left untouched for 30 to 50 years (the park's North part is left undeveloped since the 1960's). It caused another massive counter reaction from the residents, drawing attention to the fact, that most of the money would be spent in order to renovate the complex around the monument and the obelisk. The fear was that the plan to finance such renovation of the Uzvaras park must be tied to the pro-Kremlin ideas. Soon after the city council soon admitted  - they have no money for such renovation at all, and it got postponed for, probably, next ten years.

The need for reconstruction is very well-grounded though. The Northern side of the park, forgotten for this half-a-century, has become home to more than a hundred Japanese Sakura cherry trees since 2012. It has become a cherry viewer's paradise (we covered the phenomenon in Riga here). Yet, by strolling and sauntering around this side of the park, one can get very depressed when seeing the cracked pavements leading nowhere for many times, and scanty bulky benches not being updated since 1966 and totally worn out - physically and mentally. The infrastructure is not welcoming for cyclists, prams, shortcuts. The territory has a modern playground at least, but no public toilets. Let's be frank, the slowly overgrowing Mārupe river along with long, untamed grass bring back the same wild, forgotten 1970s. There is some exoticism, but it comes with a level of unwelcome nihilism and fetishism for derelict urban areas.


A few have advised to divide the whole Victory park in two at first in order to divert the negative energy away from the Sakura garden. It really needs the money once planned for reconstruction, but the prejudice and anti-Soviet attitude stops the Sakura garden to develop independently. It saddens many people, who would love seeing such millions being spent to bring the park back to life, but the anti-Soviet adle egg continues to hang around and spoil the air for everybody. If we have two spaces now, what if the Northern part was renamed as Riga Sakura garden and would accumulate a neutral, positive meaning? Wouldn't it most likely to be renovated without doubt?

A park for "Sakura followers" is a much more succesful concept to the Northern part of the park in long term. CAPITAL R, 2019.

At second, many have thought of ways how to protect the obelisk and its ensemble for many reasons. When doing alternative tours in Āgenskalns suburb, we had a pun among the guides that, if the monument were to be destroyed, there wouldn't be a good place to stop for a story. And the joke is on us - during the 9-May-related history of almost 40 years the complex has accumulated so much legends, stories, contexts et cetera that loosing the main object of controversy, along with scratching, rubbing, and stretching of history would be a disaster to everybody.

Many, even several historians and well-respected minds have agreed on a common solution - wouldn't it be better to keep the ensemble, but rebuilt its underground space with two massive galleries and technical facilities into a museum or multimedia gallery to tell a story of what this "victory" actually brought to Latvians? Or a story of Latvian - Russian friendship instead to try sorting out this social cul-de-sac? Anyways, it is sometimes better to follow the key idea of supermodernity as defined by a French anthropologyst Marc Augé - on the contrary to destroying the inconvenience, "let's turn the negative into positive".

One of the Victory monument's massive underground galleries. Latvian National Television, 2015.

The complex of Uzvaras park is a tragic place that needs redeeming from its past. The celebration of 9 May still maintains its tragic purpose to live on. We live in a democratic society though, and we have no rights to deny people to commemorate. Yet CAPITAL R strongly believes that maintaining such complex areas is the best way of maintaining relationship. Whether it is by renovating the underground space or whether establishing a history path with visual info stands about the parks controversial history - the park itself can't lose its purpose to tell this inconvenient story. The hate created these sad memories once. Do we need to cause hate in return to maintain the sadness?

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