Travel Baltic Republic: City that came in from the cold

Old-fashioned isn't the word for it - Riga seems to have been preserved in ice. Jacqueline Karp Gendre visits Latvia's intriguing and eccentric capital
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The Independent Culture
I arrived in Riga too fast. An hour's flight from Copenhagen in a plane packed with businessmen, their noses studiously stuck inside financial newspapers. A snatch of deep blue Baltic, a swath of dark, snow-flecked Lithuanian marshes, and I was landing in Latvia. The sea voyage from London via Copenhagen took Lushington, the hero of Anthony Powell's novel Venusberg, three days. This gave him time to converse with all number of eccentric people, have his fortune told, get clued up on Baltic politics, and fall into bed with a luscious blonde. I felt cheated.

Anthony Powell was a contemporary of Christopher Isherwood. Before embarking upon A Dance to the Music of Time, he was closely observing diplomats and exiles in the newly independent Baltics. This experience resulted in Venusberg, a little-known gem.

Some books never date. Others may inexplicably go out of fashion. Yet others may, after a long period of oblivion, be taken off the shelf and hurriedly dusted. History often plays its part - Isherwood's Berlin stories were republished the year the Wall came down. Glasnost saw Venusberg in paperback within a year of the emergence of the new Baltic republics.

But it is not some old-fashioned curiosity that is brought out for the occasion. Once you've read it, you understand today's Baltics. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now living not their first, but their second period of independence from Moscow (the first dates from 1921, and lasted until the beginning of the Second World War).

The title is a reference to the grotto of Venus in Wagner's Tannhauser. Powell's hero, Lushington, is, like the poet of the opera, torn between sensual pleasure and denial, in the form of all-over-him Ortrud on the boat and lukewarm Lucy back in London. But the Wagnerian associations stop there.

On assignment from a London newspaper to an unnamed Baltic state, Lushington dreams of front-page political stories but instead keeps getting waylaid by the intense diplomatic night-life and getting laid by Ortrud. His articles are reduced to news-in-brief snippets beside the sports column.

Which city did Powell in fact have in mind? There are plenty of clues, and you can have fun surmising. We learn that "Russia used to own some of it, Germany too". Lushington admires green Lutheran spires and the fine view over the river - exactly what you see from the platform at the top of St Peter's church in Riga. The red-brick Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the railway station with tumid, angular caryatids, are more problematic. Helsinki's Uspenski Cathedral and the Modernist architecture of Saarinen's station look convincing candidates. But there's a snag. The Teutonic Knights didn't go as far as Finland, and there's a German Knights' Hall to track down, as well as old medieval walls.

That could point either to Tallinn or to Riga. The city walls have suffered in Riga, most of them having been removed in the 17th century to cope with an expanding population. But there are two guildhalls. The Great Guild Hall, hidden behind a 19th-century Gothic facade, is now used as the concert hall of the Latvian Philharmonic and stands in the spruced- up pedestrian precinct of the Old Town. The pride of pre-war Riga was the Blackhead's House, a 14th-century Germanic-style hall that housed unmarried merchants. Destroyed by the Germans in 1941, and left in ruins under the Soviets, it is being rebuilt to coincide with Riga's 800th birthday celebrations in 2001.

Powell's secrecy has advantages. The traveller can opt for the "obscurely northern capital" of his choice: Riga, Tallinn or Helsinki. The Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, is not by the sea and is essentially Catholic. Personally, I plump for Riga. Buildings apart, it was the only city sufficiently cosmopolitan in the Twenties and Thirties to fit the bill.

Amazingly, fit the bill it still does: Lushington finds statues of no- longer-politically-correct heroes lying dismembered in the grass; he writes about Communists, Fascists, social democrats, agrarians and nationalists vying for power. Russian refugees are cold-shouldered by a local population highly sensitive about its newly acquired independence. Tenements once occupied by Russians now lie empty. Familiar?

In today's Riga, sorrowful Russians sell you postcards at double the shop price and mutter about their miserable status. The Orthodox church may be in use again after years as a planetarium, with young, bearded priests intoning heart-rending chants to a handful of ageing babushki and some teenage girls, but the Russian community lives in a sort of identity limbo.

Hope has come this autumn in the form of citizenship granted automatically to ethnic Russian children born since independence (1991). Those born under Soviet rule (1940-1991), as well as all the ex-Soviet military families who stayed on out of preference, remain despairingly stateless and must pass language and civilisation tests to acquire Latvian nationality. There is great insistence on nationality in Powell's book. Characters are suspicious of the origins of their fellow passengers and acquaintances, and there are Germans passing for Russians and Russians passing for Germans. Blue- eyed Ortrud tells Lushington that her husband would never allow a Russian in the house. Nor will anyone attend the funeral of the Russian Count Scherbatchett.

This is a linguistic melting-pot in which people speak French, German, Russian or English indiscriminately, and descend from Swedish, German or English families. The English consul remarks that English surnames date back to 17th-century adventurers with names like Baron Morgan and Count Mackintosh, but a real English descendant, George Armitstead, was Riga's last mayor before the war.

Trade links have always been close and, to this day, St Saviour's Anglican church, which is built on English soil with bright red English bricks brought over as ballast in the last century, stands squarely on the banks of the Daugava.

In the novel, the main characters look towards the English-speaking world as the culture to imitate. In present-day Riga, English is again the main language, though with older people German or Russian is a help.

First light comes early in the Baltics, streaming through the double windows, also mentioned in Venusberg. I crossed Old Riga, with only old men and women up to sweep the pedestrian precinct, and walked on to Akmens Bridge for a different view of those Lutheran spires. Like Lushington, I was reminded of Oxford.

As I stood taking my photos, I felt the bridge vibrate. It was another unchanged detail of Powell's: the unending stream of timber-laden lorries and the clanging of old trams.