Freedom bell rings as Russians quit Riga

LATVIANS heard the great bell of Riga cathedral toll yesterday morning, calling them to a service of thanksgiving for the departure of the former Soviet army. The pull-out from Latvia and neighbouring Estonia effectively marks the retreat of the Russian empire from the Baltic region, annexed by Stalin in 1940.

Hardline Latvian nationalists refused to rejoice, since Russia will continue to lease a radar station and military pensioners have been allowed to stay. Public celebrations other than the church service were cancelled by order of the nationalist-dominated Riga city council. 'I think it's a great shame', said Juris, a taxi driver. 'We should have had a big festival that also included the Russian population which is staying on here. It's not their fault that history has washed them up here. I'm not a nationalist. There are good and bad among Russians and Latvians alike. But don't you worry, I shall celebrate, I shall crack open a bottle at home tonight.'

Before the Baltic states regained independence in 1991, the Soviet army deployed about 150,000 men in the three countries. Troops withdrew from Lithuania last year and have trickled out of Latvia and Estonia for months, so that only a few hundred remained to complete the pull-out.

Fyodor Melnichuk, the deputy commander of the former Soviet north-west military district, wished Latvia well. He said his men were leaving without bitter feelings. Many are returning to an uncertain future in Russia.

At the former headquarters of the Russian army the red-and- white flag of Latvia was already flying. The building was closed but a pile of old mattresses, battered suitcases and papers was visible in the yard through a crack in the metal fence.

A nervous Latvian conscript with an Alsatian called a superior when he saw me peeping through the fence. The officer said the building would become the new Latvian Defence Ministry, following renovation.

Latvia is to have an army of 4,000 professionals, supported by conscripts doing one year's military service. 'We are getting help from France, Poland and Swe den,' the officer said. 'Our military band has just been on a visit to France. Maybe they don't march as well as the French yet, but musically they're on top form.'

On the edge of the city, the Voroshilov barracks has reverted to its pre-war Latvian name, the Holy Cross barracks. It will house a battalion of Latvian conscripts from next week. The guard, called Dzintars, said he had orders not to let anyone in. But he told me conspiratorially that the Russians had 'left a right mess'.

Next door, in an army administration building, Nina, a Russian staff member, left a different impression. 'They will say we left everything filthy, but look, we have tidied everything up. OK, the furniture's shabby and the toilets are old, but they are clean. And don't go writing that we left a pile of junk in that corner. It's all going on a bonfire outside.'

Nina has worked as a secretary for the former Soviet army since 1981. Life in Latvia is relatively comfortable and she hopes to get Latvian citizenship through her husband, an ethnic Russian born in Latvia. Her situation is uncertain because of her military connections: 'I might have to go back to Astrakhan (on the Volga in southern Russia). It's very sad.' Latvia is slowly granting citizenship to Russians, who, after 50 years of Soviet rule, make up nearly half of the population. Russians married to Latvians and those who grew up here will have priority under a quota system.

The citizenship issue disappoints local Russians, some of whom stood with Latvians on barricades to demand independence in 1991. They seem prepared to live with the fewer rights, as long as they can work in peace. Igor, a young businessman, said: 'The Latvians are not in such a nationalistic mood now. Before, they wouldn't speak Russian with us, but now they will speak any language in order to conclude a business deal. We're all just trying to survive, to make money. That's the main thing now.'

In yesterday's report the Lat currency was valued at two to the US dollar. Rather, one Lat is worth two dollars.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
An iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland; researchers have been studying the phenomena of the melting glaciers and their long-term ramifications for the rest of the world (Getty)
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Jackman bears his claws and loses the plot in X-Men movie 'The Wolverine'
Arts and Entertainment
'Knowledge is power': Angelina Jolie has written about her preventive surgery
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing