Like Soviet sites in Lithuania, Soviet sites in Latvia can tell us much about the country’s 20th-century history. Though Latvia has been independent from the Soviet Union for over 30 years, when we’re dealing with architecture, monuments, and indeed living memory, three decades is not a very long time.
Soviet Sites in Latvia – Evidence of a Multifaceted Historical Period
Like Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia’s neighbors in the Soviet annexation of the territory of the Baltics, Latvia has had to deal with relics from that time that continue to remind people of decades of stolen freedom.
However, it must also be noted that just because a structure or piece of artwork was completed during the Soviet era does not mean that it cannot stand on its own as a means of expression of a local Latvian who was working within imposed limits. Nor does it mean that a solid piece of architecture can’t continue to be used, either for its original purpose or a new one.
That is to say, “Soviet” does not necessarily equal “bad,” and that Soviet sites in Latvia should be looked at through a nuanced perspective.
On the other hand, elements of Soviet propaganda, such as the Victory Monument, continue to be a thorn in the side of locals.
Soviet Sights in Latvia – From the Capital to the Coast
This “tour” of Soviet sights in Latvia takes us from the capital, Riga, and through the country to the coast. We’ll encounter monuments of Soviet architecture, places of importance when Latvia was a part of the USSR, and sites that teach us more about Soviet life and occupation in Latvia.
Let’s discover some Latvian Soviet sites you may want to see when you travel in the Baltic countries in general or if you’re looking for things to do in Latvia in particular.
Latvian Soviet Sites in Riga
If Riga is your only stop in this Baltic state, finding Latvian Soviet sights won’t be a problem. In fact, many of Riga’s top sights for travelers are also Soviet sites!
Latvian Academy of Sciences Building
The Latvian Academy of Sciences Building, constructed in the middle of the 20th century, has housed the Academy of Sciences since it was completed.
It is notable for being built in the Stalinist style, a distinctive style of architecture that can also be seen in Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science and the main building of Moscow State University.
At the time it was built, the Academy of Sciences was the tallest building in Latvia. Today, though it is no longer the country’s tallest building, it still offers a viewing platform open to the public that presents views of Latvia’s capital city.
The Corner House KGB Building
The Corner House, built in the Art Nouveau style at the beginning of the 20th century, at first does not appear to have a sinister history. You might even walk past this Latvian Soviet site because it simply doesn’t appear to belong to that era. Like many Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, its rounded features and pretty details make it a pleasant addition to the city’s landscape.
Indeed, when it was first built, its intended purpose was benign—it housed shops, a pharmacy, and a music society. However, changing times created new uses for the building.
When Latvia gained its independence from the Russian Empire in 1918, it was used by various government institutions of free Latvia.
However, during WWII, the Corner House was turned into a KGB headquarters complete with cells for prisoners. Though interrupted by the German occupation of Latvia from 1941-1944, the building was again used by Soviets from 1944 on when the USSR retook Latvia.
Today, Latvia’s Museum of Occupation has set up an exhibition in the Corner House to teach about what took place there—interrogations, imprisonment, and executions. Visitors to the exhibition can see original cells, interrogation rooms, and other parts of the former KGB headquarters to learn about this frightening past.
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is housed in a Soviet-era building from the 1970s, which underwent renovations for several years before they were completed in 2021.
Shortly after Latvia’s second independence in 1990, interest in founding a museum to teach about the occupation of Latvia by invading forces from 1940 to 1990 gained steam. This is how the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia came to be.
The museum is also responsible for the exhibition at the Corner House KGB building. Both are important Soviet sites in Latvia for understanding occupation and oppression during this period in history.
The 1991 Barricades Museum
The 1991 Barricades Museum commemorates the events of 1991 that followed Latvia’s declaration of independence in 1990. The Soviet Union, unhappy with this turn of events, invaded in January of 1991.
The Latvians were not going to give up their newly won freedom so easily or quickly, and so they erected barricades against the attack around important buildings and to block roads.
The museum commemorates the thousands of ordinary citizens who were prepared to defend their independence and tells about this tense moment in Latvian history where a small nation was victorious over oppressive forces.
Other Latvian Soviet Sights in Riga
Of course, between architecture and monuments, you’ll have plenty of other opportunities to view Soviet sites in Latvia located in Riga.
For example, the TV tower, built towards the end of the regime, is often highlighted as an important Soviet site in Latvia.
The Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija, of course now a modern hotel, was built to serve foreign travelers—complete with a system for eavesdropping on phone calls.
The Victory Monument was built in 1985 to commemorate the Red Army taking Riga. It occupies a site originally named Victory Park to commemorate Latvia’s defeat of Russian forces after its declaration of independence in 1918. The monument, topped by five stars to symbolize the five years of WWII, is flanked by three soldiers and a representation of Mother Russia. The presence of the monument has long rankled given its symbolism in the face of Latvian reality.
Note: On August 25, 2022, officials finished dismantling this monument as a response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. While the Latvian Russian population protested the removal of the monument, which it saw as recognizing Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, Latvians saw it as a representation of the USSR’s occupation of their territory.
The Memorial to the Victims of the Soviet Occupation can be found near the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. This new monument remembers those who were deported to remote areas, including Siberia, during the Soviet regime.
Other Soviet Sites in Latvia
Karosta Prison in Liepaja is both hotel and educational experience—it’s one of the wildest Soviet sites in Latvia. Guests become “prisoners” who interact with “guards.” Guests can visit for a day or spend the night in this former working prison.
Karosta Prison was a prison for almost 100 years, from 1900 to 1997. Of course, this period included the time during which Latvia was a part of the USSR. Therefore, the prison experience for visitors has a strong emphasis on the Soviet era, recreating a prison atmosphere from that time, complete with a Soviet-style cafeteria.
Guided tours of the prison allow guests to see cells and exhibitions about the prison’s different periods of history, including Soviet times.
The Karosta Prison experience is a unique one, and whether it’s up your alley or not, a visit will certainly be educational.
Soviet Nuclear Bunker in Ligatne
Formerly a secret site, the nuclear bunker in Ligatne 75 miles from Riga is one of the most intriguing Soviet sites in Lativa. Located almost 30 feet underground, it preserves the look and feel of the bunker as it operated during the Cold War.
The bunker was built to protect high-level Latvian officials in the event of nuclear war and was equipped with necessities to last several months. It came into operation in the 1980s and is protected with concrete, steel, and lead.
Visitors to the bunker (guided tour arranged in advance) will see the telecommunications room, where the officials who descended into the bunker could communicate with their higher-ups in Moscow, generators and sewage treatment systems, and maps and plans. They can also order a typical Soviet-style meal from the on-site canteen.
The bunker was kept secret for years and hidden discretely under a rehabilitation center. Not even the workers at this center were aware that the bunker was underneath them the whole time.
Fortress in Daugavpils
The Soviets were good at reusing military structures leftover from past regimes, and the Daugavpils Fortress is no exception. This fortress was constructed in the time of the Russian Empire and was built to last—and last it has. When you take a tour of the fortress, you’ll be able to see Soviet-era writing on the walls—it was used for a military school for aircraft engineering during the Soviet regime. During WWII, it was also used to hold Soviet prisoners of war by the Germans.
As you can see, Soviet sights in Latvia tell a complicated story, but they also tell a story of how Latvia has used its occupation by the Soviet Union as a way to educate others about what it means to be a sovereign nation and what it means to be subjugated under a foreign power. The way that many of these sites have transitioned is also a way to overcome this dark period in history—the poignancy remains, but if people remember and understand, they may value and protect their own country’s freedom with more conviction. They may also more quickly condemn one country attempting to take the territory of another.