30 years ago today: The drinking lamp is lit in Riga and Vilnius.


Previously: 30 years ago today: Queuing for kvass (an aside).

In Riga, we happened upon a collection of ridiculously youthful soldiers and photographed them being photographed.

In 1987, theoretically, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics operated just as the name implies, as a voluntarily linked union of constituent republics.

The Republics of the Soviet Union or the Union Republics (Russian: союзные республики, soyuznye respubliki) of the Soviet Union were ethnically based proto-states that were subordinated directly to the Government of the Soviet Union …

… In the final decades of its existence, the Soviet Union officially consisted of fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs).

In 1991, this theory was proved to be rubbish; when central authority dissolved, the republics hit the road as fast as their declarations of independence would allow them.

Our tour group’s next two destinations were Riga and Vilnius, the capital cities of Latvia and Lithuania, which were SSRs — except in 1987, it wasn’t that simple. In fact, it was very complicated.

However, most of the international community did not consider the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) to have legitimately been part of the USSR. The Baltic states assert(ed) that their incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 (as the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian SSRs) under the provisions of the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was illegal, and that they therefore remained independent countries under Soviet occupation.

This persistent legal position on the part of the three Baltic Republics, which are culturally distinct and speak different languages, finally bore fruit when the USSR collapsed.

Until this happened, naked Kremlin power trumped their claims, and these countries were subject to direct (and oppressive) Soviet rule for a half-century, unlike the indirect control exerted on Eastern European “buffer” states like Hungary and Czechoslovakia — both of which the USSR invaded when indirect means weren’t sufficient.

To dilute ethnic and cultural homogeneity in the Baltic Republics, there was ethnic cleansing following the war. The Red Army sent remaining Germans (and Poles) west; of course the Jewish population had been decimated. Ethnic Russians were moved in, and their presence remains an issue today.

Overall, it made for delicate interplay with our Latvian and Lithuanian guides, and those local students with whom we met according to the usual regimented “official” program. They were carefully screened and expected to toe the literal party line, though in private, discrete opinions at times might be voiced. Beer was found to assist candor.

Our short tour schedule in Latvia and Lithuania went like this:

Saturday 4 July
Evening flight from Leningrad to Riga, overnight in Riga

Sunday 5 July
Overnight in Riga

Monday 6 July
Riga, with a daytime train ride to Vilnius (overnight in Vilnius)

Tuesday 7 July
All day and overnight in Vilnius

Wednesday 8 July
All-day train ride from Vilnius to Warsaw, Poland

That’s a lot of movement, and the party schedule escalated; Latvia and Lithuania are traditional beer-drinking countries, and the Beriozka shops were well-stocked with Carlsberg and Pilsner Urquell. There was local beer, but at this point it became easier to be foreigners.

I regret this. So it goes.

Riga is a venerable Hanseatic port city, and the “old” architecture noticeably characteristic of the Baltic Sea and northerly climes.

The Hotel Daugava in Riga had seen better days, and was barely functional. However, our multi-bed room had a balcony, even if the plumbing worked only sporadically. We created a plaque from cardboard and magic marker, dubbing the bathroom the “V. I. Lenin Memorial Shithouse.”

Two nights in Riga, two nights in Vilnius, and the drinking spiraled completely out of control. The like-minded had long since coalesced, and as noted, alcohol was cheap and easy. The next few photos were taken by Kim Wiesener, our group leader, who graciously agreed to spiral with us.

This photo always makes me smile. Barrie and I excepted, these seven people hadn’t known each other ten days earlier. 30 years on, I’ve managed to account for all but two of them.

It will be noted that I’m wearing the same shirt in each photo. The photos were taken at different parties in Riga and Vilnius.

There’s an explanation, and it’s actually true.

I’d been on the road for two months when I met the tour group, subsisting on not too many clothes, washed as often as possible with Woolite, and dried by the sun.

Barrie packed a huge military surplus duffel bag with surplus wearables, determined to do as little laundry as possible by trashing his dirty clothes. He’d been working at a fast food taco franchise called Zantigo, and had brought numerous t-shirts.

As he trashed them, I grabbed a couple; washed and dried, they were a bit large on me at the time, but I was happy to have something different to wear.

I did not attempt to rescue his used underwear.

The clock tower in Vilnius (above) reads “peace” in Russian, not Lithuanian. Below, also in Vilnius, Barrie hoists another case of Carlsberg to the Hotel Narutis.

Next: The legendary train ride from Vilnius to Warsaw, and the Greimans.