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Riga Remade

Martin Morrell At Jurmala Beach

Photo: Martin Morrell

The ethnic differences are not always amusing, of course, and in fact have themselves become one of the defining traits of the city. There are separate Russian and Latvian newspapers, television programs, and even schools. When Latvia makes international news it is usually because of its ethnic tensions. Last year, a Russian member of the Latvian parliament grabbed headlines when he suggested that the Baltic alignment with NATO and the West would result in war. "We [Russia] will not be bombing Brussels," he said. "We will bomb Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn."

I had the opportunity to ponder this issue further while speeding out of town in a black BMW with a Latvian-born Russian named Yevgeny Gomberg, whose unintentional foray into the conflict triggered an episode involving Russian diplomats, Latvian courts, protests, and a partner named Stanislav who lost everything, including, reportedly, his mind. In any case, he was highly unavailable when we phoned from the car.

Our destination was the aforementioned historic statue of Peter the Great, who had led the Russians into Latvia in 1709, where they stayed until the outset of World War I (only to return during World War II). The monument had sat in Riga’s main square from 1910 to 1917 before being shipped back to Russia to be melted into artillery. But it never arrived, because the vessel it was on sank, and it remained on the floor of the Baltic Sea until being salvaged in pieces in 1934. Now fully restored to its massive 30-foot height, it is absent from any city map that could be obtained from the tourist office. But according to Gomberg, it was to be found in the parking lot behind his office building.

Outside the car window, nondescript five-story apartment buildings passed like a strip from a contemporary European film, and traffic lights blinked yellow at the intersections in both directions, a general call for caution with no firm commitment to right-of-way. "It’s just a little further," Gomberg said, when he had finished singing along with Slade on the radio.

A 53-year-old hedge-fund trader, Gomberg initially got involved with the statue with the idea of donating it to the city as part of its 800-year anniversary celebration, in 2001. The statue was then in the hands of Stanislav Razumovsky, who had quit his engineering job to work on it but was going bankrupt trying to keep the state from repossessing it. Gomberg jumped in with financial assistance. Eventually, he took over the project and won the right to restore it for display. In August 2001, the statue went up in a central square and instantly became a symbol of everything that was right or wrong with Latvia, depending on your heritage. One man threw an egg at the statue; another took the first man’s egg basket and smashed the remaining eggs over the first man’s head. Three days later, on the mayor’s orders, Gomberg removed the statue.

Just when I was beginning to wonder if asphyxiation by cologne was possible, Gomberg turned off the main road into a small office complex and drove around to the back. "There it is," he said, unnecessarily, as we stepped out of the car. On a small grassy island in the parking lot, surrounded by floodlights, towered a shining, 3 1/2-ton bronze statue of Peter the Great astride a horse the size of an aircraft carrier. Standing in the shadow of history, it was plain to see why Riga couldn’t really know what it was becoming yet: it hasn’t figured out how to deal with where it’s been. Even celebrating its own folklore seems anxiety-inducing. After the Peter the Great uproar, Gomberg tried to prove that he was also interested in Latvian history by restoring a statue of the famous local folk hero, Lacplesis. "That one’s over there," he said, turning and pointing to the back of the office building, where the bear-fighting Lacplesis was leaning against a window.

Having sufficiently depressed myself contemplating hardships and the passage of time, I turned my attention to food. In short order, I learned quite usefully that in the early 1990’s, a new broadcast channel called Pizza TV was launched, featuring a cooking show with a beer-guzzling Canadian, Elmars Tannis, who introduced the delicacy of sandwiches to the country. To his credit, Tannis—who is now one of the best-known restaurateurs in the city—makes no pretense about his culinary prowess. "I was just trying to get people to wake up and do something different with their potato," he says, on the balcony of his new flagship restaurant, Charleston’s, just outside Old Town.

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