A middle aged couple come back from the supermarket. His gut’s hanging over his tracksuit bottoms, necking a can of strong beer.
A pigeon flies over the trees that cover up rows on rows of 10 story tower blocks, Soviet era. Clapped-out 1970s Russian sedan parked on the pavement.
Stubbing a cigarette, the door downstairs chimes as an old Russian lady fumbles inside, shopping bags bulging.
Earlier this morning, a postman came by with a bag full of promotional leaflets marked U.S. Mail. People still carry around those old plastic bags branded with American cigarette company logos, and my wife tells me these were hot stuff back when the Russians hated the Americans and her step-dad was locked up for wearing Nike trainers as capitalist contraband.
That’s the view from my window right now as I write this, reflecting on my first year living in Latvia, a tiny European country still haunted by its time as part of the Eastern Bloc.
As a sheltered, naive kid born in the most middle-class village in England, the brutal soviet grit aesthetic always fascinated me. It’s as far as you can get from nicely spaced, roomy detached cottages along a winding road with neat verges.
Getting to anywhere-but-there was what drove me to London for university, where I chose a flat in the vandalized side-streets of Hackney and started work on a novel about industrial melancholy that won’t ever get finished. An old man rides the tube, overhears conversations, meets people, is an insider, is an outsider. That’s about all I can remember. It won’t ever get finished.
Before I was even officially released from university, I’d married a Latvian girl and moved back to her home city, living in a beautifully dismal tower block on the outskirts, the allure of the ghost suburbs winning out over the safety of English village life, or even London.
All but 2 people I’ve asked even know where Latvia is. It’s a Baltic country in Eastern Europe, west of Russia and south of Estonia. Its had a turbulent past, having been occupied by German and Soviet (1940-1991) military. Before 1991, it hadn’t had a say in its own future or politics since World War II. So, as you can imagine, the readjustment process is still underway. Latvia hasn’t yet recovered from the economic toll of 51 years of Soviet control.
Along with Soviet control came the criminally underreported deportation of tens of millions of people to the deep wastelands of Siberia to die in gulags, leaving the Soviets with almost twice as much blood on their hands than Nazi Germany.
For me, coming from a country wasn’t shattered by tyranny, the lasting effects of Latvia’s past stood in stark contrast to the existence I knew.
The Latvian population is dispossessed — a society still early in the recovery process after Soviet control
Two kids sit in the shell of an old petrol station, sharing a 2-liter bottle of strong beer as I drive past, deeper into the suburbs where tower blocks surround patches of mossy grass and where the whole place looks as if it was carved straight from ancient forestland in the past decade.
For most of Latvia, everything apart from the rural farm land and exact city centers is new. However, when Soviet control was given up in 1991, it left so much of its grand plans half-finished, and even a cursory glance around will make that clear. Skeletal, unusable multi-level car parks sit as abandoned building sites next to massive expanses of concreted wasteland.
As soon as you get a few miles out of the center, houses are left to turn to ruins and no one gives much of a shit because they were probably turned out of them and housed in tower blocks during the occupation. A McDonalds opens up on the doorstep of Radiotehnika, an abandoned radio factory that has been out of action since 1991 and previous to that struggled with a reported 95% rejection rate of its output, meaning that for every 100 items it produced, 95 of them were deemed unacceptable for distribution.
And so, on the dawn of the downfall of the Soviet Union, the factory was left as one amongst thousands of Soviet relics. Relics like ghost factories, unfinished complexes, U.S. Mail bags and rusty American imported cars come together in my mind to paint Latvia as an almost abandoned ghost town. Looking over the sparse cityscape at 3am, feeling false nostalgia for the junk shop at the end of the world.