Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, Riga
A private museum in Riga
about the occupation of Latvia
by the USSR
in 1940/41 and 1944 to 1991 as well as the Nazi German
occupation during WWII
in between the two Soviet occupations.
In 2018 an all-new exhibition will (re-)open in the original location in the Old Town of Riga. In the meantime the temporary stand-in that I visited in April 2014 remains open.
The official full name of the museum is “Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991”, but I often refer to it simply as Occupation Museum for short. It has to be noted, however, that it is indeed about both the Soviet
and the Nazi German
occupations and thus more balanced than its counterpart in Vilnius
, the misleadingly named “Genocide Victims Museum
”, and also somewhat more so than its sister institution
The Riga version is run as a private, independent institution that relies on donations alone (i.e. no admission fee is charged – again in contrast to the other two Baltic museums on this theme). It was started in 1993 in the former Riflemen museum in the Old Town. Initially it covered only the first Soviet occupation of 1940-41, but was gradually expanded to cover the whole period up to Latvia
's regaining independence in 1991.
The original location of the museum is currently undergoing a complete overhaul and an extension is being built. For the last few years, the museum was thus moved into temporary premises at the former US
embassy. Originally, the new exhibition was meant to open in 2014 but apparently work on it is behind schedule. It is now estimated that the opening will take place at some point in 2015.
So what I saw in April 2014 was still the interim stand-in version of the museum exhibition, and in some ways it showed. It can be expected that the new museum will be substantially more state of the art in the commodification
of its topic, including things like a gulag
barrack mock-up and plenty more multimedia elements and such like.
In the meantime you can already explore a 'virtual' version of the museum online
(linked from the museum's official website – external link, opens in a new window). But this electronic version cannot replace a visit to the real thing that is in the making. I will therefore have to go back and check out the new museum once it's actually finally opened its doors.
What there is to see: NOTE that the following text is about the temporary stand-in version of the museum exhibition that was set up at a different location while the original location is undergoing refurbishment. This is currently scheduled to be finished some time in October 2018. There had been long delays before, so this date still remains a bit uncertain. Watch this space.
When I went to Riga
in April 2014, what I saw was a somewhat dry, mainly text-and-photo-panel-based exhibition with only few artefacts or multimedia elements.
The old-fashioned text-heavy approach was, however, counterbalanced by the fact that the texts were not overwhelmingly long or complex, and the translations into English were generally very good too, so it was all quite digestible.
Content-wise the exhibition kicked off with the obvious bit of “prehistory” that led to the first Soviet occupation, namely the brief inter-war period of independence that was ended by the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
, by which Hitler
divided up the lands between their two empires amongst each other. So once Nazi Germany
from the west, starting WWII
, the USSR
moved in from the other side to take over the Baltic States and eastern parts of Poland.
The Soviet take-over wasn't so much a full-on military invasion, but rather a powerful bullying into submission. Officially, Latvia
actually joined the Soviet Union
“voluntarily”. In practice, though, it constituted an act of cultural imperialism. And not only that. Some 15,000 Latvians were deported to Siberia in 1941.
A second wave of even more massive deportations then followed in 1949 during the second Soviet occupation, still during the Stalin
era. Naturally, the topic of the deportations and the fate of the deported in gulags
thus forms a main focus of the museum exhibition.
However, it also leaves substantial room for the coverage of the occupation by Nazi Germany
from 1941 to 1944, including its worst aspect: the Holocaust
. In just three years, the Nazis
wiped out over 90% of the Latvian Jewish population.
While the participation of Latvians in these atrocities is acknowledged, the exhibition does still try to play this aspect down a little e.g. by eagerly contrasting it with the good deeds of those who helped Jews (cf. Janis Lipke memorial
). But at least some degree of Latvian involvement is covered.
Understandably, the 46 years of the second Soviet occupation are given more space. Sub-topics covered here, other than deportations and gulags
, are forced collectivization and general Sovietization, both economic and cultural.
The descriptions of these Soviet policies are contrasted by an in-depth coverage of resistance, ranging from partisan warfare, especially up to the mid-1950s, to cultural dissidents who rather used the pen to lend force to their protests.
The following section of the museum focuses on the rebirth of national identity in Latvia
in the 1980s, in the wake of glasnost and perestroika, and the formation of the Popular Front
. The equivalent developments in the other two Baltic countries, Lithuania
, are also covered, in particular of course the moment when on 23 August 1989 the three peoples joined hands to form the human chain all the way from Vilnius
that's become known as the Baltic Way.
Next comes the critical phase of the early 1990s when Latvia
actively tried to break away from the USSR
, triggering a military response in January and August 1991. A documentary film shows footage of the Riga Barricades (see Barricades Museum
) of that time. The violence of 13 January at the Vilnius TV Tower
is covered too in this context.
The exhibition naturally leads to the climax of Latvia
finally achieving independence in 1991 but also briefly comments on the aftermath and complications in the initial post-Soviet phase, including the immense economic difficulties as well as the demographic impact the Soviet era had made on Latvia. By 1989 only just about half of the population was actually Latvian. To this day, the presence and integration of the large ethnic Russian population in the country remains a delicate issue.
At the end of the exhibition an interactive screen allowed visitors a kind of preview of the new exhibition in the making at the original location of the museum.
All in all, I found the Riga
version of a museum covering the occupation history of the Baltics on the one hand to benefit by a somewhat more balanced and comprehensive approach in its narrative, but on the other hand suffering from a distinct dearth of original artefacts and a general dryness of the presentation.
However, it is to be expected that the all-new exhibition (see above) will aim to rectify such shortcomings. Once I've seen this new incarnation of the Riga Museum of Occupation I will report back in detail here.
currently in a temporary home in the former US embassy at 7 Raiņa bulvāris, which skirts the former bastions to the east of Riga
's Old Town.
The original (and future) museum building is inside the Old Town between the House of the Blackheads and the Riflemen monument (see under Riga
). Address: 1 Latviešu strēlnieku laukums.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: easy to get to, free/by voluntary donation.
Both locations of the museum are very central and thus easy to get to. The temporary exhibition on Raiņa boulevard is just a few steps to the north-west of the Freedom Monument, which itself forms a kind of centre point of Riga
's city centre.
The future permanent exhibition in the museum's refurbished original location will again be right in the middle of the Old Town, just behind one of its prime landmark sights, the House of the Blackheads.
As long as you are staying in a halfway central place in Riga
, either location will be walkable.
To get to the temporary museum by public transport you can use a wide range of buses or trolleybuses that go down Raiņa boulevard, or else get one of the trams (5-7, 9) that stop at the National Theatre round the corner.
The permanent exhibition's original location can be reached by one of the trams (2, 4, 5, 10) that go along the river boulevard and stop at Rātslaukums.
Opening times: daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. between May and September; in the winter months the museum is open only to 5 p.m. and remains closed altogether on Mondays.
free – or rather; “by voluntary donation”, as a guideline you could take the admission fees at the other two museums of its type in Estonia
, which charge 5 EUR and and 2 EUR, respectively.
A small fee for photography is levied, nominally at least, going by the sign on the door, though I was somehow let off without paying extra for bringing a camera. Maybe they simply forgot.
Guided tours are offered as well (and are apparently popular – during my visit there were at least three groups being guided through the museum at the same time). Rates vary according to group size, from 2.25 EUR per person (in groups over 11 pax), 3 EUR (4-10 pax) to 10 EUR (for small groups of 3 or couples and individual visitors).
Time required: I spent just under two hours in the temporary exhibition (when the visit was slowed down a bit by the large number of visitors inside the exhibition, including several guided tours, so there was some waiting time involved). How long the new permanent exhibition will require remains to be seen, but I would estimate also about two hours or maybe slightly more.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Riga
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Riga
- Occupation museum 1 - temporary home
- Occupation museum 2 - old and future location
- Occupation museum 3 - inside
- Occupation museum 4 - from first Soviet to Nazi occupation
- Occupation museum 5 - Nazis
- Occupation museum 6 - terror
- Occupation museum 7 - resistance
- Occupation museum 8 - few artefacts
- Occupation museum 9a - info
- Occupation museum 9b - future structure of the new exhibition