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People's Front Museum, Riga

 
   - darkometer rating:  3 -
   
A museum that chronicles Latvia's (and the Baltics') struggle for independence from the USSR and the decisive role that the organization of the Latvian People's Front (or 'Popular Front') played in this process from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. 
  
While not a huge museum, it is surprisingly rich in the amount and range of the information it presents and complements the better known Riga institution of the Occupations Museum quite well.   
More background info: There's a little bit of confusion about the correct name of this museum in English. In Latvian the eponymous political organization's name was “Tautas fronte” (hence the acronym LTF) and this could apparently be translated either as Popular Front or as People's Front. And then there'd be the question whether it's 'Latvian People's Front' or 'People's Front of Latvia' … but that's getting a bit Pythonesque maybe … 
  
I'll just keep using both Popular Front and People's Front interchangeably without any implications intended one way or the other. 
  
Anyway, it was the organization that developed out of the first wave of protests in Soviet Latvia that appeared in the mid-1980s. “Tautas fronte” was founded in October 1988 and became the biggest organization of the “national awakening” movement in the country, reaching as many as a quarter of a million official members.
  
As it grew in importance, the organization also shifted more towards full support of renewed independence. In the first free elections to the Latvian SSR's parliament in March 1990, a pro-independence coalition under the leadership of the People's Front secured a majority large enough to allow for amendments to the Latvian constitution. Accordingly, a declaration to the effect of seeking secession from the USSR was adopted in May. 
  
Meanwhile the Soviet central government in Moscow was turning against these developments towards democratic self-determination in the Baltics. It threatened to restore Soviet rule by force, and in early 1991 special forces of the Soviet Army were indeed sent to the Baltics. The tensions culminated in the events of 13 January at the TV Tower in Vilnius
  
In response the Latvian People's Front called upon its supporters to come out in protest and build barricades to protect Riga from similar attacks. Realizing the military threat, a plan for non-violent resistance (called Zero Hour) was issued. 
  
The peaceful protesters held out in the cold winter night – and famously kept singing Latvian folk songs, which further established the designation “singing revolution” attached to the independence movements in the Baltic States. 
  
Despite some violence on the part of the Soviet Army, the drive towards Latvian independence could not be stopped. Somewhat ironically, the final straw that broke the camel's back was the attempted coup in Moscow in August 1991. It was partly thanks to the success of the protest movements in the Baltics that people in Russia reacted in the way they did – not giving in to the military bullies but coming out in protest instead. 
  
Independence was finally won and later in 1991 officially recognized by the Russian Federation under their new president Boris Yeltsin, who partly owed his own success to the previous resolve on the part of the Latvian Popular Front. 
  
The organization also had close links not only to other movements in the neighbouring Baltic States but also across the rest of the Soviet Union, in particular the Caucasus, especially Georgia (though they failed to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh).
  
Over the following two years, however, economic problems resulting from the collapse of the previous state-ruled system of planning, also cost the People's Front popular support at home, former members went on to establish new parties, and in the elections in 1993 the “old” Popular Front fared dismally, failing to secure any seats in the new parliament. 
  
So the party had faded into political insignificance within just two years after having achieved all its major goals. It was practically disbanded, or morphed into other party alliances shortly after. It's a development in politics echoed in many parts of the former Eastern Bloc after Soviet domination had collapsed and a market economy had been introduced in its place (cf. also the fate of Solidarnosc in Poland). 
  
In a way, then, it is all the more remarkable that the legacy of this Popular Front movement is at least honoured in the form of its own dedicated museum in Riga. And in turn, instead of just celebrating itself, the People's Front Museum does a commendable job in acknowledging all the other factors contributing to the achievement of the Baltic States regaining their independence. 
  
  
What there is to see: quite a lot more than I would have expected from a museum that seems to have such a specialized subject matter. 
  
But in effect this museum is not just about the Latvian Popular Front but casts its net much wider to cover various historical aspects before, during and after Latvia's gaining independence from the USSR.
  
The individual rooms in the museum are quite small (the building was originally erected in the 17th century!) but they are spread out over four floors, so there's quite a lot to go through – and you have to climb some steep staircases. 
  
The museum covers too much to be represented here in detail, so I'll just give a rough overview and pick out some highlights: 
  
Due credit is given to the precursors of the formation of the Popular Front, in particular to the environmental protest movement that stopped two dubious Soviet large-scale building schemes, namely the damming of the Daugava River and the construction of a metro system underneath Riga
  
Likewise the first demonstrations against the Soviet suppression of acknowledging the historical role of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are covered too. 
  
The main event that took place following the formation of the LTF was the Baltic Way of 23 August 1989 – set to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the signing of that secret Hitler-Stalin treaty that had ended the Baltic countries' independence in WWII
  
The Baltic Way was indeed a remarkable achievement of co-ordination by the relevant protest and pro-independence movements in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia: they managed to get some 2 million citizens of the three countries to form a human chain holding hands all the way from Vilnius to Tallinn. Accordingly the museum dedicates a whole room to this event, with plenty of photos, documents and maps on display. 
  
A good deal of coverage is also devoted to the dramatic developments of January to August 1991, starting with the violence by Soviet troops (worst at the Vilnius TV Tower) and finishing with the failed coup in Moscow in August. 
  
On display in these sections are also some remarkable artefacts, including e.g. bullets fired during the Soviet special forces attack on the Ministry of the Interior in January 1991, or gas masks worn by protesters, cameras and radios they carried, as well as some of their posters, banners and T-shirts. 
  
A large section provides details of the formation and organization of the Popular Front – and here it gets a bit tedious for the regular visitor who may not have such a degree of special interest in such intricacies of local party politics. But you can always skim read a bit here (I did).
  
The museum does try hard to liven things up a bit through its installations, however, including a mock-up of a party conference hall with a row of seats. The seat backs have little video screens built into them so you can sit down and watch more info and coverage while feeling like a party conference delegate. 
  
Furthermore there are a number of interactive touch screens providing yet more background information still. So there is quite an element of multimedia-ness here as well, as the standards of modern museum commodification require these days. 
  
One section that oozes a certain retro charm, in contrast, is the old party leadership office, complete with vintage Soviet radio and TV technology and stuffy, chunky, wooden furniture. There's even a first-generation personal computer in one corner. 
  
In one room there's a ladder disappearing through a hole in the ceiling. This is supposed to be a mock-up of an attic hideout, but when you climb up there isn't that much to see up there. 
  
Probably the most imaginative, and at the same time provocative, installation in the museum is that of a (mock/replica) Lenin statue stuck upside-down into the ground, as it were – you only see the lower part of the body mounted on the floor, with the feet and pedestal poking up into the room diagonally. This installation is in the room dealing with the failed August putsch in Moscow. The symbolism is only too obvious. 
  
Another Lenin can be found in the foyer of the museum. This one is a granite head (or bust) of Lenin. The top of his head clearly bears “scratch marks” presumably from protesters who hacked at it in anger. Underneath a small brass plate says “USSR 1922-1991”, as if on a tombstone.
  
The anti-Soviet stance is possibly a little overstated in this museum, and at times feels just a bit too forced (that upside-down Lenin in particular) but I guess it has to be expected to a degree, given the context. 
  
Otherwise, however, I found the museum quite balanced and its subject matter soberly and factually presented. All texts, by the way, are given in both Latvian and English, and the quality level of the translations is commendable. 
  
Overall, out of the various museums in Riga that deal with 20th century political history I would rank the People's Front Museum almost as on a par with the more famous Occupation Museum. It's certainly one of the best. And that was a real surprise, I admit. It deserves to be better known and visited by tourists more.   
  
  
Location: within the southern part of the Old Town of Riga, at Vecpilsētas iela 13/15  
  
Google maps locator:  [56.9464, 24.1116]
  
  
Access and costs: centrally located in the Old Town and thus quite easy to find; free 
  
Details: From within the Old Town it's easy to walk to the museum; the nearest public transport would be provided by any of the numerous trams and buses that stop at 13 Janvāra iela, the big boulevard between the Central Train Station and the river south of the Old Town. The museum building is located on a small cobbled square just a good hundred yards or so into the Old Town's maze of streets, so it's not too difficult to find. Inside, several flights of steep stairs have to be negotiated. 
  
Opening times: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays from 12 noon to 5 p.m., Thursdays from 2 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 12 noon to 3 p.m., closed Sundays and Mondays.
  
Admission free. 
  
  
Time required: longer than you might expect! I spent about an hour in this museum, and could have stayed much longer (but it was my third indoor exhibition that day, so I have to admit I craved fresh air and therefore only skimmed some parts of the museum I found less compelling to study in detail). 
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: There are two perfect combinations for the People's Front Museum, both thematically as well as geographically.  
  
The first is the better-known Occupation Museum, currently housed in temporary premises on Raiņa bulvāris, but soon to move back to its original location between Riflemen Square and the city hall square (Rātslaukums), just a stone's throw from the People's Front Museum. 
  
While the Occupations Museum covers more of the history leading up to that of the People's Front (and should therefore best be visited first), the tiny Museum of the Barricades concentrates entirely on the most dramatic events in Riga in the context of Latvia's struggle for independence – and it does so in a much more visual, sensory style rather than in terms of textual, educational information. It thus complements the People's Front Museum and could thus be the perfect place to move on to afterwards. It too is just a short walk away, on Krāmu iela near the cathedral. 
  
For more, see under Riga in general.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The location of the People's Front Museum in the Old Town makes it ideal for being combined with the core of Riga's mainstream tourism attractions, namely the Old Town itself, but also, for instance, the Central Market Halls just a short walk to the south-east.
 
For more see under Riga.
  
  
 
  • LTF museum 01 - entranceLTF museum 01 - entrance
  • LTF museum 02 - protest movementLTF museum 02 - protest movement
  • LTF museum 03 - bullets from January 1991LTF museum 03 - bullets from January 1991
  • LTF museum 04 - step through the busLTF museum 04 - step through the bus
  • LTF museum 05 - Baltic Way roomLTF museum 05 - Baltic Way room
  • LTF museum 06 - all the way from Tallinn to VilniusLTF museum 06 - all the way from Tallinn to Vilnius
  • LTF museum 07 - info screenLTF museum 07 - info screen
  • LTF museum 08 - congress hall mock-upLTF museum 08 - congress hall mock-up
  • LTF museum 09 - looking the other wayLTF museum 09 - looking the other way
  • LTF museum 10 - officeLTF museum 10 - office
  • LTF museum 11 - Baltic flagsLTF museum 11 - Baltic flags
  • LTF museum 12 - clandestine printing pressLTF museum 12 - clandestine printing press
  • LTF museum 13 - attic hideout mock-upLTF museum 13 - attic hideout mock-up
  • LTF museum 14 - artefactsLTF museum 14 - artefacts
  • LTF museum 15 - Lenin with scratched headLTF museum 15 - Lenin with scratched head
  • LTF museum 16 - Lenin stuck into the groundLTF museum 16 - Lenin stuck into the ground
  • LTF museum 17 - clear message - nothing Soviet pleaseLTF museum 17 - clear message - nothing Soviet please
 
  
  
  

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