Post-war Valmiera, Latvia today, as seen from above. (Source: LSM.LV)
“This was my home.” This was my friend . . . my dog . . . my car . . . my job . . . my father . . . my daughter. These were the statements of loss that I heard at the start of the new video that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, released on CNN during an interview with Fareed Zakaria. Each was accompanied by gut-wrenching footage from the unconscionable war that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was waging against civilians. Just as it was about to become unbearable, the statements and imagery changed. “We will win,” Zelenskyy said with complete conviction. “There will be new cities. There will be new dreams. There will be a new story. There will be, there’s no doubt. And those we’ve lost will be remembered. And we will sing again, and we will celebrate anew.” Even as Mariupol, his nation’s tenth largest city, seemed set to be wiped off the face of the earth.
I understood that sort of loss. Valmiera, a town in Latvia, was founded in the 13th century and has seen its share of invaders and occupiers. It was devastated during the Livonian War (1558–1583), which was fought for control of Old Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia) by the Tsardom of Russia against a shifting coalition of the Dano-Norwegian Realm, the Kingdom of Sweden, the Union (later Commonwealth) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. Then burned to the ground during the Great Northern War (1700–1721), where a coalition led by Russia ended the supremacy of the Swedish Empire in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. During World War II, Valmiera was captured by the German Army (July 1941) and placed under the administration of Reichskommissariat Ostland, only to be recaptured (September 1944) by the Russian Army during the Riga Offensive. And again burned to the ground. That occurred less than a month after I was born and my parents and maternal grandmother managed to get me out of there.
I also understood that sort of optimism—up to a point. The residents of Valmiera, one of the longest-inhabited regions of Latvia, must have had it. During the 18th century, it became the district center and saw rapid economic growth during the 19th century. And, during the first quarter of the 20th century, became a cultural and educational center, as well. That trend continues, with Valmiera being one of the four Latvian cities short-listed for the title of the 2027 European Capitals of Culture. But each time that it was rebuilt, some loss remained. Particularly the most recent reconstruction, which occurred during the 46-year period (1944-1990) when Russians occupied, then annexed my independent nation as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and left the sad imprint of Stalinist architecture.
Before his death in 2018, Egons Tālivaldis Ziediņš, a teacher who spent his whole life in Valmiera, wrote in “Neapbedīsim Valmieras vēsturi” (“Let’s Not Bury Valmiera’s History,” my clumsy translation):
There are few residents walking along Valmiera’s streets these days who still see what is no longer there. Stopping at the unsightly Culture Center, those who do probably remember that one of the finest buildings in town was located at the corner where Ziloņu Street turns off Rīgas Street and housed the Ustupa and Bundžas ready-made clothing store as well as Eizentāls’ delicatessen. And that the entrance to the Pūriņa cinema “Splendid” was across the street. As was the Dūņa building, where a bookstore was situated that usually carried one of the pre-war Valmiera publishers—Konrads Vanags, the son of Miķels Amālijs, head of the Šana Society . And then there was Pūkas Corner, named after one of the shops—the center of Old Valmiera with a police officer standing there since Diakonāta Street intersected with Rīgas Street at that point, and Jurģu Street led down to the Gauja bridge.
Well, the old Valmiera was not rich in ancient architectural masterpieces since most of the structures only dated back to the 19th and 20th centuries. But together they formed a distinctive cityscape that was memorable because it was unique to the area. All this once was and then was not, and now the center of Valmiera is much more open and modern.
It is a genuine pleasure to see that we are taking good care of Valmiera, that it is increasingly well-kept and beautiful. However, there is one “but.” The architecturally uniform, uninteresting structures that emerged during the post-war period do not remain long in one’s memory. They could be in any other place in Latvia. I have often had to show foreigners around the town, and it always depressed me when I wondered where to take them. Inevitably, perceptible boredom soon appears on their faces. “Well, you have built a new city here after the war but seem to have given little thought to making it special. Why have you left all your buildings so bare?”
Before Zelenskyy’s video, I felt disconnected from Valmiera. When I reflected on my past, the capital city Rīga usually came to mind. That was where my mother and her ancestors lived. Where my father, although born near Cēsis, attended university and started his literary career. And Vecāķi, a resort town on the Baltic Sea where my maternal grandmother had a large summer house. We were only living in Valmiera because my father was sent there to perform administrative duties during the German occupation in between the first and second Russian occupations. And I was less than a month old when we were forced to flee. But after I cried for what Ukraine once was and, as Zelenskyy bravely predicted, will be again even as its cities were being shelled by the invading Russians, I cried—the first time in my long life—for Valmiera. And for what Latvians like me lost there.
“This was my birthplace,” I said through my tears. Built amid a forest of fir trees on both banks of the Gauja river. This was my father’s car, which he kept the Germans from stealing by bringing the tires inside to his bedroom when it was not in use. This was my father’s office, where he pinned a new piece of doggerel satirizing his Nazi superiors to his lampshade each night before leaving. This was my mother’s office, where she worked as his assistant and did her best to keep him from getting killed. This was the site where they were wed, possibly the town hall. I was well on the way and it was wartime, so she wore a plain dark dress. But carried a sheaf of yellow daffodils.