Laguna Vere in Tbilisi, Georgia, was once the premier aquatic sports centre in the Caucasus.
Sunday 15 November 2015
When I set out to visit the fortress at Daugavpils, I was expecting 18th century ruins and a gift shop. I knew it would be interesting – a former imperial stronghold, a tsarist military outpost in the Baltics – but what I didn’t count on finding was an abandoned Soviet military academy at its heart. As I dug deeper into the physical history of the place, Daugavpils Fortress would have more than a few surprises in store for me.
Before all that though, even getting to Daugavpils – an industrial city in the far-east corner of Latvia – proved to be an adventure in itself.
Latvia’s ‘Little Russia’
The bus station at Daugavpils was a simple affair; glass and metal, cigarette smoke and the fumes of coaches as they advanced, reversed and shunted around each other in a clumsy dance. It was dark by the time I arrived. The sun had set sometime around 6pm, at which point the endless fields and lakes, the pockets of deciduous forest that exploded from the flat landscape in shades of orange and yellow and magenta, the narrow, spindly spires of Latvia’s orthodox churches: all of it gave way to blackness.
My host lived out in the semi-rural suburbs of the city, and so I looked for a taxi. Finding none at the bus station though, I wandered further into the streets; and eventually found a stationary car on a side-street, marked in colours that seemed to suggest a vehicle-for-hire. There were two men sat inside talking, lights on, cigarette smoke overflowing through the window crack.
Up until now, I had been trying to learn some useful Latvian phrases – I had them scribbled in red pen across the back of a coach ticket. It was time to try them out.
“Sveiki,” I said, as I approached the taxi and a window rolled down in invitation; Hello in Latvia.
“Chto?” the man replied; Russian for What?
So I tried Russian – “Zdravstvuyte” – and this time he nodded, smiled and repeated the greeting.
I showed the driver an address, and asked if he could take me there. He could, he replied, although it turned out we wouldn’t be alone.
The driver’s friend introduced himself: Vitaly, he shouted at me through scarred lips, and shook my hand with surprising force. They were waiting for two more as well, so that by the time we left it was myself and four Russian men, squashed into the small vehicle and driving off in what appeared to be the complete opposite direction to where I’d asked for.
Just to be sure, I asked the driver how much this trip would cost me – I didn’t mind an adventure, so long as I wasn’t getting ripped off. He shrugged, and told me five euros. There didn’t seem to be a meter fitted in his car.
We drove through Daugavpils, down a perfect grid of intersecting streets; then crossing the river, the roads began to weave this way and that, apartment blocks giving way to one-floor wooden homes as the trees crept back in around us. We passed a sign announcing our exit from Daugavpils and the taxi plunged into a long stretch of thick forest with not a house in sight. We’d overshot the city, a long way from where I needed to be… but at least my travelling companions were amiable.
In the back, Vitaly kept shouting random phrases at me in English – “Eye of the Tiger!” – “Shaken not Stirred!” – while the other two had me repeating words in Russian so that they could laugh at my poor pronunciation. It all seemed in good humour though, and they were eager to share their drinks with me too; each of the two had a half-litre bottle of vodka, and every so often they’d lean into the front and try pouring some into my mouth. They even spared some for the driver, who was perfectly delighted to have vodka tipped down his throat while he navigated the roads.
The car stopped somewhere in the forest and my fellow passengers got out. They weren’t charged anything – by now I was having serious doubts whether this was a real taxi at all. We were on the opposite side of the city to my intended destination and I checked that we’d still make it there. We would, the driver confirmed, though he confessed he had no idea which way it was from here.
Before he left, Vitaly leant in and gave me a hearty embrace. I felt his warm vodka-breath on my cheek as he exclaimed, in English, “Welcome to Little Russia!”
Contrary to what those Russians would have had me believe, Latvia is not ‘Little Russia’. The people here are Latvian, and the language they speak is their own. Daugavpils, however, is another matter. This second largest city of Latvia lies just 120km from the Russian border – 33km from Belarus and 25km from Lithuania. A 2012 census showed that of 100,000 citizens, less than 20% were Latvian; Russians make up the majority, who, added to the Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities here, form a Russian-speaking population accounting for 80% of the city.
As a Latvian friend would later tell me, Russian just sort of crept in as the unofficial language of the city. “We tried to make them speak Latvian at first,” he said, “but they refuse to learn it. There’s so many of them now that it’s more realistic for us native Latvians to just speak their language instead.”
This Russian presence is nothing new, however. Daugavpils observes the frontier between Russia and Europe, and throughout history it has seen changing allegiances as borders have been pushed first one way then the other. The city has been known as Dünaberg or Dinaburg, as Borisoglebsk and Dvinsk; it has been ruled by the Livonian Order, the Kingdom of Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when not in the hands of either Latvia or Russia. In 1577 Ivan the Terrible led an invasion here. A century later, the Russians returned with Tsar Alexis. In 1772, the city was absorbed entirely by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great.
It was the Russians who built the fortress at Daugavpils: one of a chain of fortifications intended to defend Russia against the empires of Western Europe. Under Tsar Alexander I, the plans were first laid in 1772. More than just defence, this fortress was intended as a display of cultural strength: it blended the architectural schools of Tsarist Russia with popular European traditions such as the classical and gothic styles; it advanced some of the leading contemporary ideas in military engineering, to stand as a pioneering feat of construction.
The ‘Dinaburg Fortress’ faced its first test in 1812: as Napoleon marched his armies east to invade Russia. The Second Corps of Napoleon’s Grande Armée launched an offensive here at Daugavpils when the fortress was still under construction. A garrison of 3,300 Russian troops with 200 cannon were quickly eviscerated by Napoleon’s 24,000-strong army.
Nevertheless, Napoleon was defeated and the fortress was finished – rebuilt and improved, by a team of 10,000 labourers. There were delays however, floods, so that by the time the Daugavpils Fortress was completed in 1878, it was already largely obsolete.
Much like the Romanian Fortifications of Bucharest, the Daugavpils Fortress was built during an age of rapid engineering progress. The river it guarded, once an economic artery of Russia’s outer provinces, was downgraded from 1860 by the arrival of the new Warsaw to St Petersburg rail link; and so this fortress, with only one failed battle against the French on its scorecard, was instead put to use as secure storage space and prison wards. It maintained that role for almost a century, even after the Soviet Union granted recognition to Latvian independence in 1920, the Russians moved out, and Daugavpils Fortress became a home to the Latvian Army.
I walked to the fortress from the centre of Daugavpils one morning during my stay; following the river, and a path that led along beside the main road north out of the city.
Looking at the place on a map, it appeared from above almost like an armoured flower: a starburst effect of zigzagging moats that cut back and forth around the fort, to create a spiky perimeter defence.
The fortress spanned the river; a small bridgehead and barracks to the south, while the larger portion, north of the river, featured eight connected bastions, interspaced ravelins, dungeons and arches and ramparts and redoubts, inside the outer moat.
As I drew closer to where the fortress ought to have been, the land was a seascape of grassy waves, rolling mounds that from a distance had looked quite natural; but as I got nearer I began to see how these folded around to form the outer edge of the moat.
Before long, evidence of the old fort began to rear up here and there along the side of the new road. Red brick ruins, pillars and walls; archways that led to nowhere. Now the moat was largely drained though, so that these broken towers stood watch over grassy troughs and barrows.
A smaller road forked off from the highway, winding in between the battlements to a low-set tunnel that ploughed straight through the green bank. Passing through and under, I came into the fortress city proper.
The space inside the fortress walls covers an area in excess of 150 hectares, and had once served as a functional military town. There were barracks and parade grounds here, an armoury, canteens and residential buildings. The layout had changed relatively little by the time of my visit, though the buildings had been repurposed many times. The cobbled streets were lined with cars, while here and there 1960s-style economy housing jutted up in between 19th century barracks.
Throughout the fortress I encountered a strange mixture of residential blocks and tourist zones; foreign children played on antique cannons just around the corner from streets where citizens swept up leaves, or carried shopping bags up concrete stairwells. I walked up to the battlements, to a point where I could look out on the road, towards the river beyond that, and I tried to imagine this peaceful place overrun with French invaders.
These hushed, grassy dunes seemed so far removed from tales of war and bloodshed. It was hard to think that this green and red-brick citadel had seen visits from generation after generation of Russian tsars; Alexander I, Nicolas I, Alexander II, Alexander III and the last of them all, Nicolas II, had all stayed here at Daugavpils Fortress over the years. But it was harder still, to try connecting these picturesque ruins with the awful events that unfolded here during WWII.
Nazi Death Camp
Like many of the Eastern Bloc states, Latvia enjoyed the awkward position of being sandwiched between two warring empires during WWII. Following the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviets took their turn at occupying first; and in July 1940 they created the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Once the peace between Nazis and Soviets broke however, Germany invaded Latvia in 1941. At Daugavpils, the fortress became a prison camp under the Nazis. From 1941 until 1944 the main body of the fortress, the portion north of the river, became ‘Stalag 340’… a Nazi POW camp where living conditions were so notoriously bad, that locals soon began calling it the ‘Death Camp.’
During those three years, and until the arrival of the liberating Red Army, an estimated 124,000 Soviet soldiers died as prisoners inside Stalag 340; victims of sickness, starvation or execution. According to local stories, before the Germans left Daugavpils they decided to bury the evidence of their crimes – and so they locked the surviving prisoners inside the fortress’s cathedral, and blew it to pieces using TNT.
Meanwhile, the portion of the fortress that lay just over the river, the bridgehead south of the Daugava River, was turned into a Jewish Ghetto.
In July 1941 roughly 10,000 Jews were rounded up from their homes in Daugavpils to be relocated to abandoned barracks inside the fortress walls. According to sources, these 19th century buildings had been used as stables most recently, under the cavalry units of the Latvian Army. The Nazis reinforced the old walls with guard towers and barbed wire fences. As more Jews were collected from regional towns and villages nearby, the total number rose to 16,000 people living inside these dung-filled ruins… who between them had access to just two water taps, very limited washing facilities and next to no food.
When some prisoners were invited to be transferred, in August 1941, to a newly built camp nearby that boasted greater space and more humane conditions, many people volunteered to go.
The Ghetto police formed a column of 2,000 prisoners to be marched to the new camp. Instead of reaching the promised land however, they were marched to a Latvian army training ground in the forest where their graves had already been prepared for them. Men, women and children were shot en masse, their bodies pushed into the pits. It was reported that babies had typically been buried alive, in order to save ammunition.
These mass murders – or ‘Actions,’ as they were referred to – continued for almost a month, and according to one Nazi report a total of 9,256 Jews were killed at Daugavpils that year. On one occasion, an entire orphanage of 400 children were led out into the forests and executed.
The buildings of the former ghetto, inside the fortifications on the south bank of the Daugava River, have been maintained as a prison to this day; Grīva Prison. In the northern portion, meanwhile, little evidence remains of that brief period of Nazi occupation. The official visitors’ centre makes sparse mention of the era – and so instead I wandered off alone, into a far corner of the fort where the old walls had crumbled, the red brick forming portals to hidden interiors. Climbing through to the inner space of the walls, I walked for a while through dust and stone, through the intermittent pools of light that fell in through narrow windows, and pondered what horrors these same walls might once have witnessed.
When I did emerge from the space within the original 18th century walls, I walked around the outermost edge of the fortress; away from the museum, the information centre and the café, instead towards a series of long, bulky structures that rose against an overcast sky in shades of faded yellow; although, as I passed between those worn facades and the outer fortress wall, I realised that these shapes were all one and the same building. I followed the wall, around corners that jutted out or folded back into hidden courtyards, tracing the shape of an abandoned structure that seemed the size of a city block.
It appeared I was quite alone – a short distance behind me, tourists pored over maps and diagrams. The other direction, regular citizens went about their lives in modern dwellings amidst the old fortress walls. But here, mere metres away yet tucked behind a leviathan at the rear of the fortress complex, I may as well have been in some forgotten no man’s land. Nevertheless, I still checked both ways before climbing quickly inside, through the nearest broken ground floor window.
The shattered glass that stuck like teeth from the wooden frame clawed at my hood as I shuffled through and into the silent, dusty realm beyond. I dropped to the floorboards, and waited a moment; but there was no sound from within or without, nothing to suggest that my entry had been observed.
When the Soviet Red Army had retaken Latvia in 1944, pushing the Nazis out and drawing the small republic back behind a curtain of iron, the Daugavpils Fortress had entered a new phase of its existence. This out-dated installation may have left its fighting days far behind, but under the Soviet Union the fortress would be reimagined as a military training academy.
During the Cold War period the Soviet Air Force founded a number of military schools dedicated to training aviation engineers. There were specialised schools at Irkutsk, Kharkov and Kiev, at Voronezh and at Tambov; in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, meanwhile, military avionics schools were developed at Riga, and here, in Daugavpils, inside the walls of the old Dinaburg Fortress.
From 1948 until 1993, this fortress served as a home to the ‘Daugavpils Aviation Engineering Military High School.’ The buildings and courtyards were exorcised of their previous Nazi affiliations, as hopeful young cadets filled the mess halls, the parade grounds and barracks.
Walking from one room to the next, I tried to make as little sound as possible; listening instead to the building breath around me. The place was still filled with noise, though rather than sounds of life these creaks and groans and bangs represented the very audible decay of the structure itself. Death had not come creeping silently into the former school, but rather it cracked and howled and moaned through these splintering corridors, these rotted beams and shattering tiles.
The building was long and narrow – for the most part, only a single chamber wide but continuing through one arched space to the next, a series of humpbacked halls arranged side by side by side, and so on. I passed signs hung up from walls, faded now; sometimes too far gone to be read, but others offering first aid procedures, fire escape routes and other information in Russian.
I weaved between rusted metal drums and skeletal crates, and once or twice I gave myself a scare – when I glanced down the long corridors back behind me, gazing through the open doors that aligned along the spine of the building, and saw what I thought was movement in the far distance. Most likely it was a trick of the light, shifting shadows and perspectives; but not for the last time, I had the unsettling feeling that I was not alone in this ruined hulk.
Soon I came across a set of stairs, concrete arms that juddered down in perfect symmetry. As I followed them around and up, a sign greeted me, hung above the entryway to the upper floor: “товаришти курсанты! наша столовая должна быть образцовой,” it said;
“Student Comrades! Our dining room must be exemplary.”
The space upstairs was brighter, cleaner, lit by windows that ran the length of the structure to illuminate endless corridors and arches painted in mottled shades of white and yellow. I looked out one window, at a view partially obscured by clinging fabric wraps: the cobbled street below was empty, but off in the distance, along the road, I saw a small crowd milling around a freshly painted, renovated building – the tourist zones of the fortress, sitting shoulder to shoulder with this Soviet time capsule.
At one point a corridor broke off from this central passage and I followed it, into a worm-eaten outcrop of the building that jutted out into a courtyard at the rear. Where the main halls had languished in a state of dry rot, here the decay was more aggressive with the presence of moisture. Water dripped noisily down from sagging ceilings, ceramic tiles lay splintered on the floor; plant life burst out through rotted floorboards and the floor felt spongy underfoot, soft with years of slow corruption, so that I worried sometimes about putting my foot straight through the soggy surface.
Along one dark and noisy corridor I found a white room, now green with moss; a yellow mould had grown up on the walls, highlighting trails of condensation with vibrant swathes of livid fungus. The noise in this wing felt almost deafening – the sound of a building tearing itself slowly apart. Not a quiet, peaceful death, but rather this school seemed to rage against its own demise.
Behind one warped door, a stairwell twisted down and around beneath a tall glass window, disappearing into sheer darkness at the bottom. Down there, the din was the greatest I had yet encountered: I could make out torrents of running water, creaks and moans, an orchestra of structural screams rising from the basement. I could almost feel the building’s pain, and I decided against venturing down those stairs – while convincing myself it was a purely rational decision.
So I turned back, retreating to the dry, yellow-and-white halls that formed the vaulted backbone of the old school. I found another staircase down, this one dull and square and domesticated, not bellowing in agony; it led me into ground floor shadows, boarded-up storerooms and a clutter of musty wooden crates.
At some point the corridor had been bricked off halfway along, but those bricks were falling now – the mortar between them dried to powder. I hopped through the gap, down the corridor, around the corner into a long, arched hallway and then climbing up, onto a windowsill, I squeezed out through a broken window and dropped into the grass beneath the redbrick battlements of the Daugavpils Fortress.
The Jewel of Daugavpils
Latvia elected its own democratic parliament in the spring of 1990. By the following year, full independence had been restored to the Republic of Latvia. The Soviet Union ground to a halt in 1991; in 1993 the Daugavpils Aviation Engineering Military High School finally closed its doors, and after one last parade around the grounds the Russian military withdrew their presence from Daugavpils Fortress altogether.
As was the case in many of the other post-Soviet republics, Latvia went through a period of political and economic uncertainty in the early 1990s. For a while the Daugavpils Fortress was left largely abandoned; its former tenants had left, and the Latvians had other things to think about.
In 1998 however it came under the management of the Latvian State’s Real Estate Agency; a token gesture of ownership, and the first slow steps in the direction of rehabilitation. Later, in 2004, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Latvia expressed their interest in selling off the fortress – either as a whole, or part by part.
Since then, a series of disparate, slow steps have been made towards renovating and preserving the fortress. The Old Water Tower has become a Tourist Information Centre; the former military arsenal building is now the ‘Mark Rothko Art Centre’ and ‘Arsenal Café.’ The Nicholas Bridge and Gate have been lovingly restored as has the State Police Administration building. The local tourism board refer to the place as the ‘Jewel of Daugavpils’… though as I had seen for myself, large portions of the fortress grounds still stand in ruin, seemingly untouched since the Soviets left three decades ago.
More recently, there has been talk once again of Russian expansionism. After the annexation of the Crimea in March 2014, Putin declared his prerogative to defend the rights and cultures of Russian nationals in whatever country they called home. For many, the Baltic States had seemed a likely target of such statements.
Chatting with Russians in Daugavpils, I had asked a few what they thought of this: could Daugavpils become Russia once again, the Baltic borders being redrawn as they already had been so many times before?
“We don’t need rescuing,” Vitaly had laughed, when I met him again later that week. “We like it here! This town is ours already.”
Latvia itself has seen a steadily decreasing population, ever since 1990; it plunged by 13%, between 2000 and 2010. Perhaps then Daugavpils Fortress – a fortress built to guard an empire, a landmark which has already switched sides half a dozen times at least – may yet, some day, find its way to a reunion with Mother Russia… only next time, instead of all-out invasion it might be more a case of ethnic osmosis.
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