Riga’s Mysterious Cobblestone Road

Jean-Baptiste Roncari translated by Kayla de Nardi
8 Décembre 2014

Upon arrival in Riga, one is tempted to take the main road, Satekles iela, drawn in by the giant billboards, the buildings, or even the impressive clock tower of Stockmann shopping centre. However, one of Riga’s greatest mysteries, for the average tourist and Rigadian alike, lies on the ground of this city.

Julija Stancevičiūtė
Julija Stancevičiūtė
This discrete landmark that often goes unnoticed by passersby, is hidden in one of the most walked-upon sidewalks of the city. It marks the junction between two pedestrian pathways, which lead to Origo shopping centre and to the train station from the old part of town. 

The work can be found in a line of asymmetric stone bricks that divide the walkway in half. On this modest road is where one may find the diverse names of various well-known figures, including the French writer Bernard-Marie Koltès. Why on earth would the name of a French dramaturge be written in this particular place? The story would prevail to be much less anecdotal than it appears. 

An Intriguing Albeit Discrete Landmark

The names of musician Miles Davis, artist Keith Haring, photographer Peter Hujar, singer Freddie Mercury, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, dancer Rudolf Noureev, actor Anthony Perkins, and writer Pier Vittorio Tondelli lie inscribed alongside that of the dramaturge. In theory, these celebrities, who all come from different countries and varying artistic backgrounds, have hardly anything in common. However, upon taking a closer look, all the aforementioned artists were in fact bisexual or homosexual, and most importantly, passed away between 1989 and 1993 from the same cause: AIDS.

Based on this fact, the landmark is less of a landmark and more specifically a memorial. However, what use is it? If, as it is most obviously pointed-out, the goal is that of homage, one must not forget that the landmark allows for the underlining of the losses caused by AIDS, for the support of HIV-positive people, and for the highlighting of a sometimes-taboo subject. Of course, the landmark is not among the most impressive in terms of size. And of course, if one is not aware of the cause of death of these well-known figures, there is nothing that allows for one to make the link between the disease and the work. However, the fact is that it exists, on one of the city’s busiest paths, and is even honored every year on Candle Light Day—the international memorial day for AIDS. 

A big story for a small memorial

The origin of this memorial dates back to 1992 during Documenta IX, the contemporary art exhibition in Kassel. It was then that an artist had offered, for the first time in Europe, to build a memorial in honor of the fight against AIDS. The title of the piece of art is Denkraum Namen und Steine (Place for Reflection, Names, and Stones) and its creator was new German artist, Tom Fecht, from Berlin, who wished to throw himself into a European-wide project entitled Nomadic Memorial. In general, it is the same piece of art that would have been recreated the next year in Riga and it consisted of engraving the names of key figures whom had passed away from AIDS in a cobblestone road.

Tom Fecht went on to recreate the work in 22 German cities, as well as Zurich and Riga in 1993. But why did he choose Riga? One of the reasons, of course, is that one of Europe’s major causes for concern at the time was the AIDS pandemic, and Riga was host city to a World Health Organization conference that focused on the importance for Central and Western European countries to take preventative action against AIDS in their countries. The choice then for the location of the Latvian capital’s work seems quite self-explanatory. It fall amongst the actions taken in Riga to fight against the disease. 

The symbolic work is much stronger than it appears and in fact echoes Fecht’s personal investment not only in the fight against AIDS, but also in the defense of gay rights, as he only engraved the names of non-heterosexual people. The ulterior message this work purported was of a sensitive nature for Western Europe. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that Russia ceased considering homosexuality as a disease. Yet Fecht’s work was created in 1993. In Latvia this lifestyle was often seen as a Western imposition; Zbignevs Stankevičs, the archbishop of Latvia, had recently declared, “homosexual relations are against nature”. Despite that, Fecht’s work was part of the affirmation of Latvian autonomy, which was a brand new movement in 1993. One can thus imagine that the remainder of Soviet troops still in the country at the time of the creation of the piece of art most likely did not look onto the homage of these non-heterosexual key figures on their ancient territory in a positive light. In fact, a project of the likes would never even had seen the light of day a mere two years earlier. Hence, in a certain way, it highlights Latvia’s recent autonomy quite well. 

HIV in Latvia

Beyond its community involvement, the piece of art invites one to consider the threat posed by AIDS—a real and growing threat in Latvia. In 1993 only 20 people were diagnosed as HIV-positive in the country. However the number quickly rose, to 88 cases in 1997, 2710 cases at the end of 2013, and 8600 cases of AIDS and HIV in 2009. With 13% of the population being affected in 2011, Latvia is the second country most affected by HIV infection, second only to Estonia, which lies at a staggering 27%. The main cause for the former can be explained by the explosion in intravenous drug use amongst the youth and by the development of sex tourism and prostitution. The government’s failure to sufficiently frame the new freedoms associated with the end of soviet occupation led to the inability to contain the rapid expansion of HIV, which was among the most rampant in all of Europe. Today, the country has a relatively high amount of drug addicts for such a small territory, estimated to be approximately 5000. Nonetheless, the Latvian government has taken measures to fight this problem, notably with the implementation of a network for the exchange of needles for drug addicts, which was created along with the help of the Latvian Red Cross Youth in 2002. However, this is only part of the problem. Despite political action, the problem is far from being solved for this country which counted only 20 cases of HIV/AIDS 20 years ago. 

It is this way then, that Fecht’s discrete memorial resonates in more ways than one. The first, is that of the fight against HIV through means of prevention in a country that is nowadays greatly affected by the disease. The second is that of promoting gay rights in a country that is little inclined to change regarding the matter. However, an ideological divide can definitely be noticed between the Soviet-era generation and the new generation, which, like post-Apartheid South African youth, we can consider Born Free. This generation no longer shares all the same values as its progenitors. Be that as it may, even though Fecht’s memorial is only honored once a year during the Candle Light Day during which participants place candles on the cobblestones, its humanistic message might in fact resonate on a larger scale. After all, hundreds of pedestrians walk this road, and consequently this memorial every day without even knowing it.