Suzy Sharland Travel Award, Kavya visits Riga, Latvia

21 May 2024

latvia 4


Last year, as I was given the exciting opportunity to visit Riga, the dynamic capital of Latvia, thanks to the Suzy Sharland Travel Award, my dad and I planned a four-day trip there in August.

Since I could not go to Russia itself, visiting Latvia was a unique chance to explore the relationship between Russia and post-Soviet countries and gain a broader understanding of the Russian-speaking world. For example, speaking to local shopkeepers in the Central Market, I learned about their preference for the use of Latvian rather than Russian, which revealed a collective desire to distance themselves from their Soviet past and Russia’s current actions, a sentiment that resonated with us as we visited the KGB House and Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.

KGB House

KGB House

From the outside, the KGB House seemed like any other art nouveau building in Riga, however, it was the place of interrogation and incarceration of Latvian citizens during Soviet occupation in Latvia. Our tour guide taught us about the oppressive Soviet regime, in the eyes of which anyone could be guilty as many, including teachers, students, and the police, could be picked up for crimes such as “anti-Soviet conversations”. This cruelty was further emphasised as we toured the execution chambers and the small, barred area in which prisoners were allowed to walk around. I found it interesting to learn about how many Soviet crimes were only discovered decades after the occupation, for example in the picture below, wallpaper had covered up the bullet holes for many years before it was discovered that room had been an execution chamber.

We felt a shift in tone as we went from the KGB House to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. While the former highlighted the cruelty of the Soviet regime, the latter focussed on the resilience and strength of the Latvian people to rise from such suffering. Russia had become the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, and the Latvian language was relegated to the back seat. However, during the end of the Soviet occupation, Latvian consciousness began to arise, characterised by an awareness of Latvian identity and the rights of a nation. I learned about how this found expression in music, art, and public demonstrations and was
impressed by inspiring stories of collective solidarity, for example, in 1989, 1.5 million people held hands in a 660 km long chain to fight for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania’s independence.


Museum of occupation

Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

As art lovers, we spent a long time at the Latvian National Museum of Art which demonstrated the active role of art in the process of Latvia’s national awakening. While lots of artwork we saw was directly critical of the Soviet regime, a more subtle yet powerful one that stood out to me was ‘The Flying Latvia’ by Biruta Delle (1944), as it was not directly political but natural and creative, expressing a longing for freedom and was a surreal premonition of Latvia’s independence in the future.

flying latvia

‘The Flying Latvia’ by Biruta Delle (1944)

Alongside these sights, we also had a chance to explore the lively streets and their beautiful architecture. We visited the House of Blackheads Museum, where live music filled the streets whenever we passed by, the Riga Cathedral, and spent a couple of nights watching an opera at the Latvian National Opera and going on a boat tour of the city.

latvia collage


As our time in Riga drew to an end, we visited the Freedom Monument, a tall symbol of Latvia’s sovereignty and striving for independence. On the statue, you can see a woman holding three stars.

The distortion of its true meaning particularly struck me, as according to Soviet propaganda, this monument represented Russia upholding the three Baltic countries, whereas the three stars actually represent Latvia’s historical regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme, and Latgale. Yet, this false narrative also saved the monument from demolition during Soviet rule and serves as an important reminder that history is more complex than it seems.

Overall, our time in Riga gifted us with some great memories and a deep appreciation for its rich culture and heritage. I would love to spend more time further exploring Latvia, possibly during my year abroad at university. I am very thankful for this wonderful opportunity and thank generous donor of this award.

Freedom monument

Freedom Monument

About the Suzy Sharland Travel Award

The Suzy Sharland Travel Award is awarded each year to a Year 12 student studying Modern Languages on the basis of an essay of 800-1,000 words.

The financial award is to support travel to a place of their choice to learn more about its culture and language. To enter, students must write an essay in English about an aspect of the country they wish to visit, focusing on ‘unlocking culture through creativity’.

Suzy Sharland was an alumna of NLCS, attending the School between 1972 and 1979. She studied English, French and Latin at A Level and went on to read French at Warwick University, graduating in 1983. She carved out a career in publishing with the private, quality art book publisher, Thames & Hudson. Her life was cut tragically short when she suffered a severe brain haemorrhage from which she never recovered. She died aged 59. Married to Stephen, Suzy’s passions included languages, art, doing The Times crossword and travelling. The prize and travel bursary are to commemorate these passions and her memory.


Back to NLCS Thinking