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The fate of the Daugava How the fight to save a river gave rise to Latvia’s independence movement

Source: Meduza

Story by Katya Balaban for The Beet. Translation by Sam Breazeale.

In the aftermath of World War II, Moscow set out to build a cascade of hydroelectric power stations in Soviet-occupied Latvia. But popular opposition to the looming loss of natural monuments along the Daugava River proved to be a stumbling block — one that grew increasingly insurmountable as the decades-long project marched on. For The Beet, Meduza photo editor Katya Balaban recounts how the fight to save the Daugava River’s natural riches kick-started Latvia’s independence movement.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Every day in September 1974, Ādolfs Riekstiņš went to the bank of the Daugava River and watched as the massive pit that would soon become the Riga Hydroelectric Power Plant reservoir filled with water. Last to disappear were the remnants of the mill that his grandfather had built.

Ten years had passed since Riekstiņš’s family and nearly 200 others had learned that the Soviet authorities were planning to flood the land they had lived on for generations. “That was the first time I saw my dad cry,” Ādolfs’s daughter, Rudīte Ķikuste, recalled. “He and my grandfather had planted so many trees on the island. And now he was being ordered to chop them all down himself.”

The Riekstiņš family had lived on Dole Island since 1740. Rudīte lived there for 18 years — almost up until the day it was flooded. She told The Beet that she learned to swim before she learned to read. For centuries, life on the island had been inseparable from the river.

A boat crossing on Dole Island, 1960s
Museum of the River Daugava Collection

The Daugava is the largest river in Latvia. Stretching a total length of 1,020 kilometers (634 miles), the river starts in Russia’s Tver region, crosses through northern Belarus, and continues into Latvia, where it flows into the Baltic Sea. The section in Latvia is 352 kilometers (219 miles) long.

The Daugava has always been important to the Latvian economy, and for thousands of years, it served as an important route for local tribes as well as for Vikings and European peoples, who used it for trade and conquest. Numerous settlements and castles arose along the banks of Daugava, some of which later grew into cities, including Riga.

The Daugava River and Koknese Castle on a cliff. Wilhelm Siegfried Stavenhagen's engraving, 1866
Letonika

Every family on Dole Island had their own boats. Practically everybody fished, and many of the island’s residents mined dolomite from the river’s bed and banks. With no spring frosts on the island, conditions were ideal for agriculture. Islanders grew early potatoes and cabbage, wheat, rye, apples, and even grapes. Fish, vegetables, and stone were sent to the capital, Riga. Most households on the island were relatively wealthy; Rudīte’s grandfather, for example, had a mill, a smithy, a cattle yard, and several cargo boats.

“Everybody knew one another, and when you left home, you never locked your door,” Rudīte said. With a population of about 500, the island had a school, a library, a church, shops, a fire brigade (with its very own Ford), and even an orchestra; Rudīte’s father played the trumpet.

Click on the dots to read the captions
Click on the dots to read the captions

While the Riekstiņš family’s home disappeared underwater in 1974, it wasn’t the first time they had been forced to leave Dole Island. Decades earlier, during the mass deportations of 1941 and 1949, the Soviet authorities sent almost half of the island’s inhabitants to Siberia. “They expelled everyone who had anything at all,” Rudīte said. “My father gave his grandfather’s mill to the authorities to protect the family from repressions, but he ended up on their lists anyways.” Ultimately, the family managed to avoid deportation in 1949 thanks to one “conscientious Soviet officer” who advised them “not to be at home today.”

After Joseph Stalin’s death and the start of Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw, the Riekstiņš family returned to Dole Island. They found their home occupied, but they managed to buy it back, and Ādolfs began working at the mill that had once belonged to his father. Twenty years later, they were forced to leave Dole Island again, when half of its territory was flooded.

A map of the reservoir near the Riga HPP and Dole Island that shows the flooded areas on the island and along the riverbank. Click on the dots to read the captions.
A map of the reservoir near the Riga HPP and Dole Island that shows the flooded areas on the island and along the riverbank. Click on the dots to read the captions.

The cascade

Engineers first proposed using the Daugava River to generate electricity in the 1920s, during Latvia’s interwar period of independence. According to historian Mārtiņš Mintaurs, an associate professor at the University of Latvia, the original plan was to construct a cascade of seven power stations between the town of Jekabpils and Riga, as well as to build passageways for fish and to develop the river for boat traffic. The reservoirs would remain within the main river bed, and the water level rise was projected to be minimal. By the end of the 1930s, however, only one station had been built: the Ķegums Hydroelectric Power Station.

In the aftermath of World War II, during which Latvia came under Soviet occupation, the USSR’s Hydroproject Institute took over the project. The new, Moscow-designed plans included neither boat traffic nor fish passes, and instead of six more small stations, the authorities decided to build three large ones, each with a massive reservoir. The first new station, the Pļaviņas Hydroelectric Power Station, began operating in 1965; the Riga Hydroelectric Power Plant was built in 1974, and construction of a plant near the city of Daugavpils began in 1979.

Were these hydropower stations necessary?

Here’s what historian Mārtiņš Mintaurs had to say on the subject:

“Under the circumstances of an industrial era, building the HPPs was inevitable, but it could have been done in different ways. There were alternative projects. If it weren’t for the Soviet regime, this cascade could have been made according to the project from 1932: seven small HPPs, with small reservoirs. And then there would’ve been a different landscape. Of course, it would’ve generated less electricity than the Soviet project, but there would’ve been other benefits that weren’t taken into consideration in the Soviet era.”

Riga Hydroelectric Power Plant. Salaspils, 2023.
Katya Balaban
Power lines across the Daugava River. Salaspils, 2023.
Katya Balaban
A fisherman on the Riga HPP dam. Salaspils, 2023.
Katya Balaban
Pļaviņas Hydroelectric Power Plant. Aizkraukle, 2023.
Katya Balaban