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Many wars have unfolded on the territory of Latvia: the German Crusaders came here, the land was scoured by the armies of the Russian tsars Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, even the Swedish king Gustav XII led his troops in Latvia, and Latvia was on Napoleon’s route towards Moscow… The greatest legacy has been left by both world wars in the twentieth century, and interesting records of the Soviet occupation and the Cold War can be viewed in Latvia.
Ancient mediaeval fortifications, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fortresses, battle sites of World Wars I and II, formerly secret military facilities of the Cold War, shafts of missiles aimed at Western Europe – you can see all this in Latvia. In Latvian forests and marshes, you can still come across rusty weapons or even World War II tanks. For example, military history enthusiasts lifted two Red Army tanks from a marsh in Džūkste in 1999, and one of them still started!
In their exploration of history, travellers are definitely not required to crawl around marshes and woods. Military artefacts have been collected in museums: for example, a real tank and other weapons can be viewed at the Kurzeme Fortress Museum in Zante, which has been declared a European cultural heritage site. In the centre of Riga, there is the War Museum featuring an abundant collection. You can find out a great deal about First World War battles in Latvia in Tīreļpurvs, near Riga, which is the home of the Christmas Battle Museum.
An impressive military legacy has been left after the departure of the Soviet, and later the Russian, army. You can go on an excursion to Irbene, near the Kurzeme coast, where a former secret facility has now been taken over by astronomers. During the Cold War, the military used the radar here to spy on NATO countries by intercepting telephone conversations, whereas now the devices have been transformed into radio telescopes and serve the exploration of space.
The former military settlement near Skrunda is an interesting site. A Soviet army radar station used to be located here, tracking the skies for possible incoming enemy missiles. In 1995 the monumental radar building, one of a few of its kind in the world, was ceremonially blown up, while in 1998 the Russian army left Skrunda and Latvia for good. Since then, the buildings of the military ghost town have been abandoned to the forces of nature and time.
During the Cold War years, a large number of nuclear shelters were built in Latvia. The largest and most significant of them, the bunker in Līgatne, has been well preserved and welcomes tourists.
At Rudbārži, Vaiņode, Eleja, Tērvete and elsewhere, soviet nuclear missile bases can be visited – or what is left of them. If a war were to break out, this is where the missiles would take off for Western Europe… They have not been turned into tourist attractions with amenities, which is why you should be careful when visiting them.
Impressive clues to military history can be seen in the Liepāja Karosta (War Port), where a naval base was built back at the turn of the twentieth century during the rule of the Russian Empire. Even during the Soviet era this place housed the main Baltic naval base of the USSR. It is possible to experience history coming alive in the Liepāja Karosta: a museum has been installed in the Karosta prison, where one can, for example, try out being a Soviet soldier for 24 hours.