November 20, 2021
The Neiburgs Building in the Life of Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga (1937) was the President of Latvia from 1999 to 2007. Under her leadership, Latvia was able to secure membership in the European Union and NATO, thus increasing its international visibility and security. The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called her one of the global leaders.
Author: Ieva Lesinska
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s presidency has left a lasting legacy in the consciousness of the Latvian nation, but very few people know that the building that now houses the Neiburgs Hotel and Restaurant has played an interesting role in her life.
The following conversation centering on that role took place one fine autumn day in an apartment on the sixth floor of the hotel. In addition to the former president, her husband Imants Freibergs, Kristīne and Katrīna Neiburgs, and Katrīna’s son Ludvigs took part.
Kristīne Neiburga: I remember how we were putting together various stories regarding the history of the hotel, and someone heard that you know this building quite well. May I ask you to share your recollections? As far as I understand, you visited your relatives here sometime in the 1960s?
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga: Yes, on August 9, 1969, man stepped onto the Moon for the first time in history, and I was here with my relatives watching it on television.
Kristīne Neiburga: You were a little girl when you left Latvia, but returned, for the first time, during the Soviet occupation. What was it like?
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga: There was someone in a military uniform on every corner. There were so many of them that it was horrifying. It was the peak of the Cold War – the resistance movement in Hungary was suppressed in 1956, an invasion of Czechoslovakia followed in 1968 – the atmosphere was scary. One could not fly directly to Riga, first we had to go to Leningrad. And there, as the plane landed, a man from the militia or the KGB stepped up and collected everyone’s passports. I remember how my passport too was thrown into his big bag – plop! At that moment I thought: “My passport is my protection as a Canadian citizen, but now I no longer have it…” Before the trip, the Canadian authorities warned me “On this trip you are on your own. The Soviets consider you having been born in their territory, so if they decided to arrest you for any reason, we wouldn’t be able to interfere.” So, we took this risk with an uneasy heart.
Kristīne Neiburga: As far as I’ve read, one of your reasons for visiting Latvia at that time was your scholarly research involving Latvian folksongs.
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga: It was Expo-67, that took place in Montreal, that generated that. There was a Soviet pavilion with a period of time allocated for each of the 15 republics. You could see paintings, there were visiting musicians and writers. It was a great summer for us, in Montreal. There, the first ties were established with Latvians from Latvia.
But to get back to this building… Right now, we have a view of the Dom Cathedral, and I remember how, during the war, my mother and I would go for Sunday services there. My dad would join us sometimes, but he preferred to be out in the country fishing. In the church, we always sat to the right from the main entrance.
I was bored stiff by the sermons, and while the pastor was talking, I used to entertain myself by looking at the stained-glass windows, which were lost during the war. I was particularly disturbed by the confession part of the proceedings because it was said that we had to atone for the sins that we had committed in deed, word, and thought. From time to time, I would do things which the adults were not happy with and for which I would get in trouble, but the thought that someone up in the sky kept a register of my thoughts and would punish me for every silly thing that entered my mind was horrifying. Because thinking means harmlessly trying things out – should one really get punished for that?
After the service, we would often come to this house because here, on the 6th floor, lived the uncle of my stepfather – his father’s brother with his large family. They had two teenage children, a son and a daughter. While my mom would gossip with my aunt and drink coffee – probably chicory coffee, as it was wartime – the girl would let me fool around at the piano. Later, she joked that she’d been my first piano teacher.
I have a vivid memory of the stairwell of this building and its tiled floors. Imants says that it’s 104 steps to the sixth floor – he’d counted them while visiting here. Well, just before my presidency, when I was staying here, these steps came in handy, because running up and down the stairs, I lost 15 pounds. But as a child, I would get tired climbing these stairs, so I would stop half-way and look out the window. I was so little that I had to stand on tiptoe, but since the street was so narrow, I could look directly in the windows of the building of the opposite side. That’s my earliest memory. I must have been about four. For some reason, the fronton of the History Museum is missing from my memory, but I do remember marveling at the spire of Dom Cathedral.
Kristīne Neiburga: And then you came back to this building later in life, right?
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga: In 1998, I retired in Canada as a professor emerita, it was in June. And then at the end of September, I received an unexpected phone call from Riga. The caller was the then prime minister Guntars Krasts who said that they’d just had a cabinet meeting in which they had established the Latvian Institute. The idea had been put forward a while back, but now they needed a director who knew foreign languages, was familiar with Latvian culture, and could make this institution functional.
Initially, there had been talk of 25,000 lats, which were supposed to be spent on an ad in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, describing Latvia as a nice and beautiful country well worth visiting. But then they had changed their minds and instead of spending that money on a one-off thing had decided on the Institute. When I became its director, I roomed with that same family, the children and grandchildren of the Hermanovičs. I had the use of the room where I had played the piano as a child – the piano was no longer there, there was just a little table a book-case and a couch which opened like a pocket knife, but not fully flat.
Then one day the then chairman of the Creative Unions, Jānis Škapars, and the academic Maija Kūle came for a visit. They told me in confidence that members of the intelligentsia had decided to lobby for my candidacy to the office of president, including among the members of the Saeima (Parliament), who are the ones who elect the president according to our Constitution. They also organized a letter of support from artists, musicians, intellectuals, and folklore specialists that was published in the daily Diena.
When I tell my foreign colleagues how I got to be president, they all laugh, because the normal procedure is to be a member of some political party, there is a campaign, there are financial supporters, etc. But I didn’t spend a penny and had public support only from intellectuals and artists. The politicians didn’t dare say anything, because they represented parties, and each party already had its own official nominee. Everything was to be decided (and was) in the second round of voting.
Kristīne Neiburga: So how long did you live in this building?
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga: From October 1998 to July 7, 1999. The inauguration took place on July 8, after which we stayed at the Riga Castle and then moved to the residence.
After we had satisfied our curiosity as to the former president’s ties to this building, she wanted to hear the story of its renovation and how, as a result of the loving efforts of the Neiburgs family, the squalid rentals of the Soviet period were turned into an elegant and modern hotel, with its numerous references to the pre-occupation past, including the beautiful floor tiles that have stuck in the memory of the former president.
At the end of her visit, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga turned to little Ludvigs, who has inherited his great-great-great-grandfather’s first name. “The fact that you come from a famous family is a privilege,” she said. “To be privileged is a good thing, but it’s also a burden. May you always carry this burden responsibly and with dignity.”