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From war port to artistic hub: The transformation of Latvia’s Karosta

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From war port to artistic hub: The transformation of Latvia’s Karosta
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Marco Carlone
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With picturesque beaches on the Baltic Sea and an array of historic architecture, the Latvian neighbourhood of Karosta is a hub for the country's creatives.

But while artists, authors and poets are now flocking to the area in search of creative freedom, for many years people were desperate to flee from it.

The past

Karosta, or “war port” in Latvian, was founded as a naval base under the Tsarist empire in the late 19th century.

It retained this use during Nazi occupation in World War II.

When the Red Army invaded the country, the Soviets modernised the area and turned it into a closed city, where hard-to-obtain permits were required to get in and out.

During this period, up to 20,000 people lived and worked in the “outdoor prison”.

Marco Carlone
Historic buildings are seen in KarostaMarco Carlone

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvia’s third most populated city, Liepāja, absorbed Karosta.

The final members of the Soviet Army left the base in 1994, leaving behind distinctive marks of their rule — brutalist apartment blocks and the icon of communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin on the façade of the gold-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Maritime Cathedral.

After the Soviet Army left, the former military base earned a reputation as a dangerous neighbourhood, plagued by alcoholism, petty crime and smuggling.

Residents of Liepāja tended to avoid going there after sunset, and the area soon became a fully-fledged ghost town — one of many places plunged into crisis by the end of communism.

For years, empty, rundown warehouses and barracks built in red brick were the only vestige of its Tsarist origins.

The rebirth

In the 21st century, Latvia underwent a significant transformation, eventually entering the European Union in 2004.

With EU money coming in, Karosta got a second chance.

For the first time, the “city within a city” opened up to the outside world.

Marco Carlone
A woman walks through KarostaMarco Carlone

In 2013, a competition was launched to re-design the urban landscape of Karosta and its harbour.

The main tourist attraction is currently its prison, which has become a must-visit for fans of dark tourism, who can relive the experience of the Soviets’ prisoners by being insulted, threatened and shaken for two hours by mock guards in old uniforms.

But outside of the prison, another Karosta has emerged that has taken it away from its dark past.

A creative community

A community of writers, painters and activists has emerged in Karosta, taking inspiration from its twisted history and seeking to transform it into a creative hub.

The K@2 Artists Center was established there in 2000, and over time, other artistic enterprises have also chosen Karosta as their headquarters.

Among the creatives who have found a safe haven in Karosta is novelist and poet Andra Manfelde, a popular figure in the Latvian underground literature scene.

After converting to Orthodox christianity while recovering from a drug addiction in the early 1990s, Andra went on a pilgrimage in which she made her first visit to Karosta.

Marco Carlone
Novelist and poet Andra ManfeldeMarco Carlone

“My first impression was one of a surrealistic place: all these buildings seemed having popped up after a nuclear explosion. We were in the 90s, crazy years. And this place got stuck in my soul,” she recalls.

“This place is like a non-city. It claims to be a city, but it’s not. It’s not even a village, it doesn’t belong to the 20th century.”

Andra now calls Karosta her home, and says she is inspired “every single day” by its inhabitants and architecture.

Already the author of more than 11 books, Andra explains that the peaceful atmosphere in Karosta helps creativity flow.

This atmosphere couldn’t be further removed from the one she arrived to.

“In the 90s here it was completely different. You couldn’t walk around safely. Shootings were common,” she says.

But while the city has transformed from a war port to one of peace and tranquility, Andra muses that its current inhabitants may not be too dissimilar to those of the past.

“People used to say that only marginalised people, lunatics, live here. Well, in Latvia writers are also lunatics.”