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Old ‘Soviet Mentality’ Hard To Eradicate in Independent Latvia

September 11, 1991

RIGA, Latvia (AP) _ Budding capitalists began hawking stone chips from the Lenin’s toppled statue for a dollar apiece almost as soon as an energetic crowd finished smashing the effigy two weeks ago.

The site is now swept clean, but what cannot be brushed away so readily is the legacy of a half century of communism: obsolete industry, an entrenched bureaucracy and what many here call ″the Soviet mentality.″

″The Soviet system has really changed the mentality of the Latvians,″ said Vivita Rosenberg, a Latvian-American working in Riga.

Since Lenin’s statue came down in Riga, the Soviet parliament has recognized the independence declarations of Latvia and its sister Baltic republics, Estonia and Lithuania.

People talked of big changes ahead, and yet the mentality lives on.

Take the two clerks at a Russian-language book store who ignore their customers while absorbed in a chat, the waitresses who lend a deaf ear to pleas for service, and the hotel receptionist who shouts down a would-be guest.

The Soviet-run Hotel Latvia - one of Riga’s biggest - closed for maintenance just after the Aug. 18-21 coup, evicting Westerners desperate for rooms. A potential windfall from dollar-rich journalists held no sway.

″It seems the bureaucracy makes a decision and then every one just accepts it,″ said Martin Sandell, assistant manager of the Eurolink, a Western-style joint venture hotel that opened last week in one wing of the Hotel Riga, recently ceded from Soviet to Latvian control.

Per Beckard, the Swedish hotel manager, gave a quick lesson in customer service when a Latvian employee continued his conversation with Beckard while ignoring a customer.

″Guest,″ said Beckard, pointing to the customer. ″Worker,″ he said pointing at himself. ″Guest before worker.″

″When there is a problem, they tend to shrug and say they can’t do anything about it. We are trying to get them to understand that they have to do everything they can to help a customer,″ said Sandell, a Swede.

Hotel rooms aside, dollars can buy almost anything in Riga, where a bus ride costs less than the ruble equivalent of a penny, and the average salary in rubles is worth about $20 a month.

Writing paper was scarce in early September at any price, even in the gleaming dollar shops packed with Western products.

″Note pads are a problem because school just started and there isn’t any paper left,″ said Rosenberg.

Next door to the colorful window displays of one hard-currency shop, Latvians stood patiently in line outside the bare windows of a local store, hoping to spend their rubles on a spartan selection of wares.

For Latvians, waiting in line is second nature.

″In America, time is money. Here time is wasted,″ said Andra Raudseps, 24, another Latvian-American, who is working in Riga as a free-lance journalist.

Indeed, individual initiatives are sprouting, like the sprigs of grass popping up around Lenin’s pedestal.

Elisabet Raslenoka has a good job as personnel director for the state publishing firm Knizhnaya Torgovlya. But each weekend, Mrs. Raslenoka, 56, drives her black Volga company car to a small market in Riga to sell flowers.

″It is quite embarrassing to stand here. But we need the money to finish the house we started building years ago,″ she said.

Her monthly salary more than doubled in July to 650 rubles, but it’s still only about $20 at the black market rate, barely enough to make ends meet.

That type of initiative may help independent Latvia free itself of the easy excuses for avoiding enterprise in the Soviet era. And Raudseps said her colleagues still excuse inefficiencies by saying, ″Well you know, ’it’s the Soviet system.‴

″Now they will have to take responsibility for the world around them,″ she said. ″They will have to stop blaming the communist system.″

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