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Riga

  • Formerly an independent city-state, Riga was captured by Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus in 1621, and was in fact Sweden’s largest city until it was taken by Russia under Peter the Great in 1710.
  • At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union’s Red Army defeated German forces occupying Latvia but remained after the war ended, turning Latvia into a communist puppet state. 160,000 Latvians fled, mostly to Sweden and Germany. Another 140,000 dissenters were captured and sent to the Gulag by the army and KGB.
  • The notorious KGB headquarters in Riga was jokingly called the tallest building in the city because from the top, one could see all the way to Siberia. It currently houses a commemorative monument known as the Black Door.
  • Latvia declared independence from the U.S.S.R. in 1990 during the mostly-peaceful Singing Revolution, along with fellow Baltic states Estonia and Lithuania. In 1991 thousands of residents built barricades on the streets of Riga to repel a Soviet invasion, but only small skirmishes took place.
  • In the summer of 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev survived a coup attempt by military and KGB hardliners who wanted to reassert control over Latvia and other satellite states. In response, the independence of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania was recognized, which began the official dissolution of the U.S.S.R.
  • In 1992 (when Mankell’s novel was published, presumably also the year the story takes place) Latvia issued its own rubles, equal to Soviet rubles, as a transitional currency. The ruble was worth about a penny at the time, making Liepa’s 10-ruble bill on the poker table about a dime and Wallander’s 300-ruble underwear about $3. Latvia transitioned from the ruble to the lats in 1993, and plans to move to the euro in 2014.
  • When Kurt and Baiba communicate “in Scandinavian,” he speaks Swedish and she speaks Danish. This is the typical way Scandinavians of different countries communicate, as their languages are similar enough to be mutually intelligible.
  • The Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania is a popular pilgrimage site, associated with Lithuania’s struggle for independence from Russia (and later the U.S.S.R.). More than once it was bulldozed by Soviet authorities, only to be rebuilt by the Lithuanian people. It had about 50,000 crosses when Wallander visited, and over 100,000 today.
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