This year marks the 400th anniversary of northern Latvia joining Sweden for a century, a period remembered for prosperity and progress. Today, an intrepid Swede who has settled in Latvia is on a mission to explore the military heritage of that era.

Holding the fort

From evocative remains of medieval castles to crumbling Soviet eyesores, Latvia has plenty of intriguing ruins. Few of them are as steeped in history and rich in stories as Daugavgrīva Fortress on Riga’s northern outskirts.

Constructed by the Swedes in the 17th century to guard the mouth of the Daugava River, it has endured battles and sieges, hosted royalty and played a vital role in the birth of the Latvian nation. But it was neglected for many years and few locals had a clue about it.

Enter Jacob Lalander. For several years, this Swedish businessman has been donning a handsome period uniform and educating locals and tourists alike about the fortress. His blend of meticulous research, captivating storytelling and cheerful humour is forging links between two cultures he knows intimately.

Photo by Philip Birzulis

“As a foreigner, my Latvian might sound a bit awkward, but it’s kind of authentic to speak about this Swedish fortress with a Swedish accent - maybe people appreciate it!” he laughs.

Northern gateway

 As the fulcrum of major trading routes between east and west, Riga has long been a battleground between rival powers, who built fortifications around the city for over 800 years. These efforts were particularly intense in the 1600s, when Riga was the largest city in the Kingdom of Sweden and its tax and customs duties filled the state’s coffers.

Following his conquest of Riga from the Poles, in 1624 King Gustavus Adolphus ordered the modest facilities at Daugavgrīva to be beefed up. Over the next few decades, renowned military engineer Erik Dahlberg turned Dünamünde into one of the most advanced fortresses in Europe, a star-shaped, moat-ensconced redoubt bristling with canons and complete with barracks, a church and everything else the 500-man garrison required.

Photo courtesy of Jacob Lalander

In 1710, Daugavgrīva fell to Peter the Great, removing the last Swedish foothold in the Baltics. It was occupied by Czarist Russia for the next two centuries, and the Soviet regime maintained an important naval base there. In 1975, Daugavgrīva was the site of a mutiny on a destroyer which inspired the film The Hunt for Red October.

Jacob Lalander came to Latvia in  1994 to work for pharmaceuticals manufacturer Grindex. For a long time, he believed that there was nothing left at the fortress, which had been ransacked after a scandalous privatisation in the 1990s. The Latvian state regained possession of the property in 2013, and Jacob’s friend Fredrik von Feilitzen, an amateur Stockholm historian with Baltic German roots, urged him to take a look.

“It was a shambles – junk everywhere, used needles, it was really a mess,” he says. “At the same time it made such an impression on me - these forgotten 22 hectares, what a beauty it was.” 

He joined a group of residents from the nearby town of Bolderāja to clean up the site, and studied the history of the fortress. When he first advertised tours in 2017, he expected a few dozen day-trippers. Instead, hundreds of people signed up.

Photo by Philip Birzulis

According to Jacob, some come just for a stroll with their families, while others are history buffs. Besides being a superpower stomping ground, the fortress has also shaped Latvian identity. Ernst Glück, the Lutheran pastor who first translated the Bible into Latvian, served as a garrison chaplain. And in 1915, the first of the Latvian Rifle Battalions which would eventually win the country’s independence was formed at Daugavgrīva.

During the week, Jacob runs a firm which sends Latvian workers to Sweden to extract metals from industrial waste. On weekends, he conducts tours in Latvian, English and Swedish, and has shown a fair few ambassadors, generals and ministers around. This year, Latvia’s pandemic regulations permit the gathering of small groups in the fresh air if they observe two-metre distancing, and he would be happy to show small groups around. He can be contacted via his Facebook profile.

Tour de force

While unfortunately many of the fortress’s buildings have been lost to wars and vandalism, the landscape is still intact and with a little imagination the past comes to life. While Jacob says it is impossible to fully rebuild what was one of the largest engineering projects in Swedish history, the activist group “Bolderājas grupa” of which he is an active member would like to see a portion restored to show what life was like inside in its heyday. Jacob thinks if the site was given the status of a museum it could attract EU funding, citing the Daugavpils Fortress with its Mark Rothko Art Centre as an inspiring example.

In the meantime, “Bolderājas grupa” has placed information boards around the site, and they would like to put in handrails and other improvements.

Reflecting on the two countries he has called home, Jacob believes that Latvians and northern Swedes (the southerners are more gregarious) like to mind their own business and keep the chitchat down. And the ties forged over many centuries are still strong.

“The culture has been shaped by growing in isolated farmhouses, not villages like in Italy or France where people live on top of each other, he says.  “On an ordinary person level, there’s not much difference between Latvians and Swedes - we’re essentially herring-and-pork-eating, beer-drinking, mostly Lutheran believers. “

Philip Birzulis, 16.03.2021