Kevin O'Connor, "The House of Hemp and Butter: A History of Old Riga" (NIUP, 2019)

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Latvia's elegant capital, Riga, is one of Europe's best-kept secrets. Strategically located on the Eastern Baltic coast at the mouth of the River Daugava, Riga was founded in the early 13th century as a trading hub, a military outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, and a base for Roman Catholic prelates to convert both the pagan natives and the Orthodox Christians of Rus.

Kevin O'Connor's new book, The House of Hemp and Butter: A History of Old Riga (Northern Illinois University Press, 2019) charts the fascinating history of Riga from the earliest days to Peter the Great's conquest of the much-coveted trading port in the early 18th century.

O'Connor's book recounts in fascinating detail the personalities who shaped and dominated Riga's political and economic history. For six centuries, Riga's fortunes rose and fell in step with major political events of Europe, as the uneasy triumvirate of the church, military, and merchants balanced control and power over the city, ever hopeful to keep goods such as furs, timber, resin, and beeswax flowing from the vast Russian forest lands, through Riga and onto the rest of the known world. O'Connor introduces us to the infamous Livonian Brotherhood of the Sword — a military order of knights based in the city, canny and diplomatic prelates, and the notorious Brotherhood of the Blackfaces, one of the city's professional associations.

From the outset, Riga was a multi-national and polyglot city, much as it remains today. Her membership in the Hanseatic League — the European economic fraternity, which enjoyed a virtual monopoly on trade — greatly enhanced the city's prestige and economic influence, as Germans, Poles, and other Hansa members established successful trading relationships with Riga's guilds. Riga's rapid adoption of Protestantism in the 16th century forged other strong links with her neighbors and separated her even further culturally from the growing might of Russia.

Though Rigans cherished their independence, the history of their city is one of almost constant occupation or rule of a foreign power, as the larger players in the Baltic constantly fought to gain the prize that was the city on the Daugava. O’Connor’s accounts of German, Polish, and later Swedish occupations help readers understand why the city developed in the way it did.

O'Connor leaves us at Riga’s nadir. As plague ravishes the war-torn city, Tsar Peter the Great captures Riga as part of his conquest of the Eastern Baltic in the Great Northern War, which established the Russian Empire as the preeminent naval power in the Baltic Sea, but relegates Riga to a second-tier trading hub. Moreover, O'Conner suggests, Russia's conquest of the city forces Riga to adopt "Eastern," which never sits comfortably with the centuries of Riga's primarily "Western" culture and nature. We are left hoping that perhaps now, as Riga sloughs off the Soviet occupation, she will once more take her rightful place in the Baltic’s panoply of prosperous ports.

The House of Hemp and Butter is an impeccably-researched and very engagingly written account of Riga's fascinating social, economic, and political history.

Kevin O'Connor is the Chair of History at Gonzaga University.

Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who writes about travel, culture, cuisine and culinary history, Russian history, and Royal History, with bylines in Reuters, Fodor's, USTOA, LitHub, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life.

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