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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 November 2006, 12:33 GMT
Latvia's pride over Nato summit
By Laura Sheeter
BBC News, Latvia

As world leaders prepare to gather in the Baltic state of Latvia for next week's Nato summit, Latvians are taking stock of how far their country has come since the departure of Soviet forces in 1991.

Bleak is hardly the word for it. I am ankle-deep in an icy bog on a day so grey that the sky and soil are barely distinguishable.

The Latvian capital, Riga, is hosting the Nato summit
The only thing that is making my tramp through the dank scrub and spongy moss slightly more exciting is the risk of twisting an ankle tripping on the concrete stumps and tangles of rusty barbed wire which lurk under foot.

I am seriously regretting my enthusiasm for this trip to see a former Soviet nuclear missile base in the north of Latvia, and I am sorely tempted to turn around and go back home.

But the man I am here with insists on persevering.

Ilgonis Upmalis is taking a trip down memory lane. He was once a Red Army officer who built Soviet military bases all over the Baltic States.

When Latvia regained its independence, he oversaw the withdrawal of thousands of Soviet troops from Latvian soil.

For him, every broken wall seems to conjure up images of the past. And slowly I find his enthusiasm catching.

Top secret

When we come across a huge concrete hangar, Ilgonis is triumphant.

"This place was top secret," he says.

For the first time Latvians feel they have powerful allies who will come to their aid should anyone ever try to invade

"They kept the first nuclear missiles here. In case of war, the Red Army was supposed to fight its way across Europe and then we would aim these missiles at Britain."

It is an unsettling thought and, when we scramble down into the base's former command centre, things get even more creepy.

It is pitch black inside but in the torchlight we can make out murals painted on the concrete.

One shows fighter jets blazing through the sky. "Western forces attack our land," says the caption.

Another depicts nuclear rockets, while a third imagines what a chemical and biological offensive would look like, if and when Western powers waged war on the USSR.

They are disturbing enough now, so I can hardly imagine the impression they made on the people who worked in this bunker while the Cold War was at its height.

A system built on fear

But for Ilgonis it is harder to believe that he is here with a journalist, wandering around freely in the ruins and reminiscing about the past.

Latvian children touch fallen statue of Lenin in 1990
Soviet forces remained in Latvia from 1944 to 1994

"The Soviet Union was built on such fear and such awesome weapons that I never believed it could fall apart," he says.

"These derelict buildings are a reminder that we have to be vigilant even now, to make sure nothing like this can ever again be built on Latvian soil."

It is rare to hear such sentiments spoken aloud in Latvia. In the past 15 years, the country has transformed itself and most people are far too busy thinking about the here and now to bother about the past.

"Why do you refer to us as former Soviet Latvia?" they say. "It's not who we are any more."

Booming economy

And in some ways that is true.

Latvia has a booming economy, with the fastest rising house prices in the world, and it is not just in Nato, it is in the European Union too.

Latvian soldiers march during military parade
This year's military parade commemorated Latvia's declaration of independence in 1918

So there is huge excitement here about the impending Nato summit. This, the Latvians believe, is their chance to show the world who they are.

Hundreds of volunteers - young, attractive and multi-lingual - have signed up to help the delegates and journalists who will descend on Riga.

And every visitor will get a gift pack and a hand-knitted pair of traditional mittens - each pair unique and all 4,500 of them knitted by a team that has worked day and night for the last two months so that, when the visitors go home, a little bit of Latvian folklore will go with them.

But the past has not been entirely forgotten.

Ask people on the street what Nato membership means, and many will say "security". For the first time they feel they have powerful allies who will come to their aid should anyone ever try to invade.

Feeling of safety

And as remote as that possibility may be, for a country that was occupied twice by the Soviet Union and once by Nazi Germany within the living memory of many people here, that reassurance means a lot.

It is that safety that has allowed them to make such progress. Holding the Nato summit in Riga has more than symbolic value.

Back at the missile base, Ilgonis says there is one thing I must see before we leave.

On a stretch of concrete behind the hangar, a giant head stares out across the landscape.

It is Lenin's head, an enormous monument taken from a nearby town and placed by someone on the very spot from which the nuclear missiles would have been fired.

"Poor Lenin," chuckles Ilgonis. "There's not much for him to see here these days."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 November, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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