Latvia’s got personality: Island dweller Ilma Artuma-Hartmane

Unlike neighbouring Estonia, Latvia cannot boast hundreds of islands sprinkled along its coastline. But there are a few beautiful ones nestled within the country’s rivers and lakes.

You don’t even have to leave Riga to explore a few of these. For example, just a few kilometers north of the city centre, Kundziņsala is a place which seems to literally span the centuries.

This 5.5 square kilometer dot on the map came into being in the early 19th century when, following dredging works in the Daugava River, several smaller islands merged into one. At the end of the 1800s, working class Latvians shipped in building materials and established a self-sufficient community of family farms and small enterprises.

The bucolic vibe began shifting with the construction of a bridge to the mainland in 1959, replacing a ferry which had faithfully plied the waters until midnight every day. The subsequent decades saw extensive development of port facilities along the island’s edges. Today, humble timber cottages with orchards and chicken coops are backdropped by hulking cranes, the 24/7 clattering of containers and sometimes dubious air quality.

A house on Kundziņsala

Some 500 people call Kundziņsala home today. They include Ilma Artuma-Hartmane, who has lived in the same apartment in a two-story wooden house since coming to the island in 1949. She certainly hasn’t stuck around because of creature comforts. While running water was finally connected a few years ago, there’s a pit toilet in the yard, and the 80-year-old lugs firewood up the stairs for heating.

“I don’t have any complaints, and I love this place,” she says. “Kundziņsala has so much charm, like when you cross the bridge, and you see the swans swimming in the canal.”

Ilma was born in Teika, a middle-class Riga suburb, where her grandmother and mother ran a knitting workshop, while her disabled father worked from home mending people’s shoes. The domestic idyll was shattered when a conniving neighbour seduced the cobbler to get hold of the family home, then reported him to the Soviet authorities for possession of a revolver.

In the chilly atmosphere of the postwar years, this was no laughing matter. The unfortunate man was put in a jail which the communists had set up in the giant RER electrical goods factory in Sarkandaugava, just across the water from Kundziņsala. Ilma and her mum (who must have been the forgiving type) moved in locally so they could wave to dad and make occasional visits. Ilma recalls how her father would smilingly give her a little money on these occasions, probably earned from fixing the guards’ footwear.

So, Ilma began attending Kundziņsala’s primary school just around the corner from home. She has fond memories of the world of her childhood.

“It was paradise,” she smiles. “Before the port was built, we would go swimming in the Daugava, and have physical education classes in the meadow. And there were lots of cows grazing nearby.”

Ilma’s dad was released after three years, but he never reconciled with his wife, who in a cruel twist of irony he wrongly suspected of having informed on him. Ilma grew up and got a job in a laboratory making experimental medications. But she was apparently unable to access the elixir of love, as her own first marriage didn’t work out, and she spent several decades alone.

But all good things come to those who wait. At age 75, Ilma met and married Elmārs, who despite being ten years her senior installed new windows and renovated the stairs of the house. Elmārs passed away at the start of 2021, but the warmth with which Ilma recalls their years together leaves little doubt they were the happiest of her life.

Relations have also improved between locals and the island’s commercial interests. Several years ago, the port authority pushed to have Kundziņsala re-zoned to make the whole place an industrial park. But the residents’ association went to court and had the scheme declared unlawful, and port employees have since built comfortable new homes on the island for themselves. And in a spirit of reconciliation, the port has installed some useful infrastructure, like a football pitch and a basketball court.

Ilma attends exercise classes several mornings a week at these facilities. There’s still plenty of life left in her, as there is in this unusual corner of Rīga.

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