History of Jelgava

Southern castle of the Livonian Order (1266-1561)

While Jelgava has been inhabited by locals since at least 10th century, it gained prominence only in 1266, when the local river island was used by the German Livonian Order to establish its castle (known as Mittau). The castle was then used to spread Christianity by force among the surrounding Baltic nations, including nearby Lithuanians. A town, known in German as Mittau, developed on the shores around the castle.

While the area did indeed became Christian, the Order was eventually defeated by a united Polish-Lithuanian force in 1561. It had to cede the majority of its lands and reform the remainder into a Duchy of Courland-Semigallia (a fief of Lithuania).

Capital of Courland-Semigallia colonial Empire (1561-1795)

Having lost the Riga metropolis, Courland-Semigallia chose Jelgava as its new capital, bringing new importance and expansion to the city. At its heyday in the 17th century Duchy’s lands as far away as in America (Tobago) and Africa (Gambia) have been ruled from the Jelgava castle.

Jelgava castle in 1704
Jelgava Castle in 1703, before it was rebuilt into a palace.

By the 18th century the Duchy of Courland-Semigallia grew increasingly weak, devastated by numerous wars. You wouldn’t see that in Jelgava however, as it was also the time when the German dukes commissioned the city’s most opulent buildings: Jelgava Palace (1738) and Academia Petrina (1775). However, the palace was actually funded by Russian Empire as a mean to increase its influence over Courland-Semigallia. That influence eventually led to its demise.

Jelgava in 1750
Jelgava in 1750, with the now-destroyed Lutheran church.

Czar’s provincial palace to Latvian powerhouse (1795-1918)

In 1795 Russia have annexed the Courland-Semigallia completely, including Jelgava. The palace became just another property of Russian czars. In 1800s Russian czars lended it for use of the future French king Louis XVIII who was hiding there from revolutionary fervor in the France itself.

Idyllic painting of 1840 Jelgava
Idyllic painting of 1840 Jelgava, with palace on the foreground.

As the industrialization belatedly reached the Russian Empire Jelgava was transformed from just a “palace city” into a city of factories. A major impetus was the arrival of railroads: in 1868 the first line to Riga opened, followed by many other railways that elevated Jelgava into a major train transport hub (1873 – Liepāja line, 1904 – Krustpils/Daugavpils line and Tukums line, 1916 – Šiauliai/Vilnius line).

Jelgava palace interior
Interior of Jelgava Palace ~1900. Between 1815 and 1915 the palace was the residence of Governor-General of Courland, a province of rapidly growing importance.

The city then saw many migrants from the villages, increasing both its population (from 23000 in 1863 to 35000 in 1897) and Latvian share therein (from 22% to 45% during the same timespan). Latvian National Awakening took a full swing and Jelgava became the only city other than Riga to host the iconic National Song Festival (in 1895).

Jelgava market in 1892 as the city's expansion progressed
Jelgava market in 1892 as the city’s expansion progressed.

Jelgava’s proximity to Lithuania (also ruled by Russians at the time) allowed the city to double as a center for Lithuanian intellectuals in late 19th century, when Russian anti-Lithuanian policies effectively left Lithuania without higher education opportunities. The long-term interwar president of Lithuania Antanas Smetona studied in Jelgava’s Academia Petrina.

Liela iela of Jelgava
Liela Iela (Main street) of Jelgava in the First World War era, rapidly constructed during industrialization. All these buildings were destroyed and replaced by Soviet apartment blocks during 1940-1990 occupation.

Interwar Jelgava (1918-1940)

Latvian National Awakening culminated in the independence declaration in 1918. The country was invaded by various Russian forces who also occupied Jelgava, but they were all forced out.

Ducal crypt of Jelgava looted by communists in 1919
Ducal crypt of Jelgava palace after being looted by Russian communist invaders in 1919 (mummy of a duke stands reclining against the back wall).

As happened in all the Latvia’s cities, a large share of ethnic minorities left Jelgava, often to build their own homelands. Jelgava thus retained just 28000 population by 1925, 73% of them ethnic Latvians.

Like most cities, interwar prosperity allowed Jelgava to rebound. An agricultural university was established in Jelgava’s palace, creating the image of Jelgava as a student city. By 1935 the population increased to 34000.

Workers in the sugar plant of Jelgava in 1920s
Workers in the sugar plant of Jelgava in 1920s.

Soviet occupation and devastation of Jelgava (1940-1990)

World War 2 has devastated Jelgava far more than most Latvian cities. The city has changed hands three times (occupied by Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941 and Soviet Union again in 1944). In the process some 90% of buildings were destroyed. The war also ravaged the local population as the local German community was destroyed in the Soviet Genocide while the local Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust (both stood at ~7% in 1935). Many Latvians were killed by the Soviets as well, while thousands of Russian settlers were moved in. By 1959 the city was 59,7% Latvian and 29,7% Russian.

Jelgava palace ravaged by World War 2
Jelgava palace ravaged by World War 2. Unlike many other buildings it was reconstructed, but with a much Soviet simplified interior

After the death of Stalin the worst totalitarianism has subsided. Jelgava was rebuilt in a nondescript style of concrete slab buildings, with only some iconic old edifices remaining as reminders of the Old Jelgava. Even many of them (such as Jelgava Palace) were actually gutted and have Soviet interiors.

Soviets built numerous factories in Jelgava that worked for the entire union. One of the most famous was RAF factory (constructed 1976) that was one only two in the entire Soviet Union to produce small buses.

While the numbers of Russians continued to increase, Jelgava retained the highest percentage of ethnic Latvians among Latvia’s cities in the late Soviet era, falling under 50% only right before independence (49,7% in 1989).

Jelgava in independent Latvia (1990 and beyond)

Independence brought a resurgence of Latvian culture in Jelgava as the public signs were Latvianised and the Latvian share increased once again as some minorities have migrated away.

However, Jelgava’s economy was hit as the massive Soviet factories were horribly outdated and unable to compete in a free market. One after another they went out of business.

While neither Jelgava nor entire Latvia continued to produce its own automobiles after RAF made its final van in 1997, car ownership rates soared like never before. A luxury reserved for irregular journeys under the Soviet regime, car became used for daily commute by everybody ~2000. This allowed Jelgava, located merely 46 km from downtown Riga, to feel increasingly like a Riga’s suburb, allowing it to get a share of the growth that has been happening in the capital.

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