German Ventspils in Latvia

History of Ventspils

In many times of history the importance of Ventspils port far surpassed what its population numbers could have suggested.

Ventspils within German duchies (1314-1795)

Originally chartered in 1314 it was an important mercantile city of the German Hanseatic League. At the time Livonian Order was the ruling power, having built a castle in Ventspils center. Germans used to call the city “Windau”.

Ventspils castle in 13th-16th centuries
Ventspils castle as it looked in the city’s heyday (13th-16th centuries), before renovations and repurposing.

In 1565 the Order secularized becoming the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. Ventspils importance remained however as the Duchy relied greatly on its naval power, attempting to establish colonies in America and Africa. Ventspils was the Duchy’s primary port and many ships have left in the 17th century on colonial adventures. The local shipyards not only constructed the Courland-Semigallian navy but also built ships for sale to Western Europe.

One of the Courland-Semigallia ships manufactored in Ventspils
One of the Courland-Semigallia ships manufactured in Ventspils.

That old Ventspils has been devastated by 18th century wars and plague, however. The importance of Courland-Semigallia itself dwindled until it was annexed by Russia in 1795.

Ventspils in the Russian Empire (1795-1918)

The new overlords Russians saw no use for Ventspils port for a long time. By 1863 Ventspils had merely 4000 inhabittants, some 50% of them the descendents of Courland-Semigallia’s German elite.

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Ventspils in 1814 painted by H.F. Waeber. It had little more beyond the castle

The tides of fortune turned again in 1890s as railway from Riga reached Ventspils, allowing the port to be used to export goods from the entire Russian Empire. An era of rapid expansion followed, during which the city grew to 29000 inhabitants as it needed to staff the swiftly growing port.

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Ventspils Russian Orthodox church soon after it was built in 1901. Russian Orthodoxy was the state religion of the Empire and every city of importance had to have such church built for taxpayer’s money.

Nearly all the newcomers were Latvians from surrounding villages. Such massive migration greatly altered the ethnic composition of the city, making Ventspils Latvian majority (58%) for the first time in history by 1897.

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Colorized postcard of Pils Street of Ventspils on the eve of World War 1. Recently developed downtown buildings are still covered in Russian-only signs

Much of the large buildings that still adorn Ventspils Old Town have been constructed in 1890s-1910s. The old city limits were not enough however: to accommodate the new workers a new district of Ostgals has been constructed west of Old Town, while in the southwest a suburb of pretty wooden villas was developed near the beach.

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A late 19th century wooden villa in seaside Ventspils

Ventspils in free interwar Latvia (1918-1940)

After Latvia became independent (1918) Ventspils continued to be one of the most ethnically Latvian cities. By 1935 some 84% of its population were Latvians (Germans – ~7%). However, independent Latvia may have had too many ports for what was a rather small country. With less need for freight shipping the number of Ventspils inhabitants declined to 16000.

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Kuldiga street in Ventspils during interwar period, with some cars and all signs in Latvian

Ventspils under Soviet occupaton (1940-1990)

In 1940 Ventspils was overrun by Soviet Union forces, only to be taken by Germans in 1941. Interestingly, by the time Berlin fell in 1945, German troops still held Ventspils, sparing the city from destruction associated with Soviet reconquest. After German surrender Soviets received the city peacefully.

Latvians evacuate from Ventspils in 1945
Fearing to suffer Soviet Genocide Latvians evacuate from Ventspils after German surrender started to seem imminent in 1945.

The main use Soviets had for Ventspils port was that of oil export. They also established a major radar installation in the suburbs. Nearly all ethnic Germans and many Latvians were deported, but thousands of Russians were moved in, growing Ventspils population to 27000 by 1959 (60,4% Latvians) and 51000 by 1989. New concrete slab districts have been constructed in the south to accommodate the new settlers. By 1989 Latvians made up merely 43% of population and the city was predominantly Russian speaking.

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Ventspils oil pipeline. Completed in 1968 it helped Ventspils become an oil export port

Ventspils in restored Latvia (1990-)

After Latvia regained independence (1990) Ventspils became its success story. One of the richest cities, it is also extremely stable politically (having had the same mayor since 1988). The port became one of the most important in the Baltic Sea. Vast resources and ideas have been unleashed in order to bring tourists into Ventspils, ranging from a local “tourist currency” publicity stunt to creating an artificial hill for skiing.

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Ventspils Vents banknotes, all depicting the cow statues of Ventspils on obverse

As many Russians left after independence, the Latvian share of population rebounded from its nadir and now stays at 56%.