Daugavpils (pop. 93 000) is Latvia’s second largest city and the main metropolis of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).
Uniquely, ethnic Latvians make up only 20% of the population here, making the city seem distant and disloyal to many Latvians. Russian is the lingua franca of Daugavpils. While the city is ethnically diverse (Russians – 54%, Poles – 14%, Belarusians – 7%, Ukrainians – 2%) the Soviet Russification drive has ensured that even to most non-Russian locals Russian is also the native tongue.
Daugavpils became a large city after Russian Empire has developed a massive fortress here (1810-1876) as well as laid primary Saint Petersburg-Warsaw road (1834) and railroad (1860) through the city. While the regular Downtown street grid dates to that era of rapid growth, many of the buildings are newer as the city was devastated during World War 2 and subsequent Soviet regime.
Daugavpils Downtown is where the shopping, restaurants, and nightlife are concentrated, but the most iconic districts lie beyond it. These are the Fortress (Cietoksnis), which is now inhabited, and the Churches Hill area where churches of 4 Christian denominations stand side by side, signifying Daugavpils’s and Latgale’s multi-religious history. The nearby Varšavas street has some pretty villas that miraculously survived World War 2 bombings.
Other parts of Daugavpils are the off-the-beaten-path suburb of Grīva beyond the river that still retains some 19th century atmosphere and the mostly Soviet and post-Soviet New Daugavpils in the east.
While Daugavpils is somewhat infamous as poor, these days it looks much better than it did a decade ago.
Daugavpils downtown of straight 19th century streets may be too much altered by Soviet rebuilding drive to retain that old charm it must have had, but it is nevertheless the center of the city.
Finding shopping, nightlife and accommodation opportunities is the easiest here, and access to most sights beyond downtown is also trivial. Daugavpils train and bus stations are both located in the downtown. Unlike many Western cities, the main malls of Daugavpils are right at its center.
While many old buildings have been demolished and replaced by nondescript Soviet parks or boring new edifices, many still remain to be found while exploring Daugavpils streets. The city is especially famous for its red brick edifices where bricks are formed into ornaments to beautify facades.
The heart of Downtown Daugavpils is the Unity Square which hosts an art deco Unity House (1937; a project of interwar Latvia), the theater and a Latvian home museum of pre-modern handicrafts.
Rigas Street, the main pedestrianized street of Daugavpils connects Unity Square to train station, offering some old facades.
Downtown Daugavpils also have multiple houses of worship from the pre-WW2 era, though they are small as the city used to be religiously fragmented. These are the St. Peter Catholic Church (1934) and Synagogue (1850). The Russian Orthodox church has been imploded by the Soviets in 1969 and only a small chapel was rebuilt in its place after independence.
Two main parks of downtown Daugavpils are the Dubrovin park (laid in the 19th century and named after the mayor of the time) and Central Park (a larger one that includes sports facilities and an ice hockey hall nearby). Dubrovin park has a fountain, an old towered firefighters building and a Soviet WW2 memorial which is still welcome by primarily Russian Daugavpils residents.
Daugavpils downtown also hosts a regional museum offering information on local fauna and cultural history,
To the south Daugavpils Downtown is limited by a 6 km long dike which safeguards the city from Daugava floods, a 19th-century engineering marvel.
Located just north of Downtown, Church Hill and Varšavas street had some of their iconic buildings spared of (post-)WW2 destruction.
The Church Hill is crowned by historic houses of worship four different Christian denominations that stand side by side, signifying the multireligiousness of both Daugavpils and Latgale.
The churches are Lutheran Cathedral (1893), Roman Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary (1905), SS Boris and Gleb Russian Orthodox Cathedral (1905; once a garrison church), Old Believer Church (1928).
Nearby Varšavas street hosts multiple 19th-century villas and a lead shot factory with period technology saved by Soviet economic backwardness and now converted into a tourist-oriented place of industrial heritage, with regular guided excursions available every day.
The factory still uses its Lead shot tower, where pieces of lead are thrown from above in order to attain a perfect form because of gravity before hitting the ground. Back in the 19th century, this was a commonplace lead shot production but it seems like out of this world these days.
Between the churches and lead shot factory Varšavas street hosts a Russian culture center where information about various aspects of Daugavpils Russian culture are presented (Othodox and Old Believer faiths, Daugavpils fortress history).
The Imperial Russian fortress (Cietoksnis) is a unique part of Daugavpils. It is essentially a residential district entirely surrounded by 19th-century fortifications, walls, and gates.
Commissioned after Napoleon’s invasions (1810) and expanded until 1878 the star fortress the importance of fortress went beyond just defending Russia from Western invasions. As Daugavpils was on both the road and railroad from Saint Petersburg to European capitals, the Fortress was also used by the Russian czars to spend a night.
The former glory is somewhat ruined as the obsolete fortress was turned into apartment blocks. Many original buildings remain (some are abandoned), but Soviets also constructed their own plain apartment blocks in-between, which are no less shabby.
Fortifications themselves are of interest – they may be ascended. The Nicholas gate was restored, once again adorned by the Russian coat of arms.
Arsenal building of Cietokšnis has recently been converted into Mark Rothko art museum. This Jewish abstract painter was born in pre-WW1 Daugavpils. However, the overpriced museum hosts merely a few of his works with the rest of largely empty halls dedicated to his life story or temporary (non-Rothko) exhibits.
Other interesting locations include the Daugavpils fortress information center (near Mark Rothko museum) in a former Water Tower building, the buildings at the main park which includes former Fortress Commander office and a military hospital as well as the gates. Multiple monuments and graves exist in the area for warlords of various nationalities, however, they are not architecturally appealing.
Cietoksnis (Fortress) is located a couple kilometers west of downtown and may be accessed by bus.
A fortress cemetery located some 2 km northwest of the fortress is difficult to reach without a car or a longer hike. Few gravestones there are elaborate fortress era ones (with many new civilian burials and a section for WW2 Soviet soldiers). However, the cemetery is worth a visit primarily for its small Orthodox church of St. Alexander Nevskiy (1897), which boasts one of the most ornamental wooden facades in Latvia.
On the southern bank of Daugava the Grīva suburb was once a separate city.
Grīva is mostly built up with private family homes. While those surrounding main streets are generally new, make a few turns and you may appear at what seems to be a 19th century suburb with old wooden homes and unpaved streets.
Built as a separate town, Grīva also has petite houses of worship of all the Latgale’s main denominations. Red brick Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary (~1885) is the prettiest. Orthodox church is quite elaborate and interesting for the old wooden homes and atmosphere of 19th century that surrounds it. There are also two Old Believer churches as that community was traditionally especially numerous in Grīva.
Grīva Fortress is a massive 19th century military installation on the oposite bank of Daugava from the Daugavpils fortress. Both fortreses were meant to function together. Unfortunately unlike its “brother fortress” the Grīva Fortress may not be visited as it houses a prison now. But this makes it seem just more mysterious and dark. A memorial stone in front of it commemorates that a Jewish ghetto was established there under Nazi German occupation.
Given that Grīva sights are relatively spread, 10-20 minutes is enough to visit each of them and much of the rest is not that interesting, it is probably best option to visit Grīva only if one has a car.
New Daugavpils (east of the city) consists of districts mostly built up by Soviet apartment blocks and post-Soviet individual homes. While pretty much devoid of what to do in Soviet times, the districts have received new churches, supermarkets and else after independence. Nevertheless, people typically go downtown to satisfy their more elaborate needs. In fact, all the Daugavpils tram lines generally link eastern districts to downtown.
New Daugavpils is essentially made of multiple parts, three of them having the word “New” in their names.
Jaunbūve (New buildings) is the main part, consisting of Soviet apartment blocks. A major place of entertainment there is Lokomotiv stadium where the local speedway team plays its home games. Having some 10 thousand seats it is one of largest speedway-specific stadiums in Europe and has hosted world championship events.
Forštate (The Suburb) beyond the railway consists of two areas. Old Suburb (Veca Forštate) mostly an area of private residential homes. Some are old and small, others are the “built for generations style” of the early 1990s. New Suburb (Jauna Forštate) consists of Soviet apartment blocks
Jaunie Stropi (New hives) is an upscale area next to a large Stropu Lake. Many buildings there are large edifices owned by Latvian nouveau-riche, surrounded by a forest. beaches are available, though they are pretty derelict and mainly used by locals.
Daugavpils, also known as Dinaburg (German), Dvinsk (Russian) and Daugpilis (Lithuanian) had a turbulent history of rapid population growths and declines. All the major increases took place under foreign regimes due to non-Latvian newcomers, while each regime change would have sent the population down as people of ethnicities associated with the previous regime would leave for their homelands.
Russian Imperial Daugavpils and its end (1810-1944)
The first growth of Daugavpils took place under Russian Imperial regime when the Empire constructed a fortress here (1810-1878) while businessmen established industry in what was a major rail junction on Saint Petersburg-Warsaw line (laid in 1860).
The city increased in size from 3000 in 1825 to 113000 in 1914 mainly because of migrants from the rest of Russian Empire. Many were Russians but even more were Jews as Daugavpils was one of the few Imperial cities where Jews were permitted to freely settle. As such, it has gained a Jewish plurality (47%).
By 1897 merely 2% of locals were ethnic Latvians, surpassed also by Russian settlers (30%) and Poles (16%) who came from Latgalian towns (where they had strong communities since the area was ruled by Poland-Lithuania in 16th-18th centuries). Daugavpils downtown was built up with red brick buildings around straight streets, while each religious community erected its own temples, creating an iconic “Churches hill” where prayers would have resounded in a multitude of languages every day. Each ethnicity even had its own name for the city: to Russians, it was Dvinsk, to Jews – Dineburg.
After World War 1 and Latvian independence (1918), many non-Latvian inhabitants have left Daugavpils and its population declined to 51000 in 1935. Daugavpils lost the title of Latvia’s second largest city to Liepāja. Ethnic Latvians now made a plurality (34%), but the city continued to be shared by four main ethnic groups (25% Jews, 20% Russians, 18% Poles).
As a hub of Eastern Latvia, Daugavpils received a fair share of development, such as the massive Unity House with halls for theater and concerts.
Perhaps Daugavpils would have been slowly transformed into a Latvian city but that was not to be. World War 2 occupations proved to be a major upheaval that put a final nail in the coffin of that 19th-century city, destroying the majority of its buildings and people. It is often claimed that by late 1940s merely 20000 people remained in the city, wiping out the population growth of past 70 years.
Soviet Daugavpils and its end (1944-)
In the place of old Daugavpils Soviets essentially constructed a new city after 1944. Historic Downtown buildings were often replaced by Soviet ones (Stalinist grandeur in the 1950s, shabby edifices later). Many former districts were turned into empty fields with propaganda sculptures.
Soviets have also sent in thousands of settlers from Russia to repopulate Daugavpils after World War 2, launching the second major period of population growth. By 1959 Daugavpils had 65000 inhabitants. For the first time in its urban history, it had a single majority ethnicity: Russians (55,9%). Latvians now made just 13,2% of locals, Jews – merely 3,4%, both declines a testament to World War 2 genocides.
While the Polish community seemingly remained strong (18,4%) such strength was superficial. Like all the ethnic minorities of Soviet Latvia (Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians), Poles of Daugavpils were slowly Russified. There was close to no media, education, culture or entertainment available in any language besides Russian, so parents ceased to teach their children the “useless” ethnic languages. By 1989 only about a quarter of these minorities still spoke “their own” languages, most of them elderly.
As such, the Soviet Daugavpils (unlike the Russian Imperial Daugavpils before it) was not really a multicultural city. Rather, it became a city of a single (Russian) language and arguably a single religion (atheism).
So, Daugavpils was a utopia to Russian communists: a location where a single Soviet nation was almost born. But it was also a dystopia to most Latvians: a reminder of what all Latvia could become, should the Soviet occupation and state-sponsored Russian immigration continue.
These fears helped reignite the pro-independence movement in the late 1980s. While Daugavpils did not participate in it that actively, many of its Russians and Poles were also fed up with the economically backward militarist Soviet regime, coming to believe that maybe independent democratic Latvia would do better. In 1991 referendum on Latvia’s independence thus only a quarter of Daugavpils residents have actually voted “Against”.
Many of those likely left Daugavpils soon afterward, as the city population declined from its peak of 125000 in 1989 to 115000 in 2000.
However, unlike elsewhere in Latvia, Russians retained the majority (54%) and the city remained Russian-speaking, many of its inhabitants refusing to learn Latvian. In independent Latvia where Latvian slowly replaced Russian as lingua franca, this became a hindrance. In addition to direct disadvantages, the Soviet settlers who spoke no Latvian received no citizenship, rendering a third of Daugavpils inhabitants stateless.
Perhaps due to all this Daugavpils became visibly poorer than other Latvian cities in the 1990s and early 2000s, its iconic fortress turned into a kind of tamed slum for the poor people. In the mid-2000s however, as Latvia’s spectacular growth increasingly went beyond Riga, Daugavpils also received modern malls and downtown renovations.
Still, the non-Latvians of Daugavpils grew increasingly disillusioned with independent Latvia, while ethnic Latvians increasingly saw Daugavpils as disloyal. Both facts were epitomized in two referendums when Daugavpils became the sole large Latvia’s city to vote against European Union membership (2003) and for an official status to the Russian language (2012). To many ethnic Latvians this (especially the 2012 proposition) amounted to treason, an attempt to “turn back the time” and “turn Latvia towards Russia”. For the Russian-speaking population of Daugavpils however, modern post-Soviet Russia may often seem to be a much more understandable and culturally acceptable place than either Latvia or the European Union.