All posts by Augustinas Žemaitis

Ethnicities: Introduction

Latvia is rather neatly divided into two large groups: the indigenous Latvians, who make 62,1% percent of population, and the Russian native speakers, who make up 37,2%.

The two communities are greatly divided. They have separate political parties, cultural activities, schools, opinions about history, and much else. Latvians cherish their “miraculous independence” and indigenous culture, looking westwards politically, while many Russophones long for the Soviet Union where they had a privileged role.

After all, the majority of Russian speakers in Latvia are ethnic Russians who came as settlers during the Soviet occupation (and their descendents). In total, Russians make up 26,9% of population.

The remainder of Russophones consists of Latvia‘s other minorities which were unable to withstand the Soviet russification policies, gradually joining the Russophone „nation“. Merely 0,7% of Latvia‘s population speak some other language than Latvian or Russian at home, even though 11% of its population are neither Latvians nor Russians.

The largest among these smaller primarily Russophone ethnic minorities are Belarusians (3,3%) and Ukrainians (2,3%), both descending from the Soviet settlers. Poles (2,2%) arrived in the pre-modern era of Polish-Lithuanian influence over Latvia. Some Lithuanians (1,2%) are indigenous while others were attracted by Latvia being the center of Baltic States (especially true in the 19th century).

Several once-major Medieval minorities have been largely lost to assimilation, emigration and genocides. This includes Jews (0,3%), Germans (0,1%) and indigenous Livonians (0,02%).

Furthermore, Gypsies make up 0,3% and Estonians 0,1% of population. With the affluence of modern Latvia other (non-traditional) minorities increased to 1,3%.

All-in-all, a diagram of Latvia‘s ethnic composition over the past few centuries looks like some sad roller coaster ride (knowing that the most radical declines and inclines were made by expulsions, murders, and colonial settlement rather than voluntary decisions).


Jūrmala (pop. 51 000) is the largest resort in the Baltic States, located next to Riga.

Jūrmala is a peninsula between a famous wide sandy beach of the Riga Gulf and Lielupe river. It was the popularity of this location for summertime rest which transformed former fishing villages into a swimming resort over 100 years ago. Boulevards were laid and picturesque wooden towered villas constructed to become summer residences of Riga’s rich.

A former spa in Jūrmala beach
A former spa in Jūrmala beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A lot has changed, and the calm “elite seaside rest” of the old times has been joined by the mass chill of gigs and nightclubs in summer, while the buildings once built by German nobility and businessmen were supplemented with apartment blocks for the new Latvian and Russian middle class.

However, Jūrmala is simply massive, spanning some 20 km of prime Latvian seaside. This means that there is a Jūrmala for everybody: it still possible to find both an atmosphere of 19th century resort and the one of 21st century Riga suburb.

Even if the old villages have integrated into a single city, their names still appear on the maps and each still has a somewhat different feel.

People enjoying summer in a main street of Majori village
People enjoying summer in a main street of Majori village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Majori village is the heart of Jūrmala, its Jomas street the main street for shopping and expensive restaurants, while Turaidas street the main sea access route, famous for interwar concert hall that still hosts the Jūrmala’s best events. Many other key pre-WW2 buildings are also located here.

Eastern villages of Dzintari and Bulduri are calmer, their pretty historical edifices and some modern buildings lining the boulevards that run parallel to the sea. The number of restaurants and hotels is more limited. Some half of the area is left as pristine forests, giving the feeling of a forest city. In the east Jūrmala is limited by the mouths of Lielupe.

Western villages of Pumpuri and Melluži seem to be like a mirror image of Dzintari and Bulduri, although they have less historic buildings and less greenery.

Main Jomas street out of season
Main Jomas street out of season. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At the Westernmost end of Jūrmala stands Ķemeri that has developed separately as a spa town. It is famous for its massive spa center, one of largest projects undertaken by interwar Latvia.

As the Latvian climate can be chilling in winter, the holiday season of Jūrmala is effectively summer-only (May-to-September with a noticeable July-August peak). However, Jūrmala still has much more activities in winter than any other Latvian city of comparable size. Some restaurants remain open year-round and gigs are offered. There is also a year-round indoor water theme park.

Moreover, Jūrmala has effectively became a suburb of Riga, its homes inhabited year-round by people who commute every day by a 25 km long 6 lane highway (interestingly, from Eastern Jūrmala Riga downtown is closer than the other end of Jūrmala itself). The popularity among the rich has rejuvenated Majori and the seaside, but numerous old wooden villas further on are now abandoned.

Train stattion near Lielupe in Majori
Train stattion near Lielupe in Majori. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Public transport access is easy from Riga, with nearly every of Jūrmala’s villages having its own station for frequent Riga-bound trains. The railway spans the entire city, together with its main street that is used for driving.

Jūrmala is especially popular among Russian tourists.

Cinevilla movie studio backlot 20 km West of Jūrmala is a popular day trip.


Lutherans is the largest faith in Latvia, followed by some 25-35% of the total population. Most Lutherans are ethnic Latvians from Central and Western Latvia.

Latvia has its own Lutheran church which consists of three dioceses (Riga, Liepāja and Daugavpils) and owns some 300 church buildings. Their interiors are rather austere (with opulence limited to altars) as the Lutheran religion accentuates faith in God and Jesus without earthly mediums.

Bauska Lutheran chruch
Old Lutheran churches such as this one in Bauska (built 1594) show both the long standing prevalence of the faith in Western Latvia as well as its austerity in decor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The church was established in 16th century when the German ruling class of Latvia converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism. Latvian peasants had to follow suit.

After 1562 Latvia was partitioned into lands ruled directly by Poland-Lithuania (Latgale) and lands ruled by German vassals, with Lutheran church remaining prevalent only in the latter.

Central square of Cēsis
Central square of Cēsis, a small town that was once the capital of German Livonian Order, is outflanked by a massive Lutheran church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still as Latvia became unified and free after World War 1, Lutheranism was the majority faith, followed by 55% of Latvia’s inhabitants in 1935. Subsequently Lutheran religion has been greatly hit by Soviet persecution with many churches were closed down and religious life precluded. As a local church it had no foreign support, except for the refugee Latvian Lutherans in the west who established a separate Latvian Lutheran church abroad.

Austere (for the era) Lutheran interior of Dubulti church in Jūrmala
Austere (for the opulent pre-WW1 era when it was built) Lutheran interior of Dubulti church in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While religious freedom returned after Latvia’s independence (1990) and the church buildings were returned, the Lutheran church has somewhat struggled to maintain its vast network of churches that had been constructed for a much more Lutheran and more religious pre-WW2 Latvia.

Old Town of Riga (Vecrīga)

In the heart of Medieval Riga, the labyrinthine pedestrianized streets of Old Town are still outflanked by massive church spires and guild houses. They date to the Middle Ages when Old Riga was a place of peaceful religion and trade, independent of nearby militarized states.

Livu squre in Riga
Livu squre in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Riga is surrounded by a moat-like „City canal“ and a park on three sides, with the Center district lying beyond them. The Canal has replaced the city wall. On the West side Old Riga faces the mighty Daugava estuary. While freight vessels are now anchored closer to the sea, the views of Riga Old Town are still arguably the most magnificent from an embankment on the opposite shore of Daugava.

Riga Old Town from the opposite side of Daugava
The multireligious spires of Riga Old Town from the opposite side of Daugava. Left-to-right: Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Life in Riga Old Town revolves around three squares, each of them having a very different atmosphere.

City Hall square area (South)

The serene Rātslaukums (City Hall square) is dominated by a magnificent facade Blackhead house, one of many medieval merchant guilds. The particular house is new, however, faithfully rebuilt after independence. Like some other gems of Old Riga, it was destroyed by the Soviets – and contemporary Rigans try to reassert that lost history. Likewise, the once-destroyed City Hall was rebuilt.

Blackhead House in Riga
Blackhead House in Riga at night during Christmas period, with Christmas tree (allegedly a Rigan invention) on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The atmosphere of the square is however still marred by a bleak black Soviet building that now serves as the Museum of Latvian occupation (originally built to display information about Latvian Red Riflemen but, now restored, offers a great introduction to the tragic occupation of Latvia, memory of which is ingrained in country’s psychology, culture, demography and beyond).

City Hall square itself is rather devoid of life, lacking cafes and entertainment. Those are plentiful in surrounding streets. One home hosts Mecendorf museum that presents mural-clad interiors of an 18th-century rich Baltic German home (less impressive than it sounds).

Mecendorf House in Riga, a survivor from the oldest times among somewhat newer buildings
Mecendorf House in Riga, a survivor from the oldest times among somewhat newer buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rising over the entire area is Ss. Peter’s church tower. Its multi-tiered wooden crown burnt down and rebuilt, now serves as a good vantage point over the city (72 meters, elevator available).

First floor of St. Peter church
First floor of St. Peter church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cathedral square area (North)

Cathedral square (Doma laukums) is the most authentic and stunning square of Old Riga.

Impressive buildings at Cathedral square
Impressive buildings at Cathedral square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The streets around it host many stately red-brick churches of various denominations, once frequented by foreign merchants and local craftsmen. After all, Riga was part of the Hanseatic trading league in the Medieval era, which spanned as far west as England. So the city even has a St. Savior Anglican church (current building dates to 1857). A Catholic Our Lady of Sorrows church (1785) is nearby.

Our lady of sorrows Catholic church
Our lady of sorrows Catholic church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cathedral square itself is dominated by a massive Lutheran Cathedral (1211 with many modifications). The Catholic minority has its own smaller St. James Cathedral (1225). Both churches would be passed from Lutherans to Catholics and back during history and their ownership was even contested in two Latvia-wide referendums.

Lutheran Cathedral of Riga at Cathedral square
Lutheran Cathedral of Riga at Cathedral square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although Old Riga is some 800 years old, most residential buildings are in fact newer (having replaced their forerunners during the 19th-century boom). Therefore “Three Brothers” homes, the earliest dating to 15th century, are especially famous.

Three Brothers
Three Brothers. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The northwestern side of Riga Old Town hosts a crusader castle (heavily rebuilt into a palace since) and the sole surviving fortifications such as the Gunpowder tower (now a war museum). Latvian parliament and National theater are also located nearby.

Gunpowder tower of Riga
Gunpowder tower of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The political importance of the area made it a target of Soviet military attack in 1991 when the Soviets attempted to quash the restored Latvian independence. Latvians hastily built barricades to prevent tanks from coming and would spend days waiting around makeshift fires to keep the warmth. Upcoming days resulted in some deaths but Latvia would not fall. These heroic times when armless struggle toppled the struggling Soviet regime are reminded by a small-but-quite-ingenious Barricades museum.

A model of Riga Cathedral square in 1991 at the Barricades museum
A model of Riga Cathedral square in 1991 at the Barricades museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Livu square area (East)

Unlike its two cousins, Livu square is not historic: it was created by the Soviets who leveled historic neighborhoods that stood in its place.

However, hedonistic visitors seem to care little about it, spending time in Livu Square’s many open-air cafes as well as restaurants and nightclubs of surrounding streets.

A square in Riga
A square with restaurant on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Two magnificent guild halls that survived Soviet occupation help to forget the square’s origin. Nearby House of cat has a curious story: the small cat sculpture had its backside turned at the guilds after the house’s Latvian owner was not admitted to join them by German peers (but it was turned around after a court reversed its decision).

Guild halls in Riga
Guild halls in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Livu square area is the leisure center of Old Town (and Old Town itself – the hub of Riga), noisy entertainment and high prices have almost evicted people from the district. Merely 3 000 Rigans continue to live in the Old Town, although some 23 000 work in the area.

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Roman Catholics are the Latvia’s second largest faith, predominant in eastern Latvia (Latgale) and followed by 20-25% of total population. Its followers are Latgallians and migrants from there, some southern Latvians, as well as Latvia’s Polish and Lithuanian minorities.

The holiest place of Latvia’s Catholics is Aglona and its Basilica of the Assumption where a massive religious festival takes place every 15th of August. The sacred painting of Virgin Mary is venerated there.

Aglona Basilica
Baroque Aglona Basilica. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In general, Catholic church interiors are more popmpous than Lutheran ones as Catholic faith puts more emphasis on religious items and art.

Latvia used to be nearly all-Catholic in late Medieval era when crusading German knights converted it from paganism. Catholicism lost ground after the same German nobility adopted Lutheranism in 16th century (and Latvian peasants followed suit). In Latgale however Catholic Poles and Lithuanians had a direct rule in 16th-18th centuries, funding lavish Baroque churches such as Aglona and helping Catholicism to retain majority.

Roman Catholic church managed to survive the Soviet persecutions better than Lutherans due to its more religious nature and foreign support. The share of Catholics remained constant at ~25%. Therefore, while Lutheran adherents outnumbered Roman Catholics by 2-to-1 in 1935, today their congregations are similar in size according to many statistics.

Centrs (Center) of Riga

The Center of Riga is a living monument to the city‘s golden age of the late 19th century and early 20th century. At that time industrialization had made Riga one of the 5 largest cities of the massive Russian Empire and among the great European metropolises.

The population increased to some 600 000 and construction crews worked ceaselessly to build ever-prettier 6-floored edifices. Then-popular art nouveau style would prevail, making Riga one of the best cities to witness this type of architecture, itself an attempt to create a new style in the era when most other architects just copied the past.

Part of art noveau facade in Alberta street
A fragment of Art Nouveau facade near Alberta street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Spanning the whole Centrs and continuing to eastern suburbs, Brīvības (Freedom) street is the main artery of both the district and Riga as a whole. It has some of the most massive turn-of-the-20th-century buildings.

A fragment of Brīvības street
A fragment of Brīvības street with a mid-19th century St. Gertrude Old Church (center), turn-of-the-century art nouveau apartment building (right) and a post-independence office block (left visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, the title of the prettiest art nouveau street is usually awarded to a much smaller Alberta street where famous architect Eisenstein created his masterpieces. Nearby Art nouveau museum allows catching a glimpse of opulent art nouveau staircase and apartment interior. Despite the Soviet destruction, these are still quite common in the Center of Riga (although most are only accessible to residents and their guests).

Art nouveau staircase interior leading to Riga art nouveau museum
Art nouveau staircase interior leading to Riga art nouveau museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Alberta street is in the northern reaches of Centrs, beyond the Krišjāņa Valdemāra street which has some of Riga’s most important late 19th century public buildings, including the National theater and what is now the Museum of (Latvian) fine arts. These have been built imitating historical styles rather than Art Nouveau.

Neo-Baroque National Theater of Riga
Baroque-inspired National Theater of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Riga Centrs is anchored on straight wide streets that emit „big city feeling“. At the time of its inception, three different ethnicities vied for power over Riga and Latvia.

A fragment of a facade in Riga
A fragment of a facade in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There were German „Baltic barons“, for centuries the elite of the city who paid the bills for many of its greatest buildings. Gothic revival St. Gertrude Old church (1869) was built and belonged to the community.

A typical long straight street of Riga Centrs, surrounded by large old buildings
A typical long straight street of Riga Centrs, surrounded by large old buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There were Russians, since 1710 the political leaders, their role still visible in the massive Neo-Byzanthine Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral (1883) that stands in the district’s largest park Esplanade and earlier neoclassical St. Alexander Nevskiy church (1825).

Nativity Cathedral in Riga
Nativity Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

And there were Latvians, for millennia the majority of surrounding villages, who began migrating to industrialized Riga in their hundreds of thousands, asserting the city as their future capital and dwarfing the other communities. Their national awakening is reminded by places such as Krišjānis Barons museum – this was the Latvian who collected long-neglected Latvian folksongs that later became the essence of the nation. Like many of Riga Center house-museums, it is interesting both for the personality that lived there and for its turn-of-the-century interior.

Church in Riga Centrs
Brīvības street with St. Gertrude New church in Riga Centrs built by Latvian ex-parishioners of St. Gertrude Old church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Additionally, Latvian architects would commonly add details inspired by Latvian culture and mythology to their contraptions (patterns and even sculptures), leading to the creation of unique distinctive sub-type of “Latvian national romantic art nouveau“.

A national romantic art nouveau building, adorned by ethnic patterns and a tall gabled roof
A national romantic art nouveau building, adorned by ethnic patterns and a tall gabled roof. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After Latvia achieved its independence in 1918, Centrs of Riga became its political hub. In a symbolic place between Centrs and Old Town the Freedom statue was erected, symbolizing the unity of Latvia. Miraculously escaping Soviet demolition it remains *the* national symbol.

Freedom monument between Center and Old Town of Riga
Freedom monument between Center and Old Town of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the occupations, Centrs served as a base for anti-Latvian institutions such as KGB, whose former HQ was transformed into a KGB museum (entry free to the introduction area, but in order to visit the cells where Latvians were tortured and murdered a paid guided tour is needed).

KGB prison in Riga
The prison zone of KGB building in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern fringes of the Centrs, where the large buildings slowly give up place for the smaller wooden apartment blocks of the Eastern downtown, has been reborn as a rather artistic place. Miera street now hosts various studios, a large mural of Latvian song festivals has been created near the intersection of Talina and Krišjana Barona streets.

The mural of Latvian song festivals ir Central Riga
The mural of Latvian song festivals ir Central Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Total population of Centrs: 35 000, but some 100 000 work in offices there.


Latvians are Latvia‘s original inhabitants, having arrived to the location at least 4000 years ago. They speak their own Latvian language which (together with Lithuanian) is part of the Baltic Group.

Most Latvians are light-haired and genetically closest to Lithuanians, Estonians and Finns. Lutheranism is their most popular faith. The eastern fifth of Latvian nation is known as Latgalians; they follow Catholicism and speak a unique Latgalian dialect.

Key parts of Latvian culture include their songs (and regular Song Festivals), language and ice hockey (national sport).

History has not been kind to Latvians, and Latvians never had a country of their own prior to 20th century.

Instead, they just worked their lands, recognizing nobles from neighboring countries as their overlords. First to arrive were Germans (who converted Latvians into Christianity). Then came Lithuanians, Poles and Swedes (16th century) and finally the Russians (18th century). Each of these powers dominated Latvia‘s cities and high society while Latvian majority continued to toil in the fields.

A Latvian farmstead now in Riga's skansen
A Latvian farmstead now in Riga’s skansen. Well into 19th century nearly all Latvians lived in wooden villages, while cities and high culture were minority-dominated. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the 19th century however Latvians enjoyed a national awakening. More and more Latvian peasants moved into cities, becoming industrial workers, specialists, artists and businessmen. They recognized their own culture and language as no worse than either German or Russian. They had to wait until World War 1 (and the defeats of both Russia and Germany therein) to finally make the miracle and declare a free Latvia.

Līgo decorated car in Latvia
Many Latvians have their cars decorated in wreathes for Līgo (June 23rd), which is their primary ethnic festival. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The brief period of prosperous independence was a high point for the Latvian nation and culture, but the worst was still to come. In 1940 Russia (renamed Soviet Union) occupied Latvia once again and launched a Genocide. The numbers of Latvians were hit hard, never to come back up again. Perceived as no less dangerous was the mass settling of Latvian cities by Russians. By 1970s Latvians were already a minority in their own cities. They made up only 52% of Latvia‘s total population in 1989 (down from 76% in 1935). A couple more decades would have made them outnumbered by Russians in their homeland, dashing the hopes of ever being free again.

Latvian sogng festival taking place in 1931
Latvian Song festival taking place in 1931. Songs are considered the key piece of Latvian spirit and Song Festivals are regular events that unify ethnic Latvians around this heritage

But the Soviet Empire started crumbling. Under the slogan „now or never“ Latvians achieved their freedom in 1990. The challenges have not ended however: half of the urban inhabitants were Russians and they spoke no Latvian language (whereas almost every Latvian spoke Russian). To preclude a situation where Latvian culture would be sidelined by Russian even after independence, Latvians rather boldly Latvianised the public inscriptions and established strict requirements for knowledge of Latvian language. These effectively disenfranchised some Soviet settlers, making it impossible for Russians to outvote Latvians in most elections.

Latvian Legion memorial
Latvian Legion memorial in Lestene. The Legion, which fought against the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia and lost a third of its members, is regarded in positive light by many Latvians but shunned by Russophones, creating a yet another Latvian vs. non-Latvian opinion division in Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While the share of Latvians increased to 62,1% as some Russians left, Latvians continue to feel like a beleaguered nation, fearing that changing “political winds” and another rise of imperialism in Russia may subdue them once again, perhaps using Latvia‘s Soviet era minorities as a “fifth column”.

Russian Orthodox

Russian Orthodox faith is followed by 18%-22% of Latvia’s inhabitants, mostly Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities in the cities and Latgale.

Neo-Byzanthine Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga
Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russian Orthodox churches tend to be domed and have square gold colored interiors. Most of the inscriptions and events there are in Russian as nearly every Latvia’s Orthodox speaks Russian natively.

Russian Orthodox faith first gained importance in Latvia when Latvia was conquered by Russia in the 18th century. Russian settlers, soldiers and officials had churches funded for them by the state as the Orthodox church was considered a key basis of the Empire and its culture.

Russian Orthodox church in Stameriena village built in 1904 when Latvia was still under Russian rule
Russian Orthodox church in Stameriena built in 1904 when Latvia was still under Russian rule. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The numbers of Orthodox adherents swelled together with Soviet colonization of Latvia as many Russophones were sent into Latvian cities. While religious life was shunned at the time and no new churches were built, after independence the Orthodox religion rebounded as many Russophones rediscovered the faith of their forefathers.

New orthodox church constructed post-1990 in Daugavpils Soviet district
New orthodox church constructed in post-1990 Daugavpils Soviet district. All new Orthodox churches generally follow the old styles. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern Downtown (Avoti, Grīziņkalns, Brasa)

The neighborhoods of Riga’s Eastern Downtown are at least 100 years old but more varied and laid back than the Center itself.

Pretty restored art nouveau buildings are joined there by smaller historicist edifices, wooden countryside-like homes and empty lots used for parking cars.

A building in Grīziņkalns
Abruptly ending lines of large edifices are a common sight east of Centrs, the empty walls often used for adverts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Had the early 1900s „Riga golden age“ continued longer all the remaining smaller buildings in those neighborhoods would have been surely replaced by stately art nouveau edifices. However, World War 1 all but stopped that expansion of Riga, ceasing the transformation of Eastern Downtown where it was, half-completed. These neighborhoods lag behind Center in housing prices and a few of the buildings are abandoned.

However, these districts are still residential, not yet taken over by tourists and businesses. If one would like to discover hidden gems of Riga architecture without getting surrounded by crowds and expensive cafes, Eastern Downtown is the best place.

A street in Grīziņkalns
A street in Grīziņkalns with St. Paul church at the end. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern Downtown lacks top government and public edifices, but even mundane buildings constructed before World War 2 are of great architectural value (e.g. the gas reservoirs that once supplied the city with gas).

Gas reservoirs of Riga
Gas reservoirs of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Gothic revival St. Paul Lutheran church (1887) is the spiritual heart of Eastern Downtown for Lutherans while the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox cathedral and monastery (1902) is for the Russian Orthodox.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Riga
Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most eerie sight is the Great Cemetery in Brasa. Once among the prettiest sights of Riga full of elaborate gravestones and crypts built by 19th century German elite of the city, the cemetery was destroyed by vengeful Soviets. Officially the cemetery is a park now, but gravestones and pretty family crypts survive here and there, not allowing to forget the past. There is nobody to care for them, however (as the local Germans were killed or expelled in 1940s) and the graves thus remain desecrated, vandalized with swastikas and satanist symbols.

Abandoned crypts in Brasa cemetery
Abandoned crypts in Brasa cemetery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern Downtown is officially split into districts of Avoti (south), Grīziņkalns (east) and Brasa (north).

Total population: 46 000.


Russians are the Latvia’s largest, most vocal and most controversial minority. In many cities Russians form ~40% of population, in Daugavpils even the majority. In villages there are few Russians, except for Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Russian Orthodox church
Iconic domed Russian Orthodox church in Stameriena. Russian Orthodoxy is the most popular faith among Latvia’s Russians. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Most of Latvia’s Russians were sent in as Soviet settlers while the country was under Soviet occupation (1940-1990). The colonization was massive indeed: the Russian population shot up from 8,8% in 1935 to 34% in 1989. Russians were generally not learning Latvian language nor customs, expecting Latvians to learn “the Russian ways”. Latvians saw this as a severe threat, understanding that independence will become impossible after Russians become the majority.

However, the Soviet Union collapsed earlier and Latvians asserted their freedom. It was believed that the largely pro-Soviet Russian minority could easily “hijack” the new country. Therefore Latvian citizenship (and voting rights) were only given to the Russians who legally came to Latvia before 1940. Soviet settlers had to learn to speak Latvian and naturalize, which most of them refused to do. Only a third did leave Latvia for good however, accepting Russian citizenship, leaving Latvia 26,9% Russian today.

Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations.
Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Therefore to this date there are 250 000 people without citizenship in Latvia, most of them Russians. With 12,5% of its inhabitants stateless Latvia is among the „world leaders“ by this criteria. The number declines however, as any children born to the stateless Russians automatically become citizens. Nevertheless, Russia would regularly blame Latvia for alleged discrimination of local Russians. Latvia replies such accusations by claiming that settling of occupied territory was illegal at the first place.

Another grievance of the local Russian community is the status of Russian language. Despite its prevalence in many cities it has no official status anywhere, with all signs Latvian only. To Latvians any official status to Russian language is seen as a danger that Russian (which is well-spoken by every Latvian raised under occupation) would replace Latvian as lingua franca.

Deleted Russian street name in Riga
All street plaques in Soviet era had to be also in Russian. After independence Russian plaques were either removed or stroken off (as in this picture). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvians and Russians have separate political parties, cultural institutions and media in Latvia. Most Russians associate themselves more with Russia than Latvia. To the dismay of Latvians they celebrate festivals such as the Soviet victory day, commemorating the moment when Soviet became the 2nd superpower of the Cold War (but also entrenched their occupation and Genocide of Latvians.

Matyoshkas for sale in Riga
Matryoshkas (traditional Russian dolls) for sale in Riga downtown for foreign tourists. To the dismay of Latvians, decades of Russian dominance in Latvia meant that many Westerners come there expecting Russian or Soviet culture. Some even incorrectly believe that Latvians are/were part of the Russian nation. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Soviet settlers are the most visible part of Latvia’s Russians, there are also older communities in Latgale (Eastern Latvia). Many of these are Old Believers whose ancestors fled Russia from 18th century religious persecutions. These Russians are mostly Latvian citizens and better integrated.

Restored entrance to Russian Imperial fortress in Daugavpils with Russian inscriptions and coat of arms.
Restored entrance to Russian Imperial fortress in Daugavpils with Russian inscriptions and coat of arms. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


German crusader states (until 1561)

For several millennia the Baltic tribes such as Latvians lived away from the major European conflicts and migrations. They would own wooden castles and sometimes fight each other, but had little relations with the world beyond them.

Reconstructed prehistoric Latvian village on a lake (10th century AD).
Reconstructed prehistoric Latvian village (10th century AD). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That changed by 1100s. Scandinavia was converted to Christianity and Balts thus remained the final major heathens of Europe. German elite was keen to change this, sending missionaries and monks to the Baltic lands. Some of them established cities and asserted political power. As the Crusades in the Middle East were defeated, thousands of German knights also moved to the Baltic lands hoping to at least expand Christianity there. They established Livonian Order (1204) which gradually consolidated vast swatches of modern-day Latvia throughout the 13th century.

Mythical Latvian hero Lāčplēsis and a German knight.
Two faces of Medieval Latvia: the mythical Latvian hero Lāčplēsis and a German knight.

Other Latvian areas fell under the rule of various German bishops who enjoyed secular powers in addition to the usual religious ones (the greatest bishopric was located in Riga). Latvia was officially named „Land of Virgin Mary“, fitting its numerous theocracies. Latvian peasants gave in, becoming Christians. They continued to work their land and pay taxes to the new overlords who sawn their lands with formidable brick castles and cities of size and modernity they never witnessed before.

13th century crusader castle in Daugavpils.

The twisted boundaries between the Order and bishoprics would sometimes lead into conflicts between the two powers, but the new primary “conquest goal” of these military-religious statelets lied further south. Southern Baltic tribes refused to Christianise, establishing a powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania that successfully resisted Crusader onslaughts.

Battle of Durbe by V. Norkus
Battle of Durbe (southwest Latvia), 1260. Lithuanian-led tribes here defeated the Crusaders, stopping their southward advance. Painting by V. Norkus.

After two centuries of war Lithuania Christianised but the Order, too used to live off military bounty in the seemingly endless crusade, refused to leave. However, a series of defeats (not even stemmed by a Order-Bishoprics unification at 1435) would sink the Order into oblivion. All the German states of modern-day Latvia have been conquered by their arch-enemies Lithuanians (allied with Poles) by 1562. The Orders had secularized and converted into Lutheranism shortly beforehand, making Lutheranism the Latvia’s major faith ever since.

Riga in later 16th century
Riga in later 16th century.


Belarusians are the Latvia’s 3rd largest community (3,3% of total population).

They are little visible as a separate community, however, as they commonly share the culture and opinions with Russians. Most of Latvia’s Belarusians even speak Russian as their native language. This is true not only in Latvia but also in Belarus itself where russification has been rampant.

Most of the Latvia’s Belarusians arrived as Soviet settlers during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990) and they live in the cities.

However, as Latvia and Belarus share a boundary, there were also rural Belarusian communities in Latvia even before the occupation. In 1935, Belarusians made up 1,38% of total population (2,45% in Latgale region that borders Belarus). Belarusian population peaked at 4,5% in 1989. While some Belarusians departed after independence, the community may now have already resumed growth due to new migrants from a poorer Belarus into a richer Latvia.

Northern Downtown (Skanste, Andrejsala)

Areas north of Riga Downtown have been relatively sparsely inhabited, even empty. As such they have been used for some modern developments that needed both space and a downtown location.

For example, Arena Riga (used for ice hockey, basketball and concerts), modern offices and flats have been constructed here.

New residential buildings around Riga Arena
New residential buildings around Riga Arena. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Western parts of the Northern Downtown have been used as the main port of Riga. While they are still used as such, less area is now needed, and some of the former port zones of Andrejsala have been converted into a small district of restaurants and clubs.

Total population: 6 000


Ukrainians are the 4th largest community of Latvia, forming 2,2% of total population.

Ukrainians are the only large Latvia’s minority to date completely to the Soviet occupation, as there was no significant Ukrainian community in Latvia before World War 2. As Ukrainians were the second largest nation of the Soviet Union, they naturally made up a significant share of the Soviet settlers.

While many of the Ukrainians would have spoken the Ukrainian language natively at the time they came to Latvia, there were never any Ukrainian language institutions available in Soviet Latvia. Ukrainians were expected to integrate into a wider Russophone culture, which most of them did, speaking Russian to their own children. That’s why the Ukrainian minority is little visible today.

Ukrainian numbers peaked 3,5% in 1989. After independence, a third of them left Latvia. Today, however, the Ukrainian numbers are increasing again as migrants leave beleaguered Ukraine. These new Ukrainians of Latvia are often more patriotic and less Russified.

Public stands depicting the Ukrainian revolution of 2014
Public stands in Jelgava depicting the Ukrainian revolution of 2014. The fact that such stands are erected is a result of Latvian solidarity with all the nations that see the Russian threat, something that many Ukrainians began to see. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Maskavas Suburb

Maskavas Suburb is the melting pot of Riga‘s different ethnicities. The district was developed in 19th century on the road to Moscow (hence the name). It is a mish-mash of large brick edifices and two floored wooden apartment buildings (together with art nouveau the reason of Riga‘s UNESCO inscription). Many are abandoned as Riga suffered a population decline, especially among its Russophone population.

Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Maskavas Suburb
Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Maskavas Suburb. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Despite the departure of some Russians after 1990, Latvians are still a minority in the Maskavas suburb. The district has houses of worship of 5 denominations.

Russian Old Believer Grebenščikova church and monastery with its golden dome is among the largest churches in the world of this Russian schismatic community which escaped the persecutions by taking refuge in Latvia.

Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery
Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jesus Heart Catholic church is Latvia‘s biggest wooden building. Neoclassical St. Alexander Nevskiy Russian Orthodox church (1825) is among Latvia’s oldest Orthodox churches.

Jesus Heart octagonal church
Jesus Heart octagonal church in the middle of traffic roundabout. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There is also a ruined synagogue reminding of the time when Nazi Germany forced Riga‘s Jewry to live in the Maskavas suburb, eventually killing many of them (names of Latvians who helped to save some of the Jews are written in the synagogue).

Another famous sight is the Riga’s bazaar-like Central Market, established in 1930 in disused airship hangars.

Nearby Špikeri district reused old port warehouses for more upscale trade (though they are still quite empty).

Špikeri district of old port warehouses in Riga
Špikeri district of old port warehouses. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Soviets used Maskavas Suburb for the tallest building in Latvia. 108 m tall Latvian Academy of Sciences dates to 1961 the Stalinist policy of erecting massive buildings of Soviet historicist style in the capitals of Soviet Republics, dedicating them to the „glory of science“. While formally respected, science was heavily censored in the Soviet Union, with many of its achievements made secret or regarded as unworthy. In summer, it is possible to ascend to the top.

Academy of Sciences in Riga
Academy of Sciences in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At 368 m Riga TV Tower is still the tallest structure in the Baltics and the entire European Union. Located in a Daugava island in front of Maskavas Suburb, it is not formally part of it but within an easy reach. While it had a panorama restaurant, the tower‘s pyramid-like form meant that the now-closed observatory is located merely at 93 m, leading to its unpopularity.

Riga TV tower rising above the Maskavas suburb
Riga TV tower rising above the Maskavas suburb. The picture was made from the Academy of Sciences observatory. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

More attractive is the nearby LIDO recreation center on the Daugava shores, famous primarily for its massive restaurant-canteen-bar, but also for a child-oriented funfair. One of the first legal post-Soviet Latvian businesses (started in 1987 when independence still seemed impossible) LIDO has a somewhat legendary status. When constructed in 1999 the Recreation center indeed felt like a miraculous addition to a Riga that still lacked malls and amusement opportunities. And while LIDO has since lost momentum and has been outflanked by other growth (much of it also adorning the shores of Daugava), it is still always full of Rigans.

Lido recreation centre with the iconic folly mill
LIDO recreation centre with the iconic folly mill (once LIDO owned specialized workshops to produce follies). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Population: 32 000

Old Believer

Old Believers are the Latvia’s 4th strongest faith, but with 1,7% as its adherents it falls far behind in numbers beyond the first three. It is followed by ethnic Russian communities whose forefathers arrived to Latgale fleeing persecution in Russia.

Traditional Old Believer churches are small and wooden, located in their own isolated villages. As the centuries passed, many Old Believers moved into cities, with one of the largest Old Believer churches in the world now operating in Riga.

Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery
Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Believers follow an older form of Russian Orthodoxy. After Patriarch Nikon reformed that faith in Russia in 1653, following the old rites was banned there. Subsequent persecutions caused many Old Believers to seek refuge in the neighboring countries such as Latvia.

 Old Believer village church now in Riga skansen
Old Believer village church now in Riga skansen. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Every Russian regime tended to view Old Believers as a dangerous sect and their numbers thus went down under Soviet occupation of Latvia (their population share stood at 5,49% in 1935 with 13,85% in Latgale alone).

 typical wooden and modest Old Believer church (1888) in Jēkabpils
A typical wooden and modest Old Believer church (1888) in Jēkabpils where Old Believers have settled as early as 17th century. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


The centre of 19th century Rigan industry, Sarkandaugava has many old buildings, both industrial and residential. There are many less inspiring Soviet additions as well. Extensive railways and a nearby section of Daugava river were the reason why industrial district had been developed here.

The main avenue is north-south Ganibu Dambis.

In an area close to pristine Mežaparks the 1936-1940 president of Latvia Kārlis Ulmanis had his small palace, known as Dauderi. Now it is a museum.

Dauderi palace in Riga
Dauderi palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Population: 20 000.


Making 2,2% of Latvia‘s population, Poles are the country‘s largest non-Soviet minority.

Their forefathers have arrived to Latgale in 17th-18th centuries when this area was ruled directly by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poles made up the local nobility at the time, funding nice manors and Baroque Catholic churches. To this day, Polish language masses are common in these churches and the Poles remain Catholic.

Aglona Catholic basilica
18th century Aglona Catholic basilica in Latgale, funded mainly by Poles and Polonized Lithuanians and still offering Polish mass. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some of Latvia‘s Poles may actually have mostly Lithuanian forefathers. That’s because the Lithuanian nobility effectively Polonized in 17th-18th centuries as the Polish culture was seen as the more prestigious one at the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the era.

Compared to other ethnic groups, the Polish share remained rather stable throughout the 20th century, declining from 2,8% in 1925 to 2,2% in 2011.

Their culture may have taken a bigger hit however, with many Polish families switching their native tongue to Russian during the Soviet occupation.

A monument to 1863 uprising
A Daugavpils monument to the 1863 Polish-Lithuanian uprising against czarist regime that also took place in Latgale. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


Polish-Lithuanian and Swedish reign (1562-1700)

As the soon-to-merge Poland and Lithuania conquered Latvia (1562), little did actually change “on the ground”. German nobility continued to own the land, while the ethnic Latvian majority remained peasants. Centuries of the prior Germanic rule and Lutheranism left Latvians different from Lithuanians, and so the two Baltic nations never became one, their boundary forever remaining at where the Livonia-Lithuania borderline stood at before 1562.

Former German knights pledge their allegiance to a Polish-Lithuanian king Sigismundus Augustus in 1557

After the 1562 conquest, Latvia was partitioned into several distinct territories. Latgale (Eastern Latvia) fell under a direct rule of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Supported by nobility-funded churches, Catholic faith there successfully withstood the rise of Lutheranism. The old German leaders were joined by newly arrived Polish-Lithuanian elite in the local high society.

Courland and Semigallia (Southern and Western Latvia), on the other hand, remained merely a fief of Poland-Lithuania. The immediate lords of the land were Dukes Kettlers (descendants of the final Livonian Order grand master) and their naval power was no joke. They even launched a colonial campaign in Africa and the Americas, becoming the least populous country to do so (Courland-Semigallia had merely 300 000 people at the time). Akin to the duchies of northern Germany, Courland-Semigallia was staunchly Lutheran.

Kuldiga castle of the Courland-Semigallia in 1680
Kuldiga castle of the Courland-Semigallia in 1680, modernized with ramparts for modern artillery.

Vidzeme (Northern Latvia) that included Riga, already a massive city, was the most prized possession, but it was also the one Poland-Lithuania enjoyed the shortest. Absorbed into the Commonwealth at 1581 (after a brief “free city” period) Riga and entire Vidzeme was lost to the Swedes in 1621 war. Riga then became the largest city of Sweden (surpassing Stockholm).

Battle of Salspils
Battle of Salaspils took place near Riga in 1611, becoming one of numerous Poland-Lithuania vs. Sweden skirmishes of 17th century. Salaspils was a decisive Polish-Lithuanian victory but later Swedes gained the upper hand for good.

This defeat was merely a warning to Poland-Lithuania about what was to come. In 1655, the entire Commonwealth was temporarily occupied by Russia and Sweden, with Latvia falling under the Swedish occupation. While Poland-Lithuania was liberated by 1660 (and retained Latvia save for Vidzeme), this was the beginning of the end. Not just to Poles and Lithuanians, but to Latvia‘s Germans as well: using the turmoil, foreign powers stripped Courland-Semigallia of its overseas colonies.

The upcoming 18th century would be that of waning power for both Poland-Lithuania and Sweden, both of them at mercy of strengthening Russia. And Latvia was to be once again merely one of the possessions to change hands.


As Riga largely ceased to expand after World War 1, Teika is unique as the only neighborhood developed at the time of independent interwar Latvia.

VEF factory, just beyond the railroad ring, used to be crown gem of interwar Latvian industry. Located in some pretty buildings that look more like palace than factory (as well as more prosaic later edifices) VEF used to manufacture world‘s smallest pre-WW2 camera (Minox), radios, phones, even aircraft.

Historic buiildings of VEF factory
Historic buildings of VEF factory. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unfortunately during the Soviet occupation technology lagged so far behind the West that VEF was unable to compete with Western goods after independence, folding in 1999. Currently the massive premises are rented out.

Further east by Brivibas street you may find extensive districts of interwar and postwar (mainly Stalinist) residentials.

Interwar residential homes in Teika
Interwar residential homes in Teika. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Total population: 30 000.