All posts by Augustinas Žemaitis

History of Liepāja

Courland-Semigallia imperial port (1625-1795)

Liepāja was born out of a wish of a small Duchy of Courland and Semigallia to become a major naval power. For this it needed ports, and Liepāja located on a great location between sea and lake was granted city rights in 1625. Ships left its shores to colonize Gambia and Tobago, while the port was constantly expanded (in 1697 artificial lake-to-sea shipping canals have replaced a local river). While the majority of Courland-Semigallia population was ethnically Latvian, its leadership and elite were German. As such, the new Liepāja was overwhelmingly German, who called the city Libau.

Liepāja in 1701
Liepāja in 1701, looking from the sea. The seashore was occupied by a large fortress (later replaced by a district of wooden villas), while the town itself stood further inland (closer to the lake). The shipping channel that connected sea with the lake is already visible. New Liepāja was not yet built.

The plan of colonization may have been too big for the small Duchy. After losing multiple wars, Courland-Semigallia had to relinquish its American and African colonies in the 18th century and ceased to be a naval power. Liepāja’s importance plummeted together with that of its owner-state, which slowly came under Russian influence.

Westernmost city of the Russian Empire (1795-1918)

In 1795 Russia annexed Courland-Semigallia, acquiring Liepāja. However, little did actually change in the city for another half a century. Ethnic Germans retained the majority (still at 63% in 1863) while the growth was slow.

Local German newspaper of 1890
Local German newspaper of 1890.

All that started to crumble as railway reached Liepāja (1871), allowing development of factories. Liepāja expanded as Russia’s westernmost port. It received a direct steamship service to New York and was used for cargo export. It was the starting point of Russia-USA Transatlantic telegraph (est. 1906). The population increased from 10000 in 1863 to 84000 in 1911.

New York-bound steamship in Liepāja port in 1900
New York-bound steamship in Liepāja port in 1900. Some 500 000 Russian Empire’s people emigrated to USA using this line. In some years the annual migrant flow surpassed Liepāja population.

The “unsafe” location of what has by now become an important city troubled the Russian czar (German border was merely 70 km to the south). In 1890 he commissioned an unprecedented all-new naval military city north of Liepāja-proper. Now known as “Karosta” the military port had its own splendid Russian Orthodox church, multiple fortifications, a shipping canal spanned by a rotating bridge, pigeon mail station and even an internal narrow gauge railway. Numerous red barracks were the staple housing for Russian soldiers and officers.

Wicander and Larson cork factory in Liepāja.
Wicander and Larson cork factory in 1900 Liepāja.

The new seat of Russia’s military might did little to prevent the societal changes that ultimately led to the demise of Russian rule over Latvia. Latvians were moving into Liepāja in massive numbers from nearby villages to staff the burgeoning industry. Their population share increased from 16% in 1863 to 43% in 1911. After becoming more educated and imbibed in the urban lifestyle, Latvians started to treat their own culture and language with respect, demanding more rights (or even independence) for their nation.

Electric trams in 1910 Liepāja.
Electric trams in 1910 Liepāja.

In fact, Liepāja was at the epicentre of not one, but two national awakenings. Located next to Lithuanian ethnic lands (also Russian-ruled at the time) the city attracted thousands of Lithuanians for work and educational opportunities (which were limited back in Lithuania due to Russia’s anti-Lithuanian and anti-industrial policies there). Some estimates claim that on the eve of World War 1, Lithuanians made up to a quarter (25%) of the entire Liepāja’s population. Lithuanians who had graduated from Liepāja gymnasium participated heavily in their own Lithuanian National Awakening. Many key figures of the early 20th century Lithuania had spent their formative years in Liepāja.

A Lithuanian choir in Liepāja
A Lithuanian choir in Liepāja. In Baltic countries where Song Festivals are massively important, choirs were among key pillars of ethnic identity

Interwar Latvia’s 2nd city (1918-1940)

World War 1 gave the opportunity to realize the goals of both national revivals as Germany and Russia were defeated. Lithuania and Latvia declared independence in 1918. While there was a brief dispute on which country should receive Liepāja, arbitration ruled in favour of Latvia (1922). The city even briefly served as Latvia’s capital while Riga was occupied by Russians during the Latvian War of independence.

Karosta naval military city after taking damage during World War 1
Karosta naval military city after taking damage during World War 1.

Thousands of Lithuanians, Poles and Russians left for their own now-separate homelands, bringing Liepāja’s population down to 50000 by 1925.

Pretty but somewhat empty Graudu iela in Liepāja (1920).

Germans largely remained as they always did, but by the 20th century, they were already a spent force as there were no rural Germans who would migrate into the city. Therefore German share declined every year as non-Germans poured in. By 1925 it was already down to 10%. On the other hand, the numbers of Latvians grew constantly. By 1935 Liepāja was 68% Latvian with a total population of 57000; it became Latvia’s second largest city.

Mostly ethnic Latvian college students parading in Liepāja of 1939
Mostly ethnic Latvian college students parading in Liepāja of 1939.

Forbidden Soviet military city (1940-1990)

World War 2 brought a major upheaval to Liepāja. German population was destroyed due to Soviet occupation (who had also killed many Latvians) while the Jewish population (13% in 1935) was decimated by Nazi German occupation.

Jews held on beach under the Nazi German occupation before a massacre.

Those who died were swiftly replaced by people from the Soviet Union, especially ethnic Russians. By 1959 Liepāja was already larger than before WW2 (71000 inhabitants). By 1979 Russians became the largest ethnic group in the city. Liepāja’s population peaked at 114000 in 1989 (at the time, merely 38,8% of locals were Latvians and 43,1% were Russians).

Soviet buildings of Liepāja covered in propaganda slogans

Additionally, Soviets have repopulated the old Russian Imperial Karosta naval base, staffing it with 26000 soldiers and officers (this was one-fourth of Liepāja’s inhabitants). As every Soviet city of military importance, Liepāja was closed: no person from outside city limits could have visited it without a government permit.

A festival of naval soldiers in Karosta canal during Soviet occupation

As Liepāja used to be a comparably large city even before World War 1, relatively little expansion was needed. Only a few Soviet districts were added, helping Liepāja retain that “old wooden city” atmosphere of the 19th-century industrial boom. Slower growth led Liepāja to lose the status of Latvia’s second largest city to Daugavpils.

A Soviet clinic

Modern Liepāja seeks identity (1990-)

The restoration of Latvia’s independence (1990) led to the final departure of Russian soldiers and officers by 1994. This was especially welcomed by Liepāja’s citizens. However, it once again sent the population on the decline (89000 in 2000). Many of the Liepāja’s old buildings were abandoned. This was especially true in Karosta, the proportions of which were meant to serve a massive empire rather than a small Latvian navy. The “naval military city” became nearly entirely abandoned, its red barracks slowly crumbling into oblivion.

In order to revitalize the city, a free economic zone was established in 1997, attracting businesses from abroad. New tourist attractions were opened, gentrifying the main canal shoreline and even (somewhat) the Karosta, which became a popular location for dark tourism.

Given its reclaimed Latvian plurality (49,4% in 2000, a larger share than in either Riga or Daugavpils) the city was believed to be especially livable by ethnic Latvians. However, it was plagued by difficult access. Latvia’s lack of highways mean that some 3 hours are needed to go to Riga; the attempts to open Liepāja airport for passenger traffic failed while Liepāja port is behind those of Riga and Ventspils.

Air Baltic plane in Liepāja airport in 2008
An Air Baltic plane in Liepāja airport in 2008. Flights to Riga, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Moscow were then operated, but later cancelled

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 inhabitants, some 50% of them the descendants of Courland-Semigallia’s German elite.

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

The tides of fortune turned again in the 1890s, as the 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 the population and the city was predominantly Russian-speaking.

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.

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%.

History of Jelgava

Southern castle of the Livonian Order (1266-1561)

While Jelgava has been inhabited by locals since at least the 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 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 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 the late 19th century when Russian anti-Lithuanian policies effectively left Lithuania without higher education opportunities. The long-term interwar president of Lithuania Antanas Smetona (1926-1940) 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 the Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941, and the 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 the RAF factory (constructed 1976) which was one of 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, cars became used for daily commute by everybody ~2000. This allowed Jelgava, located merely 46 km from downtown Riga, to feel increasingly like a Riga suburb, allowing it to get a share of the growth that has been happening in the capital.

Shopping in Riga

Riga is the main destination for shopping in Latvia.

The main place for souvenir shopping are the stalls in the Old Town, however, the prices there may be high. The souvenirs include the typical ones (magnets, t-shirts) as well as more Latvian ones (amber) or Russian ones (matryoshkas).

Amber stall in Riga Old Town
Amber stall in Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A good alternative for more interesting upmarket souvenirs is the Kalnciema fair, that takes place in Āgenskalns district every Saturday. The products there are sold by Latvian artists, craftsmen and makers of traditional food.

Kalnciema fair in Riga
Kalnciema fair in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main place for general shopping in Riga are its modern shopping malls. A number of them exist further away from the downtown, each offering many shops and entertainment opportunities as well as extensive car parking. Riga Plaza is at the other side of Daugava from Maskavas district, Domina shopping is in Teika while Spice is in the Soviet districts of Western Riga.

Riga plaza shopping mall
Riga plaza shopping mall. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A more traditional way to shop are the marketplaces. The main among them is the Central market in Maskavas district, located in former airship hangars and reachable easily from the Old Town on foot. It is a good place to buy groceries and cheap goods as well as souvenirs.

Riga Central Market in former airship hangars
Riga Central Market in former airship hangars. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Around Christmas, a Christmas fair is established in the Old Town.