Overview of Riga

History of Riga

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The lands of the modern-day Latvia were first settled around 3000 BC. At the end of the 12th century the Baltic tribes were the last remaining pagans in Europe and in 1198 the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor sent first crusaders to the region. By the late 13th century German crusader orders had fully subjugated the lands that became known as Livonia.

In the early 16th century the Protestant Reformation helped to bring about the dissolution of the Livonian Confederation. Consequently, in the time period between the late 16th century and the early 18th century the territories of modern-day Latvia and Estonia were divided between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish Kingdom, and Russia. The Duchy of Courland on the south banks of the river Daugava was partially autonomous and served as a vassal of the Commonwealth.

During the 18th century the Baltic territories were gradually incorporated in the Russian Empire. Throughout the centuries the local administration of the Baltic lands continued to be in the hands of the Baltic Germans, descendants from the crusaders, who were also the dominant social and economic strata of the society.

The emancipation of serfs that took place at the beginning of the 19th century led to considerable changes in the local social structure. On the one hand, there emerged a class of Latvian farmers and a Latvian bourgeoisie. On the other hand, landless peasants flocked to towns forming an urban proletariat. These social changes in addition to high literacy and education gave a fertile ground for nationalist ideology that was first expressed by the "Young Latvian" movement, and later taken up by the more leftist "New Current" movement at the end of the 19th century.

These nationalist dreams of self-determination came to fruition at the end of World War I when the People's Council of Latvia used the power vacuum created by a weakened Germany and the October Revolution in Russia and proclaimed the independence of Latvia on the 18th November 1918. The declaration of independence was followed by two years of turbulence and continued fighting, including the forming of two competing Latvian governments: one by the Soviet Russian forces, the other by the Baltic Germans. The Republic of Latvia was finally internationally recognized in 1920.

The constitution of the newly formed, democratic state of Latvia, the Satversme, was adopted in 1922. However, the new country did not remain democratic for long. As a result of economic hardships caused by the Great Depression in Latvia, like many other neighboring countries, there was an authoritarian coup in the 1930s. The head of the state from 1934 until 1940 was Karlis Ulmanis, the former Prime Minister, whose main goal was creating an economically successful "Latvian Latvia".

The World War II brought an end to Latvian independence as, according to the agreement between the Soviet Union and the Nazi Germany known as the Moltov-Ribbentrop Pact, Latvia came under the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviet forces occupied Latvia in 1939, and on the 5th August 1940 it officially became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In 1941 Latvia was invaded by the German army. Many locals received this change of power favorably due to the heavy losses suffered in the one short year of Soviet rule that saw the deportation or execution of almost 35 000 Latvians. Between 1941 and 1944 Latvia was a part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland and the Germans formed Latvian units in the Waffen-SS troops. As a result, Latvians fought both in the Soviet and the Nazi armies resulting in the loss of over 200 000 lives during the World War II. Among these were around 75 000 Latvian Jews who had been an important ethnic minority for centuries.

With the defeat of Germany in 1945 Latvia once again came under the Soviet sphere of influence. Further deportations, as well as collectivization and Sovietization followed in the years immediately after the war. During the Soviet period Latvia also experienced a wave of industrialization with new plants and factories being built. The workforce for these projects was attracted from all across the USSR and, as the Baltics had the most developed economies and the highest living standards in the Soviet Union, they were an attractive destination for labor mobility. As a result, while the population of Latvia reached a new high of 2.7 million people by 1990, the proportion of ethnic Latvians reduced from 75% before World War II to 52% in 1989. Latvians had become ethnic minorities in the seven largest cities of the country.

This Sovietization through immigration fueled nationalist sentiments among the local population. Thus, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the late 1980s and initiated policies of decentralization, glasnost, and democratization, in the Baltics these reforms gave way for the formation of nationalist movements that requested greater regional autonomy and eventually independent statehood. The first democratic elections in 1990 were won by pro-independence forces and resulted in the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia on the 4th May 1990. Attempts of the central government to overthrow the Latvian authorities were unsuccessful and an advisory referendum in 1991 confirmed that 74% of the population supported independence.

The independence was defined not as a founding but as a restoration of the Latvian state and, consequently, citizenship was given only to the citizens of the interwar republic and their descendants. This meant that the Soviet-era immigrants, approximately 600 000 people, were left stateless. The naturalization process has had varying success: in 2014 there were still approximately 250 000 people who carry the status of non-citizen, making up 13% of the Latvian population. Subsequently, citizenship and ethnicity continue to cause problematic divisions in the Latvian political landscape.

The restoration of independence also meant a transition to democracy and a liberal economy. It was seen as a return to Europe and Latvia sought to integrate into the Western international organizations. The chief goals of joining the European Union and NATO were both reached in 2004. In 2014 Latvia joined the Eurozone, replacing the national currency of Latvian Lats with Euro. In the first half of 2015 Latvia holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union.


Riga was founded in 1201 as the seat for the Archbishop who led the crusades to the Baltics. The convenient geographic location at the mouth of the river Daugava positioned Riga on the crossroads of trade between Western Europe and the Russian lands to the East. Initially ruled by the Livonian Order of Knights, Riga became an important member of the Hanseatic League of trade cities.

Over the centuries following its founding, Riga has been ruled by the German crusaders, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish king, and even enjoyed a brief status of a free city in the 16th century. In 1710 Riga was conquered by the Russian Tsar and up until the World War I it served as the regional center for the Tsar administration.

Riga experienced a surge of population in the 19th century as a result of the emancipation of serfs and industrialization. In the early 20th century Riga was the third biggest city in the Russian Empire, its largest port, and the trade and industrial center of the region. With the establishing of Latvian independence at the end of World War I, Riga became the capital of the Latvian Republic.

The city experienced another wave of population increase and industrial development following World War II. The influx of immigrants not only added new suburbs to the expanding city, it also reduced the proportion of Latvians to a mere 36% by 1989. In the years since this proportion has increased but Riga remains, as it has always been, an ethnically and linguistically diverse city. In 2014 approximately 45% of Riga's population was ethnic Latvian, whereas around 40% of the inhabitants were ethnic Russian. A notable amount of inhabitants also have Belorussian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian ethnic roots.

Today Riga continues to be the economic and social heart of Latvia. The historical city centre is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list and in 2014 Riga took on the role of the European Capital of Culture.

Update 26/08/2015

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