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Cities in LATVIA



From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Archaeological findings have shown that the Baltic region was already inhabited 9000 years before Chr. The ancestors of today's inhabitants arrived somewhat later. Two groups inhabited present-day Latvia. The first groups to arrive were Finno-Ugric tribes and hunters who came from the east and settled in Estonia and northern Latvia between 3000 and 2000 B.C. The tribes consisted of Lijflanders and Estonians. Direct descendants of the Lijflanders still live in the Kurzeme region today. A second group of tribes entered Latvian territory from the south around 2000 BC. They included Latgallen, Zemgallen and Kurzeme, from which most Latvians are descended.

Since this time, the strategic location of the Baltic region became more and more important, also for other peoples. One of the most important trade routes from Scandinavia to Byzantium ran through the Kurzeme region. Kurzeme profited from this financially and therefore became an attractive prey for other peoples. In the 11th century, there was an invasion by Russians from the vicinity of Kyiv, but this was not very successful. What did remain was Orthodox Christianity, which gained a foothold especially in East Latvia.

However, the biggest change in the Middle Ages was the introduction of Catholicism by missionaries and crusaders (Kreuzritter) from Germany. There were also economic reasons for this. The people resisted fiercely, but the Lijflanders were defeated in 1207 and the Latgallen in 1214. The Zemgallen and the Kurds held out a little longer. The new German rulers called the area around the Gulf of Riga Livonia from then on. In addition, a number of small city-states came into being, often led by a bishop. The ruling class in these city-states were all Germans, while the workers and farmers were all native Latvians. This fact would continue for centuries. Due to this strict separation, the ethnic identity of the Baltic peoples was maintained during times of domination by many other peoples.

In 1237, after a crushing defeat by the Lithuanians, the Kreuzritter were replaced by another military order, the Teutonic Order. They too initially suffered a major defeat on the frozen Lake Peipus in Estonia. However, the Teutonic Order persevered and conquered Courland in 1260 and the Zemgale in 1290. The headquarters were established in Cesis (German: Wenden).

Sixteenth to eighteenth centuries

By the beginning of the 16th century, all the tribes in what is now Latvia had merged into one nation, the Latgians or Latvians. Only a small group of Latvians retained their own culture and language to this day. Under German rule, Latvian trading towns flourished and were incorporated into the Hanseatic League, a group of trading towns that dominated trade in the Baltic and North Sea regions. In the mid-sixteenth century, the power of the Teutonic Order and the semi-autonomous city-states weakened. At the same time, the Reformation threatened all Catholic states, including Latvia.

In 1554 Walter von Plettenberg, head of the Teutonic Order, declared Protestantism to be the official state religion. Encouraged by the discontent among the peasant population and the crumbling power of the Teutonic Order, armies of Ivan the Terrible invaded the eastern territories of Latvia and Estonia. This was the beginning of the Livonian War (1558-1583), which lasted for 25 years, cost many lives and largely destroyed the country. The local aristocracy, afraid of Russian domination, sought support from the emerging power Poland-Lithuania. The Duchy of Courland seceded in 1561, swore allegiance to Poland, and maintained this status until 1795! Riga was briefly independent from 1561 to 1582.

Meanwhile Protestant Sweden was looking for new territory and from 1592 it started a war against Catholic Poland-Lithuania. This battle was mainly fought on Lijfland territory. Sweden eventually won and ruled over the Livonian territory for almost one hundred years. In 1710, the Russians conquered the northern part of Latvia. In the same period, the Duchy of Courland prospered economically. Shipbuilding and metallurgy ensured that this small kingdom had one of the largest fleets of its time. They even colonised Tobago in the Caribbean and an island off the coast of Gambia in Africa! Because of this it took quite a long time before the Russians annexed Courland; this only succeeded under Catherine II in 1795.

Nineteenth century

Despite the Russian domination, the Baltic German notables managed to stay in almost all important positions and therefore did not suffer much from the Russian domination. This was in contrast to the Latvian population who were still considered and treated as serfs by the Baltic Germans. This lasted until the beginning of the 19th century. Only in the middle of the 19th century did farmers get their own piece of land and were free to travel. During this period, agriculture flourished and even became a commercial activity. As conditions improved, the rural population grew and an independent peasant class of Latvians emerged. Education also emerged and the economic power of the cities developed, causing more and more Latvians to move to the cities. As a result, the numerical ratio between Latvians and Baltic Germans reached a more normal level.

All these developments gave rise to strong nationalistic feelings among the Latvian population, which eventually resulted in the foundation of the Movement of National Consciousness in 1856. Its main goal was to strengthen Latvian identity by promoting the use of the Latvian language. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Latvian population tended more towards the Russian rulers than towards the Baltic Germans. This choice between two evils indeed led to weakened German influences. On the other hand, the Russians took advantage of this by an ever-increasing Russification of the Baltic provinces. For example, the school system was taken over by the Russians. For the nationalist Latvians, this was precisely the key to strengthening Latvian identity.

Twentieth century

Riga and Liepaja quickly developed into important industrial port cities. At one point, Riga even became the third largest port in the entire Russian Empire. As a result, just like in the rest of Europe, strong labour movements arose. In 1905 there was much unrest among the population in Russia (strikes and demonstrations) and this also affected the Latvian population. In 1905 there was a military uprising in Daugavpils, strikes in Riga, Yelgava and Liepaja, and much unrest in the countryside. During the revolution, about 600 Germans and Russians were killed by the Latvians and 184 estates were destroyed. However, the Russian army struck back hard and with the help of Baltic Germans, between 900 and 2000 Latvians lost their lives and more than 2000 Latvians were deported to Siberia. Furthermore, about 20,000 Germans and many Russians settled in Latvia to end all unrest.

As part of the Russian Empire, Latvia was immediately at war with Germany when they declared war on Russia in August 1914. Many Latvians enlisted in the Russian army, which, however, was no match for the well-organised and equipped German army. In the spring of 1915, German troops entered Kurzeme. The Latvians were then allowed by the Russians to organise their own military units. Initially, they succeeded in driving the Germans out again. Although the German front was broken, Riga was eventually taken by the Germans. However, it was not to be, as many German troops were called back to the western front in France.

Meanwhile, events in Russia followed each other in rapid succession. In February 1917, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to resign and Kerensky became leader of a temporary government. He immediately replaced the Livonian governor with a Latvian proxy. Latvian nationalists took the opportunity to remove the Baltic Germans from their posts and replace them with Latvians. However, the ultimate goal was not so much complete independence as autonomy within the Russian Federation. After the October Revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks (Russian Communists) became increasingly powerful in the Baltic countries.

The severe measures against the Baltic Germans and all non-communist politicians led to a longing for independence among the Latvian population. In March 1918 the Baltic countries were assigned to the Germans by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Eight months later the Germans lost the war and within a week a Latvian government was formed under the leadership of Kalis Ulmanis. Independence was declared on 18 November 1918. The Latvian declaration of independence was not accepted by the Bolsheviks and the remaining Baltic Germans. Soviet troops invaded Latvia and installed a government in Valka before capturing Riga in January 1919. A Bolshevik government was appointed, headed by Peteris Stucka. The Ulmanis government fled to Liepaja but returned to Riga later that year. Only Latgale was still occupied by the Bolsheviks. However, at the end of 1919 they were driven out by the Latvians with the help of Polish troops. Latgale was incorporated by Latvia in 1920 by the Riga Treaty between Latvia and Russia.

Independence and Second World War

On 26 January 1921, Latvia was recognised by many European states and in September Latvia was admitted to the League of Nations. In 1934, the Baltic states made an alliance against Nazi Germany, but this alliance had little effect. So the Soviet Union and Germany concluded the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement in 1939 (non-aggression treaty), to which Latvia, of course, was also bound. The Red Army occupied Latvia in June 1940 and in July 1940 the Latvian government was replaced by Soviets and local communists.

Ulmaris and other leading figures were arrested and deported to the Soviet Union, where Ulmaris died in a cell two years later. The following year, between 30,000 and 35,000 Latvians were murdered or deported. On 13 and 14 June alone, more than ten thousand Latvians were arrested by the Russian secret service and later murdered or deported. This action by the Soviets drove the Latvians into the hands of the Nazis and even helped persecute the Jews. The Nazis built several concentration camps in the Baltic states, including one in Salaspils near Riga, where 100,000 people from all parts of Europe died.

Soviet domination

In 1944, the Germans began to withdraw and were replaced by the Red Army. It was not long before Latvia was again incorporated into the Soviet Union. A guerilla organisation in Kurzeme resisted the Soviet Union until 1957. The arrival of the Red Army also meant many deportations to Siberia, which many Latvians did not survive. Other Latvians, especially intellectuals, fled to the West, especially to the United States. After the Second World War, many workers from Belarus and the Ukraine came to Latvia to rebuild industry. Latvia had been chosen by the Soviets as the centre of light industry, such as the food industry and the production of consumer goods.

Soon all Latvian cities were dominated by Russian speakers and Latvians became a minority. Despite social and environmental problems, Latvia's economy was doing better than that of the Soviet Union and people were living in reasonable prosperity. In the 1950s, the later leader of the National Independence Party, Eduards Berklavs, tried to stop Russification. This attempt was quickly repressed by the then Russian leader Khrushchev. Active opposition was very difficult and was limited to protest through literature, art, or through the still struggling churches.

Independent again

On 14 June 1987, the first open protest since the war took place. In the changing Soviet Union with its perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) under Gorbachev, more and more protests followed. In June 1988, anti-Soviet sentiment reached a provisional high point with the revelations concerning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement of 1939. It now became known that the Baltic countries had been more or less "sold" to the Soviet Union.

On 11 November 1988, the Latvian flag was hoisted for the first time on Riga Castle. In the summer of that year, several new political organisations emerged. On 31 May 1989, the People's Front Party called for Latvian independence. On 23 August 1989, during the 50th anniversary of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, two million Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians formed a human chain from Tallinn in Estonia to Vilnius in Lithuania. The call for independence grew louder and louder, both from Latvians and Russians living in Latvia. The March 1990 elections were won by the People's Front with 124 of the 201 seats. During the period 1987 to May 1990, the atmosphere in Latvia was relatively calm and the protests non-violent. Reactions from Moscow were also somewhat lukewarm.

In January 1991, however, the Soviets decided to intervene and attacked the television tower in Vilnius, Lithuania. To prevent the same thing from happening in Latvia, the Latvians put up barricades to ward off any Soviet attack. Indeed, an attack followed, and it was on the Ministry of the Interior. This attack was repelled by the Latvians. Five Latvians were killed and many were wounded. In March, a referendum was held in which 73.7% voted for independence. On 21 August, Moscow sent troops again to the Latvian parliament. Just when the soldiers seemed to have the situation under control, they stopped, turned around and drove off. This happened because at that moment there was a (failed) coup against Gorbachev.

The Latvian Parliament declared its independence from the Soviet Union on the same day. On 2 September, the United States recognised Latvia's independence. The Soviet Union followed on 6 September 1991. Latvia consolidated its independence with more force than anyone had thought possible. Predictions of hard confrontations with Moscow did not materialise. On 5 March 1993, the Latvian rouble was replaced by the national currency the "Let". Financially, the country remained fairly stable until the largest commercial bank, Banka Baltija, was unable to meet its financial obligations in 1995. In general, however, the economy was moving in the right direction. In June 1993, free parliamentary elections were held for the first time and Gentis Ulmanis became the President of Latvia. In April 1994 Ulmanis and Yeltsin signed an agreement on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Latvia. This actually took place in August 1994.

The transition to a free market economy was difficult, with resistance to foreign investment playing a role. In January 1995 a free trade agreement with the EU came into force, transformed into an association agreement in May. This considerably widened the access of Latvian products to the European market. In June 1996, a free trade agreement was signed for agricultural products of Baltic origin.

That same month, President Ulmanis was re-elected by parliament for a second three-year term. In the parliamentary elections of October 1995, left-wing and right-wing extremists won almost half the seats.

Twenty-first century

In 2002 Latvia received positive news coverage by winning the Eurovision Song Contest with the song "I wanna" by Marie N. On 1 May 2004 Latvia joined the European Union.

On 2 December 2004 the new government led by Prime Minister Kalvitis began its work. This new government is the 12th government since independence in 1991. It is a broad (centre) right coalition with the following parties: New Era, People's Party, Latvia's First Party and the Union of Greens and Farmers, together accounting for 70 seats.

In the government's statement, MP Kalvitis put the continuation of policies first. Specifically, the following points were mentioned: the need to solve the (financial) crisis in health care, striving for a balanced budget in the medium term, reducing inflation, switching to the Euro in 2008, improving competitiveness, making plans for foreign policy in the next four years, improving relations with Russia, continuing presence in Iraq and completing privatisation.

he municipal elections on 12 March 2005 meant both a victory for the Kalvitis government (governing parties won the majority in Riga) and confidence in the vast majority of sitting mayors and their (often local) parties. On balance, the right-wing parties won.

In the elections of October 2006, a sitting prime minister, Aigars Kalvitis, was re-elected for the first time since 1991. Latvia is a parliamentary democracy with President Valdis Zatlers as its head of state since 2007. The Latvian government is formed by a coalition of TP, JL, LPP, LZS and LZP. Kalvitis resigned in December 2007, and Ivars Godmanis succeeded him as the new prime minister of the same coalition. In February 2009, the coalition fell apart. The centre-right Valdis Dombrovskis was appointed head of government of a new six-party coalition in March 2009. Latvia is severely affected by the credit crisis and in November 2009, 22.3% of the workforce was unemployed, the highest percentage in the entire EU. In March 2010, the largest coalition party leaves the government. Dombrovskis lost the majority.

In July 2011, Andris Berzins became the new president of Latvia. Since January 2014, Latvia has had a woman as Prime Minister for the first time in history, Laimdota Straujuma. She succeeded Valdis Dombrovskis, who resigned in November 2013 after the collapse of the roof of a supermarket in the capital Riga, killing 54 people.

In January 2014, Latvia joins the Eurozone. In October 2014, the centre-right coalition wins the parliamentary elections. The elections are dominated by fears of Russian intervention in Ukraine. In June 2015, Raimond Vejonis wins the presidential election. In December 2015, the government resigns after infighting within the coalition over the migrant crisis and the 2016 budget. In February 2016, Maris Kucinskis becomes Prime Minister of more or less the same coalition. Arturs Krisjanis Karins became prime minister in January 2019 at the head of a coalition of five conservative and liberal parties, excluding the pro-Russian party, which had emerged as the largest bloc in parliament after the October 2018 elections. Egils Levits will become president in July 2019.

In 2022, Latvia will face tensions at the border due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


Baister, S. / Latvia
Bradt Publications

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania : country studies
Federal Research Division, Library of Congress,

Williams, N. / Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania
Lonely Planet

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated June 2024
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