History of Riga

Riga has the most amazing history. Here is just a snippet of Riga’s turbulent past for you to enjoy.

Birth of Riga

Riga’s birth is generally given as 1201, the year when Bishop Albert arrived from Bremen with 500 crusaders and moved the short-lived Bishopric of Livonia from nearby Ikšķile to a natural harbour on the banks of the Daugava River. The area had already been settled for a long time however, the oldest archaeological evidence dates from around 2500 B.C., and was a trading centre used by those sailing up the Daugava, towards Novgorod and on to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Indeed German merchants were already living in the area along with the local Liv and Kurši populations.

In order to assist him in ‘converting’ the native population, Albert founded the Order of  the Brothers of the Sword, an undisciplined bunch of warrior-monks who, from the very beginning, paid little attention to his command. They lasted until 1236, when they were comprehensively defeated by the Semigallians and became the Livonian Order, part of the Teutonic Knights.

Riga continued to grow and in 1282 joined the Hanseatic League, an alliance of trading cities and their merchants. With this came increased independence from the Bishop and the Order, although the Order remained present in the city, lording it up over the inhabitants from the safety of their castle. From time to time the city would rise up against the Order and raise the castle to the ground, only to be subdued and ordered to rebuild what they had destroyed.

This state of affairs continued until 1561, when the Order was convincingly defeated and disbanded. The citizens of Riga had a full 20 years to enjoy their freedom, until the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took control of Riga. Forty years later, in 1621, Riga came under the Rule of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden and became the largest city in the Swedish Empire bringing increased freedom and sweeping social reforms. The Great Northern War brought Peter the Great to Riga’s doorstep and in 1710 he conquered the city, ushering in almost 200 years of Russian rule.

Throughout all these wars and changes of rulers, the power in Riga remained in the hands of the German merchant class. Indeed right up until 1891, when the Russian language became standard throughout the entire empire. In the 19th century the demographics of Riga began to change and there appeared a middle class of educated and motivated young Latvians. The Riga Latvian society was founded in 1868 and they organised the first song festival in 1873.

First World War

By the time the First World War started Riga was an industrialised port city, the third biggest city in the crumbling Russian Empire. The Russian Revolution led to the Brest-Litovsk treaty and the German occupation of Riga until their signing of the Armistice. Latvia was finally in a position to declare its independence, which it did on the 18th of November 1918. Two years of civil war followed as Riga fell to both the Bolsheviks and the Germans before Latvian troops, with assistance from Poland, Estonia and the U.K. managed to expel all foreign armies from their land. The newly formed Soviet Union agreed to denounce all claims on Riga and Latvia, “once, and for all times.”

The country of Latvia was born, with Riga as its capital. Latvian became the official language and with social reforms Riga prospered.

Second World War

In 1939, Stalin and Hitler divided Europe and Latvia fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. Within a year, with the Red Army lined up along the border, the Latvian government resigned and was replaced by a puppet Soviet government and the oppression and deportations began. The Nazis took Riga in 1941 and attempted to surpass the Soviets in cruelty and murder. A ghetto and concentration camp were set up in Riga and the Jewish population of Riga was almost entirely wiped out in two mass executions.

Soviet Occupation

The Soviets returned again in 1944, beginning an occupation that would last until 1991, and continued in the same trend they left off. More deportations occurred, the Latvian identity was repressed and workers were brought from all over the Soviet Union to bolster the work force. By 1975, less than 45% of Riga’s inhabitants were Latvian.

Restoration of independence

The mid-eighties brought an increase in freedom and ‘openness’ in the Soviet Union and the push for Latvian independence began to grow. In 1989 a human chain, the ‘Baltic Way’ was formed, running from Tallinn to Vilnius and passing through Riga, as a protest against the occupation of the Baltic countries. In January 1991, an attack on the TV tower in Vilnius led to the barricading of the city. Seven people died in attacks on the barricades. On the 6th of August 1991, Latvia’s independence was recognised by the Soviet Union.

Latvia joined the UN in the same year and Riga celebrated its 800th birthday in 2001. In 2004, Latvia joined the European Union and NATO and Ryanair began flying to the Riga, allowing travellers from all over to come and enjoy this beautiful city. Despite the economic downturn, Riga remains a vibrant and exciting city to explore. Check out some of our favourite THINGS TO DO IN RIGA.