At the Gulf of Riga on the River Daugava near the Baltic Sea, Riga is the capital of Latvia, its chief port and cultural and industrial centre. Originally inhabited by the ancient Livs tribe, Riga was under Swedish, Russian and Polish rule before spending much of the twentieth century under Soviet control (1940–91).
Riga is built on the site of a Liv (or Finno-Urgic) medieval fishing village used by amber traders crossing the Gulf of Riga. The settlement was founded in 1201 as a German fort by a Bremen bishop as a launch pad for crusades. At the same time, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword union was established. Allied to the Teutonic Knights, the fraternity used Riga as a base to conquer Livonian tribes. More German settlers moved to the region, making Riga a stronghold of the German Baltic and a key trading post between Russia and the West. It became an archbishopric in 1253 and a member of the Hanseatic League in 1282, with the church, knights and merchants all struggling for power. Trade flourished and the town prospered over the next few centuries.
In 1561, Poland invaded the city. Riga was absorbed into the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania until Sweden wrested the city from the Poles in 1621. Riga became Sweden’s second city but it was captured by the Russians in 1710. As the capital of Livonia (modern day northern Latvia and southern Estonia), Riga grew in size and importance throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Russian communities moved in alongside the Germans and Latvians, and industry burgeoned, with the port thriving on the timber trade. With the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, many came to work and live in the city.
By World War I Riga was Russia’s third city, but experienced much destruction during the German occupation. As capital of Independent Latvia (1918–40), Riga served as an observation point of Soviet activity for Western intelligence agents. In 1940 Soviet troops invaded Latvia and occupied Riga, deporting many Latvians to Siberia and northern Russia.
The Germans occupied the city for 3 years during World War II, inflicting structural damage and decimating the Jewish population. In 1944 the German army retreated under Soviet pressure, and Riga was incorporated into the USSR. More deportations ensued in the late 1940s as part of a Soviet agricultural collectivisation drive. An influx of Russians to the city filled the labour gap, while the USSR’s Russification policy stifled the local culture. Under Soviet rule, the city became a leading manufacturing centre.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991 Riga once again became capital of Independent Latvia. In 2001 structural refurbishments and celebrations heralded Riga’s 800th anniversary.
Riga is the economic, industrial and cultural centre of Latvia. Industries include shipbuilding and engineering, metallurgy, textiles, chemicals and the production of diesel engines. The city’s educational institutions include the university, established in 1919. Riga is connected by road and rail to major Eastern European cities, while an international airport is 8 km southwest of the city. The Riga Radio and TV Tower, completed in 1987, is at 368.5 m. in height the tallest structure in the European Union.
Riga was one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2014.
Places of Interest
Most of the major sights are situated in Old Riga, where the town’s original nucleus was formed on the east bank of the Daugava River. Much of the original architecture survives including the Dome Cathedral, the Gothic St Peter’s Church and the thirteenth century St Jacob’s Church.
Riga castle, built for the Livonian knights in 1330, is now the presidential home. Museums include the Latvian Museum of Fine Art, showing local contemporary works by such artists as Janis Rozentâls and Karlis Padegs, and the Museum of Foreign Art accommodated in the Castle. Covering 100 hectares, the open air Ethnographic Museum preserves traditional Latvian village life.
80 km from Riga is the Baroque Rundale Palace. Designed by Bartomeleo Francesco Rastrella, the architect responsible for many of St. Petersburg’s treasures, the palace was completed in 1768 and restored in the 1970s.