Riga, Latvia

From New World Encyclopedia
—  City  —
View of the old town
View of the old town
Flag of Riga
Official seal of Riga
Location of Riga within Latvia
Location of Riga within Latvia
Coordinates: {{#invoke:Coordinates|coord}}{{#coordinates:56|56|56|N|24|6|23|E|city
name= }}
Country Flag of Latvia Latvia
Government [1]
 - Type City council
 - Mayor Nils Ušakovs
Area (2002) [2]
 - City 307.17 km² (118.6 sq mi)
 - Water 48.50 km² (18.7 sq mi)  15.8%
 - Metro 10,132 km² (3,912 sq mi)
Population (2011[3]
 - City 699,203
 - Density 2,276.3/km² (5,895.5/sq mi)
 - Metro 1,027,062 (Riga Region)
 - Metro Density 101.4/km² (262.6/sq mi)
 - Demonym Rīdzinieki
Area code(s) 66 & 67
Website: www.riga.lv

Riga the capital city of Latvia, is situated on the Baltic Sea coast on the mouth of the river Daugava. Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states.

The Historic Centre of Riga has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the city being particularly notable for its extensive Art Nouveau architecture, which UNESCO considers to be unparalleled anywhere in the world.

Latvia, with Riga as its capital city, endured more than 700 years of German, Swedish, and Russian rule. A small pocket of independence following World War I was quickly followed by German occupation during WWII. With this occupation came the establishment of the Riga Ghetto in the southeast section of the city and the the Kaiserwald Concentration Camp in the city's north. Nearly all of Riga's 40,000 Jews were annihilated before war's end.


Riga is located at 56° 58′ North and 24° 8′ East covering approximately 119 square miles (307 square kilometers).

Riga, the largest city of the Baltic States, is located on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the Daugava River. The city's location, between Eastern and Western Europe, has been both a help and a hindrance to the city. It's strategic location made it aa important part of the Russian trade with Western Europe, but has also subjected it to invasion and occupation throughout it 800 year history. Riga is situated on a sandy plain nine miles (15 kilometers) from the mouth of the River Daugava and the Gulf of Riga.

Riga has large areas of natural habitat with 43.4 square miles (11,252 hectares) or over 36 percent of its total area. This includes large-scale blocks of forests that cover 17 percent of the city. Within these natural habitat areas are bird sanctuaries and 25 protected plant species.[4]

Rivers, lakes, and other wetlands occupy an additional 17.6 percent of the total city area including 13 lakes. The largest of these lakes are Kisezers at 6.7 square miles (17.4 square kilometers) and Juglas Lake at 2.2 square miles (5.7 square kilometers). There are many minor ponds and lakes within the city and a total of 60 miles (96.4 kilometers) of rivers.[5]


Riga's close proximity to the sea results in a moderate climate with cloud cover for approximately 40 percent of the year. This maritime influence also results in higher humidity (80 percent) compared to the inland areas. Summers are short and cool with average July temperatures around 64°F (18°C). Winters are long, dark and cold, with January temperatures averaging around 28°F (-2°C). Snowfall is heavy and cover usually lasts from mid-December to mid-March. Total annual precipitation, including rain and snow, is 25 inches (636 millimeters).[6]


Historic Centre of Riga*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Old Town of Riga
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii
Reference 852
Region** Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1997  (21st Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

Riga is located at the site of an ancient settlement of the Livonians, an ancient Finnic tribe, at the junction of the Daugava and Ridzene (Latvian: Rīdzene) rivers. The Ridzene was originally known as the Riga River, at one point forming a natural harbor called the Riga Lake, neither of which exist today.[7]

The Historic Centre of Riga has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the city being particularly notable for its extensive Art Nouveau architecture, which UNESCO considers to be unparalleled anywhere in the world. [8]

Founding and early years

The modern founding of Riga is regarded by historians to have begun with the arrival in Latvia of German traders, mercenaries and religious crusaders in the second half of the 12th century, attracted by a sparsely populated region, potential new markets and by the missionary opportunities to convert the local population to Christianity. German merchants established an outpost for trading with the Balts near the Liv settlement at Riga in 1158. The Augustinian monk Meinhard built a monastery there ca. 1190.[9]

Bishop Albert was proclaimed Bishop of Livonia by his uncle Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen and Hamburg in 1199. He landed in Riga in 1201 with 23 ships and more than 1500 armed crusaders, making Riga his bishopric.[10] He established the Order of Livonian Brothers of the Sword (later a branch of the Teutonic Knights) and granted Riga city rights in that same year. Albert was successful in converting the King of the Livs, Caupo of Turaida, to Christianity, although, as related in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia ("Henricus Lettus"),[11] it took him three decades to gain full control of Livonia (German Livland). Riga as well as Livonia and Prussia came under the auspices of the Holy Roman (German) Empire. It was not until much later, at the time of Martin Luther, that Riga, Livonia and Prussia converted to Protestantism.

Riga served as a gateway to trade with the Baltic tribes and with Russia. In 1282 Riga became a member of the Hanseatic League (German Hanse, English Hansa). The Hansa developed out of an association of merchants into a loose trade and political union of North German and Baltic cities and towns. Due to its economic protectionist policies which favored its German members, the League was very successful, but its exclusionist policies produced competitors. Its last Diet convened in 1669, although its powers were already weakened by the end of the fourteenth century, when political alliances between Lithuania and Poland and between Sweden, Denmark and Norway limited its influence. Nevertheless, the Hansa was instrumental in giving Riga economic and political stability, thus providing the city with a strong foundation which endured the political conflagrations that were to come, down to modern times.

Classical view of Riga's Skyline
Riga Doma Cathedral in the mist
View of the city from Saint Peter's Church
A view of Riga on a postcard from around 1900
Laima Clock - a popular meeting place in Riga
Riga in 1650 (Drawing by Johann Christoph Brotze)

As the influence of the Hansa waned, Riga became the object of foreign military, political, religious and economic aspirations. Riga accepted the Reformation in 1522, ending the power of the archbishops. With the demise of the Teutonic Knights in 1561, Riga for 20 years had the status of a Free Imperial City, then in 1581,[12] Riga came under the influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Polish-Swedish War - 1600-1629

Attempts to reinstitute Roman Catholicism in Riga and southern Livonia failed as in 1621, Riga and the outlying fortress of Daugavgriva came under the rule of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, who intervened in the Thirty Years' War not only for political and economic gain but also in favor of German Lutheran Protestantism. In 1628, Gustavus Adolphus declared Riga the second capital of Sweden.

During the Russo-Swedish War, 1656-1658, Riga withstood a siege by Russians. It remained the second largest city under Swedish control until 1710 during a period in which the city retained a great deal of self-government autonomy. In that year, in the course of Great Northern War, Russia under Tsar Peter the Great invaded Riga. Sweden's northern dominance ended, and Russia's emergence as the strongest Northern power was formalized through the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. Riga was annexed by Russia and became an industrialized port city of the Russian empire, where it remained until World War I.[13] By 1900, Riga was the third largest city in Russia after Moscow and Saint Petersburg in terms of numbers of industrial workers.


The army of Napoleon occupied Kurzeme region, creating a threat to Riga. Governor General Essen gave orders to burn the Riga suburbs down.

During these many centuries of war and changes of power in the Baltic, the Baltic Germans in Riga, successors to Albert's merchants and crusaders, clung to their dominant position despite demographic changes. Riga employed German as its official language of administration until the imposition of Russian language in 1891 as the official language in the Baltic provinces. All birth, marriage and death records were kept in German up to that year. By the mid-nineteenth century Latvians had begun to supplant Germans as the largest ethnic group in the city. [14] The rise of a Latvian bourgeoisie made Riga a center of the Latvian National Awakening with the founding of the Riga Latvian Association in 1868 and the organization of the first national song festival in 1873. [15] The nationalist movement of the Young Latvians was followed by the socialist New Current during the city's rapid industrialization, culminating in the 1905 Revolution led by the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party.

World Wars

The twentieth century brought World War I and the impact of the Russian Revolution to Riga. The German army marched into Riga in 1917. In 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed giving the Baltic countries to Germany. Because of the Armistice with Germany (Compiègne) of November 11, 1918, Germany was forced to renounce that treaty, as did Russia, leaving Latvia and the other Baltic States in a position to claim independence.

After more than 700 years of German, Swedish, Russian rule, Latvia, with Riga as its capital city, thus declared its independence on November 18, 1918.

Between World War I and World War II (1918–1940), Riga and Latvia shifted their focus from Russia to the countries of Western Europe. A democratic, parliamentary system of government with a President was instituted. Latvian was recognized as the official language of Latvia. Latvia was admitted to the League of Nations. The United Kingdom and Germany replaced Russia as Latvia's major trade partners. Riga was described at this time as a vibrant, grand and imposing city and earned the title of "Paris of the North" from its visitors.

This period of rebirth was short-lived, however. Democracy faltered, and in 1934, President Ulmanis staged a coup d´état that installed an authoritarian regime. World War II followed, with the Soviet occupation and annexation of Latvia in 1940, and German occupation in 1941-1944. The Baltic Germans were forcibly repatriated to Germany at Hitler's behest, after 700 years in Riga.

The Ghetto

From 1918 to 1940, Riga was the capital of independent Latvia. The country was annexed by the Soviet Union in August 1940, and Riga became the capital of the Latvian SSR. Prior to the Second World War, Riga was home to approximately 40,000 Jews - about 10 percent of the city's population. A well-developed network of Hebrew and Yiddish schools, a lively Jewish cultural life, and Jews seated on the city council were part of Riga's daily life.

Germans entered the city in 1941, killing several thousands Jews shortly thereafter. In mid-August they ordered the establishment of a ghetto in the city's southeastern Maskavas neighborhood. In October 1941 it was sealed, effectively imprisoning some 30,000 Jews. Barely a month later, the occupying Germans announced the intended re-settlement of the majority of the ghetto's population "further east." On November 30 and December 8-9, as 26,000 Jews moved "further east," they were taken into the Rumbula Forest five miles southeast of the city and executed.

The ghetto was then divided into two sections, the "small" or "Latvian" ghetto, and the "big" or "German" ghetto. The surviving 4,000-5,000 Jews were enclosed in the small ghetto, while 20,000 Jews who had been brought to Riga from Germany, Bohemia, Moravia and Austria were put into the big ghetto. Many of the German Jews were eventually executed in the Rumbula Forest. [16]

Resistance activities were organized within the ghetto. Small groups attempted escape from the ghetto to join partisans hiding in the surrounding forests. When members of the Jewish underground were found outside the ghetto walls, the German police killed over 100 people from the ghetto as well as most Jewish policeman (on grounds of suspicion).

The Kaiserwald concentration camp was established in the north of Riga in March 1943. That summer people from the ghetto were moved to Kaiserwald or to nearby subcamps. By December, the last of the ghetto's Jews had been moved to camps and the ghetto was destroyed.

Attempting to destroy evidence of mass murder, in 1944, the Germans forced prisoners to reopen mass graves in the Rumbula Forest and burn the bodies. These prisoners were then killed. That summer, thousands from Kaiserwald and its subcamps were murdered. The small number of surviving Jews were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp in Germany.

Riga was finally liberated by the Soviet army on October 13, 1944. By this time, nearly all of Riga's once-thriving Jewish community had been destroyed. [17]

Post World War II

Nazism was defeated, but the effects of the war were lasting. Aside from the destruction it wrought, the war cost Latvia dearly. Hundreds of thousands of her citizens had perished and tens of thousands fled into exile in countries all over the world.[18] As a result of World War II, Latvia lost approximately one-third of its population.

Furthermore, instead of re-established independence, in 1945 Latvia was once again subjected to Soviet domination. Many Latvians were deported to Siberia and other regions of the Soviet Union, commonly being accused of having collaborated with the Nazis or of supporting the post-war anti-Soviet Resistance. Forced industrialization and planned large-scale immigration of large numbers of non-Latvians from other Soviet republics into Riga, particularly Russians, changed the demographic composition of Riga. High-density apartment developments ringed the city's edge, linked to the center by electric railways. By 1975 less than 40 percent of Riga's inhabitants were ethnically Latvian, a percentage which has risen since Latvian independence. [19]

In 1986 the modern landmark of Riga, the Riga Radio and TV Tower, whose design is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, was completed.

The policy of economic reform introduced as Perestroika by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev led to a situation in the late 1980s in which many Soviet republics, including Latvia, were able to regain their liberty and freedom. Latvia declared its full de facto independence on August 21, 1991, recognized by Russia on September 6, 1991. Latvia formally joined the United Nations as an independent country on September 17, 1991. All Russian military forces were removed between 1992 to 1994. Important landmarks to Riga as a free and independent city:

  • In 2001, Riga celebrated its 800th anniversary as a city.
  • On March 29, 2004 Latvia joined NATO.
  • On May 1, 2004 Latvia joined the European Union.


As the federal capital of the Republic of Latvia, Riga is home to both the Federal government and their local city or municipal government.


The 100-seat unicameral Latvian parliament, the Saeima, is elected by direct, popular vote every four years. The president is elected by the Saeima in a separate election also every four years. The president appoints a prime minister who, together with his cabinet, forms the executive branch of the government, which has to receive a confidence vote by the Saeima.[20]


After independence from the Soviets in 1991, the Riga City Council became responsible for administering the city. The Riga City Council (RCC) consists of 60 councilors elected to 4-year terms. Elections are held on the second Saturday in March. The number of councilors from each area is proportionate to the number of residents.[21]

Riga is divided into six administrative districts: Centra, Kurzemes, Latgales, Vidzemes, Zemgales, and Ziemelu.

Freedom of Religion

There is no state religion in Latvia, however their constitution provides for a freedom of religion that is generally respected by the Government. However, bureaucratic problems still present problems for some minority religions with the Government appearing to distinguish between "traditional" (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Believers, Baptists, and Jewish) and "new" religions.[22]


The Doma Cathedral weather cock

Since regaining its independence in 1991, the city of Riga has attempted to create an open Western style economy that complies with EU standards. Immediately following separation from the Soviet Union in 1991, Riga suffered economic recession, but has managed to stabilize its economic situation and achieve positive growth rate in 1996 (GDP growth was 2.8 percent). GDP is expected to continue to grow by approximately five percent in 2002 and the following years. Inflation has been considerably reduced and is expected to be less than three percent a year. Policies fostering privatization and the improvement of the investment climate, have contributed to increased foreign investments in the Riga area. Riga accounts for 49 percent of the total industrial output of Latvia.

Riga's industries include machine building, metalworking, shipbuilding and repair, textiles, woodworking and food processing. Manufacturing includes diesel engines, streetcars, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, furniture, electrical apparatus, radio and telephone equipment, meteorological instruments, printing and publishing, textiles, building materials, and paper. [23]

Recently, Riga has become the largest financial center in the Baltic Region with major banks, insurance companies and brokers located in the city. Retail trade and personal services was the first sector to show signs of recovery in the early 1990s. Wholesale and retail sales have increased from 8.7 percent of Latvia's GDP in 1994 to 16 percent in 2000. This trend is usually indicative of a growing level of consumption and an increase in the overall health of an economy. [24]


The Powder Tower of Riga


Latvia’s health care system has undergone several changes since independence in 1991. The Ministries of Health, Labour and Social Welfare were combined into the Ministry of Welfare in 1993. Sickness funds were re-established in 1994, and then in 1998 the State Compulsory Health Insurance Agency was created. The state has responsibility for providing specialized services, while responsibility for delivering primary and secondary health care rests with local government.[25]


Riga as a city-port is a major transportation hub and is the center of the local road and railway system. Most tourists travel to Riga by air via Riga International Airport, the largest airport in the Baltic states, which was renovated and modernized in 2001 on the occasion of Riga's 800th anniversary. Air traffic at the airport has doubled between 1993 and 2004. Baltic sea ferries connect Riga to Stockholm, Kiel and Lübeck. Riga was also home to two air bases during the Cold War: Rumbula and Spilve.[26]

Located on an ancient trade route between Russia and Europe, the port of Riga is an important cargo shipping center. It has connections to the Trans-Siberian Rail route and direct links with Russia, other former Soviet Union countries, the rapidly growing Baltic countries, and even East Asia. It is the main all-weather port in the Baltic and is expected to grow as a result of Latvia’s return to independence in 1991, its recent admission into the EU and NATO, and increased trade with China and other ex-Soviet states. [27] The Port is large, growing, and an important economic asset for Latvia.


A cat on the top of a roof in the Old Town
Riga cathedral and St. Peter's Church
Left-bank Riga is distinguished by its green streets and large parks.

Riga is considered the capital of culture and the arts in the Baltic region. Rigensians have had a long standing love affair with the fine arts. This is probably best exemplified by the fact that Riga's Opera House was one of the first buildings restored after they regained Independence in 1991. Latvians consider the opera an enormously important part of their cultural heritage. The new Opera House hosts both the opera and ballet. Latvians also love and respect their National Theatre, currently housed in the building where the country’s independence was first proclaimed in 1918.

Riga boasts a diverse range of museums covering history, literature, art, nature, medicine, as well as museums offering specific areas of interest. These include museums devoted to theater, cinematography, photography, television, porcelain, fire-fighting, sports, architecture, and the history of electricity. Some of Latvia’s institutions of higher education also have their own museums including the University of Latvia, the Riga Technical University and the “Turība” Business University. Riga also has a unique outdoor Latvian Ethnographic Museum on the shores of a lake just outside of the city and Mentzendorf House dedicated to showing how wealthy Rigensians lived in the 17th and 18th century. [28]

Riga's biggest event is the Latvian Song Festival held in Mezaparks every five years.[29]

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is an ornamental style of art that flourished throughout Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is characterized by long, sinuous, organic lines and was employed most often in architecture, interior design, jewelry and glass design. Art Nouveau originated in England and quickly spread to the European continent, where it was called Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, Stile Floreale (or Stile Liberty) in Italy, and Modernismo (or Modernista) in Spain.[30] Art Nouveau designers believed that all the arts should work in harmony to create a "total work of art," with buildings, furniture, textiles, clothes, and jewelry all conforming to the principles of Art Nouveau.

Although Art Nouveao was only popular at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century it left behind some extraordinary colorful architectural examples. Art Nouveau was a contrast to previous styles which required following particular historical styles. Art Nouveau stressed a complete creative freedom, an expressive flight of fantasy. Sinuous lines and geometrical ornaments, the characteristic features of Art Nouveau, divided into two main main styles, decorative and romantic nationalistic. Significant romantic nationalism Latvian architects include, E. Laube, K. Pēkšēns, A. Vanags while M. Eizenšteins created examples of decorative Art Nouveau. [31]

UNESCO World Heritage's list of justification for the inclusion of Riga states "If it is evaluated for its importance in European architectural history as an assemblage of Art Nouveau/Jugendstil buildings, however, it is impossible to cite any city to compare with Riga." and "It should be noted in particular that Riga is the only ensemble on either of the Project's lists, all the remainder being individual buildings."


  1. Riga City Council. Riga City Council. Retrieved May 24, 2012.
  2. Riga in Figures. Riga City Council. Retrieved May 24, 2012.
  3. Table IE52:Resident Population by Region, City and District at the beginning of the year. csb.gov.lv. Retrieved May 24, 2012.
  4. Cities Environment Reports on the Internet Natural heritage Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Globe Media Ltd. Riga Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  7. CEROI Teritorija un administratīvās robežas vēsturiskā skatījumā Latvian access date 2007-08-02 Cities Environmental Reports on the Internet.
  8. Unesco World Heritage ListRiga. Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  9. Riga Life: History - A Retrospective History.www.riga-life.com. Retrieved November 27, 2007.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Chronicle of Henry of Livonia (Henricus Lettus) [1]. (in English translation) www.books.google.com.Retrieved February 8, 2008.
  12. Riga Life
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Eilat Gordin Levitan. Riga.www.eilatgordinlevitan.com. Retrieved December 22, 2007.
  17. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. October 25, 2007. Holocaust Encyclopedia - Riga. www.ushmm.org. Retrieved December 22, 2007.
  18. Riga Life
  19. Ibid.
  20. Constitution (Latvian)Constitution of the Republic of Latvia with amendments and revisions (Official English translation). Retrieved on 24 December 2006
  21. Municipality of Riga Riga City Council.www.riga.lv. Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  22. U.S. Embassy Riga, LatviaInternational Religious Freedom Report - Latvia, 2006. Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  23. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Riga. Retrieved November 24, 2007
  24. Cities Environment Reports on the Internet Riga City Environment Centre "Agenda 21". Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  25. WHO Regional Office for European Health Health care system in Latvia Retrieved November 25, 2007.
  26. RussianAirfields.com Russian Airfields Retrieved November 25, 2007.
  27. U.S. Dept. of State.Free Port of Riga in Latvia. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
  28. Riga Tourism Coordination and Information Centre Museums Retrieved November 25, 2007.
  29. Riga Latvia Travel Guide The Cream of Culture. Retrieved November 25, 2007.
  30. Encyclopædia Britannica Art Nouveau
  31. Riga City Council Art Nouveau Retrieved November 25, 2007.


  • Brūderis, Andris. 2007. Riga, art nouveau images and details : tradition in Riga architecture. Riga: Madris. ISBN 9789984315294
  • Kurzem, Mark. 2007. The mascot unraveling the mystery of my Jewish father's Nazi boyhood. New York: Viking. ISBN 0452289947
  • Press, Bernhard. 2000. The murder of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0810117282
  • Schneider, Gertrude. 1979. Journey into terror story of the Riga ghetto. New York: Ark House. ISBN 0935764003


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