A Brief History Of Riga

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Our brief history of Riga is just that.  A brief history designed to give you a little idea about the place before you go.

Early History of Riga

There is evidence of settlement in Riga dating back to the second century AD. Various groups inhabited the area throughout the early centuries.  Despite this, the official given date for the founding of Riga is 1201 CE. This was when the first German merchants arrived to the city, under Bishop Albert. After he arrived and settled the city, Bishop Albert wanted to be able to defend his territory.  In order to do this, he established a group of ‘warrior monks’, known as The Livonian Brothers of the Sword (later known as the Livonian Order).  The order remained a presence in the city for the next few hundred years, defending it from attack.

After settling the city, Albert set about converting the local population to Roman Catholicism. He also obtained a papal decree, stating that all German merchant trade through the Baltics had to pass through Riga. This decree helped to establish the city’s economy and future. In 1282 Riga joined the Hanseatic League, which was a group of trading cities in Northern Germany and the Baltics.  Joining the league increased its influence and prosperity.


Bishop Albert. @Wikimedia Commons

Occupations and Wars

Riga and Latvia have spent much of their history under occupation.  In 1561, the Livonian order were defeated in the Livonian War. The city then became a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. This, however, was short lived. In 1581, Riga fell under the jurisdiction of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.  In 1621 it changed hands again, this time falling to the Swedish Empire during the Polish-Swedish War.  Not long after, in 1710, it was conquered by the Russians.  The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, conquered the city during the Great Northern War. Riga then remained under Russian Rule for the next 200 years.

Art Nouveau in Riga

By the end of the 19th century, Riga had become one of the most important cities in the Russian Empire.  The city underwent a period of rapid economic development.  The population of the city almost doubled between the late 1800’s and 1914.  It was in this period that the majority of Riga’s Art Nouveau buildings were constructed.  Hundreds of new buildings went up each year.  The art nouveau architecture is a major tourist attraction in Riga.  It actually has the highest concentration of art nouveau architecture anywhere in the world.

20th Century History Of Riga

The history of Riga and Latvia took a turn after World War One.  The signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty in 1918 meant that Latvia was handed from the Russians to the Germans. The Germans had already marched on the city in 1917 as part of the war efforts. However, with Germany’s defeat in 1918, they were forced to renounce their claim to Latvia.  Latvia finally claimed independence in November of 1918, after over 700 years of occupation.

Independence was short lived. At the beginning of World War Two, the Soviet Union again occupied Latvia, along with the rest of the Baltic countries. German invasion followed, and Germany controlled the city from 1941 -1944. During the Nazi occupation, much of the Jewish population were rounded up and massacred. The Jewish ghetto in Riga became overcrowded.  To make room for the Jewish people being transferred to Riga from further south, 30,000 Latvian Jews were rounded up, taken to Rumbula Forest, and shot. It’s estimated that during the time of the Nazi occupation around 90,000 Jews were killed in Latvia.

At the end of World War Two, Riga and Latvia again fell under the rule of the Soviet Union. As was the case across many of the Baltic countries, many Latvians were deported to Siberia for opposing the Soviet Regime. Soviet Rule in Latvia continued until 1991.  It was only then that Soviet Union fell and Latvia again proclaimed its independence.

The Soviet Army in Riga

Modern Day Riga

Since Latvian independence, Riga has gone from strength to strength. Latvia is a member of NATO, the EU, and the organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its airport is the gateway to the Baltics, and cheap flights mean that the city is a popular tourist destination for many Europeans.


More articles on our blog:  Country Overview: Latvia