Riga, Latvia, has had a pretty interesting life. It’s changed hands – or passed between empires is probably a better way to put it – no less than 11 times. You’d think such a place would be war torn, ripped to shreds, bombed to smithereens. But it’s not. Riga is pretty. Very pretty. Sometimes verging on twee.
The origins of Riga
The Livs, a Finnic group (from Finland/Estonia), had been living around the mouth of the Daugava River in the Gulf of Riga since 1800 BCE. They supported themselves through farming and fishing, and through trade with German merchants in the west, Vikings in the north, and Russians in the East.
Then Albert von Buxthoeven, from Lower Saxony (Germany), turned up. The Livs were pagans, you see. And Albert, a staunch Catholic, couldn’t stand such a thing. Not nasty pagans. Not if he had anything to do with it.
He forced the Livs to give him land, by the mouth of the Daugava River, on which to found a Christian settlement. And thus, in 1201 CE, Riga was born.
Albert was made Bishop of Livonia by order of his Uncle, Hartwig, Prince of Bremen and Hamburg. When the Livs failed to convert to Christianity, Albert founded the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a military order of German warrior monks, to convert the heathen masses by force (you can read more about the Brothers of the Sword, and their castle at Sigulda, in my post: Sigulda, Latvia – Medieval Castle of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword).
Riga became part of the Hanseatic League – a confederation of merchant guilds – in 1282, joining other Baltic Sea ports such as Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen (now all in Germany), Visby (Sweden), Bergen (Norway), Tallinn (Estonia), Novgorod (Russia), and Gdańsk (Poland). Entering the Hanseatic League was a good move. Over the next few centuries Riga turned into a strong, rich, stable city.
In 1561 Riga became a Free Imperial City under the aegis of the Holy Roman Empire. That lasted until 1582, when the city fell into the hands of the bi-confederated Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Then, in 1621, following the Polish-Swedish War, Riga became part of the Swedish Empire.
In 1721, another war, this time the Russo-Swedish War, saw Riga change hands again. Riga became the capital of a governate in the Russian Empire. Riga grew to become the 3rd largest city in the Empire (behind Moscow and Saint Petersburg).
At this point Riga was rich and powerful and filled with cashed-up bourgeois types. And what do cashed-up bourgeois types do? Spend their money on outlandish houses, that’s what. And the only style worth having at the time was Art Nouveau.
Riga: Art Nouveau capital of the world
Art Nouveau was all about natural forms and curved lines. When it came to architecture, it was all about decoration, blending natural elements, like snakes, ferns, butterflies, peacocks, any silly thing really, into balconies, walls, and window frames.
Over 800 Art Nouveau houses were built in Riga, making it the unrivalled Art Nouveau capital of the world.
In 1917, during World War I, the city was briefly occupied by, and part of, the German Empire, but this lasted less than a year. In 1918, Latvia became independent, with Riga as its capital. But that didn’t last long either.
In 1940 Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union, then captured and occupied by Nazi Germany a year later, and held in their grip for the next three years. In 1944 Riga went back to the Soviet Union, and stayed there until 1991, when Latvia, finally, returned to its own, wholesome, independent self. Riga was once again the capital of the Republic of Latvia, as it remains at present.
Can’t remember all the manoeuvring? Here’s a summary:
- 1800 BCE – 1201 CE Home of the Livs
- 1201 – 1282 Bishop Albert arrives, begins Christianising the Livs
- 1282 – 1561 Hanseatic League
- 1561 – 1582 Imperial Free City
- 1582 – 1629 Bi-confederated Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania
- 1629 – 1721 Swedish Empire
- 1721 – 1917 Russian Empire
- 1917 – 1918 German Empire
- 1918 – 1940 Republic of Latvia
- 1940 – 1941 Soviet Union
- 1941 – 1944 Nazi Germany
- 1944 – 1991 Soviet Union
- 1991 – present day Republic of Latvia
Read more on the Historic Centre of Riga in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.