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History of Liepāja

The beginning of Liepāja can be traced back to the 13th century when a village by the name of Līva was created between a lake and the sea where the river Līva was running through. The first time the name of Līva village was used was 4 April 1253.

The Duke of Kurzeme Friedrich Kettler first gave Liepāja city rights on 18 March 1625. The people of Liepāja celebrate this day every year as Liepāja’s Birthday.

During the 17th century Liepāja grew from a town of about a thousand people to a small port city and experienced great economic growth. This was followed by testing times – an unusually large fire and the plague.

The city experienced growth again at the end of the 18th century with the expansion of the port and development of trade and crafts. The population grew to around 5000 people.

The 19th century saw Liepāja grow from a provincial city of little significance into an industrially developed centre. Industry developed with the completion of the Liepāja-Romny railroad. The foundations of the metalworking industry were laid at this time – a tradition that is still strong today.

In 1899 Liepāja became the first city in the Baltics with an electric tram line which to this day is an important means of transportation for the city.

The modern port, developed industry, and accessibility by road were the reasons why Liepāja played a significant role in Russia’s military strategy and why it was chosen as the base for the Russian Baltic fleet. In the Spring of 1899 the project for building forts by the sea in Liepāja was approved and a war port was built during the next decade with land fortifications all around the city to protect the military base from attack.

In November of 1908, or less than 10 years after building it, the fort was liquidated and admitted as being a strategic error. Some of the cannons were dismantled and taken to the Kaunas Fortress in Lithuania, and the rest of them was melted down. The fortifications were blown up twice in order to demolish them. Only partially blown up parts of the artillery batteries, underground structures, and powder warehouses are still standing today.

Industry and transit trade became the economic base of Liepāja in the beginning of the 20th century. The textile industry was also quite developed. Liepāja became the largest emigration centre of Russia – a fact facilitated in part by the direct ship route to New York. From 50,000 to 70,000 people emigrated through Liepāja at this time.

This was followed by World War I which in Latvia started on 2 August 1914 with shooting at the Port of Liepāja. Liepāja was occupied by ground troops in May of 1915. At the end of the year there were only 43,600 people left in the city. At the time Liepāja was ruled by the German occupying regime, poverty, and economic decline.

Latvia proclaimed independence in 1918. Liepāja became the capital of Latvia for half a year in 1919 when after a coup d'état by the German army the Latvian Provisional Government took refuge aboard the steamship “Saratow” in the Port of Liepāja.

The economy of the city had suffered, but it slowly started to recover and stabilize after the war. Culture and art also began to flourish – the first art school for children in the Baltics was opened, an opera was established, the already existing theatre was strengthened, a conservatory and philharmonic society was created. Several new schools were opened in Liepāja. The population reached 67,000. Moreover, Liepāja and Riga were connected by regular flights from 1937 to 1939. 

After that came difficult years of occupation and deportation. 15,000 Soviet soldiers were deployed in Liepāja and there was an uncontrollable influx of USSR military personnel to Liepāja while the free movement of regular citizens was restricted.

This was followed by tragic days in 1941 and 1944 when some of the most beautiful buildings in Liepāja were turned to rubble. The city was systematically and cruelly bombed. The only saviour to stop bombs being dropped was overcast weather. After World War II many parts of the centre were destroyed, historical and important buildings had been turned to rubble. That is why the city now lacks a distinct old town.

After the war the city was reorganized according to the plans implemented by the Soviet Union. New residential areas of the city were added, industrial complexes were built for completing the national plan for the economy. Karosta was a closed military territory during the Soviet years and was not accessible to regular citizens of Liepāja.

The population including the deployed military exceeded 100,000 people at this time.

After the 1990 decision to restore independence there were demonstrations and strikes. The former Soviet navy base in Liepāja completely ceased to exist only on 31 August 1994 and the remaining soldiers of the Soviet army left.

The next 20 years saw Liepāja purposefully getting rid of the dangerous legacy left by the Soviet Army. Buildings were restored, the infrastructure was renewed, and formerly closed territories were opened. It was all done in order to create an environment for a comfortable, enjoyable and complete life, and a suitable place for business.