Liepaja — History


Liepaja (pronounced [liepaːja] ( listen)); German: Libau, Polish: Lipawa), is a city in western Latvia, located on the Baltic Sea directly at 21°E. It is the largest city in the Kurzeme Region of Latvia, the third largest city in Latvia after Riga and Daugavpils and an important ice-free port. As of 1 July 2011 Liepāja had a population of 82,386.

Liepāja is known throughout Latvia as «The city where the wind is born», possibly because of the constant sea breeze. A song of the same name (Latvian: Pilsētā, kurā piedzimst vējš) was composed by Imants Kalniņš and has become the anthem of the city. The reputation of Liepāja as the windiest city in Latvia has been further endorsed as the biggest wind power plant in Latvia (33 Enercon wind turbines) was constructed nearby.

The Coat of Arms of Liepāja was adopted four days after it gained city rights on 18 March 1625.[1] These are described as: «on a silver background, the lion of Courland with a divided tail, who leans upon a linden (Latvian: Liepa) tree with its forelegs.» The flag of Liepāja has the coat of arms in the center, with red in the top half and green in the bottom.[1]

The original settlement at the location of modern Liepāja was founded by Curonian fishermen of Piemare and was known by the name Līva (from the name of the river Līva on which Liepāja was located, which in turn originated from the Livonian word Liiv meaning «sand»). The oldest written text mentioning the name is dated 4 April 1253. The Livonian Order under the aegis of the Teutonic Order established the settlement as the village of Liba(u) in 1263. In 1418 the city was sacked and burned by the Lithuanians. During the 15th century, a part of the trade route from Amsterdam to Moscow passed through Līva and it was known as the «white road to Lyva portus». By 1520 the river Līva had become too shallow for easy navigation, and this negatively influenced on the development of the city.

Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

In 1560, Gotthard Kettler loaned all the Grobiņa district including Liepāja to Albert, Duke of Prussia for 50,000 guldens. Only in 1609 after the marriage of Sofie Hohenzollern, princess of Prussia, to Wilhelm Kettler did the territory return to the Duchy. During the Livonian War, Liepāja was attacked and destroyed by the Swedes. In 1625, Duke Friedrich Kettler of Courland granted the town city rights, which were affirmed by King Sigismund III of Poland in 1626. The name Liepāja was mentioned for the first time in 1649 by Paul Einhorn in his work «Historia Lettica». Under Duke Jacob Kettler (1642–1681), Liepāja became one of the main ports of Courland as it reached the height of its prosperity. In 1637 Couronian colonization was started from the ports of Liepāja and Ventspils. Jacob was an eager proponent of mercantilist ideas. Metalworking and ship building became much more developed and trading relations developed not only with nearby countries, but also with Britain, France, the Netherlands and Portugal. In 1697–1703 a canal was cut to the sea and a port was built.[2] In 1701, during the Great Northern War, Liepāja was captured by Charles XII of Sweden, but the end of the war saw the city in Polish possession.[3] In 1710 an epidemic of plague killed about a third of the population of Liepāja. In 1780 the first Freemasonry lodge «Libanons» was set up in the port of Liepāja by Provincial Grandmaster Ivan Yelagin on behalf of the Provincial Lodge of Russia and was registered with a number 524 in the Grand Lodge of England.[4]

Russian Empire

Courland passed to the control of the Russian Empire in 1795 during the third Partition of Poland and became the Courland Governorate of Russia. Growth during the nineteenth century was rapid. During the Crimean War when the Royal Navy was blockading Russian Baltic ports, the busy yet still unfortified port of Liepāja was briefly captured on 17 May 1854 without a shot being fired, by a landing party of 110 men from HMS Conflict and HMS Amphion.[5] In 1857 the engineer Jan Heidatel developed a project to reconstruct the port of Liepāja. In 1861–1868 the project was realized – including the building of a lighthouse and breakwaters. Between 1877–1882 the political and literary weekly newspaper Liepājas Pastnieks was published – the first Latvian language newspaper in Liepāja.[6] In the 1870s the rapid development of Russian railways, the 1871 opening of the Libava-Kaunas and the 1876 Liepāja-Romny railways ensured that a large proportion of central Russian trade passed through Liepāja.[7] By 1900, 7% of Russian exports were passing through Liepāja. The city became a major port of the Russian Empire on the Baltic Sea, as well as a popular resort. On the orders of Alexander III Liepāja was fortified against possible German attacks. The Libava fortress was subsequently built around the city, and in the early 20th century a major military base was established on the northern edge, including formidable coastal fortifications and extensive quarters for military personnel. As part of the military development a separate military port was excavated. This area became known as Kara Osta (War Port) and served military needs throughout the twentieth century. Early in the twentieth century the port of Liepāja became a central point of embarkation for immigrants traveling to the United States. By 1906 the direct service to the United States was used by 40,000 migrants per year. Simultaneously, the first Russian training detachment of submarine navigation was founded. In 1912 one of the first water aerodromes in Russia was opened in Liepāja.[8] By 1913, 1738 ships entered Libava with 1,548,119 tones of cargo passing through the port. The population had increased from 10,000 to over 100,000 within about 60 years.

World War I

During World War I, German dirigibles bombed Liepāja in January, 1915. Liepāja was occupied by the German army on 7 May 1915; in memory of this event, a monument was constructed on Kūrmājas prospect in 1916 (destroyed in 1919). On 23 October 1915, the German cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert was sunk by the British submarine HMS E8, 37 kilometers west of Liepāja. In 1915, Liepāja’s local government issued its own money – Libava rubles.


After the war, when the independent state of Latvia was founded, Liepāja became the de facto capital of Latvia for six months when the interim government of Latvia, headed by Kārlis Ulmanis, fled from Riga on a ship «Saratov». In 1918 Libava was renamed Liepāja. In 1935 KOD (Latvian: Kara ostas darbnīcas) started to manufacture the light aircraft LKOD-1 and LKOD-2.

Top secret USSR document about creating a closed military port in Liepāja. Signed by Stalin (there is a spelling mistake in the word «Liepāja» – Russian: Лепая) (1951)
The ports and human capital of Liepāja and Ventspils were targets of Joseph Stalin and part of the reason for the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In 1940 upon annexation by the Soviet Union, private property was nationalized and many thousands of former owners were arrested and deported to Siberia; and thousands also fled to North America, Australia and western Europe. In 1941 Liepāja was among the first cities captured by the 291st Division of Army Group North after Nazi Germany began the war with the Soviet Union. The local Jewish population, which had numbered about 7,000 before the war, was virtually exterminated by German Nazis and Latvian collaborators. Most of these mass murders took place in the dunes of Šķēde north of the city. Fewer than 30 Jews remained alive in Liepāja by the end of the war. Film footage of an Einsatzgruppen execution of local Jews was taken in Liepāja.[9] During the period 1944–1945 Liepāja was within the «Courland Pocket» and was only recaptured by the Soviet army on 9 May 1945. World War II devastated the city, most of the buildings and industrial plant were destroyed.

Latvian SSR

On 25–29 March 1949, a second mass deportation to Siberia occurred from Liepāja. In 1950 the monument to Stalin was erected on Station square (Latvian: Stacijas laukums) but was dismantled in 1958. During 1953–1957 the city center was reconstructed under the direction of architects A. Kruglov and M. Žagare.[2] In 1952–1955 the Liepāja Academy of Pedagogy building was constructed under the direction of A. Aivars. In 1960 the Kurzeme shopping centre was opened. During the Soviet occupation, Liepāja was a closed city and even nearby farmers and villagers needed a special permit to enter it. The Soviet military set up its Baltic naval base and nuclear weapon warehouses there; The Beberliņš sandpit was dug out to extract sand used for constructing underground warehouses. The port was completely closed to commercial traffic in 1967. One third of the city was taken up with a Soviet naval base with 26 thousand military staff. In Liepāja the 14th Submarine Squadron of the USSR’s Baltic Fleet (Russian: 14 эскадрилья ЛиВМБ ДКБФ, call sign «Комплекс») was stationed with 16 submarines (Types: 613, 629a, 651); as was the 6th group of Rear Supply of the Baltic Fleet, and the 81st Design Bureau and Reserve Command Center of the same force. In 1977 Liepāja was awarded the Order of the October Revolution for heroic defense against Nazi Germany in 1941. In Liepāja 5 people were awarded the honorary title Hero of Socialist Labor – Anatolijs Filatkins, Artūrs Fridrihsons, Voldemārs Lazdups, Valentins Šuvajevs and Otīlija Žagata. Because of the rapid growth of the city’s population, a shortage of apartment houses became an issue. To resolve this, most of the modern Liepāja districts – Dienvidrietumi, Ezerkrasts, Ziemeļu priekšpilsēta, Zaļā birze and Tosmare – were built. The majority of these blocks were constructed of ferro-concrete panels in standard projects designed by the state Latgyprogorstroy Institute (Russian: Латгипрогорстрой). In 1986 the new central city hospital in Zaļa birze was opened.[10] In 1979 a part of the film Moonzund was filmed in the town.


After Latvia regained independence, Liepāja has worked hard to change from a military city into a modern port city (now marked on European maps after the secrecy of the Soviet period). The commercial port was re-opened in 1991, and in 1994 the last Russian troops left Liepāja. Since then, Liepāja has engaged in international co-operation, has been associated with 10 twin and partner cities and is an active partner in several co-operation networks. Facilities are being improved as the city hosts Latvia’s largest naval flotilla, the largest warehouses of ammunition and weapons in the Baltic states, and the main supply centre of the Latvian army. At the beginning of the 21st century many ambitious construction projects were planned for the city, including building the NATO military base, the biggest amusement park in the Baltic states – Baltic Sea Park; but most of these projects have not been realised due to economic and political factors. On the other hand, some of the earlier planned projects were completed. Liepāja’s heating network was renovated in cooperation with French company Dalkia and Russian company Gazprom. In 2008 the Cabinet of Ministers of Latvia decided to build the coal cogeneration 400 MW power plant in Liepāja. In 2006, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, a direct descendant of Jacob Kettler visited Liepāja.

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