VEF :The Rise and Fall of Latvian Industrial Legend

The main building of the State Electrotechnical factory (VEF)

VEF stands for State electrotechnical factory. For many decades it was the main producer of the electronic products – radios, telephones, cameras and others. Also it even produced airplanes and cars. It was the pride of the Latvian working nation in time of independence and during the Soviet occupation. However the drastic change in economy after the collapse of the USSR teared down the industrial giant. What is left of it its only small remains of the Latvian industrial legend.

The beginning of VEF  was in 1919, when Post and telegraph department  opened repair shop to fix communication equipment. In 1922, first telephones were produced. In first 1924 crystal detector radio receivers were made. On 1927 already 700 people worked there. The factory was located in former electromechanical company “Union” buildings. The third factory block was built by German architect H. K. Scheel. It was a luxurious eclectic style building with allegoric statue of Zeus. In 1934 company was named State Electrotechnical factory and was intended as the flagship of the Authoritarian Latvian industry. The regime invested large funds for this factory to gain important revenues for the state.

  In thirties VEF produced telephone centrals, telephones, radios. The most famous VEF invention was mini camera Minox. It was sumbminiature camera designed by Baltic German Walter Zapp. It was intended as luxury product, but it became extremely useful for spies, because it was so small that could be easily hidden. Originally Walter Zapp presented his design for Estonians, but they did not see it useful.  The original Riga-made Minox had a brass chassis covered in a stainless steel shell, which telescopes to reveal or cover the lens and viewfinder windows, as well as to advance the film. It was equipped with a parallax correcting viewfinder, which was coupled to a Cooke triplet type Minostigmat 15 mm/3.5 lens. The lens was capable of focusing as close as 20 cm, and, due to its small image size, provided such depth of field at full aperture that a diaphragm was deemed unnecessary. The maximum focus zone was about one meter to infinity. In front of the lens was a metal foil curtain shutter, which was itself protected by a window. These were advanced features at the time for any camera, regardless of size. Dimensions: 80 mm × 27 mm x 16 mm; weight: 130 g. After the end of the war Minox was continued to be produced in Germany.

Minox the smallest camera at those times

Also the wooden hand-made radios was the success of the factory. With its world band shortwave technology Latvians could listen to radios stations  around whole Europe. In times when there was only one state radio station they was pretty useful.  The stylish VEF radios were the sign of wealthiness in every Latvian family.

The VEF Antique radio from the thirties

VEF also attempted to construct airplanes. They were the one of the first monoplanes in the world. 20 sports planes and 6 cars were built. The world war halted further production of them. In every month VEF produced ~500 telephones ,  400 telephone centrals and >1500 radio receivers.

VEF produced sports plane

The world war brought misery for the company as factory was plundered and damaged. The boiler house was destroyed along with many factory blocks. However, the new Soviet government re-opened the factory because they saw it as the key for industrialization of Latvia. Already in 1945 telephones and radios were produced once again. The popular products were telephone model TA-60. There were many radio models like “Lukss”, “Latvija”, portable radio “Tūrists” and “Spīdola”. Again the excellent worldband technology allowed citizens of USSR to listen to foreign stations. However, the Soviet government saw this as menace as the listeners tuned to “Voice of America”, “Radio Free Europe” and other Western propaganda stations. To fix this Soviets attempted to jam the stations and arrested dissidents who were caught listening to them. The radio’s were used as evidence.

The famous VEF Spīdola worldband receiver

 The factory was so powerful that it got its own medical clinic, hospital, sanatorium. In 1960, the VEF Culture Palace was built. It is a large neoclassicism style building with stage suitable for theatrical plays, concerts and cinema. It has been home for various artistic and cultural activities ever since. Also VEF was involved in sports as it got its own sports club. The every week VEF news were published in newspaper “Vefietis”.

The VEF palace of culture

In 1985 VEF produced 856 000 radio receivers, 2, 8 million telephones. Materials, resources and semi-finished products were supplied from other parts of the USSR. The productions were exported to >50 countries mainly Soviet allies.

 The VEF dependence on Soviet market was its main vulnerability after regaining independence. The chaotic privatization process  caused great losses for Latvian industry. Since the VEF was organized in many structures they all separated from the main body and became privatized. >30 private enterprises appeared, but not all fared well and vent bankrupt. The lack of resources and support from Russia halted the production of the telephones and radios. The growing foreign import of electronic products put VEF products out of competition. However also a notable factor was the Soviet military involvement in the factory work. According to some sources 80% of the VEF production was secretly allocated for the military means. Since after 1991 the Soviet military complex was no longer existent the VEF along with other such factories could no longer keep up. During the Soviet era it was a common practice to use civilian industry for secret weapons production.

The main buildings either became deserted or used for other purposes. Large factory block built by Soviets became Domina supermarket, however the VEF own universal shop now is abandoned and is at the state of destruction. Some remains of VEF is company “VEF un Ko”, that produces phones, radio’s and lamps. Because of the large influence of foreign imports their products are not very popular. And their quality cannot compete with foreign products. Also “Radiotehnika” produces audio equipment.

The most visible remains of the VEF legacy is basketball club “VEF-Riga”, today its playing with moderate results in Eurocup and Russian basketball league.

 Its too late to speculate was their any chance to save the VEF. If the government would take more pragmatic approach in transition to free market economy many state enterprises could be saved. But, the shock therapy and uncontrolled privatization destroyed the VEF legend. Also the heavy Soviet military involvement and the breakdown of the Soviet market played a key role. It’s hard to speculate if there would be no world war the VEF would continue to exist as free market enterprise and would compete with other companies.  But, the legend of VEF will always live within Latvia and former Soviet Union.

The present day products by the VEF

Ločmelis, Jāzeps,(2000) VEF – mans liktenis, mans mūžs. Rīga : Inženiera Jāņa Lintera fonds.

Prikulis, Juris. (2012)Starptautiskā konference “Padomju Savienības nodarītie zaudējumi Baltijā”. Padomju Savienības nodarītie zaudējumi Baltijā : Rīgā, 2011. gada 17.-18. jūnijs : starptautiskās konferences materiāli. Rīga : Latvijas Okupācijas izpētes biedrība,



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