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VEF: The Illustrated History

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VEF stands for State Electrotechnical Factory (Valsts Elektrotehniskā Fabrika). From 1919 to early 1990’s it was one of the biggest and most successful state enterprises in Latvia. Its main production was radios, telephones, Automatic Telephone Exchanges, and various electronic gadgets. In first 20 years of its existence it also produced Minox mini photo camera’s and even airplanes. In independent Latvia VEF was example of industrial recovery after the WWI and was highly regarded by the state and society. After WWII when Latvian was occupied by Soviet Union, the Soviet industrial policy makers saw the potential of the VEF and turned into one of the main radio and telephone producers in whole Soviet Union. VEF was not just a major factory it was also a social and cultural service a symbol of the state prosperity. During Soviet occupation Latvia was one of the most industrialized Soviet republics. It had its major backdrop – high workforce immigration that become crucial in late 80’s. During process of regaining independence the VEF leadership and workforce was divided in their views. While many supported the independence, others had their doubts how the VEF would survive the transition to capitalism and separation from the Soviet market.  These doubts proved to be true: the VEF leadership and the state government mismanaged the privatization process and VEF fell into bankruptcy. The breakdown of the Soviet market, VEF secret connections with  Soviet military industry, failure to enter western market and finding western investors lead to collapse. Hundreds of jobs were lost and factories abandoned. Today few companies and basketball club bear the name of VEF. VEF remains as symbol of the state industrial history.

The history in VEF has been discussed in this site before. This article is rather illustrative representation of history of VEF using illustrative material from official VEF publications, memoirs and TV broadcasts. Article aims to show VEF greatest achievements during the interwar period and Soviet period and its demise at the end of the 20th century.

VEF main montage corpus at the Brīvības gatve 19

VEF main montage corpus at the Brīvības gatve 216

On April 1919 as Postal and Telegraph Department’s repair workshops were established in Riga. During that time Riga was controlled by Latvian Socialist Soviet government. However, month later Soviets fled the capital city and workshops were taken over by Republic of Latvia government. The equipment was brought by Soviets from Tver in Russia. During 1915-1916 much of the industrial equipment was evacuated to Russia anticipating the German capture of Riga. The workshop was located in Post and Telegraph building in Aspazijas bulvāris 5 (now home for economic and history faculties). It also became home for Radio Latvia. As the workshop produced more equipment and required more workforce and work space it needed new location. At first on 1924 it was moved to Slokas iela 2 to five story lombard building (now State History Archive). Finally on 1928 the workshops were moved to abandoned buildings of Russian-German factory “Union”. “Union” was electrotechnical factory founded by German citizen Henrich Detman who on 1887 bought a plot of land near Pskov freeway at edge of the city. On 1899 designed by architect Henrich Shiel a marvelous neo-renaissance style building with sculpture of Zeus was built. More new buildings were built around it as the enterprise prospered. On 1915 the company along with its 3000 people were evacuated to Kharkiv.  The company was transformed in to Kharkiv Electromechanical company that still works today.

Former “Union” buildings became ideal place for new state electrotechnical company. On 1929 the Postal and Telegraph company workshops were called the State Electrotechnical factory “Pērkons” (Thunder). Three years later it was renamed simply as State Elektrotechnical Factory – Valsts Elektrotehniskā Fabrika – VEF.

The main factory corpus at the former German-Russian company "Union" at Brīvibas iela 214

The main factory corpus at the former German-Russian company “Union” at Brīvibas gatve 216. Atop the tower a neon sign VEF was installed.

Areas around VEF became highly populated by its workers

Areas around VEF became highly populated by its workers

VEF workforce

VEF workforce

Material storage

Material storage

Extrusion workshop

Extrusion workshop

Material cutter

Material cutter

Extrusion process for creating chassis ans splinters necessary for radio production

Extrusion process for creating chassis ans splinters necessary for radio production

Automatic extrusion presses

Automatic extrusion presses

Workshop for creating extrusion tools

Workshop for creating extrusion tools

Cutting machine and hand polishing machine

Cutting machine and hand polishing machine

VEF steel oven and sharping machine for cutting tools

VEF steel oven and sharping machine for cutting tools

Turning bench workshop

Turning bench workshop

Turnery

Turnery

Automatic turner. The size parts are measured by the microscopes

Automatic turner. The size parts are measured by the microscopes

Cadmium baths for parts and tools

Cadmium baths for parts and tools

VEF abatement oven. Yielding pulling machine

VEF abatement oven. Yielding pulling machine

Wire spining machine

Wire spining machine

Bakelite workshop

Bakelite workshop

Elements workshop

Elements workshop

Zinc bottom pole soldering machine

Zinc bottom pole soldering machine

Zinc pole casing soldering machine

Zinc pole casing soldering machine

Parts workshop

Parts workshop

Transformer coil spining

Transformer coil spining

Transformer measurement equipment. Capacitor thickness measuring

Transformer measurement equipment. Capacitor thickness measuring

Making condensers

Making condensers

Plywood factory for creation for enclosures

Plywood factory for creation for enclosures for radios

Enclosure workshop

Enclosure workshop

Polishing workshop

Polishing workshop

Polisher polishing the enclosures

Polisher polishing the enclosures

Assembling workshop

Assembling workshop

Equipment tuning

Equipment tuning

Assembling the loudspeakers

Assembling the loudspeakers

Radio casing and final check up

Radio casing and final check up

Products are being packed and sent to storage

Products are being packed and sent to storage

Electrical measurement laboratory

Electrical measurement laboratory

Measurement of the sound distortion and receiver calibration

Measurement of the sound distortion and receiver calibration

Measuring the sensitivity and selectivity of the receiver

Measuring the sensitivity and selectivity of the receiver

Material testing laboratory

Material testing laboratory

Special measurement equipment workshop

Special measurement equipment workshop

Radio transmitter in Klaipēda, Lithuania assembled by VEF

Radio transmitter in Klaipēda, Lithuania assembled by VEF

VEF made radio transmitter

VEF made radio transmitter

Transmitter "turning field"

Transmitter “turning field”

Radio beacon for transmitting timed interval signals

Radio beacon for transmitting timed interval signals

VEF Radio Branch library

VEF Radio Branch library

Factory sales bureau

Factory sales bureau

VEF store in Estonia

VEF store in Estonia

VEF stores in Finland and Estonia

VEF stores in Finland and Lithuania

During the interwar period VEF produced mainly radios, telephones and telephone exchange systems that were installed in Riga and other major cities.  Factory produced all electronics that had any market demand – communication devices, phones, light bulbs, cameras, irons, radios, flashlights, as well as photo paper, work-tables, and even airplanes. On 1936 VEF became famous across the world with its Minox subminiature camera designed by Walter Zapp was first of its kind.

On 1940 Latvia was occupied and VEF was nationalized by Soviet government. While some of the factory executives and workers faced repressions, the factory continued its usual work until June 22 1941 when Latvia was invaded by Nazi Germany. Factory was managed by Nazi authorities but was in decay. On 1944 following Nazi retreat from Riga, factory was looted and several buildings were destroyed.

Soviet government made great efforts to restore pre-war factories and VEF became part of enormous Soviet industrial sector. Soviet policy was to assign specialization for its many republics. Latvia became the main producer of radios, telephones and other electronic equipment. Such industry never fully developed in Estonia and Lithuania. Closest rival to VEF and  Radiotehnika was Minsk Radio Factory and several factories in Russia. VEF radio design was so good it was adopted by Minsk and other radio factories in the Union. Radiotehnika was other main radio producer in Latvia that produced more advanced radio receivers, however VEF became the most popular. VEF products were imported to Soviet satellite states  and Western Europe. The five largest state companies were VEF, Radiotehnika, Alfa, Komutators and Elar (which produced components for the other four). In its peak in 1991, VEF employed 20,000 people. However, part of the production went for soviet military needs. Latvian industry greatly boosted the Soviet economy. According to latest researches Latvia as Soviet republic made greater payments for other Soviet republics then Moscow actually invested for Latvia. The fact that Soviet government overextended the Latvian industry brought to need of workforce from other Soviet republics. VEF working force was multi ethnic of Latvians, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, ect. As before the war, the VEF was highly regarded as pillar of state economy and became symbol of Soviet Latvian industry.

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Georgijs Gaile was the first post war factory director

Georgijs Gaile was the first post war factory director

Soviet newspaper Komsolovska Pravda reports patriotic VEF campaigns to reach over production

Soviet newspaper Komsolovska Pravda reports patriotic VEF campaigns to reach over production

VEF old block during Soviet era. Soviets built more new buildings around pre-war area

VEF old block during Soviet era. Soviets built more new buildings around pre-war area

Radio workshop

Radio workshop

From 1945 to 1960 VEF produced lamp radio receivers. On 1961 VEF produced "Spīdola" transistor radio one of the first in Soviet Union (below left).

From 1945 to 1960 VEF produced lamp radio receivers. On 1961 VEF produced “Spīdola” transistor radio one of the first in Soviet Union (below left).

VEF 206 (left) became one of the most popular export products. VEF Sigma (above left) was one of the most popular radio-cassete players in Soviet block

VEF 206 (left) became one of the most popular export products. VEF Sigma (above left) was one of the most popular radio-cassete players in Soviet block

Over the decades various models were made. On late 80's the radio models had stereo sound and FM band

Over the decades various models were made. On late 80’s the radio models had stereo sound and FM band

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Ukrainian photographer David Dubnitskiy, from Ukraine has made a series of pictures featuring VEF-206 radios

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Mass production of radio cassette player models

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Soviet built building for telephone production

Soviet built building for telephone production

VEF Telephone production

VEF Telephone production

In 80's the round dials were replaced with button dial and telephones became more advanced

In 80’s the round dials were replaced with button dial and telephones became more advanced

Manufacturing the Automatic Telephone exchanges

Manufacturing the Automatic Telephone exchanges

ATE measuring and testing

ATE measuring and testing

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Production of conveyors. automatic assembly lines and other production items

Production of conveyors. automatic assembly lines and other production items

VEF also attempted to use robots for mass production

VEF also attempted to use robots for mass production

While still lacking behind western industry the VEF reached great level technical advancement

While still lacking behind western industry the VEF reached great level of technical advancement

Early computers were also used by VEF

Early computers were also used by VEF

A large dictionary would be needed to list all notable VEF workers and executives

A large dictionary would be needed to list all notable VEF workers and executives

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VEF was always closely watched by the Soviet Communist party

VEF was always closely watched by the Soviet Communist party

VEF made contacts with counterparts in Eastern Block. Ideas were exchanged.

VEF made contacts with counterparts in Eastern Block. Ideas were exchanged.

While VEF did not made much contacts with leading Western producers some contacts were made with Asian countries

While VEF did not made much contacts with leading Western producers some contacts were made with Asian countries

VEF was not just a major factory. It offered a vast social welfare possibilities for its workers.  VEF run sanatoriums, kindergartens, sports schools and Palace of Culture and Technology. Being a worker for VEF meant to be member of special social caste who received many advancements and privileges.

Special sanatorium for VEF workers and their family members

Special sanatorium for VEF workers and their family members

Inside the VEF sanatorium

Inside the VEF sanatorium

VEF Pioneer organization

VEF Pioneer organization

vef_pioners

"Vefietis" public catering center located next to new soviet built VEF blocks was one of the most advanced in Latvia. Now demolished

“Vefietis” public catering center located next to new soviet built VEF blocks was one of the most advanced in Latvia. Now demolished

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vef_sportsman

vef_gimnast2

VEF Palace of Culture and Technology located near central VEF complex was place of various cultural activities

VEF Palace of Culture and Technology located near central VEF complex was place of various cultural activities

VEF palace had library, young technicians learning center and artist workshop

VEF palace had library, young technicians learning center and artist workshop

VEF Palace hosted worker meetings, had VEF history museum and own choir

VEF Palace hosted worker meetings, had VEF history museum and own choir

1989 VEF marks its 70 birthday. VEF veteran A. Bērziņš in charge for finding and creating parts for Minox camera gets awarded

1989 VEF marks its 70 birthday. VEF veteran A. Bērziņš in charge for finding and creating parts for Minox camera gets awarded

VEF celebrates its 70 years of work in VEF palace

VEF celebrates its 70 years of work in VEF palace

Layout of the VEF factory complex

Layout of the VEF 32 hectare  factory complex.

Various VEF badges and pins

Various VEF badges and pins

 

On 1989 VEF celebrated its 70 years of work. Around that time the country affected by Perestroika was ridden with protests against increasing industrialization and immigration. What first started as massive environment protection protests turned to major movement demanding restoration of independence and the end of Soviet occupation. Many workers of the VEF joined the movement. Latvian Popular Front established a branch in the VEF factory. Mostly Russian speaking factory workers opposed this and supported the Interfront. On May 1 1989 flag of Latvia was raised above the VEF tower marking the official factory support for independence.   Almost no one was sure at that time and until very August 1991 that independence is fully possible.  And that’s why most did not consider what will happen afterwards the goal would be reached.

VEF supporters of independence gathers to raise the flag of Latvia

VEF supporters of independence gathers to raise the flag of Latvia

VEF workers in protest. The protest banner reads "Against immigration"

VEF workers in protest. The protest banners reads “Against immigration!”

Flag of Latvia raised above VEF tower

Flag of Latvia raised above VEF tower

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Situation for VEF started to went downhill in 1991-1993. The Soviet market had collapsed, the connections with Soviet military was lost. VEF leadership failed to find efficient ways to enter Western market. In many ways the VEF production was already outmatched by western counterparts. The government instead  of slow transition from communism to capitalism choose to allow the privatization of all state industrial enterprises. There was limited interest from foreign investors and the VEF leadership could not determine their new worth according to Western standarts. A decision was made to split the large VEF enterprise in several smaller companies. One by one these companies entered bankruptcy.   In next decade VEF disintegrated; most factories were abandoned, some small companies bearing VEF name survived. Most successful is VEF Radiotehnika RRR that was born in uniting with Radiotehnika that also suffered major crisis after independence. Few other companies produced phones and electrical equipment but are too small to compete the western importers. VEF products soon became obsolete. The telecommunications provider Lattelecom choose foreign technology for new modern communications service. All governmental services  ordered new foreign equipment and did gave any chance for VEF to modernize. VEF radios and telephones were obsolete in 10 years and now can be found as relics in flea markets and antique shops. Could VEF survived the transition and transformed into new modern company remains a open question. Some say that VEF breakdown was favored by rival companies who wanted to exclude it from free market. Others say that VEF breakdown was result of poor management, in which one blames another for their mistakes. VEF breakdown could also be inevitable – there was too many unfavorable factors that it simply could not survive in 90’s crisis. Similar fate awaited almost every major factory in Latvia. The breakdown of the industrial sector is the most crucial social disaster in Latvian history.

Crisis begins. No pays means empty factory with nothing but the birds

Crisis begins. No pays means empty factory with nothing but the birds

Workshops abandoned

Workshops abandoned

Workers still try to do their jobs while the pays are delayed

Workers still try to do their jobs while the pays are delayed

Last generation VEF phones

Last generation VEF phones

VEF workers gathers in protest

VEF workers gather in protest

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Initial strong support for independence was now shadowed by strong disappointment as decades of work was lost

Initial strong support for independence was now shadowed by strong disappointment as decades of work was lost

The leader of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party Juris Bojārs tried to stand up for workers with little success

The leader of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party Juris Bojārs tried to stand up for workers with little success

Desperate call for government to save the VEF and do not be grave diggers of own state

Desperate call for government to save the VEF and do not be grave diggers of own state

Most factory buildings soon became abandoned

Most factory buildings soon became abandoned

Factory equipment was either sold or stolen

Factory equipment was either sold or stolen

Some abandoned spaces as this sometimes is used to events such as markets or museum nights

Some abandoned spaces as this sometimes is used to events such as markets or museum nights

The main assembly building is used by Goodwill nightclub. On the tower a ham radio transmitter is installed for local UHF radio club

The main assembly building is used by Goodwill nightclub. On the tower a ham radio transmitter is installed for local UHF radio club

This corpus where VEF airplanes were assembled was ruined for many years. Now is in the process of being restored

This corpus where VEF airplanes were assembled was ruined for many years. Now is in the process of being restored

Former VEF factory yard

Former VEF factory yard

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Some former VEF buildings are now used by companies, shops, clubs, even religious organizations. Some still remains abandoned and sometimes are used by artists for their exhibits and workshops

Stairway in abandoned VEF building

Stairway in abandoned VEF building

Largest VEF factory building now serves as Domina Supermarket

Largest VEF factory building now serves as Domina Supermarket

The historic VEF building has been taken over by Latvian company Mikrotiks and has been renovated

The historic VEF building has been taken over by Latvian company Mikrotiks and has been renovated

VEF palace of culture kept his function as place for various cultural festivities and was home for VEF history museum. Since 2016 its been under renovation

VEF palace of culture kept his function as place for various cultural festivities and was home for VEF history museum. Since 2016 its been under renovation

A full worded history of VEF remains to be written.  The pictures speak for themselves and they speak a thousand words of former glory and demise. Its doubtful VEF would ever be restored to what it was 25 years before. The preservation of the industrial heritage is important goal for our and future generations. 25 years after the demise of VEF its starting to become another subject of social memory about Latvian soviet and industrial past. Often full of myths so its important to preserve the history of the VEF, its workers and products they made. This article was dedications to all of them and I hope it will contribute to the memory and research about the VEF.

 Sources:

VEF. Radio fotoattēlos. Rīga : Valsts elektrotehniskā fabrika, [1935].

 Каталог / Рижское ордена Ленина и Октябрьской революции производственное объединение ВЕФ имени В. И. Ленина. Рига, 1987.
Bražis, Ivars, Minoksa mantinieki / Ivars Bražis ; redaktore / korektore un tekstu tulkotāja Alīna Melngaile. Rīga : Zvaigzne ABC, 2013

Deviņdesmitie. Privatizācija. Piķis un papīrīši. 2016 – Dokumentālās filmas

http://spoki.tvnet.lv/foto-izlases/Bijusi-VEF-eka-tgd-drupas/69338/1/2

http://nickwidescreen.livejournal.com/2245121.html?thread=2671873

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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.

http://www.bedre.lv/index.php?id=read&show=225

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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