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First Tank Made in Riga? The Myth of the Russian Vezdekhod

One of the few real photographs of the Russian Vezdekhod

One of the few real photographs of the Russian Vezdekhod

For years in various publications and Internet sites it was claimed that worlds first tank was made in Riga during World War I. In reality it was just a prototype never used in real life nor in battlefield. Many details of its look and functions were exaggerated by the Soviet historians. However, this less known heavy war vehicle,  its unique look and story of its design is worth to be discussed here.


The man behind this vehicle was Alexandr Porokhovschikov (1893-1941), a 21-year-old technician who came to Riga to present his idea of building caterpillar track all terrain vehicle that would serve the army in off-road conditions. It would also cross the water obstacles as inventor described to Russian Imperial army. It was 1914 when despite many modern inventions the army generals and strategists still thought in Napoleonic war terms where horse cavalry was still played main role. So such idea was original for Russian army officers.

However, the head of the Special Committee for Charity for War Fleet Alexander von Kaulbarss regarded this project as interesting and support worthy. The vehicle could serve army in maneuver war that would transport ammunition and take away wounded in fast pace. Nobody predicted a positional trench war then. After many months of work in the Main War Technical Authority on December 24 1914 the blueprints and calculations for the vehicle was laying on the desk of the North-western front chief of support general Nikolai Danilov.  On January 13 1915 general issued order Nr. 8101 to start the project of the all terrain vehicle Vezdekhod  (Вездекход – all terrain vehicle) and gave 9660 rubles and 72 kopieks to realize it. The project was overseen by the head of the Riga chamber of the troop deployment Vladislav Poklevski – Kozello.

There were two variants of the Vezdekhod. One with single caterpillar track   and other one with two caterpillar track. Second was turned down due to the  financial difficulties. However, the blueprints were never found. Maybe they lay in closed to public Russian State History Archive in Moscow.  Only evidence about the look and functions of this vehicle were preserved in the memoirs of the factory worker V Rabinovitch where he published his cross cut scheme of the Vezdekhod and few photographs in Riga during testing rounds. On February 1  the Nizny-Novgorod infantry regimental  auto repair service begun to construction of the Vezdekhod. The service was located near the Riga Train Factory or “Russo-Balt” as it was called then.

Vezdekhod was futuristic looking machine, weighting three tons, 3,5 meter long, 1,5 meter high and 2 meter wide. However in photographs it looked in the same height as in the width. It had one  all corpus wide rubbered tarpaulin caterpillar track  on four pipeline axis with the frontal axis rosed above to effectively cross obstacles. No guns and armor were included however  Porokhovschikov had presented the idea of multi-level armor but they were rejected because of high cost. However, this was a separate armor project not for the Vezdekhod.

On May 18 1915 the prototype was tested in Riga. Vezdekhod managed to reach the speed of 25 km/h a great speed for those times while French Renault FT-17 could only achieve 7,7 km/h. On June 20 Vezdekhod was publicly shown to the generals of the Russian army. Vehicle suffered from many errors caused by lack of wheel differential, limited road adhesion. On high pressure caterpillar tuned around and maneuvering   was limited. The commission report concluded that Vezdekhod managed to serve its purpose as all terrain vehicle  despite its technical flaws. Porokhovschikov blamed the technical glitches on forced changes in the project.

German army entered the territory of Latvia and forced to move the factory to Petersburg. The work continued there until December 29 1915 when the upgraded variant was tested.Despite achieving speed of 42,6 km/h the January 8 1916 report concluded that vehicle does not serve the purposes demanded in order 8101. The machine was unable to move above 30 cm deep snow and the water crossing testing was never made. Project was halted and Porokhovschikov was asked to repay the spent 18 090 rubles. The prototype was ordered to be sent to  Chief Technical Authority. Until October 1916 a discussion continued on  continuing the project. Meanwhile in Great Britain in deep secrecy a prototype called Little Willie was designed. It was not just meant for all- terrain crossing and support but also for combat.

How Vezdekhod would look

How Vezdekhod would look

On September 15 1916 British unleashed the first tank attack in history. The “land fleet” of armed vehicles who could easily break the enemy lines that would change the combat scene made Russians concerned about their own tanks.  Porokhovschikov was interested to start the project again – after all the main foundations were made only thing to do was to remake Vezdekhod in to combat tank. He published an article in the newspaper “Новове Время” (The New Age) called “Land Fleet was made by Russians” where he boasted his achievements in making the caterpillar transport vehicle and could be developed in to tank. Vezdekhod was now for the first time regarded as useful for combat not just support.

However, in the trench war a vehicle with rubbered caterpillar was useless for it could not cross the barbed wire fortifications. Support was done by horses and automobiles. An armored tank was needed and France and UK sent to  Russia its own Renault FT-17 and Mark tanks. Russia had no time and money to experiment on its own tanks.

On 1917 after failed attempt in Petersburg to create a real tank Porokhovschikov abandoned the land vehicles and turned to aviation. He produced a plane called P-IV airplane. After revolution he joined the Red Army as war pilot. He made more models of P-IV and after Civil War moved to Moscow and founded his private construction office. His most project proposals were turned down by the Soviet air forces. He was repressed and sent to Gulag and worked on hydro technical objects for the Belamorkanal. Before the WW2 he was sent to Autotank authority of the Red Army. On August 20 1940 he was arrested as foreign spy and the anti-soviet agitator. On July 20 he was executed.

Soviets propaganda taking pride in their tanks soon exploited the story of the Vezdekhod to claim that first tanks were made in Russia. On 1942 in a book “Land Ships!” Oleg Drozhin (Nikolai Kodratenko) claimed that already on 1914 the first all terrain vehicle project was made in Russia. On 1946 book “Tank” it was mentioned again together with the name of the inventor.  On 1949 it was now claimed that Vezdekhod was a “combat machine prototype” “first tank in the world”. On 1952 a fake schematics were published boosting the myth of Vezdekhod as the first ever tank.

Russian propaganda fantasies about Vezdekhod

Russian propaganda fantasies about Vezdekhod

Soviet propaganda added movable turret to Vezdekhod although it was never meant to be there in the first place. The WWI type machine gun was technically unable to install on the Vezdekhod. Many details of the “tank” became even more fantastic over the years and made the legend of the first tank in Riga. Could it least called a first all terrain caterpillar vehicle?    Similar projects were made in other countries. And this machine was only used in tests. It was never meant as tank vehicle, it could move supplies to front. We can only speculate if the prototype would not have said technical problems and it would leave better impression on the Russian generals. Maybe it would enter the production and after British demonstrated their Mark tanks it would developed further into combat tank. But, the defeat of Russia was close and there was no time and will to make the Vezdekhod as full combat vehicle. Vezdekhod was a failed prototype for support caterpillar vehicle that could potentially turn into tank if its fate would be different. Vezdekhod did turn into tank in the fantasies of the soviet propaganda and serves as one of the myths of the Latvian and Soviet history.

Selected Sources:

Buks, Artis. Mīts un Patiesība par Rīgas tanku. Ilustrētā Vēsture. 2012. Septembris.



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Latvia 2012 The Year of Quarrels

As every year comes to conclusion this site gathers all the important events that happened in Latvia. Last time I called the year 2011 as the year of Troubles as the emergency elections, bankruptcy of bank Latvijas Krājbanka and national ethnic issues were truly troublesome for Latvia. This year will be called the year of quarrels because of the various issues in political fields that often sparked quarrels between politicians and the various groups of the society. This was the year of reform attempts that faced great contra-reaction from those who opposed the changes for legitimate or illegitimate reasons, many of the government cabinet ministers were asked to resign in almost regular basis by various groups of society. Also the inner instability within the government coalition is clearly visible although the government still works and most of the ministers except one still keeps his seats. This was an interesting year full of discussions and actions and the main events and themes will be outlined here.

The two state language referendum fails and issues about other possible referendums continues.  

The necessary 180 000 petitions for initiation for making Russian as the second state official referendum was gathered at the end of the last year by Russian nationalist radical organization “For Native Language” led by Vladimirs Lindermans the ex national Bolshevik. It may be that the referendum would not take place if the Major of Riga Nils Ušakovs would not join the campaign along with other members of pro-Russian leftist party the Harmony Center. Although both sides denies it the Harmony Center and the Linderman party has secretive ties together. Linderman and his radical members saw the referendum as their kick-start for their political career. In 2013 a municipal elections will take place and Linderman hopes to enter the elections in some municipalities with significant Russian population.

The referendum itself took place in 18 February. 70,66% of the voters or 1 091 757 citizens of Latvia. 74,80% said decisive no to two state languages, 24,88% said yes and Latvian as the sole national language was kept secure by the majority of people. The great voter activity was achieved by calls from all Latvian parties to take part in the referendum and say “no” to show the strong position of the Latvian people. On the other side of the front those who voted “yes” wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the current Latvian government and their national position.

The example of what could be achieved by such referendum did not went unnoticed by other Russian political groups. The political party “For Equal Rights in United Latvia” that has lost last two elections initiated the referendum to give citizenship to all non-citizens of Latvia. This sensitive issue was raised by them to resurrect popularity of the forgotten party. There are still about 15% of Latvian people who are non citizens that live in Latvia. Most of them are Russian speakers the ones that entered Latvia during the Soviet times as immigrants. By the citizenship law made in 1995 these people who had no legal nexus with prewar independent Latvia was not eligible for citizenship as they or their ancestors did not resided in Latvia before 1940. The Soviet citizenship was not taken into account as the Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. However, during the last 20 years the legislation allowed most of the non citizens go trough the naturalization process to acquire the Latvian citizenship. But, some of them did not because of lack of language skills or strict stance against naturalization. One part of them acquired Russia citizenship that was more easier for them and maybe more suitable.

The lawmakers saw great danger in using referendums as tools for making political instability and national ethnic troubles and rushed to change the referendum law to make the petition gap larger than 10 000 sign-ins. As always the legislation process was slowed down by the opposition parties and various groups and experts. The first version accepted by Saeima (parliament) was turned down by the president of Latvia Andris Bērziņs. At last the law was passed in November that now required 30 000 sing-ins in the first step and then after 2015 there will be only one step with 154 000 sing-ins. Before that the first step required 10 000 sing-ins and then 150 000 sing-ins. Opposition and liberal political groups said that this makes initiating new referendum impossible and the opposition parties are threatening of gathering sing-ins for referendum against the new referendum law.

But, the gatherers for citizenship free giving referendum achieved their goal and gathered 10 000 sing-ins for the first step. But the lawmakers saw their project for the changes in the Satversme (constitution) as unconstitutional and against the principles of the state. This was approved by various law experts and now the pressure on Central Election Commission was to not approve the referendum project for the next sing-in step. And after month of thinking in November the Central Election Commission for the first time decided to turn down the referendum project for the next sing-in step. Some political commentators saw this as threat to democracy while Russia again spread out the news about “ethnic discrimination in Latvia”. While the all the attempts of preventing destabilizing referendums may really hurt democracy the history shows that in most cases the referendums in Latvia were mostly based on national issues even before WWII and really made divisions and instability within society.

But the Russian radicals along with Vladimir Linderman continued to be active players in politics. The Linderman’s newest project is the Autonomy of Latgalia (Latgale) region from Latvia. Since Latgalia had the highest percent for support for Russian language he thinks that its rightful that Latgalia deserves autonomy. He however did took account of Latvian Latgalians who may not think so. Because of these actions his office and apartment was raided by the Security Police. Security Police also has noted that his party is illegal since he did not made all the steps to fully register his party but because of gaps in laws the society and party registry cannot cancel his party existence and Linderman still presses ahead and hopes to gain success in 2013 municipal elections even though he is not a  Latvian citizen.

The fight between parties within coalition 

The emergency elections in 2011 was won by Harmony Center but it stayed in opposition and because of support for two state referendum it may stay there until next elections. The Green Farmers Union has bad relations with Unity and the Reform Party that categorically dismiss any cooperation with it is also locked up in the opposition. With that that the centrist Unity, liberal Reform Party (ex Zatler’s Reform Party) and national conservative National Alliance along with six non party members the “Olšteins six” has great chance to lead the country for three more years with the leadership of Valdis Dombrovskis who was lead the state since 2009.

But it seems that Reform Party and especially the National Alliance dislikes the bossy attitude by the Unity. The latter has made many sabotaging and blackmailing attempts on Unity. The first one by them was the resignation by the Minister of Justice Gaidis Bērziņš over issues of returning the Jewish property. For years the Latvian Jewish community has asked to return or at least compensate the lost property of various Jewish organizations after the WWII. Bearing the fact that these organizations were many and their property very valuable the various Latvian governments were unable to met the Jewish demands. The government of Aigars Kalvītis was ready to pay large compensations but then changed their minds. But, the national minister Gaidis Bērziņš who first firmly declined any chances of looking at this issue again, then resigned after he was asked by Prime Minister to consider it after-all he resigned because of “discrepancy of opinions” between Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister and National Alliance and the Unity. It’s a question if this move was dictated by antisemitism, or just inter rivalry between nationalists and Unity. Others however note that Gaidis Bērziņš had secret ties with oligarch Aivars Lembergs and was caught up in corruption therefore he used the Jewish question as the way to hide his true issues with the law. Other reason was simply the fears by the nationalist party to lose its hardline voters.  Whatever was the true reason this made a strain on Latvian-Jewish relations.

But that was not enough from the nationalists and they turned to blackmail. At the October in time of new budget approval the National Alliance threatened not to vote for the new budget if significant amount of money would not be allocated for the demographic policies that truly require attention. If the budget is not approved the government must resign. After load quarrels and  political bargain National Alliance achieved at least half of their demands bringing new financial improvements for the new parents.

However, the National Alliance had another antic in mind. Ahead of approving decision of joining the Eurozone in 2014  five members of the national fraction declared that they are not sure about voting for joining Eurozone. For two weeks a rest of coalition attempted to convince nationalists to make up their minds to vote for Euro. If they would vote against the chance to enter Eurozone in 2014 will be missed and Latvia will not fulfill the obligations to EU. The Nationalists decided that this antic is too dangerous and decided to vote for Eurozone. The hardline nationalists and ultra-patriots now saw National Alliance as traitors and their gamble backfired against themselves.

The reforms and counter-reforms

When ex-president Valdis Zatlers called emergency elections he said that new swift reforms needs to take place. In so he formed his own Reform Party. And after entering coalition the Reform Party gained power of Ministry of Education, Ministry of Economics, Ministry of Regional Affairs and Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs and the Minister of Economics Daniels Pavļuts were mostly praised, the Minister of Education Roberts Ķīlis and the Regional Minister Edmunds Sprūdžs met most stiff opposition to their reforms.

Roberts Ķīlis is a social anthropologist with education in Cambridge University. With his pro western outlook and admiration to western education system he had ambition to completely reorganize the Latvian education. He has many ideas like extending the learning semesters, replacing text books and workbooks with tablet PC for every schoolchildren. But for Academic Education he has even more ideas: removing study budget places completely and replace them with vouchers and force students to take credits compulsory. Closing many higher education facilities like Universities and colleges because they are inefficient and make one University that is in Europe top 10. While on ideal basis these ideas seem great in practical basis they are draconian. The whole educational system that is based on Latvian limited resources cannot adopt to such reforms altogether as the most of the personnel of the educational system are not ready for such changes. Therefore,  most of Higher education facilities called Ķīlis to resign as Ķīlis backfired calling them treacherous stagnates. His campaign against the Higher Education will bring more bad than good as many youngsters seeing this will choose to go to abroad to get Higher education. In the end the stiff quarrels between Ķīlis and education representatives ended with health problems and surgery for Ķīlis. He however stays defiant and promises to return after the recovery. But, now even the Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis has doubts in him.

The Regional minister Edmunds Sprūdžs has no Higher Education yet, but great plans and ambitions. One his ideas that came trough but faced great stiffness from the municipalities was to scale down the size of the deputy seats in Town municipalities. Other his great struggle for he is known is the fight against the oligarch Aivars Lembergs the major of rich port town Ventspils. Because of his corruption charges he has no full rights of authority as the major. But the prosecutors thought that he still uses his major title to affect the courts. So Edmunds Sprūdžs decided to discharge Lembergs from his major duties. Despite the fact he already was in fact discharged by the prosecutors.  But Lembergs called this decree illegitimate and still went to work as majors office as usual and went to court to appeal against the sentence. With the elections drawing again in 2013 Lembergs has great chance to become major again because of vast support from citizens of Ventspils despite all the corruption charges. And with that the eternal fight against Lembergs will start once again.

Ķīlis and Sprūdžs are political amateurs with great plans, but with lack of experience. But these two ladies from Unity party has big political experience but still a great opposition. The Health Minister Ingrīda Circene has always used iron fist policies during his previous terms as a Health Minister and she is using them again now. She was asked to resign because of inability to raise pays for doctors and making new provisions for family doctor qualifications. She also came out with strict provision that those who only pays taxes are eligible for state paid healthcare. In situation were many are not able do that it would sound draconian.

The Minister of Welfare Ilze Viņķele from Unity is also a iron lady who has many great ideas but very straight assertive way of communication that many would dislike. When she was interviewed in Latvian Playboy magazine she was asked why the pensions for people who worked in Soviet times are much lover than they earned back then. Her explanation shocked the Latvian Pensioner Federation and she was asked to resign. Before that she was attacked by conservative organizations about support  for children’s book that promoted gender change. Viņķele is called as the next possible replacement for Valdis Dombrovskis as she has already lead few government meetings in the absence of Dombrovskis but her strong language may scare away the weak hearten  voters.

The photo Radar saga

The last notable point for quarrels was the photo radars. The photo radars are seen as the important tool for road safety and minimizing  the traffic accidents. They are in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland and the rest of Europe and so logically the Latvia needed them too.

But, as in many similar events in Latvia the way how the photo radars were introduced brought them to their failure and removal. In neighboring countries the photo radars are set up and maintained by state police. But, in Latvia because of lack of money the photo radars were set up and maintained by private firm “Vitronic”. The problem was that the contract between Vitronic and police allowed Vitronic to take half of the money earned from speed fines. Of course the private company was interested not in preventing the speed limit breaking, but to gain as much of money from it. So the dreadful green boxes were placed   along all the streets of Riga, often disguised and because they were portable their location always changed. The contract required to make stationary radars but the company was slow to that also no radars were placed outside Riga. The great resentment from drivers was big, the radars were vandalized, others put home made signs to warn drivers of the hidden radars. In the end the contract with great expense was broken and radars disappeared from the streets before Christmas.

Prospects for the next year

The main event in 2013 will be the state-wide municipal elections. The main battleground will be Riga, were Latvian right-wing parties will be battling to oust the pro-Russian Major Nils Ušakovs along with his Harmony Center party. For years the young ex-journalist Nils Ušakovs has become powerful, arrogant and eccentric ruler of the main city. His city government works as caviar socialdemocrats, who spends a lot of money on popular decisions like free tickets for pensioners and school students while shunning the frugal state government. Despite the large spending and placing the party members in public city enterprises Riga has still many problems and the city government has sunken into corruption.  But, because of Russian speaker majority that adores Ušakovs the right-wing parties will have to show a stiff fight to mobilize against Ušakovs.

The next great issue will be the economic recovery and the drive to Euro. The opposition against the Euro in Latvia is great and often irrational, so the forces who will call for referendum to join Eurozone will be strong. Although Latvia technically already agreed to join Eurozone in 2003 when voting for EU membership, many people don’t understand this. If such actions will be taken the joining the Eurozone will be canceled and Latvia EU membership will be doubted in general. Some big country across the Eastern border will probably like this.

And off coarse as the reform process has not yet finished if not even went few steps further the quarrels between ministers and the representatives will continue. The year 2012 was the year of Great Fire Dragoon so no wonder this year was quite stormy all over the year. The next year is year of Snake so lets look out for treachery and intrigues judging by whats to expected they may be many of those. But also the Mayan calendar ended in 21 December bringing new Earth time cycle, the beginnings and  endings are always difficult, but whats to come in between should be worth to work for.

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The Great Northern War 1700-1721

Peter I was main curator of Russian success in the Great Northern War

During the Modern ages the Latvian land was hit by three large international wars.  The Livonian war , Swedish-Polish war and the Great Northern War. All three wars were fought between rival empires in the Baltic region. The Livonian war made Poland-Lithuania as the main power in the Baltic region. Also Sweden took first steps to empower their dominance in the Baltic Sea. Russia did not gain anything, despite the fact that they started the war in the first place. Swedish-Polish war weakened Polish position in the region making Sweden the main player in the Baltic Sea. For 80 years Baltic Sea became “Swedish lake” because Swedes took power over many important Baltic ports. Swedish dominance was watched with envy from Poles but even more envious were rulers of Russia.

17-18 century was time of empire and absolutism. Kings of France, Austria, Spain and others took all power in matters of the state. The old feudal system was replaced by mercantile economy and colonization. European powers who in the past were less advanced than China started a wave of modernization that made them key players in the world scale. Europe became the center of the world. However at this time, Russia was still underdeveloped and far behind from other European rivals. Russia became united country under brutal rule of Czar Ivan IV Terrible who removed Mongols from power and started to interfere in European politics. However Ivan IV left no successor and Russia was thrown into civil war and attacked by the Poles.  Time of 1589-1613 was known as the Time of Troubles. In the end Russians managed to push away Polish invaders and elected Michael Romanov as Czar. He was succeeded by Alexis who first challenged Sweden in 1656. His army captured Dorpat (Tartu) but lost numerous battles near Riga and in 1658 was forced to give up. This showed that Russia needs strong modernization and political reform to equally rival the European powers.

Nothing much was done until new Russian Czar Peter I took power in 1682. Peter was a strong man with ambitions and will for knowledge.   He was crowned at age of ten years. His first year of title was colored in blood because of the inner family rivalries between ex wife’s of Alexis that resulted Strelsty uprising. Peter witnessed the bloody events and that left a deep scar in his personality. He was forced to wait many years for his full rights for power. At this time he got interested in ship building, army commanding and other military activities. In 1696 Peter I officially became the sole ruler of Russia.

Sweden in 1617 gained lands around Ladoga Lake that stripped Russia completely from the Baltic Sea. Peter I was obsessed with “carving a window to Europe”. The window was the shores of the Baltic Sea. Peter organized alliance against Sweden and succeeded by allying with Denmark and Saxony. In 1700 all three sides declared war on Sweden.

War first came to Latvian land when the Saxon army attacked Riga in February 1700.  Saxons attempted to capture Riga using disguise. At this time Riga was celebrating the Faslam celebration. Saxons hoped to disguise as peasants and enter Riga when its guards were at lowest attention. However they were discovered by Swedish patrol and alarm was raised. Then the Saxons attempted to cross the river Daugava and block the city. Finnish soldiers held the fortress of Dünamunde (Daugavgrīva) and inflicted heavy casualties on Saxons but were forced to surrender at the end. But the Saxons were too weak to make direct capture attempt on Riga and started a siege. Saxons lacked heavy artillery so the siege was hopeless.  In March Swedish king Carl XII ordered to send forces to Riga. A Swedish army came in March but did nothing despite the fact that their army was larger than the Saxons. In September Russians sent few formations to Riga but nothing happened. Then the Saxons decided to quit the blockade and return to Koknese. In November 19-30 Sweden defeated Russians in Battle of Narva. That was a heavy blow to Peter I but he was not ready to quit.

A Swedish army crosses the River Daugava to attack Saxons at Spilve

In 1701 Saxons again headed to Riga. A Swedish army prepared Riga for a coming battle very well. Carl XII was about to enter Riga himself to command the battle. His army arrived in June. He ordered to make landing boats to move troops and cannons across Daugava. When the king learned that strong wind has turned to the north, he ordered to send boats filled with humid burning straws and hemps in front of his landing force, to weaken visibility for the Saxons. In noun of June 9 Swedes crossed river Daugava and attacked the Saxons in grasslands of Spilve. In two hours Saxon army was split in half and was forced to retreat. About 400 Russian troops remained encircled in island of Lucavsala and fought for their lives two more days. Saxony was out of the game so Carl XII now decided to get down with Poland (king of Saxony Augstus Strong was also king of Poland) and then with Russia.

Russian army in 1701-1702 started to gain first victories in Estonian lands and in Vidzeme. The Russian army under command of Sheremetev destroyed Vidzeme. Russian army burned villages, churches and looted everything. People were captured and sold as slaves in Russian markets. Old people and children were killed and burned alive. Russian Feldmarchal Sheremetev reported to Peter I “Almighty God and Our Lady has fulfilled your wish. There is nothing to destroy in enemy land anymore. From Pskov to Dorpat, down by River Veliky, across the Lake Peipus to mouth of river Narva, across Dorpat and from Riga to Valka, everything has been destroyed. Castles have been blown up. Nothing has been saved except Pernau and Revel and some mansions near the seaside.  Everything from Revel to Riga has been cut out. Inhabited places are only found on the maps for now.”   Russians deported 12 000 people from their homes. Even more deadly was a Black Death epidemic that took the lives of 60% rural citizens.   Vidzeme and Courland was torn apart for many decades.

A Swedish army took too much time in Poland and in the depth of Russia. Peters I army grew stronger and confident and finally in 1709 Swedish army was destroyed in the Battle of Poltava. This marked end for Baltic provinces. Sheremetev’s forces marched to Riga. In October the hostilities started. Peter I himself came to Riga and ordered to siege. Riga was under heavy bombardment. Not only that – the explosion in Riga fortress caused heavy damage. In January 1710 encircled city lacked reserves of food and fuel. People died from starvation and frost. City streets were filled with bodies. The Siege continued until June because Russians themselves suffered from food shortages and heavy cold. The Russians decided to flat-out Riga and force it to surrender. In June 29 defenders of Riga finally decided to surrender. In July 10 last 5132 Swedish men most of them sick left Riga. In  July 14 Sheremetev entered Riga and received the keys of Riga. Fortress of Dünamunde resisted until August 8.

The war officially continued until 1721. But in Latvia it was all but over. Vidzeme and Riga were added to the Russian Empire. Peter I established a new capital in the territory that belonged to Swedes. It was named Petersburg. Peter I fulfilled his dream of making Russian empire and made Russia the global player in the  Earth. That was done by inflicting massive casualties on people of Estonia and Latvia. The Great Northern War was the most destructive wars in history of the Latvian nation. Only Second World War was more catastrophic to Latvia than Great Northern War.

Selected Sources:

Zeids, Teodors (Ed.) (1978). Feodālā Rīga. Riga: Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija. Vēstures institūts.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1962) Latvijas vēsture, 1600-1710. Stockholm: Daugava.

Lācis, Visvaldis (2001) Latviešu zemes un tautas vēsture. Rīga : ASF Saules koks : Vieda.

Frost, Robert I. (2000) The Northern wars: war, state and society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. Harlow: Longman.

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Swedish Vidzeme

Swedish army Garrison gate in old Riga. A symbol of Swedish rule

After the war with Poland Sweden acquired Vidzeme (Livland) as a new part of its empire. Riga was also added to Sweden and became one of the main trade centers of Sweden. At the time of Swedish rule Vidzeme became economically stable and its population grow from 50 000 to 142 000. Because of somewhat liberal Swedish attitudes to Latvian peasants and their staunch policy on German landlords, Swedish times are sometimes called “The Good Swedish times”. However this is disputed by modern Latvian historians who see this as a myth.

The Swedish administration gave 40 percent of land to Swedish nobles; another part still belonged to the Germans. German landlords used widely serfdom to expand their labor.  Serfdom meant that peasant family who lived within the noble owned land were subjects of the noble. They could not inherit land they maintained nor could they leave it. Serfdom was a form of slavery in all parts of Latvia. However serfdom was not used in mainland Sweden so Swedish king Karl XI suggested abolishing it entirely in Swedish empire. That was met with resistance from German landlords who wanted to expand their rights to enslave local peasants.

To somehow control the situation in Vidzeme, Swedish government used the reduction policy since 1681.  About five-sixths of estates in Vidzeme were reclaimed by Swedish crown. This was done to increase the revenues for Sweden and it succeeded because tax incomes grow substantially. However German control over their estates did not weaken and it had no big effect on the lives of Latvian peasants. Serfdom was not abolished however in Swedish controlled estates the treatment of peasants were less bad than in private German estates.

Riga surrendered to the Swedish army in 1621. Swedish government allowed Riga to keep its privileges even if it meant that Riga could have relative autonomy from Sweden. An inconvenience for people of Riga was Swedish garrison, in times of Poles, Polish army stayed out of Riga. This caused conflicts between Riga town council and Sweden, more quarrels happened because of Riga privileges. Swedish absolute monarchy contradicted the feudal rights of Riga. The Swedish administration made much effort to hold control over Riga and weaken its autonomy. But Riga Town council managed to keep their rights. In 1645 Riga became the administrative center of Vidzeme.

Riga was under attack by Russian army during the Swedish-Russian war (1656-1661). Riga was besieged by Czar Alexis Mikhalovich himself. Riga was under Russian artillery fire but did  not suffer much damage. In outcome Russian army was defeated and the siege was lifted.

Riga under Russian siege in 1656.

One of the notable achievements of the Swedish rule was opening of the Dorpat (Tartu) university.  It was the first university in the Baltic region. The university was established by King Gustav Adolphus. Latvian language was also studied there because it was needed for new pastors who wanted to work in Vidzeme. Later times first Latvian students started to study there. From the graduates of Dorpat University the first Latvian national intelligentsia appeared.

In Vidzeme for the first time Christian Bible was translated into Latvian. It was done by Ernest Glik from Aluksne. In 1685 he made translation of the New Testament but the whole translation was released in 1689. This was a significant effort in development of Latvian language. This was also a good start to introduce Christian teachings to simple Latvian peasants who were still more or less pagan. Before that Bible was only available in Latin or German.

The relative peace in Vidzeme came to an end when Denmark, Saxony and Russia allied in a war against Sweden in 1700. Vidzeme once again became a battlefield and got new owner – Russia.

Selected Sources

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1962) Latvijas vēsture, 1600-1710. Stockholm: Daugava.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1938-1941) Vidzemes 1638. gada arklu revīzija = die Hakenrevision Livlands 1638. 1-6 Vol. Riga. Latvijas Vēstures institūts.

Alexis Mikhalovich

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Polish-Swedish war 1600-1629.

Swedish army on the pillage

After the Livonian war former lands of Livonia were split between Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. Sweden grabbed Northern Estonia with Tallinn. However as the Empire of Sweden grow stronger its lust for more land in the Baltic region grew. Sweden wanted the port of Riga for its trade supremacy in the Baltic Sea along with rich agricultural lands in former Livonia.

Just as a Hundred years war between England and France in Middle Ages this war broke out because of succession conflict. In 1587 by legal matters Swedish prince Sigismund III Vasa became the king of Poland-Lithuania, in 1594 he was crowned as a king of Sweden.  However this was not liked in Sweden because Sigismund was a Catholic but Sweden was Protestant Lutheran country. He was deposed from Swedish throne. However Sigismund did not give up and decided to start a war against Sweden.  This war crucial for the Latvian nation since the most of the battle action happened in territory of today Latvia.

In the first two years of war Swedes captured a large part of Polish owned Duchy of Pārdaugava. The Swedes took unsuccessful raids on Riga and were forced to retreat.  Polish forces led by Jan Zamoyski made counterattacks on Swedes and routed them back to Northern Estonia. At this time Vidzeme suffered an outburst of famine and bubonic plagues. Thousands died in war caused calamity.

Swedish army bombarding the fortress of Dunamunde. A 17th-century etching.

Sweden however was able to reassemble its army and send to Riga once again. Their army was highly trained motivated and well-trained. Poland lacked originality and funds to support its troops. Swedish forces at 1605 reached Riga and started the siege. The fortress of Dünamünde (Daugavgrīva) was surrounded and bombed by the Swedish army. At  September 23 main forces of Sweden reached Riga. Poles arrived at the spot and one of the famous battles at that time the battle of Kircholm (Salaspils) started. The Swedes was led by King Charles IX who took command of 10 800 men and 11 cannons. Most of the Swedish fighters were actually mercenaries from Germany and Scotland. Poles had 1 300 men of musketeers and pikeman. It also had a crushing force of 2 600 cavalry of Winged Hussars. These well-trained men with lances and decorative wings on their backs were the finest that Poles and Lithuanians could offer. Swedish cavalry had only pistols and poorer horses.

The Swedes were superior to Poles by 1:3 so Polish commander Jan Chlodkeiwitz devised a feint maneuver to move Swedes out of their high position.  Swedes thought that Poles were retreating and advanced only to get in line of fire by Poles. Then the Hussars unleashed their attack. 300 Winged Hussars charged and destroyed Swedish positions. After 20- 30 minute battle ended with Swedish defeat. Sweden lost 9000 men Poland only 1000. This was the most famous of all Polish victories.

Battle of Kircholm (Salaspils)

Victory however could not end the war quickly. Polish army did not receive payments and left the ranks for plundering. Victorious Hetman Jan Chlodkeiwitz was forced to lead a handful of mercenaries funded from his own pocket.  In 1608 Swedes returned to Livonia in 1608-1609 Swedes captured the fortress of  Dünamünde and Kokenhusen (Koknese). However at 1609   Jan Chlodkeiwitz again relived Riga and defeated Swedes near river Gauja. A truce was signed in 1611. During this time Poles were occupied in their war in Russia.

War restarted when “Swedish Meteor” Gustav II Adolphus at 1620 again set war path to Riga. Famous for his successes in Thirty years war Gustav II was one of the most talented commanders in that time. He at last captured Riga. Poles were unable to send reinforcements since their war in Russia ended in failure and more serious war was fought in the same time with the Ottoman Empire. So a truce lasting till 1625 was signed.

In 1625 Gustav’s forces captured all of Livonia. He did a crushing victory in battle of Wallhof (Valle) at January 7 1626.  Swedes stated that they had not lost a single man in battle when Poles lost 1 5000 men. Then war turned to East Prussia. The final battle was fought near Trzciana, Prussia. The battle was won by the Poles; however this does not prevent the Poles from signing a ceasefire.

The Truce of Altmark gave Sweden Riga and whole of Estonia and Vidzeme. Latvian lands now were split between two empires. Peace in the Latvian territory only lasted until 1655 when it was hit by First Northern war.

Swedish territorial gain at the result of war

Selected Sources

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1962) Latvijas vēsture, 1600-1710. Stockholm: Daugava.

Lagerqvist, Lars O. (2001) A History of Sweden. Stockholm: The Swedish Institute.


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Calendar Revolt in Riga

During the Livonian War Riga was a tasty bit for nations that attempted to conquer Livonia. Russians and Poles needed the rich Riga port for their economic interests. However there was no attempt to capture Riga from all sides of the war. Russian army came close to Riga three times (1559, 1560,1577) but at most times they only pillaged the city outskirts.  Despite that Riga merchants suffered financial losses because other cities in Vidzeme were bitterly damaged. The war prevented trade ships to enter the port of Riga at full-scale. After the end of the war Poland started to pressure Riga to surrender to them.

On 1561 October Poles first demanded Riga to surrender but Riga declined the demand. Poles finally took Riga under control in 1582.  March 12 when Polish king Stephan Batory entered Riga. Riga kept their privileges and rights. When Poles entered they started to restore Catholic faith in the city. Before that much of the city converted to Protestant Lutheranism. Poles took the Church of St. James and admitted Jesuits to Riga. This sparked anger within the Riga Lutheran citizens.

Poles ruled Riga until 1621. It was a time of conflict between Polish king and City autonomy. Trade was weakened and city financial status became worse. Polish soldiers did damage to the city by pillaging the citizens and city property. Poles imposed heavy taxes on Riga worsening the financial situation.  This caused a rebellion against Polish rule which was triggered by international calendar reform.

Calendar reform started when church officials attempted to fix the bug in the Julius Caesar calendar which had 365 days six hours that did not match with real tropical year calendar with 365 days five hours and 48 seconds.   The error became more visible during the centuries and at 16 century 10 more days appeared on the calendar. Catholic Church was dissatisfied with this because the holy celebration days did not match with seasonal changes. Catholic Church finally attempted to fix it at 1582 with the reform of Pope Gregor XIII. But the reform was not welcomed by Protestants and Orthodox Church (Russia only abandoned the old calendar in 1917). Poland issued the new calendar and ordered it to be used in its Baltic provinces too.

The town council of Riga however decided not to announce the new calendar because of fear from protests against it.  Polish king was not satisfied with this and ordered to announce the calendar immediately or pay a penalty of 10 000 golden ducats. The town council was forced to agree and at 1584 new calendar was announced in Riga.

Town council tried to explain to the citizens that new calendar has nothing to do with religion. But Lutheran citizens saw reform as Catholic propaganda and sign of Riga government close collaboration with Poland.

Christmas was celebrated only by city officials and Catholics. Protestants continued to work.  Those who celebrated at St. James church was attacked by an angry mob. The church was demolished but town guard dispersed the crowd.  This started the calendar revolt. The revolt was active between 1584-1589.

The revolt was organized by the rector of the Riga Dome-school Heinrich Meller who opposed the Riga main priest Neiner. Meller organized many protests and celebrated the old New Year day. He was arrested and accused of insulting the royal majesty.

This only strengthened the protests and angry mob attacked the Town Council and freed Meller from his captivity. Main revolt force was low-income citizens who attacked homes of city authorities. The town Council lost its authority and city shifted to anarchy. This was used by powerful city guilds that organized opposition and elected Martin Gize as opposition leader. Gize shut all gates in Riga to prevent the Polish army from entering the city.

Finally at 1585 guilds forced the Town Council to admit its power. Guild secretariat became the main power in Riga. The new calendar was cancelled. Town Council member left Riga and complained to the Polish king. King started to order guild to cancel revolt. Martin Gize denounced all kings’ demands and executed two Town Council members. After this king declared Gize an outlaw. Guilds feared that king may order a military attack on Riga which could result extermination of all high-class citizens. Guild made a new deal with Town Council which took back its old rights but all rebels need to amnestied.

But king rejected the offer and demanded to punish rebels. Then Gize searched help abroad, he asked for Swedish king Juhan III help, but he did not give clear promises. Juhan’s son Sigismund was a candidate for the Polish throne so he had more serious things on his mind. Gize even asked for help from Russia.

1586 December 2 Stephan Batory died. This stated interregnum time in Poland when no serious action was done. Swedish Prince Sigismund and Austrian Duke Maximilian battled for the Polish throne.  Because of help from Polish oligarch Jan Zamoisky Sigismund won the throne in 1588.

Sigismund was fanatical Catholic. He supported the Town council. Gize took action by exiling all Jesuits from Riga and took St. James church back to Lutherans. He did everything to stop all means of resistance.

In 1588 Gize was elected as Grand member of Great Guild. But opposition against him became stronger because tradesman feared that king may close the Daugava trade route. This caused treason by Riga Representative David Hilhen who started secret talks with Jan Zamoisky. The Polish party started to gain strength and in 1589 traitors opened the city gates to the Polish troops.

This marked the end to the revolt. Polish representatives took over. Leaders were trialed and Martins Gize and his college  Hanss Brinken were sentenced to death. Town Council took back all rights and new calendar was issued again.

This was one of the longest revolts in Latvian history. Although low-income citizens mainly Latvians were actively part of the revolt this was mainly a struggle between middle class tradesman and high-class Town rulers.

Selected Biography

Zeids, Teodors (Ed.) (1978). Feodālā Rīga. Riga: Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija. Vēstures institūts.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1964) Latvijas vēsture, 1500-1600. Stokholm. Daugava.

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November 11- The Bear Slayer Day


The military order of Bear Slayer

The date November 11  is a landmark date for Latvian Freedom Fighters. In this day the defenders of Riga defeated the pro-German Voluntary Western Russia army or simply the army of Bermont.

On 1918 November 18 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed in Riga. First year of Latvian state was troublesome, because it had many enemies. The Baltic Germans wanted Latvia as German state, the Soviets in Russia wanted to establish a soviet regime.

At first Germans were forced to acknowledge new state but secretly conspired against it. Germans were aware of the growing threat from the Soviets. In December Soviets came to Latvia. Latvian state had small military forces and they were dependent on German soldiers who remained there after the capitulation of German Empire. But the Soviet forces were all too strong and Latvians along with Germans retreated to Courland.  Soviets established  red government in Riga. The government by Pēteris Stučka tried to make social reforms, and made full scale nationalization of farm lands. At first simple Latvians greeted the Soviets, because they offered bread and land. What Karlis Ulmanis national government offered was not enough for them. But soon the peasants became disappointed because of land nationalization and growing protests forced the Soviets to start Red Terror.

At the same time the Latvian national government was at Liepāja. The commander of German armed forces Ridiger Fon der Gotlz planned to overthrow the national government. In 1919 April 16 Germans tried to arrest the Karlis Ulmanis government, but the whole government except two MP’s escaped to ship Saratov. Despite the failure, Germans made new government lead by Clergyman Andrievs Niedra. At this time in Latvia were three governments, Latvian, Soviet and German. The Germans captured Riga and started the White Terror. Goltz ordered his forces to march into Estonia. He wanted to get rid both Latvian and Estonian governments. But this ended in failure as Estonian- Latvian forces defeated Germans in May 22 at Cesis.

The pro – German government ceased to exist and Germans were ordered to leave. The Western Allied powers choose to support Latvian government. In the mean time Soviets were still at Latgalia. Latvians planed to drive them out. But Germans got other plans.



In August Germans  allied with Caucasian Cossack adventurer Pavel Bermont-Avalov. He was a Munchausen type adventurer who claimed that he is a  Count. In reality he was a puppet of Goltz  and was dilettante commander. Germans planed that the Bermontd army will disguise as White Guard army against Soviets. Bermont demanded that his army crosses the river Daugava to enter Russia. This meant that his army will take over most parts of Latvia and probably will destroy the Latvian government.

 Karlis Ulmanis rejected this. Bermont army consisted German soldiers and Russian prisoners of war. They had tanks, artillery and airplanes. Latvian army was weak, they had bad equipment, short of cannons and even lacked boots. But the Latvian army was not so weak as shown in the movie The Guards of Riga, it was assembled and ready for war and deeply patriotic. The government was sure of their selves, there was no one to object need to defend Riga. The unpatriotic and cowardly statesman Niedre in the movie the The Guards of Riga is the bad taste of fiction.

Bemont army had 50,000 men, Latvia had 39, 000 men. Bermont army  seized Courland and marched to Riga. At October his army entered the outskirts of Riga. But the  Latvian army managed to cut bridge over river Daugava so Bermont could not pass. The bridge was not destroyed completely as the movie shows, but just cut in half.


Latvian soldiers in positions at days of fighting


The soldiers defending the Town Square

Bermont and Goltz were surprised that Allies showed support to the Latvian army. Their troops could not seize Riga. Then the allied battleships arrived and started to shell the Bermont army. On November 10-11 Latvians with the support of Allied battleships and Estonian armored trains crossed the river and encircled Bermontians and they were forced to flee.

The day of victory is celebrated as the Bear Slayer day. This is because of the new military award the Order of Bear Slayer was established to honor the soldiers. The name of the order comes from 19th century heroic epoch “Bear Slayer” by Andrejs Pumpurs.


After the victory soldiers are awarded with Order of Bear Slayer

Selected Sources:

Pētersone, Inga. (1999)  Latvijas Brīvības cīņas, 1918-1920 : enciklopēdija. Riga: Preses Nams.

Bērziņš, Valdis. (2000) 20. gadsimta Latvijas vēsture. I, Latvija no gadsimta sākuma līdz neatkarības pasludināšanai, 1900-1918. Riga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Lācis, Visvaldis (2001) Latviešu zemes un tautas vēsture. Rīga : ASF Saules koks : Vieda.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava.


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