The Cosmopolitan City. Riga as a Global Port and International Capital of Trade (1861-1939)

Riga as a Global Trading Hub
Since the era of the Hanseatic League, Riga has been an important port within the Baltic trade network. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Riga developed into a global trade center, and its trade volume and trade connections grew exponentially.
As the ArcGIS maps below demonstrate, the number of cities with which Riga maintained trade connections increased with each decade, reaching its pinnacle in 1913. The map of Riga’s global trade in 1913 registers 854 trade connections — compared to 527 trade connections in 1883.

Increase of Maritime Exports and Imports
Between 1901 and 1905 Riga became the port with the highest sales volume in the Russian Empire, overtaking its two main rivals Saint Petersburg and Odessa. In 1913, 17.2 percent of all Russian imports and exports went through the Riga port, while only 14 percent were shipped through Saint Petersburg and 6.4 percent through Odessa.
Since the Hanseatic era, Riga had been an important port for shipping agricultural goods, such as hemp, flax, grain and timber, from its hinterland to western Europe. Yet between 1881 and 1913, Riga’s exports quadrupled. Based on the value of exports, by 1905 Riga had become the most important port in the Russian Empire. In 1913, 18.2 percent of exports left Russia through the Riga port, while in contrast only 9.6 percent of Russian exports were shipped from Saint Petersburg and 7.2 percent from Odessa.

From European to Global Center of Trade
The maps of Riga’s trade not only show an agglomeration of trade between 1883 and 1913 but also an expansion of trade connections on a global scale, reaching as far as South America and Australia. The trade with Riga’s hinterland also solidified due to a rising number of locations in the Russian Empire supplying agricultural products for export to western Europe. By the first decade of the 20th century Riga had become the main center of trade for timber products worldwide. The supplier routes stretched as far as Siberia. Due to the expansion of the Russian railway and especially the construction of Transsiberian Railway an increasing number of agricultural products from various locations of the Russian Empire, including Asia, were exported through the Riga port. After the invention of refrigerated railroad cars even perishable products like butter and eggs were exported through Riga.

The Impact of World War I
During World War I the Riga port remained closed. After the war, the rehabilitation of trade connections was slow and arduous due to political turbulences and ongoing wars in the region (Russian Civil War, Latvian War of Independence). Riga’s political future remained unclear since the Latvian government was only able to enforce independence and control of all its territory by 1920. The overall economic situation of Riga was also difficult since Riga’s entire industry had been evacuated to the Russian hinterland during the war so that it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the German army. For the 1920s, statistical evidence about trade connections is sketchy — there are no statistical records that list the locations of Riga’s trade network at the time. A comparison with the pre-war trade network is only possible after 1932.

The Riga Port in the Interwar Years
Comparing the maps of Riga’s trade connections in 1913 and 1933 it becomes obvious that a large part of trade with the Eurasian hinterland was lost as a result of political upheavals in Soviet Russia and the re-drawing of borders. In the 1930s, Riga exported primarily agricultural products from Latvia, while importing large amounts of machinery and industrial products. Even though the Latvian government concluded a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in 1927, the overall trade volume between Latvia and the Soviet Union remained low. The role of Riga changed from Russia’s main transit point of exports from all over the Russian Empire to a port which the Soviet Union used mainly for intermediary trade and for importing raw materials and industrial products. Those included the import of machinery from countries with which the Soviet Union had no trade relationship since they had not (yet) recognized the new Communist state. Riga was not able to regain its position as a major exporter of agricultural products from regions in the former Russian Empire. From a formerly export oriented port, Riga evolved into one with a larger share of imports.

Main sources:
Gernet, Bruno von: Die Entwicklung des Rigaer Handels und Verkehrs im Laufe der letzten 50 Jahre bis zum Ausbruche des Weltkrieges, Jena 1919.
Handelsstatistische Section des Rigaer Börsen-Comités (ed.): Beiträge zur Statistik des Rigaschen Handels, Jg. 1883-1913, Riga 1884-1914.
Rīgas Biržas Komitejas 1933. gada darbības pārskats, Rīga 1934.

Riga's European Trade Network
Riga’s trade in raw materials and agricultural products