Tag Archives: Latvian Industry

Radiotehnika – The Latvian Radio Flagman

Radiotehnika vimpel

Radiotehnika vimpel

On October 20 1907 Aleksandrs Apsītis was born in workers family. At the age of 16 he came to work in Riga Telephone Office and practiced as telephone repairman. With his skill he then made his first radio receiver. From 1923 to 1930 he studied at Riga Craftsman School and evening technical school. At the same time on 1926 Abrāms Leibovics gained production rights for his designed radio receivers. His company was called Abrams Leibovics photo radio central. On 1928 Apsītis received request from the Ministry of Interior to construct 200 three lamp battery-powered receivers. Together with E Krasovskis he made a company called “Jauda” (Power). The 200 radio receivers were made, but because of swindlery made by Krasovskis the company was closed.

Rīgafons the first radio designed by Aleksandrs Apsītis in Abrams Leibovics radio company

Rīgafons the first radio designed by Aleksandrs Apsītis in Abrams Leibovics radio company

Then Apsītis came to work at Leibovics company to organize the production of radio receivers. He first made two lamp plugged radio receiver “RīgaFons”. It was a 1 AM circuit(s), with Magnetic loudspeaker (reed) of high quality (4 magnet poles). The model was a success and Leibovics company gained profit 10 000 Lats. Two more models were made. On 1932 Apsītis however, had disagreements with Leibovics, and he was fired.

Apsītis restarted his radio business on 1933 when he founded his radio production company “A. Apsītis un F. Žukovskis”. With help from Siemens company that gave rights for use of Telefunken made radio lamps and Siemens schematics Apsītis again produced new radio receivers. His first was Toņmiestars - the Tone Master. MW and LW radio was a success. He produced 2500-3000 receivers in a year. On 1935 he produced T420 Concert Super. It included also Shortwave. It was radio with 4-AM circuits and with superb audio quality for those days.

Concert Super radio made by Apsītis company

Concert Super radio made by Apsītis company

On 1940 there were 70 people employed in the factory. There were many other private radio companies. Not just in Riga, but also in Liepāja. On 1938 there were 29 such companies. Meanwhile the main state-owned company VEF also made series of top quality radios. However, after Latvia was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union, everything was nationalized including Apsītis company. The company was renamed as “Radiotechnika” (Radio Technics). Leibovics company was renamed to Radio Pionieris (Radio Pioneer). Soviets trusted Apsītis and made him as the executive director of the Radiotehnika company. After German invasion on 1941 Radiotehnika was united with Radio Pionieris and called “Telefunken Geratewerk Riga”.  It was run by Baltic German Blauberg. Apsītis took the technical operator office. Company only fulfilled the orders of the German military and made no new radio receivers for civilians.

On 1944 as the Soviets were approaching Germans issued order to evacuate all the equipment. Apsītis and his co-workers fooled the Germans by placing rocks and metal stuff into packs, while digging the equipment in the basement rooms. With this the work of the factory was soon restarted.

Riga T689 the first Radiotehnika produced receiver

Riga T689 the first Radiotehnika produced receiver

Soviets took over the German unified Apsītis-Leibovics company and called it Radiotehnika. Leibovics was deported by the Soviets to Siberia and died there. Apsītis was placed as the director of the new company. As 1945 it was ready to produce first radios. First radio receiver produced was Riga T-689 with LW, MW and 3 Shortwave bands. Its followup T-755 was impressive success. It was 25% cheaper than other radios and had only three bolts to hold the construction. LW, MW and SW continuous reception from 4 kHz to 12.5 kHz.   Riga B912 was first battery-powered receiver, for MW and LW bands. Riga -10 made in 1952 and Festivals on 1958 were famous tabletop receivers outside Soviet Union.

Radiotehnika Festival

Radiotehnika Festival

On 1948 Apsītis received the title of Honorable Science and Technical worker of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic that meant higher salary and other extras. However, as the company became more famous, the ruling Stalinist regime turned against him. On 1951 the company was named after Alexander S Popov the famous Russian radio builder. Apsītis was blamed for deliberate mismanagement by producing defective models. In the atmosphere of repressions against pre-war intellectuals and scientists, the local communist leaders including Vilis Lācis decided to fire him from his directors office. Soon he was arrested. He spent four months in prison and after the death of Joseph Stalin was released.

However, the four months in jail was psychologically devastating for Apsītis. He came to work as Gomprotorg factory as radio and TV repair worker. Later he went to Academy of Sciences in the Institute of Physics as the chief of sector. On 1956 he was asked to work in governmental Science and Technical committee. By his own words he made “nothing worthly” as he could not fit into new workplace. On 1958 his health made him to leave for pension. As 2th category disabled person he moved to Rauna where he built his own house. He helped the local collective farm (kolhozs) in technical repairs and made his own garden of rare trees and plants. Despite all the hardships he was not forgotten and when during the Radiotehnika anniversary celebration the chief engineer Vladimirs Martinsons called him the “father of Radiotehnika” everyone stood up and applauded. He died on September 1 1988.

The Radiotehnika company still continued to work as Riga Radio Factory named after A S Popov. On 1971 it was unified with Riga Electro Mechanical company, Kandava Radio Factory and radio constructors office Orbīta (Orbit) and named Radiotehnika. A 54,61 meter tall building was built for the factory.

Many new radio receivers were built Sakta first class lamp radio. Rigonda 102 stereo system, Simfonija Hi-Fi system, just to name the few. Surely the free market companies in the West made better quality receivers, but the production of Radiotehnika had high standard quality.  Special car radios were made also.

Hi-Fi Stereo system Melodija -101

Hi-Fi Stereo system Melodija -101

As the trend of so called transistor radios  that were a lot better than lamp radios, the Radiotehnika made the first tabletop transistor radio Ausma on 1962. Then more lighter LW and MW portable Gauja radio was made. On 1964 the Orbīta portable included SW band. But, the most known Radiotehnika portable was Selga. They were released in many variations, many of them came in special leather cases. Selga-309 was revolutionary model for it could fit in pocket and was no bigger than modern Mp3 player. Kandava factory office made Salena series radios with FM reception.

Selga-405 in black leather  case

Selga-405 in black leather case

Closer to eighties first superb receivers with cassette players were released. Special gadgets as voice recorders, walkie-talky radios. Large part of production was secretly allocated to the Soviet military needs. Most Soviet civilian factories were forced to carry out secret requests from the Soviet army. During the Soviet era the Radiotehnika was not the only one Latvian top radio producer. VEF was the largest electric products company and is well known for its VEF Spīdola transistors the first portable shortwave radio in USSR.

Riga 110 cassette player radio

Riga 110 cassette player radio

However, then great changes occurred on 1991-1992. Latvia regained its independence and the prize for this was the collapse of the Latvian radio industry. Radiotehnika and VEF descended into various privately owned companies. As the Soviet market was destroyed and there was no more requests from the Soviet army. However, Radiotehnika was not lost completely. Right now its known as VEF Radiotehnika RRR.  Its current production is acoustic systems and rated positively by experts.

Latvia was a top radio producer even before WW2 and would be so for many years if there would be no war. The Soviet technical quality was not so good comparing to western companies, but these radios were part of everyday Latvian life. With them they could hear music from the west, listen to Radio Free Europe while battling with radio jammers. Culture life despite many soviet prejudices culture in Soviet Latvia was on high level. And in a time with no internet and ipads these radios were top technical gadgets in every home. And the fact that many of them still work today says much about their quality and legacy.

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Latvian Finances and Economy 1920-1940

From 1920 to 1940 Latvia was one of the leading exporters of butter, beckon and other goods across Europe

From 1920 to 1940 Latvia was one of the leading exporters of butter, beckon and other goods across Europe

World War I did a great damage to all territory of Latvia. The War of Freedom was no less damaging and true peace only came to Latvia at August 11 1920 after peace agreement with Soviet Russia. Now Latvians had the chance of rebuilding what was lost and make whole new sovereign economy for the benefit of the Latvian people.

One of the first issues was the lack of the national currency. German Marks, Ostmarks (German currency for occupied Eastern regions during WWI), Ostrubles, Czar Rubles, Kerensky Rubles were used in same time sparking currency chaos. On March 27 1919, the Provisional Government issued directions in exchange rates. One Latvian Ruble equals 1 Ostruble, 2 German Marks, 1,5 Czar Rubles. The main source of income for the government was money emission that helped to cover the war costs and administration fees. From 18 November 1918 to 1 April 1920 37,9 millions of paper money were emitted. On 18 March 1920 the Latvian Ruble was declared single official currency in Latvia.

However, inflation was on the rise, the price of rye bread rose from 2,25-2,40 rubles 10,8-12,0 rubles. Government issued more directions to stabilize the ruble, also the preparations for establishment of new stable national currency Lats followed. On 3 August 1922 1 Latvian Lats equaled 50 Latvian Rubles, and Lats was fixed according Swiss Frank rate. On 1 November the Bank of Latvia was established. It also had commercial service rights. At 1929 there were three state banks (Bank of Latvia, State Land Bank and Latvian Mortgage Bank) and 19 private commercial banks.

Latvian governmental budget during the first years of independence had debts, until 1922/1923 for the first time had surplus that was kept until 1929/1930. The main source of income was taxes, state monopolies and gain from state enterprises. The main priorities were state security, education and capital investments. Two main state monopolies were flax and ethanol. Largest state enterprises were the bank, postal service and railroad service.

The Agricultural reform drastically changed the economic situation in the country. Before the war 53% of land belonged to 2% of landowners mostly Baltic Germans. Latvian government decided to change that by making special State Land Fund that gathered 61% of land, 45% of it agricultural. Previous landowners were stripped of their large possessions. This radical move changed the Latvian countryside in small farm economies. 54, 243 new farms were made.

New Farm building in Latvia

New Farm building in Latvia

Latvians put large efforts in agriculture. During the first years after the war Latvians had to import crops, because of low harvest and the fact that most new farms were more effective in cattle production. Also the crop prices in global market fell down as the butter prices rose up. Because of this exports of butter, beckon and eggs reached great heights. The butter industry was one of the most progressive and until 1932 one-third of all export. Latvia also exported flax and timber to whole Europe.

Before the war, Latvia was one of the main industrial centers of the Russian Empire. After German invasion, large part of equipment, even workers was evacuated to Russia and the new Bolshevik government was not wiling to give it back. After the war Latvian industry worked mostly for inland needs. Latvian government had to subsidize the struggling industry for many years. However, the foreign capital from Germany, Great Britain, Soviet Union and others helped to get back on the track.

On 1929 Latvian export rose up by 10 times, however import was still larger than export. The main importer was Germany; the main source of export was Great Britain. After trade agreement with Soviet Union in 1927 export with that country started to rise up. With other neighbors – Estonia, Lithuania and Poland the import was greater than export.

Latvian export goods ready for shipping

Latvian export goods ready for shipping

The Great Depression reached Latvia on 1930. Crisis begun with drop of wholesale prices, the drop of prices for Latvian export goods and the breakdown of Latvian state gold reserves and foreign currency reserves. On 1931 the Bank of Latvia stopped issuing credits. Many companies went bankrupt. Banks took the first hit. Latvian banks suffered from German bank troubles making them impossible to settle with their depositors. After Great Britain devaluated their currency and canceled the golden standard the Bank of Latvia lost 2,1 million Lats. Latvia unlike Estonia kept the golden standard and issued many regulations to cancel unrestricted exchange to gold or foreign currency.

 Latvia had to sign clearing agreements with France, Great Britain and Germany to ease export costs during the crisis. The Nazi rise in power on 1933 caused economic disruption between Germany and Latvia as social democrats and Jews issued a boycott of German goods. Germany answered by halting butter exports causing great financial losses. Latvian government had to back down and make the boycotting stop. Also the export with the Soviet Union weakened as the export orders from the Soviet state ended. Almost all transit now went to Germany.

As the grocery product prices since 1927 begun to drop, the traditional Latvian exports brought smaller revenues. Government tried to lower import and raise export. Grocery import was halted, as foreign crops could be replaced with homegrown ones. With exception in 1937 because of dry summer, crop import was halted along with sugar import. Latvia could fully sustain itself with its own grocery production.

Industry suffered great losses, foreign capital went away and purchasing capacity dropped. As the trade agreement with the Soviet Union ended in 1932 many large industrial companies suffered losses. However, the worst of the crisis ended in 1933 and on 1934 during last months before the coup Latvian economy was again in the upswing. The government debt had dropped from its highest point 24, 2 million Ls 1931/1932 to 7,8 million Ls in 1933/1935.

The coup in 15 May 1934 was not caused by economic reasons rather political. However, Kārlis Ulmanis made significant changes in economic system making it more centralized. He issued a corporate chamber system forming four chambers: Trade and industry chamber, Agricultural chamber, Craftsman chamber and the Chamber of Labor. Such model of economical control was popular among many European authoritarian countries. The example for all was Fascist controlled Italy.

Authoritarian government made a great deal by fixing the crucial farmers debt problem. Agricultural auctions were canceled, debt rates for farmers were lowered and payback period was extended. New law allowed state corporative revision commission to change of fire members of the corporate boards. With that the state granted itself more power to control largest enterprises.

The new economy by Kārlis Ulmanis was based on protectionism and state enterprises. A new state owned Latvian Credit Bank was formed to make credit reorganization. State took over many private companies like vehicle factory “Vairogs”. Until March 1939 there were 38 state enterprises. Latvian industry started to recover. Textile, food, metal and machine industry begun to flourish. State owned industrial company VEF produced radios, telephones, MINOX cameras and even airplanes. “Vairogs” released first private cars based on Ford models.

The presence of foreign capital significantly dropped, however the construction of the first hydroelectric station at Ķegumi involved large investments from Sweden.

On 1936 Lats was fixed to British Pounds causing partial devaluation of Lats. Devaluation caused inflation and other troubles; however at 1936 the Latvian export gross total rose up fast and import went down. The export balance was positive and things were looking up good in the late thirties. However, an influx of agricultural foreign workers in later years started to become a problem. Because of the lack of native workers, people from Lithuania and Poland came to work in Latvia. It caused social and political problems and fully emerged after Nazi-Soviet invasion in Poland.

The great advancement of the Latvian economy was stopped in 1939. As WWII started Latvia declared full neutrality. Government issued regulations in trading Latvian recourses and prohibited Latvian ships from sailing under foreign flag. Lats was removed from the British Pound rate.

As Germany blocked the access to the Baltic Sea, Latvian traders were unable to send their productions elsewhere but Germany. All major ties with Great Britain were cut. On 5 October 1939 Latvia was forced to sign Mutual Assistance agreement with Soviet Union. Few days later both sides signed trade agreement allowing Latvia to export more to the east. The secret protocols of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact included Latvia into Soviet sphere of interest. Similar agreement was later signed with Germany then a Soviet ally.

On 17 June 1940 Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union and annexed in 5 August 1940. The sovereignty of Latvian finance and economy was canceled. Germany viewed this with anger, because they needed Latvian exports. Germany and Soviet Union both had different understanding over meaning of the “sphere of interest”, and Germans did not expect the occupation and annexation of their trade partner. That was one of the reasons that lead to German –Soviet conflict.

Latvia managed to recover from WWI damage and reached growth in trade and industry. For many years Latvian state budget was balanced with surplus. However, the Great Depression did a great strain on Latvian economy. But, Latvia managed to recover from the crisis and again reached growth at 1934 just before the coup. The coup by Karlis Ulmanis did not end the crisis as it was mostly ended before him. His policy only changed the economical system not the positive course of Latvian economy. Kārlis Ulmanis semi-centralized economy was successful for some time until the hardships of WWII brought end to it. Soviet occupation, German invasion and war ultimately destroyed many achievements of independent Latvia. The complicated story of Latvian soviet economy is to be told in future.

Latvian produced private cars

Latvian produced private cars

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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.


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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