Capital : Riga
Size: 25 000 sq m Popn: 2 632 000
Latvia was settled by nomadic tribes who migrated from the south-west after the last ice age, in about 10 000 BC. Modern Latvians are descended from Indo-European tribes, including the Latgalians, Zemgalians and Kurzemians, who settled in the Baltic in about 3000 BC, as are the closely related Livs of whom there remain a few thousand in the north of the country. Livonian, a Finno-Ugric language, has links with Finnish and Estonian.
Latvia was on the trading route from Byzantium to Scandinavia and had its own sought-after commodity in amber becoming quite prosperous by the C12th AD. The country was quite heavily influenced by the Swedes and Danes after Viking invaders arrived in the C9th and the Russians attacked in the C10th. Christianity was introduced in the C13th, and a crusade lasting almost a century began although this may have been at least partly influenced by financial and political motives. The country was conquered by the German Teutonic Order around 1230 and the Christian military state of 'Livonia' was established by the Brotherhood of the Sword. Some of the main cities, including Riga (founded 1201), were established at this period and became members of the powerful trading organization, the Hanseatic League, in the C15th.
The German landowners were established as the ruling class over the Latvian farmers and artisans. Under threat of popular revolt, the Order adopted Protestantism as the state religion, in 1554 but in 1561, the prospect of Russian rule led to the Lithuanian-Polish state gaining influence and Catholicism replaced it in some areas. The Duchy of Kurzeme, to the west of the Daugava River, remained separate until the C18th and even established colonies in Africa (the Gambia) and the Americas (Tobago) with the rule of Duke Jacob (1642-82) being the most prosperous period. This area remained Protestant, but Latgale to the east came under Lithuanian-Polish rule in the C17th and the position of Catholicism was consolidated.
Much of the fighting between Sweden and Poland for domination of the Baltic area took place on Latvian territory. In 1621, the north part, Vidzeme or Livland, and Riga came under Swedish rule until the C18th. The period is regarded favourably by the modern ethnic Latvians as their ancestors were represented in parliament, Latvian schools were established, the Bible was translated into Latvian and the first Latvian language books were printed. The Russian Tsars still wanted control of the Baltic, especially the Baltic ports which were ice-free all year round and the Nordic or Great Northern War with Sweden (1700-21) gave them control of the north Latvian provinces of Vidzeme and Riga in 1710. Livonia was officially part of the Russian empire after the Treaty of Nystadt in 1721. Peter the Great allowed the Baltic German landowners to regain privileges lost under Swedish rule and the Baltic provinces were almost self-governing.
Russia acquired Latgale after the second division of Poland in 1772 and Kurzeme after the third in 1795 to rule virtually the whole of the Baltic states. The ethnic Latvians were given no political or cultural voice under the feudal regime of the C18th but after they were allowed to enter the university of Dorpat (Tartu), in Estonia, a sense of national identity began to be established by figures such as Krisjanis Valdemars, Juris Alunans and Atis Kronvalds. A new Latvian middle class grew up to demand equality with the Germans and react against the deliberate 'russification' of the country. As industry increased, the population expanded and a group of educated people, the Young Latvians, developed a distinctively Latvian style of literature and culture.
The Latvian Social Democratic Labour Party, founded in 1904, caused a national uprising in 1905 which tried to remove both the Russians and the Germans but was put down by the Russian army. There were some concessions though, including permission to use the Latvian language again but despite being allowed representation at district government level, Latvian demands for real political power continued. During the First World War, the Germans first entered the provinces of Courland and Estonia in 1915 when much of the population was evacuated but did not break through the defence of the Daugava River and Riga until the Revolution of February 1917 weakened the Russians and the Germans occupied the whole of Estonia and Livonia by February 1918.
There were deep political divisions between the Latvians themselves so it was not until November 1918 that the coalition called the Democratic Block managed to form the Latvian National Council and declare the independence of Latvia, including Courland (German) and Latgale (Russian). Latvian territory was the main Baltic 'theatre of operations' of the German forces during 1919. The Baltic Germans had formed a force called the 'Landeswehr' which was helping the German Reich but the Soviet Russians had the support of many Russian industrial workers living in Latvia and almost all of Livonia was under communist control by January 1919 and the Latvian government of Karlis Ulmanis had to retreat to Liepaja. He was replaced by the less formidable Andrievs Niedra in the coup of April 1919 but the German Baltic troops wanted him reinstated and the Allies (Britain, France, Italy) were forced to intervene and support Baltic independence.
During the War of Liberation, Latvia managed to drive out the various occupying forces (Bolsheviks, White Russians) with the help of a Polish alliance. An armistice with Soviet Russia was signed, the last of the Baltic countries to do so, and the ethnic Latvians were finally brought together as one state. The first elections were held in April 1920, a new constitution or 'Satsverme' was passed in 1922 and a constituent assembly formed. Latvia joined the League of Nations in 1921 and managed to become quite successful economically and culturally but remained politically unstable due to the large numbers of small parties in parliament. In the 1920s, there were many ethnic divisions within the population of about 2 million, 75.5% Latvian, 12% Russian, 4.8% Jewish, 3.2% German and 2.5% Polish.
As unrest grew during the world wide economic depression of the 1920s and 30s, prime minister Karlis Ulmanis dissolved parliament and in 1936 established a totalitarian regime, with himself as president, which was widely supported. By the 1930s, the country had one of the highest living standards in Europe and the state of emergency was lifted in 1938 but there was little opposition to Ulmanis and no elections resulted. Latvia had received financial support from the German Reich during the 1920s, but anti-German feeling was very strong. Latvian became the language of government, Latvian spellings were used for placenames and personal names were changed to Latvian forms. The Baltic Germans were evacuated after the Nazi-Soviet pact was made in 1939 and settled in former Polish territories.
Despite its policy of neutrality, in June 1939 Latvia was pressurised into signing a non-aggression treaty with Germany which meant that it couldn't ask the Soviet Union for help but the Soviets threatened to use force and the neutrality was given up. The Soviets stationed troops in Liepaja and Ventspils in June 1940 and a new, pro-Russian government was set up, declaring Latvia to be a Soviet republic. Ulmanis was deported along with many of his supporters but in many cases their precise fate is not known. As about 35 000 Latvians were killed or deported, the German army was welcomed when it arrived in the summer of 1941. The Latvians were considered to be Bolsheviks by the Hitler regime and written off as a dying race. Virtually all the Latvian Jews (10 600 in Riga) were killed and many Latvian intellectuals escaped to the West. Fighting continued in the area until the total defeat of Germany in May 1945 and a resistance movement continued in the forested parts of Kurzeme until 1957. Under Stalin's rule, deportations and executions continued although the Soviet annexation of Latvia was never officially recognised by the international community.
During the 1950s, further industrial development brought large numbers of Russian immigrants who were soon to form 56% of the remaining population (a third of which had left or been killed since the start of the war). When Krushchev took over, many Latvians returned from Siberia and their own culture began to revive but further deportations took place after demands for independence in 1959. Russification polices were continued under Brezhnev and there was much persecution of ethnic Latvians.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of 'glasnost' and 'perestroika' in the 1980s, political movements began to develop and there were public demonstrations against the Soviet rule. In October 1987, the Latvian Popular Front was formed in opposition to the Communist leader Vagris. Anatolijs Gorbunov was elected president in 1988. The Latvian Communist Party severed its links with Moscow and unilateral independence, subject to a period of transition, was declared under prime minister Bresis. A multi-party system was adopted and in the first relatively free elections, which took place in the spring of 1990, the NF gained two thirds of the vote. The Soviet reaction was hostile and troops were sent to Riga in January 1991 despite civilian resistance. They were forced to retreat due to international pressure and a plebiscite in March produced a vote of 74% in favour of independence. During the coup against Soviet leader Gorbachev in August 1991, Soviet troops took control of the radio and television station in Riga. Latvia declared full independence, banning the Communist Party and the statue of Lenin was removed from Riga. The Soviet government and the Western nations recognised Latvia's independence in September and it joined the UN and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. The US embassy, closed since 1940, was re-opened by Dan Quayle, the US vice-president, and Russia began to withdraw ex-Soviet troops.
The rights of non-citizens were curbed in July 1992, leading Russia to ask for UN protection for minorities in Latvia. Latvian is once again the state language but was re-introduced gradually to give the large numbers of non-Latvian residents a chance to learn it. Schools for ethnic minorities such as Poles, Estonians, Lithuanians and Jews were established and the number of multi-cultural schools taught in Latvian is increasing. Minorities include: Livonian, Polish, Belarussian, Azerbaijani, Tatar, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, German, Georgian, Uzbek, Jewish, Armenian and Japanese.
Most people in Latvia speak Russian and many of the older ones speak German. Given names from these countries are used with some alterations to fit the Latvian language. The letter 's' is added to male names (for instance, Bils Klintons, Dzons Meidzors and Helmuts Kols) and 'a' or 'e' to female names (Margareta Tecere).
(Latvian - latviski)
|a||as in father|
|g||as in 'giraffe'|
|k||as in Scottish loch|
|n||as in 'no'|
|z||as in 'pleasure'|
|Monday - pirmdiena|
|Tuesday - otrdiena|
|Wednesday - tresdiena|
|Thursday - ceturtdiena|
|Friday - piektdiena|
|Saturday - sestdiena|
|Sunday - svetdiena|
|January - janvaris||February - februaris|
|March - marts||April - aprilis|
|May - maijs||June - junijs|
|July - julijs||August - augusts|
|September - septembris||October - oktobris|
|November - novembris||December - decembris|
[Home] [Site Map]