Latvia Table of Contents

Early History

Latvians have resided in their present geographical area for more than 2,000 years. Their closest ethnic relatives are the ancient Prussians, the Galinds, the Jatvings, and the Lithuanians. Only the Lithuanians have avoided extinction. All the other peoples were conquered or assimilated by their neighbors, demonstrating one of the realities of history--the ebb and flow of the creation and disappearance of nations. This aspect of history has been taken to heart by Latvians, who regularly use their experience of extinction as a tocsin of potential danger to the survival of their own group. Ironically, Latvians themselves have been in the position of having assimilated another group. The first settlers in the territory of Latvia were Livonians, or "Libiesi." Whereas the Latvians originated from the Indo-European family, the Livonians were akin to the Estonians and the Finns and formed a part of the Finno-Ugric complex of nations. The Livonians were once heavily concentrated in the northern part of Latvia's present-day provinces of Kurzeme and Vidzeme, but today only about 100 individuals retain their ancient language. Livonians have also contributed to the development of a prominent Latvian dialect.

Until about 1300, the Latvian people lived within half a dozen or so independent and culturally distinct kingdoms.This lack of unity hastened their conquest by German-led crusaders, who brought with them more efficient weaponry, war experience, and technology, including stone and mortar fortifications. During the next 600 years, various parts of the territory of Latvia were taken over by a succession of foreign regimes, including those of Denmark, Prussia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and Russia. In this maelstrom of changing rulers, the descendants of the German conquerors were able to maintain their autonomy and their title to feudal estates by adapting to new circumstances and by offering loyalty to whoever was the dominant power. These Baltic barons formed the bulk of the upper classes and set the tone of the Baltic establishment. Although their dominance over the Latvian serfs has often been justifiably criticized, their profound impact on Latvian cultural and social development can be observed even to this day.

Besides the Baltic barons and other Germans, the greatest impact on the formation of the Latvian nation came from Russia, the giant neighbor that began the conquest of Latvia in 1710 under Peter I (the Great) (r. 1682-1725) and completed the process eighty-five years later. For more than 200 years, Latvians had a unique mixture of elites. The German nobility was dominant in economic, cultural, social, and local political life, and the Russian bureaucracy was in charge of higher politics and administration. Some Latvians aspiring to higher status tried to emulate the Germans, but other Latvians thought that salvation was to be found with the Russians. Indeed, a large part of the Latvian intelligentsia was inspired by alumni of the higher educational institutes of St. Petersburg. Several prominent intellectual leaders agitated for the migration of Latvians to the interior of Russia, where free land was available. Some Latvians adopted the Orthodox faith, Russia's predominant religion.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Latvians experienced a resurgence of national consciousness. There was an intense development of Latvian culture and a new stress on the need for protecting this culture against the inroads of both Germanization and Russification. A new Latvian-oriented elite appeared and began to press for a larger input by Latvians in the determination of their own local affairs. This period is known as the first Latvian awakening.

The favorable geographical position of Latvia alongside the Baltic Sea and on the outer frontier of a vast, mostly landlocked Russian Empire provided the impetus for an extremely rapid economic development of the region. The most rapid growth occurred between 1880 and World War I. Riga became the third largest port in the Russian Empire; in 1913 its port had a larger trade turnover than St. Petersburg's. Many huge factories were constructed, attracting great masses of new workers from the Latvian countryside and from the interior of Russia.

Working-class discontent and the spread of Marxism created a volatile situation in Latvia. This radicalism was exacerbated by the shooting of seventy peaceful demonstrators in Riga in January 1905. Massive strikes by workers and the uprising of peasants with the attendant burning of feudal manor houses resulted in a very vindictive reaction by authorities, who shot some 3,000 people and sent many into exile in Siberia. Others managed to flee abroad. In 1905 almost all segments of Latvian society were united in their anger against the Russian authorities and the German barons.

This legacy of 1905, together with the disruption of World War I, when half the Latvian population was forced to evacuate ahead of the invading Germans, created propitious conditions for the growth of Marxism and especially its radical variant, Bolshevism. Of the votes for the All-Russian Constitutional Assembly from Latvians in the Russian-controlled northeastern part of Latvia, the Bolsheviks received a majority (71.9 percent). By contrast, in the entire empire less than a quarter voted for the Bolsheviks.

This infatuation with Bolshevism suffered a severe jolt, and support plummeted dramatically, during the half-year of Bolshevik rule of Latvia, which ended in May 1919. Nevertheless, a significant contingent of Latvian Red Riflemen fled to Russia, where they formed an important part of the leadership and infrastructure of the Red Army. Many Latvians also became prominent in the top hierarchy of the first Soviet political police, known as the Cheka (see Glossary), and the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). Their days of glory were cut short by the mass executions initiated by Joseph V. Stalin in the 1930s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress