Latvia Table of Contents

Latvia's population has been multiethnic for centuries. In 1897 the first official census in this area indicated that Latvians formed 68.3 percent of the total population of 1.93 million; Russians accounted for 12.0 percent, Jews for 7.4 percent, Germans for 6.2 percent, and Poles for 3.4 percent. The remainder were Lithuanians, Estonians, Gypsies, and various other nationalities.

World War I and the emergence of an independent Latvia led to shifts in ethnic composition. By 1935, when the total population was about 1.9 million, the proportion of Latvians had increased to 77.0 percent of the population, and the percentages for all other groups had decreased. In spite of heavy war casualties and the exodus of many Latvians to Russia, in absolute terms the number of Latvians had grown by 155,000 from 1897 to 1935, marking the highest historical level of Latvian presence in the republic. Other groups, however, declined, mostly as a result of emigration. The largest change occurred among Germans (from 121,000 to 62,100) and Jews (from 142,000 to 93,400). During World War II, most Germans in Latvia were forced by Adolf Hitler's government to leave for Germany as a result of the expected occupation of Latvia by Stalin's troops. The Jews suffered the greatest tragedy, however, when between 70,000 and 80,000 of them were executed by the Nazi occupation forces between 1941 and 1944. Latvians also suffered population losses during this period as a result of deportations, executions, and the flight of refugees to the West. By 1959 there were 169,100 fewer Latvians in absolute terms than in 1935, in spite of the accumulated natural increase of twenty-four years and the return of many Latvians from other parts of the Soviet Union after 1945.

The balance of ethnic groups in 1959 reflected the vagaries of war and the interests of the occupying power. The Latvian share of the population had decreased to 62.0 percent, but that of the Russians had jumped from 8.8 percent to 26.6 percent. The other Slavic groups--Belorussians, Ukrainians, and Poles--together accounted for 7.2 percent, and the Jews formed 1.7 percent. Indeed, one of the greatest concerns Latvians had during the almost half-century under Soviet rule was the immigration of hundreds of non-Latvians, which drastically changed the ethnic complexion of the republic. Even more, with each successive census Latvians saw their share of the population diminish, from 56.8 percent in 1970 to 54.0 percent in 1979 and to 52.0 percent in 1989. With each year, a net average of 11,000 to 15,000 non-Latvian settlers came to the republic, and such migration accounted for close to 60 percent of the annual population growth. The newcomers were generally younger, and hence their higher rates of natural increase helped to diminish the Latvian proportion even more.

The threat of becoming a minority in their own land was one of the most important elements animating the forces of political rebirth. There was a widespread feeling that once Latvians lost their majority status, they would be on the road to extinction. During the period of the national awakening in the late 1980s, this sentiment produced a pervasive mood of intense anxiety, perhaps best expressed by the popular slogan "Now or Never." It also came across very bluntly in "The Latvian Nation and the Genocide of Immigration," the title of a paper prepared by an official of the Popular Front of Latvia in 1990. By then, largely as a result of the great influx of new settlers encouraged by Soviet authorities, Latvians were a minority in six of the largest cities in Latvia. Even in the capital city of Riga, Latvians had shrunk to only about a third of the population. Thus, they were forced to adapt to a Russian-speaking majority, with all of its attendant cultural and social patterns. There was not a single city district in Riga where Latvians could hope to transact business using only Latvian. This predominantly Russian atmosphere has proved difficult to change, in spite of the formal declaration of Latvian independence and the passing of several Latvianization laws.

Even in the countryside of certain regions, Latvians are under cultural and linguistic stress from their unilingual neighbors. The most multinational area outside of cities can be found in the province of Latgale in the southeastern part of Latvia. There the Daugavpils district (excluding the city) in 1989 was 35.9 percent Latvian, Kraslava district 43.1 percent, Rezekne district (excluding the city) 53.3 percent, and Ludza district 53.4 percent. For several decades, Latvians in these districts were forced to attend Russian-language schools because of the dearth or absence of Latvian schools. Not surprisingly, during the Soviet period there was a process of assimilation to the Russian-language group. With the advent of independence, Latgale has become a focal point for official and unofficial programs of Latvianization, which include the opening of new Latvian schools, the printing of new Latvian local newspapers, and the opening of a Latvian television station for Latgalians. A major thrust in Latvianization is also provided by the resurgent Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.

Most Latvians themselves are not aware that by 1989 they had become a minority of the population in the usually most active age-group of twenty to forty-four. In the age category of thirty-five to thirty-nine, Latvians were down to 43.0 percent of the total. The period spanning the years from the late teens to middle age usually provides the most important pool of people for innovation and entrepreneurship. The relatively low Latvian demographic presence in this group could partly account for the much smaller visibility of Latvians in the privatization and business entrepreneurship process within the republic.

Population Changes since Independence

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Latvia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress