Culture of Latvia

Culture of Latvia: Ethnicities, Religions and more

Culture: Introduction

Latvian Baltic culture is older than most European cultures. However, it has been greatly altered by a history of alternating Eastern (mostly Russian) and Western (mostly German) foreign domination.

The greatest divisions in the Latvia’s society are ethnic. While the historic “Westerner” (German) communities did not survive the tribulations of the 20th century, indigenous Latvians themselves have arguably became imbibed with their cultural legacy and pro-Western views. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are the “Easterners”, mostly Russians, who look eastwards and look to the Soviet past rather positively, and who are regarded with suspicion by local Latvians.

Language differences are an extension of ethnic differences, as Latvians generally speak Latvian natively, while most “Easterner” minorities speak Russian (a result of Soviet minority russification).

Latvia is especially colorful religiously, with many Christian denominations represented. Here too the main division is between “Western” denominations (German-inspired Lutheranism and Polish/Lithuanian-inspired Catholicism), which are followed by ethnic Latvians, and “Eastern” denominations (Russian Orthodoxy and Old Believe), followed by “Easterner” Russophone ethnicities. However, the largest “Eastern” influence on religion have been a great demise of its importance under the Soviet atheist regime, which left large numbers of atheists or non-practicing Christians even among ethnic Latvians.

The ratio between indigenous and Eastern populations is approximately 63%-37%, as it has rebounded from nearly 50%-50% in 1989.

Religions: Introduction

Latvia is a multidenominational Christian nation.

Lutherans are its largest community, followed by 25%-35%. It predominates in the Western and Central Latvia.

Catholicism is the faith of 20%-25% of Latvia‘s inhabitants and the prime religion of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Russian Orthodox faith (18%-22%) is mostly followed by Russophone Soviet settlers and their descendants.

Old Believers (schismatic Orthodoxes who came as refugees to Latgale ~17th century) have ~1,7% as their followers.

There are many smaller, mainly protestant Christian denominations that are all together followed by 1,5%-2,5% of Latvia‘s population.

Largest non-Christian faiths are neo-Pagan Dievturi, Jewish and Muslim (in that order) but they are each followed by just 0,01%-0,05% of total population.

Under the Soviet occupation, atheism was promoted by the state, while the religious were discriminated. This hit some communities more than others, with the Lutheran, Old Believers and Jewish share declining the most. In total, ~18% of Latvia‘s population is now irreligious.

Note that the Latvian censae do not record religion and the official statistics are based on self-reporting by religious organizations, which may use different systems to record the numbers of their followers. As such the percentages may have a big margin of error and vary among sources.

Ethnicities: Introduction

Latvia is rather neatly divided into two large groups: the indigenous Latvians, who make 62,1% percent of population, and the Russian native speakers, who make up 37,2%.

The two communities are greatly divided. They have separate political parties, cultural activities, schools, opinions about history, and much else. Latvians cherish their “miraculous independence” and indigenous culture, looking westwards politically, while many Russophones long for the Soviet Union where they had a privileged role.

After all, the majority of Russian speakers in Latvia are ethnic Russians who came as settlers during the Soviet occupation (and their descendents). In total, Russians make up 26,9% of population.

The remainder of Russophones consists of Latvia‘s other minorities which were unable to withstand the Soviet russification policies, gradually joining the Russophone „nation“. Merely 0,7% of Latvia‘s population speak some other language than Latvian or Russian at home, even though 11% of its population are neither Latvians nor Russians.

The largest among these smaller primarily Russophone ethnic minorities are Belarusians (3,3%) and Ukrainians (2,3%), both descending from the Soviet settlers. Poles (2,2%) arrived in the pre-modern era of Polish-Lithuanian influence over Latvia. Some Lithuanians (1,2%) are indigenous while others were attracted by Latvia being the center of Baltic States (especially true in the 19th century).

Several once-major Medieval minorities have been largely lost to assimilation, emigration and genocides. This includes Jews (0,3%), Germans (0,1%) and indigenous Livonians (0,02%).

Furthermore, Gypsies make up 0,3% and Estonians 0,1% of population. With the affluence of modern Latvia other (non-traditional) minorities increased to 1,3%.

All-in-all, a diagram of Latvia‘s ethnic composition over the past few centuries looks like some sad roller coaster ride (knowing that the most radical declines and inclines were made by expulsions, murders, and colonial settlement rather than voluntary decisions).

Lutherans

Lutherans is the largest faith in Latvia, followed by some 25-35% of the total population. Most Lutherans are ethnic Latvians from Central and Western Latvia.

Latvia has its own Lutheran church which consists of three dioceses (Riga, Liepāja and Daugavpils) and owns some 300 church buildings. Their interiors are rather austere (with opulence limited to altars) as the Lutheran religion accentuates faith in God and Jesus without earthly mediums.

Bauska Lutheran chruch
Old Lutheran churches such as this one in Bauska (built 1594) show both the long standing prevalence of the faith in Western Latvia as well as its austerity in decor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The church was established in 16th century when the German ruling class of Latvia converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism. Latvian peasants had to follow suit.

After 1562 Latvia was partitioned into lands ruled directly by Poland-Lithuania (Latgale) and lands ruled by German vassals, with Lutheran church remaining prevalent only in the latter.

Central square of Cēsis
Central square of Cēsis, a small town that was once the capital of German Livonian Order, is outflanked by a massive Lutheran church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still as Latvia became unified and free after World War 1, Lutheranism was the majority faith, followed by 55% of Latvia’s inhabitants in 1935. Subsequently Lutheran religion has been greatly hit by Soviet persecution with many churches were closed down and religious life precluded. As a local church it had no foreign support, except for the refugee Latvian Lutherans in the west who established a separate Latvian Lutheran church abroad.

Austere (for the era) Lutheran interior of Dubulti church in Jūrmala
Austere (for the opulent pre-WW1 era when it was built) Lutheran interior of Dubulti church in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While religious freedom returned after Latvia’s independence (1990) and the church buildings were returned, the Lutheran church has somewhat struggled to maintain its vast network of churches that had been constructed for a much more Lutheran and more religious pre-WW2 Latvia.

Catholics

Roman Catholics are the Latvia’s second largest faith, predominant in eastern Latvia (Latgale) and followed by 20-25% of total population. Its followers are Latgallians and migrants from there, some southern Latvians, as well as Latvia’s Polish and Lithuanian minorities.

The holiest place of Latvia’s Catholics is Aglona and its Basilica of the Assumption where a massive religious festival takes place every 15th of August. The sacred painting of Virgin Mary is venerated there.

Aglona Basilica
Baroque Aglona Basilica. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In general, Catholic church interiors are more popmpous than Lutheran ones as Catholic faith puts more emphasis on religious items and art.

Latvia used to be nearly all-Catholic in late Medieval era when crusading German knights converted it from paganism. Catholicism lost ground after the same German nobility adopted Lutheranism in 16th century (and Latvian peasants followed suit). In Latgale however Catholic Poles and Lithuanians had a direct rule in 16th-18th centuries, funding lavish Baroque churches such as Aglona and helping Catholicism to retain majority.

Roman Catholic church managed to survive the Soviet persecutions better than Lutherans due to its more religious nature and foreign support. The share of Catholics remained constant at ~25%. Therefore, while Lutheran adherents outnumbered Roman Catholics by 2-to-1 in 1935, today their congregations are similar in size according to many statistics.

Latvians

Latvians are Latvia‘s original inhabitants, having arrived to the location at least 4000 years ago. They speak their own Latvian language which (together with Lithuanian) is part of the Baltic Group.

Most Latvians are light-haired and genetically closest to Lithuanians, Estonians and Finns. Lutheranism is their most popular faith. The eastern fifth of Latvian nation is known as Latgalians; they follow Catholicism and speak a unique Latgalian dialect.

Key parts of Latvian culture include their songs (and regular Song Festivals), language and ice hockey (national sport).

History has not been kind to Latvians, and Latvians never had a country of their own prior to 20th century.

Instead, they just worked their lands, recognizing nobles from neighboring countries as their overlords. First to arrive were Germans (who converted Latvians into Christianity). Then came Lithuanians, Poles and Swedes (16th century) and finally the Russians (18th century). Each of these powers dominated Latvia‘s cities and high society while Latvian majority continued to toil in the fields.

A Latvian farmstead now in Riga's skansen
A Latvian farmstead now in Riga’s skansen. Well into 19th century nearly all Latvians lived in wooden villages, while cities and high culture were minority-dominated. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the 19th century however Latvians enjoyed a national awakening. More and more Latvian peasants moved into cities, becoming industrial workers, specialists, artists and businessmen. They recognized their own culture and language as no worse than either German or Russian. They had to wait until World War 1 (and the defeats of both Russia and Germany therein) to finally make the miracle and declare a free Latvia.

Līgo decorated car in Latvia
Many Latvians have their cars decorated in wreathes for Līgo (June 23rd), which is their primary ethnic festival. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The brief period of prosperous independence was a high point for the Latvian nation and culture, but the worst was still to come. In 1940 Russia (renamed Soviet Union) occupied Latvia once again and launched a Genocide. The numbers of Latvians were hit hard, never to come back up again. Perceived as no less dangerous was the mass settling of Latvian cities by Russians. By 1970s Latvians were already a minority in their own cities. They made up only 52% of Latvia‘s total population in 1989 (down from 76% in 1935). A couple more decades would have made them outnumbered by Russians in their homeland, dashing the hopes of ever being free again.

Latvian sogng festival taking place in 1931
Latvian Song festival taking place in 1931. Songs are considered the key piece of Latvian spirit and Song Festivals are regular events that unify ethnic Latvians around this heritage

But the Soviet Empire started crumbling. Under the slogan „now or never“ Latvians achieved their freedom in 1990. The challenges have not ended however: half of the urban inhabitants were Russians and they spoke no Latvian language (whereas almost every Latvian spoke Russian). To preclude a situation where Latvian culture would be sidelined by Russian even after independence, Latvians rather boldly Latvianised the public inscriptions and established strict requirements for knowledge of Latvian language. These effectively disenfranchised some Soviet settlers, making it impossible for Russians to outvote Latvians in most elections.

Latvian Legion memorial
Latvian Legion memorial in Lestene. The Legion, which fought against the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia and lost a third of its members, is regarded in positive light by many Latvians but shunned by Russophones, creating a yet another Latvian vs. non-Latvian opinion division in Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While the share of Latvians increased to 62,1% as some Russians left, Latvians continue to feel like a beleaguered nation, fearing that changing “political winds” and another rise of imperialism in Russia may subdue them once again, perhaps using Latvia‘s Soviet era minorities as a “fifth column”.

Russian Orthodox

Russian Orthodox faith is followed by 18%-22% of Latvia’s inhabitants, mostly Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities in the cities and Latgale.

Neo-Byzanthine Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga
Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russian Orthodox churches tend to be domed and have square gold colored interiors. Most of the inscriptions and events there are in Russian as nearly every Latvia’s Orthodox speaks Russian natively.

Russian Orthodox faith first gained importance in Latvia when Latvia was conquered by Russia in the 18th century. Russian settlers, soldiers and officials had churches funded for them by the state as the Orthodox church was considered a key basis of the Empire and its culture.

Russian Orthodox church in Stameriena village built in 1904 when Latvia was still under Russian rule
Russian Orthodox church in Stameriena built in 1904 when Latvia was still under Russian rule. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The numbers of Orthodox adherents swelled together with Soviet colonization of Latvia as many Russophones were sent into Latvian cities. While religious life was shunned at the time and no new churches were built, after independence the Orthodox religion rebounded as many Russophones rediscovered the faith of their forefathers.

New orthodox church constructed post-1990 in Daugavpils Soviet district
New orthodox church constructed in post-1990 Daugavpils Soviet district. All new Orthodox churches generally follow the old styles. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russians

Russians are the Latvia’s largest, most vocal and most controversial minority. In many cities Russians form ~40% of population, in Daugavpils even the majority. In villages there are few Russians, except for Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Russian Orthodox church
Iconic domed Russian Orthodox church in Stameriena. Russian Orthodoxy is the most popular faith among Latvia’s Russians. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Most of Latvia’s Russians were sent in as Soviet settlers while the country was under Soviet occupation (1940-1990). The colonization was massive indeed: the Russian population shot up from 8,8% in 1935 to 34% in 1989. Russians were generally not learning Latvian language nor customs, expecting Latvians to learn “the Russian ways”. Latvians saw this as a severe threat, understanding that independence will become impossible after Russians become the majority.

However, the Soviet Union collapsed earlier and Latvians asserted their freedom. It was believed that the largely pro-Soviet Russian minority could easily “hijack” the new country. Therefore Latvian citizenship (and voting rights) were only given to the Russians who legally came to Latvia before 1940. Soviet settlers had to learn to speak Latvian and naturalize, which most of them refused to do. Only a third did leave Latvia for good however, accepting Russian citizenship, leaving Latvia 26,9% Russian today.

Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations.
Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Therefore to this date there are 250 000 people without citizenship in Latvia, most of them Russians. With 12,5% of its inhabitants stateless Latvia is among the „world leaders“ by this criteria. The number declines however, as any children born to the stateless Russians automatically become citizens. Nevertheless, Russia would regularly blame Latvia for alleged discrimination of local Russians. Latvia replies such accusations by claiming that settling of occupied territory was illegal at the first place.

Another grievance of the local Russian community is the status of Russian language. Despite its prevalence in many cities it has no official status anywhere, with all signs Latvian only. To Latvians any official status to Russian language is seen as a danger that Russian (which is well-spoken by every Latvian raised under occupation) would replace Latvian as lingua franca.

Deleted Russian street name in Riga
All street plaques in Soviet era had to be also in Russian. After independence Russian plaques were either removed or stroken off (as in this picture). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvians and Russians have separate political parties, cultural institutions and media in Latvia. Most Russians associate themselves more with Russia than Latvia. To the dismay of Latvians they celebrate festivals such as the Soviet victory day, commemorating the moment when Soviet became the 2nd superpower of the Cold War (but also entrenched their occupation and Genocide of Latvians.

Matyoshkas for sale in Riga
Matryoshkas (traditional Russian dolls) for sale in Riga downtown for foreign tourists. To the dismay of Latvians, decades of Russian dominance in Latvia meant that many Westerners come there expecting Russian or Soviet culture. Some even incorrectly believe that Latvians are/were part of the Russian nation. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Soviet settlers are the most visible part of Latvia’s Russians, there are also older communities in Latgale (Eastern Latvia). Many of these are Old Believers whose ancestors fled Russia from 18th century religious persecutions. These Russians are mostly Latvian citizens and better integrated.

Restored entrance to Russian Imperial fortress in Daugavpils with Russian inscriptions and coat of arms.
Restored entrance to Russian Imperial fortress in Daugavpils with Russian inscriptions and coat of arms. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

 

Belarusians

Belarusians are the Latvia’s 3rd largest community (3,3% of total population).

They are little visible as a separate community, however, as they commonly share the culture and opinions with Russians. Most of Latvia’s Belarusians even speak Russian as their native language. This is true not only in Latvia but also in Belarus itself where russification has been rampant.

Most of the Latvia’s Belarusians arrived as Soviet settlers during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990) and they live in the cities.

However, as Latvia and Belarus share a boundary, there were also rural Belarusian communities in Latvia even before the occupation. In 1935, Belarusians made up 1,38% of total population (2,45% in Latgale region that borders Belarus). Belarusian population peaked at 4,5% in 1989. While some Belarusians departed after independence, the community may now have already resumed growth due to new migrants from a poorer Belarus into a richer Latvia.

Ukrainians

Ukrainians are the 4th largest community of Latvia, forming 2,2% of total population.

Ukrainians are the only large Latvia’s minority to date completely to the Soviet occupation, as there was no significant Ukrainian community in Latvia before World War 2. As Ukrainians were the second largest nation of the Soviet Union, they naturally made up a significant share of the Soviet settlers.

While many of the Ukrainians would have spoken the Ukrainian language natively at the time they came to Latvia, there were never any Ukrainian language institutions available in Soviet Latvia. Ukrainians were expected to integrate into a wider Russophone culture, which most of them did, speaking Russian to their own children. That’s why the Ukrainian minority is little visible today.

Ukrainian numbers peaked 3,5% in 1989. After independence, a third of them left Latvia. Today, however, the Ukrainian numbers are increasing again as migrants leave beleaguered Ukraine. These new Ukrainians of Latvia are often more patriotic and less Russified.

Public stands depicting the Ukrainian revolution of 2014
Public stands in Jelgava depicting the Ukrainian revolution of 2014. The fact that such stands are erected is a result of Latvian solidarity with all the nations that see the Russian threat, something that many Ukrainians began to see. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Believer

Old Believers are the Latvia’s 4th strongest faith, but with 1,7% as its adherents it falls far behind in numbers beyond the first three. It is followed by ethnic Russian communities whose forefathers arrived to Latgale fleeing persecution in Russia.

Traditional Old Believer churches are small and wooden, located in their own isolated villages. As the centuries passed, many Old Believers moved into cities, with one of the largest Old Believer churches in the world now operating in Riga.

Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery
Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Believers follow an older form of Russian Orthodoxy. After Patriarch Nikon reformed that faith in Russia in 1653, following the old rites was banned there. Subsequent persecutions caused many Old Believers to seek refuge in the neighboring countries such as Latvia.

 Old Believer village church now in Riga skansen
Old Believer village church now in Riga skansen. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Every Russian regime tended to view Old Believers as a dangerous sect and their numbers thus went down under Soviet occupation of Latvia (their population share stood at 5,49% in 1935 with 13,85% in Latgale alone).

 typical wooden and modest Old Believer church (1888) in Jēkabpils
A typical wooden and modest Old Believer church (1888) in Jēkabpils where Old Believers have settled as early as 17th century. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Poles

Making 2,2% of Latvia‘s population, Poles are the country‘s largest non-Soviet minority.

Their forefathers have arrived to Latgale in 17th-18th centuries when this area was ruled directly by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poles made up the local nobility at the time, funding nice manors and Baroque Catholic churches. To this day, Polish language masses are common in these churches and the Poles remain Catholic.

Aglona Catholic basilica
18th century Aglona Catholic basilica in Latgale, funded mainly by Poles and Polonized Lithuanians and still offering Polish mass. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some of Latvia‘s Poles may actually have mostly Lithuanian forefathers. That’s because the Lithuanian nobility effectively Polonized in 17th-18th centuries as the Polish culture was seen as the more prestigious one at the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the era.

Compared to other ethnic groups, the Polish share remained rather stable throughout the 20th century, declining from 2,8% in 1925 to 2,2% in 2011.

Their culture may have taken a bigger hit however, with many Polish families switching their native tongue to Russian during the Soviet occupation.

A monument to 1863 uprising
A Daugavpils monument to the 1863 Polish-Lithuanian uprising against czarist regime that also took place in Latgale. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

 

Minor Christian faiths

Christian denominations other than the largest four comprises of 1,5%-2,5% of Latvia’s inhabitants (if put together).

Most of these communities are a result of missionary activity in the recent century. They have been greatly damaged during the Soviet occupation when that anti-religious regime found the smallest communities to be the easiest target to destroy.

However after Latvia achieved independence (1990) these “minor” faiths blossomed more than most others as their active and devout priests promoted various “new” (for Latvia) forms of Christ following that had no reputation damage made by Soviet propaganda nor were marred by bureucracy common to larger congregations. The fact that Latvia was always a multi-denominational country may have also easened the advance of new religious minorities.

Kuldīga baptist church
A pre-war baptist church (1897) in Kuldīga town. While their faith is the largest among smaller denominations, baptist churches are still much smaller than those of the main denominations. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Most minor faiths are international, although one large faith known as New Generation was established locally and later gained followers abroad. Most of these faiths are protestant in nature. They usually meet at modest new religious buildings or at rented premises.

A post-1990 Baptist church established within and ordinary building in Daugavpils
A post-1990 Baptist church established within and ordinary building in Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The numbers of followers of each minor Christian faith in Latvia (2013):
*Baptists – 7026
*Evangelical – 4956
*Pentecostals – 4736
*Seventh-Day Adventists – 3943
*New Generation – 3020
*New Apostle Church – 1276
*Latter Day Saints (LDS, Mormons) – 838
*Jehovah Witnesses – 721
*Methodists – 502
*Salvation Army – 409
*Reformed – 80
*Anglicans – 55
*Presbyterian – 24
*Christian Science – 24

Lithuanians

Lithuanians make 1,5% of Latvia’s population.

Many of them reside in the borderland where some villages are Lithuanian-majority. As the Lithuanian-Latvian border hardly existed before 1918 when both nations were occupied by the Russian Empire, the task to delimit it in 1922 was especially difficult. While the countries peacefully agreed on the border, it still left many Latvians and even more Lithuanians “on the wrong side” as many localities were ethnically mixed.

Lithuanian soldier graves in Latvia
Graves of Lithuanian independence wars (~1920) soldiers in Červonka, Latvia. They fought beyond borders of modern-day Lithuania, also helping to drive Russian communists out of Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another part of Latvia’s Lithuanians came for opportunities in Riga. As the largest city of Baltic States it has some institutions catering to the whole Baltic region, such as the SSE Riga university and multinational companies representative offices.

The role of Latvian cities as “the metropolises for Lithuanians” was even more visible before World War 1, when Russian Empire purposefully left Lithuania as an agricultural hinterland whereas Latvia was urbanized (and suffered less discrimination). At the time Riga housed more Lithuanians than any city within Lithuania (most of them were factory workers). The gymnasiums of Jelgava and Liepaja were frequented by Lithuanian intellectuals (25% of Liepaja’s population were Lithuanians). After both nations became independent most Lithuanians repatriated. Many of the interwar Lithuania‘s key personalities and politicians had spent many years in Latvia before independence.

Jelgava gymnasium with Antanas Smetona memorial plaque
Former Jelgava gymnasium sports a memorial plaque that Antanas Smetona (the longest-serving president in Lithuanian history) studied there. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the Soviet occupation some Lithuanian political prisoners/deportees were released on condition that they would not live in Lithuania. Many of them chose to settle in Latvia.

The share of Lithuanians in Latvia has been declining fast (just as the share of Latvians in Lithuania). As the two Baltic nations are culturally similar, the assimilation is seen as less of a “change” for Latvia’s Lithuanians than for many other ethnic minorities of Latvia. In fact, even among the Latvia’s Lithuanians some half said that Latvian is their native language. Lithuanians and Latvians are also known as “brother nations”.

 

Languages

Three languages may be useful in Latvia: Latvian, Russian and English.

While Latvian is the only official language and the only one you will notice on most signs, Latvia is effectively a bilingual country, with a third of its population speaking Russian.

Map of majority languages in each Latvian region
Map of majority languages in each Latvian region.

Latvian language

Latvian is the sole official language of Latvia and the mother tongue of 62% of population (90%+ in villages and towns outside Latgale). All the public signs in Latvia are Latvian.

Historically, Latvian was threatened by its low status (19th century) and Russian migration (20th century). Sweeping National Awakenings saved the Latvian language both times, but Latvians are still protective of their tongue. After all, “Latvian language” is a key definition of Latvian nation.

Spoken by merely some 1,5 million people worldwide, Latvian is not a language many foreigners learn. However, knowing this, Latvians are especially happy when non-locals try to speak it. After all, even many Russophone locals refuse to learn Latvian.

As a Baltic tongue, Latvian has the most similarities to Lithuanian.

Russian language

The Russian language is spoken natively by some 37% of Latvia’s population, most of them in the cities and Latgale. This includes not only ethnic Russians (26,9%) but also many other minorities (Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews). The importance of Russian dates to Soviet occupation, when many settlers were moved in.

Back then, Russian was a required language to everybody, including ethnic Latvians. On the other hand, Russians were not required to learn Latvian. As such, Russian became the true lingua franca of increasingly multiethnic Latvian cities. Non-Russian Soviet immigrants, unable to get any cultural, educational or entertainment activities in their original mother tongues, relied on a massive network of Russian language institutions, adopting the Russian language as native over one or two generations.

Because of these past policies many Latvians born ~1980 and older speak Russian fluently and Russian is still the most common foreign language to know. Given the history of persecution of Latvians by Russians however, the Russian language is regarded suspiciously by ethnic Latvians. Some would refuse to speak it, others would feel insulted that a foreigner speaks Russian to them (as if he/she would regard Latvians to be Russians). The younger generations often genuinely do not speak Russian at all.

Nearly all the Soviet-era bilingual signs were removed, but tourist industry still has many materials in Russian for tourists. There is also a thriving Russian-language media, aimed at local minorities. The Soviet network of Russian schools and cultural institutions has been somewhat reduced but remains open.

English language

After independence (1990) English has replaced Russian as the most common foreign language to learn. The younger generations of ethnic Latvians usually speak English far better than Russian (and would switch to English when communicating with foreigners).

English is also very common in tourist materials. Fluency in English is a requirement for anybody wishing to work in the tourist industry.

As the “main language” of the “prestigious west” English also became popular for increasingly trademarks and songs by aspiring local bands.

Other minority languages

There are four additional minority languages spoken by some 0,5%-1% of population each: Belarusian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Polish. However, their use is mostly limited to family and a few churches. The youth of respective ethnicities often speaks Russian or Latvian even among themselves. Only in some villages of Semigallia and Latgale does Belarusian, Lithuanian and Polish still have a bigger impact.

Latgalian language / dialect

Some would classify Latgalian, spoken by some 15% of population (mostly in Latgale), to be the third most popular language of Latvia. However, others see it as a distant dialect of Latvian (which has acquired more Polish and Lithuanian (and less German) loanwords due to a separate history of Latgale). For a long time Latgalian was expected to die out in favor of either standard Latvian or Russian, but after independence restoration (1990) it became more protected. Nearly every speaker of Latgalian is fluent in Latvian, and the “fans” who create music or write literature in Latgalian mainly do so in order to preserve their culture rather than because of being unable to express themselves otherwise.

Formerly significant languages

Three other languages were once extremely important in Latvia but were since nearly eradicated by foreign occupations:

*German language was the lingua franca of Latvia’s cities well into 19th century. After all, most of them were established by Germans and long had German majorities. Old German inscriptions may still be seen on some buildings, but the German minority was destroyed during World War 2 after a long natural decline. Nevertheless, German remains popular as a second foreign language (after English) to learn due to high numbers of Germans in Europe.

*Liv / Livonian language (similar to Estonian) was once indigenous over much of Gulf of Riga coast. Wars have slowly reduced its area to some fishing villages by the 19th century, and over the 20th century it nearly died out. Independent Latvia (1990) sought to protect the language but it was too late and in 2013 the final native speaker died. Today Liv is learned by some just as a hobby.

*Yiddish language was historically the main language of Jews, who made a significant portion of the Latgale population in the 19th century when Latgale was the only place of Latvia they were allowed to freely settle. 20th-century tribulations however severely reduced the Jewish community (emigration and World War 2), while even the remaining Jews usually no longer speak Yiddish (most have switched to Russian). Yiddish thus may only be seen on some old inscriptions.

Dievturība (neo-Paganism)

Dievturība is the a Latvian faith that claims to have reconstructed a pre-Christian pagan faith of Latvia. It is the largest non-Christian faith of Latvia with some ~700 followers who are known as Dievturis (~0,035% of total).

Like other pagans Dievturis rely on tradition rather than scriptures As Latvian paganism was replaced by Christianity in 12th-13th centuries there remained no direct continuation of tradition, meaning that much of what exists now has been reconstructed.

Dievturība was established in 1925 as the newly independent Latvian nation sought to (re)discover its Latvian cultural roots to replace the ones imposed by the centuries of foreign rule. As Christianity was imposed by German conquerors this meant that it had to go as well. However, only a small minority of patriotic Latvians interested in history actually converted to Dievturība and the process never had a state support. Still, the faith continues to grow after independence.

Dievturis believe in a multitude of gods and goddesses, each of them associated with various natural forces and aspects of life. The top trinity are Dievs (primary god after whom the faith itself is named), Māra (“Mother Earth”, female counterpart of Dievs) and Laima (goddess of fertility).

Holidays and Festivals: Introduction

Most of the most celebrated Latvian holidays are Christian (Christmas, Easter). Some however also have roots in ethnic culture (Līgo).

In independent Latvia numerous days were designated as national (patriotic) holidays, commemorating both happy and sad historical events. The popularity of celebrating such days varies but many of them are days off work.

A unique Baltic holiday is the UNESCO-inscribed Song Festival that takes place every 5 years and includes many Latvians coming to Riga to sing together.

Public holidays

These are public holidays in Latvia (when the offices close down):

New Year Day – January 1st
Great Friday – Date set by Catholic tradition
Easter Sunday – Date set by Catholic tradition
Easter Monday – Date set by Catholic tradition
Labour Day – May 1st
Independence Day – May 4th
Līgo – June 23rd
St. John’s Day – June 24th
Republic Day – November 18th
New Year Eve – December 31th

Prolonged periods of rest

As many of the public holidays come one after another, this gives Latvians multiple longer periods of rest (“long weekends”):
Easter period in Spring – 4 days (Friday to Monday)
Independence day period in May – 3 days (when it falls on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday), at times may join with Labour day to provide 4 days of rest
Līgo period in June – 2 days (up to 4 if it falls next to a weekend)
Republic day period in November – 3 days (when it falls on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday)
Christmas period in December – 3 days (up to 5 if it falls next to a weekend)
New Year period in December – 2 days (up to 4 if it falls next to a weekend)

When two holiday periods come one after another with just a couple of days in between, the work during these days may also be limited as many workers would take their paid leave then in order to have prolonged holidays.

Jews

Jewish population of Latvia has burgeoned in the 19th century when the ruling Russian Empire limited Jewish settlement to just a few regions. Latgale (Eastern Latvia) was among such regions. Some of the Latgalian towns thus even became Jewish-plurality, including the region‘s hub Daugavpils. Elsewhere in Latvia, the Jewish populations were limited by Russian laws and therefore remained small.

By ~1900 Latvia‘s Jews were rapidly emigrating for more opportunities abroad (mainly in the USA). The trend has continued throughout the 20th century.

During the Nazi German occupation of Latvia (1941-1945), most of the remaining Jews were either killed or fled the country, their share declining from 4,8% in 1935 to 1,8% in 1959.

Mark Rothko art center in Daugavpils
Mark Rothko art center in Daugavpils. Born as a Jew in Latgale, he became famous in the USA as modern painter. Some of his works are now exhibited in this new museum at his hometown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the Soviet occupation, the rest of Jews have largely moved to Riga, although their population continued to decline due to emigration to Israel. This emigration reached its zenith after the 1990 independence, when Soviet migration restrictions were removed. Jews made up 0,9% of Latvia‘s population in 1989 but just 0,3% today.

Traditionally, Latvia’s Jews spoke Yiddish and professed Judaism. However, many Jews became communists and assimilated into the “Soviet nation”. Today therefore the majority of Latvia’s Jews speaks Russian natively and are atheists.

Kuldīga synagogue
A synagogue in Kuldīga town. Neglected under the Soviet rule Jewish religious heritage is repaired by modern Latvia, but lacking believers it is not used for religion anymore. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jewish faith

Jewish faith has a long history in Latvia, but it is now followed by merely 0,025% of total population.

Although Latvia has approximately 6000 ethnic Jews, only 500 are followers of the Jewish faith as most became atheist while under anti-religious Soviet regime.

Riga synagogue
Riga synagogue which (unlike most others) has survived the occupations and was not closed down by the Soviet regime. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Historically the Jewish faith was the strongest in Latgale, as it was the only place where Jews were allowed to freely settle by the Russian Empire which controlled Latvia in 18th-19th centuries. Jews also had a presence in Riga and main towns of other regions, except for Vidzeme.

Kuldīga synagogue
A synagogue in Kuldīga town. Neglected under the Soviet rule Jewish religious heritage is repaired by modern Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In addition to the adoption of atheism the Jewish religious communities also dwindled due to emigration and genocide. Very few synagogues remain open, served by a foreign rabbi. In comparison, 4,79% of Latvia’s total inhabitants followed the Jewish faith in 1935.

Kandava synagogue is now abandoned, like many small town synagogues that were not put to another use
Kandava synagogue is now abandoned, like many small town synagogues that were not put to another use. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Islam

Islam keeps a low-key in Latvia. Latvia has among the lowest population shares of Muslims in Europe (0,05%) and is among the few countries that have no mosques.

Nearly all Latvia’s Muslims (or their forefathers) came as a result of foreign pressure. First Latvia’s Muslims served in the 19th century Russian army or were its prisoners of war.

The bulk of current Muslims came as Soviet settlers during the Soviet occupation. Having came from modern-day Russia, Ukraine, Transcaucasia and Central Asia, they are mostly of Turkic stock (Tatars, Azeris, Uzbeks).

These “Soviet Muslims” are far from religious and usually assimilated into the Russophone community. Many of them became atheist (something promoted by the Soviet regime). While Latvia has some 7000 people of traditionally Muslim communities, merely several hundred still practice Islam.

After Latvian independence some new, more religious Muslims came as students from countries such as Lebanon. There were also a few illegal migrants scaling Latvia’s Eastern border.

The real game-changer however came in 2015 when Latvia gave in to European Union pressure to accept 776 illegal migrants from Middle East and Africa, most of them Muslim. As Latvia increasingly loses its sovereignty to the European Union, its ability to control its own population may grow increasingly limited and more Muslim illegal migrants may be sent from Western Europe to Latvia.