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 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 Latvian censae does 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: indigenous Latvians who make 62,1% percent of population and 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 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 are Latvia‘s other minorities which were unable to withstand the Soviet russification policies, gradually joining the Russophone „nation“. Only 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 ethnic primarily Russophone minorities are Belarusians (3,3%) and Ukrainians (2,3%), both descending from Soviet settlers. Poles (2,2%) arrived in 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).

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.

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.

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 inbetween, the work during these days may also be limited as many workers would take their paid leave then in order to have prolonged holidays.