Ethnicities of Latvia

Ethnic Groups in Latvia: Majority and Minorities

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).

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”.

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.

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.

 

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”.

 

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.

Germans

Many of the prettiest buildings in Latvia have been conceived or funded by ethnic Germans: the palaces, the castles, the churches… Having came to Christianize the land Germans amassed immense power, becoming the lords of the land.

Remains of Bauska castle
Remains of Bauska castle, built by German crusaders in 15th century. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Germans lost sovereignty over Latvia in the 16th century, even under the subsequent alternating Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish and Russian regimes they remained the elite, controlling Latvia’s lands and businesses. They were known as “Baltic barons” and still made up 6,2% of population in 1897.

Urbanization and enlightenment of the Latvian peasantry ~1900 broke the German monopoly on leadership and culture. After Latvian independence (1918) emigration and lower birth rates made German share decline to 3,2% by 1935.

Fraktur script in Kuldīga
Restored German Fraktur sign in Kuldīga. This script was well-visible in Latvian cities well into 20th century. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

But the complete end to the Latvia’s German community came with World War 2 and the subsequent Soviet Genocide, which all but destroyed the German community. Germans had to flee the land that was their home for centuries, those who couldn’t or didn’t were murdered. Much of the remaining cultural heritage in Latvia was destroyed. Since then Germans make up merely 0,1% of Latvia‘s population.

Historically Germans were primarily concentrated in southern and western Latvia (Semigallia and Courland) as well as Riga. Well into the 20th century they made 25%-50% of population in many towns and cities there. Beyond the city limits however there were very few Germans.

Rundale palace of dukes of Couralnd and Semigallia
Rundale palace of German dukes of Couralnd and Semigallia (18th century) is arguably the prettiest building in Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Gypsies (Romani people)

Gypsies are a traditionally nomadic community originating in Medieval India. In Latvia, however, they have settled down long ago and have no villages nor camps.

Throughout the 20th century Gypsies was an extremely rapidly growing community due to high fertility rates: Gypsies would often marry in their teens and have many kids. In 1935 there were 3839 Gypsies in Latvia (0,2% of total), increasing to 5427 by 1970 and 8205 by 2000 (0,35%).

After Latvia joined European Union and free migration was permitted, many Gypsies left for the richer states of the West.

Largest communities of Gypsies exist in Riga and Ventspils, each having ~900 people. In Ventspils, Gypsies make the biggest impact as they have a population share of 2,1%.

Estonians

Estonians and Latvians are neighboring but extremely different nations. Estonians speak a non-Baltic and non-Indo-European language, more similar to Finnish.

Despite such differences, Estonia and Latvia were ruled by the same powers for centuries and before 1918 there was never any official border between the two countries.

Border delimitation was difficult and at heart of these difficulties laid the Walk city. Populated by both Latvians and Estonians, it was partitioned in two: Estonian Valga and Latvian Valka. Despite such careful considerations and radical measures, thousands of Latvians and Estonians remained on the “wrong sides of the border”. Latvia had some 7000 Estonians in 1935, or 0,4% of population.

A map of Valka/Valga city with Estonian/Latvian boundary crossing in the middle
A map of Valka/Valga city with Estonian/Latvian boundary crossing in the middle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Throughout the 20th century, however, the numbers of Estonians were on a constant decline, both due to assimilation and migration to Estonia. There were 4334 Estonians in 1970 (0,2%) and only 2652 in 2000 (0,1%).

Recently though the numbers of Estonians may have somewhat risen again, as Riga reasserted its role as the capital of the Baltics and European Union removed migration restrictions.

Livonians (Livs)

Livonians are the dying-out indigenous inhabitants of Latvian coastlines.

In Medieval era they were a significant community with entire region consisting of today’s Latvia and Estonia named “Livonia”.

While a larger Latvian nation was able to retain its culture despite centuries of foreign persecution, a smaller Livonian community have been much less successful at this. 13th century defeats against crusading knights sent them on a long continuous decline and assimilation, reducing their areas to several fishermen villages in Courland (“the Liv Coast“) over the centuries.

Liv farmstead in Latvian ethnographic museum in Riga
Liv farmstead moved from their shoreline to Latvian ethnographic museum in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Since 1990s Latvian independence there have been considerable government attempts at saving the community. The Livonian minority has been protected by discouraging non-Livonian settlement in the Livonian homeland and adding Livonian to some school curriculum.

It may have been too late however, as the last native speaker of Livonian language died in 2013. Still, approximately 250 Latvia‘s inhabittants (0,01%) claim to be Livonians. In comparison, 1925 census still enumerated 1268 Livs (0,1% of population). However, some of the remaining self-described Livs attempt to learn the language (which is more similar to Estonian than Latvian) and culture from scratch. The interest rebounded after historic lows during the Soviet occupation, when merely 48 people claimed Liv ethnicity during 1970 census.

Liv community house in Mazribe, one of historic Liv villages, opened in 1938, is one of the few remaining Liv institutions
Liv community house in Mazribe (a historically Liv village), opened in 1938, is among the the few remaining Liv institutions. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.