History&Today of Latvia

History, Politics and Economy of the Latvian State

History of Latvia: Introduction

Latvians are the descendants of Baltic tribes that arrived at the area ~4000 years ago, making them one of the oldest European nations in the current location. For several millennia modern-day Latvia was largely untouched by outsiders, away from the main migration and trade routes, worshiping is own gods.

However, as the rest of Europe adopted Christianity, pagan Balts increasingly became seen as an anachronism. German crusaders came to redress this ~1200, conquering Latvians and making them adopt Catholicism.

Germans remained the local overlords, establishing their theocracies such as the Livonian Order. As the entire region became Christian, these crusading statelets lost their reason to exist. With European support for crusades dwindled, Latvia was conquered by Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1562. However, even after the annexation, local Germans retained their cultural domination.

At the time Catholic Church faced new struggle from within as the Reformation movement started. Protestant ideas became popular among Latvia’s German nobility who converted to Lutheranism. Latvian peasants generally followed suit. This was the golden age for German-ruled Duchy of Courland-Semigallia, which despite the status of Polish-Lithuanian vassal was rich enough to partake in the colonization of Americas.

By the 17th century, the power of Poland-Lithuania was waning as two new regional powers were rising: Sweden and Russia. Sweden managed to capture Riga and Vidzeme (Northern Latvia) in 1621, but its greatness proved to be temporary. Russia, on the other hand, continued to dominate Eastern Europe ever since. Russians managed to conquer whole Latvia in a series of wars between 1700 and 1795.

After modern technologies belatedly reached the Russian Empire, Latvia became an industrial heartland in 1860-1914, with Riga one of the largest imperial cities. For the first time, ethnic Latvian peasants were moving to the cities in large numbers, staffing the factories. In what was known as the Latvian National Awakening some of them excelled in art, business and urban jobs, at the same time beginning to respect their own culture and language.

As the cities became Latvian-majority ~1890s the Revival leaders increasingly called for independence, believing that only then would Latvian culture be not sidelined by Russian nor German counterparts. Freedom became possible in 1918 when both Russia and Germany lost World War 1.

Two decades of prosperous independence followed where Latvians achieved their place among European nations. However, Russia and Germany were back in World War 2 (1940), both occupying Latvia and perpetrating genocides. The Soviet Union won the war and stayed until 1990. The occupation severely altered Latvia’s demography and held its economy decades behind the West.

In 1990 Latvians declared independence and the Soviet Union collapsed soon after. Latvia has since looked westwards to ensure its defense from any new Russian attacks.

State symbols of Latvia

Latvian flag

Latvian flag is the best-known symbol of Latvia. It is considered one of the oldest flags in the world, as it has been described as early as 1271 in Livonian Chronicle as a battle flag used by local tribes. That said, with Latvian independent state extinguished for centuries, the flag was forgotten and not used. It was only rediscovered and readopted in the 19th century when Latvian National Awakening took place and intellectuals searched for symbols that could epitomize the nation. After Latvia became independent in 1918 there was no question anymore on what flag should be used, and it remained in use ever since.

Flag of Latvia
Flag of Latvia.

Latvian coat of arms and heraldry

As Latvians had no medieval states, they also lack a historic coat of arms. A new one was thus devised soon after independence, following the European heraldic tradition. The coat of arms united many earlier patriotic symbols that are also still used on their own sometimes.

Three stars above the coat of arms represent the unity of Latvia, each star standing for a region that had a separate history of the 1621-1918 era but was unified into Latvia afterward. The three regions are:
*Vidzeme (Polish-Lithuanian rule 1581-1621, Swedish rule 1621-1721, semi-autonomous Russian rule 1721-1918)
*Latgale (direct Polish-Lithuanian rule 1561-1775, direct Russian rule 1775-1918)
*CourlandSemigallia (fief of Poland-Lithuania 1561-1795, semi-autonomous Russian rule 1795-1918)

Largest (left) and smallest (right) versions of the Latvian coat of arms
Largest (left) and smallest (right) versions of the Latvian coat of arms.

Unlike Latvia as a whole, the separate regions have historic heraldry, now also appearing on the national coat of arms: the lion represents Courland-Semigallia while the griffin represents Vidzeme.

The rising sun was the symbol of World War 1 Latvian riflemen regiment within the Russian Imperial forces. As the independence was achieved during World War 1, memories of the battles were still potent enough to warrant its inclusion.

The coat of arms has multiple versions (from smaller to largest), and the larger versions also include a flag-colored ribbon and oak leafs (national tree) under the shield.

National anthem of Latvia

Latvian national anthem is a hymn “Dievs, svētī Latviju!” (“God Bless Latvia”) by Kārlis Baumanis.

Dievs, svētī Latviju!
by Kārlis BaumanisDievs, svētī Latviju!
Mūs’ dārgo tēviju
Svētī jel Latviju
Ak, svētī jel to! (repeat)Kur latvju meitas zied
Kur latvju dēli dzied
Laid mums tur laimē diet
Mūs’ Latvijā! (repeat)
God bless Latvia
English translation ©Augustinas Žemaitis.God Bless Latvia!
Our dear Fatherland
Bless Latvia
Oh, bless it!Where the Latvian daughters are pretty
Where the Latvian sons are strong
Let us dance there out of joy
Within our Latvia!

As the hymn was composed while Latvia was deep under Russian Imperial rule, word “Baltic [sea coast]” was used to be sung instead of Latvia, that way avoiding a ban on the song.

Other symbols of Latvia

Freedom Monument of Riga itself is a potent symbol, both as a place for key national festivals and as an embodiment of Latvia. The fact that it was one of the very few Latvian monuments not to be demolished by the Soviets likely increased its importance to the national psyche. Three stars symbol forms part of the composition.

Freedom monument in Riga
Freedom monument in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Swastika has been used extensively in Latvia since prehistoric times. It was prevalent in pre-WW2 Latvian symbolism, often associated with Latvian folk culture. Banned by the Soviet Union together with all the patriotic symbols, swastika saw just a limited return after independence, as non-locals often mistakenly associate it with Nazism. Many Latvians believe that “swastika should be reclaimed” but to avoid misunderstandings they sometimes use more stylized forms of the symbol today.

Swasticas adorning the Barons's collection of 'Latvian folk songs' (published in 1920s), a work inscribed by UNESCO into its 'Memory of the world' list
Swastikas adorning the Barons’s collection of ‘Latvian folk songs’ (published in the 1920s), a work inscribed by UNESCO into its ‘Memory of the world’ list. Image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other things and practices held as “national” by significant parts of society (none of these – except for language – are enshrined in law so it is purely traditional):

National bird: White wagtail
National tree: Oak and linden
National flower: Daisy
National insect: Ladybird
National language: Latvian
National religion: Christianity (Lutheranism and Catholicism)
National sport: Ice hockey
National alcoholic beverage: Riga’s Balsams
National “mineral” (jewelry): Amber

Latvian folk costume is used today mainly when singing folk songs, but it is nevertheless a potent national symbol.

Famous Latvians

The Latvian nation is not big enough to have many worldwide celebrities or people who influenced the world.

However, in Latvia itself, there are numerous well-known historical figures.

Among the best known are the 19th-century people who led the Latvian National Awakening. This is understandable: without their work Latvian nation would perhaps be already assimilated.

The work they have begun was safeguarded by Latvian freedom fighters and politicians who led the nation into independence.

As the nation was reborn, numerous Latvian writers and poets surfaced who would be writing in Latvian. Some of them became key pillars for Latvian nation and its independence, others have collaborated with various occupational authorities.

Before the 19th century, Latvians were mostly uneducated peasants and lacked any influence. The Latvian language was also nearly unused outside the family sphere. As such, it is difficult to classify the pre-19th-century figures as Latvians. Even if they were born in Latvia, most of them were of foreign origin, especially German.

Politics of Latvia

Latvia is a democratic republican country. President is the head of state, but he holds few real powers. The main power is vested in the unicameral parliament Saeima (100 members), which also elects the Latvian government.

Administratively, Latvia is divided into 110 municipalities (that cover town and rural areas) and 9 republican cities. The municipalities range from 1 300 to 40 000 in population, while the republican cities range from 25 000 to 650 000. Each of the administrative units has its own elected council but since Latvia is a unitary country (non-federal) their powers are limited to local affairs.

Political parties in Latvia

Latvian political life is largely divided among the “Latvian” and “Russian” party blocks. While a person may often change his vote among the parties within the block, few people of Latvia would switch between these blocks.

Latvian parties greatly value the local Latvian traditions and history. Their primary goal is to safeguard them. Often, alignment to the West is seen as the main mean of ensuring this goal as Russian invasions and occupations have typically been the most destructive to the Latvians and their culture so far. The most pro-Latvian party is the National Alliance, while the somewhat more popular Greens/Farmers and (even more so) Unity are more prone for compromises. Their inspirations include Latvian nationalism, free market economy, modern Western values.

On the contrary, Russian parties prefer alignment to Russia. They often campaign for an increased role of the Russian language. They regard the Soviet occupation positively or neutrally. Typically, the Russian parties are also more leftist economically than their Latvian counterparts. Their inspirations include Russian Nationalism, Socialism.

Such difference is rooted in the different experience of the party supporters. While the Latvians (who vote for the Latvian parties) suffered a genocide under the leftist Soviet occupational regime, the Russians enjoyed a privileged status which elevated their minority language and culture above that of the majority Latvian. In fact, it was the Soviet policies that encouraged Russophone voters to move into Latvia in the first place. Understandably, such a minority-rule situation could not be expected to return democratically, so the Russian parties typically campaign for some smaller “concessions” instead, effectively turning Latvia from a Latvian state into a “multiethnic” state.

Historically, pan-Latvian coalitions preclude Russian parties from entering governing coalitions. However, while the Russian share in Latvia has been declining after the independence, the share of citizens did not decline as the generation of Russians who spoke no Latvian and thus failed to get citizenship is replaced by a new generation of born-in-Latvia Russians who are citizens. This meant that the influence of the Russian parties grew somewhat, even gaining the rule in Riga.

In a sense, “conservatism” is applicable both to the Latvian and Russian parties. However, these are different conservatisms: while the Latvian parties seek to continue and restore the pre-occupation (pre-1940s) culture, Russian parties seek to continue the 1940s-1990s situation.