Famous Latvians of Latvia

Famous Latvians: historical figures to celebrities

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.

Heroes of Latvian National Awakening

Latvian national awakening was a period of 1860-1918 was the period when long-oppressed Latvians reasserted and began to respect their own language and culture.

Latvian national awakening wouldn’t have come into fruition if not its enigmatic leaders, each of whom helped define a particular part of the Latvian nation.

Three most famous Latvian National Awakening heroes:

Left to right: Andrejs Pumpurs, Krišjānis Barons and Krišjānis Valdemārs
Left to right: Andrejs Pumpurs, Krišjānis Barons and Krišjānis Valdemārs.

Andrejs Pumpurs (1841-1902) was the author of Latvia’s national heroic epic Lāčplēsis (Bear Slayer, 1888) to whom he attributed various mythological stories. Lāčplēsis is described as an ethnic Latvian who fought against Vikings a Millennium ago, but he effectively became a kind of personification of Latvia, a reminder of the last era (before 20th century) when Latvians still enjoyed and defended their freedom. Many patriotic and pro-independence organizations were later named after Lāčplēsis; “Lāčplēsis Day” is an annual patriotic holiday.

Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923) was a collector of Latvian folk songs. His lifetime Project was huge, involved research all around Latvia. The resulting “cabinet of songs” of over 200 000 folksongs was inscribed into UNESCO “Memory of the world”. Latvian songs would later greatly influence Latvian independence movements, forming the basis of regular Song festivals. If not for Barons’s work, many of these folksongs would likely have been forgotten, as Latvia was undergoing swift urbanization; that way Latvians would not have a key pillar of their identity.

Krišjānis Valdemārs (1825-1891) was the force behind Latvian naval movement, inspiring creation of many naval schools along the Latvian coast. The mariners they prepared effectively Latvianised the crews of Latvia-stationed merchant fleets that were previously non-Latvian. Shipbuilding was also initiated. Valdemārs’s main symbollic addition to the rising Young Latvian movement was however his Luther-like thesis of public declaration at his home that claimed that Valdemārs is a Latvian. Before that all educated Latvians would have considered themselves Germans or Russians and the “outdated Latvian peasant language” was on a decline.

Latvian freedom fighters

Transforming Latvian National Awakening into independence in 1918 proved difficult, as wars of independence had to be fought against Russia. However, thanks to some famous Latvians of the era, the independence was won.

Key fighters for Latvian freedom ~1918 and their leaders:

Left to right: Jānis Čakste, Frīdrihs Briedis, Oskars Kalpaks
Left to right: Jānis Čakste, Frīdrihs Briedis, Oskars Kalpaks.

Jānis Čakste (1859-1927) was a Latvian independence activist who firstly raised the idea of independent Latvia in 1900s. After independence was achieved he became the president in 1922 and died in office in 1927.

Colonel Frīdrihs Briedis (1888-1918) was a World War I leader of Latvian Riflemen – an ethnically Latvian regiment of Russian army. After the Russian revolution he decided to oppose communism in Moscow, but was captured and executed by the regime.

Oskars Kalpaks (1882-1919) was the leader of first independent Latvian forces (1st Latvian batallion) soon after independence of Latvia was achieved. He worked in repulsing Russian reconquest attempt. While this attempt was squashed by united Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and remnant German forces, Oskars Kalpaks was killed in one of the battles.

Latvian writers and poets

Before 19th century the education in Latvia was a domain of minorities, who used German language. Therefore, the first Latvians became famous as writers merely ~150 years ago.

The best known Latvian writers generally fall into two categories. The first group of them lived in late 19th century, helping Latvians to assert their identity and self-respect (by describing ethnic Latvian life and inspiring history in their works).

Another group were made famous under the Soviet occupation. They were typically collaborators and would write praises for the regime, getting preferential treatment in return. They are still household names as they were made a mandatory reading material in schools of Soviet Latvia, and some streets are controversially still named after them.

A few Latvian writers and poets, like Rainis, managed to be popular with both independent Latvia and Soviet Union.

The most famous Latvian writers and poets:

Left to right: Rūdolfs Blaumanis, Rainis, Aspazija
Left to right: Rūdolfs Blaumanis, Rainis, Aspazija.

Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1862-1908) was a writer, scenarist and poet who concentrated on describing the Latvian village which was in his lifetime still the main living space of ethnic Latvians.

Rainis (1865-1929) is held in high esteem as a Latvian “national poet”. His patriotic and national romantic poems raised the Latvian spirits. They were not enough to give Rainis a political leadership he sought for (above the role of minister) but they were enough to grant him a role in national mythology (entire cemetery where he was buried has been named after him). Rainis’s leftist beliefs saved him from Soviet censorship, allowing him to be known even for Soviet-born generations.

Aspazija (1865-1943) was a Latvian poet and playwright, especially known as the wife of Rainis.

Eduards Veidenbaums (1867-1892) was a poet and translator, much of whose poetry has been published posthumously.

Andrejs Upītis (1877-1970) was a communist writer.

Leons Paegle (1890-1926) was a communist writer and politician.