18th century in Latvia

Polish-Lithuanian and Swedish reign (1562-1700)

As the soon-to-merge Poland and Lithuania conquered Latvia (1562), little did actually change “on the ground”. German nobility continued to own the land, while the ethnic Latvian majority remained peasants. Centuries of the prior Germanic rule and Lutheranism left Latvians different from Lithuanians, and so the two Baltic nations never became one, their boundary forever remaining at where the Livonia-Lithuania borderline stood at before 1562.

Former German knights pledge their allegiance to a Polish-Lithuanian king Sigismundus Augustus in 1557

After the 1562 conquest, Latvia was partitioned into several distinct territories. Latgale (Eastern Latvia) fell under a direct rule of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Supported by nobility-funded churches, Catholic faith there successfully withstood the rise of Lutheranism. The old German leaders were joined by newly arrived Polish-Lithuanian elite in the local high society.

Courland and Semigallia (Southern and Western Latvia), on the other hand, remained merely a fief of Poland-Lithuania. The immediate lords of the land were Dukes Kettlers (descendants of the final Livonian Order grand master) and their naval power was no joke. They even launched a colonial campaign in Africa and the Americas, becoming the least populous country to do so (Courland-Semigallia had merely 300 000 people at the time). Akin to the duchies of northern Germany, Courland-Semigallia was staunchly Lutheran.

Kuldiga castle of the Courland-Semigallia in 1680
Kuldiga castle of the Courland-Semigallia in 1680, modernized with ramparts for modern artillery.

Vidzeme (Northern Latvia) that included Riga, already a massive city, was the most prized possession, but it was also the one Poland-Lithuania enjoyed the shortest. Absorbed into the Commonwealth at 1581 (after a brief “free city” period) Riga and entire Vidzeme was lost to the Swedes in 1621 war. Riga then became the largest city of Sweden (surpassing Stockholm).

Battle of Salspils
Battle of Salaspils took place near Riga in 1611, becoming one of numerous Poland-Lithuania vs. Sweden skirmishes of 17th century. Salaspils was a decisive Polish-Lithuanian victory but later Swedes gained the upper hand for good.

This defeat was merely a warning to Poland-Lithuania about what was to come. In 1655, the entire Commonwealth was temporarily occupied by Russia and Sweden, with Latvia falling under the Swedish occupation. While Poland-Lithuania was liberated by 1660 (and retained Latvia save for Vidzeme), this was the beginning of the end. Not just to Poles and Lithuanians, but to Latvia‘s Germans as well: using the turmoil, foreign powers stripped Courland-Semigallia of its overseas colonies.

The upcoming 18th century would be that of waning power for both Poland-Lithuania and Sweden, both of them at mercy of strengthening Russia. And Latvia was to be once again merely one of the possessions to change hands.

Russian conquest of Latvia (1700-1860)

By 1700, a rapidly modernizing Russia sought to become the prime Eastern European great power, and Latvia was to become its window into the Baltic Sea and oceans beyond. Having defeated Sweden in the long Great Northern War (1700-1721), Russians captured Vidzeme with its all-important Riga city.

Riga suburbs in 1812
Riga suburbs in 1812. After the decline of Courland-Semigallia, wars and plagues, Riga remained the only true city in Latvia.

Russian presence became increasingly felt in the rest of Latvia as well. Courland-Semigallian dukes were bribed by Russia with opulent Baroque palaces, slowly eroding their loyalty to Poland-Lithuania. Latgale‘s Polish-speaking nobility may have been funding ever-more-lavish Catholic churches, but their countryside was swelling with Russian Old Believer refugees, who fled from prevailing discrimination in Russia.

Idyllic painting of 1840 Jelgava
Idyllic painting of 1840 Jelgava, with Russian-funded palace on the foreground.

Influence turned into conquest as Russia captured Latgale in 1775 and Courland-Semigallia in 1795. That year, most of Lithuania was annexed as well, leaving Balts without any independent nations for over a century. Latvia was now deep inside the Russian Empire.

Once again, for Latvian peasants, little has changed. The German elite still dominated the economy, even if it was stripped of its final political powers and Russian became the „political language“. Vidzeme, Courland, and Semigallia retained their German-inspired law and did not face discrimination and serfdom suffered by Lithuanians.

Riga suburbs burning in 1812
Riga suburbs set alight in 1812 by Russians, as part of their scorched earth policy against Napoleon invasion. This was one of just a few major 19th century challenges against Russian rule in East Baltic area.

Latgale, on the other hand, was annexed to Russia-proper (Vitebsk governorate) and saw a worse fate: oppressive Russian laws and further dilution of Latvian majority. It became one of the few Russia‘s lands where Jews were allowed to settle, which lead to them becoming the majority in some Latgalian towns. Moreover, Latgale stagnated educationally with merely 50% of people there becoming literate during the 19th century (that number stood at 90% in the more autonomous regions of Latvia).

Latgale was also the part of Latvia where 1862-1863 Polish-Lithuanian uprising was felt the most. As the uprising failed, the final hopes to restore the situation before Russian conquest were dashed. However, the tremendous changes in Europe were about to reach Russia and the new urban industrial era would eventually offer Latvians far more possibilities than the old times of “noble foreigners” ever did.

Recreation of rich mainly German Rigans in 1863
Recreation of rich mainly German people of Riga in 1863