Indigenous people in Latvia


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”.