History of Latvia

History of Latvia: Complete, Yet Brief

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 a 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 the German-ruled Duchy of Courland-Semigallia, which despite the status of Polish-Lithuanian vassal, was rich enough to partake in the colonization of the 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 the 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 as 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 sidelined by neither its 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.

German crusader states (until 1561)

For several millennia the Baltic tribes such as Latvians lived away from the major European conflicts and migrations. They would own wooden castles and sometimes fight each other, but had little relations with the world beyond them.

Reconstructed prehistoric Latvian village on a lake (10th century AD).
Reconstructed prehistoric Latvian village (10th century AD). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That changed by 1100s. Scandinavia was converted to Christianity and Balts thus remained the final major heathens of Europe. German elite was keen to change this, sending missionaries and monks to the Baltic lands. Some of them established cities and asserted political power. As the Crusades in the Middle East were defeated, thousands of German knights also moved to the Baltic lands hoping to at least expand Christianity there. They established Livonian Order (1204) which gradually consolidated vast swatches of modern-day Latvia throughout the 13th century.

Mythical Latvian hero Lāčplēsis and a German knight.
Two faces of Medieval Latvia: the mythical Latvian hero Lāčplēsis and a German knight.

Other Latvian areas fell under the rule of various German bishops who enjoyed secular powers in addition to the usual religious ones (the greatest bishopric was located in Riga). Latvia was officially named „Land of Virgin Mary“, fitting its numerous theocracies. Latvian peasants gave in, becoming Christians. They continued to work their land and pay taxes to the new overlords who sawn their lands with formidable brick castles and cities of size and modernity they never witnessed before.

13th century crusader castle in Daugavpils.

The twisted boundaries between the Order and bishoprics would sometimes lead into conflicts between the two powers, but the new primary “conquest goal” of these military-religious statelets lied further south. Southern Baltic tribes refused to Christianise, establishing a powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania that successfully resisted Crusader onslaughts.

Battle of Durbe by V. Norkus
Battle of Durbe (southwest Latvia), 1260. Lithuanian-led tribes here defeated the Crusaders, stopping their southward advance. Painting by V. Norkus.

After two centuries of war Lithuania Christianised but the Order, too used to live off military bounty in the seemingly endless crusade, refused to leave. However, a series of defeats (not even stemmed by a Order-Bishoprics unification at 1435) would sink the Order into oblivion. All the German states of modern-day Latvia have been conquered by their arch-enemies Lithuanians (allied with Poles) by 1562. The Orders had secularized and converted into Lutheranism shortly beforehand, making Lutheranism the Latvia’s major faith ever since.

Riga in later 16th century
Riga in later 16th century.

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

Latvian national awakening (1860-1918)

Modern technologies reached Russia several decades late, but Latvia became one of Russia‘s industrial heartlands. Riga was connected to rail network by 1860s, starting its exponential growth. ~1870s rail reached Liepāja, expanding its port and allowing the construction of a city-sized Russian naval base in 1890.

Port of Riga in 1910
Port of Riga in 1900, adorned by large new buildings, instrumental at exporting the products of Rigan industry

More and more Latvians left their farms for cities. Many worked in the industries, others sought for education. Lifestyles changed: birth rates declined, long work hours outside family became common. But the real game-changer was the conclusion reached by the newly-urban Latvians that their own culture was in no ways inferior to German or Russian ones (and, in fact, it has many unexplored bright sides). The great Latvian National Awakening followed, epitomized in regular Song Festivals where the songs recently considered appropriate only for uneducated peasantry now resounded over Latvia’s cities.

Workers of Riga Union factory
Workers of Riga Union factory (all males, some of them in mid-teens) posing for a photo in 1906

High culture, for centuries a privilege of some ethnic minorities, now became accessible to everybody. The rise of majority Latvian culture was overwhelming, as educated Latvians researched their history and shared their findings. While the great art nouveau edifices of ~1910 Riga were still paid for by German elite, many architects were Latvians, incorporating Latvian mythology and traditions into the designs. Latvian cities influenced far beyond Latvia, attracting students and workers from agricultural Lithuania as well as Poland. Riga was among the 5 largest cities of the Russian Empire.

Latvian peasants celebrating Līgo ethnic holiday
Latvian peasants celebrating Līgo ethnic holiday (1910). For long looked down as superstitious vilage tradition, ethnic festivals were transformed into nation-wide craze by the Awakening.

As Latvian spirits were rising, the Russian Empire was shackled by economic setbacks and lost wars. In the revolutionary turmoil of the early 20th century, Latvian intellectuals dared to voice the idea of freedom and majority rule. After both Russia and Germany were defeated in World War 1, Latvians declared independence for the first time in history.

Koknese Palace
German nobility Koknese palace (Kokenhusen), built in 1894, destroyed in World War 1.

Independent interwar Latvia (1918-1940)

1918 declaration of Latvian independence sparkled foreign invasions aimed to extinguish the new state. In the period between 1918 and 1920, Riga suffered alternating Russian communist, Russian monarchist, and German occupations. However, Germans and Russians were both weakened by World War 1 and, having joined their forces together, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians routed out the invaders in their Wars of Independence.

Delimitation of Latvian-Soviet border
Delimitation of Latvian border with Soviet Russia in 1920 marked the successful defense of independence.

Two decades of prosperous Latvian freedom followed. Riga was now a political capital, named „Paris of the Baltics“ for its beauty. The massive population growth had ceased as many non-Latvians left to build their own homelands, so the mission of Latvian governments was to transform past growth into an enduring prosperity.

Construction of Ķegums hydroelectric plant in 1937
Construction of Ķegums hydroelectric plant in 1937 which harnessed Daugava to provide Latvians with enough electricity.

They were mostly successful. New major developments brought Western European joys to Latvia (Ķemeri spa, Ķegums power plant) and paid the belated official respect to Latvian culture (Riga soldiers cemetery, Riga Skansen). Industry flourished, manufacturing even cars and airplanes. It seemed that Latvian history reached its happy end. But nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Ķemeri spa soon after it had been constructed in 1938.

During the 1930s, much of Europe saw democracies overthrown by dictatorships. While the Latvian authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis that began in 1933 was relatively benign, much more oppressive systems evolved in the Soviet Union (communist) and Germany (national socialist). Both regimes sought to redraw the map of Eastern Europe and independent Latvia had no place in their schemes. Soviet-German Ribentropp-Molotov pact „ceded“ Latvia to the Soviets, and they swiftly occupied the nation in 1940.

Riga city hall project, 1939
Riga city hall, one of the many interwar projects meant to give Riga that feeling of ‘seat of power’ was one of many cancelled by the Soviet occupation.

The occupation of Latvia (1940-1990)

The brutality of First Soviet occupation (1940-1941) was such that it has been named the „Year of Terror“. All Latvian property was nationalized. Some 35000 were arrested, murdered or expelled to inhospitably cold Siberia – most never to return. 1% of all Latvians (15000) were expelled to their deaths in Siberia in a single night of June 14, 1941, alone.

Victims of the Soviet genocide in Latvia
Victims of the Soviet ‘Year of Terror’ in Valmiera. Most Latvians were tortured before being murdered, by means such as gouging their eyes or burning the face.

So terrible was the Soviet occupation that many Latvians welcomed the new occupation by Nazi German forces in 1941 as a relief. Not the Jews, however, who were the new target set by Nazi Germany (over 50000 were killed, expelled or fled).

Salaspils prison camp
A drawing of Salaspils prison camp for Soviet POWs, established by Nazi Germany and built by Jewish forced labor.

Despite the effort of both Germans and Latvian Legion to stop them, in 1944-1945 Soviets had reconquered Latvia and their Stalinist terrors have returned (additional 150000 people were murdered or expelled). Not wishing to wait for their deaths, some 120000 Latvians fled westwards just before Soviet reoccupation, eventually taking refuge in America and Australia. Others launched a failed guerilla war in Latvian forests (1944-1956).

Soldiers of the Latvian legion
Soldiers of Latvian Legion fight to prevent Soviet re-occupation in 1943. While nominally a part of German army, this regiment did not participate in any war crimes.

While Soviet murders became more tamed by the late 1950s (after Stalin died), the mass settling of Latvia was the new danger to the survival of Latvian nation. Tens of thousands new ethnically-Russian Soviet settlers would be encouraged to move to Latvia every year. By the 1970s already, the main Latvian cities were Russian-majority. By 1989, merely 52% of country’s inhabitants were ethnic Latvians (44% in the cities, 37% in Riga).

People squeezing into Riga trams in 1950s
People squeezing into Riga’s trams in the 1950s. Throughout the Soviet occupation cars remained a luxury and most had to rely on unbelievably crammed public transportation instead.

Latvians were taught Russian in schools but Russians would not learn Latvian, seeing Russian language and culture as more important and “international”. This meant ethnic Latvians were finding increasingly little use for their own language in their own homeland as most public events would now be in Russian. Additionally, religions and religious traditions were heavily repressed.

Concrete slab building in Riga with Soviet propaganda
A 1970s Soviet building in Riga with Soviet propaganda poster that was typical then, declaring (in Russian only): ‘Wherever there is [Communist] party, there is progress, there is victory’.
While the Soviet oppressiveness and discrimination surely made the occupation even more hated by Latvians, it was the economic backwardness of the Soviet Union that initiated its final collapse. Supposedly egalitarian (as most people earned similar wages), the Soviet system actually had a person’s social standing determined by what “relationships” with important people he or she had. People would commonly steal goods from their workplaces in order to exchange them in the black market or to give them to friends; “important people” were the ones having “access” (direct or indirect) to the “best” goods and services. Working hard was not rewarded at all, leading to hopeless productivity levels, which dragged Soviet (and thus Latvian) economy decades behind the West.

Corn harvest in 1955
Corn harvest in 1955. Mandatory planting of corn (inapplicable to the cold Latvian climate) was one of Soviet centrally-planned economic failures which ravaged the agriculture.

On the geopolitical scale, Soviets still sought to compete with USA (“Cold War”) but that was possible only through allocating a greater and greater share of resources to the military, making shortages of civilian goods even acuter (for people without “relationships”). Understanding that he is losing the Cold War, Soviet leader Gorbachev declared a policy of perestroika and glasnost, or the transformation to democracy and capitalism. In a couple of years, the democratic People’s Front movement in Latvia became brave enough to demand freedom. Soviet reprisals were no longer able to stop the masses as similar calls resounded all over Union’s non-Russian lands.

Baltic Way in Latvia (1989)
Baltic way (1989), one of the largest protests in the world history. It was a 600 km long human chain of 2 million people, connecting Latvia to Lithuania and Estonia, demonstrating the unity of Baltic States

Independent modern Latvia (1990 and beyond)

On 1990 Latvia declared independence from the Soviet Union together with the two other Baltic States. By 1991 the democratic and capitalist Latvia was widely recognized by foreign powers. The final Russian forces departed in 1995.

Demolition of a 16 floor tall Soviet military radar in Skrunda-2
Demolition of 16-floor-tall Soviet Skrunda-2 military radar (1995), completing a major goal in asserting full Latvian independence.

Political independence was, however, merely the first step. Cultural independence had to follow: with 46% of its inhabitants and the majority of its urban population being Russophone, Latvians could have been easily outvoted and assimilated by the Russians even after independence. The key issue was that while Latvians spoke Russian, Russians generally did not speak Latvian, meaning that Russian was usually the only possible language for interethnic communication. As most of the communication in Latvian cities was interethnic, this would have left the Latvian language awfully little usage outside of the family, possibly sending it into extinction.

Pope John Paul II visits Latvia's Catholic minority in their holiest shrine at Aglona, 1993
Pope John Paul II visits Latvia’s Catholic minority in their holiest shrine at Aglona, 1993. Unimaginable just 5 years ago the visit marked a tremendous shift from Soviet state atheism towards religious freedom.

Desperate times required desperate measures. Latvian was declared the sole official language for most public signs and activities. Only those of the Soviet settlers who were fluent in Latvian received citizenship. A third of Russians repatriated to Russia, but hundreds of thousands remained to live in Latvia, rendered stateless (until they would take Latvian exams – which most have refused to do). As the new generation grew up, Latvian language took a weak hold once again in the cities and culture. However, this came at the expense of national cohesion: Russians felt excluded from the new Latvia. They clung to their “privileged” Soviet past, celebrating Soviet festivals, history, and political ideas.

Deleted Russian street name in Riga
After independence Russian street signs were removed or overpainted with only the official Latvian names remaining. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvia also strove for economic independence. Its outdated Soviet factories were built for the Soviet rather than local needs. Out-competed by Western goods and pushed out of the Eastern markets, they went bankrupt one after another, sending the economy into deep crisis in the 1990s. But economic freedom did wonders and young Baltic entrepreneurs put the economy back on track within a decade, filling the cities with new malls and office buildings which the Soviet system lacked. By 2001, Latvia was effectively a modern European society, attracting foreign investments.

2006 World Ice Hockey championship in Riga became the first event of such scale to be hosted in the city
2006 World Ice Hockey championship in Riga became the first event of such scale to be hosted by Latvia.

In 2004, Latvia joined NATO and the European Union as part of its program to ensure that Russia would never reconquer it. EU membership brought in many adverse effects, however, among them a mass emigration of Latvians to the newly accessible labor markets of the West. Latvian population declined from 2 377 000 to 2 070 000 between census years 2001 and 2011. Furthermore, European Union measures have displaced more and more Latvian laws, making some locals to question whether European Union membership on itself does not compromise Latvian independence.

Abandoned building in Riga
As many locals emigrated abandoned residentials (such as this one in Riga) became increasingly visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

By the late 2000s, Riga was once again the „unofficial capital of the Baltics“ and Jūrmala the top Baltic resort, despite the loss of population. Economically, however, Latvia lagged behind the two other Baltic States and was one of the worst-hit countries of the 2009 global economic downturn. Its subsequent austerity-based approach to tame the crisis has been celebrated among Western economists.

Latvia's tallest skyscrapers Z-Towers under construction
Latvia’s tallest skyscrapers Z-Towers under construction in modern Riga (2016). Initially planned for ~2010 the project was put on hold but then reinitiated after the economic troubles were tackled. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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