Travel to Latvia

   
 
 

Latvia

History

The first human settlements in Latvia date back to the time just after the last glacier period, approximately 10 000 BC. Archaeologists have found traces of even older human culture. Nomadic tribes came into these territories after the last glacier period, during the great migration from the Southwest. This culture had its origin from the mid-stone age human settlements in Ahrensburg in the region of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. This early European culture was the leading one until approximately 3000 BC, when other nations from the East began to settle in the territory of Latvia. The cultures coming from the East are the ancestors of Finns, Estonians and Livs (a very small nation living in the northwestern part of Latvia, now an ethnic minority). In approximately 2000 BC, Baltic tribes came into Latvia, and are regarded as the ancestors of present day Latvians and Lithuanians. These tribes, coming from the South, assimilated to the nations already living on Latvian territory. The Baltic tribes first appear in written records of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, in approximately 100 BC. He referred to these nations as farmers living on the coasts of the amber sea. During this period, the inhabitants split up into several tribes (this process had happened earlier with Germans). Since then we differentiate the Baltic tribes into Latgalian, Zemgalian, Kurzemian on Latvian territory and Prussian and Lithuanian in the territories further to the south.

In Viking times, west of the Riga bay, lived the Kurshi, who were well known in the Baltic Sea region. They traded with neighboring Scandinavian nations, but the trade was frequently attacked and robbed on both sides. Since the main trade road from the Scandinavian region to Byzantium went through Kurzeme, a rich trade culture developed. An important exported product was amber jewelry, which is found in large quantities on the coasts of the Baltic Sea.

Middle Ages

Great changes in the Baltic history occurred during the 13th century, when Christianity was introduced to the Baltics. The Pope initiated a crusade to the Baltics, which was considered to be equal before God as the crusade to Jerusalem. Soon after the first crusade had started, it became apparent that economic motivations were far more important than the missionary duties. They immediately tried to politically subjugate local inhabitants. The crusades ended in a war which lasted for almost 100 years. After the victory of the Germanic order, the subjugated land was given the name "Livonia". Alongside the state of the Germanic order, small medieval town-states formed, usually headed by a bishop.

Conflicts between the Germanic order and the economically autonomous town-states occurred for centuries. The founding of cities like Riga, Cesis, Ventspils and Kuldiga became important in the context of European trade, and joined the Hansa league in the 15th century. In historical documents, these towns appear under their old German names.

The ruling classes from the very beginning were Germans; the middle class, mainly artisans and farmers, were Latvians. This ethnic border remained unchanged, and a Baltic person, disregarding his social status, was unable to become a German. However, in the territory of Prussia, where farmers had the possibility of becoming Germans. This is why the Baltic nations, contrary to the Prussian population, did not lose their ethnic identity.

n 1554, the Master of Order, Walter von Plettenberg, fearing larger uprisings, declared Protestantism the state religion, which weakened the defense capabilities of the medieval order state and allowed the Russians to loot vast territories of Latvia. To prevent Russian rule, local aristocrats, except in Kurzeme and Riga, gave up their power to the Lithuanian-Polish state in 1561, for reasons of military protection.

The remains of Protestant state were secularized, and Catholicism was proclaimed the state religion. Due to this division of the Latvian territory, the Kurzeme duchy was formed on the west side of the Daugava River, and existed from 1561 to 1795. The remainder of Latvia came, as already mentioned, under Lithuanian-Polish rule. privileges of the German lords were preserved on both banks of the Daugava, and the Latvian serfs became even more dependent on their lords.

Age Of Enlightenment

The 17th century brought new changes with the "Dominium maris Baltici", and the fight between Poland and Sweden for the rule of the Baltics. The war mainly took place in the territory of present day Latvia. As a result of the Swedish-Polish war, the northern part of the country (Vidzeme or Livland) and Riga passed unto Sweden rule. In 1621, the Swedish king Gustav Adolf II marched into Riga, and this day is referred to us is beginning of the so called "good Swedish times".

The Swedish rule continued until the 18th century and brought essential political and cultural changes. Due to liberal Swedish law, the rights of the German feudal lords were limited. The farmers of Vidzeme had the right to lodge their complaints directly to the Swedish king as the farmers' stratum in Sweden had their representation in the Swedish parliament, and thus the despotism of the aristocrats was restricted.

During this time, schools for peasants were established in the country-side, the first books in Latvian were printed and the first translation of the Bible into the Latvian language was done. The entrepreneurial spirit was also awakening in Kurzeme during this time. The remaining privileges of the aristocracy still allowed for cheap production and caused rapid economic improvements.

The times when Duke Jacob (1642-1682) ruled were the times of prosperity for Kurzeme. During this period, several branches of industry developed, mainly ship-building and metallurgy. Duke Jacob even succeeded in creating colonies over seas - the island of Tobago near the shores of Latin America and a part of present-day Gambia. Latgale (Infflantia) was kept under Polish rule, and during the 17th century the German aristocracy was assimilated by Poles. In contrast to Kurzeme and Vidzeme, where Protestantism rooted, in Latgale, both cultural and political Catholicism gained an importance that has lasted to the present day.

The 18th century brought another great war. In 1700, the army of Czarist Russia confronted Sweden for the sole purpose of conquering the ice-free harbors of the Baltic sea. The Nordic War brought the greatest sufferings to the native Latvian population and lasted for 21 years. The devastating effects of these wars can still be seen in many castle ruins around Latvia. During the war, various plague epidemics diminished the population of Latvia, and several regions became unpopulated.

As a result of this war, in 1710 the Northern provinces of the country - Vidzeme and Riga, came under Russian rule. This was profitable mainly to the local Baltic German aristocrats because the privileges they lost under Swedish rule were restored by the Russian Czar. This miserable state of Latvian farmers brought a wave of indignation among the German Enlighteners.

Johann Gottfried Herder, who worked for several years as a teacher at the Dome school, sharply criticized the human rights violations. G. Merkel, in his book "Latvians, in Livonia, at the end of the age of Enlightenment", pointed out that a nation is doomed to extinction if it has to live in the outdated political system of feudalism.

As a result of the second division of Poland in 1772, Latgale was joined to the Czarist Russia, and in 1795, as a result of third division of Poland, Kurzeme suffered the same fate. After the third division of Poland, Czarist Russia had rule over almost all of the Baltic states, including Estonia and part of Lithuania. The German aristocrats didn't try to hinder the new Czarist power because, as it was mentioned above, the incorporation of Latvia into Russia gave certain guarantees that they wouldn't lose their privileges.

Consolidation Of The Latvian Nation

The population of Latvia in the 18th century was neither politically nor culturally able to express its own identity, because every utterance in this direction was suppressed by the feudalistic regime. This is why the formation of the Latvian nation didn't start until the beginning of the 19th century when, for the first time, Latvians had the possibility to enter

the Baltic university in Dorpat (Tartu), Estonia. The educational language was German. The most famous graduates of this university, contributing greatly to the formation of national self-awareness, were Krisjanis Valdemars, Juris Alunans and Atis Kronvalds. The intellectuals wanted to be equal with the Germans in political as well as cultural respects. In the civic society, especially in towns, the wish to live in a free, independent state and not in a country ruled by foreigners, was voiced more and more often.

The national self-awareness that started to form in the mid-19th century and the rapid spread of the ideas of the social democrats (whose Latvian Social Democratic Labor Party was founded in 1904) caused a national uprising in 1905. This revolution had the character of a general liberation movement. It was an attempt to get rid of both the Russian rulers and the German aristocrats, but it was brutally oppressed by the Russian army. This was not the last attempt of the Latvians to gain independence. Not until the end of World War I, the collapse of Czarist empire, and the fall of the Second German Reich, was it possible to lay the foundation for a Latvian state.

First Independence

On the 18th of November, 1918, the Democratic Block, a coalition of Latvian parties, decided to form the Latvian National Council, which declared the independence of Latvia within its historical borders. After the declaration of independence, the fight against Bolshevist troops, as well as against German and Russian monarchists, lasted for two years. After the liberation war, in April 1920, the first liberal elections took place. The passing of the Constitution (Satversme) in 1922, (and the forming of the Constituent Assembly) was the foundation for a free democratic and parliamentary state we encounter at present. In 1921 Latvia became a member of the League of Nations.

During the period between the two World Wars, Latvia achieved certain economic success, especially in agriculture, thanks to the land reforms carried out by the state, and the property rights reforms namely, privatization. During this period of independence, cultural changes were obvious: at the beginning of the 1930's, 0.3 percent of the Latvian inhabitants were studying at Universities, which was the highest number in Europe at the time.

This period also saw the appearance of numerous new literary works, and the living standard was comparable to the rest of Europe. Although Latvia made great efforts in the fields of culture and economy, its political situation was not very stable. The cause of the instability was numerous small parties represented in the parliament, which didn't facilitate continuous political work. In addition, Latvia could not escape the influence of the world economic depression. On the background of the overall economic depression, the dissatisfaction of the population grew.

Taking advantage of the circumstances, the prime minister of the time, Karlis Ulmanis, dissolved the parliament. This was the beginning of a totalitarian regime in Latvia, headed by Karlis Ulmanis. This regime differed from the fascist regimes of the time and gained wide support from the people. Ulmanis was very popular among the farmers and the army, and gathered all the nationally oriented forces.

The Ulmanis regime did not carry out any "ethnic cleansing" as the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy did. Latvia chose a neutral line in its foreign policies, trying to exist between the superpowers. The plan of forming a military and economic union together with Estonia and Lithuania failed. The protocols of the Hitler-Stalin pact, signed in 1939, determined Latvia to be a sphere of interest of the Soviet Union.

World War Ii

A month after the protocols were signed, the Soviet Union forced Latvia to give up its political neutrality, threatening to use military force. The Soviets demanded permission to place its armed forces in the territory of Latvia - in Liepaja and Ventspils. This ultimatum, though, was not the end of the sovereignty of the Latvian state yet. On July 16, 1940, another ultimatum of the Soviet Union demanded the permission of the Latvian government to allow further stationing of the Soviet troops in Latvia. A new government, loyal to Moscow, was formed.

The reaction of the international community to Latvian people's rights violation was minimal, which is why Ulmanis, knowing the military superiority of the Soviet Union, and trying to avoid bloodshed, accepted the ultimatum. He ordered the army, ready to fight, to halt military actions. On June 17, 1940, Soviet Army troops occupied Latvia. The Soviet Union formed a puppet government in Latvia, which instantly declared Latvia a Soviet Republic. The annexation scenario of all three Baltic states was the same.

Immediately after the occupation, the Stalin regime started the holocaust - during the first year of the occupation 35 000 people were murdered and hundreds of thousands were deported to the northern regions of the Soviet Union. It is not surprising that this year has been given the name of "the horrible year".

These mass murders and deportations easily explain why the German army was greeted with joy. The nation hoped to remove the Soviet terror and to reestablish their independent state. But Latvia remained occupied and was part of the region, called "Ostland" in Nazi slang. The majority of Latvian Jews were killed in the Salaspils concentration camp or shot in the forest of Rumbula. The able men were recruited to fight in the German Army as well as in the Red (Soviet) Army. They were made to fight each other, instead of fighting together for the common cause of Latvia's future. During the last days of the war, the Latvian and the German armies were fighting against the Russian army in the so called "Kettle of Kurzeme".

These fights went on until the total defeat of Germany, on May 8, 1945. More than 80 percent of Latvian intellectuals fled across Kurzeme to escape to West. A guerrilla movement, called "the green resistance", continued until 1957 in the forests of Kurzeme.

Dreaming On The Bright Socialism

Though the end of World War II put an end to the violation of human rights, the situation in Latvia, in this respect, worsened. From 1945 to 1949 more than 100 000 people were deported from Latvia to Siberia. The exact number of the deported and the murdered has not yet been established, as the Stalinist archives even today are not fully accessible.

Approximately 35 percent of the Latvian population perished in the war, were deported to Siberia, or fled Latvia into exile. Though the annexation of Latvia was never officially recognized by the international community, during the talks of the Allies and the Soviet Union in Teheran (1944) and Jalta (1945) the issue was never touched upon.

In the mid 1950's, the beginning of Stalin's plans for industrialization took place. Big Soviet style industrial enterprises were built in Latvia. The ideology of "homo soveticus" was implemented, and workers from other republics were sent to Latvia. The historically formed cultures were doomed to extinction and a new uniform Soviet culture was envisaged. In 1940, Latvians made up 75 percent of the total population. Now the number is 56 percent, and as Latvia was a front state to the West, a lot of the foreign population has been, in one way or another, connected with military aspects.

The Kruschev period brought the so called "period of thaw", and in the 1950's, many Latvians returned from Siberia to their fatherland. This was a time of revival for the Latvian culture. When attempts to gain more independence for the Latvian Socialist Republic became obvious, under the rule of Kruschev, a new wave of deportations followed in 1959. Brezhnev's government continued building the totalitarian regime started by Kruschev, and this had a new typical feature: intensified activities of the KGB, the secret service of the Soviet Union.

An all-embracing system of spying and persecution was created. For example, those who, attended church services on Christmas were recorded, and then persecuted, either at workplace or at school, and called religious fanatics. Regardless of this, churches were full, and if we try to imagine a small town where everyone knows everyone else, we can also imagine the social status of a KGB spy. A state of absolute control was created, but its authorities were hated by everyone - there was no way to escape or resist.

During the Brezhnev regime, the economy deteriorated, and finally, it became absolutely obvious that the planned economy was an inefficient system. During this period, the building of new, gigantic plants accelerated. More and more workers from other republics of the Soviet Union were sent to Latvia. One of the reasons behind this was the creation of interdependence of the Soviet republics. The industrial plants mainly processed raw materials imported from other Soviet republics, with the help of the imported work force. Many culturally important places in Latvia were destroyed during this period. For example, the "Staburags" cliff, a place of mythological importance, was flooded when a dam for a hydroelectric station was built.

Disregarding all the decay, Latvians still followed their cultural tradition, thus, the Festival of Songs was still organized. Theater and literature became a forum for sarcastic public thought.

Awakening For Freedom

When Gorbachov's reforms began, it became easier to express one's views, and the first anti-Soviet political organizations were formed. On August 23, 1987, the first demonstration in front of the Freedom Monument took place, and people voiced demands to annul the Stalin-Hitler pact. In its essence, this was a demand to restore the independence of the Latvian state.

Two years later, on August 23, 1989 the world view on the issue of the Baltic states was strongly influenced by the formation of a live chain around the Baltic states, that reminded the world of the anniversary of Stalin - Hitler pact. In spring 1990, the first relatively free elections were organized, in which 2/3 of the population voted for the Popular Front, which demanded the independence of Latvia. Immediately after the elections, the independence of Latvia was declared. To preserve its power, the Soviet Union answered with military force. In January 1991, Soviet tanks moved in the direction of Riga, and barricades were built in the streets of Riga to stop them. These were the days where the Soviet army shot at civilians. Thanks to the pressure of the world community, they were forced to retreat.

The parliament of Latvia officially declared its independence in August 1991, during the coup d'?tat in Moscow, whose organizers declared a state of emergency in the Baltic states. After the failure of the coup and international pressure, Russia finally recognize the independence of Latvia.