Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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Latvian Coat of Arms A Brief History of Latvia
Mel Huang

The Baltic tribes that later became Latvians and Lithuanians have lived along the coast of the Baltic Sea for some two to three millennia. On the current territory of Latvia, several Baltic tribes flourished - the Lettgallians, Couronians, Semigallians and the Selonians. In fact, three of Latvia's four current provinces are named after the homelands of the ancient tribes. Intermingled on these lands were the Livonians, the Finno-Ugric ethnic and linguistic kin of the Estonians and Finns.

The rich trading activities of this area eventually brought it to the attention of the Catholic Church. As more and more Germanic traders passed through the land, attempts to spread Christianity began in the late twelfth century. Eventually, these became more forceful as a "crusade" was launched to convert the pagan Baltic pagan. Some converted voluntarily, as did a large part of the Livonians under their chieftain Kaupo. Others did not, and a systematic forced conversion ensued.

Forced conversions

The city of Rīga, formed from a Livonian fishing village, was founded in 1201 and the religious base for the Baltic campaign established by Bishop Albert. Eventually, one tribe after another fell to the Germanic crusaders and baptism eventually permeated the entire country.

However, tensions between the religious side and the crusaders often gave rise to conflict and even resulted in battles and sackings among the foreign invaders themselves. During this period, Rīga grew into the largest city in the region and a major centre of Baltic coastal trade - albeit very much a Germanic city.

The latter half of the sixteenth century brought the Livonian Wars, which saw the end of the so-called "Old Livonia" and witnessed Latvian lands change hands several times in the next century. Poland-Lithuania took control of Latvian lands for several decades, but soon parts of the land fell from their control. The Duchy of Courland became quite active under Duke Jakob and even established a few colonies - one at the mouth of the River Gambia in Africa and one in Tobago in the Caribbean. Parts of Latvia also fell to Swedish rule and, ironically, Rīga became the largest city in the Swedish Kingdom.

Emergence of a nation

It was also during this period that the Baltic tribes living on Latvian soil slowly emerged as a collective Latvian nation. Tribes not connected with ethnic kin Lithuania, alongside the slowly disappearing (or assimilated) Livonians, became more of a unified people, although as the province of Latgale remained under Polish-Lithuanian rule, it remained a bit more separate than the others and thus retained its Catholic faith.

However, the Great Northern War caused havoc in the region at the turn of the century. Piece by piece, Latvia became a part of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great. But still, the Baltic Germans - who had remained the élite class since their arrival centuries earlier - controlled the lands on the Baltic coast.

During Swedish rule, some of the rights of the Germanic nobility were quashed, pushing them closer to Russian influence - which was promptly rewarded when Russia took over the lands. Still, the Baltic provinces became an experimental ground in some ways for the Russian Empire, with serfdom being abolished from the books decades before the rest of the empire. That, however, did little to alleviate the problems.


During the reign of Aleksandr III (1881-1894), a harsh policy of Russification took place, although it also acted as a significant spark in the growth of national movements in the region. Latvian culture and folklore, passed down by generations from folk songs, or dainas, made a major leap forward in aiding the "national awakening" when Krišjānis Barons compiled thousands of them for posterity.

Other early leaders of the movement in Latvia, such as Krišjānis Valdemārs and Juris Alunāns, played a significant role in the awakening movement. One dramatic step was an epic poem, taken partly from folklore but also partly in reaction to the situation of the time, by Andrejs Pumpurs called Lačplēsis. The theme of a struggle against the "black knight" by the Latvian hero character was apropos, and was interpreted in whichever way suited the situation. It also came alive with a dramatic production from beloved writer Jānis Rainis.

War and revolution

The 1905 revolution sparked the imaginations of people throughout the Russian Empire. Leaders of the Latvian people became more concerned about the fate of the nation and looked more at autonomy. But the First World War caused major problems, as multiple combatant forces struggled over Latvian land: "White" Russians, Bolsheviks, Baltic Germans, Latvians on both sides of the Russian civil war and, of course, the invading militaries. Things became more precarious after Lenin took power in late 1917 in Petrograd.

Eventually the situation turned, for Latvians, from autonomy to independence. With near unanimous support from all existing indigenous Latvian political parties, from right to left, independence was declared on 18 November 1918 and Kārlis Ulmanis became the head of the provisional government. However, that was very much on paper only, because the country was occupied by various foreign forces and puppet governments were being set up under German protection and Soviet order.

Despite various setbacks, the Ulmanis-led government eventually restored order. Helped by Estonian units pushing Germans further south, and by other forces keeping Bolsheviks preoccupied, control was slowly restored and, eventually, an armistice was signed with the Soviets. Latvia could finally enjoy its independence.

Challenges of the 1920s

Constituent assembly elections were held in April 1920, and the Constitution (Satversme), promulgated in 1922, remains the basic law of Latvia to this day. The document was drafted in the liberal spirit of other documents on the continent, like that of Switzerland, which would later haunt the country's political stability. The first Saeima elections were held in 1922 and Jānis Čakste became the nation's first president.

Many problems faced the nation in early years, ranging from foreign war debts to land distribution. The problems, however, were compounded by fractious political forces, divided by political leanings, ethnic groups and even regional groups. In each of the four Saeimas of the era, twenty or more party lists won seat allocations in the 100-seat chamber.

Political tension grew with the world-wide Great Depression, which exacerbated an already tense situation. Political parties moved onto the streets with their own paramilitary units in "demonstrative" marches all over the country. Rumours of a coup floated around, and several ultra-nationalist groups clashed with leftist competitors.

With an attempt to bolster the powers of the presidency further quashed, then-Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis decided, in March 1934, to stage a "palace coup" - just a day after a similar event happened in neighbouring Estonia.

A mild dictatorship

For the next six years, Ulmanis governed the country with a mild form of dictatorship. He justified the move as a "pre-emptive" act, though did little to restore democracy over the years of his direct personal rule. Still, Ulmanis basically prevented the pot from boiling over as the country was mired in some ugly nationalism - especially as the German population was Nazified. The country remained peaceful and tolerant despite the electric situation on the continent.

As international affairs turned ominously dark in the latter half of the decade, Latvia was drawn into the fray. When Moscow and Berlin signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact placing Latvia under Moscow's "sphere," Latvia's fate was essentially sealed.

Hitler called for all Germans to repatriate, and they left - alongside "Germanised" Latvians. Moscow forced Latvia and its neighbours to accept Soviet military bases, as Moscow accused Estonia of not being able to maintain its neutrality. Eventually, an ultimatum was issued and the occupation began in the summer of 1940. The world was preoccupied as Hitler marched into Paris that same week.

Soviet occupation

During the one-year Soviet occupation, thousands were killed and deported. Occupation forces staged a bogus election, after which the puppet regime "asked" Moscow for membership in the USSR - thus the illegal incorporation. The United States and other western governments announced that they would not recognise the move.

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By the time Hitler and Stalin faced off in combat, the peoples of the Soviet-occupied lands - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, etc - were faced with the question of survival and so, when the German army came through, it was viewed more as a liberation from Soviet forces rather than a German occupation.

The ensuing three years of German occupation and an even more brutal Nazi crackdown ended Latvian hopes. The Nazis even forcibly mobilised Latvians into combat units under the SS, though many joined voluntarily as well. Sad situations developed when brothers fought brothers as forcibly conscripted Soviet and Nazi forces faced off in bloody battles.

Nazi accomplices

However, the SS also had their accomplices carrying out the Final Solution in Latvia. One notorious unit was the Arājs Commando, a mobile death squad that hunted down enemies of the Nazis - mostly Jews and Gypsies - for extermination. This part of history has come back to haunt Latvia with the ongoing case of Australian citizens accused as members of the Commando, including Konrāds Kalējs.

The Soviets retook Latvia and the Baltics in 1944, and bombed parts of the countries into the Stone Age. Rīga took significant damage, and the fabled House of the Blackheads in the centre of the town was destroyed and only rebuilt in late 1999.

The Soviets re-established control in Latvia, though armed resistance fighters - forest brothers - fought bravely for years afterward. Despite involvement by Britain's SIS and others, there was little assistance from the West other than the "non-recognition" policy, and the lack of Western response to the Hungarian 1956 uprising all but ended the movement.

Sovietising Latvia

Sovietisation went far during the half-century occupation. Tens of thousands of Latvians fled to the West, were shot outright or were deported to inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union. Moscow pursued early "ethnic cleansing" policies by massively deporting Latvians and replacing them with workers from other parts of the USSR - victims themselves in many ways.

The population of Latvia dropped from 75.5 per cent Latvian in 1935 to 52 per cent by 1989. Farms collapsed due to collectivisation, businesses were nationalised, Russian replaced Latvian as the official language of communication and everything associated with Latvia was all but oppressed by censors. Virtually every city in Latvia had a Latvian minority.

A new generation resists

A new generation, born after the death of Stalin, played a major role in a new protest movement. Through the latter half of the 1980s, protests on issues such as the environment and history filled the streets. Using the shield of glasnost, movements for national issues were formed.

The Latvian Communists were slowest in the region to understand what was happening, and an independence movement (the LNNK, which merged with the party For Fatherland and Freedom) became the centre of protest action, while the People's Front (TF) also pushed for autonomy.

Protests grew into something with runaway momentum, as old-style Communist bosses were replaced with more amiable ones. Still, even the ex-party boss of the late era, one Anatolijs Gorbunovs (the current transport minister), called on protestors to watch themselves and not push things - through actions such as gathering at the Freedom Monument for one flashpoint protest.

One of the most spectacular protests came on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which people linked up in a human chain from Tallinn to Rīga to Vilnius in August 1989. Then, in the elections to the Supreme Council in 1990, the first "free" election, the People's Front, won a commanding victory.

Soon after that, the body declared the restoration of sovereignty with a transition period.

A bloody crackdown

In January 1991 there was a bloody crackdown in both Lithuania and Latvia, and several people were killed by OMON troops. Later in the year, a referendum showed that almost three-quarters of the public wanted independence. Their wish came true with the failed coup in Moscow in August, which gave Latvia the chance to ask for foreign recognition - which they received from Iceland first, then everyone else. Independence was restored.

Though times were hard and relations with Moscow difficult, Latvia eventually crawled back to its feet and is beginning to feel the rewards of the difficult years of glasnost and the early years of restored independence. The first election to the restored Saeima was held in 1993, and brought victory for successors of the People's Front movement and saw Valdis Birkavs in the prime minister's seat. Guntis Ulmanis, the grand-nephew of interwar President Kārlis Ulmanis, became president and served two terms.

Though relations with Russia remained difficult, the Russian military finally withdrew in August 1994
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after lengthy and difficult negotiations. The issue of non-citizens was tense for several years until the process of naturalisation was finally implemented years after the restoration of independence. Though legal integration remains slow, the pace is accelerating.

Since then, Latvia has become a strong candidate to join the European Union, and was the first Baltic country to become a member of the World Trade Organisation.

Mel Huang, 10 July 2000

Moving on:



Baltic Focus:
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Prekevičius & Clark
Lithuania's Looming Elections

Aet Annist
Estonia: Progress without Protest

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Military Brass Shuffling in Estonia

Artūras Račas
Calvin Klein and Communism

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Lithuania: A bananos respublika?

Teri Schultz
Reflections on a Revolution

Meelis Kitsing
Online in E-stonia

Arnis Gross
Latvia Logs On

Razeen Sally
Estonia and the EU

Hubert Jakobs
Livonian folk band Tulli Lum

Mel Huang
Baltic BeBop

Bernd Jahnke
Lithuanian Jazz

Artis Pabriks
Rīga's Revenge

Kurt Mortensen
Estonia's Art Music Scene

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Schizoid Lamb

Howard Jarvis
The Writings of Jurga Ivanauskaitė

President Vaira

Prime Minister
Mart Laar

Lithuanian Military Commander Jonas Kronkaitis

Oliver Craske
Lords Return Roma to Skinheads

Andrew Cave
Poland's Collapsing Right

Catherine Lovatt
Next Target: Montenegro

Sam Vaknin
Balkan Faith

Wolfgang Deckers
Germany in the Balkans

Culture Calendar: