[by Jan-Pieter Verheul]
While evidence of Estonian ancestors can be found dating as far back as 2500 B.C.E., the first peoples to inhabit the lower Baltic region were a mixture of ethnic groups which arrived around 600 B.C.E. and spanned from the Baltic eastward all the way to present-day Moscow (Lieven, 38). These groups either merged together or eliminated one another over time, eventually resulting in modern Latvian or Lithuanian ethnic groups. There was, however, no real crystallized political structure in the prehistoric Baltic States, making it difficult to track the distinct origins of these societies. Some of the better known groups that merged together to form Latvians during the Middle ages were the Kurs (Curonians) and the Letts (an older German name for “Latvian”), and later the Livonians, who were of Finno-Ugric descent (much like the pre-Estonian peoples of the time). This Semgalan and Samogitian peoples of the lower Baltic regions were also conquered by German crusaders and would later become members of both Latvia and Lithuania (Lieven, 40). The name “Latvia” stems from the Latgalian peoples, who were one of the four major Baltic tribes in the region between the eighth and twelfth centuries (Foreign & Commonwealth Office).
The Baltic region’s geographic location between Russia and Scandinavia helped establish it as part of major trading routes, allowing the Vikings to leave their mark on the ancient Balts, who developed a mildly militaristic society, warrior class, rights of inheritance of property, and the establishment of a noble class (Lieven, 40). The Slavic Wends also had a foothold in Baltic States until the Germans assimilated them in the mid-eleventh century, after which the Germans controlled many southern trade routes. By the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, the Baltic region was flooded with German crusaders, many of whom provided protection for the Livonians against Estonian and Lithuanian raids.
In the thirteenth century, the Livonians had fully converted to Christianity under the Germans, who named their area “Livland,” which was an area that spanned modern day Latvia and Estonia (Lieven, 43). These Germans were the Teutonic Knights, who helped develop the German nobility in the Baltic region; peasants under these nobles were treated cruelly and oppressed, and any notion of their language or culture was rejected by the German nobles. Lieven argues that, while the Germans may have initially intended to bring Christianity, the Balts eventually developed the feeling that the “Baltic Germans had a mission to bring Western civilisation to the East” (Lieven, 133). He also argues that members of the modern Latvian intelligentsia regard the German influx with less bitterness, in that the Germans “may at least have preserved the region from conversion to Orthodoxy and early Russification, and helped it to become part of Europe” (Lieven, 138).
In 1561, the Russians invaded under order of their Tsar, Ivan IV. The Russian conquest of the Baltic region concluded the reign of the Teutonic Knights, although the Baltic German nobility still maintained a strong presence under Russian rule through the mid-nineteenth century. The serfs in the Baltic region were freed under the Germans in the early nineteenth century (nearly forty years prior to that of their counterparts in Russia), but were given no land. The eventual development of commercial agriculture, however, paved the way for independent farming, thereby increasing the overall standard of living for the lower class. This not only led to a marked increase in education of the Baltic peoples, but also to an increase in ethnic Latvian population: “Cities which, since their foundation six-hundred years before had been overwhelmingly German found themselves within a few decades with Latvian and Estonian majorities or at least pluralities” (Lieven, 50). The Russian imperial policies towards full Russification of the Baltic States caused tremendous tension during the late nineteenth century, thereby fueling the fire of Baltic nationalism. This was especially apparent with Russia’s administration over the school systems, wherein Latvian history, language, and culture were jeopardized, and in 1905 there was a revolution against both the German nobility and the Russian authority (Lieven, 51).
The German population remained in the Baltic region until 1940 when Hitler ordered them to evacuate the Baltic region and take over the lands formerly occupied by Poles, which the Germans subsequently abandoned in 1945 when the Soviets invaded (Lieven, 138). Nazi occupation also saw an almost complete removal of the Jewish population of Latvia, and it has since not recovered. Following the 1940 evacuation of the German population, the Soviets annexed Latvia and began the process of collectivization by 1945. Deportations of ethnic Latvians for collectivization and immigration of ethnic Russians majorly affected the population demographics, the results of which can be seen still today (Foreign & Commonwealth Office).
The early 1990’s were rife with movements toward Baltic independence, which the majority of ethnic Russians in Latvia did not support. Anti-Russian sentiment grew as the movements for independence and increasing nationalism in Latvia took hold, and by 1992 the Latvian government had passed strict laws regarding the settlement of Russians and other non-native Balts (Lieven, 308). In 2000, the Latvian Parliament passed a law which supports shifting to Latvian as the primary language in all state schools by 2004 (Foreign & Commonwealth Office). In 2008, the population of Latvia consisted of 58.8% Latvian, 28.6% Russian, 3.8% Belarussian, 2.6% Ukrainian, 2.45% Polish, 3.7% “Other.” Interestingly enough, 16% of the population does not have citizenship, most of whom are Russian-speaking (Foreign & Commonwealth Office). The official language in Latvia is still Latvian with 58.2% Latvian speakers in 2000; 37.5% of the nation is Russian-speaking, and 4.3% speaks Lithuanian (CIA World Factbook).
- CIA World Factbook. “Latvia.” https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/lg.html;Foreign & Commonwealth Office. “Latvia.” http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/about-the-fco/country-profiles/europe/latvia?profile=all Ints.
- “Latvian Resources.” http://home.mira.net/~ints/index.html.
- Anatol Lieven,The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).