The proto-Baltic ancestors of the Latvian people arrived on the Baltic Sea’s eastern shore about 3000 BC. Local amber was traded for precious metals by the Balts, who created trade lines to Rome and Byzantium. Curonians, Latgalians, Selonians, Semigallians (in Latvian: kuri, latgai, si, and zemgai), as well as the Livonians (lbiei) speaking a Finnic language, all lived in Latvia by 900 AD.
Vanema, Ventava, Bandava, Piemare, Duvzare, Ceklis, Megava, Pilsts, Upmale, Slija, Koknese, Jersika, Tlava, and Adzele were among the 14 territories that ruled Latvia in the 12th century.
The Medieval period
Despite centuries of interaction with the outside world, the local population became more completely incorporated into the European socio-political system in the 12th century. In the late 12th century, the Pope sent the first missionaries to sail up the Daugava River in search of converts. The locals, on the other hand, did not easily convert to Christianity as the Church had anticipated. German crusaders were dispatched, or more likely chose to travel on their own in pursuit of pagans to murder and plunder across Eastern Europe, as they were known to do. In 1184, Saint Meinhard of Segeberg came in Ikile on a Catholic mission to convert the people from their pagan beliefs, going with merchants to Livonia. In 1193, Pope Celestine III declared a crusade against pagans in Northern Europe. When peaceful methods of conversion failed, Meinhard devised a plan to convert Livonians by use of arms.
Large swaths of today’s Latvia were controlled by Germans during the start of the 13th century. These captured territories, together with Southern Estonia, constituted the crusader state known as Terra Mariana or Livonia. Riga, as well as the cities of Csis, Limbai, Koknese, and Valmiera, joined the Hanseatic League in 1282. Riga had strong cultural ties with Western Europe and became an important crossroads for east-west trade.
The Reformation period and Polish-Lithuanian rule
For the people of Latvia, the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were a period of tremendous upheaval, with the Reformation, the fall of the Livonian state, and the division of Latvian land among foreign powers.
Livonia (Latvia) came under Polish and Lithuanian control after the Livonian War (1558–1583). The Ducatus Ultradunensis (Prdaugavas hercogiste) was established when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania received the southern portion of Estonia and the northern part of Latvia. The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was founded by Gotthard Kettler, the last Master of the Order of Livonia. Despite being a subordinate state of Poland, the duchy maintained significant autonomy and had a golden period in the 17th century. Latgalia, Latvia’s easternmost area, was annexed by the Polish province of Inflanty.
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and Russia fought for dominance in the eastern Baltic in the 17th and early 18th century. Northern Livonia (including Vidzeme) became Swedish territory after the Polish–Swedish War. Riga became the capital of Swedish Livonia and the Swedish Empire’s biggest city. Until the Treaty of Altmark in 1629, fighting between Sweden and Poland was intermittent. Serfdom was relaxed, a network of schools for the peasants was created, and the authority of the provincial barons was reduced during the Swedish period in Latvia.
During this period, a number of significant cultural shifts happened. Western Latvia embraced Lutheranism as its primary religion during Swedish and mainly German control. Couronians, Semigallians, Selonians, Livs, and northern Latgallian tribes merged to create the Latvian people, who spoke the same Latvian language. However, since no real Latvian state existed over the ages, the boundaries and criteria of who precisely belonged to that group were mainly subjective. Meanwhile, separated from the rest of Latvia, southern Latgallians converted to Catholicism under the influence of Polish/Jesuit missionaries. Despite the addition of numerous Polish and Russian loanwords, the original dialect remained unique.
Latvia in the Russian Empire (1710–1917)
Vidzeme was given to Russia after the capitulation of Estonia and Livonia in 1710 and the Treaty of Nystad, which ended the Great Northern War in 1721. (it became part of the Riga Governorate). The Inflanty Voivodeship of Latgale remained part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1772, when it was annexed by Russia. In 1795, the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia became an independent Russian province (the Courland Governorate), uniting the Russian Empire with all of what is now Latvia. Local laws, German as the official language, and their own parliament, the Landtag, were all maintained in all three Baltic provinces.
Famine and disease killed up to 40% of Latvians during the Great Northern War (1700–1721). In the years 1710–1711, the plague killed half of Riga’s population.
In 1817, the serfs in Courland were freed, and in 1819, the serfs in Vidzeme were freed. In reality, however, emancipation benefited landlords and aristocracy since it stripped peasants of their land without recompense, compelling them to return to labor on estates “of their own free choice.”
The social structure of the nineteenth century altered significantly. After reforms enabled peasants to repurchase their land, a class of independent farmers emerged, but many landless peasants persisted. There was also the emergence of a significant urban proletariat and a powerful Latvian bourgeoisie. From the middle of the century, the Young Latvian (Latvian: Jaunlatviei) movement established the foundation for nationalism, with many of its leaders turning to the Slavophiles for assistance against the German-dominated social order. [requires citation] The First National Awakening was a period of increased usage of the Latvian language in literature and culture. After the Polish-led January Uprising in 1863, Russification started in Latgale, and by the 1880s, it had spread to the whole of what is now Latvia. In the 1890s, the New Current, a wide leftist social and political movement, completely overshadowed the Young Latvians. The 1905 Russian Revolution, which took on a nationalist tone in the Baltic regions, erupted with popular anger.
During these two centuries, Latvia experienced an economic and construction boom: ports were expanded (Riga became the Russian Empire’s largest port), railways were built, new factories, banks, and a university were built, many residential, public (theatres and museums), and school buildings were built, new parks were formed, and so on. This is when Riga’s boulevards and several streets outside of the Old Town were built.
It’s also worth noting that numeracy was greater in the Russian Empire’s Estonian and Latvian provinces, which may have been affected by the people’ Protestant faith.
Declaration of Independence
During World War I, the area of what is now Latvia, as well as other western portions of the Russian Empire, was destroyed. Demands for self-determination were originally limited to autonomy until the Russian Revolution in 1917 produced a power vacuum, which was filled by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Russia and Germany in March 1918, and the Alliedarmistice with Germany on November 11, 1918. The People’s Council of Latvia declared the new country’s independence on November 18, 1918, in Riga, with Krlis Ulmanis as the interim government’s leader.
The subsequent War of Independence was part of a tumultuous period in Eastern Europe marked by civil and new border conflicts. By the spring of 1919, the United Baltic Duchy had three governments: Ulmanis’s, the Latvian Soviet government led by Pteris Stuka, whose forces, backed by the Red Army, had occupied almost the entire country, and the Baltic German government of the United Baltic Duchy, led by Andrievs Niedra and backed by the Baltische Landeswehr and the German Freikorps unit Iron Division.
In June 1919, Estonian and Latvian troops beat German forces in the Battle of Wenden, and in November, a major assault commanded by Pavel Bermondt-Avalov, a primarily German army, was repulsed. Eastern Latvia was liberated from Red Army forces by Latvian and Polish soldiers in early 1920 (the Battle of Daugavpils was part of the Polish–Soviet War from the Polish viewpoint).
On May 1, 1920, a democratically elected Constituent Assembly convened, and in February 1922, the Satversme, a liberal constitution, was approved. After Krlis Ulmanis’ revolution in 1934, the constitution was partially suspended, but it was restored in 1990. It has been modified since then and is still in force in Latvia today. With the majority of Latvia’s industrial base relocated to Russia’s interior in 1915, drastic land reform became the new state’s most pressing political issue. 61.2 percent of the rural population was landless in 1897; by 1936, that proportion had dropped to 18 percent.
The amount of farmed land had reached the pre-war level by 1923. The economy grew rapidly as a result of innovation and increasing productivity, but it eventually succumbed to the impacts of the Great Depression. During the legislative era, Latvia’s economy showed indications of improvement, while the electorate gradually drifted toward the center. Ulmanis launched a bloodless revolution on May 15, 1934, ushering in a nationalist government that lasted until 1940. Ulmanis created government companies to purchase up private businesses after 1934 in order to “Latvianize” the economy.
Latvia in World War II
The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Agreement, a 10-year non-aggression pact, early on August 24, 1939. The agreement included a secret protocol that divided Northern and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet “spheres of influence,” which was only disclosed after Germany’s surrender in 1945. Latvia, Finland, and Estonia were allocated to the Soviet sphere of influence in the north. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, while the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17, 1939.
Most Baltic Germans fled Latvia after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, according to an agreement between Ulmanis’ administration and Nazi Germany known as the Heim ins Reich program. By the deadline of December 1939, 50,000 Baltic Germans had departed, with 1,600 staying to complete business and 13,000 opting to stay in Latvia. When a second relocation plan was agreed upon in July 1940, the majority of people who remained went for Germany. The ethnically approved were relocated mostly in Poland, where they were granted land and companies in return for the proceeds from the sale of their former holdings.
Latvia was compelled to sign a “mutual aid” agreement with the Soviet Union on October 5, 1939, allowing the Soviets to deploy between 25,000 and 30,000 soldiers on Latvian soil. State officials were fired and replaced by Soviet cadres. Single pro-Soviet candidates were named for several seats in the elections. The people’s assembly that resulted promptly sought and received admittance to the USSR, which the Soviet Union granted. Augusts Kirhenteins was the puppet president of Latvia at the time. On August 5, 1940, the Soviet Union absorbed Latvia as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Prior to Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets dealt severely with their opponents, deporting or killing at least 34,250 Latvians in less than a year. The majority were transported to Siberia, where 40 percent of the population died, with Latvian army commanders being shot on the scene.
In Operation Barbarossa, German soldiers assaulted Soviet forces on June 21, 1941. Latvians staged several spontaneous uprisings against the Red Army, which aided the Germans. By the 29th of June, Riga had been reached, and with Soviet soldiers dead, arrested, or fleeing, Latvia had been under German control by early July. The takeover was quickly followed by SS Einsatzgruppen soldiers, who were to carry out the Nazi Generalplan Ost, which called for a 50% population reduction in Latvia.
Latvia was governed by the Reichskommissariat Ostland during the German occupation. The occupying authorities created Latvian paramilitary and Auxiliary Police groups, which took part in the Holocaust and other crimes. In the fall of 1941, 30,000 Jews were massacred in Latvia. In November and December 1941, another 30,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto were murdered in the Rumbula Forest to relieve congestion in the ghetto and make space for additional Jews being brought in from Germany and the west. Apart from guerrilla activities, there was a lull in combat until January 1944, when the siege of Leningrad ended and Soviet forces pushed, invading Latvia in July and conquering Riga on October 13th.
During World War II, more than 200,000 Latvians perished, including about 75,000 Latvian Jews who were killed during the Nazi occupation. With 140,000 troops in the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS, Latvian soldiers served on both sides of the war, mostly on the German side. The Red Army created the 308th Latvian Rifle Division in 1944. Opposing Latvian soldiers fought each other on many occasions, particularly in 1944. The activity peaked in late 1946.
Soviet era (1940–41, 1944–91)
When Soviet military forces reached the region in 1944, intense combat broke out between German and Soviet soldiers in Latvia, resulting in yet another German loss. Both occupying forces recruited Latvians into their armies throughout the conflict, resulting in a greater loss of the nation’s “live resources.” In 1944, the Soviet Union regained control of a portion of Latvian land. The Soviets started restoring the Soviet system almost immediately. Following the German capitulation, it became apparent that Soviet troops would remain in the country, and Latvian national partisans, soon joined by German collaborators, started fighting the new invader.
Approximately 120,000 to 300,000 Latvians sought shelter in Germany and Sweden to escape the Soviet troops. Most sources estimate that 200,000 to 250,000 refugees fled Latvia, with possibly 80,000 to 100,000 of them recovered by the Soviets or repatriated by the West in the months after the war’s conclusion. In 1944–45, the Soviets retook control of the nation, resulting in further deportations as the country was collectivized and Sovietized.
43,000 rural inhabitants (“kulaks”) and Latvian patriots (“nationalists”) were deported to Siberia on March 25, 1949, as part of Operation Priboi, which had been meticulously prepared and authorized in Moscow on January 29, 1949. The anti-Soviet partisan activity was reduced as a result of this operation. Between 1945 and 1952, between 136,000 and 190,000 Latvians were imprisoned or deported to Soviet concentration camps (the Gulag), depending on the source. Some people were able to avoid arrest and join the partisans.
Latvia was forced to adopt Soviet agricultural techniques in the postwar era. Collectivization was imposed on rural regions. In Latvia, a comprehensive campaign to enforce bilingualism was launched, restricting the use of Latvian in public settings in favor of Russian as the primary language. All minority schools (Jewish, Polish, Belarusian, Estonian, and Lithuanian) were shuttered, leaving only Latvian and Russian as mediums of instruction in the schools. From Russia and other Soviet republics, an inflow of laborers, administrators, military men, and their dependents began. By 1959, approximately 400,000 immigrants had come from other Soviet republics, bringing the ethnic Latvian population down to 62%.
Moscow chose to locate some of the Soviet Union’s most sophisticated manufacturing in Latvia since the country had a well-developed infrastructure and trained experts. A large machinery factory, RAF in Jelgava, electrotechnical industries in Riga, chemical factories in Daugavpils, Valmiera, and Olaine—as well as certain food and oil processing plants—were all established in Latvia. Trains, ships, minibuses, mopeds, telephones, radios, and hi-fi systems were all manufactured in Latvia, as were textiles, furniture, clothing, bags and luggage, shoes, musical instruments, home appliances, watches, tools and equipment, aviation and agricultural equipment, and a long list of other products. Latvia had a film industry and a record manufacturing of its own (LPs). However, there were insufficient personnel to run the newly constructed industries. Skilled employees were moving from all across the Soviet Union to sustain and increase industrial output, reducing the percentage of ethnic Latvians in the republic. Latvia’s population peaked in 1990 at slightly under 2.7 million people.
Restoration of Independence in 1991
Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s leader, began implementing political and economic changes known as glasnost and perestroika in the second part of the 1980s. The first major protests were conducted in Riga in the summer of 1987 at the Freedom Monument, a symbol of freedom. The Interfront opposed a nationwide movement that coalesced into the Popular Front of Latvia in the summer of 1988. The Latvian SSR, like the other Baltic republics, was granted more autonomy, and in 1988, the ancient pre-war Latvian flag was reinstated as the official flag, replacing the Soviet Latvian flag in 1990.
In 1989, the USSR’s Supreme Soviet passed a resolution on the occupation of the Baltic republics, declaring the occupation “illegal” and contrary to the “desire of the Soviet people.” In the March 1990 democratic elections, candidates from the pro-independence Popular Front of Latvia won a two-thirds majority in the Supreme Council. The Supreme Council approved the Declaration on the Restoration of the Republic of Latvia’s Independence on May 4, 1990, and the Latvian SSR was renamed Republic of Latvia.
In 1990 and 1991, however, Moscow’s central authority continued to view Latvia as a Soviet republic. By seizing the major publishing house in Riga and forming a Committee of National Salvation to usurp governmental duties in January 1991, Soviet political and military forces failed to topple the Republic of Latvia authorities. Many central Soviet state officials remained in Latvia throughout the transition period.
Despite this, in a nonbinding advisory vote on March 3, 1991, 73 percent of all Latvians expressed strong support for independence. All permanent inhabitants should be eligible for Latvian citizenship, according to the Popular Front of Latvia. Universal citizenship for all permanent residents, on the other hand, was not approved. Citizenship was instead given to those who were citizens of Latvia at the time of the country’s loss of independence in 1940, as well as their descendants. As a result, since neither they nor their parents had ever been citizens of Latvia, the majority of ethnic non-Latvians were denied Latvian citizenship, becoming non-citizens or citizens of other former Soviet republics. By 2011, more than half of non-citizens had passed naturalization tests and been granted citizenship in Latvia. Even yet, there are 290,660 non-citizens in Latvia now, accounting for 14.1 percent of the population. They are nationals of no country and are unable to vote in Latvia.
In the aftermath of a failed Soviet coup attempt, the Republic of Latvia proclaimed the end of the transitional phase and declared complete independence on August 21, 1991.
In 1993, the Saeima, Latvia’s parliament, was re-elected. In 1994, Russia completed its personnel departure and shut down the Skrunda-1 radar station, bringing the country’s military presence to an end. In 2004, Latvia accomplished its main 1990s objectives of joining NATO and the European Union. Riga hosted the NATO Summit in 2006.
Many Russophones have been vocal in their opposition to language and citizenship legislation. Former Soviet nationals who arrived under the Soviet occupation, as well as their children, were not immediately granted citizenship. After the reestablishment of independence, children born to non-nationals are automatically granted citizenship. Latvian nationals make up 72 percent of the population, while 20 percent are Russian; non-citizens make up less than 1% of the population, whereas 71 percent are Russian. The administration reintroduced the prewar currency and denationalized private property seized by the Soviets, restoring or paying the owners. It also privatized most state-owned enterprises. Despite a tough transition to a free economy and a reorientation toward Western Europe, Latvia is one of the European Union’s fastest growing economies. Riga was designated European Capital of Culture in 2014, and the euro was adopted as the country’s currency. A Latvian was also appointed vice-president of the European Commission. Latvia presided over the Council of the European Union in 2015. Riga has hosted major European events such as the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003 and the European Film Awards in 2014. Latvia joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on July 1, 2016.