History of Latvia

From Academic Kids


Legendary History

The Baltic forefathers of the Latvian people have lived on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea since the third millennium BC.

At the beginning of this era the territory known today as Latvia became famous as a trading crossroads. The famous "route from the Vikings to the Greeks" mentioned in ancient chronicles stretched from Scandinavia through Latvian territory via the River Daugava to the ancient Russia and Byzantine Empire.

The ancient Balts of this time actively participated in the trading network. Across the European continent, Latvia's coast was known as a place for obtaining amber. Up to and into the Middle Ages amber was more valuable than gold in many places. Latvian amber was known in places as far away as Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. In the 900's A.D., the ancient Balts started to form specific tribal realms. Gradually, four individual Baltic tribal cultures developed: Couronians, Latgallians, Selonians, Semgallians (in Latvian: kurši, latgaļi, sēļi and zemgaļi). The largest of them was the Latgallian tribe, which was the most advanced in its socio-political development. In the 1100s and 1200s, the Couronians maintained a lifestyle of intensive invasions that included looting and pillaging.

On the west coast of the Baltic Sea, they became known as the "Baltic Vikings". But the Selonians and Semgallians, during this time, were known as peace-loving and prosperous farmers.

German Period

Because of its strategic geographic location, Latvian territory has always been invaded by other larger nations, and this situation has defined the fate of Latvia and its people.

At the end of the 1100s, Latvia was more often visited by traders from western Europe who set out on trading journeys along Latvia's longest river, the Daugava, to Russia. At the very end of the 12th century, German traders arrived and with them came preachers of the Christian faith who attempted to convert the pagan Baltic and Finno-Ugrian tribes to the Christian faith. The Balts did not willingly convert to the new and different beliefs and practices, and particularly opposed the ritual of christening. News of this reached the Pope in Rome and it was decided that Crusaders would be sent into Latvia to influence the situation.

The Germans founded Riga in 1201, and gradually it became the largest and most beautiful city in the southern part of the Baltic Sea. With the arrival of the German Crusaders, the development of separate tribal realms of ancient Latvias came to an end.

In the 1200s, a confederation of feudal nations developed under German rule that was called Livonia. Livonia included today's Latvia and Estonia. In 1282, Rīga and later Cēsis, Limbaži, Koknese and Valmiera were included in the Northern German Trading Organisation, or the Hanseatic League (Hansa). From this time, Riga became an important point in west-east trading. Rīga, being the centre of the eastern Baltic region, formed close cultural contacts with Western Europe.

Polish and Swedish Period

The 1500s were a time of great changes for the inhabitants of Latvia, notable for the reformation and the collapse of the Livonian nation. After the Livonian War (1558-1583) today's Latvian territory came under Polish-Lithuanian rule. The Lutheran faith was accepted in Kurzeme, Zemgale and Vidzeme, but the Roman Catholic faith maintained its dominance in Latgale – it remains so to this day.

In the 1600s, the Duchy of Courland, once a part of Livonia, experienced a notable economic boom. It established two colonies – an island in the estuary of the Gambia River (in Africa) and Tobago Island (in the Caribbean Sea). Names from this period still survive today in these places.

However after the Polish-Swedish war (1600-1629) Rīga came under Swedish rule in 1621. It became the largest and most developed Swedish City. During this time Vidzeme was known as the "Swedish Bread Basket" because it supplied the larger part of the Swedish kingdom with wheat.

Consolidation of the Latvian nation occurred in the 1600s. With the merging of the Couronians, Latgallians, Selonians, Semgallians and Livonians (Finno-Ugrians, in Latvian called: lībieši or līvi) a culturally unified nation that spoke a common language developed – the Latvians (in Latvian: latvieši).

Russian Period

At the beginning of the 1700s, the Great Northern War broke out. The course of this war was directly linked with today's Latvian territory and the territorial claims of the Russian Empire. One of its goals was to secure the famous and rich town of Riga. In 1710, the Russian Tsar, Peter I, managed to secure Vidzeme. Through Vidzeme to Riga, Russia obtained a clear passage to Europe. By the end of the 18th century, all of Latvia's territory was under Russian rule.

Serfdom was abolished in Courland in 1818 and Vidzeme in 1819. In 1849, a law granted a legal basis for the creation of peasant-owned farms. Reforms were slower in Latgale where serfdom was only abolished in 1861. Industry developed quickly and the number of the inhabitants grew. Latvia became one of Russia's most developed provinces.

In the 19th century, there was an awakening of strong national feeling amongst the Latvian nation, as there was in many other places in Europe at this time. This movement was lead by the so called "Young Latvians" (in Latvian: jaunlatvieši) who established the first newspapers in the Latvian language and promoted Latvian culture and education in the Latvian language.


The idea of an independent Latvia became a reality at the beginning of the 1900s. The course of World War I (WWI) activated the idea of independence. WWI directly involved Latvians and Latvian territory. Courageous Latvian riflemen (latvieu strēlnieki) fought on the Russian side during this war, and earned recognition for their bravery far into Europe.

Missing image
The only photographic document of the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia on November 18, 1918 (Photo: Vilis Rīdzenieks)

The post-war confusion was a suitable opportunity for the development of an independent nation. Latvia proclaimed independence shortly after the end of WWI – on November 18, 1918 which is now the Independence Day in Latvia. The first to recognise Latvia's independence was Soviet Russia (on August 11, 1920), which relinquished authority and pretences to Latvian nation and territory once for all times. However, future actions proved that these had been empty promises.

The international community recognised Latvia's independence on January 26, 1921, and the recognition from many other countries followed soon. In this year Latvia also became a member of the League of Nations (September 22, 1921).

Because of the world economic crises there was a growing dissatisfaction among the population at the beginning of 1930s. A Coup d'etat took place in Riga on May 15, 1934. The activities of the Parliament (the Saeima) and all the political parties were suspended.

Rapid economic growth took place in the second half of 1930s, due to which Latvia reached one of the highest living standards in Europe. Because of improving living standards the Latvian society, there was no serious opposition to the authoritarian rule of the Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis.

Soviet Period


After the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany on August 23, 1939, Latvia became a strategic interest of the USSR. On June 15,1940 at 03:00 AM Soviet troops stormed Latvian border posts Masļeņiki and Smaiļi. During the following year Soviet Union placed several army garrisons in the territory of Latvia. On June 17, 1940 Soviet Union orchestrated and supported communist uprisings in all three Baltic nations, a puppet government was installed which a few months later requested Latvia to be incorporated into the Soviet Union. The whole sequence of events, though technically not an occupation, is commonly regarded as such by the international community.

During the night from the 13th to the 14th of June 1941, thousands of Latvian inhabitants were violently deported to Siberia. 35,000 people suffered from Soviet repressions in the first year of Soviet occupation.

With the beginning of World War II (WWII), Latvia was taken from Soviets by German forces. Immediately after the installment of German authority (the beginning of July,1941) a process of eliminating the Jewish and Gypsy population began. The killings were committed by the SS Einsatzgruppe A, the Wehrmacht and Marines (in Liepaja), as well as by members of the infamous Arājs commando which in 1941 numbered some 300 men. By the end of 1941 the quasi-totality of the Jewish population was exterminated. In addition, some 25,000 Jews were brought from Germany, Austria and the present-day Czech Republic, of whom around 20,000 were killed. A large number of Latvians resisted the German occupation. The resistance movement was divided between the pro-independence units under the Latvian Central Council and the pro-soviet units under the Central Staff of the Partisan Movement in Moscow. Their Latvian commander was Artūrs Sproģis.

In 1944, heavy fighting took place in Latvia between German and Soviet troops, the USSR gained the upper hand. During the course of the war, both occupying forces conscripted Latvians into their armies, in this way increasing the loss of the nation's "live resources". In 1944, part of the Latvian territory once more came under Soviet control. Soviets immediately began to reinstate pre-war order. After German surrender it become clear that Soviet forces are there to stay, and pro-independence partisans (Forest Brothers) begun their fight against another occupant - Soviet Union

The first post war years were noted by particularly dismal and sombre events in the fate of the Latvian nation. The post war Soviet occupation implemented repression and genocide against the Latvians. 120,000 Latvian inhabitants were imprisoned or deported to Soviet concentration (GULAG) camps. Some managed to escape arrest and joined Forest Brothers 130,000 took refuge from the Soviet army by fleeing to the West. On March 25, 1949, 43,000 rural residents were deported to Siberia in a sweeping repressive action.

An extensive russification campaign began in Latvia, many administrative obstacles were implemented to hinder the use of the Latvian language.

In the post war period Latvia was forced to adopt Soviet farming methods and the economic infrastructure developed in the 1920s and 1930s was purposefully destroyed. Rural areas were forced into collectivisation.

Because Latvia had still maintained a well-developed infrastructure and educated specialists it was decided in Moscow that some of the Soviet Union's most advanced manufacturing factories were to be based in Latvia. Later, in order to run these factories, Russian workers were flooded into the country, noticeably decreasing the proportion of ethnic Latvians. By the end of the 1980s, the Latvians comprised only about 50% of the population, however before WWII, they comprised around 80% of the population (at the moment the total population of Latvia is 2,375,000, a little more than 60% of which are ethnic Latvians).

Reinstating Independence

A liberalisation within the communist regime began in the mid 1980s in the USSR. In Latvia there immediately appeared a few mass socio-political organisations that made use of this opportunity – Tautas Fronte (Popular Front of Latvia), Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības Kustība (The Movement for National Independence), Pilsoņu Kongress (The Congress of Citizens of Latvia). These groups were for the reinstatement of National Independence.

In 1989, on the 23rd August, 50 years had passed since the signing of the unlawful Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In order to draw the world's attention to the fate of the Baltic nations, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians joined hands in a human chain that stretched 600 kilometres from Tallinn, to Rīga, to Vilnius. It symbolically represented the united wish of the Baltic States for independence.

A notable step towards renewal of independence was taken on May 4, 1990. The Latvian SSR Supreme Council, elected in the first democratic elections since 1930s, adopted a declaration restoring independence that included a transition period. On the August 21, 1991 parliament voted for an end to the transition period, thus restoring Latvia's pre-war independence. On September 6, 1991 Latvian independence was once again recognised by the USSR.

Soon after reinstating independence, Latvia became a member of the United Nations and swiftly returned to the flock of democratic nations in the free world. In 1992 Latvia became eligible for the International Monetary Fund and in 1994 took part in the NATO Partnership for Peace program, as well as signed the free trade agreement with the European Union. Latvia became a member of the European Council as well as a candidate for the membership in the European Union and NATO. Latvia was the first of the three Baltic nations to be accepted into the World Trade Organisation.

At the end of 1999 in Helsinki, the heads of the European Union countries and goverments invited Latvia to begin negotiations regarding accession to the European Union. In 2004 Latvia's most important foreign policy goals - membership in the European Union and NATO - were fulfilled. On April 2, Latvia became a member of NATO and on May 1, Latvia together with other two Baltic States became a full-fledged member of European Union.

See also

External links

de:Geschichte Lettlands es:Historia de Letonia lt:Latvijos istorija lv:Latvijas vēsture pl:Historia Łotwy - kalendarium pt:Histria da Letnia ru:История Латвии sv:Lettlands historia


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