A brief summary of Latvia's history

The people of Latvia are called Latvians, or Letts, and speak Latvian, one of only two Baltic languages, the other being Lithuanian. The first human settlements in Latvia date back to the time just after the last glacier period, approximately 10 000 BC. In approximately 2000 BC, Baltic tribes came from the south into Latvia, and are regarded as the ancestors of present day Latvians and Lithuanians. 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. 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 for jewelry, found in large quantities on the coasts of the Baltic Sea.

Great changes in the Baltic history occurred during the 13th century, when Christianity was introduced. The crusades initiated by the Pope to the Baltic territories, 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. The ruling classes from then were Germans but 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 farmers had the possibility of becoming Germans. This is why the Baltic nations, contrary to the Prussian population, did not lose their ethnic identity.

The 17th century brought new changes with fighting between Poland and Sweden for the rule of the Baltic region. The Swedish-Polish war mainly took place in the territory of present day Latvia, and resulted in the northern part of the country (Vidzeme or Livland) and Riga to pass into Swedish rule. The "good Swedish times" continued until the 18th century and brought essential political and cultural changes. At the same time Duke Jacob (1642-1682) ruled over a prosperous Kurzeme. During this period, several branches of industry developed, mainly ship-building and metallurgy. Duke Jacob even succeeded in creating colonies overseas - 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. 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. After the second division of Poland in 1772, Latgale was joined to the Czarist Russia, and in 1795, with the third division of Poland, Kurzeme suffered the same fate. Now Czarist Russia had rule over almost all of the Baltic states, including Estonia and part of Lithuania. The formation of the Latvian nation didn't start until the beginning of the 19th century when, for the first time, Latvians were able to enter the Baltic university in Dorpat (Tartu), Estonia. 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.

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, and 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. At 1932 Los Angeles Olympics Janis Dalins got a silver medal in the 50 m walk. During his career he won the 25 m walk in Berlin in 1930 and 1932 and held world records in 1933 in 20 km (1:34:26.0) and 25 k (2:00:46.0); in 1934 in 30 km (2:31:30.6). He was European champion in Turin in 1934 for the 50 km walk. He was Latvia’s most famous sporting personality.

As the thirties drew to a close 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. The Baltic States agreed to do nothing and let the major powers rule Europe's fate. They had no chance of defending themselves against either Germany or Russia. Even among themselves and Finland they could not always agree. Some border incidents occurred regarding state duty (Latvia, Estonia) in some cases and land rights in other (Lithuania Poland borders). In 1939 Germany invaded Chekoslovakia and the war had begun in earnest.

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 nation hoped to remove the Soviet terror and to reestablish their independent state with Germany’s help, but Latvia remained occupied and was part of the region, called Ostland in Nazi slang. Riga fell to USSR 13 October 1944. During the last days of the war, the Latvian and the German armies were fighting against the Russian army in the Kurzeme, until the total defeat of Germany, on May 8, 1945. More than 80 percent of Latvian intellectuals fled across Kurzeme to escape the country. A guerrilla movement, called "the green resistance", continued until 1957 in the forests of Kurzeme.

Map of Latvia

After 1945 Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic existed within USSR for 46 year, or a whole generation. The parliament of Latvia officially declared its independence in August 1991, during the coup d'état in Moscow, whose organizers declared a state of emergency in the Baltic States. After the failure of the coup and international pressure, Russia finally recognised the independence of Latvia.


Information taken from various sources.