The history of Latvia is characterized by the fact that the area has long been subject to other states. From the Middle Ages, Latvia was under German rule, then Swedish, and finally Russian. In 1918, Latvia declared independence, but only in 1920 was independence recognized by Russia. In 1940, Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. In 1991, Latvia again became an independent state.
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The area that today constitutes Latvia was early inhabited by Indo-European tribes. The main tribes were couriers in the west (Kurland or Kurzeme), semals in the central part of the country (Zemgale, south of Riga and further into present-day Lithuania), light Gauls (letterers) in the east (Latgale), and sealers in the south. These peoples gradually merged into Latvians (letters). Livland (Vidzeme), located in northern Latvia and southern Estonia, is named after the livers, who had a Finnish-Ugric language akin to Estonian. The livery lived on both sides of the Gulf of Riga. Most have joined the Latvian and Estonian population. To see more information other than history, please visit Abbreviationfinder to learn more about climate, population, government, and economy for the country of Latvia.
It was early trade relations with the Mediterranean. From the 600s and 700s there was contact with Swedish and Danish areas, both peaceful and warlike. It was a larger Scandinavian settlement in Grobin east of Liepāja. Trade and looting took place throughout the area during the Viking Age, when the river Daugava (West Dvina) from the 800s became an important trade route from Scandinavia to Russia and Byzantium.
German rule in the Middle Ages
It was the German expansion that mattered most. Around 1160, German merchants began to settle at the mouth of Daugava and up the river. Since the inhabitants were not Christian, German conquest attempts could be given a religious justification, and Latvia became a popular crusade area for warriors from different parts of Europe.
In 1201, Bishop Albert of Riga built a castle next to a lively settlement and founded with it the city of Riga. In 1202 he founded the Order of the Brotherhood of the Knights of Christ in Livland, popularly called the Order of the Swordsmen or Swordsmen. German war-technical superiority and division among the Baltic peoples allowed the knights to complete the conquest within a few decades. Most of Latvia had come under German control in 1230. An unsuccessful attempt to conquer Lithuania in 1236 led the Swordsmen to become part of the German Order.
The term Livland was used at this time on the entire German-controlled area in Estonia and Latvia, not just on the countries of the liver. The German government was organized as the Liveland Confederation. It lasted for over three hundred years. There was a lot of internal conflict in this feudal community and several wars around the border areas. The Latvian peasant population was subjugated, had to pay taxes and tithes, and did duty work for the German landlords, and the domestic upper class was exterminated or assimilated. In 1282 Riga joined the Hansa Federation.
When Lithuania became Christian and the country went into union with Poland in 1386, the German order was isolated, and in 1410 it suffered a decisive defeat against Poles and Lithuanians in the Battle of Tannenberg (also Grunwald and Žalgiris). The ideology of order itself was undermined by the Lutheran Reformation that took root in Latvia from the 1520s. German rule over Latvia in the 1400s and 1500s was also threatened by Russian expansion attempts westward.
The Russian tsar Ivan “the cruel” tried in the lifelong wars in the years 1558–1583 to penetrate the Baltic Sea. Although he failed, the war led to the demise of the Liveland Confederation and the division of German Liveland in 1561. Lithuania-Poland took over Latgale and Vidzeme (north of Daugava), while Kurzeme and Zemgale (west and south) became self-governing. the Duchy of Kurland under Lithuanian-Polish supremacy. Riga had a free position at first, but in 1581 became part of the Lithuanian-Polish Empire.
Swedish rule (1629-1721)
A Swedish attempt to conquer Latvia from Lithuania-Poland in 1600 failed. The war went hard across the country, and as the following winter (1601) became unusually severe, thousands of farmers died of starvation and cold. The Swedes did not give up the attempt to expand their dominion in the east. With Gustav Adolf’s campaign in 1621-1629, Sweden became the leading Baltic sea power and won large parts of Latvia (Riga in 1621 and Vidzeme at the peace in Altmark in 1629).
The Swedish government in Livland lasted from 1629 to 1721. The term Livland was now used throughout southern Estonia and northern Latvia. Northern Estonia was already Swedish from 1561. German remained the language of administration; the German nobility and the free cities retained most of their privileges, and there were contradictions between the Swedish king and the German landowners.
The Swedes implemented some reforms in the country. The Lutheran doctrine was the state religion, the Bible was translated into Latvian, and it was created schools with instruction in Latvian. Although the results of the reforms were limited, this period in Latvian folk tradition has often been referred to as “the good old Swedish age”. Riga became the largest city in the Swedish empire, larger than Stockholm.
Russian rule (1721-1918)
During the Great Nordic War (1700-1721), Latvia was repeatedly a scene of war. The civilian population was hit hard and the population was sharply reduced. At the peace in Nystad in 1721 (in practice from 1710), northern Latvia, as part of Swedish Livland, came under Russia. The other major parts of Latvia were subject to Russia in connection with the divisions of Poland-Lithuania (Latgale in 1773, Kurland in 1795). After that, all of Latvia was Russian until 1918.
The long period of peace under Russian rule made it possible for reconstruction and further economic development. The latter first and foremost benefited Riga. Socially, the position of the peasants deteriorated, and the landowners were given greater freedom to pressure their viable peasants. Beyond the 19th century, there was a national revival. The first Latvian newspaper was published in 1822, and the national movement accelerated in the second half of the 19th century, as more and more Latvians received higher education. Several books were published in Latvian, fairy tales and folk songs were collected. In 1873 the first national song festival was organized.
In 1876, the Baltic governments lost their special position in Russia and were equated with the rest of the empire. This happened as part of a Russification campaign aimed primarily at the Germans, for fear that Germany’s gathering into one state would be echoed in the Baltics. Russian replaced German as administrative language. In the 1880s, the Russification became harder and also affected the judiciary and the school system.
During the Russian 1905 revolution, demands were raised that the tsarist regime should be overthrown and a democratic constitution drawn up. The most radical ones advocated Latvian independence. The riots spread to other cities and to the countryside, where German landlords and priests were first to apologize. After 1905 a more liberal period followed, in which Latvian politicians were elected to the Duma in St. Petersburg.
World War I hit Latvia hard. At the same time, the Russian war and revolution in 1917 ended the Russian rule. Latvia for the first time became an independent state. Parts of Latvia were occupied by Germany from May 1915, and the front line between Russia and Germany went across the country. Hundreds of thousands fled. Latvian soldiers had participated on the Russian side since the beginning of the war, and many looked with sympathy for the Russian fight against Germany.
Shortly after the Russian Revolution broke out in February 1917, a Latvian provincial council organized a new administrative unit named Latvia, across the Russian provincial division. At the same time, Latvian labor and soldier councils (Soviets) were formed, which formed a competing provincial council in April. In May, the two councils initiated a collaboration. Various Latvian political parties also took shape, the most important being the Peasant Union. Everyone advocated Latvian self-government within an All-Russian Republic. However, the provisional Russian government opposed Latvian autonomy, and in September 1917 the newly elected provincial assembly was divided on this issue. The bourgeois and Mensheviks wanted a Latvian nation state, while the Bolsheviks wanted more international autonomy. A National Council, where the socialists failed to meet, demanded independence in Valka in November. Riga was already taken by the Germans in September.
Following the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd in November 1917 (the October Revolution), political power in Latvia switched to the Bolshevik-dominated Council Movement (the Soviets). The bourgeois made no resistance. In February 1918, all of Latvia was occupied by Germany, and the Germans tried to portray themselves as liberators of communism.
With the German defeat in November 1918 a new situation arose. The Soviet government declared that it would help the masses of workers in Estonia and Latvia with the liberation from German imperialism. An Estonian Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Moscow in December, and Latvian Bolshevik-controlled forces supported by the Red Army defeated what remained of German resistance in Latvia during December 1918 and January 1919. Riga was taken over by the Bolsheviks on January 3.
On the Latvian side, just after Germany’s capitulation in November 1918, a new national body, the Latvian People’s Council (inter-political, except the Bolsheviks) had been formed. On November 18, 1918, this Council declared Latvia’s independence. Kārlis Ulmanis, one of the leaders of the Peasant Union, became the first prime minister. When Riga was taken over by the Bolsheviks in January, the government fled to the coastal city of Liepāja.
The sympathy that the Bolsheviks had met with large sections of the population disappeared during the terrorist regime in the winter of 1918-1919 and the spring of 1919. At the same time most of Kurland was conquered by the German forces. On May 22, 1919, German forces with the support of anti-Bolshevik Latvian and Russian units conquered Riga. A German (essentially Baltic-German) attempt to move north from Riga was stopped by a joint Estonian and Latvian force in the Battle of Cēsis (German Wenden). Britain was now pushing the Germans to escape Riga, and on July 8, 1919, the Ulmanis government was able to return to the capital.
In December 1919, all the German forces were out of Latvia, and the Baltic-German divisions were incorporated into the Latvian army. Armistice was signed with Soviet Russia in February, and on August 11, 1920, the peace agreement between the two countries was signed in Riga. Soviet Russia renounced all claims to Latvia, borders were drawn as much as possible along ethnic lines, and the Latvian Soviet government was formally dissolved.
The new state was facing major problems. The population fell from 2.6 million in 1913 to 1.8 million in 1925. Several cities were in ruins, much of the industrial equipment was shipped to Russia, many agricultural machinery destroyed and livestock killed.
A new constitution was passed in 1922. Besides economic reconstruction and land reform that crushed the German landlord’s power, a relatively advanced social policy was aimed at. The parliamentary life in Latvia was characterized by a large number of parties and frequent change of government.
The global economic crisis of 1930 hit Latvia with rising unemployment and falling agricultural prices. The dissatisfaction with the politically unstable conditions increased. Right-wing directions increased support. As a starting point, the Fire Cross (Ugun Krusts) had veteran groups from the war of independence. The movement was quickly banned, but emerged under a new name, the Tordenkorset (Pērkonkrusts). The members used the Nazi salute, and the country’s minorities, communists and socialists were designated as enemies. Typical of Latvian fascism was the great preoccupation of the country’s pre-Christian era with attempts to revive “a purely Latvian religion”. The number of members varies from 5000 to 15,000 in various sources.
As political polarization increased and it was not possible to revise the Constitution as the Peasant Union thought was necessary, Kārlis Ulmanis conducted a coup on the night of May 15, 1934. The coup was carried out by the army and the party’s semi-military groups. The Constitution was abolished, the National Assembly and political parties dissolved, and the state of emergency introduced. Although the dictatorship was relatively mild, conditions for the minorities became more difficult. Eventually, corporate bodies were established according to a fascist pattern. The state sector of the economy grew. In 1936, Ulmanis was appointed president in combination with the prime minister’s office.
The goal of Latvian foreign policy in the interwar period was to protect the newly gained independence. The country became a member of the League of Nations in 1921. In relation to the great powers, the country was neutral. Despite the diplomatic recognition, the Soviet Union was fundamentally skeptical of Latvia and the other Baltic states, and viewed them as a Western march against Soviet interests. At the same time, interest among the Western powers and Scandinavia was too small to engage in security politics in the Baltic States. An inter-regional cooperation between the Baltic states was attempted, but with modest results.
Soviet rule (1940-1991)
Latvia had achieved its independence while Germany and Russia were weakened by defeat and revolution. With both of these superpowers back with new strength during World War II, the existence of the Baltic States was in jeopardy. In a secret addition to the German-Soviet non-attack pact of 1939, Latvia was placed in the Soviet sphere of interest.
Soviet intentions soon became clear. In October 1939, the Soviet Union demanded a military alliance with Latvia and bases on Latvian territory. The Latvian government found it futile to oppose the threats from Moscow militarily, and an agreement was signed on October 5. Estonia had accepted a similar agreement just before, and shortly afterwards Lithuania did the same, after which Foreign Minister Molotov assured that the Soviet Union would still respect the sovereignty of the Baltic States. At the same time, Germany was preparing to give the Soviet Union control of the Baltic: the German-Baltic population, with roots in the area 700 years back, was relocated to Germany (in areas recently conquered from Poland).
In the summer of 1940, Soviet pressure against the Baltic increased. On June 16, Latvia and Estonia (Lithuania received it the day before) received an ultimatum from Moscow on an expanded military occupation and new governments that were willing and able to “honestly implement the assistance pact”. The deadline was eight hours. Moscow’s rationale was that Latvia and Estonia had cooperated militarily against the Soviet Union. The Latvian leaders saw no possibility of military resistance and accepted the demands. On June 17, the Soviet march began, and within a few days Latvia, like Lithuania and Estonia, was occupied.
On June 20, 1940, President Ulmanis appointed the government demanded by the Soviet envoy, Andrei Vyshinsky. August Kirhenšteins became prime minister. Communists were given key positions in the government, but were formally not in the majority. Already on July 14 and 15, “elections” were held, with the official result being 97.6 percent for “the working people’s block”. At its first meeting on July 21, the new parliament proclaimed a Latvian socialist Soviet republic which applied for admission into the Soviet Union. At a meeting of the upper Soviet Union in Moscow on August 5, 1940, Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. All parties except the communist were banned, and most of the business was taken over by the state. Gold and foreign exchange reserves were transferred to Moscow. A large number of leading people were arrested and deported.
The German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, interrupted the Soviet occupation. The Germans were initially greeted as liberators, but it did not take long before the Latvians realized that Germany was not going to give the country any greater freedom than the Soviet Union had done. The Latvians organized a provisional government, but this was quickly removed by the Germans. The three Baltic countries, together with the western part of Belarus, were organized in the administrative unit Ostland. The Jewish persecution hit Latvia hard. 90 percent of the country’s 100,000 Jews were murdered. In total, it is estimated that 180,000 of the country’s inhabitants died as a result of occupation and acts of war.
In 1944, the Soviet Union regained military control over Latvia. Riga was conquered on October 14. Attempts to restore a national government when the Germans withdrew were stopped after a few days of Soviet power. The new Soviet occupation regime reintroduced the political structures from 1940-1941, and society was again subjected to communist unification. Thousands of people were arrested and deported. In 1948-1949 agriculture was collectivized, and in this connection the largest mass deportations occurred. In the reintroduction of the Soviet regime after World War II, an armed resistance movement arose, which with guerrilla tactics tried to prevent the implementation of the communist regime. This was first fought in 1951.
The counterpart to the deportations was the forced immigration of Russians and people of other nationalities from the rest of the Soviet Union. Among other things, this immigration provided labor for the industry, and in particular helped to change the population composition of the larger cities.
In Soviet times, Latvia’s economy became an integral part of the Soviet planning economy. This meant strong industrial growth and rapid urbanization. Latvia and Estonia were the Soviet Union’s most urbanized republics. Although the standard of living was low, it was higher than average in the Soviet Union. Cultural life was not only subjected to a general political alignment of communist color; there was also a gradual Russification. The story was rewritten to give the Russian element of Latvian history a progressive role.
The process of independence 1985–1991
When Mikhail Gorbachev became party leader in the Soviet Union in 1985, the renovation of the Soviet system began. There was a movement for national independence in Latvia. The Latvian population had dropped in the Republic, and many felt that this was the last opportunity to secure an independent Latvia. Already in the 1970s there were dissidents who engaged in Russification and independence. But it was only from 1986/1987 that the protests began to gain mass. To begin with, environmental issues were central. But the environmental movement also engaged in more general political issues, such as the use of the Latvian flag from the time of independence.
In 1986, several authors protested against the Russification. In the same year, a human rights group in Liepāja was formed by workers and former dissidents, “Helsinki 86”. The Writers’ Association published in 1988 the secret supplemental protocol to the German-Soviet pact of 1939, in which Latvia was given to the Soviet Union. The official Soviet preparation of the war years meant that it had been an independent Latvian revolutionary act to become part of the Soviet Union. Therefore, it was undermining the legitimacy of the regime when the truth of the German-Soviet pact came openly.
The Latvian People’s Front
In October 1988, the Latvian People’s Front held its first congress. The national front quickly gained over 300,000 members. The People’s Front supported Gorbachev’s reform policy and demanded greater economic and political autonomy, free elections and a stop in non-Latvian immigration. With such demands it could bring together both reform-friendly communists and more radical nationalists. Just before the Congress, Latvia’s Supreme Soviet had made Latvian official language and approved the use of the old national flag.
Some Russians in Latvia supported the People’s Front, but in the spring of 1989 a separate organization, the International Front (Interfront), was formed to ensure that Latvia remained in the Soviet Union and in defense of Russian interests against Latvian nationalism. Gradually, the demands of the Popular Front became more radical, and on May 31, 1989, it was decided that full independence had to be put on the agenda. On August 23, 1989 – the 50th anniversary of the German-Soviet pact – the Popular Front was the co-organizer of the human chain from Tallinn across Riga to Vilnius. The People’s Front had obtained a clear majority both in elections to the Soviet People’s Congress (an innovation under Gorbachev) in March 1989 and by municipal elections in December 1989.
The first free parliamentary elections were held in 1990. In the election of the Latvian Supreme Soviet/National Assembly (National Assembly), the People’s Front got 66 percent of the vote and together with other nationalist groups got 2/3 majority in the upper Soviet, which made it possible to change Constitution. On May 4, 1990, the National Assembly passed a resolution declaring that the incorporation of Latvia into the Soviet Union in 1940 was illegal. In addition, four articles of the 1922 Constitution, which defined Latvia as an independent state, were adopted. Reform Communists Anatolia Gorbunovs was re-elected as chair of the National Assembly (head of state), while Ivars Godmanis, deputy leader of the People’s Front, became prime minister. Unlike the Estonian and Lithuanian Communist parties, the majority in the Latvian party was loyal to Moscow. That led to the split of the party.
Soviet President Gorbachev declared the decisions of the Latvian National Assembly illegal. Following the Soviet attacks in Lithuania in January 1991, barricades were built in Riga, and unarmed people gathered in defense of the National Assembly, the Television House and other public buildings. On January 20, Soviet security forces stormed the Interior Ministry, killing five people.
Referendum on independence
Latvia refused to participate in the work on a new Soviet Union agreement and boycotted Gorbachev’s referendum on it. Instead, the country held its own referendum on March 2, 1991. 74 percent voted for independence from the Soviet Union. The attendance was 83 percent. This shows that a large part of the ethnic minorities also voted for an independent Latvia.
The last phase of the independence struggle was made easier by the failed coup d’état against Gorbachev in the Soviet Union on August 19, 1991. When the coup in Moscow collapsed, the National Assembly declared Latvia an independent state. Two days later, the Communist Party was banned. The leader of the party had supported the coup and was therefore arrested. A large number of states then recognized Latvia, including the Soviet Union.
In September 1991 Latvia joined the UN. In December 1991, most former Soviet republics formed the Commonwealth of Independent States, but Latvia and the other Baltic States chose to remain outside.