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Articles > Country and people

History of Latvia ‘The Route from the Vikings to the Greeks’

Author: Raimonds Cerūzis, The Latvian Institute
Visited 14154 times
The territory known today as Latvia has been inhabited since 9000 BC. In the first half of 2000 BC, the proto-Balts or early Baltic peoples arrived. They are the forefathers of the Latvian people.

Legendary History

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 along 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 900s AD, the ancient Balts began to establish specific tribal realms. Gradually, four individual Baltic tribal cultures developed: Couronians, Latgallians, Selonians, Semigallians (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. Located on the east coast of the Baltic, they became known as the ‘Baltic Vikings’. Their contemporaries, the inland Selonians and Semigallians, were known as peace-loving and prosperous farmers.

Under German Rule
Because of its strategic geographic location, Latvian territory was frequently invaded by neighbouring nations, largely defining the fate of Latvia and its people.

By the late 1100s, Latvia was increasingly visited by traders from western Europe who used Latvia’s longest river, the Daugava, as a trade route to Russia. At the close of the 12th century, German traders arrived, bringing with them missionaries who attempted to convert the pagan Baltic and Finno-Ugrian tribes to the Christian faith. Out of loyalty to their ancient pantheistic beliefs, the Balts resisted the imposition of a foreign religion, especially the ritual of christening. When news of this reached the Pope in Rome, he ordered a military Crusade against the Baltic peoples. At the turn of the century, armed Germanic Crusaders were hired to assist the Christian missionaries and knights in a brutal campaign to forcibly convert the people of the region.

The Germans founded Rīga in 1201, establishing it as the largest and most powerful city on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. As the German Crusaders seized control of the region, the development of separate tribal realms in ancient Latvia came to an end.

In the 1200s, a confederation of feudal nations was developed under German rule and named Livonia. The territory 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). Subsequently, Rīga became an important centre not only for east-west trade, but for the entire eastern Baltic region, developing close cultural contacts with Western Europe.

Under Polish and Swedish Rule
The 1500s were a time of great changes for the inhabitants of Latvia, notable for the reformation and the collapse of Livonia. After the so-called Livonian War (1558 – 1583) today’s Latvian territory, divided into regions, came under Polish-Lithuanian rule. The Lutheran faith was accepted in Kurzeme (Courland), Zemgale (Semigallia) and Vidzeme (Livland), but the Roman Catholic faith maintained its dominance in Latgale (Latgallia) – it remains so to this day.

In the 1600s, the Dukedom of Kurzeme (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. Couronian place names from this period are still evident there today. In 1621, during the Polish-Swedish war (1600 – 1629), Rīga came under Swedish rule, overshadowing Stockholm as the largest and most developed city in the Swedish Kingdom. During this period the region of Vidzeme was known as the ‘Swedish Bread Basket’ in that 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, Semigallians and Livs (Finno-Ugrians) a culturally unified nation that spoke a common language developed – the Latvians (in Latvian: latvieši).

Under Russian Rule
At the beginning of the 1700s, the Great Northern War broke out, largely as a result of the Russian Empire’s desire to expand its territorial claims to the strategically important lands of Latvia. One of its key goals was to secure and control the wealthy and prestigious city of Rīga.

In 1710, the Russian Tsar, Peter I, conquered Vidzeme. The combination of Vidzeme and Rīga provided Russia with a clear passage to Europe. By the end of the 18th century, all of Latvia’s territory was under Russian rule.

At the end of the 1700s, industry developed quickly, bringing with it a major growth in population. Latvia became Russia’s most developed province.

At the beginning of the 1800s, with the rise of national consciousness throughout Europe, ethnic Latvians experienced a powerful ‘awakening’ of national identity. The first newspapers in the Latvian language were printed, and active cultural development took place.

The latter half of the 1800s marked a period of national rebirth – the most active members of the Latvian social and cultural life, the so called ‘New-Latvians’, jaunlatvieši, demanded the same rights long enjoyed by other nations.

The Fight for Independence
The idea of an independent Latvia became a reality at the beginning of the 1900s. As the First World War spread to Latvian territory and directly engaged the entire Latvian population, a powerful pro-independence movement developed. Courageous Latvian riflemen called latviešu strēlnieki fought on the Tsarist Russian side during this war, and earned recognition for their bravery across Europe. Post-war confusion enabled pro-independence forces to consolidate their efforts and pursue their dream. Latvia’s independence was proclaimed shortly after the end of the First World War – on November 18, 1918. The first to recognise Latvia’s independence was Soviet Russia, which relinquished authority and pretences to Latvian territory for ever. However, future actions proved that these had been empty promises.

The international community recognised Latvia’s independence on January 26, 1921. In the same year Latvia also became a member of the League of Nations and took an active role in the European community of democratic nations. During this period Latvia gained an international reputation as a country that cared for and paid special attention to the rights of national minorities. Latvia was often referred to as a role model for other nations in the area of minority rights.

In the midst of the world economic crises of the 1930s, Latvia also experienced dissatisfaction among its population. In an attempt to bring stability to the country, the Prime Minister organised a peaceful coup d’etat in Rīga on May 15, 1934, suspending the activities of the Saeima (the Parliament) and all political parties. This was followed by rapid economic growth, during which Latvia achieved one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Because of a general improvement in the quality of life, there was little opposition to the authoritarian rule of the Prime Minister.

Loss of Independence
Latvia’s longstanding strategic importance to the USSR was underlined with the signing of the so-called ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’ on August 23, 1939. In concordance with this unlawful secret agreement, the Soviet army occupied Latvia on June 17, 1940. A few months later, against the wishes of the Latvian nation, Latvia was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. During the ‘Night of Terror’ (June 13-14, 1941) thousands of Latvia’s inhabitants were brutally taken from their homes, placed in box cars and deported to Siberia. Thirty-five thousand people suffered Soviet repression in the first year of Soviet occupation.

In the summer of 1941, the Soviets were forced to retreat as Latvia was invaded by German occupation forces. Under subsequent Nazi German rule, 90 percent of Latvia’s Jewish population was systematically annihilated. In 1944, the USSR reinvaded Latvia. Following heavy fighting between German and Soviet troops, the Red Army eventually gained the upper hand. During the course of the war, both occupying forces conscripted Latvians into their armies, in this way increased the loss of the nation’s ‘human resource’. By 1945, Latvia was once again under total Soviet occupation and pre-war Soviet rule was reinstated.

The first post war years marked a particularly dismal and sombre period in Latvia’s history. Soviet rule was characterised by systematic repression and genocide against the Latvian people. One hundred and twenty thousand Latvian inhabitants were imprisoned or deported to Soviet concentration (GULAG) camps. More than hundred and forty thousand took refuge from the Soviet army by fleeing to the West. On March 25, 1949, more than forty thousand rural residents were deported to Siberia in a sweeping repressive action. An extensive Russification campaign began in Latvia and many administrative obstacles were created to hinder the use of the Latvian language.

Latvia was forced to adopt Soviet farming practices and the economic infrastructure developed in the 1920s and 1930s was purposefully destroyed. Rural areas were forced into collectivisation. Since Latvia still had a well-developed infrastructure and educated specialists, Moscow decided to base some of the Soviet Union’s most advanced manufacturing factories in Latvia. To supply the large labour force needed to run these factories, Soviet workers from Russia and other Soviet republics were flooded into the country, dramatically decreasing the proportion of Latvian nationals. Whereas prior to the Second World War Latvians comprised 75 percent of the population, by the end of the 1980s, this number was reduced to 50 percent. (Presently the total population is 2.3 million).

Reinstating Independence
A liberalisation within the communist regime in the USSR, known as ‘glasnost’, began in the mid 1980s. This opportunity was immediately seized by pro-independence forces in the population, who formed mass, nationally oriented socio-political organisations – Tautas Fronte (The Popular Front of Latvia), Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības Kustība (Latvia’s National Independence Movement), Pilsoņu Kongress (The Congress of Citizens of Latvia). All eventually supported the restoration of Latvia’s national independence.

August 23, 1989, marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of notorious ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’, which had led to the Soviet occupations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In order to draw the world’s attention to the fate of the Baltic nations, around 2 million 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 major step toward restoration of independence was taken on May 4, 1990, when the Latvian SSR parliamentary body known as the Supreme Council adopted a declaration calling for the restoring independence following a transition period. On August 21, 1991 the parliament voted to end to this transition period, thus restoring Latvia’s pre-war independence. In September 1991, Latvian independence was recognised by the USSR.

Soon after reinstating independence, Latvia became a member of the United Nations and swiftly returned to the world community of democratic nations. In 1992, Latvia became eligible for the International Monetary Fund and in 1994, joined the NATO ‘Partnership for Peace’ program, as well as signed the free trade agreement with the European Union. Latvia became a member nation of the European Council and a candidate for membership in the European Union and Western European Union. In 1999 Latvia was the first of the 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 governments 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 the other two Baltic States (Estonia and Lithuania) became a full-fledged member of the European Union.

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