The Story of Latvia—A Historical SurveyArveds Švābe. Latvian National Foundation, Stockholm. 1949



The Baltic States question is not the result of the Second World War; it is an old international problem, as old as the Dardanelles and the Balkans. Therefore, in all the European Wars the Baltic has been the battlefield for the great contesting parties of world politics and warring ideologies.

In spite of the differences in race and extraction (the Finns and Estonians are Finno-Ugrians; the Latvians and Lithuanians, Indo-Europeans), the close early contact, the gradual movement from East to West, the consequent prolonged Scandinavian influence, as well as the subsequent community of destinies, forged these people into one area of culture and family of nations, characterised by such well-known expressions as "East Baltic race," "Baltic languages," "Baltic nations," "Baltic States" and "Baltic Entente." This community is exactly parallel to such other cultural and historic communities as the Slavs, the Teutonic people, the Romanic people, the Anglo-Saxons.

Standing guard to Western civilisation at an outpost, the Baltic people have lost much of their former territory and of their manpower, but they have carried out their mission heroically; that is why their future cannot be judged by their present population figures as a purely demographic problem, but they must be treated according to their role in the past and their importance in the future.


The North-Eastern shores of the Baltic Sea are inhabited by the following peoples: In Finland and Estonia live the so-called Baltic Finns a group of peoples consisting of the Finns proper and their kinsfolk the Ingrians, Estonians and now nearly extinct Livs (the latter in the territory of Latvia). They speak their own languages, quite different from the German and Slavic languages, different also from Latvian. All Finnish languages and dialects belong to the Finno-Ugrian group of the Uralo-Altayan family of languages.

In Latvia and Lithuania the aboriginal peoples are the Balts proper — the Latvians (also named Letts) and Lithuanians. Together with the Borussian (Ancient Prussian) language, which became extinct in the 17th century, Latvian and Lithuanian (the only two of the languages still alive) form a distinct "Baltic" branch of the Indo-European family to which belong also Indo-Iranian, Greek, Latin, Slavic, Germanic, Celtic and other branches.

In comparison with other living European languages, Latvian and Lithuanian have kept much more of the wealth of ancient sounds and forms. Therefore, it is no wonder that linguists who study Comparative Linguistics value very highly the monumental Latvian Grammar (840 pages) by the distinguished philologist Prof. J. Endzelins. It is not without reason that Latvian and Lithuanian are called the Sanskrit of Europe. The first written Latvian words are found in documents dating from the 13th century, but the first complete text is that of the Lord's Prayer, printed in 1550. Therefore, the misconception, rather widespread in the Western world, that the Baltic nations speak the Russian language, or some dialect closely related to it, cannot be denied sufficiently emphatically.

There are few areas in the world where language borders are so distinctly delineated as in the Baltic. The Russian speech ends with the Russian frontier; west of it, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian are spoken.

This language border is also an anthropological frontier. The Baltic man differs considerably in his physical and mental characteristics from the Russian. In spite of the difference in language between the Finno-Ugrian Finns and Estonians and the Baltic Latvians and Lithuanians, the anthropological differences between them are smaller than between them and the Russians. There are considerable common features, and anthropologists group them all together as the East-Baltic race, classifying it as a sub-Nordic type closest related to the Scandinavian man. The Latvians are one of the tallest peoples in Europe, the average height of men being 171 cm., of women 160 cm. Still taller are the Livs (an almost extinct Finno-Ugrian tribe living in Latvia, coming closest to the Scots (174.6 cm.) and the Norwegians (174.4 cm.). Latvians are also among the peoples with the heaviest brain men 1378 grammes, women 1243 grammes. Excavations of skulls show that in the 5th to 7th centuries the ancestors of present-day Latvians were dolichocephalic but gradually developed into a brachycephalic type with a tendency towards mezocephalicism. The majority of Latvians, sixty per cent, have grey-blue or blue eyes and soft straight and fine hair of a dark blond colour with a golden tinge. Latvians with grey eyes and brown hair are in the minority and they are descendants of the assimilated Livs, whose predominant eye colour is grey (seventy-five per cent) and hair brown (seventy per cent).


The difference between the Baltic peoples and the Russians in mentality is even more striking and is clearly noticeable even to a superficial observer. The Russians are a passive type of mankind. They are an emotional people. Work they regard as an evil that has to be suffered. The Baltic peoples are active; they are men of will and reason. They regard work as a moral good, and indolence, slovenliness and untidiness as the greatest vices. Even in poverty (and in their history the Latvians have experienced plenty of that) they maintain high standards of cleanliness and ordered life. In contrast to the Russians, who have always had a tendency towards dreaminess and a metaphysical contemplative search for God and the ultimate truths, and who try to find salvation and escape from the harsh realities of life in religious depths or social and political Utopias, the Baltic people are realists and possess a natural talent for organisation. Even in the Tsarist Empire, Latvians who wandered into Russia always got themselves jobs as organisers and managers in the large country estates, in banks, insurance firms or business houses. The Latvians do not build castles in the air; instead they follow their realistic aim, and even in the most adverse conditions soon establish foundations for their individual and national life. They do not stop halfway but tenaciously follow their aim, which they do not set sky-high, but within the realms of practical possibilities. There is a proverb well known in the Baltic: "We know how to live even on a dry branch." In the course of history there have been many attempts at colonising the Baltic lands and it has always beer proved that neither the Germans nor the Russians can compete with the Baltic peoples. In the unfavourable conditions, on land that is not naturally fertile, and with summers that are short, the newcomers could not survive because they could not work so hard and did not know how to organise life so well. Even at the beginning of our era the Roman author Tacitus could write that the Aestii (as the Baltic peoples were called in those days) cultivated their crops more diligently than the indolent Germans. Medieval authors have described the Balts 'as humane, peaceful and hospitable people.

In contrast to the active, but mentally inferior, Teutonic people, the Prussians and Saxons, who regard war and obedience to the Fuhrer as the highest national virtue, the Baltic peoples loathe any drill — but have, nevertheless, in all wars shown themselves as fearless fighters with a contempt for death. The Baltic peoples are natural sceptics and individualists; they have an inborn sense of proportion and a sense of humour. Therefore they do not easily fall for exaggerated promises, and even in the remotest province the peasant listens to a demagogical speech or article with a cool and reasoned criticism. He always reserves his right to compare words with deeds at a later date. Therefore democracy is in the flesh and blood of the Baltic people. They do not like dictatorial behaviour, either in their own circle or in society. They have a sense for justice and demand respect for the natural rights of every individual. Since time immemorial woman has been man's equal in the Baltic. A German chronicler of the 13th century writes in amazement: "Here women ride on horses the same as men." In contrast to the Slav woman, who is the man's slave, and meekly submits herself to all his whims, a married Baltic woman is as independent in her sphere of activity as the husband is in his. This emancipation is not a result of an electoral Reform Bill, it is a feature of the national character, a spiritual patrimony inherited through generations. In this connection we might quote an official statement from the U.S.A.: "In respect of literacy they (i.e., the immigrants from Latvia) are above almost all the immigrants from Central and Southern Europe. Many Latvians here have attained a high level of intellectual development. Undeniably they come from good stock and Latvia can be proud of them."

Also in respect of culture the Baltic is an area separate from Russia. Even quite outwardly the difference is clearly visible. Both the sacred and profane architecture of the Baltic capitals has followed the West European styles, whereas in Russia, from the 10th century, the Byzantine architecture had set roots. The Baltic people are either Roman Catholic or Protestant; the Russians, Greek Orthodox. The books and newspapers in the Baltic languages are printed in Latin characters, whereas the Russians use their own script. At the frontiers between the Baltic States and Russia end also such essential elements of European civilisation as Roman Law and the Canonic Law. Whilst the Baltic is a province of the Roman Law, the Russians have had their own system.

Such great streams in European civilisation as feudalism, Renaissance, humanism and all the modern movements in art, literature, economics, sociology and politics have in their ebb and flow washed the Eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, but they never reached Russia, which has always been governed by trends of its own.

It would be wrong to say that this independence of the Baltic lands, this formation of their own cultural area, is a product of the later Middle Ages and of Modern Times, when the Baltic came under the German, Swedish and Polish influences. It is true, prolonged foreign domination has left its effect on the Baltic peoples, but that is only a peel around the individual kernel of their own culture which the Finno-Ugrians and Balts brought to the Baltic like a golden apple in their hands when they first arrived.


Arhaeologists and historians consider that the first inhabitants of the Baltic lands, who began to populate them immediately after the Ice Age, i.e., about 9,000 B.C., were hunters, but the forms of culture of the so-called Stone Age were as yet too primitive to allow of conclusions about the ethnical relations of this people. In the Neolithic Age (3,000—1,500 B.C.) the Baltic area perhaps was populated by Finno-Ugrian tribes who as yet did not know agriculture, and whose only domestic animal was the dog. But towards the end of this period (about 2,000 B.C.) a new wave of colonists flowed into the Baltic area from the South. They settled down in East Prussia, Lithuania and Southern Latvia. This invasion continued in the Bronze Age (1500—500 B.C.) and the older Iron Age (500—0 B.C.). During these periods two cultural routes are playing a great part in the development of Baltic culture. One of these leads over East Prussia to Central Europe; the other across the sea to Scandinavia.

Some forms of graves, tools, arms, and burial customs lead one to suppose that the continuous development of these prehistoric cultural forms of the Baltic is sufficient to prove that the bearers of this civilisation were the forefathers of the present Baltic nations. Thus, the ethnic history of these people can be traced back to about 2,000 B.C. At the beginning of our era the common original Baltic culture had already branched into the Western (later Borussian or Ancient Prussian) and Eastern (later Lithuanian and Latvian) cultures. Even in that age, as is shown by archaeology and linguistics, the relations in culture and trade between the Balts and the Finno-Ugrians were considerable and close. At any rate, this development took place some time before the Teutons established direct contact with both races.

During the next period — the so-called Roman Iron Age (0—400 A.D.) — the peasant culture of the Baltic made remarkable progress. This can be partly explained by the very lively trade relations between the Baltic and centres of the Roman Empire, particularly with the Danube Basin. The Balts exported amber, which at that time was valued higher than gold, and expensive furs. In return they received Roman manufactured goods and coins. At this period the Eastern Balts began to split up into Lithuanians and Latvians, and the Finno-Ugrians into Finns and Estonians. The former began to cross the Finnish Gulf and settle down in present-day Finland.

The Roman Iron Age is remarkable because even at that time the Eastern border of the three Baltic peoples was almost identical with the later ethnic and political frontiers. Beyond this border at that time were very sparsely populated territories of Eastern Europe; this proves that these frontiers have not been established in a struggle with some other nation, but developed naturally, as the natural cultural boundaries of the Baltic nations and as the maximum reach of these civilisations.

Only during the next period, the so-called Era of the Barbarian Invasion (400—800 A.D.) did the Slavs begin to move northwards from the steppes of Southern Russia . This migration began under the pressure of the sub-Black Sea Goths and several Tartar-Turk tribes. The Slavs moved into the woodlands inhabited by some of the extreme Eastern Balt tribes. The total area inhabited by Balts at that time was very wide and covered White Ruthenia, extending deep into Central Russia as far as Tula and Chernigov, to the regions where the rivers Dnieper, Oka, Volga and Daugava have their sources. Under the pressure of Eastern Slays (the Russians), one Balt tribe, the Latgali, moved down the River Daugava (Western Duna) and joined their kinsfolk in Latvia, gradually pressing the Estonians further north.


About the same time began the migration of the Vikings, i.e., the Scandinavians overseas. They started to establish colonies: one, for example, in East Prussia, near Elbing, another in Latvia, near Grobina (formerly Seeborg).

The period that followed is called the Viking Age (800—1150 A.D.), as during that period the Scandinavian expansion into the Eastern Baltic increased, and their influence reached as far as the Volga and down it to the Caspian Sea, as well as to the Black Sea and Byzantium.

This expansion ended with the adoption of the Christian civilisation. The Vikings who had become the rulers and kings of Russia, became slavonised and started organising the Russians for unceasing attacks on the Baltic lands. On the whole, however, this combined Viking-Russian aggression was unsuccessful. The Baltic peoples had learnt from the Scandinavians better use of weapons and military and political organisation. For short periods the Viking-led Russians succeeded in establishing a tributary overlordship, but they were soon driven away and independence was re-established. Thus, the Chronicles tell us that in 1106 the Russians of Polotzk organised an attack down the Daugava against Zemgale (Semigallia — a Latvian Kingdom), but lost 9,000 men and were completely beaten. However, in spite of the occasional restless times and periodic wars, the Viking period gave the Baltic peoples many valuable contacts and stimuli. Large deposits of Arabic and Anglo-Saxon coins have been found, dating from that period. This clearly shows that the cultural tentacles of the Baltic peoples went as far South as the Arabic Caliphates and Iran and so far North-West that they had gained an insight into the Anglo-Saxon world.

Let us only mention that at that time the Baltic peoples already had their own monetary system (the so-called oserings) and their own system of weights and measures. They had partially adopted the Orthodox Christianity. They had their own penal codes, their own kings, their own states, their own national administration and taxation, their own strategically arranged lines of fortified castles. It is quite clear, therefore, that the lands inhabited by the Baltic nations were a very pronounced independent cultural area. On the other hand, the Slav territories, which in present days encircle the Baltic lands from the East and from the South, have always been much poorer in material culture and their civilisation much more monotonous. In the borderlands the Slays make use of many elements that have been borrowed from the Balts. This is particularly noticeable in the ancient Balt territory, White Ruthenia.


A closer analysis of the ancient Baltic civilisation shows: First, it had a pronounced peasant and democratic character. There were, even in those early prehistoric times, towns and harbours inhabited by craftsmen, merchants and soldiers, but they were not large enough to impress their character upon the country. Secondly, in its development the structure of this civilisation has been considerably Westernised, though beyond the Daugava line there are also traces of contacts with the Near East. Thirdly, all the Baltic nations have common traits in their material and mental civilisation, although each nation has its own national features partly due to inherited racial characteristics and partly to the fact that the Finns and Estonians were more in the cultural sphere of influence of Northern Europe, whereas the Latvians, Lithuanians and Borussians (Ancient Prussians) through their contacts with Central and Western Europe, were more influenced by the culture of these latter areas. This is noticeable, for example, in two peculiar types of farm-dwellings and settlements: a primitive type in the North of the Baltic area, and an advanced type in the South. Neither of these types of farm-dwelling, however, extends East over the historical cultural boundary of the present Baltic States. The same applies to national costumes, always considered one of the best expressions of the spirit of a nation. The Baltic national costumes wich nowadays are enthusiastically admired by Britons and Americans in Germany when they see them worn by refugees, are replicas of models that are over 1000 years old, found in archeological excavations. The tradition and art of weaving, knitting and silver-forging did not perish even in the darkest hours of history. Every connoisseur will tell that this national art is neither Slav nor Germanic in its forms, ornament and colour schemes. The consciousness of nationhood and common fate is testified also by the huge number of folk-songs (the Latvians alone have about one million of them). These songs are different in each nation; they differ in melody, theme and poetic structure. And there is nothing borrowed from either the Slavs or the Germans.

It is sufficient to compare the present level of culture of the Baltic peoples and some of their prehistoric neighbours, such as the Mordvins or Cheremis, tribes dwelling in the Upper Volga regions, to understand of what enormous importance it was to the Balts that they were able to tear themselves out of the pincers of the Eastern Slavs and get away from the area of Central Russia.


Of course, the new homeland near the Baltic Sea was much smaller than the territories inhabited by the Balts previously. Being peasant people, the Balts found it very difficult to leave fields and meadows which they had cultivated with love and care, and many stayed behind. As time went on these got scattered by the numerically stronger Slavs and their remnants were russified. Chronicles report of a Baltic tribe, the Galindi, who were fighting with the Russians near Moscow in the 10th century, and even later. It was mainly young people and active patriots who left their ancient homes in search of a new ground where the cultural and national identity of the Balt peoples was not in danger. Those who left were people who refused to live under foreign domination. Thus the immigrants were weaker in quantity than the Balts had been originally, but strong in quality, as only the determined and dynamic elements undertook the hardships of an unknown new life. This elite of virile colonists was the ethnic kernel from which developed the present-day Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian nations.

Now, when within one generation two World Wars have rolled over these three nations like bloody avalanches, their total number will not exceed 5 millions. That is less than there are inhabitants in London or New York. It would, however, be wrong to judge their future from the standpoint of power politics only, or to treat them merely as a demographical problem. It must not be forgotten that they are nations with a culture that is 4,000 years old, whose man-power may be small, but whose cause is great.


It is not feasible that people who have shown their worth throughout centuries will be allowed to perish just because it suits the imperialistic aims of one State which refuses to observe the principles of the Charter of Freedom accepted by it; which refuses to pay any attention to international treaties solemnly entered into by itself and then willfully broken at the beginning of the war.

In the historical development of human civilisation, the Baltic nations are a cultural unit as are the Anglo-Saxons, the Romanic peoples, the Slavs or the Arabs. If it were not so there would not be such generally accepted concepts as the Baltic languages, the East Baltic race, Baltic folklore, Baltic ethnography, Baltic history, Baltic region, Baltic States, etc., in the same way as there are similar concepts in respect of the Arabs, Romanic people, Celts, etc. Numerically the Baltic people are as small as the Greeks, the Irish, the Dutch or the Belgians whose right to be their own masters is undisputed. The Baltic people inhabit a territory of about 80,000 square miles (170,000 square klm.), and even the smallest of the Baltic nations, the Estonians, possesses a territory that is twice the size of Belgium. Anyone who owing to ignorance or indifference thinks that the world would lose nothing if the Russians were to succeed in clearing out, by forcible deportations, the Baltic peoples from the Baltic lands, should think over the matter again, and consider if he would have been equally indifferent if, shall we say, Hitler had succeeded in Germanising the Dutch or turned Normandy for ever into a province of the Third Reich, or cleared the Greeks out of Greece.

It is obvious that there is only one possible answer. Small civilised nations have the same right to life, in their own country, as have the big ones.

"The Story of Latvia-A Historical Survey" reproduced by permission.
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