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



With the exception of the Lithuanians, the Baltic peoples lost their political independence as well as social and economic freedom in the Crusades that the Germans used as a guise for their Drang nach Osten. In the so-called Livonian Wars, Western Latvia became an independent duchy (the Duchy of Courland), which under the influence of the doctrines of mercantilism developed into a colonial and Sea Power of considerable importance, but which, however, after the great Northern War, came into the sphere of influence of Russia.

The Russian Empire created by Peter I gradually annexed all the lands on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, and finally, in the 18th century, it also absorbed the Polish Kingdom and the Duchy of Courland.


Too often Baltic history has been written as a chapter of the colonial expansion of the big powers into the Baltic area. Very little is said about the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, the people who inhabit the countries, but much is related of Teutonic Knights, Polish or Swedish Kings, Russian Tsars and their Governors. The historians of the past who wrote that kind of history were not interested in the inhabitants of a country, their fate and well-being or way of life. The Common Man was not regarded as a factor in history-making; he was only the carcass for the vultures.


After the end of the 13th century the politics of Estonia and Latvia were decided by Germans and the history of both these nations from that time onwards is similar. Only Lithuania, after King Gediminas formed an alliance with the King of Poland (1325), managed to retain her independence and even to enlarge her domains in the direction of White Ruthenia, which was incorporated. However, the Lithuanian nation acquired little except the Roman faith (1387) from the united Polish-Lithuanian Great Power status. The State languages were White Ruthenian and Polish. Lithuanian aristocracy was made equal in rights to that of Poland, and the gulf between the land­owners and the peasants became wider and wider. The cultural links and common development between the Lithuanians and the other Baltic nations were interrupted, and the history of the Lithuanian people became a local variant of the Polish lower classes.

We do not intend to give a detailed picture of the history of the Estonian and Latvian people. We shall content ourselves with giving only a rough sketch of the most characteristic Zodiac signs under the ægis of which the destinies of the Latvian peasant and artisan have developed, how he plodded through the 700-year-long night to the dawn of the era of liberalism heralded by the great French Revolution.

After 1203, when the Pope received in audience the first Catholic King of the Livs, Kaupo (this name means James in the Liv language), the great Roman light dawned over the Baltic (lux ex occidente), and the Byzantine sun (lux ex Oriente) which had been shining up till then gradually faded out. In 1209 the Latvian King Visvaldis, whose kingdom lay in Eastern Latvia, and who belonged to the Orthodox Church, turned his gaze westwards and was made a German Duke. Five years later the dynasty of Talivaldis (rulers in Northern Latvia) exchanged their Greek faith for that of Rome. The Holy See sent special legates, the Italian Cardinal Gullielmo de Modena (in 1225) and the Belgian Balduinus de Aulnes (in 1230) to Riga, where they concluded treaties with the King of Zemgale (Central Latvia), Vesthardus, and Lammekinus, King of the Curonians (Western Latvia).

The intention of the Vatican was to create in Livonia national Latvian and Estonian kingdoms administered directly from Rome. These plans, however, did not materialise, as the Germans had different ideas and their Knights were on the spot, whereas the Pope was in Rome and could reach his new provinces only by sending envoys from time to time. Thus, in practice, the Pope's authority remained purely nominal. The Latvians, however, pinned their hopes on him, and as late as 1299 the king of Zemgale sent ambassadors to Rome, in the hope of staving off German aggression by diplomatic means. The Pope, however, proved powerless.


When a hundred years later Latvia was visited by the first royal visitor from abroad, the Earl of Derby (later King Henry IV of England), he already found Latvia a German colony with a small and sterile land­owning upper class, who spoke German, and a wide Latvian peasantry. The German plan was to proceed in, Latvia in the same way as they had gone about the colonisation of Pomerania and Prussia, where German peasants had gradually been planted and local ones exterminated or Germanised. The Teutonic Order could not, however, realise this plan in Latvia and Estonia in the same way, as the German peasants refused to go so far and would not undertake the arduous sea voyage. Thus the German gentry remained merely a dominant minority, a separate caste. At the beginning it was not close, and anyone who dressed in German fashion and spoke the language belonged to it. All the rest of the inhabitants of the land, irrespective of race and language, were called "non-Germans."

Having lost their national leadership, decimated by wars and plagues, sinking deeper and deeper into debt, the Latvian and Estonian peasants finally, in the 16th century, became serfs. They were glebæ adscripti and their legislator and judge was the Lord of the Manor. The reception of Roman Law, Humanism and the Reformation (from which for a short while some Latvian rebels misguidedly hoped for a change of social conditions) only widened the gulf between Germans and non-Germans. Quoting a German chronicler: "Livonia was hell for the peasants, paradise for the clergy, a gold mine for the squires and merchants."

At the same time as the Russians were groaning under the Tartar yoke, the German yoke grew stronger and stronger in Estonia and Latvia. This darkness of German feudalism did not come suddenly, however; it developed gradually, and from the dusk of the 13th century the night darkened deeper and deeper into the black serfdom of the 16th century. Occasionally the darkness was broken by frightening blazes of peasant revolts which coloured the Baltic sky red like the Northern Lights. These revolts, the most serious of which was that of April 23rd, 1343, in Estonia, achieved nothing. They all ended in blood and flames, and only worsened the peasants' position economically as well as politically. The reason for these revolts was always the same - the German disregard for treaties they had signed in the 13th century, which guaranteed the peasants personal liberty and property rights.


Until 1561, Livonia was a confederation of 5 ecclesiastic States - 4 Bishoprics and the State of the Teutonic Order. Side by side with these there was Riga, the metropolis of Livonia. Situated at the mouth of the River Daugava - the Eastern Rhine - Riga held the key position, and streng­thened by its Hanseatic ties, it developed into a Merchant Republic coveted by all. On the Baltic Sea, Riga was as rich and powerful as Venice was on the Adriatic. The more than 1000 klm. long Daugava, which rises in the same region as the Volga and the Dnieper, brings to the sea on an average 54,700,000 litres of water daily (roughly about 1,000,000,000 pints). Near Riga it reaches a width of 1400 metres (almost a mile). Thus Riga is the key, not only of the Baltic region, but of the whole Russian plain, and it is not without significance that Riga's coat-of-arms bears the symbol of crossed keys over a gate in the wall. Thanks to the rule that "a guest can trade only with a guest" - by guest being meant "a foreign trader," Riga became the chief middleman in deals between merchants of the Netherlands, Denmark and the Hanseatic League, on the one hand, and Lithuania, White Ruthenia and partly Poland, on the other. The only serious competitor was Danzig. And that is the reason why, in 1409, the Latvian metropolis granted a loan of money to Henry IV, King of England, so as to divert English trade from Danzig to Riga.


This prominent and attractive position of Riga explains why, when the outer wars with the Baltic peoples were finished, the Teutonic Order engaged itself in several civil wars against Riga (1297-1397) and her nominal overlord, the Archbishop. The Order wanted to achieve in Livonia the same position as it had in Prussia - to be the sole master of the "United States of the Baltic" and control trade in the Baltic Sea.

However, thanks to the "balkanisation" policy pursued by Rome, the Teutonic Order lost its dominant position at the beginning of the 15th century, after the crushing defeats dealt to the Order by the United Lithuania and Poland in 1410 and 1435. Thus in the first part of the 15th century Livonia returned to the federal system. In 1421 a parliament (Landtag)' of 4 factions, representing all the 5 member States, was convened, but it could do no successful work because the political differences between the Prelates and the Knights and the economic differences between the towns and the landowners could not be smoothed out.


As the only producer of goods in the country (with the exception of a small community of German craftsmen) was the Estonian and Latvian peasant and artisan, both the towns and the squirearchy were interested in his labour.

This conflict of interests went on for 500 years and split the German society in the Baltic. The burghers wanted the peasants to be free to come to the towns and sell their produce freely; the gentry, again, tried to knit a very complicated and close mesh of legal nets around their estates so that no peasant could escape or sell his goods in the free market. The squire alone was supposed to control the market. The Baltic towns and cities therefore became a haven of freedom to the Latvian and Estonian people. The 13th and 14th century records of Riga show that a considerable number of Latvians were trading and working there. However, after the entry of Riga into the Hanseatic League (1282) the rights of Latvians were gradually limited. The pursuit of wholesale trade was banned to non-Germans after 1354, when they were forbidden to enter Wholesalers' Guilds. This was followed by a prohibition of Germans to enter into partnership with non-Germans, and thus the whole foreign trade became the monopoly of the Germans and only retail business remained open to Latvians. Non-Germans were gradually being pushed out of their position in city administration, and their rights and privileges were thereby more and more curtailed as they had no opportunity of defending themselves. In 1469, the Latvians in Riga were deprived of the right to acquire real estate. In 1684 this rule was extended also to the suburbs. At the end of the 14th century the craftsmen's guilds also began a campaign against the Latvian craftsmen, insisting on their being prohibited to do skilled work. Parallel with the purely German guilds, however, there always existed mixed or purely Latvian trade unions, such as the unions of smiths, bricklayers and weavers, as well as the fraternities of transport workers and dockers. These organisations nurtured Latvian master tradesmen and within them developed the Latvian written word for purposes of religious cult. As the Livonian towns and cities were very rigidly conservative in their institutions - the City Council of Riga, for instance, established in 1226, existed without change for 660 years - the position of Latvians in them remained practically unaltered until the reforms of the 19th century.

The same was not the case with the peasant. In the 13th and 14th centuries, with the exception of a very small group of thralls, consisting of war priso­ners, criminals and insolvent debtors, Latvian peasants were free men who had to do 4 days' service per annum and to bear a comparatively light Church tax (decima) and a small State tax (census). The taxation unit was the uncus, a plot of land that could be cultivated by two horses.


But in the 15th century the position of the peasants became rapidly worse, particularly in the Bishoprics, where the big vassals, feeling no respect towards their ecclesiastic overlords who had little or no real power, were acting as independent dukes in their feudal domains, exercising complete jurisdiction over their subjects. When the external wars were over the vassals doffed their armour and became landed gentlemen. Not wanting to be outshone by their rich merchant brethren in the cities, they began to be interested in developing large manors, creating them by throwing out peasants from their cultivated land and farms. The vassals came from a very low grade of German nobility (ministerials) and were uncultivated, uncouth, brutal and conceited. They spent their time in hunting, debauchery and sexual depravity, copying the lax standards of their Masters of the Teutonic Order. That sort of life demanded money and the economy based on peasants' taxes in kind was not adequate, so the German Lords concentrated on grain export to the Netherlands, Sweden, England, Spain and even Italy.

From 1368-1560 the price of rye rose sevenfold. But that did not satisfy the greed of the squires and they borrowed large sums of money from churches and monasteries, who played the part of banks in medieval Livonia. Such loans considerably speeded up the development of this early agrarian capitalism.

While the manors were small, they were managed by thralls and hirelings. But bad harvests, plagues, and a faulty monetary policy were pushing the peasants deeper and deeper into debt, so that finally it became meaningless to convict debtors to thraldom. A large number of people were floating around from region to region trying to escape their masters. Runaway peasants tried to make their way into towns. The parliament (Landtag) of 1424 started liquidating debtors' thraldom in Livonia and by 1455 the term "thrall" disappeared from official documents. Instead, in 1458, the first law was passed, in the Bishopric of Tartu, prohibiting peasants from leaving their land without the permission of their Lords. Similar laws followed elsewhere and thus the tying of peasants to the land (glebæ adscriptio) had begun. The agricultural worker had become the same as houses, woods or villages - a thing that belongs to the estate (res soli). At the beginning, however, this did not apply to landless peasants and country craftsmen, but only to farmers. The legal ties, however, were mutual. The farmer was preven­ted from leaving his farm and his land, but neither had the Lord the right to evict the farmer. In the middle of the 16th century, when Roman Law was embraced in Livonia, astute lawyers began to apply to the peasants stipulations from the Justinian Code which, in Rome, applied to slaves (servi) and not to free men (liberi).


The 25-year-long Livonian War completely ruined the peasants of Estonia and Eastern Latvia. During the Tartar domination the Russians had acquired the cruel Mongolian war methods, and Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) brought them to even greater refinement by introducing sadistic Secret Political Police (Oprichina) practices. Rape of women, murder of children, mutilation of men, robbery of property, burning of houses. All this had to be suffered by the hapless Latvian and Estonian people for a whole generation. As the United States Ambassador William Bullit significantly points out in his book, "The Great Globe Itself," all this was taking place in Russia and the Baltic at the time when Shakespeare lived, when Queen Elizabeth was on the English throne and Magna Charta had been in existence already 350 years.


The Baltic was freed from Russian occupation by the young Polish king, Stephen Bathory, in 1582. He demanded of the Livonian Landtag that the squirearchy should reduce peasant service and abolish ius vitae ac necis, pointing out that the Baltic barons oppressed their serfs to such an extent as was unheard of even in heathen and savage countries. Alas, however, the king died prematurely in 1587 and things remained very much as they were. For 18 years there was peace in the Baltic, but with the exception of a few half-hearted attempts at reform, it gave nothing to the peasants. In Poland itself serfdom had existed since 1496, and in this republic of the landed gentry the Shlahta (the gentry) was everything and peasants "less than nothing," to use the phrase of an English ambassador to Poland.


In 1600 the religious and dynastic war of the House of Vasa began between Poland and Sweden. With brief intervals it lasted for 29 years and was fought on Baltic soil. A half of the farm buildings were destroyed, and owing to the lack of livestock only one-third of the peasants were able to work on their farms.

In the second year of the war, Charles IX of Sweden (then not yet on the throne) demanded of the Baltic barons that they should allow peasant children to be sent to school and that the squires' jurisdiction should be replaced by State courts, saying that in the Christian world it was infamous to keep peasants in slavery. This humane and courageous programme was carried out by the successors of Charles IX, and the Swedish rule is therefore the brightest spot in Baltic history before 1918.


Of particular importance were the reforms of Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XI. Gustavus Adolphus from the battlefields in Germany gave orders to his Governor-General in Riga which changed the whole character of life in the Baltic. He established State courts and took the jurisdiction out of the hands of the barons. This system remained in force for 250 years. He ordered High Schools to be opened in Riga, Tartu and Tallinn in 1630; he caused a Baltic University to be opened in Tartu (1632), which was available to peasants' sons and later played a prominent part in the emanci­pation of the Estonian and Latvian nations.

With his daring social reforms of 1680-1696 the revolutionary King Char­les XI gave new meaning to the life of Latvian and Estonian peasants. The German Lords nicknamed him contemptuously "Peasant King." These acts of his, in their juridical courage and social justice, have few equals in 17th century Europe. He carried out the so-called Reduction of Estates. According to this, about five-sixths of the Manors, all those that had once given admi­nistrative or military service and since 1550 were just privately managed by Knights of the Teutonic Order or vassals of the Bishops, were taken over by the State and given out on hereditary lease. The service that every peasant had to give was definitely fixed and stated in an official document, the so-called Work Roll. Land was surveyed and revalued. The so-called right of Patronage, i.e. the right to appoint parish priests was also taken away from the landowners, thus the Squires' Church became the State Church. With the support of the King, the Bible was translated into Latvian and Estonian. Although, owing to the premature death of King Charles XI, serfdom remained formally in force, yet this old vessel had now received the new wine of enlightened absolutism, and Latvian and Estonian peasants were well on the way to becoming a Fourth Estate as they were in Sweden. The peasants had become so well off that they were able to grant credit to Charles XII in his war against Russia. They had also so much political wisdom that they enlisted with enthusiasm in his forces. They had done this already in the time of Gustavus Adolphus. Fighting on his side, they not only fought for Western civilisation but also for their own freedom.


Considerably worse off were the peasants in the Polish satellite state, the Duchy of Courland, whose dukes owed a nominal allegiance to the Polish King. It was, in fact, a republic of land-owning Lords with a weak duke at its head. The constitution itself, modeled on the bad example of Poland, prevented the ruler from doing anything for the benefit of the subjects. The Duke himself was the largest landowner and in his own estates, of course, he could do what he liked; on the whole the position of the peasants in the Ducal estates was much better than in the private manors. It must not, however, be forgotten that during the rule of Duke James, who brought Courland to the pinnacle of its greatness through his mercantile policy, the heaviest burden of hard work in his shipyards and industrial enterprises, as well as in his colonial ventures, had to be borne by Latvian peasants under conditions that would make any modern labour inspector wince.

A special Polish Committee passed a Code in 1617, the Statuta et Leges Curlandiæ, which remained in force for 200 years. It was greatly under Roman influence and stipulated that the peasants were in the private power of the Lord (potestas privata). Peasants are termed slaves (homines proprii) and later commentators deduced that Latvians were not persons, but things, negotiable articles (res in commercio). The Lord could determine the service of peasants according to his own judgment; he had complete jurisdiction over his serfs, including the right to exercise capital punishment. In fact, the Lord within his own estate was a sovereign ruler.

Though legally in bondage, the Latvian and Estonian peasants were never spiritual slaves. They never recognised serfdom as legal and corresponding to natural and divine laws; they regarded it as a means of terror of the Baltic gentry, without which it was incapable of ruling a foreign land. The period of serfdom turned into one long protracted partisan warfare, which took either active form through constant riots, or passively expressed itself by constant breaking of the first commandment of feudalism, viz., "Thou shalt not leave thy Lord." The folksongs are full of biting irony and sarcasm about their lords and masters. These the peasants sang with glee, or else they listened breathlessly to the tales of the Chronicler, Henricus de Lettis (1226), who told of the legendary exploits of their forefathers in their wars for liberty. Having listened to these tales, with the divine light of another, better world, they returned to their own miserable everyday drabness.

Foreign kings and masters came and went. To them the Baltic was either a place d'armes for their wars, or an object of economic exploitation, but to the Latvians and Estonians this land of theirs, so liberally drenched in those two precious juices of life - blood and sweat - was the beginning and the end of the visible universe. Some proud and dominating spirit - it makes no difference whether he be called the God or the Devil of the Baltic - called the people to endurance and once again to endurance. He whispered magic formulas from ancient heathen places of sacrifice, from sacred trees, from the castle hills of the forefathers, from the ruins of homesteads burnt in the wars.


However difficult it was under German or Polish masters, the Balts knew that under the Russians life would be worse still. Therefore, irrespective of the period, the form of government, the social conditions, history has always put the same challenges to generation after generation of inhabitants of the Baltic lands. In essence these problems never change and they spring from the geography of the Baltic. They sum themselves up into this: to be a barrier or a bridge to Russia, to a land where forms of warfare and government condemned by Western Europe have always existed? Worst of all, this historical challenge was understood by the Baltic German gentry and during the Great Northern War they became traitors. For that reason one of the most prominent connoisseurs of that period, Carl von Schirren, himself a German Balt, burnt his final magnum opus in manuscript, as he had come to the conclusion : "The Baltic squirearchy bears more guilt than glory."

As is well known, as a result of the Great Northern War, the 500-year-old frontier between Asia and Europe was destroyed. For the first time in their history, two Western European nations, the Latvians and the Estonians, were incorporated into the Eastern barbarian world, which Peter the Great (1682-1725) himself wanted to Westernise in order to increase the war potential of his empire. He thought that a slave, while remaining a slave, could all the same work consciously and freely. He wanted to combine despo­tism with freedom. He tried to force Western civilisation on his people by the whip and the gallows. Nowadays the role of the apostle of civilisation (it goes under the name of democracy now) is assumed by the diligent pupil of Peter and Ivan the Terrible - Joseph Stalin.


In this connexion - in the extension of Russia to the West and the absorption of Western nations - it is of symbolical significance that the first con­stitution Russia ever had was proclaimed in Jelgava, the metropolis of the Duchy of Courland (1731), where a little while later Louis XVII and his Court sought refuge, and that after the death of Peter the Great the young Duke of Courland, Ernest Biron, became Regent of the whole vast empire (1737-1740). West and East were meeting. These fact were not an accident: the Baltic was the stage on which one of the most significant dramas of world history was played, the Europeanisation of Russia. The Baltic was the gate through which Russia entered Europe, and this is perhaps the most important event of the last 250 years.

The connection of the Baltic and Russia lasted about 200 years and with it also Russian tendencies towards Europe. This was true not only in respect of ideas but also of persons. The Baltic was often referred to as a "foreign corner of Russia." Because of this Russian respect for Europe the Baltic barons gained an enormous influence; they flooded the court, the army, the navy, and the civil service. As late as 1867 only 25 per cent of all higher officials in Russia were of Russian stock and 74 per cent of all generals were German.

It is obvious that under such conditions the real master of the Baltic was not the Russian Government but the Baltic nobility. Although nominal Governments of Riga and Tallinn had been established already by Peter I, in fact there existed an oligarchy of about 250 German landowning families. They began this new era of their power with a decree addressed to the Latvian peasants and published in 1719. It began with these words : "Run-away peasants shall have their noses and ears cut off." Replying to an enquiry of the Russian Ministry of Justice, the highest authority of the nobility, the College of Landrats, declared in 1739, that since the 13th century the peasants had been slaves in the sense of the Roman Law and the lords had complete right (ius dominii) to their land, movable property, and persons.

The darkest period in the history of Latvian and Estonian people began. After the enlightened rule of Sweden, all that Russia could give the Latvians and Estonians was vodka, court-martials, punitive expeditions, forced labour in Siberia and slavery. The position was so bad that in 1777 Rev. A. Huppel, who knew conditions well, could write: "Both these nations (i.e., the Estonians and the Latvians) are complete slaves, the absolute property of another man. They are not persons, but goods, things that are sold or exchanged against horses, dogs or pipes." And, indeed, if we look at the Baltic newspapers of the 18th century, we see them full of advertisements giving notice that at such and such a place there will be a Public Auction of Serfs. In these sales children were separated from their parents, wives from their husbands.

In June, 1941, the Baltic peoples were no longer slaves, but the Russians similarly separated parent from child, wife from husband, and deported to forced labour 34,250 Latvians, 38,450 Lithuanians and 60,973 Estonians. That is how the circle of Westernising the Russian people, begun by Peter "the Great", has ended.

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