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



As soon as economic conditions permitted, the spirit of the Latvian nation. forcibly kept dormant for so long, rose and great progress was made in education, culture and social life. The Latvian nation was taking its place in the direction of life in its own country.


At a time when in the Baltic and in Russia slavery was being legalised and corroborated by legislation and bad social habits, the Congress of the U.S.A. was passing (in 1776) the Bill of Rights, and the same was being done by the National Assembly of France 13 years later. The mighty slogan, Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité, shook the foundation of the old regime. The philosophy of Rationalism and of Natural Rights had forged new, powerful weapons in man's fight for freedom - the political doctrine of inalienable rights, of the freedom of the citizen and of the sovereignty of nations. These were the same ideas which, in other words, have been expressed by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Atlantic Charter. They express the spirit and the democratic principles of our Western world.

These revolutionary ideas were broadcast by Napoleon's soldiers in Eastern Europe also, but only in Poland and in the Baltic did this seed fall on fertile ground. The Baltic peasants, Estonians and Latvians, rose in a series of revolts (1771, 1784, 1802) and flung the Western ideas in the faces of their oppressors. They demanded their citizens' rights and insisted on overthrowing bad governments, but, of course, they were too weak. This emancipation springs from the religious movement of Zinzendorf's Moravian Brethren, with its teaching of brotherhood, which gave to this pietist movement a deep national and social significance. In this brotherhood, in a free religious community, a Baltic serf sat side by side as an equal with a Czech craftsman and in mystical visions they saw civitas Dei, which would be realised in national republics. Although the Lutheran Church, which again had become the handmaid of the nobility, together with the Landtag, made representations with the Russian Government and achieved the forbidding of this Movement and the closing down in 1742 of the teacher's seminary that had been opened by the Moravian Brethren, the people had been awakened from their lethargic sleep. The first ranks of a national intelligentsia - teachers - had been created.

An East Prussian scholar, J. G. Herder, was also instrumental in the renaissance of the Baltic peoples. From 1764 to 1769 he was a teacher in Riga, and there, on the thresholds of Eastern and Western civilisations he discovered himself, found his mission. Inspired by the English philologist and later Bishop, Thomas Percy, who in 1765 had published his anthology "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry," Herder created quite a revolution in the views of German society about the art and culture of the humble Baltic people. He collected and published in German translation, in 1778, Latvian and Estonian folk-songs. They testified that the slaves had created and preserved mental values unequalled by the book wisdom of the Baltic barons.

In one of his many articles, Herder says: "Humanity shudders with horror at the blood which was shed there. Perhaps the time will come when they will be set free, will be established again for Humanity's sake."

Even more important was the criticism of the Baltic Baronial regime exercised by the philosophers of the Enlightened Century. Various disciples of Rousseau and Voltaire, with varying degrees of courage and talent, were attacking this regime. A series of such pamphlets was also translated into the Baltic languages and spread among the peasants. In the first place we must mention Garlieb Merkel and his work: "The Latvians, in particular in Livonia, at the End of the Philosophic Century" (1796). This brochure caught the attention of the young Tsar Alexander I.


The ideas of freedom spread by Napoleon's agents roused Alexander I to activity and he wanted to show the world that he too was an enlightened ruler and was doing things for his subjects. For his agrarian experiments he chose just one province, Livonia, and as his instrument, the Landrat Friedrich von Sievers, with whom he had become friendly during his tour of the Baltic in 1802. Being an official of the nobility, Sievers forced the Landtag to pass a law in 1804, restoring the agrarian statutes of Charles XI of Sweden, only in a weakened version. As in Swedish times, the ground was again surveyed and an insurmountable barrier built between the peasants' land and that of the squire. Only in very severe cases of indebtedness and by a court sentence could a peasant be evicted from his farm. Otherwise it was his in hereditary lease. The service of the peasant was fixed according to a govern­ment tax. The peasants were not things any more, but persons again, who had the right to sue in court. They had their own local government and courts. If this law had stayed in force, Livonia would have developed a wealthy class of small-holders, although formally serfdom would still have been in existence. The squires sabotaged the law, got alterations in it and finally its repeal in 1819. The peasants, too, were children of the age and erroneously believed that personal liberty was of more worth than economic independence.

After the French were driven out of Courland, Alexander I ordered the nobility to do something for the peasants, taking as their example the law of Livonia of 1804.


The Landtag of Courland, however, almost unanimously agreed to take as their example the Estonian law of 1816, which was based on the personal liberty of the peasants. Such an act was passed in Courland in 1817 and in Livonia, too, in 1819. The peasants got their personal liberty, but they were also freed of their land, which was all now the complete private property of the Lords. If the peasants wanted they could buy it at prices fixed by the nobles. This was an experiment and nobody knew how it would work out. The peasants paid dearly for their liberty, but to the world the Baltic barons could pose as benefactors and enlightened rulers, and followers of the spirit of the age, saying that of their own free will they had given up their tradi­tional rights. In fact, as 30 years later one of their spokesmen admitted, the landowning barons had made a good bargain with the government. They had realised, said the spokesman, that there was an unparalleled opportunity to become the sole and unlimited owners of all the land. Even those conserva­tive nobles who in 1803 called anybody who spoke in favour of an emancipation of the serfs a senseless jacobin, had themselves become such. As usual, the Baltic squirearchy was not interested in principles, but only in preserving the power of their caste.

In order that the barons should not remain without labour, the freedom of movement of the peasants was restricted at the beginning to the borders of the parish - later extended to those of the government - and only in 1863 were peasants furnished with passports and allowed to settle in towns or emigrate outside the Baltic. As soon as the Laws of Freedom were passed there were peasant revolts because they realised that they had been cheated. However, punitive expeditions suppressed them and peasants had no choice but to work on the Manors as labourers or to stay in their own farms as short-term leaseholders on terms dictated by the Lords. The government did not interfere in agrarian relations and in practice all the institutions of serfdom remained in force - peasant service taxes and rent in kind, the police authority of the estate and corporal punishment. That is what the theory of Free Contracts advocated by Adam Smith looked like in the Baltic. Adam Smith was often quoted by the critics of the Law of 1804, who said that the restrictions which it imposed were against modern economic theories, that contracts should be negotiated freely. As a matter of fact at the begin­ning of the 19th century the position of the Latvian and Estonian people was worse than it had been at the end of the 13th century, after the conquest.


There followed several years of bad harvest and famine - 1838-40 in Livonia, 1844-46 in Courland. This drove the peasants to despair, and revolts broke out again and again. They were cruelly suppressed by military force. A legend spread that land was obtainable in the "warm countries." An agitation to emigrate to Southern Russia started. About that time an Orthodox diocese was established in Riga and wanted converts. The rumours about land on the shores of the Black Sea for those would discard their Protestant faith and embrace the belief of the Tsar were favourably tolerated by the Russian Church. In fact, several tens of thousands of Estonians and Latvians became Orthodox. Needless to say, they never saw the distribution of the land. The nobility, however, got worried and were stirred into action. They realised that something had to be done for the peasants. The Government appointed a special committee and in 1849 the squirearchy accepted the principles of the Liberal, Hamilcar von Fœlkersam, synthesising the principles of the laws of 1804 and 1819. The reactionary wing of the nobility was compelled to yield, in fear of the 1848 revolution that had threatened to spread also over the Baltic.

During the last 30 years the Lords had taken over into their own management one-fifth of the peasants' land. The new law legalised this situation. But a special land pool was created where all the remaining peasants' land was included, and it was not available to the Lords. Facilities should be given, to peasants to acquire this land by purchase. Service was limited and so also was the "freedom" of contracts, it being stipulated that they must be concluded for at least 6 years.


When the Revolution of 1848 was suppressed and Europe had settled down to an era of reaction, the Baltic barons tried again to alter the law of 1849, to repeal it or at least to water it down. However, after the lost Crimean War, in Russia itself the Reform Party came to power, and the liberally minded but German-friendly Alexander II was on the throne. In 1860, serfdom was abolished in the whole Russian empire, including also Lithuania and Latgale, the Eastern part of Latvia which, as a former Polish province, was administratively a separate unit and did not always share the fate of the rest of the Baltic. Forty million slaves in Russia were freed, but in contrast to the Baltic, they received land. Fearing that these laws, much more advantageous to the peasants, might be applied also to Estonia and Latvia, the nobles gave in and agreed that the 1849 law, which was only temporary and issued for 6 years, should now be made permanent. This law then became the foundation on which a prosperous class of Latvian and Estonian small­holders grew up. Land was not sold to peasants at current market prices, but by reckoning into monetary values the service which they had rendered. This made the land much dearer and special banks were opened which issued loans to the peasants. By a Government decree, 1868 was the date by which all service management of estates had to be abandoned. Therefore, the barons were in need of a lot of cash to buy tools, horses and machinery for an independent management of their estates by hired labour, as, even in 1860, 76 per cent of the Manors were still managed by peasants' service. The barons were therefore willing to sell land. The real liberator was thus money and the capitalist system.

In 1866 a new law ruling Local Government was issued, according to which the Manor was excluded from the peasant parish, and thus the squire's juris­diction and police authority over the peasant community came to an end. The reign of the German master's whip over Latvian and Estonian backs was ended.


Only now could these nations really show their worth in cultural and economic life. Modern Latvian and Estonian history begins with the reforms of the sixties. This period is usually called the period of Renaissance and the people active in it as New Latvians or New Estonians respectively.

These patriots had mostly received their education at the University of Tartu (Dorpat), reopened in 1802; and beginning with 1862 they also had the opportunity of studying in Riga, as the Riga Polytechnic Institute was opened. The peasants were poor and in the first part of the 19th century the number of Latvian university students was very small - from 1803 to 1850, only 33; but it rapidly increased: in 1851-60 there were 41 students, and in 1891 to 1900, 565. Altogether in the second half of the 19th century 1270 young Latvian men had entered the higher educational establishments. They chose mostly medicine, the branch that had the largest number of students, theology, law and engineering. Among the early students of Tartu, three men deserve particular mention : Krishjanis Valdemars, Krishjanis Barons and Juris Alunans. They broke away from the idea cultivated by the nobility that an educated Latvian automatically becomes German. They insisted that a graduated Latvian need not be ashamed to think and feel as a Latvian. Around these three men grew the whoa movement of New Latvians and they became its spearhead.

Kr. Valdemars was an economist and in numerous articles and memoranda he tried to explain to the Russian society and Government the problems of his people. He was particularly active in fostering Latvian education and encouraging his people to gather wealth. Seafaring, he insisted, was the most promising field. In the 1860's he founded several private schools for naval cadets on the Latvian coast. Within 15 years about 6,800 young sailors had learned their trade there and helped the Latvians to become a seafaring nation.

Kr. Valdemars was also the father of Latvian journalism. It is true that the first newspaper in the Latvian language had already been established in 1822 by the Jelgava-born Irishman, Karl Watson, who was a clergyman in Zemgale, but that was an organ of the German clergy for Latvians. So the New Latvians established in the Russian capital their own paper Peterburgas Avizes, (1862-1865), and Kr. Valdemars was appointed its censor. The editor of this paper was the poet, Juris Alunans, whose translations of the world classics (Horace, Gœthe, Scholar) laid the foundations for modern Latvian poetry. His near relative, Adolph Alunans, wrote and translated plays and he became known as the "Father of the Latvian Theatre."


The second editor of the Peterburgas Avizes was Krishjanis Barons (1835-1923). He devoted his life to the collection of Latvian folksongs, building for himself a monumental memorial in seven thick volumes. It contains 35,789 main songs and 182,000 variants. All these had to be collected, written down from the memory of grandmothers and old country men. An army of school­teachers and schoolboys enthusiastically helped Kr. Barons. Then the songs had to be checked, sifted, compared, systematised.

One of the biggest manifestations of the national spirit were the Song Festivals. Choirs all over the country trained for years and then gathered together in Riga or Jelgava into one mammoth choir and sang to an audience that too had come from all the corners of the land.


Parallel with this cultural activity, profound economic changes were taking place in the Baltic as well as in the whole of Russia. Natural economy was being replaced by capitalism. There was a rapid building of railways; in 1861 the Riga-Daugavpils-Orel-Tsaritsin (now called Stalingrad) line was opened; in 1870 the Tallinn-St. Petersburg line; 1889 the Riga-Tartu-St. Petersburg line. Grain and other produce from Southern Russia came to Riga and the other Baltic ports. Foreign trade was brisk. In the period of 1897-1900 40 percent of imports and exports that came to Riga were destined for or came from England.

Gradually industries began to develop in the towns and landless peasants flocked to the towns. In 1866 the privileges of the Trade Guilds were abolished. Latvians and Estonians were allowed to take part in the elections of the municipal local government. While in 1862 Riga had only 61 factories, in 1875 the number had grown to 197, and the number of inhabitants from 104,000 (1867) to 182,000 in 1888, by 1914 exceeding the half-million (530,000). All this influx consisted of Latvians. Thus the character of the towns changed from small medieval communities of craftsmen and merchants who were mainly Germans, into centres of industry with a predominantly Latvian population.


Simultaneously with the Russian economic expansion towards the West, the Baltic was swept by another tidal wave - Russification. The new Tsar, Alexander III, was no German friend as his forerunner had been; he was no enlightened and liberal monarch. He was a rabid slavophile and ruled through the police. He was dead against the Baltic autonomy. In 1887 Baltic elemen­tary schools were made equal to the Russian ones and children had to do, all their studies in Russian, a language they knew not a word of before they reached school. In 1888 the Russian Police Laws were introduced in the Baltic. In 1889 the Baltic got a modern system of law courts, but with Russian judges and the highest Court of Appeal in St. Petersburg. In order to weaken the influence of the national intelligentsia on the people, young Estonians and Latvians with academic degrees were not readily given jobs in their own countries, but were sent away to Russia. Thus, in 1891-1900, 54 per cent of all the Baltic university graduates were employed in Russia. But as the Germans did not succeed in Germanising the Baltic nations, so the Russian attempt was doomed to fail, and it did.


The mental and political leadership of the Latvian people gradually went over to a movement called "The New Current," led and inspired by our greatest poet and playwright, Janis Rainis (1865-1929), together with the journalist, J. Jansons, and the barrister, Peteris Stucka. The movement based itself on the working classes and preached socialism. Their newspaper was Dienas Lapa (1886-97). The paper was stopped and 138 Latvian socialists sent to Siberia and other places. But this did not eliminate the socialist move­ment, it only drove it underground; and small secret Social-Democratic groups met and discussed their affairs and planned action. In 1904 the first Latvian political organisation, the "Latvian Social-Democratic Workers' Party" was established. Similar parties were established or did already exist also in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. Their aim was a fight against tsarism and for the liberation of their people.


The Russo-Japanese war was very unpopular because the recruits had to fight 10,000 miles away from home. As early as 1904 there were already some mutinies among reserve soldiers. When the Russian armies suffered defeat at the hands of the Japanese, serious demonstrations and riots broke out in St. Petersburg and in the Baltic. In January 1905, there were demonstrations and clashes of crowds with the police in Riga, which soon spread to the country as well. In fact, whatever was the aim and character of this Revolution in Russia, in the Baltic it definitely had an agrarian character, and it was the biggest and most impressive of a series of peasant risings, of which Baltic history is so full.

The whole revolution had a fairly mild character; there were very few attacks on human life and the most serious aspect of it was the burning of manorhouses. There were wild rumours and the romantic excitement of fiery youth. The main grievance that had aroused the spirit of the peasants was the disproportionate distribution of land. The Latvian has a special, almost mystic love for the land and he felt it a sacrilege and great social injustice that side by side with a large landless population, 48 per cent of the soil should be held by 1250 big landowners who, on top of everything, were the hated German barons. Only 40 per cent of the land was in the hands of Latvian peasant small-holders, who were very heavily burdened by mortgages and various feudal restrictions. The great mass of the landless country population was working as hired labour on the Manors, living there in primitive barracks, receiving a paltry wage and working from sunrise to sunset. As wages were so low it was not in the interests of the Lords to invest capital in machinery and try to raise the productivity of the land. The majority of them carried on a wasteful economy. They rapidly sold their extensive forests without any economic planning just in order to gain cash, which they spent at expensive foreign spas and famous resorts. V. J. Gurko, a member of the Russian State Council, has said: "Germans had compatriots in all ministries and especially at Court, and they used the most diversified methods to gain their ends ... The interests of a handful of German nobles were given closer attention than those of the Russian State and those of the majority of the local aborigines, i.e., the Latvian and Estonian population ... In the borderlands the revolutionary movement was most acute in the Baltic districts, where detachments of Latvian armed troops looted the castles and the manor houses of their traditional enemies, the German barons."

The Baltic nobles organised their own private police force in order to suppress the rising. Seeing this, the peasants began a partisan warfare against this force, their chief weapon being the burning of estates. In Livonia, 72 manor houses were burnt down, in Courland, 42. As the year went on the movement increased in depth and scope. In Russia, too, disorder spread. There were protracted general strikes and Tsar Nicholas II was compelled, on October 30th, to proclaim a constitution and promise a guarantee of civic rights. However, the revolution still spread. In Latvia, a conference of country teachers was called in Riga in November. About 1000 delegates took part and passed a resolution demanding the teaching of the Latvian language in schools. Thus the movement, besides its agrarian and social character, was gaining also national significance. The idea of a free and independent Latvian State was spreading like wildfire. In December, a congress of country parish delegates was called. They decided to interrupt all relations with government offices, to stop paying taxes to the nobility, and to elect local executive committees, who would manage the country until the election of a Latvian Constituent Assembly.


These Executive Committees would take over the estates which their owners had left. They would. also organise a defence force against the Dragoons and Cossacks, which the Landtag had called for the protection of the dominant German minority. In some places in Courland regular battles developed where even artillery was used. But, alas at the beginning of 1906 the Russian revolution broke down and with it the Latvian Battle for Freedom was lost. The German nobles took a bitter revenge. For a whole year punitive expeditions and courts-martial were active, meting out severe corporal punishments and ordering executions. During the battles of 1905 and the persecutions of 1906, over 2,000 Latvian patriots lost their lives, the majority of them by firing squads. Several thousands fled abroad, particularly to the U.S.A., where most of the present considerable Latvian colony are emigrants of those years, people who had rather go to a foreign land than live in slavery. Many Latvians were also sentenced to long years of exile in Siberia. This "Revolution of the Letts," as it is sometimes called, had a profound influence on future events. Although the revolution had mainly an agrarian character and was directed against the privileged baronial society, it also wanted to win freedom for the Latvian and Estonian nations (in Estonia events were very similar). Some constitutional issues were also involved. The revolu­tionaries wanted to win for their nations, if not complete independence, at least the position of a Third Estate (Tiers Etat) in the so-called self-government of the Baltic Provinces, which was in reality to the barons a means of perpetuating the domination of Latvians and Estonians by the German minority.


Thus, the age-long struggle between the Germans and the real Balts, the Latvians and Estonians, had come to the surface and broken out in an open civil war. Obviously, after that no collaboration between the defeated majority and the triumphant and ruling minority was possible. This age-long struggle flamed up again during the First World War and the subsequent War of Liberation (1918-1920), when the German barons ganged together with the Russian adventurer, "Prince" Bermondt-Avaloff, and inspired by the German General, Count Ruediger von der Goltz, tried to prevent the rise of the new Baltic republics and to win the Baltic for Germany. The whole ignominious history of this degenerated outgrowth of the German Drang nach Osten was ended in 1940 with Hitler's recall of the remnant of the German minority from the Baltic to the Reich. The Latvians and Estonians saw them off with cat-calls and obvious expressions of relief. Therefore only people completely innocent of any knowledge of Baltic history can say that the Baltic refugees migrated to Germany in 1944 because of love for the Germans or the Nazis.

The revolution of 1905 only exacerbated the relations between the Latvians and the Germans, but it certainly had a unifying and galvanising effect on the Latvian people. For the first time a demand for a Latvian State had been publicly formulated. The Socialist Union, for instance, declared that all lands inhabited by Latvians must be consolidated into one self-governing Country - Latvia - with plenipotentiary rights of self-determination, in all its internal life, in its autonomous legislation and in the independence of its executive power. From here it was only one step to the final emancipation of the Baltic nations as independent States.


In spite of reaction, the Baltic nations soon attained their political maturity. However unfortunate was the Tsarist experiment in parliamentary rule, in other respects it was excellent political schooling for the Baltic nations. The elections for the Duma, the Chamber of Deputies, gave an official reason and opportunity for the Baltic peoples to discuss politics and to organise themselves into political parties. In the first Duma (1906), as well as in the second (1907), the Latvians had four deputies - among them also the first Latvian President, J. Cakste. Only when the electoral law was made worse, in the third (1907-1912) and the fourth (1912-1917) Dumas, were the Latvian deputies reduced to two - J. Goldmanis and J. Zalitis, who both, in later years, were War Minister in Latvian Governments.

The Russian Government resumed their policy of Russification. Latvian peasants were encouraged to emigrate to Siberia and Russian settlers were brought to Latvia, where government estates were given to them. The same line of policy was taken up by the Soviet Government in 1940, and again after 1945, with only one difference: in Tsarist days it was a slow and gradual process, whereas the Soviets want to do it quickly, by mass deportations and a resettlement in the Baltic of demobilised Russian and Mongol soldiers.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the Latvian nation had reached such a pitch of cultural and economic deve­lopment that a slow colonisation policy was not dangerous. In 1914, the figure of inhabitants in Latvia gained its peak - 2,5 millions. Economically, the Baltic gave a surplus to the Russian Exchequer. In 1913 only the Baltic Provinces, Poland and Ukraine gave a surplus - 1,033,2 million roubles - whereas all the other provinces of the vast empire showed a deficit. Thus it was these non-Russian lands that really maintained the empire. The territory of present day Latvia alone brought to Russia every year about 18 million dollars net profit, after deduction of all Russian expen­diture on government departments and the diplomatic service. These figures finally dispose of the argument sometimes advanced that the Baltic States cannot exist economically without Russia.

At the beginning of the century the Baltic nations had matured so far that they were ready to assume their own independent life. All that was needed was the impetus which came with another revolution and its grandmother, the First World War.

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