What, and where is Latvia, and who ARE the Latvians?
Birds do it, bees do it,
Even educated fleas do it,
Let's do it, let's fall in love.
In Spain, the best upper sets do it,
Lithuanians and Letts do it,
Let's do it, let's fall in love!"
Despite her obscurity during the last half of the 20th century, shrouded behind the Iron Curtain, illegally annexed into the Soviet Union, Latvia has been a part of Western civilization since the Crusades went north into the Baltics in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in pruce;
In lettow hadde he reysed and in ruce, ...
Full oft the table's roster he'd begun
Above all nations' knights in Prussia.
In Latvia[a] raided he, and Russia, ...
[a] In the interest of full disclosure, as much as we like this scholarly translation from the middle English, one can argue "lettow" more accurately translates to Lithuania, Latvia's sister country and culture.
Chaucer's reputed model for the Knight, King Henry IV of England, made it to the Baltics in 1390 as part of the Crusades while temporarily attached to the Knights of the Livonian Order. (King Henry returned in 1392 to Prussia for a second round of heathen eradication even though Boniface IX had already absolved him of his crusading vow and the natives had already converted.) Even earlier, a Latvian who had come to England with a party of Norse invaders wound up battling against William the Conqueror around 1070.
To find the earliest mention of the Baltics and Latvia, Tacitus (56-117 to 120) writes of the Aesti (the Estonians are called the "Eesti" in their own language), who collected amber from the Baltic Sea and traded it. Roman coins unearthed in Latvia—and which we've seen on display at the history museum in Cēsis—attest to Roman merchants making the long and arduous trek north. And a Baltic amber figure dating to perhaps a millennium earlier has been found along the Tigris.
Latvia has mainly been a cross-roads of commerce and conflict between regional powers since the Crusades. Riga was a center of Euro-Russian (and southeastern Europe) commerce as early as 1282, when it became a member of the Hanseatic League of traders, which controlled commerce on the Baltic and North Seas. Riga attained the status of a "free city" in 1561. This was short-lived, however, as the Swedish empire swept in, conquering the Northern Baltics, along with Riga, in 1629. Riga instantly became the largest city in the Swedish empire. It was Latvia's first golden era in terms of the rights of the Latvian people. Courland (Kurzeme) achieved autonomy under Poland-Lithuania, from 1561 to 1795, and established a reputation as a naval power, establishing colonies in the Caribbean (Tobago) and on the African Gold Coast (Gambia).
Latvia and the Latvians made a name for themselves during Latvia's first, brief, period of independence between the world wars.
- Latvians achieved one of the highest literacy rates in Europe.
- Latvians invented the Latvian "brown cow", registered since 1885 and internationally as an independent bred in 1922—famous for its milk, and especially the richness and sweetness of its butter
- More generally, Latvia was renowned for its agricultural and farm products—the British had quite the craving for Latvian bacon, and the Germans, for the afore-mentioned Latvian butter
- Latvians invented the Minox "spy" camera—mint condition Riga-produced originals now fetch a thousand dollars and more
We do freely admit that Latvia's sister, Lithuania, does hold ultimate boasting rights. It was once an empire that stretched from the Baltic to Black Seas!
Some quick statistics:
- Latvia is east across the Baltic from Sweden.
- Latvia is due south of Estonia, which is due south of Finland.
- Latvia is north of Lithuania, which is north of Königsberg (Kaliningrad, thanks to Sovietization) and Poland.
- Latvia is about the size of West Virginia, or Belgium plus the Netherlands.
- About 2,500,000 people live in Latvia, mostly Latvian; and about 1/3rd Russian, the result of intense Russification during the 50 year Soviet occupation; students of history will note this was not the first campaign to Russify Latvia, the prior one being conducted by Czar Alexander III in the late 1800's—motivated more by fear of Germanic ambitions, but also a time during which merely uttering Latvian in public was grounds for imprisonment.
More on Latvia and its history
Twenty-six years after declaring the restoration of its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union, Latvia remains shrouded in mystery, misunderstanding, and propaganda. We suggest the brief history of Latvia, formerly at the Latvian U.S. embassy website, which we have archived. For a deeper read, we recommend Dr. Arveds Svabe's informative if opinionated The Story of Latvia, also on our site.
We also manage several other Latvia-related sites, among them:
- aizsargi.org—The national guard during Latvia's first period of independence
- latvianaviation.com—Gunar Zulis' extensive history of the history of Latvian aviation, from its inception through World War II
- latvianlegion.org—the Latvian Waffen-SS, known as the Latvian Legion
- haolusa.org—web site of preeminent Holocaust scholar Dr. Andrew Ezergailis.
|||Free Hanseatic City of Riga. The League essentially disbanded at the end of the 17th century, but formally continued to exist until 1862. Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen retain the words "Hanseatic City" in their official German titles to this day.|