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All about Latvia

Around 2500 BC, Indo-European tribes arrive on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In Latvia the inhabitants split into several tribes: Zemgali, Seli, Latgali and Kursi. Most European languages can be traced back to these origins, with Latvian and Lithuanian the closest still-surviving tongues to the original. The Livonians, a Finno-Ugric people whose language is related to Estonian, are equally ancient settlers, but only a few hundred of them survive today.

XII - XV Century

From the second half of the 1100s, German traders search for a route for trade with the East, especially the flourishing Russian city Novgorod. They choose Riga for its strategic location at the outlet of the Daugava and prepare to conquer with both Bible and sword. Pitched battles near Riga ensue between the invaders and Livonian settlers. Pope Innocent III supports the Germans by declaring a holy war against the Baltic heathens.

Riga is founded in 1201, when Bishop Albert builds a castle on the site. In 1202, the military Order of the Brothers of the Sword is founded, and over the coming decades they crush and convert the warlike, but fatally divided, Latvian and Livonian tribes. The foundations of the Dome cathedral are laid in 1211. The last stand of the Latvian tribes, under their chief Viesturs, is crushed in 1290.

Although the conquered territories are named Livonia, the new German settlers are far from united. Over the next two hundred years, rivalry and warfare rage between the Church, the Teutonic Order (descendants of the Sword Brothers), and the city of Riga in a fight for trade and territory. The Order gradually gains the upper hand.

XVI Century

Several radical German preachers bring the reformation to Latvia in 1522. Social unrest breaks out in 1524: churches are vandalized, religious artifacts destroyed and monks are exiled from Riga.

XVII Century

In the Polish-Swedish war (1600 - 1629), Sweden wins northern Latvia, while the provinces of Kurzeme and Zemgale are united into a duchy loyal to the Polish-Lithuanian empire. In time the former unit becomes quite powerful, especially during the reign of its most successful leader, Duke Jacob Kettler (Jekabs Ketlers). Trade is expanded to all corners of the world; Latvian pines become masts for English warships. The duchy gains a colony: the island of Tobago in the Caribbean (later exchanged for Gambia in Africa). The Swedish occupation is commonly referred to as "the good old Swedish times", when schools are opened, oppression of the peasants lessened and the Bible is translated into Latvian for the first time.

XVIII Century

From 1700 to 1721 Sweden and Russia fight for control of Livonia. At first the Swedes, led by Charles XII, have great success, but their armies are defeated after marching on Moscow. The Russians occupy Latgale in 1795, and they will control the entire country until the start of World War I. The wars devastate Latvia. After the Russians capture Riga in 1710, only 90,000 people are left alive in all of Livonia.

XIX Century

Appalling poverty leads to a peasant rebellion in 1802, which is brutally crushed. A similar revolt, meeting a similar fate, takes place in 1840. Serfdom is abolished in Latvia between 1817 and 1819, but Latvians refer to this as "putnu briviba", bird freedom, since they are free to go where they wish, but the land remains in the hands of its previous owners.

In the second half of the century, a group of Latvian students in St. Petersburg, the "Young Latvians" (Jaunlatviesi), forge a more meaningful rebellion. Their St. Petersburg Paper, published from 1862 to 1865, does much to raise Latvian national consciousness. Some of the major figures of the national movement are on the journal's staff, including Krisjanis Barons, a prolific collector of folk songs, and Krisjanis Valdemars, a folk writer and the founder of the first Latvian school for sailors. In one of the most significant events of this rise of national consciousness, the first all-Latvian song festival is held in Riga in 1873. In 1990 and 1993, these festivals again become a rallying point for national feelings.

Throughout the century, commerce and industry develop rapidly in Riga, making it the third most important industrial city in Czarist Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg.

A map of the Baltic region.

XX Century

This heady mixture of national feelings, combined with the demands of the new industrial proletariat, make Latvia the hottest spot in the 1905 revolution. On January 24, 1905, a general strike is called and two days later 50,000 workers protest in the streets. Eighty people are killed in clashes with Czarist troops. Strikes and clashes break out in the countryside, and many landowners' houses are burned. The Czar caves in to demands October 30, 1905 and allows free speech and the formation of a Constituent Assembly. However, two months later Russian "punishment brigades" execute almost 2,000 Latvians. Many prominent citizens are forced into exile, including the great national poet Janis Rainis.

During World War I, Latvian soldiers fight the Germans as members of the Russian army. By 1915 the Germans occupy half of Latvia, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. In June the Russians allow independent Latvian units to defend their homeland, and eight battalions are quickly raised to do battle.

The weakened Russian army fails to oppose a major German offensive and Riga is taken September 3, 1917, despite Latvian troops' spirited defense. At the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty of March 1918, the Bolsheviks give the rest of Latvia to the enemy. The cream of the Latvian army, the so-called Latvian Riflemen, withdraw to Russia, where they become famous as Lenin's most trustworthy soldiers during the Civil War. Rifleman Colonel Vacietis becomes one of the first overall commanders of the Red Army.

From 1917 Latvian nationalists secretly plot against the Germans. When Germany surrenders on November 11, they seize their chance and declare Latvia's independence at the National Theatre on November 18, 1918. Two years of war follow. The Latvian army pushes back first renegade German forces, then Russian troops, who for a while declare the country a Soviet Republic. Under the Treaty of Riga, Russia promises to respect Latvia's independence for all time. Latvia's independence is recognised by the international community on January 26, 1921, and nine months later Latvia is admitted into the League of Nations.

The new nation faces enormous problems, with one third of its population displaced by the war and much of its industry shipped to Russia. Nevertheless, the country grows rapidly: land is redistributed to the peasants, and by the 1930s Latvia has one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Its sophisticated industries produce the world's smallest camera, the Minox, and airplanes. The country also becomes one of the great European dairy producers.

President Karlis Ulmanis stages a bloodless coup in May 1934 and puts an end to political chaos caused by a fractured parliament. Ulmanis is effectively a dictator for six years, but his rule is benign.

The secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact marks the twilight of independence, as the two great totalitarian powers, Germany and the USSR, divide Eastern Europe between them. Latvia falls to the latter, and Soviet troops invade on June 17, 1940. The Soviets hold sham elections to legitimise the takeover and escalate persecution. On the night of June 13-14, 1941 they force tens of thousands of people into cattle wagons and deport them to Siberia.

The Germans take Riga when invading the USSR in early July 1941. They are welcomed by many people as "liberators", but German rule does not bring independence. The Nazis murder ninety percent of Latvia's pre-war Jewish population in their three years of occupation. From 1943, as the war turns against them, Latvian youths are conscripted into the German army and sent to the eastern front. This does not prevent the Red Army from retaking most of Latvia in July and September 1944. The western region of Kurzeme (the Courland fortress) holds out until the end of the war without surrendering to either side, while thousands of Latvians flee to the west to avoid the oncoming communists.

The reinstated communist regime picks up where it left off in 1941. Forced general collectivisation goes hand in hand with a massive wave of deportations. On March 25, 1949 alone over 42,000 people are deported to Siberia. Partisan resistance against the Soviets continues in the forests until 1951.

The Stalinist regime begins a massive russification campaign in Latvia. Hundreds of thousands of workers are brought in from Russian lands to man the machines of industrialisation, and they are given preference in housing. The Latvian language slowly becomes a minority tongue as many forms of local cultural expression are simply banned. Demographic statistics show the level of this catastrophe: before the war Latvians comprise 75% of the population, but by 1989 their share had dwindled to 51.8%, threatening to make Latvians a minority in their own country. However, despite over half a century of Soviet rule, Latvia never loses its identity.

The Freedom monument in Riga centre

Independence & Beyond

In the late 1980's, the drive for independence begins when green groups protest & stop the development of a hydroelectric dam on the Daugava and an environmentally disastrous plan for a Riga metro.


June 14 - First protests since the war take place at the Freedom Monument, commemorating the 1941 deportations to Siberia.


June 1 - 2 - The Latvian Writers Union publicly reveals and denounces the secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, under which the Baltics were given to the USSR. October 7 - First big popular demonstration in Mezaparks and the foundation of the Popular Front. November 11 - The Latvian pre-war flag is raised on the Riga Castle.


May 31 - The Latvian Popular Front calls for complete independence. August 23 - Some two million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians join hands in a human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius in the 650 km long "Baltic Way", which protests the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.


March 18 - Popular Front candidates win 124 of the 201 seats in the Supreme Council. May 4 - The Supreme Council adopts a declaration restoring independence with a transition period.


January 13 - After a bloody assault on the TV tower in Vilnius, Lithuania, barricades are erected to protect the parliament. January 20 - Special Soviet OMON troops attack the Interior Ministry building in Riga, killing five people and injuring ten others. March 3 - In a consultative referendum in which 87.6% of eligible voters, including Russian residents and servicemen, take part, 73.7% vote in favour of independence from the USSR despite a call by the pro-Russian faction in parliament to boycott the referendum. April 27 - The Popular Front adopts a plan for transition to independence by spring 1992. August 19 - 20 - Inspired by the Moscow coup, Soviet troops block roads leading to Riga and seize the Interior Ministry building. August 21 - The Moscow coup collapses and the Latvian parliament votes for an end to the transition period, thus restoring Latvia's pre-war independence. August 23 - The local Communist Party is banned. September 2 - The USA recognizes the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. September 6 - The USSR recognizes the independence of the Baltic countries. September 17 - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are admitted into the United Nations.


May 7 - The government introduces the transitional "Latvian rouble". May 20 - The Baltic countries gain telephonic independence and receive their own country codes: 370 for Lithuania, 371 for Latvia, and 372 for Estonia. July 25 - August 9 - Participating finally under their own banner, Latvian athletes win two silver and one bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics.


March 5 - The Latvian lat is introduced and gradually replaces the Latvian rouble. The new currency gains in value against every major currency. June 6 - 7 - First free parliamentary elections see a small victory for the right-of-centre coalition of the Latvian Way and the Farmers Union. Russian speakers who settled in Latvia during the years of occupation are not entitled to vote. The 100 deputies in the Saeima (parliament) elect Guntis Ulmanis as president.


April 30 - President Guntis Ulmanis and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin sign a troop withdrawal agreement. July 6 - US President Bill Clinton stops in Riga for a six-hour state visit. August 31 - The last Soviet troops pull out of Latvia and Estonia. 500 officers stay to operate the Skrunda early warning radar until the end of August 1998.


February 10 - Latvia becomes a member of the Council of Europe. May 4 - The 19-storey, unfinished Skrunda radar station, also dubbed the "Skrunda monster", is dynamited to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the restoration of independence. June 27 - A bank crisis rocks Latvia, known as the "Switzerland" of the Baltics. Banka Baltija, the biggest commercial bank is declared insolvent. The government pledges to reimburse some of the over 200.000 depositors. September 31 - October 1 - No clear winner emerges from the general elections. None of the nine parties in parliament gets more than 18 out of the 100 seats. However, the "People's Movement for Latvia", led by the ultra-right wing German-Latvian politician Joachim Siegerist makes a surprise third place. November 7 - First session of the 6th Saeima (Parliament). December 21 - After futile attempts by the left- and the right-wing to form a government, the 37-year old businessman Andris Skele becomes Prime Minister of a large coalition government.


June 18 - Incumbent president Guntis Ulmanis is reelected for a second three-year term as Latvia's president by 53 of the 100 deputies in the Saeima (Parliament). September 27 - The Baltic states are "not yet ready" for Nato membership said US Defense Secretary William Perry at a Nato meeting in Bergen, Norway. It is the first time a diplomat publically concedes that the Baltics will not be part of the first stage of Nato enlargement.


January 20 - 29 - Short government crisis. Prime Minister Andris Skele hands in his resignation after a row over the appointment of his Finance Minister Vasilijs Melniks. On January 29 President Guntis Ulmanis re-nominates him to form a new government. March 9 - Leftist parties are the clear winners of the local elections which were also marked by a low turnout of 56.8%. The extreme left Social Democratic Party (SDP), which is not represented in the Saeima, won 13 of the 15 seats on the Daugavpils council. In Riga the party won 11 of the 60 seats. However the rightist parties are to retain the senior posts. February 24 - 25 - Latvia gives up its claim to the Abrene region at border talks in Moscow. Under the 1920 Riga Peace Treaty with Soviet Russia, Latvia was entitled to the patch of land now in Russia's Pskov region. In November 1996 Estonia had made a similar move, de linking the border treaty from its own 1920 peace treaty to make progress in bilateral talks with Russia. August 7 - Guntars Krasts of the For Fatherland And Freedom party becomes prime minister.


January 16 - The Baltic presidents sign the U.S.-Baltic Charter, a co-operation agreement that, although offering no security guarantees, may ease entry into NATO. March 16 - A demonstration by Latvian Waffen-SS veterans produces international condemnation and threats of trade sanction from Russia. August 31 - The last Russian military outpost in the Baltic countries, Skrunda, is officially shut down. October 3 - Latvian general elections: the People's Party and Latvia's Way gain the most seats in the Saeima. A referendum is held which grants automatic citizenship to children born in Latvia to 'aliens' after 1991.

A view of Riga


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