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 HISTORY and CULTURE
History     Culture

History
 

While human habitation in the region dates back to at least 9000 BC, the first forebears of Latvia's present inhabitants were Finno-Ugric hunters who probably reached the area between 3000 and 2000 BC. The ancestors of the modern Latvians, known as Balts, probably showed up around 2000 BC.

In the first few centuries AD the tribes of the region traded with Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire. Later, they traded with and fought against Vikings and Russians. By the 12th century the Finno-Ugric and Balt peoples were split into a number of tribal groups, all practising nature religions. Following papal calls for a crusade against the northern heathens, Germanic missionaries arrived in the area but achieved little until the 13th century. The Knights of the Sword (later known as the Livonian Order), an order of crusading knights whose white cloaks were emblazoned with blood-red swords and crosses, forcibly converted the region by 1290. Latvia was subject to continuous foreign rule from the 13th to the 20th century.

Protestant Sweden and Catholic Poland-Lithuania settled down in 1592 to fight each other in the Baltic lands. Most of eastern Latvia, including Riga, ended up in Swedish hands. The period of Swedish rule is looked back on fondly as a relatively enlightened episode in the country's long history of oppression. The 17th-century Swedish kings raised Latvian peasants from serfdom and introduced universal education. The liberation of the serfs triggered a Latvian national revival by allowing native people to move into trades, professions, commerce and intellectual circles. Slowly, Latvia emerged as a political entity in its own right, despite the unpopular and oppressive process of Russification towards the end of the 19th century. Latvia was subject to German occupation during WWI, but on 18 November 1918, just 7 days after Germany surrendered to the Allies, peasant, middle-class and socialist groups declared independence, and Karlis Ulmanis, head of the Farmers' Party, formed a government. However, fighting continued between nationalists, Bolsheviks and Baltic Germans until 1920, when Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with the parliamentary republic of Latvia, recognising its independence in perpetuity.

By the early 1930s Latvia had lapsed into authoritarianism, and on 23 August 1939 (when Nazi Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression pact) Latvia was placed in the Soviet sphere of influence. By August 1940 the nation had been placed under Soviet military occupation, communists had won 'elections,' and Latvia had been 'accepted' as a republic of the USSR. Nationalisation and purges began, and within a year 35,000 Latvians had been killed, deported or had fled the country. Germany invaded the USSR and occupied Latvia in 1941.

Though many Latvians considered the Nazis liberators and enlisted in German military units, Latvia's 90,000-strong Jewish population was virtually wiped out. A large number of Latvians fled to the West in 1944 and 1945 to avoid the Red Army's reconquest of their country, but Latvia's total losses during WWII were still around 450,000. Under Stalin, another 175,000 Latvians were killed or deported between 1945 and 1949.

The first signs that the harsh Soviet rule of Latvia was relaxing came in the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev started to encourage

The Latvian republic recently relaxed its strict citizenship laws, which favoured ethnic Latvians and other Balts over Russians, a gesture that should aid Latvia's application for admission to the EU.




Culture
 

Few Latvian artistic figures or works are internationally known. The country's literature was kickstarted in the 19th century with the writing of a national epic poem called Lacplesis (The Bear Slayer) by Andrejs Pumpurs, which was based on traditional folk tales. The giant of Latvian literature is Janis Rainis, whom Latvians claim might have enjoyed the acclaim of Shakespeare or Goethe had he written in a less obscure language.

Latvian verses known as dainas are often short and poetic and have been compared to the Japanese haiku. In the 19th century, great collections of folk lyrics and tunes were made by Krisjanis Barons. In fact, over 1.4 million folk lyrics and 30,000 tunes have been written down in Latvia.

The first major Latvian painter was Janis Rozentals, who painted scenes of peasant life and portraits in the early 20th century. Vilhelms Purvitis and Janis Valters were the outstanding landscape artists of the time. Karlis Rudevics, a leading figure in Latvia's Gypsy community, is known for his translations of Gypsy poetry and his striking paintings inspired by Gypsy legends.

Latvian is one of only two surviving languages of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family, and speakers of Latvian regard it as an endangered species. Just over half the people in the country speak it as their first language. The language spoken in east and west Latvia has dialectical differences from the standard Latvian spoken in the central portion of the country.

Latvians are descended from tribes such as the Letts (or Latgals), Selonians, Semigallians and Cours. In each of the country's seven largest cities, Latvians are outnumbered by Russians. Over 200,000 Latvians have emigrated, mainly to Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA.

Smoked foods - particularly fish - are popular in Latvia, as are dairy products, eggs, potatoes and grains. Smoked flounder, eel, herring and pilchards are staples of the country's diet, while specially preserved lampreys are a Latvian delicacy. Soups and sausage are also popular. In summer and autumn, fresh berry pies and tarts are abundant. Latvia's leading beer is Aldaris, but the concoction that prompts the most curiosity is Riga Black Balsam, a thick, jet-black, 45-proof mixture that tastes downright revolting. It's been produced only in Latvia since 1755.


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