In honor of Latvia's upcoming 100th anniversary, I'm running a series of posts all week to share with you everything you never knew you wanted to know about the small Baltic country. My first post
was about my personal connection to it (long story short: I lived there for about five years total in my 20s).
Today I'm going to give you a crash course in Latvian history. Like, the super short version, because I don't want to be boring. But not TOO short, because that's just like a Wiki article, and those are kind of boring too. Bear in mind that learning about one Baltic country means you're going to learn about all three of them. (Also bear in mind that the Baltic countries are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and that they are a thousand miles away from the Balkan countries that had a civil war in the early 1990s.
) All photos in this post are from Wikimedia Commons. The information is presented as I understand it, but I make no claims to scholarship or infallibility.
|Europe with Latvia in red. Estonia is north, and Lithuania is south.|
The Baltic shore was settled over ten thousand years ago by nomads from the south. In fact, Lithuanian is the oldest living language with ties to Sanskrit, and Latvian is essentially a slightly more modern development of Lithuanian. (Estonian, like Finnish and a dying language from one coastal region of Latvia, is related to Hungarian. Go figure.) People settled in, fished in the Baltic, farmed the flatlands, and traded the amber that washes ashore on the Baltic coast in greater amounts than anywhere else in the world. Centuries went by, and the Duchy of Lithuania consolidated power until at one point in the 13-15th centuries it (nominally) controlled land from the Baltic sea to the Black Sea.
As Christianity swept the continent, the Baltic states held firmly to their multi-theistic, nature-based religion. It wasn't until the Teutonic knights finally conquered them (after trying for a really long time, mind you) in the 15th century that the area converted to Christianity, and even then, it was mostly a political move, with the peasantry largely continuing in their old beliefs. Later, Catholicism took firm hold in Lithuania, which means that Lithuania is a more Polish influenced country than the other two. Estonia and Latvia were less enthusiastically Lutheran, which means they have a Scandinavian flair.
The 15th-18th centuries were an era of small duchies and kingdoms throughout mainland Europe. The larger nation states we know today didn't really start consolidating until the 1800s. The Baltic states had been taken over by Russia as Peter the Great tried to turn Russia into a western country and to acquire an ice-free port for shipping purposes. But the waves of nationalism washing over the continent started to buoy the people of the Baltic states. They continued to speak their own languages, celebrate their own customs, and identify as their own specific people. An Swedish university had opened up in Tartu in the 1600s, but in the 1800s they added courses in and about the Estonian language. The first national song festivals were held in Estonia and Latvia in the late 1800s. More and more, the three Baltic regions were feeling they deserved to have their own independent countries.
World War I, like WWII, was tough on the Baltics, sandwiched as they are between Germany and Russia. But with both countries weakened by the bloody war, they saw their chance to strike for independence. By the end of 1918, all three countries had declared themselves independent of both German and Russian rule, and while it took a few more years for the international community to accept them fully, all are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year.
The era of independence is remembered fondly, although all countries were possibly slipping from democracies to strong man dictatorships by the beginning of WWII. That war was a nightmare, of course. About 90% of the Jewish population was murdered, an especially significant figure in Lithuania, whose capital of Vilnius was known as "Jerusalem of the north" for its high Jewish population. Germany invaded, Russia invaded, Germany invaded, Russia invaded and then stayed. On June 14, 1941, a wave of deportations to Siberia reached their height, with tens of thousands (about 50,000 total during that time period) picked up in the middle of the night, put on cattle cars (sound familiar?) and sent to Siberia.
Nearly every single person I met in Latvia in the 1990s had a family member who had been deported. Many never came home, though many did under the mild reforms of the Khrushchev era. I also talked to many people whose fathers and uncles had hidden in the forest or under a false floor in the family barn in order to avoid conscription by both armies. As the war ran down, thousands more fled to the west, setting down roots in Germany, Australia, Canada, Argentina, and the U.S.
If I went fully into the Soviet occupation, we'd be here all day. I'll give you a few images to paint the picture: community housing where several families shared a kitchen and bathroom. Mandatory Russian language for all. My friends in the fishing village I first lived in could only have out of town visitors (like, their mom from inland) if the visitor filled out an official request and got approved--because it was conceivable to get to Sweden by boat from their coastline. For the same reason, the shoreline was raked smooth every evening, spotlit all night, and inspected every morning. In the English language textbook used nation-wide, there were gems like "Everyone knows there is no racism in the Soviet Union," and "The most interesting fact about London is that Karl Marx studied in the British Library there." Soviets didn't smile at each other on the street, because your personal space began and ended at your own skin.
The Soviets maintained the fiction that they were there by invitation. Indications that the populace wasn't buying it were quickly and firmly squashed. There's a lovely statue in Riga, a monument to freedom that was paid for partly by donations from school children in the 1930s. Newlyweds laid flowers at its base, as did graduating college students. The Soviets re-routed a street to run on either side of it, and a few blocks away built a hotel that loomed higher than it. Some students still tried to sneak out in cover of darkness to lay flowers at it on graduation night--and those that were caught were jailed. The song festivals continued, only now the choirs were given lists of songs celebrating the Soviet people, the leadership of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin, and the worldwide Communist movement. Still, when you gather some twenty thousand singers together, with two or three times that many audience members, when the concert is over and the conductor ostensibly turns his back, what can you do if all fifty thousand present start spontaneously singing well loved Latvian folk songs?
|The freedom monument in winter|
|The 2008 song festival in Riga|
So they hung on. They whispered the truth to their children. They survived.
And then came Gorbachev, and perestroika. More communication with the west. Less sense of terror. On August 23, 1989, on the fiftieth anniversary of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrof pact that had divided the countries of Europe between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, some two million people in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania held hands to form a human chain
from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius. This wasn't the first popular demonstration, but it was the largest by far. The Berlin Wall came down in 1990, and the Baltic countries started the process of breaking away from the USSR. In early spring, first Estonia, then Latvia, then Lithuania declared their reinstatement as independent nations.
The USSR said that was illegal. In January of 1991, Soviet tanks rolled into all three Baltic capitals in a show of force. The people responded by building barricades around communication centers and places of government, and manning them mostly unarmed. There were a handful of civilian deaths in Riga and Vilnius, but all-out warfare was avoided, in large part because the resistance was ready to sacrifice themselves in order for the world to see what was really going on.
|Lithuanian memorial to the Baltic Way protest|
There's haunting footage from a cameraman who was filming the scene in downtown Riga and got hit by a stray bullet. The camera drops into the snow, and you hear the man's dying words--"keep filming."
The failed coup in August of 1991 was the final push towards the USSR, and then Russia, recognizing the independence of the Baltic countries. Their armed presence lingered for years, and their influence continues to be an issue. With Putin's power and disdain for international and humanitarian law, there's no guarantees for the future. There have been ups and downs. The government struggles with ongoing corruption, and there's a brain drain as the best and brightest young people leave for other countries. On the other hand, membership in the E.U. and NATO created both a sense of pride and of greater security.
|Riga, beautiful Riga|
What comes next for Latvia and her sister nations of Estonia and Lithuania? They have the same troubles as always--the combination of a small size and an attractive location make them targets for stronger countries. Fifty years of Soviet rule left a culture of mistrust and corruption. But they've survived for centuries with flourishing customs and culture. I'm optimistic.