ALTERNATE NAMES: Letts
POPULATION: 2.8 million (52 percent are ethnic Latvians)
LANGUAGE: Latvian (Lettish)
RELIGION: Christianity (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Old Believers, Pentecostal, Adventist); Judaism
Like many peoples, the Latvians have been ruled by foreigners for centuries. Often, these foreigners treated them terribly and tried to destroy their culture. The Latvians have been ruled by the Germans, Swedes, and Poles. Their most brutal foreign rulers by far were the Russians, however. Russia annexed the independent country of Latvia in 1940. They did so for many reasons, but one of the more important reasons was because they needed a port that was not iced over for most of the year. After taking over the country, the Russians began taking ethnic Latvians from their homes and moving them thousands of miles away to Central Asia. Many thousands more were simply killed.
During the first year of the Russian occupation, 35,000 ethnic Latvians and other Latvian citizens (including Jews) were arrested, murdered, or deported. Some 16,000 alone were sent into exile on the nights of June 13 and 14 in 1941. As a result, there are still a few of these exile Latvian communities scattered in the Russian part of Central Asia and Siberia.
Latvian campaigns for democracy and independence did not begin in earnest until October 1988, with the formation of the Popular Front of Latvia. Latvians finally won independence in August 1991 after the collapse of communism and the Soviet government in Moscow.
The population of Latvia is approximately 2.8 million. Of these, 52 percent are ethnic Latvians. About 34 percent are ethnic Russians. At the close of World War II (1939–45), thousands of Latvians fled their homeland to escape the returning Russian troops. There are now many ethnic Latvians and their descendants living in the United States (over 100,000), Australia, and elsewhere.
Latvia is on the Baltic coast and borders Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, the Russian Republic to the east, and Belarus (which was part of Poland before World War II) to the southeast. Latvia is slightly larger than the state of West Virginia. The coastline is mostly flat, but inland and eastward the topography becomes hilly, with more forests and lakes. Reznas Lake is the largest of Latvia's 2,300 lakes.
The climate is generally temperate, but with considerable temperature variations. Summer and winter can be intense, but spring and autumn are mild. Precipitation is distributed throughout the year, with the highest amount occurring in August.
Modern Latvian shows the influences of former conquerors. Words are taken from Swedish, German, and Russian. There are three main Latvian dialects: Central (which is used as the basis for written Latvian), East, and Livonian. Mainly because of the Russian occupation, only about half of the population in Latvia speaks Latvian today. In 1989 the government made Latvian the official language, requiring it in governmental use.
Latvian first names for males always end in the letter "s." They include names such as Andris, Ivars, Jānis, Kārlis, Vilnis, and Visvaldis. Female first names usually end in the letter "a" and include names like Aina, Laima, Māra, Ausma, Ieva, Ināra, Maija, and Zinta. Examples of everyday Latvian words include Sveicinati! (How do you do?), lūdzu (please), paldies (thank you), and uz redzēšanos (goodbye).
Latvian folk songs are popular and are known as dainas . These beautiful verses have been written over many centuries. They are rich in experience, feeling, and folk wisdom. Here is a daina describing the dawn:
Sidrabina gailis dzied
Lai ceļās Saules meita
Zīda diegu šķeterēt.
A silver rooster crows
Beside a golden stream,
To make the Sun's daughter rise
To twine her silken yarn.
Modern dainas are typically philosophical and are revered as Latvian lyric poetry. Efforts to preserve traditional Latvian folklore began late in the nineteenth century, and several volumes of traditional Latvian myths and folk songs were compiled and published. Modern scholars have catalogued more than a million traditional Latvian folk songs.
One of the most famous figures of Latvian myth is Lacplesis the Bear-Slayer. The legend of Lacplesis tells how he could break a bear's jaw with his fist and even get bears to pull his plow. Although Lacplesis wanted to help others, he often did not know his own strength and would end up breaking peoples' tools.
According to legend, Lacplesis was finally defeated by a vicious three-headed monster. The monster's mother told her son that Lacplesis would lose his great strength if his ears were cut off. The battling Lacplesis and the monster plunged into the Daugava River and were swept out to sea.
Christianity spread through Latvia during the ninth through twelfth centuries, with Russian Orthodoxy dominant in the east and Roman Catholicism in the west. Most people in the cities are Lutheran. There are also small communities of other faiths, such as Baptist, Old Believers, Pentecostal, Adventist, and Jewish.
Three Christian holidays that have become prominent in Latvian culture are Christmas (December 25 or January 7), Easter (late March or early April), and Whitsuntide (the week of Pentecost in May). At Christmas, Latvians attend church services, decorate spruce trees with ornaments and lights, and exchange presents. Easter traditions include coloring eggs and making decorations from onion skins and herbs. Another popular activity at Easter is to build a swing and swing high, from the traditional belief that such an activity will repel mosquitoes from biting in the summer. Many homes are decorated with birch branches for Whitsuntide. The national holiday of Latvia is on November 18, to commemorate the proclamation of the republic.
Ligo svētki is a traditional midsummer festival that celebrates the summer solstice on June 23 and Jāņi (St John's Day) on June 24. Ligo svētki activities include many old customs that are believed to bring the aid of good spirits into the home, barn, field, and forest. These spirits also protect the crops from witches and devils. It is a night of singing, dancing, lighthearted merriment, and fortune telling. Men, women, and children dress in colorful folk costumes.
Other Latvian traditions include two All Fool's days. One is on April 1 and the other on April 30. Every Latvian also celebrates not only a birthday but a namesake day. For an individual's namesake day, specific male and female first names are assigned to each day on the calendar.
Special Harvest Day (Thanksgiving) is celebrated on the first Sunday in October. There are many other celebrations. Among these are church festivals, district fairs, monthly market days, 4H Club exhibitions, gigantic open air performances of theater plays, dances, and choir songfests. Especially popular is the Dziesmu svētki (Song Festival).
Latvian baptisms are marked by families getting together for a feast. Weddings are celebrated as the most important Latvian rite of passage. They can go on for as long as three days. Owning a car was rare in Latvia throughout the Soviet years (1940–91), so learning to drive as a teenager was not common. However, Latvians could legally only ride a bicycle in the cities with a bicycle driver's license. These were not available until age sixteen. Passports in Latvia are issued at age twenty-one.
Handshaking is customary, and most standard European courtesies are observed. Latvians are somewhat reserved and formal in public but are usually very hospitable in private.
Many Latvians enjoy local mineral spas. One of the most famous is in Kemeri, near Riga. The local mineral water and mud have been used for medicinal therapy for almost 300 years.
Since the winters are cold, housing is built accordingly, with firewood as the main source of heat. Government-operated railroads are the primary way for people to get around in Latvia.
Latvian culture has always emphasized strong family ties. Men have the role of provider and women are homemakers in traditional Latvian culture. The typical family includes two to four children.
Most Latvians dress in standard European clothes for everyday wear. During folk dances and traditional ceremonies, many women wear the traditional Latvian costume. This consists of a large, colorful, pleated skirt worn with a white blouse and a short, round hat.
Traditional Latvian soups include cabbage soup and buckwheat soup. These are usually served with boiled pork, onions, potatoes, and barley. Traditional dishes include grilled pork ribs, smoked fish (including salmon and trout), gray peas (navy beans) with fried fat, and piragi (pastries filled with bacon and onions).
A popular sweet pastry is Alexander Torte, which is filled with raspberries or cranberries. Other popular national dishes include zemnieku brokastis (peasant's breakfast), which is a large omelet with potatoes and mushrooms. Maizes zupe ar putukrejumu is cornbread soup with whipped cream. Skābe putra is a drink made from pearl barley or rye flour and whey. Siļķe, biezpiens ar kartupeļiem un krejumi is a dish made of salt herring, cottage cheese, potatoes, and sour cream.
Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Latvians have thoroughly changed the organizational structure and curricula that were part of the Soviet education system. Primary education lasts for nine years, and secondary education lasts for three years. There are now private as well as public universities available for those who pass entrance exams.
As for Latvians outside the homeland, over half of ethnic Latvians in the United States have a college degree. There are some 600 Latvian scientists and scholars teaching at American universities, and about as many physicians and dentists practicing in the United States.
Latvian folk history preservation is a popular activity. Several folk dance troupes, such as Ilgi, Skandinieki, and Dandari, are well known for their performances that preserve Latvian heritage. Ballet is popular among Latvians.
The kokle is the most celebrated of the Latvian folk instruments. A small board zither, the kokle is related to a larger family of similar stringed instruments found throughout the Baltic region. The kokle was usually played by men to accompany folk dances. It is now favored by young female ensembles and is also played in large modern orchestras. There are soprano, alto, tenor, and bass models available.
The popular Dziesmu svētki (Song Festival) is an event that occurs every four years. The first Song Festival took place in 1873 with 1,003 singers. By 1938 the event had grown to 16,000 singers with an audience of over 100,000. Latvian Song Festivals are also held every four years in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe.
The Soviet government controlled the Latvian economy for decades. During this time the Latvians worked with little incentive under a system of price controls and quotas. Since independence, the Latvian government has reformed the system. However, the transition has been difficult for many workers. As a result, many Latvians (especially women) have suffered unemployment in recent years. Latvians not in school can begin working at age sixteen.
Soccer, volleyball, and basketball are popular outdoor activities among Latvians. Latvia has many organized sports clubs and organizations for these and other sports. Bobsled and motor racing are popular spectator sports. Latvian athletes have occasionally won medals at the Olympics.
In 1772 the Riga Opera-Theater house opened. Going to the theater is still popular among Latvians today. Many productions are dramas, but musicals have become popular in recent years. Circuses are also popular, and Riga has had a permanent circus building since 1889.
Interest in folk arts and crafts is expressed through jewelry making, intricate sewing, and embroidering of the traditional Latvian folk dress. Workshops in ceramics, woodworking, and leather craft are also common.
As in many other places in the world, there is ethnic tension in Latvia. Latvians and Russians have deep resentments against each other. Major problems have to do with language and with the fact that many Latvians' houses were stolen by Russians. The new Latvian government reinstated Latvian as the official language. They also gave Russians seven years to return stolen property.
In the Soviet era, environmental protection in Latvia did not exist. Air pollution became concentrated in industrialized areas. The rivers and lakes were used as open sewers for sloppy industrial waste-disposal methods. As a result, even the Baltic Sea is not safe for swimming. In many places even the ground water is contaminated.
American Latvian Association. Latvia: Country, People, Liberty . Rockville, Md.: American Latvian Association, 1976.
The Baltic States . Tallinn, Estonia: Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian Encyclopaedia Publishers, 1991.
Šveics, Vilnis V. How Stalin Got the Baltic States . Jersey City, N.J.: Jersey City State College, 1991.