Identification. Latvians are one of two Baltic ethnolinguistic groups (the other is Lithuanians). Their name for their country is "Latvija" or "Latvijas Republika." Latvians call themselves "Latvieši" or "Latvji."
Location. Latvia spans an area of 64,600 square kilometers and is located between 55°40′23′' and 58°40′23′' N and 20°587′' and 28° 1430" E. The country is more than twice as long between the eastern border and western seashore (450 kilometers) as it is from the northern to the southern border (210 kilometers). On the west and northwest, the country is bounded by the Baltic Sea. On the north, east of the Gulf of Riga, is Estonia. Russia is to the east of Latvia, Belarus to the southeast, and Lithuania to the south. Latvia is located in the central part of the Baltic Sheet, a geological formation underlying Scandinavia and the Russian plain. The terrain is characterized by gently rolling hills. The mean elevation is 89 meters above sea level; 75 percent of the countryside is lower than 120 meters above sea level. The highest hill is Gaizinš, 312 meters.
Latvia has 777 rivers longer than 10 kilometers. Its greatest river, Daugava (Düna), is 1,020 kilometers long, but only 357 kilometers of it flows through the country. Most rivers freeze for two to three-and-a-half months during an average winter. Most of the major rivers flow northward, and floods during the spring thaw are common. There are 2,500 lakes larger than 5 hectares, covering about 1.6 percent of the country's surface. Of these, 16 are greater than 10 square kilometers and represent approximately half of the area covered by lakes. Latvia is located in the turf-podzol soil area.
Climate. The climate is influenced by the Atlantic's Gulf Stream, the Baltic Sea, and the country's latitude. In December, the sun rises 9° to 10° above the horizon, and days are six to seven hours long. In June, the sun rises to 55° and days are seventeen to eighteen hours long. There are four seasons—fall (September to mid-December), winter (mid-December to mid-March), spring (mid-March to the end of May), and summer (June to the end of August). The annual growing season is 200 days, but only July and August are completely frost-free. The climate is warmer, moister, and the growing season 10 days longer in the west than in the east. Eastern Latvia has twice as many days with snow as the western part, 130 and 65 days respectively. The highest temperature recorded is 36° C; the lowest is —42.2° C. January temperatures average between —6.6° C in the east and —2.8° C in the west. July temperatures average between 16.7° C in the west and 17.6° C in the east. Annual precipitation averages between 60 and 80 centimeters, with 20 percent occurring as snow. Precipitation is minimal in February and maximal in August. Because of the predominantly cloudy weather, the country receives only 37 percent of possible sunshine.
Demography. Worldwide there are 1,620,000 Latvians. Of these, 1,388,000 live in Latvia, and some 232,000 reside outside of the country. The largest concentrations of Latvians abroad are in the United States (86,000), the former Soviet Union (71,000), the ten West European countries (30,000), Australia (25,000), and Canada (20,000). Latvians comprise only 52 percent of their country's 2,680,000 population. The largest ethnic minority is the Great Russians (34 percent of the total population). Other minorities (Belarussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, etc.) together constitute H percent of the total. Latvians predominate in rural areas (71.5 percent of rural inhabitants) but account for only 44 percent of the urban population. Latvians make up only 36.5 percent (332,000) of Riga's population; the Great Russians constitute the largest ethnic group in the city (431,000 or 47.3 percent). Only in Ogre (pop. 29,926), the ninth-largest city, do Latvians have a slight majority. In the fourth-largest city, Jelgava (pop. 74,704), Latvians fall just short of a majority (49.7 percent).
The ethnic composition is the result of World War II and postwar population policies. In 1935, 77 percent of the population was Latvian. During World War II, a significant number of Latvia's residents were killed or deported, or left voluntarily. By the war's end, the percentage of Latvians rose to 80 percent. After World War II, the Soviet government recruited immigrants for Latvia. As a result, the proportion of ethnic Latvians decreased to the current level.
Linguistic Affiliation. Latvian, Lithuanian, and the now-extinct Old Prussian make up the Baltic Branch of the Indo-European Language Family, a part of the Nostratic Macro-Family. Latvian uses the Latin alphabet. Spelling of foreign words is modified to reflect Latvian phonemic values. The literary language is based on the dialect spoken in the middle of the country. With the advent of mass media and compulsory universal education, local dialects are disappearing. Most Latvians are bilingual; 68.3 percent of Latvians in Latvia report knowing Russian, and most Latvians residing outside the country are bilingual.