Religious Beliefs and Practices. Religion in Latvia has been politicized, making it difficult to know what the current belief system is. The population was converted by "fire and sword" to Roman Catholicism by A.D. 1300. In the sixteenth century most Latvians converted to Lutheranism. Those living in the part of Latvia incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, however, remained Catholic. In the nineteenth century, some seeking economic advantage joined the Russian Orthodox church. Between 1940 and 1991, the Communist Soviet government actively opposed religious activities and encouraged atheism. As a result the "mainstream" churches' (i.e., Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Russian Orthodox) leadership and membership have declined, and their moral and ideational influence has eroded. The culture has become secularized. Many individuals are not so much atheistic as agnostic. One recent development is active proselytizing by charismatic and Pentecostal churches, sects, and cults.
Arts. Production of authentic folk arts and crafts has almost fallen into desuetude. Current production is a commercialized fine art on folk-art themes. This decline applies to the performing arts as well. An important part of Latvian performing arts are song festivals organized in Latvia and other countries with significant Latvian populations. These events feature folk music performed by choirs of hundreds and dances by folk-dance troupes. Because of Russian political domination of the country for the past three centuries, Latvian artists and popular culture have been influenced by the artistic fashions and trends of Russia. But, except for the Soviet period, Latvian fine arts and popular culture have been more oriented toward Western Europe. During the Soviet period, the government promoted propagandistic art and suppressed art styles and artists deemed undesirable. Now Latvians are once again exploring other styles and approaches.
Medicine. The medical-care delivery system consists of clinics, hospitals, sanatoria, and dispensaries and pharmacies staffed by physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, and support staff. Because of the general economic breakdown and lack of resources, however, the medical system is in a state of virtual collapse. Although there seems to be an adequate number of physicians, there is a shortage of trained support staff and a critical lack of medicines, vaccines, equipment, and supplies. Medical workers, too, are trying to make the change from a system that discouraged initiative and forbade private enterprise to one featuring these characteristics. The need for medical services is acute, life expectancy is decreasing, and birth defects are increasing.