History of Latvia

Brief history of Latvia summarized

A brushstroke of the history of Latvia, to get to know the Baltic country a little better.

Former latvia

latvian flagThe first settlers in Latvia were stone age hunters and gatherers who arrived there after the last ice age, around 9000 BC However, the ancestors of today’s Latvians were Baltic tribes who migrated to the area around the year 2,000 BC

In the 12th century AD some of the last pagans in Europe lived in Latvia. The Pope decided to convert them to Christianity by force. In 1201 he dispatched German crusaders commanded by the Bishop of Bremen Albert von Buxhöveden.

The Crusaders sailed into what is now the Gulf of Riga. They landed in a fishing village in Riga and built a fortified settlement there. So Riga became the capital of Latvia.

From their base in Latvia, the Germans marched inland and took the land from the natives.

The Germans formed into a military order called the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. They called the Baltic region Livonia. In 1237 the Brotherhood of the Sword merged with another German Order, the Teutonic Knights and called themselves the Livonian Order.

The Germans became a feudal ruling class in Latvia. Latvians became second-class citizens. However, the Germans also founded several cities in Latvia: Riga, Cēsis, Ventspils, and Kuldīga.

In 1282, Riga joined the Hanseatic League (a federation of cities in Germany and on the Baltic, which controlled trade in Northern Europe). Valmiera joined the Hanseatic League in 1365.


The Protestant Reformation came to Latvia in 1521. The new Protestant doctrines found wide support, especially in urban areas.

Latvia suffered a disaster in 1558. Russia, an increasingly powerful country, wanted access to the sea and invaded Latvia in 1558. The Livonian War lasted until 1583.

Meanwhile, in 1561 the Poles invaded Latvia from the south and conquered the Latgale region in the southeast. They ruled that area until the end of the 18th century. The Livonian Order was dissolved in 1562.

Then in 1621 the Swedes conquered Riga and northeastern Latvia (they held the region until they waged the Great Northern War against Russia in 1700-1721). The Russians captured Riga in 1710 and all Swedish territory in Latvia came under Russian control.

In 1685, Ernst Glück translated the New Testament into Latvian and in 1689 he did the same for the Old Testament.

At the end of the 18th century, Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided Poland among themselves. As a result, the parts of Latvia held by the Poles came under Russian control. Since then, all of Latvia was ruled by the Tsar.

In the 18th century there was still a German elite and the native Latvians were still second-class citizens.

Twentieth century

During the 19th century, Latvia experienced rapid economic development. In 1800, Riga only had a population of 30,000, but by 1900 it had reached half a million. Meanwhile, in the 1810s, serfdom was ended by the Latvian nobility.

Also, during the 19th century, nationalism in Latvia and interest in Latvian culture revived. A man named Krišjānis Barons, known as the father of the dainas, collected Latvian folklore. The first Latvian newspaper was published in 1862.

In 1905, a wave of demonstrations took place over Russia and Latvia. The tsarist government brutally suppressed the demonstrations and imprisoned the leaders of the Latvian nationalists.

In 1918 Russia collapsed and much of its territory was occupied by the Germans, including Latvia. However, the Germans themselves surrendered in November 1918. The Latvians then declared their independence (the formal declaration of independence was made in a theater in Riga on November 18, 1918).

Kārlis Ulmanis became head of state. However, the situation was complicated by the fact that German troops remained in Latvia after Germany ‘s defeat.

Furthermore, the Communist Russians had no intention of letting Latvia go. On January 3, 1919, they captured Riga and installed a regime led by a Latvian named Pēteris Stučka.

When the Russians captured Riga, Kārlis Ulmanis fled to Liepāja, which was occupied by German troops. In May 1919, the Germans expelled the Communists from Riga. Ulmanis returned to Riga in July 1919. The Germans withdrew from Latvia at the end of 1919.

The Russians still held parts of southeastern Latvia, but were forcibly expelled in the winter of 1919–1920. The Russians finally recognized Latvia’s independence through a treaty signed on August 11, 1920.

In 1921 Latvia joined the League of Nations (League of Nations).

Like the rest of the world, Latvia suffered from the economic depression of the 1930s. As a result, many people became disillusioned with democracy and right-wing groups grew. So in 1934 Ulmanis declared a state of emergency. Latvia gradually became a dictatorship. In 1935, the Freedom Monument was built in Riga.

In 1939, the Nazis and the Communists agreed to divide Eastern Europe between them. Latvia was assigned to the Soviet Union. In July 1940 the Red Army occupied Latvia and in August 1940 Latvia became part of the Soviet Union. After this, thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia and thousands more were executed.

In June 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and within weeks had control of Latvia. The Nazis then began rounding up Latvian Jews and murdering them.

However, the war turned against Germany and the Russians captured Riga in October 1944. In the later stages of the war many Latvians fled west, being quite fortunate as, after the war, tens of thousands of Latvians were deported. or killed. Some brave Latvians fled into the forest and waged a guerrilla war against the communists. They continued their fight until 1956.

Meanwhile, the Soviet government moved many Russians to Latvia to break its ethnic uniformity.

However, in 1987 communism began to crumble and demonstrations began in Latvia. In 1988 the Latvian Popular Front was formed. In 1989, the Popular Front demanded full independence for Latvia. Then, in March 1990, the Front won a majority in the Latvian Supreme Council. The Council issued a declaration restoring independence.

In January 1991, the Soviet Union sent troops to attack the Riga Radio and Television Tower. Afterwards, many Latvians went to Riga to protest and stop further Soviet attacks. Soviet troops attacked the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Riga, but were forced to withdraw, having killed 5 Latvians.

However, the communist tyranny in Latvia collapsed after a failed coup in August 1991. The Soviet Union recognized its independence on September 6, 1991. The last Russian troops left Latvia in 1994.

After the collapse of communism, the Latvian economy began to grow steadily. In 1993 a new currency, the Lat, was introduced and completely free parliamentary elections were held. Latvia joined the World Trade Organization in 1999. Also in 1999, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga became the first female president of Latvia.

XXI century

In 2004 Latvia joined NATO and the EU. Latvia suffered greatly in the recession of 2009. However, Latvia recovered and continues to become prosperous. In 2014, Latvia joined the euro. Also in 2014, Riga became the European Capital of Culture. Today the population of Latvia is 2 million.

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