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History of Latvia

“I am rich, I own everything that has happened to me” – to quote Latvian poet Māris Čaklais. And, indeed, the history of Latvia in its few hundred years of existence is so rich and over-saturated with various events, that, indeed, it seems surprising that Latvia has survived and that Latvian people and language still exist, that Latvia has its own state!

The world has been discussing globalisation only for the last few decades, but Latvia has enjoyed it for more than 700 years; because of its advantageous geographical locations its territory has always been coveted by the neighbouring super-powers. They became inter-dependant, while Latvia became dependent on them. Latvia has always been at the epicentre of globally significant events, and has been subject to the German, Polish, Swedish and Russian rule. These powers have destroyed this land in numerous wars, each power bringing its own order and morals, but Latvia went on existing nevertheless, it lived its own life, taking the best from each culture, thus becoming one of the best developed territories in the region.

The origins of Latvia and Latvian people are found nine thousand years before Christ, when the glaciers covering the territory of Latvia melted. At that time the first inhabitants arrived, but later other Baltic tribes settled here – the ancestors of Latvians, Lithuanians and Prussians. Latvia was at a trade cross-roads, the ancient and globally important trade route from the Vikings to the Greeks passed along its grandest river - the Daugava. But an insight into the life of the Balts can be gained even at present, for example, at Āraiši Castle Lake Museum, where a reconstruction of the 9th century Latgalians’ life is found on the lake island.

The ancient Baltic tribes (Curonians, Semigallians, Latgalians,  Selonians) were far from peaceful farmers - they were excellent warriors and sailors. For example, the Curonians, who lived on the Kurzeme shores, were considered to be even more dangerous marauders than the Vikings, and it is not without reason an inscription, dating back to the 9th-13th centuries: "God, save us from the plague, the fire and the Curonians!" can be found in an old Danish church.

 During the 12th and 13th century the territory of Latvia was gradually invaded by the crusaders, who, coveting new lands, attempted to bring Christianity. The Curonians and the Semigallians offered the longest resistance to the crusaders, but from the end of the 13th century the power belonged to Germans, who built stone castles (the visually impressive Turaida Castle is an excellent example) around which towns grew. A new alliance of states was created in the conquered lands – Livonia, which existed until the mid-16th century, when the army of Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible, as well as Swedish and Danish armies, invaded Livonia, and amidst this brawl Polish-Lithuanian rulers also gained Latvian land.

 With their approval the landlords of Kurzeme established a new state in Kurzeme and Zemgale - the Duchy of Courland (1558 – 1582), which in a very short period of time turned into a modern European state. It was engaged in manufacturing, producing metal, arms, ships and trading with the whole world. Duke Jacob Kettler turned the Duchy of Courland into a colonial superpower, which owned three colonies – Gambia in Africa, Tobago in the Central America and Eidsvoll iron mines in Norway. Jelgava was the residence of the Duchy of Courland; during the period of Duchy dukes’ residence, the Palace of Jelgava was created by the unique Italian architect Rastrelli (the same Rastrelli who built the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg), where after the French Revolution Louis XVII the King of France stayed and the tombs of the dukes can still be seen, as well as Rundāle Palace, which is a genuine jewel of rococo and baroque architecture.

The year 1600 in the territory of Latvia started with war, famine and plague. Following a 21-year-long destructive Swedish-Polish war, Riga and Vidzeme came under Swedish rule. After all the horrors of war the inhabitants had suffered through, they called this period “the good Swedish times”, while Riga became the largest Swedish city, overshadowing even Stockholm.

However, the peace did not last, and not even 100 years had passed when rich Riga and Latvia were conquered by both the Russians and the Poles. The Nordic War started, and in 1701 even the Swedish King Karl XII himself went into battle in Riga near Spilves meadows, and in the heat of the battle he lost his boot... The Swedes won, but did not suspect that nine years later they would have to capitulate in front of the young and energetic Russian Czar Peter I. He not only cut a window through Latvia and Riga for Russia to Europe and almost completely destroyed Vidzeme, but also wed a Latvian – Catherine I was Marta Skvaronska, the step-daughter and nurse of Vidzeme priest Gluck. Incidentally, the buildings in Riga (Palasta iela 1) and in Liepāja (Kungu iela) where Peter I resided are still standing.

During the 18th century the whole territory of Latvia was gradually incorporated into the Russian empire, and in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century Riga developed into one of the major industrial centres of the Russian Empire. It is possible to judge the scale of this from the fact that the first car in the Russian Empire was built in Riga, at the factory “Russo-Balt”. More proof can be seen at Riga Motor Museum. The growing prosperity was interrupted by World War I. In 1915 the German army occupied Kurzeme, and the front line was secured along the Daugava for two years. Latvians achieved the formation of the Latvian riflemen battalion, and global newspapers reported on their heroism during the Christmas battles (the battle sites can be viewed at Ložmetējkalns  (Machinegun Hill) in Tīreļpurvs). The German Army managed to conquer Riga only in 1917, but the prolonged war had exhausted both parties – on 11 November, 1918 the end of the war was announced, however, that did not mean that the war was over for Latvia.

Using the historic situation, on 18 November, 1918, Latvia was declared an independent democratic state. However, not everybody was satisfied with this, therefore already in December of 1918 the newly established Soviet Union, with the help of the army, took power in Latvia and executed a "red terror", killing 5,000 people in a few months. In March 1919 the liberation struggle against the Bolsheviks started, which in April were stopped by the coup d’état executed by the ally of the interim government von der Golz. Golz dreamt of establishing a duchy of German landlords.

To reach this aim, a "white terror" started in Latvia. In June 1919, during the Cēsis battles the allied Latvian and Estonian forces managed to defeat Golz’s army and the Interim Government secured the territory free of Bolsheviks. In the meantime Golz did not give up his plans, and he found an ally – Colonel Bermont, and with the newly established Bermontian army on started to attack Riga on 8 October, 1919. On 11 November, riflemen from the whole of Latvia drove Bermont’s soldiers away from Riga, but the struggle to liberate Latgale from the Bolsheviks continued.

The war in Latvia ended only in 1920, it had lasted for 5 years. At the film studio "Cineville" it is possible to view the scale of the war and the rhythm of human life during the war years. The Museum of War also offers the possibility to get into the roles of Latvian riflemen; you will be dressed in the uniforms of the age, be told about World War I and have the opportunity to taste a genuine Latvian soldier's meal – real rye bread!

The independent state of Latvia underwent a rapid economic growth, a land reform was implemented, and manufacturing companies were restored. Unfortunately, in less than 20 years Latvia reappeared in the range of the super-powers’ interests. On 23 August 1939, Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact with secret Protocols which led to the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland into the Soviet zone of interest. The U.S.S.R. acted immediately – already in October Soviet army military bases were set up in Latvia and approximately 60,000 Baltic Germans left Latvia. On 17 June, 1940 the Red Army occupied the Republic of Latvia. A decision on the incorporation of Latvia into the U.S.S.R. was taken, and on 14 June the first mass deportations started, when approximately 20,000 people were deported to distant regions of Russia.

On 22 June, 1941 the German army invaded the U.S.S.R., which was the beginning of the German occupation in Latvia. During this period Latvian Jews and Roma were destroyed, legions were formed, and the inhabitants of Latvia were forced to join them and made to fight on the German side. Thousands of Latvians fought on the Soviet side, though many would have preferred to fight for an independent Latvia against both super-powers; however, they had to fight in the armies of opposing states against each other – a brother against a brother, a father against a son. In October 1944 the Soviet army occupied Riga. However, until the very end of the year the Soviet army could not conquer the Western part of Latvia - Kurzeme. When the war ended, the Soviet era returned to Latvia.

The formation of collective farms started, and to encourage joining them and to decrease the resistance movement, on 25 May 1949 the Soviet power deported 43,000 people to Siberia. To replace those, people from Russia were flown into Latvia, and a gradual Russification of Latvia started. This is why Latvia is a real paradise for lovers of military tourism, because Latvia has outstanding heritage from World War I and II, as well as the military bases left by the Soviet army, for example, Irbene radio telescope, one of the largest in North Europe, as well as missile silos.

In the 1980s, to overcome the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the head of the U.S.S.R. implemented the policies of "perestroika" and "openness". This facilitated the movement of national awakening in Latvia, which aimed to restore independence. The Popular Front of Latvia was established in 1988, which was victorious in the 1990 Supreme Council elections, and on 4 May adopted the declaration on the restoration of independence of the Republic of Latvia. However, the Soviet power was not ready to give up, and in 1991 the period of barricades started, when people from the whole of Latvia went to Riga to guard objects of national importance.

That was the time of national unity called the Singing Revolution – for Latvia and the other Baltic States, when the Baltic nations managed to fight for their independence with such non-violent means of resistance like, for example, the inhabitants of the three Baltic States joining hands and forming a live human chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius. However, when the 1991 coup d’état failed in Russia and democratic forces came into power, the Supreme Soviet declared Latvia an independent state. Since restoring its independence Latvia has acceded to the European Union and has joined NATO.

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