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city of Riga

The city of Riga, with the Daugava River, Dome Cathedral,

 and St Jacob's Church below.1


Latvia is the middle child of the Baltic family, both in geography and in area. It's larger than Estonia to the north and smaller than Lithuania to the south, while all three Baltic States are dwarfed by their eastern neighbors, Russia and Belarus. Latvia borders the Baltic Sea to the west and north-west. The Gulf of Riga, a thumb-shaped inlet of the Baltic Sea, pokes into Latvia's northern coast. The Vidzeme Upland in eastern Latvia boasts the country's highest point, Gaizina kalns, which rises to a dizzy 311m (1020ft).

About 40% of Latvia is forested, and elk, deer, wild boar, wolves, lynx and brown bears are prominent forest inhabitants. Beavers and otters live in the inland waterways and seals along the coast. Latvia is also home to 6500 pairs of white stork (six times as many as the whole of Western Europe). Latvia's sole national park, situated in the Gauja river valley east of Riga, has great scenery, walking trails, castles and a wildlife centre. There are a number of nature reserves, three of which are situated in the Kurzeme region in western Latvia.

From early November until the April thaw, temperatures rarely rise above 4C (39F) and the sun shines only a few hours a day. June to August daytime highs are normally in the 14-22C (57-71F) range. July and August are the warmest months but are prone to persistent showers. 


snow covered roof-tops

Picture-perfect rooftops of Old Riga, taken from the spire of St John's Church.1


Few Latvian artistic figures or works are internationally known. The country's literature was kickstarted in the 19th century with the writing of a national epic poem called Lacplesis (The Bear Slayer) by Andrejs Pumpurs, which was based on traditional folk tales. The giant of Latvian literature is Janis Rainis, whom Latvians claim might have enjoyed the acclaim of Shakespeare or Goethe had he written in a less obscure language.

Latvian verses known as dainas are often short and poetic and have been compared to the Japanese haiku. In the 19th century, great collections of folk lyrics and tunes were made by Krisjanis Barons. In fact, over 1.4 million folk lyrics and 30,000 tunes have been written down in Latvia.

The first major Latvian painter was Janis Rozentals, who painted scenes of peasant life and portraits in the early 20th century. Vilhelms Purvitis and Janis Valters were the outstanding landscape artists of the time. Karlis Rudevics, a leading figure in Latvia's Gypsy community, is known for his translations of Gypsy poetry and his striking paintings inspired by Gypsy legends.

Latvian is one of only two surviving languages of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family, and speakers of Latvian regard it as an endangered species. Just over half the people in the country speak it as their first language. The language spoken in east and west Latvia has dialectical differences from the standard Latvian spoken in the central portion of the country.

Latvians are descended from tribes such as the Letts (or Latgals), Selonians, Semigallians and Cours. In each of the country's seven largest cities, Latvians are outnumbered by Russians. Over 200,000 Latvians have emigrated, mainly to Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA.

Smoked foods - particularly fish - are popular in Latvia, as are dairy products, eggs, potatoes and grains. Smoked flounder, eel, herring and pilchards are staples of the country's diet, while specially preserved lampreys are a Latvian delicacy. Soups and sausage are also popular. In summer and autumn, fresh berry pies and tarts are abundant. Latvia's leading beer is Aldaris, but the concoction that prompts the most curiosity is Riga Black Balsam, a thick, jet-black, 45-proof mixture that tastes downright revolting. It's been produced only in Latvia since 1755.


Dome Cathedral

Dome Cathedral in Old Riga, founded

 in 1211 as the seat of the Riga diocese.1


While human habitation in the region dates back to at least 9000 BC, the first forebears of Latvia's present inhabitants were Finno-Ugric hunters who probably reached the area between 3000 and 2000 BC. The ancestors of the modern Latvians, known as Balts, probably showed up around 2000 BC.

In the first few centuries AD the tribes of the region traded with Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire. Later, they traded with and fought against Vikings and Russians. By the 12th century the Finno-Ugric and Balt peoples were split into a number of tribal groups, all practicing nature religions. Following papal calls for a crusade against the northern heathens, Germanic missionaries arrived in the area but achieved little until the 13th century. The Knights of the Sword (later known as the Livonian Order), an order of crusading knights whose white cloaks were emblazoned with blood-red swords and crosses, forcibly converted the region by 1290. Latvia was subject to continuous foreign rule from the 13th to the 20th century.

Protestant Sweden and Catholic Poland-Lithuania settled down in 1592 to fight each other in the Baltic lands. Most of eastern Latvia, including Riga, ended up in Swedish hands. The period of Swedish rule is looked back on fondly as a relatively enlightened episode in the country's long history of oppression. The 17th-century Swedish kings raised Latvian peasants from serfdom and introduced universal education. The liberation of the serfs triggered a Latvian national revival by allowing native people to move into trades, professions, commerce and intellectual circles. Slowly, Latvia emerged as a political entity in its own right, despite the unpopular and oppressive process of Russification towards the end of the 19th century. Latvia was subject to German occupation during WWI, but on 18 November 1918, just 7 days after Germany surrendered to the Allies, peasant, middle-class and socialist groups declared independence, and Karlis Ulmanis, head of the Farmers' Party, formed a government. However, fighting continued between nationalists, Bolsheviks and Baltic Germans until 1920, when Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with the parliamentary republic of Latvia, recognizing its independence in perpetuity.

By the early 1930s Latvia had lapsed into authoritarianism, and on 23 August 1939 (when Nazi Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression pact) Latvia was placed in the Soviet sphere of influence. By August 1940 the nation had been placed under Soviet military occupation, communists had won 'elections,' and Latvia had been 'accepted' as a republic of the USSR. Nationalization and purges began, and within a year 35,000 Latvians had been killed, deported or had fled the country. Germany invaded the USSR and occupied Latvia in 1941.

Though many Latvians considered the Nazis liberators and enlisted in German military units, Latvia's 90,000-strong Jewish population was virtually wiped out. A large number of Latvians fled to the West in 1944 and 1945 to avoid the Red Army's reconquest of their country, but Latvia's total losses during WWII were still around 450,000. Under Stalin, another 175,000 Latvians were killed or deported between 1945 and 1949.

The first signs that the harsh Soviet rule of Latvia was relaxing came in the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev started to encourage glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Decades of pent-up bitterness emerged along with mass demands for self-rule. In 1988, Latvian government members joined public meetings and rallies, while a popular front pressing for democratic reform won a huge following. In spring 1990 nationalists won a large majority in the Latvian parliament and reinstated the pre-WWII constitution but declared a transition period for full independence. In early 1991 a referendum resulted in a large majority favouring secession from the USSR, and on 21 August, two days after a coup attempt against Gorbachev in Moscow, Latvia declared full independence. This was recognized by the West and, finally, by the USSR on 6 September 1991. Latvia joined the United Nations less than 2 weeks later. The last Russian troops pulled out in 1994.

The Latvian republic recently relaxed its strict citizenship laws, which favoured ethnic Latvians and other Balts over Russians, a gesture that should aid Latvia's application for admission to the EU.1

1this page courtesy of at www.lonelyplanet.com.



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Tatjana  Matvejeva.
Copyright 2002.  All rights reserved.
Revised: May 2, 2003.