LATVIA, BETWEEN EAST AND WEST

                                                                                   By Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta

As we saw with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have also had an uneasy relationship with Russia throughout the centuries, shaped by their geographic location. They lie on the borders of a Western and Eastern Christianity civilization fault line.  While  Russia, on the line´s  Eastern side, groaned for centuries under Tartar and then Byzantine despotism, the Baltics, on the Western side, have experienced the influence of Finland as well as the occupation or protection at various times, of other nearby Western powers,  the German Order of the Brethren, Denmark and Sweden.

Besides having consequent exposure to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, the countries on the Western side of the fault line also adopted the Latin rather than Byzantine forms of the Christian religion, with their greater emphasis on individualism rather than collectivism.  These factors, together with the membership of the Baltics since the 13th century, in the Hanseatic League, a powerful European trade association, allowed them to progress more rapidly than Russia in the economic sphere. This remained true even under the collectivism enforced by the Soviet empire in 1941 and after the end of WWII. 

In medieval times, the nations of the Baltics did not have the same names or encompass the same territories that they do today. Whereas Lithuania was once part of a single entity, a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth formed in 1569, the Western part of present day Latvia, once known as Vidzme, was joined with Estonia as a larger entity known as Livonia. The Eastern part, meanwhile, was and still is known as “Latgale.”

Religious differences are one reason why, even to this day, Lithuania tends to adhere more to Poland politically and spiritually, while Latvia and Estonia are closer to each other.  During the Protestant Reformation, the Latvians and Estonians ultimately came to practice Protestantism, while the Lithuanians, like the Poles, remained primarily Catholic. What all three Baltic republics have in common with Russia are numerous, navigable lakes and waterways. As Dominic Lieven has shown,these waterways linked the Muscovite heartland with the Baltics, encouraging Russia to not only trade with these neighbors, but to repeatedly attempt to conquer them.    Moreover, while the sea enabled the Baltics to trade with nearby Western nations it also presented  another route for conquest. 

In Latvia, the largest river is the Daugava  (in Russian, Dvina), long the waterway of warriors and traders.  Originating in Russia,passing through Belarus, and emptying into the Gulf of Riga, it is the force behind  capitol Riga’s growth as a major trade center.As former Latvian leader Dainis Ivans told us during a 2010 interview at his farmhouse in Latvia, the Daugava has been the main force in shaping Latvian civilization. As he put it, “Without the river, there is no farmer… River is life’s road through the world.”

Latvia´s capitol, Riga, was founded in 1201 by German crusaders, the German Order of the Brethren. Livonia, of which it was part,remained under German dominion until the 16th century. As we learned during our summer research in Tartu from leading historian Malle Salupere, in 1558 Russia’s Ivan the Terrible began what became known as the Livonian Wars, using as his pretext the so called “Tartu tax” that had been levied on Tartu´s bishopric centuries earlier.
Here we find Estonia and Latvia sharing a common destiny as the Russian expansion began its drive to the North. A year later, the Bishop of Courland sold his Latvian lands to  King Frederick II of Denmark. He in turn had his brother, the Duke of Magnus, crowned King of Livonia in 1570.  Attacked by Tsar Ivan IV´s troops,the king was taken prisoner and renounced his royal title upon his release.  

The Russian occupation of the Baltics lasted until 1581, with Ivan´s conquests constituting not only a large part of Livonia, but also much of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Then, with Russia experiencing its “Time of Troubles,” the period when numerous pretenders made claim to an heirless Russian throne, the Russians departed from Livonia.  They were followed in 1629 by the Protestant Reformation
minded Swedes. 

Naturally, villages in Latvia were occupied over the centuries by many Germans as well as immigrants from Russia, Poland and elsewhere.A great wave of Russian Old Believers also settled in Latgale in the 16th century, having refused to accept the reforms of the patriarch Nikon in the Russian Orthodox Church. 

However, as Russia consolidated as a Great Power under the Romanovs, the traditional desire for access to the Baltic Sea stimulated the Russian desire to return.  In 1700, Tsar Peter the Great, returning from wars in the Russian south, began to focus on the Baltic coast. His first forays into Livonia were unsuccessful.   However, in 1709-1710, joined by Danes and Poles, he subdued Sweden’s Charles in a major battle at Poltava.  By 1721, he had managed to annex all of what is now present day Latvia, with the exception of Latgale.  Only several decades later, was this Catholic portion of Livonia incorporated into Russia, together with Poland and Lithuania during the 1775 partition of Poland under the Empress Catherine the Great.
Latvia proved very attractive to the Russian people. Many migrated there in the following decades, until they were second only in number to the native Latvians.    In the late 19th century, Czar Alexander III (1881-1894) instituted Russification policies throughout the empire, making the Russian language the official one in all Estonian and Latvian schools as well as government.  A wave of new Russian immigration, particularly to Riga, followed during the early 20th century´s industrial revolution.

After the February 1917 Russian revolution and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his royal family, a democratically-oriented leader, Aleksandr Kerensky, came to power in Russia.  Kerensky, however, turned a deaf ear to the desire of Latvia for independence from the empire, whereas communist leader Vladimir Lenin promised the Latvians not only their freedom but the distribution of German-held lands  to the poor. This was attractive to Latvian peasants as land in Latvia, had historically remained the property of the German nobility. 

By October of the same year the Bolsheviks had succeeded in attaining power through a cup hailed as a revolution. But Lenin's words proved no ruble of the realm.  It was only with the help of Britain and Estonia that Latvia beat back both the Soviets and the Germans and achieved its independence. For some time the new nation thrived economically due to its large forests, temperate climate, natural resources and fertile land.  But its freedom was short-lived. In 1939. Stalin  and Hitler,divided up Eastern Europe through its secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  While much of Poland was devoured by Hitler, the Western part of Poland, and the shortly afterwards, the Baltic states, fell to Stalin.  In 1940-41, following the lead of the tsars earlier, all three Baltic states were retaken by the empire’s brutal forces. 

By this time the amity between Hitler and Stalin had ended. Hitler´s armies invaded Russia in 1941, World War II was underway, and for the next four years, Latvia, like its Baltic neighbors, was under German domination. Impressed into service by the Germans, Dainis Ivan´s great uncle, not without some reluctance, managed to earn an iron cross.

With WWI in full swing, the Latvians, unlike the Estonians, were allowed to create their own army and fiercely but unsuccessfully fought the Germans on behalf of the Russian empire. True, because of their animosity towards the Soviet empire, some Latvian and Estonian units even fought with the Germans against the Red Army, while leftist refugees in the USSR formed units to fight them. As Dainis Ivans explained, while reviewing Latvian history with us, his Great Uncle, during the Bolshevik revolution, had won a Red flag as a member of Lenin´s guards.

By October, 1917, through a coup later hailed as a revolution, the Bolsheviks succeeded in taking power. Yet Lenin´s promise of freedom to Latvia  proved no ruble of the realm.  It was only with the help of Britain and Estonia that the Latvians, in 1918,  beat back both the Bolsheviks and the Germans and declared their nation´s independence.  That same year, at the end of WWI, Latvia´s present boundaries, like Estonia´s, were established.

With its flourishing trading centers, abundant natural resources, large forests, and temperate climate, the new republic thrived economically for over 20 years.  But the nation´s  freedom was short-lived. In 1939, Europe´s two insatiable tyrants, Stalin erated” by the Russians in 1945, was now under Soviet hammer and sickle.  Meanwhile, bloody and horrific war had brought not only tremendous suffering to the people of Latvia, but also vast ethnic changes.   Most of the Germans  who had been living in Latvia were forced to emigrate back to Germany in expectation of a Russian occupation.  The Jewish population also declined dramatically thanks to the Nazi final solution – at least 75,000 were killed due to Nazi ethnic cleansing.   Unfortunately, many Latvians aided the Nazi´s in this project.  

With Latvia again under Russia´s dominion, the Soviets introduced their colonization policy.  Initiated under the tsars and cruelly employed by Stalin, it involved changing the ethnic structures in various republics though forced immigration or deportation.  In the Baltics, mainly Latvia, as well as in the republics of the Caucasus, the tactic was to deport large numbers of the indigenous population, particularly those that the empire found troublesome, while enforcing the mass immigration of Russians.  Many native Latvians, like the Circassians and Chechnyans in the Caucasus, were deported to Siberia or to the West.
This policy, evident also in Estonia and to a lesser degree in Catholic Lithuania, created frictions evident still today.  In 1940 there were 207,000 Russians in Latvia.  By 1989 the number had risen to 905,000.  Nor were the Russians reluctant to come to a country whose many factories required a large workforce. Thanks to the Soviets, Russian Immigrants also received preferable treatment in terms of obtaining living quarters and jobs. Naturally this led to certain ethnic tensions.

By the late 1980´s, however, freedom was once again in sight.  As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Russian empire faced a severe economic crisis, in part induced by its long war in Afghanistan. The weakening of the empire at this juncture, combined with Gorbachev´s introduction of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost, the easing of censorship, encouraged the Baltics in their desire for freedom. Popular fronts began to form in many of the empire´s republics, including the Baltics.  Soon their leaders began to militate, first for autonomy and then for independence. 

Additionally, there were local issues where Russian profiteering or meddling proved injurious to the ecology.  In Estonia it was Russian phosphate mining.  In Latvia, it was pollution associated with Russian power projects on the Daugava River. 
On May 4, 1990 the Latvians once again declared their freedom, and managed to maintain it despite the threats and near intervention of the former Soviet leadership in January 1991.  Instrumental in this process was Boris Yeltsin, who became head of the empire´s largest republic,Russia, and secretly assisted Latvia and many of the other republics of the empire in their goal of breaking away from the Soviet Union. Following a failed putsch in 1991 by a conspiracy of federal barons, that goal was realized. Yeltsin´s Russian Federation became the new “Russia,” and the Soviet Union  ceased to be.

Latvia Today

Today Latvia is a democratic country with its own parliament.  There are up to 60 registered political parties, although only about a half dozen are really active.  The  political leadership in 2013 is presently oriented towards socialism in the economic sphere. Latvia also became a member of the NATO on April 2, 2004 as well as a member of the European Union on May 1 of the same year
Meanwhile, the tensions with the Russians have continued. Latvian emigration to the West, political deportations and intermarriage with other ethnic groups,  have reduced the native Latvian population to 62.0 percent, while the Russian population has gradually  increased from 8.8 percent to 26.6 percent. 
While the Latvian language was replaced with Russian in the schools and public life under the tsars, newly freed republics have been eager to reintroduce their own languages as the primary ones in public life and the schools. This has been true of the Baltics as well as some republic in the Caucasus and the Western portion of the Ukraine.
Ironically,  many Russian immigrants to Latvia have had problems with citizenship requirements because they could not learn the unique Latvian language. In 2012 a referendum took place to make Russian the nation´s second official language. A majority of the people voted against it,however about 25% voted in favor. That is a sizable number.

On the positive side, Russians who live in Latvia have come to identify more with Latvia than with Russia.   Although the influx of Russians remains a concern, many of the Russians that came to Latvia migrated to other parts of Europe after the Baltics joined the European Union in 2004. During our July 2010 interview published below, former Latvian leader Dainis Ivans confirmed that Russians settling in Latvia have generally become Latvian-ized, meaning that they identify more with Latvia and its aims than with Russia.

As we were traveling from Batumi by ship, to Georgia in 2009, we interviewed two Latvians traveling together, who confirmed this observation.One was an ethnic Latvian born in Riga, the other was a Russian who was born in Latvia.  Commenting on Russian-Latvian relations, the native Latvian,  businessman, told us, ¨If there is any problem between Russians and Latvians in Latvia, it is caused by outside actors.”  He specifically mentioned the Russian Federation.  To him, ethnic problems are deeply rooted in Estonia rather than Latvia, where the Russians appear to be more integrated. Lending some confirmation to his views concerning Russia, is an important news item covering Latvian concern that Russia has been seeking to gain influence over native Latvian youths through free military training at camps in Russia. To read this article,click on the link.http://russianukrainian.com/latvia/

For further reading on Latvia, including a description of the Latvian character, see our sections on the Baltics and on Estonia.





                                                                           By Leni and  Jiri  Valenta                 

On July 9, 2010, former Latvian leader Dainis Ivans  met these writers at the bus station in his country-like region of Plaivanu Novads.  Tall, and attractive, his long,blondish-gray hair was tied back in a ponytail. He was informally dressed, eating an ice cream cone and we immediately like him. He drove us to his home, a quaint, wooden farmhouse which stood on about 15 acres of land.  It´s few rooms had been built by his grandfather before WWII. A large dog of indeterminate, St. Bernard ancestry, gazed benignly at us from an outdoor pen. The househad wooden floors and beams, with a stove in the living room.   Ivans  quickly set about making us freshly picked mint tea with honey.  His wife, a zoologist, was working in Riga. 
Describing to us his country´s fight for independence, Ivans began with family history. He mentioned that his grandson had been born on May 4th, 1990, Latvian Independence Day. He also spoke at length about his grandfather´s brother, Peter Lapainis, a lawyer and former officer in the Latvian army.  His great uncle, he told us, had thrown in his lot in with the Bolsheviks believing Lenin´s promise that he would not only free Latvia, but give the Latvians land belonging to German nobleman. 
Lapainis served the Bolsheviks well, becoming the chief of Lenin´s guard and earning two stars and the coveted red flag.  As it turned out, Lenin not only broke his word on independence, but severely persecuted many Latvians.   In 1944, having joined the French military during WWII, Lapainis was impressed into service by the German legion.  For his service to the Reich, he earned an iron cross.  That he was not exactly happy with either his communist or Nazi honors is reflected in the book Ivans later wrote about him, A Soldier Against his Will.  Likely enough, however, the great uncle´s longing for Latvian independence influenced our host. Like Lapainis, Ivans grew up longing for Latvian independence.  
Enjoying a promising career as a journalist in the late 1980´s, Ivans became involved with a national debate at that time over three Russian, hydro-electric power dams the Russians had built on the Daugava River. By 1986, the Russians were seeking to build yet a fourth.  The Daugava is viewed by Latvians as the lifeblood of their country.  Besides being symbols of Stalinism, the damswere causing flooding and the Latvian people deplored that  the Russians meddling in their ecology. Additionally, they were furious that Russian Defense Minister, Dimitri Yazov, seemed intent on impressing Latvian boys into the Russian army despite the opposing dictates of Latvian law. 
Ivans wrote an article stressing the adverse effects of the power dams, and became a household name in Latvia. Pursuing ecological issues, he eventually, he became head of the popular front reaching for independence and democracy.  It was also at around this time that the national popular front in neighboring Estonia was created by  leaders like Edgar Savisaar, the late Viktor Palmand female firebrand Marzu Loristen. 

As we learned earlier, the  Estonians had been having their own problems with Russian phosphate mining  that was both unproductive and dangerous.  Estonia’s  democratic  leaders began to cooperate with the Latvian ones, and according to Ivans, they are still in touch.   Ivans told us he had visited with Savisaar  only a few days earlier. There has also been cooperation with Lithuania, but clearly less.  The historical and religious ties have held, with Lithuanian leaders more in touch with those of Catholic Poland.
In the spring of 1989, Ivans  was elected to Gorbachev´s new, semi-democratic, Soviet parliament, the Congress of the People´s Deputies (CPD).  There, he continued to strive, at first  for his country´s autonomy, and then for its independence.  He soon found support  both with many Russian deputies and a Baltics group chaired by the late Estonian chemist, Viktor Palm. At around this time, the long sought, secret protocols of the  Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact were discovered by the office of Gorbachev´s chief advisor, ardent reformer, Alexander  Yakovlev.  As Ivans told us, a focus of the Baltics deputies became how to utilize the discovery to aid their goal of emancipation.
In April 1990, when the various Soviet republics held elections, Ivans became  first chairman of the Latvian parliament and vice speaker.  Although A. Gorbinows, a Latvian-Russian communist,  was elected head of state,  Ivans maintained he was the real power. He was also  frank as he told us the Baltics did not get a lot of help from the  George H. Bush administration.    The Latvians, like the Estonians and Lithuanians, were once again as in the distant past, getting support mainly from Sweden, but also Finland. He frankly believed that the key role of America so far as Latvian independence was concerned, was played by the press, specifically, the late New York Times columnist, William Safire. The latter's article about the Soviet attempted crackdown on Latvia was published on January 21, 1991.  In the article, Safire  called Ivans. whose leadership has helped to prevent bloodshed, the future president of Latvia.  
That was something that did not come to pass and Ivans said he was not sorry. Expressing his view about post-communist ruling elite, he opined that the worst gangsters are involved in business and politics.” Although he had authored six books by 2010,he said it was “difficult for him to publish” because of this factor.   
He also described to us the complex makeup of his country.  Fifty percent of the Latvian population, he told us, is Russian.  However, not all of them are pro –Russian having been Latvia-tized.  There are three groups.  One includes Old Russian families which come from the ranks of emigrants in the interwar period.  This group settled in Riga and elsewhere before WWII and is pro-Latvia, not pro-Soviet.  A second group consists of new immigrants from the KGB, the military and other former Soviet elites.  They have traditionally supported the patriotic, or pro-Soviet fronts.  The third group consists of blue collar workers who came for better jobs and are not heavily political.  In short, if one looks at these groups, the support for the post-communist, Russian Federation  is  primarily in the second group.

In our 2010 interview, he also explained there are numerous parties in Latvia, but  little public trust in any of them. The most popular party in 2010 got only 11% of the vote.  The Center of Harmony is a Russian party influenced by some pro-Soviet military. Vical is a social Democratic Party, with European ties, but has little influence.  Other parties and groups “depend on gangsters and their money.”  He named the Green and Farmers party and the “Latvian Way” as being in this category.   He said Latvians mainly support the Unity Party which split some years ago.   
But he was pleased that Latvia was now independent.  And he recalled the quote by Thomas Jefferson that  columnist Safire had mentioned  in his article:  “For people to exist, they must water the tree of freedom with their blood.” 

As we were traveling from Batumi by ship, to Georgia in 2009, we interviewed two Latvians.  One was an ethnic Latvian born in Riga, the other was a Russian who was born in Latvia.  Commenting on Russian-Latvian relations, the native Latvian businessman told us that, ¨”If there is any problem between Russians and Latvians in Latvia, it is caused by outside actors.  He specifically mentioned the Russian Federation.  Ethnic problems are deeply rooted in Estonia rather than Latvia, where the Russians appear to be more integrated.   In the July 2010 interview above, former Latvian leader Dainties Ivans confirmed that Russians settling in Latvia have generally become Latvian-ized


Freedom Tower in Latvia