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Country of the Week: Latvia

In Countries by Kyle RammlerLeave a Comment

Another Baltic country at the centre of some of Europe’s most famous events? Keep reading to explore the enthralling history and exciting culture of Latvia!

  • Capital (and Largest City in Latvia): Riga
  • Population of Latvia (2016): 1,971,300 (145th)
  • Total Area: 64,589 km² (124th)
  • Official Language: Latvian
  • Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)
old town latvia spire tower riga

The spires of Old Riga

History of Latvia

We begin as we usually do, with early European tribes settling in what is now Latvia thousands of years ago. For millennia these tribes grew more advanced and established trade with nearby civilizations, including the Romans and later the Byzantines. Throughout the early-mid Middle Ages, Latvia was divided between over ten different groups, all claiming large tracts of land.

Medieval Latvia

It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that the Latvian people began to interact more with the greater European community. This newfound openness led to a Catholic crusade (predominantly made up of Germans) to forcibly convert the population to Christianity. This crusade led to a sizable portion of the country becoming part of a crusader state known as Livonia. A side effect of this was that Riga grew closer to Western Europe, and in turn became an important trading centre.

Polish and Lithuanian Rule

As the Middle Ages came to an end, the Livonian War broke out. Without going into too much detail, the end result was that the old ‘Livonia’ (of which Latvia was a part) fell under the purview of Poland and Lithuania. Despite being subservient to these foreign powers, Latvia did manage to remain semi-autonomous in some political matters, and even experienced a golden age of sorts in the 17th century.

If you’ve explored the history of any of these countries before, you’ll know that the 17th century was tumultuous to say the least. Latvia was dragged into the conflicts of more powerful nations – including the Polish-Swedish War, which resulted in the northern part of Latvia falling under Swedish rule. The Swedish era is generally viewed in a positive light with advances in education, reformation of the restrictive feudal system, and other social advances. During this period, Lutheranism was also adopted by parts of the country (largely in the west), while those in the south were mostly Catholic.

The Russian Empire

Throughout the 1700’s, further wars and negotiations resulted in more and more of Latvia falling under Russian rule, a process that was fully completed by 1795. Moving forward into the 19th century, many in Latvia began to experience a new wave of national consciousness and ‘social awakening’. Former peasants purchased land (though many still struggled), nationalistic sentiments increased, the economy expanded, and the country began to industrialize.

Latvia During the World Wars

The First World War devastated much of the country. Immediately following its end, domestic upheaval in both Russia and Latvia resulted in the chaotic War of Independence. In 1919, three factions fought for control of the country – one supported by the Soviet Red Army, a Baltic German government, and an ‘independent Latvia’ group led by Kārlis Ulmanis. Latvian forces defeated the Germans (with assistance from Estonia) while the Soviets were defeated with the help of the Poles. While initially an assembly was created alongside a liberal constitution, Ulmanis led a coup in 1934 and established a dictatorship for the next 6 years.

Of course, a storm soon arrived in the form of a Second World War. Near the beginning, Latvia was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence (negotiated between the USSR and Nazi Germany). Soon, a puppet government subservient to the Soviets ruled Latvia – a harsh regime for any Latvian’s who objected. Once Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Latvia found itself under the rule of a different occupier. Many Latvians were killed in the Holocaust while others died fighting (on both sides of the war). In the end, the Soviet Union claimed Riga during their push west, and so Latvia was once again under Soviet/Russian rule.

Latvia During the Cold War

After the war, Latvia became one of many Soviet republics. The regime was harsh, with many nationalists sent to the gulags in Siberia. During the Soviet years, the regime placed many high-tech and advanced industries in Latvia thanks to the existing infrastructure and educated workers. This also resulted in widespread immigration from other Soviet republics to meet the demand of the industries.

Modern Latvia

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Latvia declared independence in 1990 (though it wasn’t officially recognized by Moscow until 1991). Throughout the 90’s, Latvia made it a goal to become closer to the West – a goal that was fully realized in 2004 when they joined both the EU and NATO. While the country has continuing problems with regards to citizenship (a product of Soviet immigration), the economy has been one of the fasting growing in Europe since the somewhat rocky transition to liberalism.

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Beautiful sunset on the Baltic coast

Latvian Culture

Latvian culture is a mixture of unique traits developed during various cultural awakenings, Livonian heritage (remember the crusaders?), and other nearby influences including Soviet. Folklore and song is one of the most important elements of Latvian culture – with some traditions dating back over a thousand years.

What do They Eat in Latvia?

Latvian cuisine is heavily based around the agricultural makeup of the country – while meat and fish are usually an integral part of each dish. The food is in line with the cuisine of other Baltic countries, and uses potatoes, cabbage, wheat, barley, pork, and dairy products. Lunch is often the largest meal of the day, while breakfast is usually light and the size of dinner varies.

Sports in Latvia

The most popular sport in Latvia is ice hockey. While not one of the major powers in Europe, the country does punch above its weight relative to its size. Latvia has a representative in the KHL (Europe’s premier, predominantly Russian based hockey league) – Dinamo Riga. Basketball and soccer are also popular, with the national soccer team qualifying for Euros back in 2004.

Famous Latvians

One of the most well known Latvians to Canadians and Americans is Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres. Drafted 14th overall in 2012, he was also the leading vote getter for the 2015 all-star game (largely due to Latvian interest). Artūrs Irbe was a well-known NHL goalie back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. NBA player Kristaps Porziņģis was drafted 4th overall in 2015 and currently plays for the New York Knicks.

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Herring on bread, a Baltic specialty

Geography of Latvia

Latvia is one of the Baltic states (alongside Lithuania and Estonia) and, as such, borders the Baltic Sea. The country is largely divided into uplands in the West and East, lowlands in the middle, and coastal plains along the, well, coast. Forests cover a large amount of the country while several major rivers run through the landscape. Its important location, close to major Northern European powers, contributed to Latvia ending up at the centre of many political conflicts throughout its history.

By far the largest city in Latvia is the capital: Riga. While hugely important in the Latvian context, the city is also important on the European stage – hosting many important meetings and offices.

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Much of Latvia consists of pine forests

Facts About Latvia

  • Latvia has a very high rate of fashion models (per capita)
  • Latvia is home to a waterfall that is 360 feet wide, the widest in Europe
  • A Latvian was (allegedly) the influence for Australian icon Crocodile Dundee
  • The country was briefly a colonial power, with colonies in the Caribbean and Africa
  • You can change your Latvian name for 70 euros
  • Riga Black Balsam is a traditional liqueur made with vodka and other natural ingredients
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People head towards the Riga Christmas Market at Dome Square

Last Word

That’s all folks! Check back later this week as we visit Latvia’s best destinations in our Travel Guide!

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE). Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the euro.

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