Latvian History, Geography, Language, Culture and Cuisine
Since @BlackHaddock has elected not to provide any information about this week’s Stat Attack subject, I’d better do so myself.
The pagan tribes of the eastern Baltic were first “civilized” in the 12/13th centuries as the result of a “northern crusade” promulgated by the Pope. They were known as the Knights of the Sword, and had Germanic origins. The towns they founded became members of the Hanseatic league, and later the Livonian order. [ Livonia covered south Estonia and most of Latvia, and was named after the Livs, coastal inhabitants of the area ]
After much bloodshed, involving Denmark, Poland, Russia and Sweden, Latvia came under Swedish control in the early 17th century. Riga was the largest city in Sweden, and consideration was given to moving the capital there. This came to an end in 1719 after the battle of Poltava, when Russia took control over Estonia and most of Latvia. The rest of Latvia followed after the partition of Poland in 1795.
Emancipation of Latvian serfs in the early 19th led eventually to the National Awakening from the 1860s onwards, and much of Latvian literature dates from that period. At the same time there was also a campaign of Russification. Despite all this, up until thev first world war, almost all power and land was in the hands of the German Balts, who made up less that 10% of the population.
In the First World War, the west of Latvia was soon conquered by the Germans, and Riga itself fell in 1917. At the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 1918 (in which the Russians exited the war), almost all of Estonia and Latvia was ceded to the Germans. After the Armistice, Latvia declared independence on November 18th 1918. There followed two years of confusing civil war in which there were several armed factions – all fighting each other.
Latvia remained independent until June 1940 when (following the Molotov – Von Ribbentrop Pact), the Russians took control in an unopposed invasion. This only lasted until June 1941, when the Germans marched through on their way to Leningrad. The Red Army fought back, and reoccupied most of Latvia in 1944 (though parts remained under German control until final surrender). Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union once more, though there was sporadic partisan resistance for several more years.
In the 1980s there was a growing campaign for independence for all three Baltic States. The highlight of which was the Baltic Way in 1989 which was a 600km long human chain linking Vilnius with Tallinn, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov – Von Ribbentrop Pact, The whole process was known as the Singing Revolution. Independence finally came in August 1991 with the failure of the attempted coup in Moscow. The last Russian soldier left Latvia in 1994.
Latvia joined the EU and Nato in 2004, and adopted the Euro in 2014.
Latvia is roughly the shape of Wales turned 90 degrees clockwise, and about the same size as well. The capital Riga is in the centre, just off the coast. Other major cities are Leipaja (west coast) and Daugavpils (far souyth east). Many cities had their names Latvianised from the Germanic roots in the first period of independence. Often this was obvious (e.g. Wolmar became Valmiera) but sometimes not (Mitau became Jelgava). There are four provinces Kurzeme, Latgale, Vidzeme and Zemgale.
The largest riversare the Daugava, Lielupe, Venta and Gauja. Much of the long coastline is one continuous beach. Much of the country is densely forested. A lot of the land is pancake flat (particularly in Zemgale), but there was some modest hills in the centre of the country. @Wheresthepath will be glad to know that I have been to the highest point in the country. This is Gaizinkalns, an insignificant bump in the clearing in the forest. The Soviets erected a 10 storey observation tower there – which is now derelict. [ It was very difficult to find – when we went we ended up in the same wrong place 3 times ! ]
At the time of independence (1991), Latvians only comprised just over half of the population. This has since increased to 62% (though the actual number has decreased), with 25% Russian. No other group is more than 3%. Many towns have very high percentage of Russian inhabitants. They were relocated in Soviet times to work in specific factories / industries that were established.
Latvian and Lithuanian are the only two surviving Baltic languages (extinct ones include Old Prussian). They are said to be the closest living languages to Sanskrit. They are thought to have diverged from each other in about the 13th century. [ As a Latvian speaker I can recognise about half the words in Lithuanian – the other half are completely different ]. In general Lithuanian is a more complex language with many more cases and endings. Estonian is totally different – similar to Finnish. As is Livonian – though that is virtually extinct.
Latvian is a phonetic language – pronounced like it is spelt. The only trouble is knowing to how pronounce each letter ! It has several accents / diacritics – these have actually only been introduced into the language in the last century, to aid pronunciation.
One of the mainstays of Latvian culture as the song and dance festivals, of which the main one is held in Riga most years. The song festivals feature mass choirs singing Latvian folk songs, and the dance festivals have large groups dressed in traditional customes.
The national epic of Latvian literature is Lacplesis (bear slayer) – dating from the 1880s. The eponymous hero has bear ears and it tells of his fight against the (German) black knight. Lacplesis wins, but drowns in the river Daugava at his moment of triumph. However, it is implied that he will rise again when Latvia needs him.
Another aspect of traditional Latvian culture is the “dainas”. These are short poems or folk songs which date from time immemorium. There are said to be a staggering 3 million of them !
Riga has a medieval / hanseatic old city (Vecriga), which is surrounded on one side by the river Daugava, on the others by the “new town” which includes the largest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe. Further out there are numerous Soviet era apartment blocks. Riga has 4 birdges over the river Daugava – 5 if you count the railway bridge.
In sport Latvia excels at Ice Hockey and Basketball – these are the only two sports in which they would be expected to beat British teams. Latvian football had its proudest moment when they managed to qualify for the 2004 European championships – and were unlucky not to do better there than they did. Since then the standard has declined steadily until they are now one of the weakest nations in Europe. [ Latvian football teams are almost exclusively ethnic Russians – I don’t know if that is significant ]. Volleyball and chess are also popular. There is no Latvian cricket team – otherwise I would be playing for them !
Apart form Christmas and Easter, the big dates in the Latvian calendar are November 18th (Independence Day) and Jani (midsummer) on June 23rd. Here large bonfire are list to last all (the short) night. People dress up in local costume and wear oak wreaths around their heads. They dance around and jump over the bonfires. Special Jani beer and cheeses are produced and consumed. Young couple elope off in search of the mythical “fern flower”…
There is also the alternative viewpoint that says the best things about Latvia are beer, trolleybuses, strawberries and gorgeous women !
Given its Germanic heritage, it is not surprising that a lot of Latvian cuisine includes pork, potatoes and sauerkraut. A lot of the cuisine includes liberal use of dill, and they love to smother things in sour cream. A wide variety of fish dishes can also be seen. However, my favourite Latvian foods are mostly of the “uzkodas pie alus” (snacks with beer) variety, and include the following Pieragi (bacon buns), Pelaki Zirni (grey peas), Kiploku graudzini (garlic toast) and gherkins.
Latvia is not noted for the quality of its cheese !
One (incidental) benefit of Soviet occupation is that the foods of the other Soviet republics can be readily found in Riga. Armenian, Georgian and Uzbeck for starters. In fact you can find a restaurant for just about any cuisine you can think of in Riga.
Beer is the preferred drink of Latvians, whilst Russians prefer vodka. However, the quintessential Latvian drink is Riga Balsam. “Black as treacle, sharp as lemon” this was said to be the elixir of youth when first produced in the 18th century. It is 45% proof, and is used mostly in cocktails, or added to coffee or lemonade. Nowadays several different versions are produced, including ones with blackcurrant and cherries. The liqueur Allazu Kimmelis made from caraway is also popular.
I shall write more about Latvian beer in a while …