Latvia, or Curlandia, that is “Land of the Kuri”, since ancient times was inhabited by Lithuanian and Finnish peoples. Only in the twelfth century did German merchants appear, coming from Westphalia and Luebeck, who immediately began a sort of missionary colonization.
In 1202 the bishop of Livonia founded the religious order of the “Porta Spada” to spread, together with Christianity, also the German culture on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. And in 1230 Curlandia was converted to Christianity, and inextricably linked to the order of Livonia.
In 1562 it became a duchy and feudally depended on Poland. The first Duke was Gotthard von Kettler and after him 6 other descendants were always engaged in the struggle for power with the local nobility. See Countryaah for population and country facts about Latvia.
The Latvians are the largest ethnic group with almost 60%, followed by the Russians, who make up around 30% of the population. In the capital Riga and in the south of the country in particular, there is a strong preponderance of the Russian population.
Latvia suffered great human casualties during World War II and the first years of Soviet dictatorship. Due to the immigration of the non-Latvian population, however, the number of residents rose continuously until 1989. After independence in 1991, however, it fell sharply as a result of the restrictive Latvian minority policy. Under the Citizenship Act of 1993, non-Latvian residents were considered second-class citizens. Not least with a view to joining the European Union, the Latvian government has endeavored in recent years to relax the strict naturalization regulations. Of the around 800,000 Russians living in Latvia, however, only 250,000 had been naturalized by the end of 2000.
Around 70% of the population live in cities, just under a third in Riga. The Kurland peninsula and the east of the country are sparsely populated.
In foreign policy, Latvia has always sought to remain neutral among the diatribes of Sweden, Poland and Russia. Gotthard von Kettler worked hard to maintain order in ecclesiastical affairs, to spread culture, to develop relations with Poland and to found new cities, in addition to the capital Riga.
Among his successors, his nephew Jacob distinguished himself more, to whom he attributed the development of industries and trade and on the organization of a fleet that, even, acquired the dominion of the coast of Guinea and the Tobago islands.
In 1658, following a Swedish invasion, Jacob and his family were taken prisoner. But the Swedes did not last long and two years later they were forced by Poland to sign the Peace of Oliva and to free the whole family of the Duke. But by now all the previous well-being was gone.
Various Dukes took turns in the town regency until it reached the 1795 when, with the partition of Poland, the feudal dependence of Latvia also ended but its union with Russia was decreed. In 1817 serfdom was abolished but no land was assigned to the peasants.
In the second half of the centuryXIX the first nationalistic movements of Latvia began. Their first affirmation came in 1905 when, asking for economic and social reforms, in the meantime they restored the use of their language both in the school and in the administration, instead of the Russian one. There were immediately repressions that reduced Latvians to silence. But until the First World War. The Germans invaded the Baltic regions and following the collapse of the Russian army, in 1917, occupied Riga and almost the whole country.
Meanwhile the Bolsheviks in Petrograd had seized power and had formed a National Council and sent their representative to London and Paris. Simultaneously the Germans, in the occupied regions, formed a democratic bloc, headed by Karlis Ulmanis and with the Brest-Litovsk treaty of 3 March 1918, had created a state including Estonia, and placed it under German sovereignty, while Latvia became a Duchy linked to Prussia.
But when the Germans and Austrians were defeated, on November 18, 1918, Latvia proclaimed itself an independent state and formed a provisional government led by Ulmanis. He found himself, however, in a very critical situation, as tight as it was between the Bolsheviks and the Germans, who were still in place. The Russians took Riga on 3 January 1919 and then Mitau: the government was forced to move to Libau, the only city left free. An army of volunteers was organized here who re-occupied almost the whole territory and brought the provisional government back to Riga. In the early months of 1920 Latvia became free again and this was possible thanks to the help provided by Poland.
A Constituent Assembly immediately met and entered into force on 7 November 1922. Janis Cakste and head of the Meierovics government were elected President, to replace Ulmanis, deposed by the discontented peasants for how the much desired agrarian reform had been applied.
In April 1927, when Cakste died, J. Zamgalas was elected president. The government of Latvia resumed normal relations with Germany and Russia; defined its borders with Estonia; entered into a Concordat with the Holy See; with Estonia he also concluded a defensive alliance and a customs union and actively participated in the collaboration of the Baltic States.
But in Latvia, after the negative experiences gained under the domination of the German National Socialists, all the organizations that involved the use of a uniform dissolved. And this happened in 1933. The following year National Socialism was banned. In the meantime Ulmanis had returned to the leadership of the government and in April 1936 he had been elected President of the Republic.
During the thirties many economic operations had been completed, such as the monopoly of sugar and wheat, the increase in customs tariffs for cereals, fruit, coal, machines and fabrics, such as cotton, wool and silk. Moreover, in response to the German veto of Latvia’s import of butter, Latvia responded by prohibiting German goods from entering the whole country.
When a pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, with which the division of all the territories between the two states took place, Latvia on September 1, 1939 declared itself neutral. But a month later the Soviet Union forced the small state to sign a mutual assistance pact and to grant the Soviet military bases in Ventspils and Liepaja.