The Republic of Latvia (Latvijas Republika), is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, one of the three Baltic states. The total length of its land boundary is 850 miles (1,368 kilometers), of which 213 miles (343 km) is shared with Estonia to the north, 171 miles (276 km) with the Russian Federation to the east, 100 miles (161 km) with Belarus to the southeast and 365 miles (588 km) with Lithuania to the south. The total length of its maritime boundary is 309 miles (498 km), which is shared with Estonia, Sweden and Lithuania. Latvia has 1,957,200 inhabitants and a territory of 24,938 square miles (64,589 km²). Most of Latvia’s territory is less than 330 feet (100 meters) above sea level. The country has a temperate seasonal climate.
Latvia is a democratic parliamentary republic established in 1918. The capital city is Riga, the European Capital of Culture 2014. Latvian is the official language. Latvia is a unitary state, divided into 118 administrative divisions, of which 109 are municipalities and 9 are cities. It used the Latvian lats as its currency until it was replaced by the euro on January 1, 2014. Latvians and Livs are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian and Lithuanian are the only two surviving Baltic languages. Despite foreign rule from the thirteenth to twentieth centuries, the Latvian nation maintained its identity throughout the generations via the language and musical traditions. Latvia and Estonia share a long common history. As a consequence of centuries of Russian rule (1710-1918) and later Soviet occupation, both countries are home to a large number of ethnic Russians (26.9% in Latvia and 25.5% in Estonia), some of whom (14.1% of Latvian residents) have not gained citizenship, leaving them with no citizenship at all. Until World War II, Latvia also had significant minorities of ethnic Germans and Jews.
Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant Lutheran, except for the Latgale region in the southeast, which has historically been predominantly Roman Catholic. The Russian population has also brought a significant portion of Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Republic of Latvia was founded on 18 November 1918. However, its de facto independence was interrupted at the outset of World War II. In 1940, the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, and re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian SSR for the next fifty years. The peaceful Singing Revolution, starting in 1987, called for Baltic emancipation of Soviet rule. It ended with the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia on 4 May 1990, and restoring de facto independence on August 21, 1991.
The name Latvija is derived from the name of the ancient Latgalians, one of four Indo-European Baltic tribes (along with Couronians, Selonians and Semigallians), which formed the ethnic core of modern Latvians together with the Finnic Livonians. Henry of Latvia coined the Latinisations of the country’s name, “Lettigallia” and “Lethia“, both derived from the Latgalians. The terms inspired the variations on the country’s name in Romance languages from “Letonia” and in several Germanic languages from “Lettland“.
Around 3000 BC, the proto-Baltic ancestors of the Latvian people settled on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. The Balts established trade routes to Rome and Byzantium, trading local amber for precious metals. By 900 AD, four distinct Baltic tribes inhabited Latvia: Curonians, Latgalians, Selonians, Semigallians (in Latvian: kurši, latgaļi, sēļi and zemgaļi), as well as the Livonians (lībieši) speaking a Finnic language.
In the 12th century in the territory of Latvia, there were 14 lands with their rulers: Vanema, Ventava, Bandava, Piemare, Duvzare, Ceklis, Megava, Pilsāts, Upmale, Sēlija, Koknese, Jersika, Tālava and Adzele.
Although the local people had had contact with the outside world for centuries, they became more fully integrated into the European socio-political system in the twelfth century. The first missionaries, sent by the Pope, sailed up the Daugava River in the late twelfth century, seeking converts. The local people, however, did not convert to Christianity as readily as the Church had hoped. German crusaders were sent, or more likely decided to go on their own accord as they were known to do in search of pagans to kill and loot throughout eastern Europe.
Saint Meinhard of Segeberg arrived in Ikšķile, in 1184, traveling with merchants to Livonia, on a Catholic mission to convert the population from their original pagan beliefs. Pope Celestine III had called for a crusade against pagans in Northern Europe in 1193. When peaceful means of conversion failed to produce results, Meinhard plotted to convert Livonians by force of arms.
In the beginning of the thirteenth century, Germans ruled large parts of today’s Latvia. Together with Southern Estonia, these conquered areas formed the crusader state that became known as Terra Mariana or Livonia. In 1282, Riga, and later the cities of Cēsis, Limbaži, Koknese and Valmiera, became part of the Hanseatic League. Riga became an important point of east-west trading and formed close cultural links with Western Europe.
The sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were a time of great change for the inhabitants of Latvia, including the reformation, the collapse of the Livonian state, and the time when the Latvian territory was divided up among foreign powers.
After the Livonian War (1558–1583), Livonia (Latvia) fell under Polish and Lithuanian rule. The southern part of Estonia and the northern part of Latvia were ceded to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and formed into the Ducatus Ultradunensis (Pārdaugavas hercogiste). Gotthard Kettler, the last Master of the Order of Livonia, formed the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. Though the duchy was a vassal state to Poland, it retained a considerable degree of autonomy and experienced a golden age in the seventeenth century. Latgalia, the easternmost region of Latvia, became a part of the Polish district of Inflanty.
In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and Russia struggled for supremacy in the eastern Baltic. After the Polish–Swedish War, northern Livonia (including Vidzeme) came under Swedish rule. Riga became the capital of Swedish Livonia and the largest city in the entire Swedish Empire. Fighting continued sporadically between Sweden and Poland until the Truce of Altmark in 1629. In Latvia, the Swedish period is generally remembered as positive; serfdom was eased, a network of schools was established for the peasantry, and the power of the regional barons was diminished.
Several important cultural changes occurred during this time. Under Swedish and largely German rule, western Latvia adopted Lutheranism as its main religion. The ancient tribes of the Couronians, Semigallians, Selonians, Livs, and northern Latgallians assimilated to form the Latvian people, speaking one Latvian language. Throughout all the centuries, however, an actual Latvian state had not been established, so the borders and definitions of who exactly fell within that group are largely subjective. Meanwhile, largely isolated from the rest of Latvia, southern Latgallians adopted Catholicism under Polish/Jesuit influence. The native dialect remained distinct, although it acquired many Polish and Russian loanwords.
The Capitulation of Estonia and Livonia in 1710 and the Treaty of Nystad, ending the Great Northern War in 1721, gave Vidzeme to Russia (it became part of the Riga Governorate). The Latgale region remained part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as Inflanty Voivodeship until 1772, when it was incorporated into Russia. The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia became an autonomous Russian province (the Courland Governorate) in 1795, bringing all of what is now Latvia into the Russian Empire. All three Baltic provinces preserved local laws, German as the local official language and their own parliament, the Landtag.
During the Great Northern War (1700–1721), up to 40 per cent of Latvians died from famine and plague. Half the residents of Riga were killed by plague in 1710–1711.
The emancipation of the serfs took place in Courland in 1817 and in Vidzeme in 1819. In practice, however, the emancipation was actually advantageous to the landowners and nobility, as it dispossessed peasants of their land without compensation, forcing them to return to work at the estates “of their own free will”.
During the nineteenth century, the social structure changed dramatically. A class of independent farmers established itself after reforms allowed the peasants to repurchase their land, but many landless peasants remained. There also developed a growing urban proletariat and an increasingly influential Latvian bourgeoisie. The Young Latvian (Jaunlatvieši) movement laid the groundwork for nationalism from the middle of the century, many of its leaders looking to the Slavophiles for support against the prevailing German-dominated social order.
The rise in use of the Latvian language in literature and society became known as the First National Awakening. Russification began in Latgale after the Polish led the January Uprising in 1863: this spread to the rest of what is now Latvia by the 1880s. The Young Latvians were largely eclipsed by the New Current, a broad leftist social and political movement, in the 1890s. Popular discontent exploded in the 1905 Russian Revolution, which took a nationalist character in the Baltic provinces.
During these two centuries Latvia experienced economic and construction boom — ports were expanded (Riga became the largest port in the Russian Empire), railways built; new factories, banks, and a University were established; many residential, public (theatres and museums), and school buildings were erected; new parks formed; and so on. Riga’s boulevards and some streets outside the Old Town date from this period.
Worth mentioning is the fact that numeracy was also higher in the Estonian and Latvian parts of the Russian Empire, which might have been influenced by the Protestant religion of the inhabitants.
World War I devastated the territory of what became the state of Latvia, and other western parts of the Russian Empire. Demands for self-determination were initially confined to autonomy, until a power vacuum was created by the Russian Revolution in 1917, followed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Russia and Germany in March 1918, then the Allied armistice with Germany on November 11, 1918. On November 18, in Riga, the People’s Council of Latvia proclaimed the independence of the new country, with Kārlis Ulmanis becoming the head of the provisional government.
The War of Independence that followed was part of a general chaotic period of civil and new border wars in Eastern Europe. By the spring of 1919, there were actually three governments — Ulmanis’s government; the Latvian Soviet government led by Pēteris Stučka, whose forces, supported by the Red Army, occupied almost all of the country; and the Baltic German government of the United Baltic Duchy, headed by Andrievs Niedra and supported by the Baltische Landeswehr and the German Freikorps unit Iron Division.
Estonian and Latvian forces defeated the Germans at the Battle of Wenden in June 1919, and a massive attack by a predominantly German force — the West Russian Volunteer Army — under Pavel Bermondt-Avalov was repelled in November. Eastern Latvia was cleared of Red Army forces by Latvian and Polish troops in early 1920. From the Polish perspective, the Battle of Daugavpils was a part of the Polish–Soviet War.
A freely elected Constituent assembly convened on May 1, 1920, and adopted a liberal constitution, the Satversme, in February 1922. The constitution was partly suspended by Kārlis Ulmanis after his coup in 1934 but reaffirmed in 1990. Since then, it has been amended and is still in effect in Latvia today. With most of Latvia’s industrial base evacuated to the interior of Russia in 1915, radical land reform was the central political question for the young state. In 1897, 61.2% of the rural population had been landless; by 1936, that percentage had been reduced to 18%.
By 1923, the extent of cultivated land surpassed the pre-war level. Innovation and rising productivity led to rapid growth of the economy, but it soon suffered from the effects of the Great Depression. Latvia showed signs of economic recovery, and the electorate had steadily moved toward the center during the parliamentary period. On May 15, 1934, Ulmanis staged a bloodless coup, establishing a nationalist dictatorship that lasted until 1940. After 1934, Ulmanis established government corporations to buy up private firms with the aim of “Latvianising” the economy.
Early in the morning of August 24, 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a 10-year non-aggression pact, called the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The pact contained a secret protocol, revealed only after Germany’s defeat in 1945, according to which the states of Northern and Eastern Europe were divided into German and Soviet “spheres of influence”. In the north, Latvia, Finland and Estonia were assigned to the Soviet sphere. A week later, on September 1, 1939, Germany and on September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland.
After the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, most of the Baltic Germans left Latvia by agreement between Ulmanis’ government and Nazi Germany under the Heim ins Reich programme. In total 50,000 Baltic Germans left by the deadline of December 1939, with 1,600 remaining to conclude business and 13,000 choosing to remain in Latvia. Most of those who remained left for Germany in summer 1940, when a second resettlement scheme was agreed. The racially approved being resettled mainly in Poland, being given land and businesses in exchange for the money they had received from the sale of their previous assets.
On October 5, 1939, Latvia was forced to accept a “mutual assistance” pact with the Soviet Union, granting the Soviets the right to station between 25,000 and 30,000 troops on Latvian territory. State administrators were liquidated and replaced by Soviet cadres. Elections were held with single pro-Soviet candidates listed for many positions. The resulting people’s assembly immediately requested admission into the USSR, which the Soviet Union granted. Latvia, then a puppet government, was headed by Augusts Kirhenšteins. The Soviet Union incorporated Latvia on August 5, 1940, as The Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (Latvijas Padomju Sociālistiskā Republika in Latvian or Латвийская Советская Социалистическая Республика — Latviyskaya Sovetskaya Sotsialisticheskaya Respublika in Russian).
The Soviets dealt harshly with their opponents — prior to Operation Barbarossa, in less than a year, at least 34,250 Latvians were deported or killed. Most were deported to Siberia where deaths were estimated at 40 percent, officers of the Latvian army being shot on the spot.
On June 21, 1941, German troops attacked Soviet forces in Operation Barbarossa. There were some spontaneous uprisings by Latvians against the Red Army which helped the Germans. By June 29, Riga was reached and with Soviet troops killed, captured or retreating, Latvia was left under the control of German forces by early July. The occupation was followed immediately by SS Einsatzgruppen troops who were to act in accordance with the Nazi Generalplan Ost which required the population of Latvia to be cut by 50 percent.
Under German occupation, Latvia was administered as part of Reichskommissariat Ostland. Latvian paramilitary and Auxiliary Police units established by the occupation authority participated in the Holocaust and other atrocities. Thirty thousand Jews were shot in Latvia in the autumn of 1941. Another 30,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto were killed in the Rumbula Forest in November and December 1941, to reduce overcrowding in the ghetto and make room for more Jews being brought in from Germany and the west. There was a pause in fighting, apart from partisan activity, until after the siege of Leningrad ended in January 1944 and the Soviet troops advanced, entering Latvia in July and eventually capturing Riga on October 13, 1944.
More than 200,000 Latvian citizens died during World War II, including approximately 75,000 Latvian Jews murdered during the Nazi occupation. Latvian soldiers fought on both sides of the conflict, mainly on the German side, with 140,000 men in the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS, The 308th Latvian Rifle Division was formed by the Red Army in 1944. On occasions, especially in 1944, opposing Latvian troops faced each other in battle.
In 1944, when Soviet military advances reached the area, heavy fighting took place in Latvia between German and Soviet troops, which ended in another German defeat. In the course of the war, both occupying forces conscripted Latvians into their armies, in this way increasing the loss of the nation’s “live resources”. In 1944, part of the Latvian territory once more came under Soviet control. The Soviets immediately began to reinstate the Soviet system. After the German surrender, it became clear that Soviet forces were there to stay, and Latvian national partisans, soon joined by German collaborators, began to fight against the new occupier.
Anywhere from 120,000 to as many as 300,000 Latvians took refuge from the Soviet army by fleeing to Germany and Sweden. Most sources count 200,000 to 250,000 refugees leaving Latvia, with perhaps as many as 80,000 to 100,000 of them recaptured by the Soviets or, during few months immediately after the end of war, returned by the West. The Soviets reoccupied the country in 1944–45, and further deportations followed as the country was collectivized and Sovieticized.
On March 25, 1949, 43,000 rural residents (“kulaks”) and Latvian patriots (“nationalists”) were deported to Siberia in a sweeping Operation Priboi in all three Baltic states, which was carefully planned and approved in Moscow on January 29, 1949. This operation had the desired effect of reducing the anti Soviet partisan activity. Between 136,000 and 190,000 Latvians, depending on the sources, were imprisoned or deported to Soviet concentration camps (the Gulag) in the post war years, from 1945 to 1952. Some managed to escape arrest and joined the partisans.
In the post-war period, Latvia was made to adopt Soviet farming methods. Rural areas were forced into collectivization. An extensive program to impose bilingualism was initiated in Latvia, limiting the use of Latvian language in official uses in favor of using Russian as the main language. All of the minority schools (Jewish, Polish, Belarussian, Estonian, Lithuanian) were closed down leaving only two media of instructions in the schools: Latvian and Russian. An influx of laborers, administrators, military personnel and their dependents from Russia and other Soviet republics started. By 1959 about 400,000 people arrived from other Soviet republics and the ethnic Latvian population had fallen to 62%.
Since Latvia had maintained a well-developed infrastructure and educated specialists, Moscow decided to base some of the Soviet Union’s most advanced manufacturing in Latvia. New industry was created in Latvia, including a major machinery factory RAF in Jelgava, electrotechnical factories in Riga, chemical factories in Daugavpils, Valmiera and Olaine — and some food and oil processing plants. Latvia manufactured trains, ships, minibuses, mopeds, telephones, radios and hi-fi systems, electrical and diesel engines, textiles, furniture, clothing, bags and luggage, shoes, musical instruments, home appliances, watches, tools and equipment, aviation and agricultural equipment and long list of other goods. Latvia had its own film industry and musical records factory (LPs). However, there were not enough people to operate the newly built factories. To maintain and expand industrial production, skilled workers were migrating from all over the Soviet Union, decreasing the proportion of ethnic Latvians in the republic. The population of Latvia reached its peak in 1990 at just under 2.7 million people.
In the second half of the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to introduce political and economic reforms in the Soviet Union that were called glasnost and perestroika. In the summer of 1987, the first large demonstrations were held in Riga at the Freedom Monument — a symbol of independence. In the summer of 1988, a national movement, coalescing in the Popular Front of Latvia, was opposed by the Interfront. The Latvian SSR, along with the other Baltic Republics was allowed greater autonomy, and in 1988, the old pre-war Flag of Latvia flew again, replacing the Soviet Latvian flag as the official flag in 1990.
In 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted a resolution on the Occupation of the Baltic states, in which it declared the occupation “not in accordance with law”, and not the “will of the Soviet people”. Pro-independence Popular Front of Latvia candidates gained a two-thirds majority in the Supreme Council in the March 1990 democratic elections. On May 4, 1990, the Supreme Council adopted the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia, and the Latvian SSR was renamed Republic of Latvia.
However, the central power in Moscow continued to regard Latvia as a Soviet republic in 1990 and 1991. In January 1991, Soviet political and military forces tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the Republic of Latvia authorities by occupying the central publishing house in Riga and establishing a Committee of National Salvation to usurp governmental functions. During the transitional period, Moscow maintained many central Soviet state authorities in Latvia.
In spite of this, 73% of all Latvian residents confirmed their strong support for independence on March 3, 1991, in a nonbinding advisory referendum. The Popular Front of Latvia advocated that all permanent residents be eligible for Latvian citizenship, and that helped sway a large number of ethnic Russians to vote for independence. However, universal citizenship for all permanent residents was not adopted. Instead, citizenship was granted to persons who had been citizens of Latvia at the day of loss of independence at 1940 as well as their descendants. As a consequence, the majority of ethnic non-Latvians did not receive Latvian citizenship since neither they nor their parents had ever been citizens of Latvia, becoming non-citizens or citizens of other former Soviet republics. By 2011, more than half of non-citizens had taken naturalization exams and received Latvian citizenship. Still, today there are 290,660 non-citizens in Latvia, which represent 14.1% of population. They have no citizenship of any country, and cannot vote in Latvia.
The Republic of Latvia declared the end of the transitional period and restored full independence on August 21, 1991, in the aftermath of the failed Soviet coup attempt.
The Saeima, Latvia’s parliament, was again elected in 1993. Russia ended its military presence by completing its troop withdrawal in 1994 and shutting down the Skrunda-1 radar station in 1998. The major goals of Latvia in the 1990s, to join NATO and the European Union, were achieved in 2004. The NATO Summit 2006 was held in Riga.
The government denationalized private property confiscated by the Soviets, returning it or compensating the owners for it, and privatized most state-owned industries, reintroducing the prewar currency. Albeit having experienced a difficult transition to a liberal economy and its re-orientation toward Western Europe, Latvia is one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union. In 2014, Riga was the European Capital of Culture, the euro was introduced as the currency of the country and a Latvian was named vice-president of the European Commission. In 2015, Latvia held the presidency of Council of the European Union. Big European events have been celebrated in Riga such as the Eurovision Song Contest 2003 and the European Film Awards 2014.
Postal history in the territory that now constitutes Latvia began during the thirteenth century, when the Archbishopric of Riga was included to the area of postal operations of the Monastic state of the Teutonic Knights and the Hanseatic League. In 1580, the Hanseatic League issued their first known regulations on courier work and payroll (Botenordnung), regulations that also were active in the territory that now constitutes Latvia.
From 1581 to 1621, when Riga was under the rule of the Duchy of Livonia, and also from 1621 to 1710, when it was a part of Swedish Livonia, postal services were used only for governmental purposes. In the sixteenth century, several postal organisations existed — for governmental purposes, as well as for clerics, universities, cities and merchants. In 1632, the Postmaster General of Prussia and Livonia, Jacob Becker, who was appointed in Swedish Livonia by the King of Sweden, organised the first regular public postal service.
Initially, the postal service was the private property of the Postmaster General, who also received annual funding from the Riga City Council and the Governors of Swedish Livonia. In 1644, the Livonian Postal Service was linked to the Stockholm Postal Service routes in Finland. In 1685, the Duke of Courland Friedrich Casimir initiated his own postal service and asked the Swedish authorities to cease their postal operations within his territory, but King Charles XI of Sweden ignored his request and stood for his rights in Courland.
On July 5, 1710, Russian troops under the command of Tsar Peter I of Russia took over Riga and made it a part of the Russian Empire.
During World War I, Latvia was occupied by Germany, and used German stamps overprinted by the Ober Ost. In 1919, German stamps were handstamped LIBAU, but it was unclear whether they were officially issued; all used copies are cancelled to order.
Latvia proclaimed its independence on November 18, 1918, and issued its first stamps on December 18. The design was a depiction of the country’s Coat of Arms. Unusually, since paper was in short supply, the first printings were on the backs of leftover German military maps; by 1919, paper with ruled lines was in use. Stamps with no printing at all on the backs are from the outer rows of sheets and command a higher valuation.
Latvia issued a variety of definitive and commemorative stamps through the 1920s and 1930s. Definitives used variations on a design featuring the arms, surmounted by three stars, representing Vidzeme, Courland, and Latgale.
As part of the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940, a series of 13 stamps were issued, depicting the arms of Soviet Latvia and inscribed Latvijas // PSR. These were shortly superseded by the occupation of Latvia by Nazi Germany. At first existing stocks of Russian stamps were used, overprinted LATVIJA // 1941 // 1. VII, then regular German stamps came into use, in October 1941. In April 1945, Germans stamps were overprinted KURLAND and used in Courland.
Post-war, Latvia reverted to the use of Soviet stamps. With the restoration of independence, Latvia resumed its own stamp program with a set of eight definitives depitcting the National Arms issued on October 19, 1991. Latvian Post (VAS Latvijas Pasts) is the main state-owned postal service provider in Latvia headquartered in Riga. It was founded on January 2, 1992, as a state-owned company, prior to which multiple postal companies had already existed in the territory.
On January 8, 2015, I received a postcard from Riga, bearing what is currently my sole Latvian stamp. Denominated at €0.71, the multicolored photogravure stamp portrays Ainaži Lighthouse (Ainažu bāka), part of an annual series by Latvian Post picturing lighthouses. This is located in Ainaži (Heinaste in Estonian or Haynasch in German), a harbor town on the Bay of Riga in the Vidzeme region of Latvia. The town is located near the Estonian border on the site of an ancient Liv fishing village.
The Ainaži lighthouse was built in 1930, originally serving as a guide for the nearby port and harbor. During World War II, the harbor was bombarded by German bombers; causing the village to lose its processing factory and fishing importance, therefore making the lighthouse insignificant. The village, port and harbor were rebuilt under Soviet control, bringing back the importance of the lighthouse. The lighthouse was reconstructed and renovated in the 1990s. Currently the lighthouse is open to the public and is a key landmark for the nearby villages. The front range light was discontinued, hence the orange vertical stripe on the tower.
The map used as background image of the stamp shows the Gulf of Riga with the coastline and several islands. In addition to the lighthouse, the stamp also has part of seamen’s memorial also located in Ainaži.