A Brief History of Latvia

By Tim Lambert

Early Latvia

The earliest people in Latvia were Stone Age hunters and gatherers who arrived there after the last ice age about 9000 BC. However, the ancestors of today’s Latvians were Baltic tribes who migrated to the area about 2,000 BC.

In the 12th century AD, some of the last pagans in Europe lived in Latvia. The Pope decided to convert them to Christianity – by force! In 1201 he sent German crusaders commanded by Bishop Albert von Buxhoeveden of Bremen. The Crusaders sailed into what is now the Gulf of Riga. They landed at a fishing village on the site of Riga and built a fortified settlement there. So Riga became the capital of Latvia.

From their base in Latvia, the Germans marched inland and took the land from the native people.

The Germans formed themselves into a quasi-monastic order called the Brotherhood of the Sword. They called the Baltic region Livonia. In 1237 the Brotherhood of the Sword merged with another German Order, the Teutonic Knights, and called themselves the Livonian Order.

The Germans made themselves a feudal ruling class in Latvia. The Latvians were made second-class citizens. However, the Germans also founded several towns in Latvia including Riga, Cesis, Ventspils, and Kuldiga.

In 1282 Riga joined the Hanseatic League. (That was a federation of cities in Germany and the Baltic, which controlled trade in northern Europe). Valmiera joined the Hanseatic League in 1365.

The Reformation reached Latvia in 1521. The new Protestant doctrines found widespread support, especially in the towns.

However, Latvia suffered a disaster in 1558. The increasingly powerful country of Russia sought access to the sea and they invaded Latvia in 1558. The Livonian Wars as they were called lasted until 1583.

Meanwhile, in 1561, the Poles invaded Latvia from the south and they conquered the Latgale region in the Southeast. They ruled that area until the late 18th century. The Livonian order itself was dissolved in 1562.

Then in 1621, the Swedes conquered Riga and Northeast Latvia. (They held the region until they fought the Great Northern War against Russia in 1700-1721). The Russians captured Riga in 1710 and all Swedish territory in Latvia came under Russian control.

On a happier note in 1685 Ernst Gluck (1654-1705) translated the New Testament into Latvian. In 1689 he translated the Old Testament into Latvian.

At the end of the 18th century Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided up Poland between them. As a result, the Polish-held parts of Latvia came under Russian control. From then on all of Latvia was ruled by the Tsar.

In the 18th century, there was still a German elite and native Latvians were still second-class citizens.

During the 19th century, Latvia experienced rapid economic development. In 1800 Riga only had a population of 30,000 but by 1900 it had reached half a million. Meanwhile, in the 1810s the Latvian nobility ended serfdom.

Furthermore, during the 19th century, nationalism in Latvia and interest in Latvian culture revived. A man named Krisjanis Barons (1835-1923) collected Latvian folklore. The first Latvian newspaper was published in 1862.

Modern Latvia

In 1905 a wave of demonstrations passed over Russia and Latvia. The Tsarist government brutally suppressed the demonstrations and imprisoned the leaders of the Latvian nationalists.

In 1918 Russia collapsed and much of her territory was taken by the Germans – including Latvia. However, the Germans themselves surrendered in November 1918. The Latvians then declared their independence. (The formal declaration of independence was made in a theatre in Riga on 18 November 1918). Karlis Ulmanis (1877-1942) became head of state. However, the situation was complicated by the fact that German troops were left in Latvia after the defeat of Germany.

However, the Communist Russians had no intention of letting Latvia go. On 3 January 1919, they captured Riga and installed a tyrannical regime led by a Latvian named Peteris Stucka.

When the Russians captured Riga Ulmanis fled to Liepaja, which was occupied by German troops. In May 1919 the Germans drove the Communists out of Riga. Ulmanis returned to Riga in July 1919. The Germans withdrew from Latvia by the end of 1919.

The Russians still held parts of South-eastern Latvia but they were driven out by force in the winter of 1919-1920. The Russians finally recognized Latvian independence by a treaty signed on 11 August 1920.

In 1921 Latvia joined the League of Nations.

Like the rest of the World Latvia suffered from the economic depression of the 1930s. As a result, many people grew disillusioned with democracy and right-wing groups grew. So in 1934, Ulmanis declared a state of emergency. Latvia gradually became a dictatorship. Meanwhile, in 1935 the Freedom Monument was erected in Riga.

In 1939 the Nazis and the Communists agreed to divide Eastern Europe between them. Latvia was assigned to the Soviet Union. In July 1940 the Red Army occupied Latvia and in August 1940 Latvia was made part of the Soviet Union (regardless of the wishes of the Latvian people). Afterward, thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia. Others were shot.

In June 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and within weeks they were in control of Latvia. The Nazis then began rounding up Latvian Jews and murdering them.

However, the war turned against Germany and the Russians captured Riga in October 1944. In the last stages of the war, many Latvians fled to the West. They were the lucky ones. After the war, tens of thousands of Latvians were deported or killed. Some brave Latvians fled to the forest and fought a guerrilla war against the Communists. They carried on their struggle until 1956.

Meanwhile, the Soviet government moved many ethnic Russians into Latvia to break up its ethnic uniformity. n Yet by 1987 Communism was starting to crumble and demonstrations began in Latvia. In 1988 the Popular Front of Latvia was formed. In 1989 the Popular Front demanded full independence for Latvia. Then in March 1990, the Front won a majority in the Latvian Supreme Council. The council issued a declaration of restored independence.

However, in January 1991 the Soviet Union sent troops to attack the TV tower in Riga. Afterward, many Latvians went to Riga to protest and to stop further Soviet attacks. Soviet troops did attack the Interior Ministry in Riga but they were forced to retreat although they left 5 Latvians dead.

Nevertheless, the Communist tyranny in Latvia collapsed following a failed coup in August 1991. The USA recognized Latvian independence on 2 September 1991. The Soviet Union followed on 6 September 1991. The last Russian troops left Latvia in 1994.

Following the collapse of Communism, the Latvian economy began to grow steadily. In 1993 a new currency the Lat was introduced and completely free parliamentary elections were held. Latvia joined the World Trade Organisation in 1999. Also in 1999, Vaira Vike-Freiberga became the first woman president of Latvia.

In 2002 Latvia won the Eurovision Song Contest. In 2003 the competition was held in Riga.

In 2004 Latvia joined NATO and the EU. Latvia suffered badly in the recession of 2009. However, Latvia recovered and became prosperous. In 2014 Latvia joined the euro. Also in 2014, Riga became the European Capital of Culture.


In 2024 the population of Latvia was 1.8 million.

Last revised 2024