Latvian flag
Flag of Latvia

To start this section on Latvia, please watch this 7-min documentary Welcome to Riga | Latvia.

Language, Geography, and Cuisine

Statue of a woman in a boat
Riga Harbor Statue, Photo by Eileen Kunkler

Latvia lies along the shores of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga, borders Estonia to the north, Russia to the east, Belarus to the southeast, and Lithuania to the south. Latvia’s many rivers drain into the Baltic Sea. The largest is the Western Dvina, locally called Daugava (with a total length of 222 miles in Latvia). Also there are the Gauja (Russian: Gauya), the Venta, and the Lielupe. It is important to remember that the Balto-Slavic languages are a branch of the Indo-European family of languages. They share several linguistic traits not found in any other Indo-European branch, which points to a period of common development. Although the notion of Balto-Slavic unity has been contested (partly due to political controversies), there is now the consensus among specialists in Indo-European linguistics to classify Baltic and Slavic languages into a single branch. Forested hills hide many lakes, some as large as 12 square miles. Latvia’s soils are predominantly podzolic. Swampy areas are in the East Lowland. The Latvian climate is influenced by the southwesterly winds coming from the Atlantic. Summers are often cool, while winters usually last from the middle of December to the middle of March. More than half of Latvia is covered with forests, meadows, pastures, swamps, and wasteland. Forests account for more than one-third of the total area, and about one-tenth of the forests are cultivated, where pines and spruces are most popular. However, birches, aspens, and alders are also widespread. Latvia’s most popular animals include squirrels, foxes, hare, lynx, and badgers. Whereas boating is one of the favorite Estonian sports, hunting is very popular in Latvia. Strictly licensed, two-three day hunting trips are among the most popular Latvian leisure and sports activity. In the 1980s as several species faced extinction, conservation measures were started that have increased the number of deer and elk, while beavers were reintroduced. The country’s bird population includes the nightingale, oriole, blackbird, woodpecker, owl, grouse, partridge, finch, tomtit, quail, and lark. Storks and herons are usually found in the marshes and meadows (1).

Photo by Elīna Dālberga on Unsplash

Latvian cuisine is typical for the Baltic region and northern countries. The food is high in butter and fat. Commonly used spices include black pepper and dill, as well as various grain seeds. Latvian cuisine is derived from peasant culture, with such popular products as rye, wheat, oats, peas, beets, cabbage, and potatoes. One of the most popular meats is pork. Latvians have traditionally used a great variety of dairy products — cottage cheese (biezpiens), sour cream (skabais krejums), soured milk (ruguspiens) and cheeses. Popular dishes adopted from the time of the Soviet occupation include pelmeni (dumplings) with sour cream and vinegar. For breakfast, Latvians often eat cottage cheese topped with sour cream and jams or fresh berries. Soups are commonly made with vegetables and broth or milk. Cold soup (auksta zupa), fish soup (zivju zupa), sorrel soup (skabeņu zupa), and mushroom soup (seņu zupa) are also Latvian favorites. Fried rye bread with garlic (ķiploku grauzdiņi) and mayonnaise is often served as a starter in restaurants and bars (2). Since ancient times, Latvians brewed beer (alus), mead (miestiņš), and honey beer (medalus) before the 13th century for both celebratory occasions and everyday use. Latvians love their beers; however, a national liquor that tourists often buy as a souvenir is Riga Black Balsam. Latvia has ancient traditions of various edible mushroom recipes. There are around 4,100 mushroom species in Latvia, out of which ¼ are edible. From mushrooms, onions, garlic, sweet or sour cream, and sometimes bacon, a mushroom sauce is made and usually eaten with boiled potatoes and slightly salted cucumbers (3).

Latvian Folklore and Mythology

clothing examples
Examples of national costumes, Photo by Maria Ignatieva

Latvian culture is among the oldest surviving Indo-European cultures. Much of its symbolism, for example, a thunder cross, came from ancient times. Latvian tribal life, predominantly agrarian, influenced deities and celebrations. The dead were called Veļi and it was believed that they visited their old homes between the day of Mikeli, September 29, and the day of Martini, November 10th. Their souls were invited to feast. Food for the dead was left in bathhouses, cemeteries, and barns with candles that were left to burn so the dead could see the food. The dead were invited to clean themselves in the bathhouse (sauna). A similar custom existed in ancient Finland and Estonia, where during Kekri and Mardipaev celebrations, families prepared a sauna for the souls. After the feast, dead souls were chased away, and the houses were thoroughly cleaned. ​Werewolves are common figures in the folklore of all Baltic countries. In Latvia, a person who could turn into a wolf was called vilkaci (volk in Russian). This werewolf would not be able to become a human again until someone touched his clothes. Another popular mythic character is Puķis the dragon. The most common explanation of the fiery dragons is the meteorites that were observed by the natives in ancient times. Even in Christian holidays, the legacy of Latvian folklore and mythology can be traced. For example, Palm Sunday is Pupolsvetdiena, which means Pussy Willow Sunday, and little children are often awoken in the morning by the ritualistic swats of a willow branch and the exclamation, “Apaļs ka pupols, vesels ka pupols!” – “Round like Pussy willow, healthy like Pussy Willow!”  One of the greatest folklore-based holidays that is celebrated by the whole nation is the celebration of the summer solstice, called Ligo (4).

And now, please watch this dance, which will illustrate a strong presence of the pre-Christian elements in Latvian culture:

Knowledge Check

  1. What is Latvia’s geographical position in comparison to Estonia’s?
  2. How do the languages – Latvian and Estonian – differ? Do they belong to the same linguistic group?
  3. Which country is closer to Lithuania: Estonia or Latvia?
  4. Please compare and contrast two folkloric creatures from Estonian and Latvian mythology.
  5. Describe one Latvian culinary trend that would be somewhat different from an Estonian.


facade of building
House of the Blackheads, Riga, Latvia, photo by Maria Ignatieva

The Latvians constitute a prominent division of the ancient group of peoples known as the Balts. As Andres Kasekamp wrote, “The first crusade against pagans living on the Baltic littoral was launched… in 1147. In its wake, Henry the Lion, The Duke of Saxony, established Lubeck as the first German town on the Baltic Sea” (5).  By the end of the 13th century, the name was extended to most of the present-day Estonia and Latvia that had been conquered during the Livonian Crusade (1193–1290) by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. Livonia, after the retreat of Denmark in 1346, stretched to the Gulf of Finland in the north, Lake Peipus and Russia to the east, and Lithuania to the south. After the conquest, the Germans formed the so-called Livonian confederation, which lasted for three centuries. This feudalistic society had three parts to it: the Teutonic Order, the archbishopship of Riga, and the free city of Riga. All three were in constant disagreement with each other. In 1282, the Latvians greatly benefited from Riga’s joining the Hanseatic League. Although the Latvians were treated by the Germans as second-class citizens, the league’s trade brought some prosperity to everyone involved in trade. In 1561, the Latvian territory was partitioned. Courland, south of the Western Dvina, became an autonomous duchy under the suzerainty of the Lithuanian duke and the north of Livonia was also integrated into Lithuania. Riga became a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1581. In 1621, it was conquered by Gustav II Adolf of Sweden. Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible attempted to expand Russian territory to the Baltic Sea but failed. Tsar Alexei Romanov, Peter the Great’s father, lost his wars against Sweden and Poland (1653–67). Finally, it was Peter the Great who cut the window to Europe, as Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet, wrote in his poem “The Bronze Horseman”. In 1710, during the Second Northern War, Peter the Great took over Riga. By the Treaty of Nystad (1721), the northern Latvian region of Vidzeme had become Russian. Latgale was annexed by the Russians in 1772 and Courland was acquired in 1795. Hence, by the end of the 18th century, the whole of Latvia had become the western part of the Russian Empire. As Anatol Lieven wrote, “The first hundred and fifty years of Russian rule were in many ways the golden age of the Baltic German nobility. Their control over the local administration had been permanently guaranteed by Peter the Great through The Treaty of Nystad (1721)” (6). Although serfdom in Latvia was abolished almost 40 years before Alexander II’s Act of Emancipation (in Courland in 1817 and in Vidzeme in 1819), peasants were not permitted to buy lands until the serfs were emancipated in the entire empire in 1861.

Knowledge Check

  1. How did the Hanseatic League improve Latvian trade?
  2. Why did the Baltic peasants, both Estonian and Latvian, prefer Swedish rule to Russian?
  3. Why did Peter the Great give preferential treatment to the German barons of Latvia?

To finish this sub-section, please read a short bio of Peter the Great.

 National Awakening

examples of national crafts
Riga National Clothes Store, Photo by Maria Ignatieva

However incomplete, the abolishment of serfdom in the three Baltic provinces led to two important socioeconomic factors. The first was the peasants’ ability to gradually acquire the land plots they had been previously leasing. The second was the peasants’ migration from villages to big cities, Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia. Within the next fifty years, the city’s manufacturing sector expanded and included machine works, shipbuilding yards, and factories that produced railroad cars, electric appliances, chemicals, and, from the early 1900s, automobiles and airplanes. A railroad bridge was built across Daugava in 1872. Railroads made it possible for Latvians to travel across the country to the first Latvian national song festival, organized in 1873 by the Riga Latvian Musical Society. Telegraph (1852) and telephone (1882) connected Riga to the world. It boasted modernized infrastructure, such as gasworks (1862) and a centralized electrical supply (1905). The official policy of forceful Russification, promoted by Alexander II and most fervently by Alexander III, could be considered counterproductive. It empowered the natives to search for various ways to express their national identity, be it music, literature, arts, or theatre. The Latvians call themselves a nation of folk-song singers. Through the tradition of folklore, collective singing and dancing during national holidays, their self-identification started forming in the middle to late 19th century. The Latvian folk song, or daina, is the most essential part of Latvian culture. To this day dainas remain a source of collective inspiration for the Latvian people, revealing the country’s rich cultural heritage. Dainas, which are generally four lines long each, tell the stories of family or love or are related to myths. The oldest written documentation of Latvian folk songs that have survived is dated 1584 and 1632. The first collections of Latvian folk songs, which were compiled by the German clergymen G. Bergmann and F. Wahr, were published in 1807. During the period of national awakening, Krisjanis Barons (1835-1923) completed an anthology of Latvian folk songs. Between 1895 and 1915 he published six volumes and eight books containing 217,996 texts of Latvian folk song. “Dainu Skapis – Cabinet of Folksongs” is a documentary heritage submitted by Latvia and recommended for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register in 2001 (7). Today the collection has grown to approximately 1.2 million texts and more than 30,000 different melodies. As the former president of Latvia, and also a folklore scholar, Mrs. Vaira Viķe-Freiberga once said: “To the Latvian, dainas are more than a literary tradition. They are the very embodiment of his cultural heritage, left by forefathers whom history had denied other, more tangible forms of expression. These songs thus form the very core of the Latvian identity and singing becomes one of the identifying qualities of a Latvian” (8). During the last quarter of the 19th century, the spirit of national revival surged throughout Latvian territory.

Please watch Priscilla Hernandez’s performance of a typical Ligo song.

Knowledge Check

  1. How did the tradition of singing contribute to the formation of Latvian National identity? Please explain the meaning of daina.
  2. Why do you think the policy of Russification imposed by the Russian Empire was counterproductive?

Development of Arts and Theatre

Janis Plieksans
Janis Plieksans

The Riga Latvian Theatre was established in 1868, almost at the same time as the Estonian theatre, Vanemuime. Poetry, prose, and drama were intertwined in the works of Janis Rainis, the most well-known Latvian writer (pseudonym of Janis Plieksans, born September 11, 1865, Varslavani, Latvia, Russian Empire—died September 12, 1929, Majori, Latvia). Rainis studied at the Riga City Gymnasium. During his high school years, he translated Alexander Pushkin’s poems and dramatic works, among them The Meager Knight and Boris Godunov. In 1884, Rainis became a student of the Department of Law at the University of St. Petersburg. There, besides law, he attended lectures on philology, history, and even chemistry. After graduation, in winter 1889, he accepted the post of the Candidate of Justice and secretary of the Vilnius Regional Court (Lithuania). In his spare time, Rainis continued writing poems and articles on various subjects for the Latvian newspaper The Daily Sheet. He enthusiastically studied Russian and Latvian folklore. In 1893, Rainis attended the International Socialist and Labor Congress in Zurich. He was inspired by the Socialist ideas and dreams about independent Latvia. Following his transformation in Zurich, in 1895 he wrote poems The Cold Soul, The Proud Soul, and The Deepest Thoughts and for the first time, signed them as Rainis. In 1896, Rainis was arrested for participation in socialist activities and sent to the Panevezys prison in Lithuania. In prison, Rainis translated Faust by J. W. Goethe, which was published in 1898. Found guilty of anti-government activities, he was first exiled to Pskov, and afterward in 1899, was sent to the Russian province of Vyatka. While in exile, Rainis continued translating plays, among them were such masterpieces as Shakespeare’s King Lear, Goethe’s Prometheus, and Mary Stuart and Wilhelm Tell by F. Schiller. Also, he wrote essays on a great variety of topics for Latvian newspapers. His poetry collection Distant Inklings in a Blue Evening powerfully expressed the turn-of-the-century feelings of agitation, excitement, hopes, and desperation, and was an open call for the social change. In 1903, Rainis was permitted to return to Latvia. Rainis actively participated in the revolution of 1905. He talked to the crowds during various social gatherings and attended the Latvia Teachers’ Conference. Rainis hoped that the 1905 revolution would be part of the overall struggle for liberation and independence in Latvia. His symbolic play, written at the same time and undoubtedly influenced by Goethe’s Faust is the most passionate dedication to the 1905 revolution in Latvian culture (9).

In 1903, the Music Committee of the Riga Latvian Musical Society announced the contest for the best opera libretto. Rainis decided to participate in it, but, unexpectedly for himself, he wrote a full-length play, called Fire and Night. The plot was based on Andrejs Pumpurs’ epic poem Bear-slayer (Lacplesis). Colors, sounds, and symbols were intertwined into Rainis’ epic drama. Fire and Night has become one of the most important examples of symbolism in Latvian literature. Rainis wrote that “…long time before the play was written, I had been … preoccupied by examining folk legends, which told the stories of Latvian heroes…” Critic Guntis Berelis elaborated, “As the title already signifies, Rainis, a confirmed dialectician, separated his characters in absolute opposites. On one hand, there are forces of light: Bear-slayer (symbolizing Latvian people and their strive for freedom), Laimdota (symbolizing Latvia), and the Latvian Rulers. On the other hand, there are forces of darkness: Black Knight, German invaders, and the traitors, Kangars and Likcepure” (10). One of the characters, Spidola, summarizes Rainis’ mantra: “Only by changing yourself, you could outsmart your fate!” It was not until 1911, six years after it was written, that the play was first produced by the New Riga Theatre. The drama Fire and Night has been translated into the Estonian, English, French, Russian and Belorussian languages.


In December 1905, Rainis and his wife, Aspasia, left Latvia for Switzerland. Living in voluntary exile, he continued writing. His plays, such as The Golden Horse (1909), Indulis and Arija (1912), and Blow, the Wind! (1914) were produced in Latvia (11). In 1920, Rainis and his wife returned to Latvia. They were greeted by thousands of their admirers. Soon after arrival, from the stage of the Latvian National Opera, Rainis addressed the nation, urging people to fight for political freedoms and human rights. As a candidate from the Social-democratic party, Rainis was elected a member of the Latvian Parliament. Rainis was one of the founders of the Theatre of Art – Dailes teatris (1920) and its first director (until 1921). He was the director of the National Theatre from 1921 till 1925. As the Minister of Education (1926-1928), he regularly visited schools all around Latvia. Rainis authored several poetry books for children, which are now considered to be children’s poetry classics. Among Rainis’ plays in the 20s, one is about Ilya Muromets (Iļja Muromietis, 1928), an ironic fable about the Russian folk hero, bogatyr (giant), who does not understand adequately what is happening around him. In his other play called The Witch of Riga (Rigas ragana, published and performed in 1928), Rainis portrayed Peter the Great as a tyrant and an evil intruder. Janis Rainis died on September 12, 1929, in his summer house in Majori and was buried in The New Cemetery of Riga, later renamed after him (12).

Knowledge Check

  1. Why did Janis Rainis dedicate so much time to literary translations before the 1905 revolution?
  2. Rainis’ poems and plays mixed folkloric images with symbolism, a popular cultural movement at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe. Which of Rainis’ works could serve as the best example of the statement above?
  3. What were Rainis’ duties and activities as the Minister of Education in Latvia?

Years of Independence: 1918-1940

Riga Monument of Freedom
Monument of Freedom in Riga, Photo by Eileen Kunkler

Latvia was one of the most industrialized parts of the Russian Empire before the October Socialist Revolution of 1917, and Riga was one of her five biggest cities. Due to its advanced industrialization, Latvia developed a strong working-class movement, and their sympathies were split between the Latvian struggle for independence and Bolshevism. Members of the historically famous Latvian rifle regiments, formed by the Tsarist government in 1915 to fight the Germans during WWI, were also divided, and some would join the Red Army. By 1920, both German and Soviets’ attempts to take over Latvia failed. The redistribution of land happened in Latvia at the same time as in Estonia. Although it took 8 to 10 years to realign industry, trade, and agriculture, normalize export and import, Latvia was independent at last. Among the most influential Latvian politicians of the time was Karlis Ulmanis and he deserves our special attention.

Karlis Ulmanis
Karlis Ulmanis

Born in 1877, in Piksas farmstead, he moved to Riga in 1897, working as a dairy farm manager. He studied agriculture in Zurich and Leipzig universities. Like many of his compatriots, he participated in the revolution of 1905, encouraged by the ideas of the liberation of Latvia. Ulmanis was arrested and put in prison, where he was held until 1906. He was released from prison and left Latvia for voluntary exile in the United States. He took more courses in agriculture and economic business in the U.S., after which he accepted a teaching position at the University of Nebraska. After the Tsar’s amnesty for prisoners of the 1905 revolution in 1913, Ulmanis returned to Latvia and became a co-founder of the Latvian Farmers’ Union. In 1918, he was elected Prime Minister and selected members of the government. Not willing to compromise and having many enemies, in 1919 and 1920 Ulmanis survived two assassination attempts. He served in the government in various capacities until organizing a coup and becoming the Prime Minister from 1934 until 1940. He later added the position of the State President to the Prime Minister and declared himself the Leader of the People. Ulmanis formed a new government without organizing a referendum. Under the pretext of Latvinization, some of the German and Jewish-owned large enterprises were nationalized. Ulmanis, in turn, was forced by the Soviets to surrender his power after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He was deported to the USSR on the July 22, 1940. He lived in a mansion in Voroshilovskest as an international guest of honor until the Nazis invasion in June 1941. After the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (the term Russians use to refer to WWII), Ulmanis was arrested as an enemy of the people for international counter-revolutionary activities. He died in prison in Krasnovodsk in September 1942 . Karlis Ulmanis’ life symbolically and tragically mirrors the paths of many USSR leaders: revolutionaries and fighters for freedom before 1917, they became powerful political figures in the 20s and 30s, only to be killed in the late 30s and 40s during the era of Stalinist purges (13).

Knowledge Check

  1. Karlis Ulmnanis taught at the University of Nebraska. Why did he temporarily immigrate from Latvia?
  2. Explain why an authoritarian regime replaced a democratic government in Latvia.
  3. How did the authoritarian regime affect the Latvian national culture?

After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Latvia Rifleman Monument
Controversial Statue of Latvian WWI Rifleman in Riga. Photo by Eileen Kunkler

Following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in October 1939 the Soviet Union based 30,000 troops in Latvia. A massive repatriation of the German population from Latvia started at the same time as in Estonia. In June 1940, Molotov sent memorandums to the Baltic countries, accusing them of an anti-Soviet alliance and demanding new governments to be formed to comply with USSR treaties. In Riga, a pro-Soviet demonstration was masterfully staged. The Soviet cruiser brought 25,000 people from Russia as participants, many of whom were recently released prisoners. Following “the wishes of the masses,” the people’s governments were formed and, “supported by the crowds,” who, in turn, demanded the incorporation of Latvia into the USSR (14). On August 5, Latvia petitioned to become one of the republics of the USSR, which was ratified by the Supreme Soviet. Immediately afterward, all political institutions started to implement the decisions dictated by Moscow. The only official party to remain in Latvia was the communist party. In June 1940, the expropriation of property started. The currency had been unfairly adjusted, and the Latvian Lat, which before annexation was exchanged at 10 to a ruble, was 1 to 1 afterward. Forceful evictions and deportations began in Latvia, similar to the ones that were taking place in Estonia and Lithuania. Severe Stalinist working laws were incorporated, while the Trade Unions became powerless or were dissolved. For example, a worker was not permitted to resign without his manager’s approval, and if a worker did nevertheless, he could spend 2 to 4 months in prison. Land redistribution started as well: “In Latvia, 52,000 landless peasants received land, and 23,000 small farms were increased in size” (15). Considering ideological battles as the most important part of the power struggle, all publishing houses, printing factories, and shops were taken over by the Soviets and consolidated into one. Only a few major newspapers were allowed to continue, but their editorials started mirroring the Kremlin’s views. In a very short period, the Latvian educational system was restructured, mirroring the Soviet one. Over 4,000 books were banned, removed from the libraries, and in some places – burned. The number of deportees exceeded 15, 000, and this number included children. To no surprise, many Latvians greeted the Germans as liberators in 1941. The full realization of what Hitlerism was would come later.

Knowledge Check

  1. Why did the Soviets merge various Latvian publishing houses into one big publishing house?
  2. Why did the Soviets ban 4,000 books in Latvia in 1940?
  3. Why did some Latvians welcome the arrival of the Nazis?

The War Years: 1941-1945

Anti-communist poster
[An anti-communist, anti-semitic poster, 1941] Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-765-0596-24 / Kurschat / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Although many Latvians, devastated by the Stalinist deportations of their friends and families, hoped that the new Nazi regime would return their property and status, the Germans “considered Baltic territories as an occupied region open to maximum exploitation of its resources for the general pursuit of the war effort, and the Baltic people were viewed primarily as providers of agricultural products and labor” (16). However, unlike the Soviets, who aggressively promoted the policy of Sovietization of the whole region, the Germans exercised only general ideological censorship. They allowed Latvian traditional cultural life to be maintained, although Goethe’s Faust, translated into Latvian by Janis Rainis, was banned. Even though the University of Riga was closed in 1941, it reopened in 1942, at the same time as the University of Tartu in Estonia. As the war continued and the Soviets advanced, the Nazis started to forcefully recruit the locals, sending them to Germany to supplement the wartime labor force. Ethnic cleansing in Latvia was part of the Nazi “pure race” policy. About 3,000 Latvian Gypsies were killed. In 1939 the Jewish population was estimated to be as large as 93,000. About 5,000 Jews were deported by the Soviets. About 18,000 Latvian Jews were drafted into the Red Army or evacuated by the Soviets. Of the approximately 70,000 Jews who remained in Latvia after the Soviets retreated, only 4,000 had survived by the time the Nazis were defeated (17). At the end of 1944, the Latvians, like the Estonians and Lithuanians, found themselves between a rock and a hard place. The Nazis were gone, but the Soviets returned and re-occupied their territories.

Knowledge Check

  1. Please compare and contrast the policies towards the local population, maintained by the two regimes, the Soviets and Nazi Germany. Find two major differences and two essential similarities.
  2. Please compare and contrast the Holocaust in Estonia and Latvia.

Postwar Latvia

Passive and active resistance to the reestablishment of Soviet power accompanied Soviet plans for the postwar reconstruction of the economy, industrialization, and collectivization. In Latvia, although no one knows the exact numbers, it was suggested that up to 15,000 people were in the forests between 1945 and 1953 as part of the resistance. Many groups believed that they would receive immediate support from the West after 1945, which, as we know, never came. Agricultural collectivization took place on a massive scale, accompanied by the liquidation of the middle-class or wealthier peasants’ farms. In 1949, in Latvia 50,000 peasants were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan (18). Many of them were taken in the middle of the night, allowed to collect only the necessary household items and clothes before being moved by trucks to the train stations and packed into cattle wagons. At the same time, about 400,000 Russians and 100,000 other nationalities migrated to Latvia from 1945 to 1959. The collectivization of agriculture was accomplished in 1947–50 (19).

The Thaw and Reemergence of National Culture (1956-1968)

“BS276 Riga,Latvia” by S.K. LO is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

After the Thaw began in 1956, the political and social atmosphere in Latvia started changing for the better. Deportees were returning and the native population increased, reaching 62% according to the 1959 Latvian census (20). The celebration of the Summer Solstice, which has always been a major national holiday in Latvia, was permitted once again by Soviet officials. Among the first literary revivals was the poet Aspasia (1868-1943), Janis Rainis’ muse, colleague, and wife. The overwhelming national thirst for Latvian classics resulted in a massive re-printing of its classical authors, among them were Eriks Adamsons, Veronika Strelerte, and Janis Medenis. In 1957, Andreijus Upits, the winner of the 1946 Stalin Prize for literature, opened the campaign against the primitive understanding of Socialist realism in art and literature.  However, as Andres Kasekamps wrote, “the limits of the Thaw became apparent most starkly in Latvia, where a group of younger, energetic, idealistic native party members came to the fore… They sincerely believed that building communism in Latvia would succeed if those sent from Russia learned to communicate in the Latvian language” (21). The “Latvinization” and the enthusiasm about more independent political governing in the republic was crushed by Moscow and ended in purges. Unlike the Stalinist purges, victims were not executed, but rather either demoted or expelled from the Communist party. By 1961, several thousand party members were expelled. The purge affected not only the Communist party but also the Komsomol and mass media. The chill that was brought by the purge of 1959 changed the cultural atmosphere in the republic significantly. Aspasia’s poetry was banned again after several attacks against the “unfiltered” Latvian literary heritage in “Pravda” (one of the major USSR newspapers). Only in 1968, after many well-known Latvian critics petitioned against the gross mistreatment of national literature, was Aspasia’s works republished. Despite the setbacks and censorship requirements, Latvian national literature and arts continued to grow and thrive in various genres.

Among the most noticeable Latvian authors of the time was Alberts Bels. Alberts Bels (born Janis Cirulius, 1938) was the writer of psychological novels and stories, a prominent intellectual figure, and an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences. Bels tried different professions. For example, from 1955 to 1956 he was a student at the Moscow Circus Art College. He studied electrical engineering, served in the military, and also studied in the Master Courses of Scriptwriters and Film Directors in Moscow. Bels’ first novel, The Investigator, was praised for its innovation in prose. However, his second novel, Bezmiegs (Insomnia), written in 1967, was forbidden for publication until Glasnost and Perestroika and was published in 1987. Glen James Brown’s analysis of Insomnia said that “Edgars is not your typical pro-active protagonist of Soviet Realist literature. He is a man of resignation, with no family… his work… is a futile, deadening horror. He wants to let life pass over him like clear, flowing water… Escape is not an option, in either private or the surveillance state of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic at large. … Bel’s characters take the only remaining form of liberation left—they turn inwards into memory, the stream of consciousness, and most intriguingly of all, the pagan forests of the 13th century” (22). Many of Bels’ novels have been adapted as screenplays, the best known was The Attack on Secret Police and Gunshot in the Woods. Bels has been awarded numerous awards and prizes. He is a recipient of the 3rd class Order of the Three Stars (2000) and the insignia for participation in the barricades of 1991 (23).

Gunars Priede
Fair use,

The career of now-iconic Latvian playwright Gunars Priede (pronounced as Pree-ye-de) (1928 – 2000), started with the Thaw (24). His first five plays were written in the late 50s. They brought on stage a new generation of Latvians with hopes, expectations, successes, and downfalls. This generation was growing up and maturing in the Latvian Soviet socio-political establishment. Yhey came of age in the late 1950s, they vaguely remembered WWII and the years of independence. For them, the Soviet reality and the Soviet schools were the only ones they knew. The Soviet system, however, made them face serious moral dilemmas: would they be ready to sacrifice even limited freedom of creativity for the sake of their careers? How could one’s dreams be realized in Soviet times, where real professional success is guaranteed only by one’s membership in the Communist party? Some of Priede’s plays were subjected to scrupulous Soviet censorship. In his play Tava Laba Slava (Your Good Reputation, 1964), a musician faces a choice between official recognition and the right to create freely while staying unknown. The play Ugunskurs leja pie stacijas (A Fire Down by the Station) was directed by Adolf Shapiro at the Riga Theatre for Youth in November 1973. The production was frozen for six months by a team of censors from the Latvian Ministry of Culture and the Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party. Censorship battles forced Gunārs Priede not to write plays for a decade. He returned to play writing in the 80s and 90s and wrote some of his best plays.

Last Ten years of the Soviet Regime

Among the most important cultural contributions before the collapse of the USSR in Latvia were the films by Juris Podnieks (1950-1992) (25). Podnieks received his diploma as a cameraman from the Moscow Institute of Cinematography. From 1967, he worked at the Riga Film Studio first as a cameraman’s assistant, then as a cameraman and a documentary film director. His most well-known documentary film, “Is it easy to be young?” was completed in 1986.

Is it Easy to be Young?

Film title card
Is It Easy to be Young?

In 1985, Podnieks was filming a rock concert. He did not know that after the concert, on their way home, a group of young people would vandalize a train. The “hooligans” were later arrested. Podnieks requested the authorities’ permission to interview the arrested teenagers and was granted the permission. Having brought together the footage of the concert, interviews with the arrested teenagers and their friends,  Podnieks’ film became the first documentary of its kind that featured uncensored conversations with the young. Podnieks asked them about their lives: teenagers honestly talked about their deceived expectations, the hypocrisy of the Soviet society with its false and real values, the drugs, and the war in Afghanistan. The Afghan War, which started in 1979, touched them personally: several of their classmates were drafted and either died there or returned invalids. The film premiered in Moscow and Riga in early 1987. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Secretary-General of the USSR Communist Party, personally “unbanned” the film and allowed it  to be screened at the House of Cinematographers in Moscow. The film became so popular in the Soviet Union (partially due to its limited distribution) that people were waiting for hours in long lines to get a ticket. Juris Podnieks tragically died in 1992. In his obituary, Juris Kaza wrote, “… Sometime during that day, when Latvians celebrate the midsummer Ligo festival with bonfires, frolicking, and song, Podnieks borrowed a friend’s scuba gear and drove to Zvirgzdu lake near Alsunga, in western Latvia, reportedly to spearfish. He failed to return and his body was recovered on 1 July. Latvian authorities are still investigating the precise cause of death. Friends in Riga described as ‘idiotic’ the death of an internationally acclaimed filmmaker who had been in many dangerous situations while filming epic documentaries on Latvia’s struggle for national independence and on the death throes and collapse of the Soviet empire. ‘A horrid, tragic circle has closed with Juris after the deaths of Slapins and Zvaigzne.,’ said Augusts Sukuts, president of Riga’s International Center for New Cinema, of which Podnieks was a founding member. …” (26).

Please watch IS IT EASY TO BE YOUNG?. The length of the film is 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Wall barricade
Barricade in Jēkaba street, Riga, Apdency, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1987, ecological concerns caused massive demonstrations and were the first gatherings that were not organized by the government since the postwar times. Founded in 1988, the Latvian Popular Front triumphed during the 1990 elections. On May 8, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic passed the declaration on renewing the independence of the Republic of Latvia. Soviet efforts to restore the previous establishment culminated in violent incidents in Riga in January 1991. In the aftermath of the failed coup in Moscow in August of the same year, the Latvian legislature declared full independence. Throughout the years of Soviet occupation, despite communist purges and severe censorship, Latvian culture survived, thus saving people’s national identity and securing the country’s independent future.

Now on to the third Baltic country in our last section, Lithuania!