The Latgalians- a distinct Latvians or a different nation?

Latgalian woman and man from 8th century.

Latgalians were the largest tribe of four Latvian tribes and still present day Latvian inhabitants of Latgale differs from Latvians in other Latvian regions. The most notable distinction is the Latgalian dialect which cannot be understandable even to other Latvians. The mentality of Latgalians also differs from other Latvians as well as the cultural ways. This why the question of Latgalian distinction from other Latvians persists until this day. During the recent years of independence the Latgalians have experienced a cultural rebirth, they are using their dialect more freely, and their dialect is popularized by the Latgalian singers.  In the ranks of nationally oriented Latgalians there are even some idle calls for separation from Latvia or at least calls for Latgalian cultural autonomy. Sadly in recent years the leading callers of the Latgalian autonomy has nothing to do with Latgalians and their heritage.

This situation is not severe as it sounds to be. Latgale or Latgale is not a Basque Autonomous region in Spain. There is no Latgalian ETA like in Spain.  In fact Latgale is not only populated by ethnic Latgalian Latvians, there is a long history of Russian, Polish and Jewish presence at Latgale. After the World War the Jewish presence which was in fact very large now is almost gone, but the Russian and Polish minority still makes an impact in Latgale.

The question why Latgale so differs from other parts from Latvia is answerable by checking the Latgalian history.  Now before we start there is one thing to note.  In Latvian language there is a difference between word Latgaļi and Latgalieši. The word Latgaļi is accorded to old Latvian tribe before the coming of crusaders. The word Latgalieši means the all present day Latvians who live in Latgale.

When Latgalians became subjects of the Livonian Confederation there was little difference from other early Latvians. The German rulers enforced Christianity to all natives. The borders of five Latvian regions were not completely settled. This changed in 16th Century. The Livonian War (1558-1561) destroyed the old Livonian order. Polish rulers divided Latvian Livonian territory in two parts- Courland, Semigallia and Selonia became a Duchy of Courland and

Semigallia. The Vidzeme and Latgale were joined in Duchy of Pārdaugava (means the other side of Daugava). The Pārdaugava Duchy however did not last long; it was changed as a simple province of Poland-Lithuania.  Before Polish rule as a result of the Reformation the Lutheranism as the leading church was established in all of Livonia. The Poles strived to change this- they tried to ban Lutherans and revert to complete Catholicism. It was not successful in Courland and Semigallia- the Dukes resisted the Polish efforts. In Riga it caused riots but in Latgale it was the other case. Polish policy of counter-reformation was successful in Latgale reverting all Latgalians completely to Catholicism.  Other confessions in Latgale are a minority until this day. To show how much Catholicism is important in Latgale there are two notable facts- the Basilica of Aglona is one of the sacred Catholic centers in Europe.  And the Cardinal of the Latvian Catholic Church as a Latgalian Jānis Pujats.

The St. Mary Ascension basilica of Aglona.

However it was the War between Swedes and Poles (1600-1621) which set Latgale apart from other parts of Latvia. The war divided the Vidzeme and Latgale into two pieces. One- Vidzeme became a Swedish possession- the other- Latgale stayed as a Polish province known as Inflantija. The Swedes were Lutherans and Catholicism was frown upon from Vidzeme.  Now Latgale became a completely internal region of Latvia.

After the succession of Poland, Latgale became a part of the Russian Empire. The Russian government didn’t bother to make a standalone Latgalian province, instead they joined Latgale with Vitebsk- city in today’s Belarus.  The province of Vitebsk was formed.

During this time of foreign power imposed separation the Latgale preserved its unique dialect, the ways of national dress and cuisine.  To show how Latgalian dialect differs lets compare words written in official Latvian and Latgalian.  The mother- māte muote, father- tēvs tāvs, he- viņš-jis, her- viņa-jis. Riga- Rīga- Reiga. Latgalian dialect is more similar to Lithaunian and even Belarusian than official Latvian language. It may mean that during the centuries of separation from rest of Latvia, the Latgalians kept the most authentic Latvian language dialect, while Latvian language was influenced by German and Latvian languages.

The question of Latgale became important when Russian Revolution took place in 1917, and there was a chance to establish a sovereign Latvian state.  Considering the fact that Latgale was a part of the Province of Vitebsk there was a real fear of Latgale becoming part of Russia rather than Latvia.  There were even poetic calls for unification of Latgale, the Latvian poet and leftist politician Rainis (Jānis Pliekšāns) wrote “The both sides of Daugava will be never part! One  Courland, One Semigallia, One Latgale is ours!” However at April 26 1917, in Rēzekne the Latgalian Second congress made an historical resolution claiming Latgale as different region than Vitebsk and associated themselves with Latvia. This paved the way for all four Latvian region unification in one country of Latvia.

At the time of the First Republic of Latvia, Latgalians were active politicians. They participated in all five parliamentary elections. There were plenty intellectual writers who justified Latgalians as an independent nation, but many approved either – one nation two languages, or one nation one language.  Prominent Latgalian politician Francis Trasuns wanted Latgalian dialect to become a juridical equal to Latvian language, while others hoped the language differences will disappear. There were 20 political Latgalian movements, not just national but religious, farmer, and even socialistic.

After the Soviet Occupation all national movements were considered as enemies of the state. Despite that Latgalian dialect perceived.  Today the Latgalian national movement is once again alive. There is not a large influx of Latgalian parties but there is Latgalian music bands and folk bands and even Hollywood movies translated in Latgalian.

At the end I must say that we could not clearly depict Latgalians as a different nation which is not an integral part of the Latvian nation. The two most visible differences are Catholic Conversion and Latgalian dialect. We however can compare Latgalians to Ukrainians as they got different  Slavic language but close to Russian, but the Latgalians newer completely ideologically separated themselves from Latvians or Latvia as Ukrainians did. So the most correct way to perceive Latgalians is describe them as Latvians with different dialect and cultural differences.

Since last year few Russian nationalist groups sponsored by the Kremlin have made calls for Latgalian autonomy. These people are mostly Slavic origin and have no connection with original Latvian Latgalian activists and personalities. Their supporters are Russians, Byelorussians and Poles of Latgalia who live there. In such way they are ignoring that Latgalia is a historical Latvian region and all the other minorities who entered there have no right to abuse the ideas of Latgalian autonomy, for their political means. It has been reported that people striving for such fake autonomy is supported by the Russian foreign intelligence service. Therefore such actions are hostile to the Latvian state. So we must remember that Latgalia and Latgalians are integral part of the Latvian nation.

Selected Sources:

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga:  Zvaigzne ABC

Zeile,Pēteris. (2006) Latgales kultūras vēsture : no akmens laikmeta līdz mūsdienām. Rēzekne: Latgales Kultūras centra izdevniecība.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava


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