The disappearing nation of Livonians

The four early Latvian tribes the – Curonians, Semigallians, Selonians and Latgalians in the next hundred years of foreign rule slowly turned into one Latvian nation. There is of course differences between Latvians which are inherited from the old tribes, like already mentioned differences between Latgalian Latvians and Latvians in other parts in Latvia. But besides those Latvian tribes another completely different tribe the Livonians lived in the territory of Latvia. As mentioned in the article about Prehistory, Finno-Ugrian language group speaking peoples entered Latvian land before the Baltic tribes driven them away further to the north.  The last Finno-Ugrians remained at the shores of Northern Courland and by the shores of Vidzeme. They were the first natives met by Crusaders and first to be exposed under the Crusader rule.  From the word Livonian, the name of the future Livonian Confederation emerged. In Latvian they are called līvi or lībieši. They speak a rather archaic Finnic language mixed with Latvian phrases. Today is there are estimated 177 Livonians living mostly at one small area near the Cape Kolka the area which belongs to Slitere National Park and is officially recognized as Livonian Coast the Līvõd rānda in Livonian. The amount of fluent Livonian speakers is even smaller an only less than 10 Livonians are regarded as fluent Livonian speakers. So there is a small hope for the continued existence of Livonian language and nation. Without its language the Livonians will be an assimilated nation bound to disappear. The only hope is that young Livonian predecessors will at least try to keep the very basics of Livonian tradition and language.

The Livonian national flag

The Livonian national flag

The first written sittings of Livonians come from the chronicle of Sax the Grammarian where they are mentioned as fighters in Danish king Harald war fleet in 750. The more trustful sources come from famous Russian chronicle “Primary Chronicle”– where they are mentioned as one of the 12. Century tribes who paid aliments to Russian   Duchies and fought in their armies. The Crusader sources show more detailed accounts about Livonians. Chronicle of Henry of Livonia tells detailed description of Livonians from the end of the 12th Century to the twenties of the 13th century. The account tells how hard it was for the first crusader missionaries to convert Livonians to Christianity. Livonians even wanted to sacrifice Christian priest Theodoricus to get more fertile land and protect it from large rainfalls. They set God’s trial by using horse and javelin. If the horse steps over the javelin from right side the priest is saved. To prevent Christian God from riding horse the right side they cleaned the horses back so the Christian God will slope from the horseback. Despite that horse stepped the right way over the javelin and the priest was saved. Even when Germans managed to baptize Livonians they re-converted to Paganism simply just bathing in Daugava, believing they washed down Christianity from their bodies.  Confronted by this failure the missionaries decided to start Crusade against Livonians. It first failed when Crusader leader Bishop Berthold near the present day Riga was killed by Livonian leader Imaut in 1198. However the Bishop Albert led more successful war against the Livonians and gained victory. In 1206 the Livonians revolted, the Crusaders defeated the revolt and forced Livonians to convert and give their land to the Order of the Brothers of Sword.

During the era of foreign rule the Livonian nation slowly vanished from Vidzeme. This happened for many reasons. The amount of Latvians continued to grow excluding Livonians from Vidzeme. The Latvian language became the leading native form of expression used in churches and schools.  Livonian language was only used in home and due to the mixed marriages it was used more lesser. But the wars, famine and plague destroyed a large portion of Livonians. The plague of 1710 was an ethnic catastrophe for Livonians.  At the 1840ies they were 25 Livonian speaking vicinity’s in Livonia. In 1868 the last Livonian of Vidzeme Gusts Bisnieks died.

The region around the Cape of Kolka was a more remote place for mass Latvian migration. The region is filled with endless forests and sand dunes. The only places where to live was near the shores. Since the land was rather filled with infertile sands and forests the only way to survive was fishing. In this small piece of land the 12 Livonian villages became only Livonian inhabited places to this day. They are- Melnsils (Mustānum), Kolka (Kūolka), Vaide (Vaid), Saunags (Sǟnag), Pitrags (Pitrõg), Košrags (Kuoštrõg), Mazirbe (Irē), Sīkrags (Sīkrõg), Jaunciems (Ūžkilā), Lielirbe (Īra), Miķeltornis or Pize (Pizā) and Ļūžna (Lūž). At the times of German landlords the villages were owned by Dundaga and Pope Manor’s. At the pre-war period (1920-1939) the villages became a part of Ventspils district and were divided into smaller sub-districts.  At 1923 Livonians applied to make a Livonian sub-district which would enclose all 12 Livonian villages but it was turned down by the Latvian government.

Livonian Coast

Livonian population since the middle of the 19th century started to decline. From 2052 Livoniabens to 1312 Livonians at 1897 according to first Population Census of Russian Empire. However this number is proved to be mistaken because small amount of Livonians were added to Lithuanians or even Latvians.

The First World War caused a large refuge fro Courland and made a big blow to Livonian population. At 1935. Population Census of Republic of Latvia showed that more Livonians could not speak their language.  Due the return of refuges the amount of Livonians raised. At 1935 there was 935 Livonians living in Latvia.

The end of Second World War drastically affected the Livonian population. The refuge, deportation and emigration and Soviet anti-nationalist policies, declined Livonian population sharply. At 1959 Soviet Population Census there was 185 registered Livonians.  Another more economic blow to Livonians was the establishment of a Soviet border zone on the Livonian coast. The Soviets regarded the Baltic Coast as the border of the Soviet Union which needs to be protected from possible western capitalist invasion. Because of this the border protection bases were established with garrisons. The villagers were forced to leave their homes and those who stayed could not even step on the beach not even considering such action as fishing.  Before Soviet Era, the Livonian villages were sprawling centers near the sea. They were active churches, clubs, pubs and local rail connected the villages. Now because of Soviet military policies the villages became abandoned and poor. The Lielirbe was a large Livonian center- now there are no inhabitants there just summer stayers.


Coastline at Cape Kolka

At this day the villages are mostly inhabited by summer stayers who builds summer homes. The only places with active communities are Mazirbe, Kolka and Miķeltornis. However, the empty beaches where you can meet just one person at every meter is good for people who don’t like the overcrowded beaches near Riga. The modern day Livonian centre is Mazirbe. The Livonian Peoples Hall located in the center of Mazirbe is the main Livonian cultural place. With limited support of the government the Livonians are trying to save the remains of Livonian nation and its culture.  The Livonian song and dance collectives regularly take a role in Song and Dance festivals. Many scientific publications about Livonians have been released to this day.  Lithuanians have survived to 21th century is the question whether they survive more, but if there is a national will in every nation than there is a hope that the nation could survive.

Selected Sources:

Boiko. K. (Ed.) (1994) Lībieši : rakstu krājums. Riga: Zinātne.

Marija, Valda, Šuvcāne. (2002). Lībiešu ciems kura vairs nav. Riga. 2002.


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