Monthly Archives: September 2009

90. Years of University of Latvia


The emblem of University of Latvia

Today 90. years ago when prospects of independent Latvia was still at fade the University of Latvia was founded. Before that all young Latvian students needed to go to Tartu, Estonia or Petersburg Russia to get higher education for their future life.  There was no University in Latvian land before. The proclamation of Republic of Latvia in 18. November 1918. made possible the dream of Latvian own High Education.

It happened in 28. September 1919. The site for future university was Polittechnical Institute  of Riga. It was beautiful old building located near Riga canal in heart of Riga. Building was decorated with red and white flags and symbols of Curland, Vidzeme and Latgalia. The opening ceremony was attended by members of Peoples Council, Cabinet, army commanders, diplomats, senators and professors, students and many more. By singing the Latvian national anthem “God Bless Latvia!“, and Jāzeps Vītols song “Castle of Light” the ceremony was opened. Two opening speeches were conducted by Minister of Education Kārlis Kasparsons.  Second was by pro rector  professor Eižens Laube. At first University was not called so, it was founded simply as High School of Latvia. First year of High School was troubled because of War for Independence, students were conscripted into army and the outcome of war was important for the future for Latvian High Education. In 1920. the war was won and serious work was to be done.


Main building of University

In 1923. with help of President of Latvia Janis Čakste the Satversme (Constitution) of Latvian University was founded and the High School of Latvia officially became University of Latvia. Many professors who were in exile during World war returned to work in new university. Aleksandrs Dauge, Jānis Endzelīns, Ernests Felsbergs, Kārlis Dišlers Francis Balodis was one of those who were needed for further progress. At twenties there were 185 workers in LU, but in thirties there were 360 workers with 73 professors. First rector of university was Ernests Felsbergs from 1922 to 1923. Felsbergs were famous Art Historian. 1923.-1925. rector was Jānis Ruberts an ophthalmologist. He was replaced by Augusts Tentelis, historian. From 1927. to 1929. rector was Mārtiņš Zīle who was a doctor who first organized international scientific conferences in Latvia. In 1929. A. Tentelis again was chosen as rector. First ten years were intense work of rebuilding the war ruble and making new generation.

During the thirties Latvian University got its best times. 141 new dissertations mostly in field of medicine were made. Grands for students were growing making more new lecturers and professors. University got it own botanical gardens. The humanitarian field were also progressing.  University was available for students of all nationalities. Jews were active students in many exact studies. Germans got many professors, and they constantly collided with Latvian nationalist views on basis of teaching. Leonīds Arbuzovs was Russian- German talented and prominent historian who were battled by Latvian professors, and was forced to leave the university. When in 1934. the Authoritarian regime of Karlis Ulmanis took power, University was forced to adjust the regime’s nationalist ideological ideas. However Ulmanis cared much for universities finance and give fine credit to it. In 1939. the Faculty of Agriculture departed from University and became an Academy of Agriculture of Jelgava. Today its name is University of Agriculture of Latvia.

1940. brought major change to Latvia and its University. In June 17. the Soviet tanks rolled in and the Sovietization was under way. The personal of university was changed with people from Soviet Union with Soviet education. The Theological faculty was closed and the university was renamed as Latvia State University. Statutes were taken from Moscow State University. Soviets removed the obligation of writing diploma work so more than 600 students finished university. Soviets propagandized that they have given high education to the masses.

After World war II the Stalinist regime took crucial policies to reform the university. Many great prewar professors like Jānis Endzelīns the grand Latvian linguistic was removed and so many others. The main personal was Latvians from Soviet Union with hard bone Soviet Education and immigrants from Soviet Republics. Many professors like historians Teodors Zeids and Jānis Zutis were forced to publicly denounce their prewar views and change them to Marxist ones to keep their jobs. Such public humiliations were common in Stalinist times. In 1958. the USSR Cabinet of Ministers gave university the name of Pēteris Stučka. Stučka was leader of first Latvian Soviet government in 1918.-1920. and issued order of making Soviet Latvian High School.  After Stalin’s death and beginning of Khrushchev Thaw, the hand of repression lifted making more hopes for the future.

During sixties the university enjoyed modernization and extension. Soviet government hoped  science and education could bring closet the  victory of communism. So large funds making university buildings more modern. However the Soviets forced the teaching of philosophical and Marxist concepts. The history of Communist party of USSR was more important than history of Latvia. University was awarded with Order of the Red Banner of Labor and the name of order was extended for universities name it was now- Order of the Red Banner of Labor awarded Pēteris Stučka Latvia State University.

In seventies the progress of university continued. This was the time when many present day professors including such historians as Aivars Stranga, Gvido Straube got their education and begun their scientific carrier. In this time university was slowly taken by locals making old Soviet exiles and immigrants to step aside. In seventies as the youth grow more rebellious and western influenced, problems with academic failure and academic disobedience begun to take its pace.

At first eighties was just as peaceful as seventies, but when in 1986. the new Perestroika policy was issued things begun to change. As the Soviet Conglomerate begun to shake, new national movement in Latvia begun to rise. It started in 1988. beginning in students than taking the university workforce. Popular Front of Latvia gathered many university graduates and students. During the changes many symbols of university were changed so as the  guidelines of teaching were changed. Historians removed the Marxist conception and made way for new history of Latvian nation.

In March 1990. university was renamed again as University of Latvia. During the nighties university did fine transition from soviet style education facility to modern western educational center. However university could no more afford to finance every student, so large part of students were forced to finance themselves. This divided students in financed and un-financed groups.  Grands were much lower than Soviet Era ones, that was price to pay for independence. However the number of students grow each year, the student corporations were re-founded making them popular. University got international, making contacts with Germany, Great Britain, France. Modern languages, like English, French, Japanese, Chinese were making its way into university. University got even more modern state of the art technologies.

Historians finally enjoyed more freedom. All Marxist burdens were removed. Latvian History, Western History, Medieval History got its good years. Philosophy also enjoyed freedoms and new moves.

Today University of Latvia faces many difficulties- the financial crisis of the state puts many barriers for future advancements.  Grands are more lesser, state paid places are smaller and many projects at risk. Some faculties are at risk of closing and uniting with others. Many graduates are at risk of not getting their designed jobs. However the goal of university is high- the university must be the top university in Baltic Region. Will this vision will be fulfilled? It counts on financial situation of the state and fulfillment of youth getting education in their homeland. More and more  talented students move to Western Europe to get their education.  The future of education in Latvia counts on our government who must do everything to protect rights of people getting their education.


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Medieval Castles in Latvia

During the rule of German knights more than hundred castles were built in present Latvian territory.  Castles were residences of vassals and bishops and were main centers around Livonia. Locations of castles became civil centers and now most of them are cities. Today most sites of castles either lies in ruins or show little trace of their presence. Only few Medieval castles like in Riga, Venstspils or Bauska have been conserved, some have been partly restored like Turaida. In this post we will take a look at some of the most famous castles around Latvia.

Castle of Aizkraukle (Acheraden)

Aizkraukle has already mentioned in previous posts as palace site for early Selonians and Latgalians and Livonians. It was sited on right side of river Daugava 82 km from Riga. First castle was built by natives but burned by Crusaders, then Crusaders build their own stone castle. It was functional until in 14. century new castle was built nearby and the old castle was abounded. New castle was build in 14. century. Castle was property of Livonian Order. Castle was stormed by Russian army in 1577. and in 1599. it was abounded. In 17. century due to the territorial division, the left bank of river Daugava was given to Duchy or Curland and Semigallia and right was given to Sweden. Therefore Aizkraukle lost its importance and the castle became fully lost. At left side new center Jaunjelgava (Fridrichstad) was established and at right Koknese (Kokunhusen) took importance. Small amount of Ruins still stand today and have not been conserved and are getting smaller.

The ruins of Aizkraukle castle

Castles of Aizpute (Hasenpoth)

Castle of Aizpute

Aizpute is small town near Liepaja in Lower Curland. It was home to two castles- Bishopric and Order. Bishopric castle was built in 13. century and was center of  Chapter of Priests of Bishopric of Curland. One of castles components was church which still stands today. Other parts of castles slowly perished because after breakdown of Livonia the main center was Order’s castle which was located at other side of river Tebra.  The Order’s castle was built at same time as the Bishopric. It served as military base long after Livonian war because it was restored by new owners. In 1659. it was attacked by army of Sweden and captured. It was restored again but in 18. century it lost its importance and palace owner build new mansion like castle and the old was used as living space for servants. In 1915.-1918. the German army established prisoner of war camp.  In prewar period it was used as asylum. After the Second world war it was not restored again it in seventies was abounded because it was too dangerous for its inhabitants. Locals tried to conserve the castle but lacked funds do it and today castle has no roof. Despite that its still are observable, but needs some serious work to let it last longer.

Castle of Alsunga (Alschwagen)

Located in Curland near Kuldiga. It belonged to the Order and was used as household  castle of Kuldiga. It was used to store crops and cattle. It was so important that in 16. century was upgraded to resist fire weapons. After the Livonian war it belonged to the adviser of Duke of Curland and Semigallia, but he sold it to noble man Jakob Shwerin. In 1659. it was besieged by Swedish troops and done large amount of damage to it. In 1783. Duke of Curland Johan Biron bought castle from Sherin family, after liquidation of Duchy it was given to crown of Russia, and was inhabited by tenants who could not restore the castle. After First  world war it was used as civic building. It shared the function of post office, dairy, peoples hall and elementary school. School was there until eighties when new school building was established and castle became fully abounded.  But new extensions of castle are still used.

Castle of Alsunga

Castle of Bauska (Bauske)

Located 15 km from Lithuanian border. Build in 15. century as Orders fogt castle. It was used as the border fortress to secure Livonian border from Lithuanian attacks. When it became as property of Duchy of Curland it was used as residence of Dukes and maintained for their use. 1625. castle was captured by Swedes but in 1628. recaptured by Poles.  Year after it again became property of Duke. Because of numerous attacks by Swedes it was badly damaged. In 1701. during the Great Northern War the king of Sweden Carl XII captured it and ordered to entrench it on his way to Poland. But in 1705. Russians captured castle but in 1706. because of change of tactical situation they detonated half of castle. It was not used ever since and became ruins. Castle was saved by famous fon Lieven family who bought the castle and started to conserve it and made it as a park. In Soviet Era attempts of further historic conservation was done. The reconstruction continues until this day and the Bauska history museum is established there.

Castle of Bauska at winter

Castle of Cesis (Wenden)

Cesis is located in middle of Vidzeme and 92 km Riga and 2 km from river Gauja. Castle of Cesis is one of the most famous castles in Latvia because it was main residence of the Order. Its foundation was started in 13. century. There the Master of Livonian Order lived along his most trusted brothers of Order. The city of Cesis became sprawling center with defense walls and was member of international Hanseatic league. In 1577. castle was attacked by Russians. Inhabitants of the castle was trapped with no chance of escape and they blow themselves up making collective suicide. It was used by later day rulers until destroyed again by Russians in 1703. After that the ruins were owned by noble landowner families. In 1974. the every-year archeological excavations took place, preserving the castle and making museum around it. Today the ruins of Castle of Cesis is one of the most interesting tourist sites outside Riga.

Ruins of Castle of Cesis

Castle of Ēdole (Edwahlen)

Located near Kuldīga and Piltene. It’s not clear when the castle was build, but moderate indications show that it was built in 14. century. It  became subject of landowning dispute between brother of Danish king and heir of Bishopric of Curland. At the end it came in heir’s hands making it property of Beer family. In 1905. castle was burned down by revolting peasants because of escalating 1905. Russian revolution. It was not fully restored until 1914. During the First World war when Curland was occupied by Germany the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II Crown-prince Joahim lived there. During the Soviet era it was used as house for disabled persons.  It was used for movie shooting many times, most famous was Latvian adaption of Astrid Lindgren’s Emil of Lönneberga. (Emīla nedarbi 1985). After the fall of Soviet Union its now used for many purposes, but now is a private tourist attraction.

Castle of Ēdole

Castle of Jaunpils (Neuenburg)

Castle is located near city of Tukums at the border of Curland and Semigallia. It was used as Orders household castle and regional center. It is considered built in 15. century. After the fall of Order it was bought by fon Rekke family. It was not damaged until in 1906. the revolutionary’s set it ablaze. Owners restored it but lost it after World war I. The local school was established there until 1940. During the World war II it was used as German war hospital. In Soviet Era it was used for agricultural purposes. Today the castle is tourist attraction.

The Jaunpils  Castle

The Jaunpils Castle

Castle of Koknese (Kokenhusen)

Koknese is located in right bank of Daugava near the Pļaviņu hydroelectric plant. It was battle site during Crusades. Crusaders build their own fortifications and Koknese was important military center for the Order. Around it the city of Koknese sprawled becoming important center. In 1577. Russians captured it, but was pushed away by Poles. Later it was besieged by Swedes. Sweden administration made Koknese as one of the administrative centers of Swedish Vidzeme. In 1656. Koknese was attacked by Russians and renamed as Dimitry, but Swedes took it back. But wars made Koknese to decay and city of nearby Jaunjelgava became more important.  In 1700. Koknese was attacked by Polish-Saxon army. After they lost battle of Spilve, they destroyed the castle. During the First world war Koknese was on the main front lines, but tick castle wall survived the artillery shots. In Prewar period castle was popular tourist attraction.  But in 1961. the new project of Pļaviņu hydroelectric power plant drastically changed the geography of Koknese. New power plant flooded lower parts of Koknese and made remaining parts of castle just near the river when it before was further away from the river. To save castle from falling into river the work of conservation was done.

Castle of Koknese before building of hydroelectric dam

Ruins of Koknsese Castle now

Castle of Krustpils (Kreutzburg)

Krustpils is located at right bank of river Daugava, between Pļaviņas and Daugavpils. Krustpils is part of city Jekabpils. First it was designed as castle of Archbishop of Riga, but taken by Order many times. After the Livonian war when it was damaged it was bought by Korf family, who rebuild the castle adding many new Baroque style additions.  After the First World war it was given to Latvian Army, where the Latgalian Artillery Division was located. Then it was taken by Germans who made castle as war hospital. Then Soviet Army took control of castle making it as a barracks for Soviet Air divisions. Soviets did not cared much for castles repairing and made it ill-stated when they left in 1991. Luckily castle was taken by Jekabpils history museum who did state of the art restorations and made castle into splendid museum.

The Castle of Krustpils

The Castle of Krustpils

Castle of Rauna (Ronneburg)

Rauna is located near Cesis. Rauna was the main residence of Archbishop of Riga, an important center in Medieval Livonia. Livonian war and later day wars destroyed the castle it was completely lost during the Swedish times. However some ruins still stand there today.

Castle of Rauna

Castles of Riga

Riga was site of many castles. First was residence of Bishop of Riga. Today only building visible today is church of  St. John. Another Bishops castle were built but it’s not visible today.

Church of St. John- all that remains of old Riga castle

First castle of Order was destroyed during Livonian civil war in 1297. What was left was Church of St. George which now serves as the museum of decorative arts and design.

Remaining part of destroyed castle

The last but not least was the second castle of Order. It was the second and third castle of the Order which now is an landmark of Riga. It was finished at 14. century  but in 15. century was again destroyed because of civil unrest between people of Riga and the Order. New castle was built at the same spot and was used as residence for Order. Last strongest leader of Order Walter fon Pletenberg took residence back to Cesis. In 1562. castle was site where the Livonian Order officially ceased to exist. New owners used castle as administration center. It was residence of Russian generalgowerner. When the new Republic of Latvia came into being, castle was chosen as Residence of President of Latvia. Jānis Čakste, Gustavs Zemgals, Alberts Kviesis and authoritarian dictator Kārlis Ulmanis ruled country from this palace. During the Soviet Era it was used as place for museums and Pioneers palace. In 1993. new president of Latvia Guntis Ulmanis came back to palace. Since then Vaira Vīķe Freiberga and Valdis Zatlers resides there. Castle needs serious repair works because many parts of castle is damaged by the hand of time. Castle also serves as place for Museum of Foreign Arts and Museum of National History of Latvia.

The Castle of Riga and Residence of President of Latvia

Castle decorated with flags during national festivities

Castle of Sigulda (Segenwold)

Sigulda is located at right side of River Gauja. Castle of Sigulda was palace of Order. It was destroyed in Livonian Order and has not been restored ever since. Ruins were conserved during Soviet Era.

The ruins of the Sigulda Castle

The ruins of the Sigulda Castle

Castle of Šlokenbeka (Schlockenbeck)

Šlokenbeka is located near Tukums. Its the only fortified mansion in Latvia. It was mansion of vassal. It changed hands many times and were upgraded may times. It newer suffered war damage so it its one of the rarest fully conserved castle in Latvia. Even when Castle was used as war hospital for Germans in WWII and was near front line it was never hit by any shell. Today mansion belongs road works firm and they have turned mansion into guest house, medical service and road museum.

The Castle Schlockenbeck from birdwiew

Castle of Turaida (Treyden)

Turaida is near Sigulda at right bank of river Gauja. First it was used as residence of Bishop of Riga,later Archbishop. Before there was Castle of Kaupo which was attacked by Kaupo himself. At 15. century it was taken by Order. Later day rulers took castle with out destructive fight and it survived , only to be damaged by fire in 1776. In Soviet Era Castle was restored, but only partly because all castle-building periods were not known. Therefore it’s not complete not as Castle of Trakai in Lithuania. This is criticized by some who see this as ridiculous, but others view Castle of Trakai as Disneyland and praise the Castle of Turaida because it’s fully fictional and shows more real view. In 2006. Castle was endangered by landslide who threatened to destroy the castle, but emergency works prevented further landslides.

The Castle of Turaida

Castle of Ventspils (Windau)

Ventspils is at entry of River Venta in Curland. As important port it was used for Order, and the castle was intended to protect the port. A city grow nearby becoming main center of Upper Curland. At Polish times it was used as army garrison. When Swedes captured city they burned and damaged the palace. But it was restored, used as a church, Russian army garrison and prison.   Prison existed there until  of 20. century and used by Soviets. Soviets did much damage to Castle because they lack of understanding of historical values. After the regain of independence castle got a second life. A museum was established there, boosted by rich Town Council and Mayor Aivars Lembergs, museum became one of the most modern state of the art museums in whole Latvia.

The modern day Castle of Venstpils

The modern day Castle of Venstpils

Most of Livonian castles faced its doom in Livonian war when new weapons blasted the old walls into air. However some managed to survive, as listed here and serves as valuable source of Medieval history.

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The Confederation of Livonia


After last native resistance was quelled the Crusades ended. Latvian land along with Estonia was divided between conquerors. The outcome of the Crusades was the Confederation of Livonia or the Land of Saint Mary (Terra Mariana) as it was officially called. It consisted of three episcopacy’s, one archbishopric, two Town council land territories (Riga and Reval) and State of Livonian order. The Confederation had no official capital, but had its own diet the Landtag (an early Medieval version of parliament) since 1419 located the in city of Valka. The territorial division was made by William from Modena in 1228 and following years.

The archbishopric of Riga was located in Vidzeme and some part of Latgalia. It was divided in two pieces since the waterway of river Gauja was owned by Livonian Order. The land located on the left side of Gauja was called “Livonian end“, the other larger side was called “Latvian end” the both names came because one side was inhabited by Livonians and other by Latgalian Latvians. The archbishop’s residence was in Riga, but Riga was not part of the Archbishopric. Another stronghold of the Archbishop was Castle of Treiden (Turaida) and Kokenhusen (Koknese). Local Latvians and Livonians were forced to make corvee for the land owner (corvee is an obligatory agricultural work for every peasant who lives on vassals land like harvesting).

Bishopric of Courland was split into three sides, the Upper Courland is known today as the Livonian Coast, small piece of Western Courland, and Lower Courland. The residence of Bishop of Courland was Piltene. Other centers were Ēdole, Embūte, and Aizpute. In Estonia there was the Bishopric of Dorpat (Tartu) and The Bishopric of Ösel-wiek which was located in Western Estonia and on islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa (Ōsel and Wiek) The main centers there were mighty castles of Hapsal (Haapsalu) and Arensburg (Kuressare). Reval (Tallin) was the main center in Estonia as much as Riga and had its own territory.  The Northern Estonia was ruled by Danes in a small period of time as shown on map above, but later became part of the Livonian Order.

Livonian order ruled the largest pieces of Livonia.  It relayed its rule on building castles. The sites of the fortresses became cities. The main Castle was the Castle of Wenden (Cesis), others were Windau (Ventspils), Kreuzburg (Krustpils) and Dinaburg (Daugavpils). It also had castles in Riga. The first was destroyed during the Civil War between Riga and Order and second still stands today and serves as the official residence of the President of Latvia. The castles in Latvia will be disused more in future posts. Livonian Order was the main defense force of Livonia and key politic player.

The first diet the Landtag was called in 1419. It took place in Valka for it was crossing point between Latvian and Estonian lands (today Valka is divided between Latvia and Estonia). Landtag was an attempt to organize and centralize Livonia, but Livonia newer fully unified into one state. That was crucial when in 15-16 century the Livonian neighbors Sweden, Poland-Lithuania and more dangerously Russia became strong centralized countries marking an end to Livonian Confederation.

Selected sources

Šterns, Indriķis. (1997) Latvijas vēsture, 1290-1500. Riga: Daugava.

Spekke, Arnolds. (1995) Latvieši un Livonija 16. gs. Riga: Zinātne.

Klišāns, Valdis. (1992) Livonija 13.-16. gs. pirmajā pusē : mācību līdzeklis. Riga: Latvijas Universitāte

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Old Prussians


Prussian warrior

Today there are two remaining Baltic nations- Latvians and Lithuanians. But in 13. century there was a third tribe living in present-day Kaliningrad oblast in Russia and Poland. They were Prussians- Pruzzen in German. Prussians encountered the German Crusader aggression first and fought for a long time, but lost their freedom and became assimilated. Today are no real Baltic Prussians in Kaliningrad just as there is no German Prussians in there. The Prussian nation became extinct at the result of the Crusade.

Just as the Early Latvians Prussians were not unified nation but were divided in various smaller tribes and tribal areas. The areas were called laūks– field, common to Latvian word lauks meaning the same. Laūks included fortifications and villages. Village was called kāims. Since the Prussians newer formed a united nation, they called them selves based on the names of regions from where they came from like Galindians, Sambians, Bartians, Nadrovians, Natangians, Scalovians, Sudovians. Chronicon terrae Prussiae (The Chronicle of the Prussian Land) is the prime source about the Old Prussians. The author Peter of Drusburg list eleven lands and ten tribes in Prussian region.


Map of Prussia

The Old Prussians were Pagans and this made the vulnerable to attempts of baptizing. Polish king Boleslaw I sent Adalbert of Prague to baptize the Prussian pagans. But in 977. he was murdered by locals. This was a large shock to Catholic Europe and Adalbert became a martyr and saint. His death triggered numerous Polish attempts to conquer Prussians.   In 1124. Poles attacked the Prussians of Pomerania. In 1147. Poles attacked Prussians for their involvement in inner Polish struggle. In 1200s Prussia became as field of interest for German knights. Since Poles could not conquer Prussians and force them to baptize the Pope of Rome issued the Christian of Olivia to mission of baptizing Prussian pagans. He became the first bishop of Prussia. Order of Dobrzyń was created to persuade Crusade to Prussia, but it was short lived and joined the Teutonic Order. In 1224.  Emperor Frederick II declared Prussia as part of Holy German Empire of Rome. The key land holder was to be Teutonic Order who was subjected to the Pope and Empire and made there their own monastic state. In 1233. the attack of 21,000 Teutonic Knights begun. They were also assisted by Poles and other German vassals.  Prussians resisted fiercely, but Crusaders were too strong, in 1286. a large rebellion took place but were stopped by Crusaders. Prussians received the Lithuanian support but it was not enough. Teutonic Order established a strong base of operation downsizing the Prussian rebellion. Order supported colonization of Prussia making Prussians exposed to assimilation. A large influx of German and Polish immigrants settled in Prussia in next centuries. Prussians were forced to live in slavedom and slowly they lost their national identity and language.   In 18. century the language became extinct. But thanks to German scholars and Clergyman who translated various works such as Bible in Prussians, the linguistics can record Old Prussian language. Some old Prussian poems also have persisted until this time.

Today is hard to tell whether the Baltic Prussian still exist. Surely they all have predecessors living in Germany, Baltic States or other places. After East Prussia was ceded to Soviet Union the ethnic cleaning took place and almost all German population was deported to East Germany. So there is small chance to find Prussians in Kaliningrad, but rather in Germany where there is many organizations calling them Prussians. Such organizations also exist in Baltic States. Today according to Latvian encyclopedic claims there are 100,000 people calling themselves Prussians.


Modern Prussians

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The Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Coat of Arms of Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Crusades in Latvian land ended in Crusader win and Early Latvian enslavement. Same thing happened to Estonians, but closest Latvian nation the Lithuania could withstand the Crusader attack and form a unified country which was  one of the largest European nations for many decades. The phenomenon of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy which was at  its height 10 times larger than present day Lithuanian country is still not completely explained even by Lithuanians themselves.

In 12-13 century the political processes in Lithuania was not interrupted by foreign forces. That was for geographical  reasons, for Lithuania was more inland based than Latvia or Estonia. The Germans from the west was blockaded by Prussia and Poland and Russians from the east was busy dealing with Mongol rulers. The social differentiation between Lithuanian tribes was deepening; one became a warrior or a farmer, another got the rights of the ruling. In the place of Elders  the leader place was taken kunigaikštis the high nobles who got their seats inherited so they became kings a formed their dynasties. The high organization of Lithuanian military led to many raids in neighboring lands which were so deadly that made Lithuanians a feared threat. In previous posts about the Crusades in Latvian land the Lithuanian attacks were mentioned many times. They could even reach the outskirts of Karelia.

The high civil organization and military strength led to the unification of various Lithuanian and Samogotian regions, they were ruled by  kunigaikštis. At the 13th century thirties and forties the one of kunigaikštis Mindaugas emerged as sole ruler of all Lithuanian and Samogotian lands. He did this by using force and guile assassinating his enemies and started to rule Lithuania by himself.

Lithuanian country met his first crisis in 1248 when the conflict emerged between Mindaugas and his relatives. Against Mindaugas also joined forces the Duke of Galicia and Volinia Danil Romanovich and many others. However Mindaugas managed to split his enemy ranks; he baptized in 1251 and in 1253 he was recognized by the Pope as the King of Lithuania. Lithuania was officially recognized as a rightful Catholic European kingdom and was removed from the Crusader hit list. But the resistance to Mindaugas remained strong, the baptizing made a heavy disappointment in Samogitans. Samogotia was ceded to the Crusaders by Mindaugas, but Samogotians upraised and in 1258 they defeated the Order at Skoda and in 1260  at Durbe. This made Mindaugas restart his war against the Crusaders and in 1261 he again became Pagan canceling his baptizing. Finlay in 1263 Mindaugas was assassinated by conspirators and Christianity was frowned upon.  Mindaugas today is considered as the symbol of Lithuanian nation and one of the main Lithuanian historic personalities. He was a tyrant and powermonger but his achievements was groundbreaking for Lithuanians.

Sculpture of the King Mindaugas

Sculpture of the King Mindaugas

After his death his heirs Treniota, Mindaugas sister son (1263.-1264), Vaišvilka (1264.-1267)- Mindaugas son, The son of Danil Romanovich Duke Shvarn (1267-1269). The power struggle made crisis and endangered Lithuania for could became part of Crusaders or Duchy of Galicia and Volinia. The crisis was brought to an end by Grand Duke Traidenis (1267-1282). He unified the tribes, defeated the Volonians and Crusaders and expanded the Lithuania even further.

At the end of 13th century Lithuania was ruled by Gediminian dynasty. Crusaders attacked Lithuania every year reaching the outskirts of Vilnius. Lithuanians fortified their positions and gathered their forces and the war against the Crusaders lasted all 14th century. Not only German knights came to Lithuania, even from France and Spain the volunteer knights traveled to bring Christianity back to Lithuania. To weaken enemy the Grand Duke Gediminas took part in the civil war between Livonian Order and Riga Town Council and Archbishop, he supported Riga for Riga was only trade partner for Lithuania.  Lithuania tried to reach the end of the Crusades by trying to baptize again amid strong Pagan opposition. In the mean time Lithuanians expanded their territory to the east. Since the Russians were weakened by the Mongols and Mongols were weakened themselves, Lithuanians at the reign of Algirdas took the Duchies of Polotsk, Smolensk, Vitebsk, and Kiev under their rule. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania sized 800 000 square kilometers and reached to the shores of the Black Sea.

But the giant kingdom was endangered bitterly by Crusaders and Duchy of Moscow. Algirdas tried to capture Moscow three times but never succeeded. After his death in 1377 the conflict between his heirs Kęstutis, Vytautas and Jogaila emerged. Kęstutis, Vytautas was of the old Pagan elite but Jogaila was from new generation. Jogaila killed Kęstutis and exiled Vytautas and took all power to himself. He was convinced that Lithuania must baptize again to secure peace. In 1358 the Krėva agreement was signed between Poland and Lithuania and in 1386 when Jogaila married Polish princess Jadviga he became the king of Poland as king Vladislav I, remained as Grand Duke of Lithuania. He tried to use Poles in governing of Lithuania, this was resisted by Lithuanian elite and Vytautas who used the support of Russian boyars and the Crusaders.  In 1392 Vytautas regained the throne of Lithuania from Jogaila.

Vytautas kept Lithuania as Catholic country, but Teutonic Crusaders still attacked Lithuania. In 1410  February 15 the Order was annihilated in Battle of Grunwald one of the largest battles of Medieval war history. But the Lithuanians did not use the opportunity to Crush the Order completely in 1411 at Toruń a peace was signed. But in 1422 the Order tried to attack again but were forced to sign peace once and for all. The Crusader aggression was finally halted.  Vytautas could even capture Novgorod and Moscow and claim the throne of Moravia during the Hussite Wars.

After the death Vytautas political struggle again took place. Jogaila again claimed the throne of Lithuania. He passed the throne to Švitrigaila, but this was resisted by Polish elite and civil war broke out. Švitrigaila was deposed by Sigismund the brother of Vytautas. He defeated Švitrigaila and Livonian Order forces, but was killed by conspirators in 1440. Boyar’s crowned the thirteen year old Jogaila’s son Kazimir as king of Lithuania. In 1447 he became king of Poland also making the personal – union between Poland and Lithuania. Until Kazimir reached adulthood the power was concentrated between  Boyar oligarchs.  Boyars were Lithuanian, Belorussian, Russian and Polish noble elite who fought for equal rights in their ranks. It’s axiomatic that if the country lacks strong ruler then the country is ruled by oligarchy and is weakened because of their inner fights. Boyars started to gain more power,  Radziwiłł family was strongest Boyar dynasty.

In the 16th century the Grand Duchy of Moscow started to take Lithuanian lands. Smolensk was lost, but further advance on Moscow was halted because the Russian population of Lithuania remained loyal. But even more problems came from Poland; both countries were ruled by same dynasty rulers and both societies of two states came even closer. Poles wanted the vast lands of Lithuania for they were good for colonization.  In 16th century Lithuania was de facto united with Poland and boyars was for full unification.

This finally happened in 1569 July 1 The Union of Lublin took place. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth or Rzeczpospolita was formed. The full independence of Lithuania came to an end. In next decades the Poles took most power in states manners. But the union was necessary for Lithuanian survival because the danger of Russia was growing and Lithuania needed the Polish help to fight Russian advance. The union lasted until 1795 when it was annexed by Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Seleted Sources:

Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis (2000). Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Plakans, Andrejs. (2011) A concise history of the Baltic States. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

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The Last Resistance of Semigallians

As said earlier the divided Early Latvian tribes could not form a united resistance against Crusader aggression.   The battle of Saule benefited Lithuanians more than Semigallians or Curonians. The victory of Alexander Nevsky was more vital for Russians. Those failures did not prevent the Livonian Order from continuing the conquer of Semigallia. Since neither Lithuanians nor Russians showed any sympathy for besieged Latvian tribes they were left on their own facing the Crusaders.

At 1271 The Master of Livonian Order Walter from Nordeck felt himself ready to fight the Semigallians once and for all. The all three sides- the Order, The Archbishop of Riga and Town Council of Riga made a deal and passed the ownership of Semigallian land to the Order. In 1271 the Order came to siege the fortress of Tērvete. The fortress was captured, the main source- Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (Livländische Reimchronik) (The Chronicle of Henry ends at 1227) does not give any detailed description of the capture of the fortress.

Next year Walter took his army to Mežotne. It was lost by Crusaders because of failure in the battle of Durbe in 1260. Now the castle surrendered without a fight. In the same year the Crusaders captured the castle of Rakte, this time with resistance. This was the end of Semigallian freedom, they were forced to baptize. Semigallia now formally belonged to the Crusaders. But in 1279 the Lithuanians attacked Crusaders and defeated them, killing 70 knights and Master Ernest from Racenburg. The battle took place near Aizkraukle.

Again the Semigallians rebelled and gave up the Christian religion. This was the time when the Semigallian ruler Namejs or Nameisis came in. He organized an attack to recapture Tērvete. The Chronicles do not give any details about Namejs past and how he became a leader of the Semigallians. Crusaders first trusted Namejs believing he was on their side, but when he came to attack they were bitterly surprised.  Tērvete was captured and Crusaders were enslaved and killed.


Next  battles took over Dobele. Crusaders came from Kuldīga. Dobelians pushed back the attackers and Namejs helped them, but eventually Dobele was captured by the Crusaders. Angered by the Crusader attack Namejs decided to revenge; he planned to attack Riga and started to assemble his army. This was learned by Crusaders in Jelgava and they assembled at the gates of Riga. With them the Riga was protected by knights of Cesis and Latgalians who used the red flag with white stripe. This was the first documented sighting of the future flag of Republic of Latvia.

When Namejs approached Riga he noticed the gathering formations of Crusaders and decided retreat since the advantage of surprise was  lost. The Crusaders decided to chase Namejs; it was winter and Semigallians crossed the frozen river of Lielupe and their horseman’s collapsed into an icy river, they escaped death, but bounty hungry Crusaders wanted to save the sinking horses for war bounty. Namejs used this and attacked them killing and capturing many of them.

During the 1280-1281  Crusaders tried to attack and in 1281 finally they acquired a large strong force and forced  Namejs to burn his own castle at Tervete and surrender. Namejs did not want to live under Crusader rule and with his Lithuanian comrade Traidenis he left his home left his homeland to Lithuania. There he spent his days fighting the Teutonic Order in Prussia and died there. Namejs was one of the best Early Latvian fighters against German Crusader invasion, but he came too late and there were not too many people who could be like him. Today many Latvian men including me were a silver ring called after Namejs. It symbolizes the boys going into manhood. It’s one of the popular Latvian man jewellery piece and Namejs as a name is also favored among Latvians. Namejs was the Latvian Alexander Nevsky. He fought hard and died on the battlefield against his bitter enemy.

The ring of Namejs

However the Semigallians did not give up their fight, in 1287 they approached Riga, but could not go through the stone gates. After this 12 days earlier Crusaders gathered to punish Semigallians at 26 March 1287 Semigallians surrounded Crusaders and destroyed them. The Master of Order Willekin was killed. The new Master Cuno from Hacingstein again gathered force and finally crushed the Semigallian resistance. In 1290 the last Semigallian strong point the Sidrabene was captured. Semigallians was forced to baptize again, many of them leave their land and exiled to Lithuania.   The Crusades in Latvian land ended with the German Crusader victory. Early Latvians and Livonians on the next course of centuries became peasants of German vassals losing their rights and freedom. The long 700 year period of German presence in Latvia left its marks in Latvian history. Nationalists call 12-19 century the “700 years of slavery” when the Latvian nation was enslaved by elite German colonists. It was not that horribly simple to give such name for such long period, but truly the German presence in Latvia was omnipresent and were responsible for making the Latvian nation to what it is today. Germans lived in Latvia until 1939 when Hitler ordered them to return to the Fatherland. Latvians owe many good and bad from Germans and without their presence the Latvian nation would a lot different.

Selected sources:

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Biļķins, Vilis, (1973) Zemgaliešu brīvības cīņas. Minneapolis. Sēļzemnieka apgāds.

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