Swedish Vidzeme

Swedish army Garrison gate in old Riga. A symbol of Swedish rule

After the war with Poland Sweden acquired Vidzeme (Livland) as a new part of its empire. Riga was also added to Sweden and became one of the main trade centers of Sweden. At the time of Swedish rule Vidzeme became economically stable and its population grow from 50 000 to 142 000. Because of somewhat liberal Swedish attitudes to Latvian peasants and their staunch policy on German landlords, Swedish times are sometimes called “The Good Swedish times”. However this is disputed by modern Latvian historians who see this as a myth.

The Swedish administration gave 40 percent of land to Swedish nobles; another part still belonged to the Germans. German landlords used widely serfdom to expand their labor.  Serfdom meant that peasant family who lived within the noble owned land were subjects of the noble. They could not inherit land they maintained nor could they leave it. Serfdom was a form of slavery in all parts of Latvia. However serfdom was not used in mainland Sweden so Swedish king Karl XI suggested abolishing it entirely in Swedish empire. That was met with resistance from German landlords who wanted to expand their rights to enslave local peasants.

To somehow control the situation in Vidzeme, Swedish government used the reduction policy since 1681.  About five-sixths of estates in Vidzeme were reclaimed by Swedish crown. This was done to increase the revenues for Sweden and it succeeded because tax incomes grow substantially. However German control over their estates did not weaken and it had no big effect on the lives of Latvian peasants. Serfdom was not abolished however in Swedish controlled estates the treatment of peasants were less bad than in private German estates.

Riga surrendered to the Swedish army in 1621. Swedish government allowed Riga to keep its privileges even if it meant that Riga could have relative autonomy from Sweden. An inconvenience for people of Riga was Swedish garrison, in times of Poles, Polish army stayed out of Riga. This caused conflicts between Riga town council and Sweden, more quarrels happened because of Riga privileges. Swedish absolute monarchy contradicted the feudal rights of Riga. The Swedish administration made much effort to hold control over Riga and weaken its autonomy. But Riga Town council managed to keep their rights. In 1645 Riga became the administrative center of Vidzeme.

Riga was under attack by Russian army during the Swedish-Russian war (1656-1661). Riga was besieged by Czar Alexis Mikhalovich himself. Riga was under Russian artillery fire but did  not suffer much damage. In outcome Russian army was defeated and the siege was lifted.

Riga under Russian siege in 1656.

One of the notable achievements of the Swedish rule was opening of the Dorpat (Tartu) university.  It was the first university in the Baltic region. The university was established by King Gustav Adolphus. Latvian language was also studied there because it was needed for new pastors who wanted to work in Vidzeme. Later times first Latvian students started to study there. From the graduates of Dorpat University the first Latvian national intelligentsia appeared.

In Vidzeme for the first time Christian Bible was translated into Latvian. It was done by Ernest Glik from Aluksne. In 1685 he made translation of the New Testament but the whole translation was released in 1689. This was a significant effort in development of Latvian language. This was also a good start to introduce Christian teachings to simple Latvian peasants who were still more or less pagan. Before that Bible was only available in Latin or German.

The relative peace in Vidzeme came to an end when Denmark, Saxony and Russia allied in a war against Sweden in 1700. Vidzeme once again became a battlefield and got new owner – Russia.

Selected Sources

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1962) Latvijas vēsture, 1600-1710. Stockholm: Daugava.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1938-1941) Vidzemes 1638. gada arklu revīzija = die Hakenrevision Livlands 1638. 1-6 Vol. Riga. Latvijas Vēstures institūts.

Alexis Mikhalovich

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