Monthly Archives: April 2014

Latgale – a part of Latvia

The flag of Latgale next to flag of Latvia

The flag of Latgale next to flag of Latvia

Latvia is known to be made of four regions – Courland (Kurzeme), Zemgale or Semigalia, Vidzeme, Sēlija or Selonia and Latgale (Lettgallia). Such territorial layout had formed within many centuries until was officially recognized on 1920. All four regions have their own unique differences in culture, religion and the way of language. Latgale has always unique in many ways – the Latgalian Latvian language dialect that could even be regarded as language of its own for there is many notable differences even in grammatical level.  However, its remains to be a dispute between linguistics. Latgale is more Catholic than rest of mainly Lutheran Latvian parts. Latgale has always been ethnically diverse, the small eastern part of Latvia was commonly shared by many nationalities – Poles, Belarussians, Russians and Jews. Yet there is many misconceptions about the history of Latgale since 1920 and until now. Expansionist neighboring nations have used these misconceptions to generate deceptive propaganda in the aim to disrupt Latvian territorial unity or even sovereignty.  Similar deception is used in Ukraine right now and despite Latvia being a member of NATO we must fight off such deception with rational truth.

From the basics of the Latvian prehistory we know that the first humans settled in Latvian territory around 9000 BC. The first members of the Baltic peoples from who the present day Latvians and Lithuanians originate came around 2000 BC. It took a long time until the Baltic peoples in Latvia gathered in four Ancient Latvian tribes that are called Curonians, Semigallians, Selonians, and Latgalians.    Plus the Finno-Ugric  tribe of Livs or Livonians. None of these tribes could be called Latvians as they no such perception of nation and neither they were united. We can start to speak about these tribes on 9th century until the arrival of the Crusaders in 12th century.

Latgalians or latgaļi in Latvian formed as ethnicity at 6-7 century. They were first mentioned in the Primary Chronicle of the Kievan Rus. The Latgalians spread within central Vidzeme where the Livonians lived and were present at many parts of the modern-day Russia and Belarus. Archaeological findings show complexity and unique of the Latgalian culture. As on 10 -11 century Latgalians as other Ancient Latvian tribes started to form an early feudal society. Two largest centers were Koknese and Jersika who the Medieval chronicles described as regnum– state. Tālāva and Atzele were called terran – lands. Their rulers were called rex – rulers or kings, but it was only from the Crusader point of view. However, Jersika at 12th century was fairly large wooden fortress with walled city. It’s last ruler Visvaldis was the commander of united Latgalian and Lithuanian war force and converted to Orthodox Christianity. Contrary to the claims of the Russian historians Jersika was not a part of the Duchy of Polotsk. The only dependence from Polotsk was the tribute payment to the Duchy who required them to keep trade control over river Daugava. For some time even Crusader founded Riga was dependent on paying tributes to Polotsk. But, Jersika itself kept its sovereignty in the terms of those times and was not directly ruled by the Duchy of Polotsk as some claim. Besides we also cannot describe Polotsk as Russian or Belarussian state for the national understanding in those times greatly differed.

The ancient Latvian tribes map on 12 century

The ancient Latvian tribes map on 12 century

Jersika was captured and burned down by Crusaders on 1209. Koknese and other Latgalian centers were also taken over in following decades. The Ancient Latvians had an early form of statehood in potential to form as advanced feudal society, but it was interrupted by the Crusader invasion.  During the centuries of the age of the Livonian Confederation the members of four tribes became the subjects of the ruling Livonian Order and the Bishopric states. Modern day Latgale was divided between the State of the Livonian Order and Archbishopric of Riga.  Despite some exceptions the local Latvian ancestors were unable to form a noble elite capable or receiving feuds and equally share power with the ethnic German elite. Therefore, the majority of the local peasantry was slowly subjected to greater dependence on elite land owners according to transformation of feudalism to the form of serfdom at 15-16 century. The lack of noble sovereign elite  was the factor that delayed the equal advancement of the Latvian nation comparing to other nations.

On 13th century the locals of the present day Latvian east were called Lethi, Letti,Lehtigalli, Letten. From word Letten the German form Latvian was derived and the name Lettland for whole Latvia. On 14th century the geographical terms – Livonia– (The Liv/Livonian land) Lettia (Lettia) and Semigallia, Selonia, Courland. So there is connection that allows to say that word Latvian and Latvia comes from Latgalia and Latgalians. 13-15 century was time when the early forms of Couronian, Semigallian, Latgalian  and also Livonian speak formed into early forms of Latvian language. In 15th century following the tide of Reformation the first Lutheran books were translated in Latvian by German missionaries. But, the dialectic differences in Courland and Latgale remained and were affected by the political changes on 16-17th century.

Livonian Confederation collapsed on 1558 and was divided between Sweden and Poland-Lithuania. Latvian part was divided between the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and the Duchy of Pārdaugava (Vidzeme and Latgale).  The Duchy of Courland and Semmigallia that also included Selonia making a century long misconception that Selonia is a part of Semigallia or Zemgale. It was autonomous state within the Poland-Lithuania with its own jurisdiction and policy towards Latvian population. While the Duchy of Pārdaugava was duchy only on paper and with direct Polish administration. In result the Courland dukes preserved the Lutheran confession while Latgale became a Catholic stronghold over the years to come. Next shift was the war between Swedes and Poles that 1629 resulted in Swedish acquiring of Riga and part of Duchy of Pārdaugava that became known a Vidzeme – the Middle Land. Before that it was inhabited by Livonians and Latgalian Latvians. Lutheran Swedes governed their part of Latvia according to their understanding. Polish part of Latgale wa called Infantija. The age of divide was a crucial time for the Latvian nation. Latvian lands were ruled by two countries and semi-independent duchy. This was when the conception of  three main Latvian parts – Courland including Semigallia and Selonia, Vidzeme and Latgale formed and the cultural difference between  various parts of Latvia.

16-17th century was also the start of the arrival of the new nationals – Jews, Poles, Russians and Belarussians. From Poland Jews entered the Duchy of Courland and Latgale. Polish elite and peasants settled in Latgale and the lower parts of Selonia. Russians and Belarussians despite being present in small groups as early of 9th century also came in larger masses. In Latgale a commune of Old Believers of the Orthodox Church  developed on 16th century and still going strong. Despite the increasing presence Latvians in Latgale did not lose their language on the contrary they kept it in different form then rest of Latvia. As we know the Latvian language in written form was made by Baltic German scholars in 15-18th century who lived mostly in Courland, Riga and Swedish Vidzeme. Couronian language became extinct as late as 18th century while in Polish ruled Latgale the different educational policies kept the unique form of the Latgalian language. In Latgale the educational work was done by the Catholic Jesuits while in other parts of Latvia it done by Enlightened Lutheran clergy and intellectuals.

On 1772 Latgale was added to Russian Empire. Russian administration did not view Latgale as equal to other former Livonian provinces or Baltic provinces. In result the Latgale was united with the Province of Vitebsk that meant that Latgale did not enjoy the special status that Province of Courland and Province of Riga enjoyed. Most crucially it meant that serfdom was abolished in Latgale only on 1861 while it was done many decades earlier.

First periodical in Latgale was almanac “Rubon” by Kazimir Buinicky (1788-1787) a large gathering of knowledge about Latgalian history and culture. Gustav Manteifel made a “Inflatu ziemes lajkagromota aba kalendars” a calendar in Latgalian language. However, on 1864 the ban on using Latin print seriously obstructed the Latgalian literal work. And such law did not exist in other parts of Latvia.

But Latgale was not completely separated and  culturally inferior on 1904 when the ban was lifted. And by that time as much of other parts of Latvia a well profound Latvian middle class understood their association with Latvian nation and Latvian land. On 1905 the newspaper Gaisma (The Light) on its first edition spoke to its Latgalian readers as  “Broli latvīši (Latvian Brothers) to not lose their Latvian language (“latvīšu vordu”) and break the chains of the old order the same that all Latvians desired on 1905. It’s a clear sign that despite relative separation Latgalians already then clearly saw their association with the rest of Latvian nation and the future state. Also the Russian authorities never managed to rename the old Germanic names of the Latgalian towns. Dinaburg despite called as Dvinsk by some kept its German name until on 1920 it was renamed to Daugavpils. And same as the other towns. Also to note the Slavic names of Latgalian towns have a Polish not Russian origin.

When the First Word war reached Latvia, Latgale until 1917 was kept by Russia. On 1917 December 14 the districts of Dinaburg (Daugavpils), Ludsen (Ludza), Rositten (Rēzekne) was added to province of Vidzeme.  And this act was not just mechanic move by Russian Soviet government l government, but the will and demand of the Second Latgalian congress  on December 3-4 1917. Although this congress had Bolshevik influenced character its goal was clear – to separate Latgale from the province of Vitebsk. A Latgalian self initiative not an imposed move from Riga as some claim.

Latgale was liberated from the Bolsheviks on 1920. The Soviet Russia and Poland on treaty acknowledged the Latgale as the part of Latvia. Despite that for two decades Poland was quite edgy about the Ilūkste district in the lover part of Selonia sometimes attributed to Latgale. Diplomatic conflicts and pledges to protect the Polish minority rights were quite similar to present day Russian claims on Latgale.

Latvian post stamp showing  the lakes of Latgale

Latvian post stamp showing the lakes of Latgale

Latgalian language flourished in  press media and books, New Testament was translated in Latgalian. Latgalian political forces made their own parties and demanded more autonomy for them, but it was only within the ranks of local legislation there was no desire to form a Latgalian state. The ethnic diversity of the Latgale was either a joy or pain for local Latgalians and central government.   Daugavpils in its history despite being second largest have never been an ethnically dominated by Latvians, but that it did not mean it was not a Latvia town. Daugavpils was equally shared between Latvians, Jews, Russians, Poles, Belarussians and others. Until 1934 the Latgalian language was taught in schools after the coup by Kārlis Ulmanis the usage of Latgalian was limited.

More bitter harm again was done to Latgale during the Soviet occupation. In the process of Russification where Latvian language was undermined as whole the Latgalian language was  also excluded from the printed word on most occasions. But, after a 1991 a Latgalian renaissance is taking place. In official level Latgalian is regarded as dialect not used in official level. But the new generation of Latgalian speakers is  growing. So there is a chance for future Latgalian national cultural development.

The forces who calls Latgale or Daugavpils a Latvian Crimea are mostly Russian propagandists or nationalist fringes. It’s true that mostly Russian speaking population in Latgale is over influenced by the Kremlin TV and Radio propaganda and has low insight in Latvian central affairs. This is also a fault of the Latvian central authorities. While in some cities like Rēzekne the pro-Kremlin Harmony Center has a stable lead in Daugavpils it and other radical forces have failed to gain power. During my last visit to Daugavpils in April I saw a less pro-Russia imagery then everyday in Riga (that may change on 9th of May, but still far more in Riga). People who either talk about the Latgalian autonomy or Latgale within Russia or Belarus, in most cases don’t even live in Latgale and have no understanding of the history of Latgale. Only the ignorance of the people and foreign forced “protests” can lead up to Crimea scenario.

As shown by this article Latgale is not just a part of Latvia Latgale is Latvia. From Latgale the name of Latvia and Latvians originate. And Latgalians despite speaking Latgalian  are the common members of the Latvian nation. The separation of Latgale must also have to prevent from Latvian side especially those who live in Riga, not just our foreign ideological rivals.   As the Latvian poet said – Both sides of the Daugava will never part!


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Belarusians in Latvia

Illustration from pre-war literal youth journal "Jaunais Cīrulītis"

Illustration from pre-war literal youth journal “Jaunais Cīrulītis”

One of the Slavic nations, besides Ukrainians and Poles  that Latvia shares a common past and future are Belarusians. Latvia and Belarus have common border and cultural and ethical roots. In Latvian the Belarussian is spelled as “Baltkrievs” and not without a reason for the Belarusian ethnic origins come from 5 to 6 century when Ancient Slavic tribes migrated from Central Europe to the lands present day Belarus where the ancient Baltic tribes lived. Various Slavic tribes the kriviči, dregoviči, radmiči moved to lands inhabited by augstaiši, jātvingi, galindi and latgalians slowly assimilating them until the 10 century. The Duchies of Polotsk and Smolensk used old Belarussian language and had political and trade contacts with ancient Latvian tribes. At the 13th century old Belarusian duchies were integrated into  Grand Duchy of Lithuania where Belarusian noble elite played important role. Old form of Belarusian language was used in official jurisdiction of the Lithuanian duchy. No wonder the original Belarus coat of arms was derived from the coat of arms of the Lithuanian duchy. Majority of Belarusian historians consider the Lithuanian Grand Duchy as the state of Belarusians while Lithuanian counterparts tend to disagree.

For various reasons on 16th century the therm “White Russia” or “White Ruthenia” was derived. Consequently people living in it and talking in language different  than in Russia and Ukraine became known as Belarusians. Sadly on the same time after Lithuania united with Poland, Belarusian nobility was slowly removed from the ruling elite. Country had to go trough many destructive wars between Russia and Poland. After the full inclusion into Russian empire the Belarusian nation went into silent decay.

As mentioned the ancient Latgalain rulers had connections with Duchies of Polotsk as early as 12th century. Merchants traveled across river Daugava they called Dvinsk. Larger number of Belarusian settlers came to Latgale when it was under Polish-Lithuanian rule. Either Belarusian nobles or peasants. It’s known that the town of Jēkabpils originated from settlement of refugees of the Orthodox Old Believers, that came from Vitebsk and Smolensk  that may be Belarusian origin. Belarusian migration continued under the Tsarist rule in bordering areas. As Latgale was part of Province of Vitebsk the entry was less restricted than to other parts of present day Latvia.

On 1897 the All Russia National Census concluded that in six districts of the Province of Vitebsk – Ludza, Daugavpils (Dinaburg) and Rēzekne a 66 thousand Belarusians and 63 thousand speaking Belarusian lives in this area. Some Latvian historians and demographers however argued that this amount was boosted by local Poles and Latvians calling themselves Belarusians for their own reasons.    Another crucial factor was the so-called “tuteiši” – people who had no perception of their national identity and simply described themselves as locals or Catholics or Orthodox. Latvians, Poles, Russians and Belarusians not to mention the Jews lived in Latgale side by side and often were prone to assimilation.  As we know today the once national identity is not derived from genes or family roots, but by state of mind and education.  Latgale was ethically and religiously  mixed with a very complicated social structure. For these reasons people in Latgale often had difficulty choosing their national identity.

After Latvia gained independence on 1918, various national census held in 1920, 1925. 1930 and 1935 showed inconclusive results. On 1920. the first national census still counted Russians and Belarusians together, however to distinguish them  Russians were called as “Great Russians” (Lielkrievi). In result according to interpretations 75 thousand Belarusians lived in Latvia on 1920. However, the 1925 census counted now just 38 thousands. Without proper understanding some historians as Viktors Guščins made a claim that a massive Belarusian deportation was organized by Latvian authorities. Since there were no documented proofs of such action taking place the “Belarusian Deportation” is just another of the Guščins wild fantasies. On 1935 just 25 thousand Belarusians were counted. This rapid decrease was dictated by many reasons. Firstly as the Latvian Statistic Authority admitted they often lacked knowledge to determine who is Belarusian and who is not. Some Belarusians were counted as Russians or Poles or even Latvians. Another problem was the low literacy of the Belarusian farmers as some data shows only some 63% of them knew how to read. In same matter Russian and Polish farmers especially in Latgale had this litercy problem. Another factor was the constant Latvian national policy of trying to absorb some nationally unsure Latgalian people as Latvians in same matter as Poles and Russians tried to do same. During the twenties and thirties Latgale was a constant cultural, ideological and  diplomatic battleground to make Latgale more Latvian free from foreign influence. In this matter many Belarusians lost their national identity.

On March 25 1918 the Belarusian Peoples Republic was proclaimed. It had diplomatic relations with the Republic of Latvia and some even took the BPR citizenship. However, the republic was steamrolled by the Bolsheviks and Poles. Part of Belarusians came under Soviet rule with its own Belarusian Soviet Republic. Other part was ended up in Poland and Lithuania. Both countries especially Poland was in uneasy relations with the national minorities. Latvia on the other hand issued a minority friendly laws allowing to form own native language schools. Belarusian intellectuals living in Latvia saw a great chance to start a Belarusian national revival. However, this seemed harder than expected.

On 1922 The Belarussian school authority was established. Baltic Germans, Jews, Russians and Poles already had their own. As much as 40 state funded schools and 2 gymnasiums were opened.  A special courses for Belarusian teachers were made. However, the Belarusian schools had various problems mostly because of the low number of school children. Only 40% of school age children actually attended because of poverty and even lack of shoes. In Daugavpils 19 teachers worked with 86 students in Ludza 5 teachers with 50-60 students. However, it was common sight for many national minority schools such as Jewish schools and others. The national Latvian forces in parliament and press always made a negative discourse towards minority schools calling them “a useless spending of state money” and hostile to Latvians. Even greater was the cross minority rivalry for funding for their schools and school children. Polish and Russian national minority forces were annoyed by the existence of the Belarusian schools and started a campaign against them as early on 1923 resulting a political farce.

Konstantin Jezovitov - the leader of the Belorussian national movement on 1920-1940

Konstantin Jezovitov – the leader of the Belarussian national movement on 1920-1940

Russian and Polish newspapers started to spread propaganda that there is no such nation as Belarusians, but they are just confused Russians or Poles used by ex Tsarist officers who claim themselves as Belarusians. The Latvian press especially the Latvian Latgalian press pick this up and started to write word Belsrusian in commas. In their hypocrisy the Latvian newspapers had no problem writing about Belarusians in Poland or USSR a real nation. On 1923 in the Latvian parliament the “Belarusian”  question was officially discussed. Polish deputy Jans Veržbickis accused the Belarusian national leader Konstantin Jezovitiov and others of intentionally devising a nation called “Belarusians”   to gain national state support and new carrier grounds at the expense of Poles and Russians. The Latgalian deputies Fricis Kemps and Jāzeps Trasuns picked up the subject and agreed that there are no Belarusians but instead accused the Poles of attempting to assimilate Latvians. In their view Belarusians were Latvians mislead by the Poles. Belarusians got themselves into cross national crossfire.

The whole 1923 was spent in arguing between both sides. Konstantin Jezovitov wrote a defending publication outlining the Belarusian history and culture. Fricis Kemps answered with  a strong worded publication that caused a lawsuit where Jezuvitov managed to prove him guilty of personal insult. Then on 1924 the anti-Belarussian campaign reached its height. In the Kapiņu parish Belarussian school a school inspected saw a map showing Belarusian borders including parts of Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. This was reported to Ministry of Education because the school inspector believed these borders signify the future state of Belarus taking away Latvian lands. Latvian Secret Police had Jezovitovs and other Belarusian activists on their watch-list.  Partly because of alleged conections with the radical leftist forces and Belarusian organizations outside Latvia. Two years before on 1921-1923 both in Poland and Lithuania a trial was made against Belarusian organization “Gromada” that was accused on plotting uprising against the Polish state. Knowing this the Latvian Secret Police made a suspicion that Belarusian organization “Batjaukaščina” of being separatist force.

Eight Belarusian schoolteachers were accused of treason, with them Jezovitov, A Jakubecky, V Korcius and others. The case against the “Belarusian national separatists”  were orchestrated by negative publications in the press and resulted the closure of many schools. Jezovitov spent in prison 11 months as only one of the accused. On 1925 the trial took place and resulted in fiasco. Latvian Secret Police failed  to prove the existence of the “criminal separatist” organization. The witnesses were mostly agents or hostile Russian schoolteachers. It turned out that the map that caused the process actually showed the Belarusian ethical borders not state borders. Although Konstantin Jezovitov was an ex officer of the Belarusian Peoples Republic his separatist actions could not be proved. In the end all accused were found not guilty resulting a heavy strain on Belarusian national movement.

In the following years Latvian politicians were forced to accept the fact that Belarusians live in Latvia and deserve their schools. Belarusians did made hostile opposition in return, and praised the Latvian state support. Nationalist pressure on Belarusian schools  still continued on 1925 local Latgalian newspaper celebrated the closure of the Belarussian  gymnasium in Ludza. However, as the national and diplomatic relations with Poles and Poland worsened especially on 1931, Latvians now accused Poles of inciting hate between Latvians and Belarusians.

Belarusians had many supportive Latvian friends like Rainis the famous Latvian poet and leftist leader.  With his help Belarusians could find their schools and enter politics within the social democratic party ranks. Later, more intellectual Latvians acknowledged the Belarusian national movement. Cultural developments were on the go despite low funding and other problems.

Kārlis Ulmanis authoritarian regime limited the Belarusian national cultural activities while the Soviet Occupation destroyed it completely.   During the Nazi occupation 0n 1943 48 601 people within Latvia were called as Belarusians. The sharp increase can be explained by the flow of people from German occupied Belarus, who either were moved against there will by the Germans or moved by themselves.  Some Belarusians served in Latvian SS Legion some resisted the Nazis. Konstantin Jezovitov was arrested by Soviet SMERCH and died in captivity on 1944.

Belorussian national activists with the first flag of Belarus along with flag of Ukraine and Latvia in 1990.

Belarusian national activists with the first flag of Belarus along with flag of Ukraine and Latvia in 1990.

After the start of the second Soviet occupation people from Belarus, just as from Ukraine and Russia came to Latvia to settle for a new life. Belarus was utterly devastated by the war and soviets pushed to build factories that needed large amount of workforce. In result between 1959 t0 1989 about 120 Belarusians lived in Latvia. Most again settled in Latgale and Daugavpils, while others moved to Riga and other centers. On 1989 43 thousand Belarusians lived in Riga. Large part of Belarusians still lived in rural areas. However, because of the lack state support towards Belarusian language education some 36% of Latvian Belarusians knew the Belarusian language. Same difficulty they had with Latvian  resulting that many were placed in mass of immigrants simply described as “Russians” or “Russian-speakers”. However, not always the lack of native language skills signify the loss of national identity as common for Belarusians, Jews, Poles and Ukrainians.

In same manner as other national minorities Belarusians founded their cultural societies during the events of 1988-1992. On 1988 November 27 the Belarusian cultural society “Svitanak” that gathered established members of society and culture. A Belarusian Primary School is working in Riga, and many cultural activities are taking place. Unfortunately, from the early start the independent state of Belarus was taken over by post-sovietic authoritarian regime with more emphasis towards  Russia, as Russian language is most used in Belarusian majority country. Latvian politicians for economic reasons have often ignored the political situation in Belarus. Some parties have eagerly expressed support towards Ukrainian national movement while praising Alexander Lukashenka. In result the Belarusian opposition considers Lithuania and Poland as more supportive towards their cause rather than Latvia. According to 2012 census 4,1 of Belarusians live in Latvia making them second largest national minority. Only above 600 of them use Belarusian language at home. The bad effect of the Russification policies is clear, but in the spirit of the changing times can be overcome as the Belarusians is a nation of a historical value and legacy.

Selected Sources:

Apine, Ilga. (1995) Baltkrievi Latvijā. Rīga. 1995.

 Jēkabsons Ē. Белорусы в Латвии в 1918–1940 годах (Baltkrievi Latvijā 1918.–1940. gadā) //Беларуская дыяспара як пасреднiца ў дыялогу цывiлiзацый. Матэрыялы III Мiжнароднага кангрэса беларусiстаў. Мiнск: Беларускi Кнiгазбор, 2001

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