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.
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.
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!