Tag Archives: Crusades

Great Myths of Latvian History

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As years, decades and centuries pass most important events like wars, regimes and cultural events are starting to lose their initial sharpness. In social memory these events are becoming either more dull, either romanticized or condemned and seen in black and white palette. There is no black and white in history, as events, past, present and future are created by various people regarding their interests that have various means and justifications for their actions. Events are also dictated by circumstances often beyond people’s control. Historical timeline is moved by perpetual rivalry within mankind, when various interests clash in personal, group, state or international scale.

In the process of interpreting these events no matter how old or new, people often create myths, falsehoods and outright lies. This can happen unintentionally as the knowledge about past events is often limited, this is especially relevant to prehistory and ancient ages, when there is lack of good archeological or written material. This also happens because over the decades, many events like wars or despotic regimes are becoming more romantic in people’s memory. Events like Crusades that was a harsh, controversial and bloody struggle, now is even a subject of comedy and the Crusader knights or their Muslim or Pagan foes are idolized. Similarly, many events are made darker than they were seen people at that time. For instance Russian history century long obsession with “Mongolian –Tatar yoke” and general idea about Dark Ages between 5th and 10th century.

Then again history is mythicized on purpose to gain important political goals in the past. “Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the past, controls the present” a George Orwell quote from “1984” summarizes this need. Nationalist forces in 19th century on purpose idolized the ancient and medieval past, the Nazi and Communist regimes made great efforts to construct new historical understanding. It’s even present in democratic countries like British nostalgia for great imperial past and US American nostalgia for pre-1950s social order.

There words define historical myths. Nostalgia – for the past that was better than present and bringing it back would improve our present and future. Legendary – that makes events and historical personalities glorified. Condemnation – making events and people worse than they were, making these events and people as a warning from happening again. Also this reflects certain groups of people, like nations, religions and movements whose actions were made blacker then they were a warning from them in the present.

This article attempts to name and describe some of the myths in Latvian history, and seeks answers why they are wrong and what are the reasons for these myths.

Before 12th century ancient Latvians and Livonians had own countries, recognized by Christian countries and brutally uprooted by them.

It’s true that Catholic chronicles like the chronicle of Henry called some of the leaders of the early Latvian tribes kings – rex in Latin and some of their ruled territories –  kingdoms – regnum. Their micro states were set around their wooden fortresses. The civil societies were not as advanced as in other nearby lands like Lithuania and lands of Rus. Some historians compare the early Latvian statehood to Celtic society prior to Roman invasion. Also the Baltic tribes Latgalians, Curonians, Semigallians and Selonians had no common perception that they lived in Latvia and must unite to create such country. In Lithuania the unification of Lithuanian and Belarusian tribes was forceful event by strong warlord Mindaugas. In ancient Latvia there was no such leader. However, even if these rulers were called as Rex in Catholic chronicles does not mean they were fully acknowledged and regarded as sovereign rulers. They simply were not Christian. They had no recognition by Rome and even their conversion to Christianity placed them in vassal status rather than senior. The reason why Lithuanian Grand Duke Mindaugas was recognized was because he converted to Christianity and was strong enough to be accepted as senior. While in case of ruler of Jersika Visvaldis who was Orthodox his conversion was not respected by Catholic crusaders and he lost ownership of his land. So as pagan rulers the Latvian tribal warlords were certainly seen as second-hand rulers to Catholic crusaders, Holy Roman Empire and the Papal State. Their conversion was not enough as they could not be strong enough to hold their senior status. While there was early form of states in Latvian territory it was more a tribal microstate not recognized by Christian countries as weak Pagan states with no hope to gain recognition as senior kingdoms.

Latvian Pagan religion was brutally destroyed by Christian invaders and conversion was forceful

Archeological and written sources gives very light details about religion in Latvia prior to 12th century. There are examples of burial traditions, some items that were used in religion. Often the early Latvians used Christian regalia traded from Christian countries for their own needs. The chronicles give very light details about Latvian pagan beliefs. Apart from Baltic Prussians there is no evidence of ancient Latvian priesthood. The Latvian Mythology as it is known is based on writings, beliefs and folksongs from 15th to 19th century as gathered by folk song studies and observations. That means the pagan religion if such was, rather a tradition was kept for centuries and experienced transformation. And not always the conversion was enforced. In 11th-12th when Latvian territory was visited by traders from West and East many of the local rulers and their families converted to Christianity for benefits that came with it. While their subjects mostly did not or embraced Christian faith rather passively. That just shows how important were the traditional views as they could be easily replaced by another religion for material benefits. Also for many centuries most of Latvian ancestors has very light understanding of Christianity as all rites and writings were in Latin. The Reformation and Enlightenment in 15th -18th century started teaching Christian beliefs in Latvian and Bible and other Christian works were translated into Latvian. Also in many cases the true cause of resistance to Christian conversion or moving back to Pagan beliefs was because becoming Christian meant becoming vassal to Crusaders.

Some authors argue that initially the mostly Germanic traders and Bishop Meinard had no initial intention to baptize Livs and Baltic tribes by force. In 1170 from Segeberg Bishop Meinard first came to Liv land around Daugava and started peaceful mission. He also asked permission to Duke of Polotsk (knyaz) Vladimir who imposed Livs to pay tributes to him, to build small church in Ikšķile. In 1184 such was build and small congregation of freely converted Livs were made. However, Meinards was attacked by Lithuanian and Semigallian riders so he asked permission to Liv leaders to build stone castle in Ikšķile in exchange for baptism. It was done and one part of the Castle belonged to Meinards others to Livs. Livs soon broke the agreement and dropped Christianity and attacked Meinards. Meinards tried to leave Ikšķile, but received warnings of Liv attempt to kill him and remained in castle where he died. Then a monk Theoderich came to Ikšķile and assessed that small Christian congregation is in danger and called for military support igniting the Baltic crusades. The Crusades led by more ruthless Bishops as Berthold and Albert were violent, as Crusaders used force to baptize tribal Balts and Livs if there was no other option. Soon it turned out that the war was not about faith but about the land. Becoming Christian meant becoming Crusader vassal and subject and many resisted resulting permanent loss of land. While it did not mean that Crusaders managed to completely uproot ancient Baltic beliefs, they stayed within peasantry and Crusader seniors did very small effort to counter them. More efforts were done by Lutherans in 15th -18th century. First by educating Christianity in Latvian and second by exporting witch trials that were mostly carried out in Lutheran Swedish Vidzeme. Also Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine movement managed to fully convert Latvian peasants. In 19th century Pagan beliefs were weakened by Christian education. A revival was made by Latvian nationalists who as their commoners in Germany and elsewhere looked for symbols in the ancient times creating a legend of old peaceful Latvian pagan religion destroyed by while Crusaders. In reality the situation was far from simple and the religion, tradition, education and land ownership each played its part.

Battle of Saule was joint victory by the Baltic tribes over German invaders

Voldemārs Vimba created an epic painting to please nationalistic authoritarian ruler Kārlis Ulmanis. In the painting soldiers carrying Latvian and Lithuanian flags charge Crusaders in the Battle of Saule in 1236. While first mentions of flag similar to Latvian national state flag dates to 1279 when Latgalian soldiers came to assist Crusaders who were attacked by Semigallians, the Lithuanian flag as well as Latvian flag itself certainly could not be used in the Battle against Crusaders. Because Latgalians and Estonians fought together with Crusaders against Lithuanians and Semigallians. There was no Baltic unity in the battle, as such unity was not possible. Lithuanians regularly raided Latvian territory and even Estonia. Each tribal leader had their own interests and Semigallians were not always allied with Lithuanians. Lithuanians viewed Latgalians and Estonians allied with Crusaders as enemies and had no intention on liberating them from Crusaders. And the battle was mainly Lithuanian victory as it halted Crusader advance in Lithuania while it not do much for Latvian territory. However, nationalistic minded people has made September 22 as Baltic Unity Day. A day that is required, but September 22 is not Unity Day. Its Victory Day for Lithuania only.

Latvia is native Russian land. Before the arrival of Crusaders many ancient Latvian micro states were vassals of the Russian duchies and converted to Orthodox

It’s true that Russian and Belarusian duchies held influence on Latgalian, Liv and Selonian tribes. In return for protection and trade rights they made them pay tributes and some ruler families like Visvaldis of Jersika converted to Orthodox. Russian traders lived in Koknese and visited other small castles and Crusader Riga. Crusaders often had to deal with Duchy of Polotsk and Pskov because they recognized them as seniors over these tribal leaders. But, it seems hardly that these duchies recognized these micro states as their land. Other than tribute paying and building the church and sometimes hosting a war party, there was no limitations to their sovereignty. Latgalians, Livs and Selonians were simply a client that paid tributes and traded with them. A very limited effort were made to reclaim them from Crusaders and Duchies only cared for their own safety from Crusaders. As yet of 12th centuries the Duchies of formal Kyivean Rus had no Russian or Belarusian identity rather than Orthodox people of Rus. Also amount of people from present Russia and Belarus were very small to call Latvia a native Russian land. The duchies of Rus were in complicated situation as they were invaded by Mongol hordes and were vassals to Golden Horde themselves. There was no interest in conquering the Baltic lands. This interest showed up during the reign of Ivan IV The Terrible who first aspired to seize control over Catholic Livonia.

The Swedish rule in Vidzeme between 1629 to 1700 was generally better for Latvian peasant population

During the Crusader order rule in Vidzeme the Baltic Germans gradually seized all top positions in politics and economy and became the major land owners. Latvians had only few full titled senior land owners in Courland, most were subjects to lands belonging to Livonian Order and the Church. Gradually in 14th -16th century the changes in economic order and advances in agriculture forced the land owners to empower their rights over their peasant subjects and limit their rights of movement and land ownership. Land owners needed full control of the agricultural workforce and that created serfdom that sometimes were exceptionally harsh. This serfdom remained after fall of Livonian Confederation and became harsher under Polish rule. In the result of war between Poland and Sweden in 1621 the Northern Latvia and Riga was annexed by Sweden. What Sweden did in contrast to Duchy of Courland and Polish Latgale was the reduction of agricultural lands. 40 percent of land was given to Swedish nobles limiting the monopoly for Germans. 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. While Swedes tried to improve the life of peasants of building schools, allowed to translate Bible in Latvian, they did not fully abolish serfdom as in 1681 it was rejected by Livonian Knighthood that represented German interests. Swedes also imposed heavier tax and corvee burden and created harsh physical punishments for failing to pay them. Swedish Lutherans also increased witch hunts in Vidzeme. In the end the Sweden managed Vidzeme for their own interests that weakened German nobility, but kept the relations in balance. The serfdom was only abolished in Latvia by Russian Empire in 1817 and 1819 after very long and complicated negotiations with Livonian Knighthood while in Latgale it was only abolished in 1861 with rest of Russia as it was not considered part of Baltic provinces.

The Duchy of Courland is first form of Latvian statehood. 

The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was outcome of collapse of Livonian Confederation and its subjection to Poland-Lithuania. The leadership of Livonian Order sought agreement with Poland and the last master of the Livonian Order Gotthard Kettler became Duke of Courland and Semigallia. It was a vassal state of Poland-Lithuania led by Baltic German nobility where Latvians had their secondary roles with no say in politics. In their rule the Duchy was quite independent and also could create their own fleet and colonize lands in Caribbean sea and Africa. While all these colonies were hopelessly lost some romantic inclined people want to claim them as Latvian property. The ownership of Tobago and Gambia may improve Latvian standings in Olympic Field Athletics and Football, but that is more a joke. The Germanic dukes of Courland while sending Latvians to their colonies never saw their Duchy as Latvian state, it was impossible in 15th-18th century. For them the Duchy was sovereign part of former Livonia associated with Polish throne. Even Poland cannot claim these colonies as Polish government did not care about Couronian efforts and did not gave any support and hardly noticed that Duchy had lost them.

The period between 1200 to 1918 was 700 years of slavery, afterwards Latvians won full political and economic freedom

In 1920 when Latvia become independent many noticed very grim appearance in economic and social statistics – while ethnic Latvians held 80% in agriculture, they were minority in finance and industry where major players were Germans, Jews and Poles. Obvious answer was to blame the 700 years of slavery. A time when foreign powers enslaved Latvians, took away their land and abused them in economy and politics. While in 12th -16th century the various peasants and small traders and craftsmen did not identity them as Latvians as whole and saw their subjection as unfortunate social reality that in many cases was not so grim as they still had lot of freedom in income gathering and movement, later in 19th century in result of nationalism a ethnocentric thinking emerged placing Latvians against other nations as victims. This victimhood was even boosted by some radical German thinkers as Garlieb Merkel who in 1796 wrote his epic work “Latvians” where he protested serfdom and accused Germans of gravely abusing poor dark Latvian peasants. As controversial book was it contributed to the abolishment of serfdom and greater German efforts to educate Latvian peasants.

While Latvians were never only a peasant nation. There was small Latvian nobility in Courland, there were Latvian traders, craftsmen and house owners. Latvian only congregations appeared only in 16th century in the result of reformation. Latvian traders had their own guilds and trader unions.

The hash times for Latvian peasants in 16th -18th centuries were favorite subject for nationalistic and Marxist authors while despite of all Latvian peasants had their own schools, churches and some peasants could also gain relative wealth. It’s because Germans cared that Latvians receive education and live in relative wellbeing so they can work better and live according to their standards of modernity. Before abolishment of serfdoms Germans viewed Latvians as their lower-class neighbors, workers and occasional rivals in commerce. In 19th century as Latvian nationalism and social democracy emerged Germans now felt threatened by the Latvians both politically and economically. And it was not because they suddenly became stronger after serfdom was abolished – it’s because they were rivals to Germans all the time and gradually became stronger as their economic and political situation improved.

The confrontation between Latvians, Germans and other nationalities were required for nationalists and Marxists for their own goals. For that the myth of 700 years slavery was essential. In 1905 when in many places Latvian peasants attacked German mansions the revenge for serfdom was called the main reason for these atrocities. That also boosted German hate towards Latvians and this mutual confrontation expressed itself in War for Independence in 1918-1920 while also some German units served for Latvian cause. Latvian fear of German knighthood continued in political battles with Baltic Germans in 1920-1939. Finally, in 1939 Nazi Germany called for repartition of Baltic Germans to Germany and it was greeted by nationalistic Latvians. Later the Soviet Latvia historiography continued to exploit the 700 years of slavery by showing serfdom as feudal atrocity in contrast to progressive communist society.

The idea of independent Latvian state was born even before 1905 and strengthened in the ranks of the Latvian Rifleman during First World War

The idea that four historical regions Courland (Kurzeme), Semigallia (Zemgale), Vidzeme and Latgale forms united land called Latvia formed in late 19th century. Before for most the land was known as Livonia that Estonia was part of. For Latgalians it was also not so clear as Latgale was part of Vitebsk province and only in 1917 they fully determined themselves to Latvia. Generally the first Latvian nationalists the New Latvian movement fought for Latvian education and culture, equal rights and some local political say within unified Russian Empire. Such demand was high enough for those times as independent small nation in the age of empires was unthinkable. Latvians first needed to improve education, fight against Russification and reluctant German nobility. Russian Empire as senior ruler was only as bad that it first secured the rights of Germans and later tried to impose Russian language. But, independent country was only some could dream off. The early 20th century was filled with Marxist ideas and the New Current movement demanded major reforms for workers and peasants and were one of the first who made claims for Latvian autonomy within reformed Russia. In 1905 the social democrats were the main fighters for autonomy together with anarchists while most nationalists actually demanded to keep current order or at least make Russia constitutional as promised by Tsar Nicholas II in his October manifesto. As revolution was crushed, many came to conclusion that only way for autonomous Latvia is the collapse of Tsar family rule.  The people creating first plans for autonomy were social democrats like Miķelis Valters, Linards Laicēns, ect.

1915 was crucial time as Imperial Germany invaded Latvia and took over Courland and Semigallia and were close to capture Riga. This was a time of nationalistic fervor to call for Latvian Regiment within Russian army to chase Germans away from Latvian lands. Now also nationalists started to call for national autonomy and hoped that Latvian rifleman will serve as example to the Russian throne. Among Latvian rifleman there was nationalistic enthusiasm, but it was as mainly aimed to defeat Germany and rest will follow. After the crushing defeat in 1916 many of them drifted towards Bolshevism as it called Tsar responsible for the great losses and no friend of Latvians and called for peace. In 1917 after the fall of Riga the most of them moved to Russia and fought for Soviet cause.

What happened in Latvia in 1917-1918 was confusion. In February 1917 Tsar was deposed and Russia became democratic republic. If so then Latvia can now ask for national autonomy, however Russian Provisional government never approved this. Future president Jānis Čakste claimed that while he and his commoners were against Tsar they were never against Russia and never wanted to secede and do not want their own parliament, but want to live in common western influenced democratic Russia.  While others like Latvian National Democrat Party called for fully established autonomous  state within democratic Russian federal republic. Social Democrats also called for autonomous Latvia within unified social democratic state of Russia. In 12 August (July 30) Vidzeme Peoples Land Council called for unified autonomous democratic Latvia.

All these calls for autonomy suddenly became obstructed when German army captured Riga on September 3 1917 and gradually took over all Vidzeme and Latgale. Russia had promised nothing and Germany was more willing to create Livonian Duchy. Then Bolsheviks took power in Petrograd. The Latvian right-wing bourgeoise politicians and social democrats had very few options now. In December 2 1917 Latvian National Provisional Council made declaration calling for creation of national autonomous state its important that this declaration no more talked about being together with Russia but Latvia as autonomous state not saying from whom. As such it was pre-declaration of independence. In November 11 1918 Germany had capitulated. Bolsheviks gathered forces to invade Baltic States. There was no more variants for autonomy – Estonia and Lithuania already had declared independence in February 1918. The right wing parties and social democrats gathered in November 18 1918 to declare independence.

Independence was won by solely Latvian efforts/Latvia gained independence only because of foreign countries

When in 1930 Latvia demonstrated historical epic Lāčplēsis on movie screens the Estonians complained that despite showing Estonian army at one episode the movie grossly downplayed Estonian assistance for Latvians. While this movie showed the support from British and French navy. Then in 2008 movie the Guards of Riga completely omitted both Estonians and Allies from the war effort.

Estonian army pushed away the Bolsheviks from their land and marched in Northern Latvia. There at Cēsis in June 22 1919 they together with Latvian forces defeated the renegade German Iron Division and Landeswehr that staged uprising against Latvian Provisional Government. Months before that these same units together with Latvians made advance against Bolsheviks and took back Riga. The Allied navy was stationed in Liepāja and contributed fighting Bolsheviks and later opened fire against rouge Bermondt forces. Then Lithuanian and Polish army helped in Latgale front. Latvia was never alone in the war and without allied forces it would have significantly harder time to gain independence.

Then again was it only because of allied support? The answer is that independence was gained in the chain of events and circumstances. Allied navy was sent to Baltic sea not to support Baltic independence but to stop the Bolshevik advance. Allied countries mainly wanted unified Russia free of Bolsheviks, the new Baltic States and Baltic German factions from there was only temporary allies and the question of Baltic independence should had been settled out with Russia.  Baltic States were only legally recognized in 1921 when it was clear that these countries will actually exist and not be thrown into oblivion like Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia. Estonian forces came deep in Northern Latvia and fought against Germans, because first they needed to completely destroy the Bolshevik threat and defeat hostile German forces. Polish leaders wanted restored Poland as big as possible to the extent of 1776 borders. But, Poland needed to completely defeat Bolsheviks so they agreed to take part in liberation of Latgale. So all parties involved had one major interest – defeat Bolsheviks. Latvia until 1920 was question mark – what if Bolsheviks would be defeated by White forces – would they approve such republic? The German forces in Latvia are quite strong – can weak Latvian army defeat them? But, Bolsheviks is a menace so as long this Latvia fights against it we help them – let’s see how long they will last. So in the end it was also up to Latvians themselves to prove their worth in combined battles in Cēsis, Rīga and Latgale. And with Latvians we must not forget Germans, Russians, Jews, Belarusians, Poles and other national minorities fighting in Latvian army.

The Kārlis Ulmanis regime was fascist

In 1960 Latvian soviet historian Aleksandrs Drīzulis published book called “Latvia under the helm of fascism” at first it may look as a book about Nazi occupation. When you began to read it’s actually about the authoritarian Kārlis Ulmanis regime. Kārlis Ulmanis regime was radical in the way that is fully self-centered. All parties including his own Latvian Green Farmers Union was banned. There was no parliament, constitution was stopped. All was in hands of Prime Minister then President Kārlis Ulmanis. There was no party made after the coup, there was no new constitution it was just Kārlis Ulmanis and his government and his bureaucracy. Along with that loyal army, police and National Guard. Was that enough to be called fascist? There were concentration camps for short time in 1934-1935 but the arrested were eventually released. Secret police fought political opponents among the real Latvian fascists and  Baltic German Nazis, but scale or repression was never severe. Press was censured, while one of the themes banned in media was anti-Semitism. While left-wing Jewish movements were banned the  Zionist movements were untouched. Ulmanis government severed rights of national school autonomy but most of national autonomy schools were kept.  While the economy became more controlled by the state the private sector was never fully abolished. In these terms Latvia resembled more an absolute monarchy.

Then there are plans and tendencies that shows Ulmanis Latvia could become fascist. In late 1930’s Ulmanis started planning of creating national party under his name. He also emulated some of the actions of Benito Mussolini like creating chamber (camera) system to control various sectors of economy and similar to Mussolini he made severe changes in Old Riga by destroying city street quarters to create new square around Dome Cathedral. Mussolini did the same when he destroyed whole city district in Rome to create a new grand entry street into Vatican City. Plus Ulmanis also planned to create new massive monumental buildings like Victory Arch similar to Adolf Hitler vision for Berlin. In the end in 1939 -1940 when economy was in shatters and unemployment was growing Ulmanis made steps to create labor duty that would engage large number of people in forced labor camps. His law specially targeted Jews who were less involved in agricultural labor and wanted to force them to work in the field. Ulmanis Latvia had potential to becoming fascist if it would last for another twenty years.

Before the Russian rule Latvia was undeveloped rural economy, most Latvians lived in farms. Russians brought industry and culture

This claim is sometimes seen in some of the Russian forums and comments. The Russian nationalists claim that Latvians before 1940 where low cultured poor people who lived in farmsteads (hutor) with almost no industry in the cities. This is one of the most absurd myths as Latvia had already well-developed mercantile industry in 17th-18th century and yes the industry gradually grew under the Russian empire which by the logic would grow under Sweden, Poland or any other country. Latvian industry suffered a massive blow when in 1914-1915 large portions of factory equipment even whole workers were evacuated to inner Russia. But in first ten years during independent Latvia the industry gradually recovered and it was not just owned by Germans, Russians and Jews – there was lot of successful Latvian owners. One of the most successful Latvian industrial company VEF made a variety of products from nails to airplanes. What is reality that many of the most successful Soviet Latvian enterprises was nationalized and kept by the Soviets in 1940. And about the hutor – the Latvian agriculture while facing issues in workforce fared no worse than later Soviet collective farms that were imposed on people and those who resisted were deported to Siberia.

Before 1940 all Jews in Latvia called themselves žīdi (yids) and not ebreji (Hebrews) and there was no problem with that. Ebrejs is word imposed by Soviets

There are three common names for Jews in Latvian. Biblical Jews are called jūds. Then there are two words. One is ebrejs that is close to word Hebrew and Russian word evrei. And then there is word žīds. Žīds was the most common way the Latvians called Jews, in Poland and Lithuania a similar word is Żydzi and Žydai. However, this word resembles word Yid that is considered offensive. It’s even more offensive in Russia where it’s also means cheapskate and niggard. During the times of pogroms  a popular slogan was “Spasai Rossiju! Bei židov!” (Save Russia! Beat the Yid!) n 1940 the Soviets banned the word žīds and made ebrejs as only word to describe Jew.  What happened a year later was a Pandora’s box. Invading Nazis on quest to exterminate all Jews used the ban of žīds in their propaganda to prove Soviet occupation main power was Jews. As this word was controversial as it was it now got a very dark tone in the light of the Holocaust. After the return of the Soviets the žīds dropped out of common vocabulary and ebrejs was and is common word in Latvian for Jews. While exiles in west still used žīds and for nationalists in underground it was the true word. Then independent Latvia these people came out and asked to restore the Latvian žīds and drop the soviet ebrejs as it was never used before Soviet occupation and Jews themselves did not used to call themselves. While others started to theorize that there is difference between žīds and ebrejs.

What was in reality that word ebrejs was quite common word among Jews themselves before the war. In most official documents written by Jews themselves the word ebrejs is used. While there was no protests against the žīds word, it seems that Jews really preferred neutral word ebrejs because žīds reminded them of Tsarist time anti-Semitic oppression.

Jews were mainly responsible for Soviet repressions of 1940-1941

There are comments in Latvian main internet news sites. And when a news item regarding Jewish issue is published there is nice bet that at least one of them will mention the word
Šustins. Semyon Shustin was Jewish national from Moscow who worked in NKVD was a ruthless soviet officer who took part mass deportations of June 14 1940. He was never from Latvia and during the repressions hundreds of Jews from Latvia were deported to Siberia. Soviet government closed all Jewish organizations and arrested most social and political activists.

In June 22 19141 Nazi Germany invaded and massive anti-Semitic campaign started. Nazi German propagandists many of them willingly Latvian activists like Ādolfs Šilde made countless accusations of Jews as main perpetrators of the soviet occupation. Year later when killing of the Latvian Jews was mostly finished to justify a propaganda book and movie was made to fully summarize Jewish guilt the occupation. The book the Horrible Year was so successful that still this day many including parliamentary speaker describes the 1940 as Baigais Gads  a name for book mainly about imagined Jewish atrocities in 1940.

In reality while many Jews saw Stalin as lesser evil compared to Hitler, if we start a detailed outlook on Jewish participation in Soviet occupation it shows that Jewish presence especially local was limited and marginal. Important people like Semyon Shustin was from Moscow. Majority of the party members, members of various municipalities and soviet organizations were Latvians. Jews were also prevented from reaching high ranks. Jews were involved in repressive structures, but not  in high percentage and are responsible as Latvians who took part in them. While these words may seem pointless for some people for whom seeing two or five Jewish surnames in the list means approval for their world of conspiracy.

During the WW2 large masses of Latvians actively took part in Holocaust without German orders in revenge for Soviet occupation

This claim was first created by Nazi propaganda who wished to portray mass killings as purely local initiative as revenge for Jewish Bolshevik atrocities. After the war some Jewish survivors continued this theme and published dramatic books fully accusing Latvians who killed Jews without German orders or took part in the shootings willingly. Soviets picked this up and published books directed towards Latvian exiles where they accused them of taking part in Nazi atrocities. Russian propaganda continues this narrative.

So far academic research has failed to prove that in time of so-called interregnum – the period between exchange from Soviet to Nazi power a Jewish killings have taken place. This interregnum happened because Soviets were quick to retreat and in many places Latvian national partisans took power. They regarded Germans as their allies and gradually returned authority to Germans. However, most cases show these partisans were involved in attacking retreating soviets while there were events attacking Jewish refugees from Lithuania, however most of these attacks took place after Germans had taken power and ordered Latvians to attack the refugees.

Holocaust in Latvia has been documented very well and shows that killings took place after the Germans had full installed power and taken control over Latvian national partisans or Self Defense groups. These groups and two main Security Police commandos Arājs and Valgulāns group did the most job of killing Jews while all these murders were directed and observed by Germans. As for the tragic events in July 4 1941 when Arājs men burned down the main synagogue that German propaganda portrayed as major pogrom; the official Nazi documents states that local participation was insignificant and unsatisfactory.

However, no light words are said for Latvian propagandists from Pērkonkrusts (Thundercross) movement who voluntary published hundreds of anti-Semitic articles in the press and before the war some of their publications state that they favored the removal of the Jews from Latvia. After the movement demanded Germans to create Latvian national forces, they were all arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Nazi occupation was far better than the Soviet occupation

The massive deportations of June 14 1940 and many other repressions were grave image of the soviet occupation. During the Nazi occupation the national flag of Latvia was flown only for few days and was banned as well as the national anthem and other symbols. In 1941-1942 there was no German intention for restoration of independent Latvia. Instead plan was drawn to colonize Latvia and integrate into Nazi Germany. Rhetoric changed after Stalingrad and Germans needed Latvian support for continuing war effort. Latvian Waffen SS Legion was formed and promises were made of Latvian national government. Never fulfilled.

As off repressions – Nazis killed 9000 Jews in Latvia and also sent Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Nazis killed about 2000 Roma’s. Nazis killed people supporting soviet partisans. Nazis deported whole families from Belarus to Latvia, where many children died from sickness and starvation. Nazis repressed and killed people calling for independent Latvia. There is no need to compare.

Salaspils camp was a death camp

Germans had diverse classification list for their camps. For instance the Kaiservald (Mežaparks) was called a concentration camp while Salaspils was called simply a camp. They also had camps called extermination camps and death camps. Salaspils was simply called camp. It’s this just a guise? During the soviet occupation in sixties some people were inspired by the new memorials in Auschwitz and Dachau so they wanted similar in Latvia. Salaspils was chosen for a new memorial and thousands of people who died there deserved this. However, soviets published books where they called Salaspils a Death camp. Soviets made claims that there was gas machines in the camp. Another claim that camp served as blood repository, that children from Russia and Belarus were used to collect blood for German soldiers.

There are no proof that there was ever a gas machine used in Salaspils.  There was no logical reason for mass blood collecting without determining the blood type that would make blood transfer out of question. On 1943 because of issues the German medical authority canceled the use of blood doses in the Eastern Front instead preferring direct transfer. Also the blood transport to Western front from Latvia would be costly and unreliable process.  Blood collecting took place, but not in large-scale and mostly for medical reasons as doctors tried to limit the spread of diseases that would endanger not only children but also adult workers. The camp was for most as punishment camp for people of various sorts also soviet prisoners of war, anti-nazi resistance and unemployed. People died there because of harsh work conditions, sickness and starvation. It was a horrible place, but soviet claims and their given death toll is gravely exaggerated.

Latvian Waffen SS is responsible for war crimes

Latvian Waffen SS was formed in 1943 after most of Jewish killing took place. Its two divisions 15th and 19th division and smaller adjacent units  took part in combat from Leningrad to Berlin. The Police Battalions, Security Police commandos are not Latvian Waffen SS Legion. Some of the former members of the criminal units later were enlisted into Latvian Waffen SS legion. That is their individual responsibility. Similarly every Soviet soldier who made war crimes or allied soldier holds individual responsibility.

Latvian Waffen SS truly fought for independent national Latvia. The Latvians within Soviet army or Latvian soviet partisans were either just conscripts or trained saboteurs

Latvian Waffen SS carried out German orders. It fought hard battles and many times stopped great soviet offensives and allowed German units to escape onslaught. They never really had time and chance to fight for independent Latvia no matter how each of them wanted it. Only thing they achieved is that they helped many refuges to escape Latvia by halting and stopping advancing soviets.

Most of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion were conscripts. War was seen to each of his own eyes. So as the soldiers in the Latvian Rifleman divisions in the Red Army. Many of its members truly wanted to liberate Latvia from the Nazis. The Latvian Jews in the Latvian Rifleman division had a clear motivation. While there was practice of trained Soviet partisan drops in Latvia, some of them also did war crimes their motivation was either sense of duty or motivation to fight Nazi’s. Both of these sides had plenty of wrong; Latvians had to take part in both sides. There was no Latvian side in the Eastern front.

Latvian national partisans were bandits created by German secret service and then submitted to the allied secret services

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. After the end of world war hundreds of people did not accept the soviet occupation and went into woods. There was hope for allied war with soviets and these people hoped their guerilla will be short. Instead it resorted to hopeless battle until 1956. Soviets called them bandits and accused of atrocities, murders and looting. In some events it was true as partisans were vicious towards local soviets and attacked shops to get supplies. One could say that it was false to wait for allied war with Soviets, however the allied rhetoric made such hopes. In reality the US and UK leadership was always afraid of Soviet attack and feared to attack first. Soviets also made claim that these partisans were created by Nazis to work behind enemy lines. It’s true that Nazis really created such battalions like SS-Jagdverband-Ost that however was almost completely destroyed by the end of the war. Prior to Nazi invasion in 1941 Nazis made contacts with many members of Latvian anti-Soviet resistance and exiles and also direct Nazi supporters and then trained for operations. However, its doubtful that Nazis managed to train large partisan force as large it was during 1945-1956.

Allied secret services CIA and SIS both made efforts to assist the Latvian partisans. These efforts were soon uncovered by Soviets and used against the allies. People were lured in Latvia and captured. Soviets even created fake partisan units to lure allied agents mostly Latvians into the trap. Since the start the allied secret service operation in Latvia was controlled by Soviets. Did partisans regarded CIA and SIS as their superiors? In their desperate war against soviets they needed every help they can get, but since allied efforts were hindered by the KGB there was no significant way to help them.

Russification during Tsarist times were harsher then in Soviet times

Sometimes in mostly Ukrainian twitter shares an old exhibition piece – a pillory sign – “he spoke Latvian” as punishments in school for speaking Latvian during Tsarist times. In the late 19th century such pillory signs and really did exist and Ukrainians use this to their argument against Russian influence. While Russian would probably say that this shows that Russification in Tsar times was more harsh than in Soviet times when it was always nonexistent. During the harshest period of Russification the Latvians had answer – private Latvian schools that became popular. People tried to avoid official state schools where Russian language was imposed. Russification gradually weakened after 1905. During the soviet occupation, Latvian language was taught in schools, Latvian language was on TV and Radio and there was no fines for its usage outside official use. Officially all documents were in Russian, it was official language in army and police. But, was the most crucial – soviets did not forced thousands of immigrants from Soviet Union to learn Latvian. It seemed useless for them and that made heavy shoulder on Latvian language. It was regarded as a language only for Latvians, it was not needed for Russian speakers and Russian speakers did not speak with Latvians in their language. Of course not all of the new soviet residents were ignorant of the Latvian language, but that was long gradual diminishing of the Latvian language rather than brash suppression that only creates resistance.

During the soviet rule, the Soviet government invested millions in Latvian economy and received very less in return therefore its Latvia that owns debt to Russia

When Latvia speaks about large amount of losses created by Soviets and asks for large refund, Russia always reminds of their massive investment into Latvia. Until now such claim was let to pass however now studies conclude that from 1946 to 1991 Soviet Union spent 24,684 million rubles in Latvia while gained 40,645 revenue from Latvia. 15,961 million were spent less than gained. The money gained from Latvia was used for poor areas in Russia and support other soviet republics. Latvia had valuable agricultural and industrial products and was very valuable and profitable captive nation for Moscow. For this reason there is regret for loss of Latvia and plans always in place of how to return it.

During the Soviet times large part of Latvian intellectuals and cultural workers were involved with KGB

Soviet secret service KGB was the most powerful and biggest spy agency in world history. It both held responsibility of foreign and interior intelligence. And as of interior intelligence it was not just counter intelligence it was complete control of the society in every its aspect to counter anti-Soviet activity. That involved recruitment of people from cultural, academic and artistic circles. There are people who are known and who have confessed, then they rumors. The issue is that even partial list of agents is still classified. The KGB documents research commission has made demands to publish the database, however Latvian Constitutional Defense Bureau   is still against it. This claim will stay unverified as long as the lists of agents that is available in  Latvia remains classified. And people will say that there is a reason why it’s still classified.

Soviet times were generally worse than now

The most harshest years of the Soviet occupation was 1945-1953 during last years of Stalin. These years were characterized with another mass deportation in 1949, enforced collectivization, war with partisans and painful economic recovery. Level of living improved in sixties and level of repressions dropped. In sixties and seventies the soviet technical advancement was lacking in comparison of Western level of technology. However, in most part soviet production was still able provide people with good level of living and welfare. The cultural level despite censorship was reasonably high, advancements were made in arts, literature, cinema and music. Censorship even made artists, writers and musicians to be more creative to express themselves so hidden messages were shown. As of all even despite Nikita Khrushchev vulgar attack on modern arts (he later regretted and said he was just confused) and stagnate conservatism of Leonid Brezhnev the culture in Soviet Union was prosperous although it could not completely avoid the banality of the soviet propaganda. In similar way the education while plagued with obligatory soviet ideology managed to provide good level of knowledge.  Medicine was state funded, while it was often slow and not as technically advanced as in west it served its purpose. Also Soviet Union was not fully closed from the west and many of the western culture and education reached Latvia and influenced the people.

The most negative aspects of the post Stalin years was mass immigration, increased pollution created by industry and the military. Still fear from army and KGB was all the time present, the Latvian men were sent to Afghanistan and later Chornobyl. Latvians could not freely travel the world, the contacts with west was limited. In 80s the Soviet economy went into decline resulting deficit of products, increased corruption and technologic backwardness. It seems that if Soviet Union did not collapse in 1991 and never took any reforms it would go into deep recession and would not be able even to challenge the West. If Soviet Union would try to make approach similar to China, by keeping the state order but introduce free market things may turned out differently, but Soviet elite seemed to completely mismanage their reforms and the empire collapsed from the actions of their own rulers.

Comparing to our days while technology is way advanced, almost none of is made in Latvia. The state and private sector cannot provide jobs to all people in Latvia resulting emigration. Culture is almost free from any sign of censorship, but the main issue is state funding that is always lacking and privately funded culture is of many things. Same as education and medicine almost every sector lacks proper funding. Independent state cannot even fully funds its police and army. Cost of life has increased and issues in education and medicine has created discontent in society. Much of this was evident in 1920-1940 and that is a cost for being independent senior state rather part of large empire.

During the restoration of independence the old soviet communist elite made transition to democratic elite and still rules the country

This is claimed by the nationalists some of them members of Helsinki-86 and the Citizens Congress who wanted more radical way of restoration of independence rather than conventional way that was made by Popular Front that cooperated with Latvian communists who reverted to support the independence. That shows how weak and impotent the communist beliefs had become and most of the communist party members except hardliners steadily approved new reality and became capitalists and sometimes nationalists. This claim is partially true, however it seems that hardline nationalists were in no position to fulfil things their way and live on this accusation for rest of the two decades. What is unfortunate that no proper lustration was done and it was not done in any of the former Soviet Union. In Russia and Belarus it led to a rise of Soviet revisionism, in Ukraine and Georgia it lead to revolutions. In Latvia it simply created an unfortunate situation when some of the old elite tries to operate the country the old soviet way, some of not the best of their ability. Some of these people still tries to maintain good relations with Russia or are their agents. Larger issue is post soviet thinking that is characterized by fake nationalism and fake democratism and economic inability.

Majority of Russian speakers supported independent Latvia from USSR and were betrayed by Latvian government later by creating an apartheid state

In March 3 1991 a poll was made asking for supporting the independence from USSR. 1 227 562 voted for 411 374 against. In 1989 there was 1 387 757 Latvians, 905 515 Russians, 119 702 Belarusians, 92 101 Ukrainians, 60 416 Poles and 22 897 Jews. Surely it could mean that large part of Russian speakers were in favor. And Popular Front made posters asking Russian speakers to vote and try engage them. However, 24,69 of people voted against they were mostly ethnic Russians and military servicemen. Those who supported where mainly people who or their ancestors lived in pre war Latvia or who saw possibility of national cultural revival like some of the Jews.

Still  411 374 was large number and Latvian parties started to dwindle away from Russian speakers. After the independence the new ruling parties had a tough decision. Latvia could either start accession to  EU and NATO as difficult it seemed or try to stay close to Russia. And they feared that Russian speakers will not support course towards NATO and EU and vote for pro-Moscow parties. There already were such and wanted Latvia to stay ‘neutral’. Also in 1989 only of citizens were 52,0% were Latvians and it was obvious to try to preserve. So tough citizenship law was made to give Latvian citizenship to people who were born or had parents in pre war Latvia. Thousands of soviet immigrants became non-citizens.  Russia with its new support policy for Russian speakers abroad immediately condemned Latvia and called the situation in Latvia an apartheid.

Ironically the NATO and EU pressured Latvia to ease the citizenship law and it was gradually done. In result every year more non-citizens gained citizenship. In 2015 there was 262 030 non-citizens. Seems most of the Russian speakers do use their citizenship to support pro-Moscow parties as their support has increased since 2010 and in Riga there is ethnic Russian mayor. Was this support caused by staggering citizenship law? That is one of the reasons, while there some another referendum – in 2012 a referendum for two state languages were initiated. 273 347 people voted for. From 1 098 593 overall voters that is as much as opposition to independence in 1991 poll. It shows that for some people their views had still not changed since 1991 and the Latvian political forces were generally right about their weariness of the Russian speaking voters.

During 1990-1999 the government and ruling elite destroyed the Latvian industry and agriculture inherited from Soviet era on purpose

The first decade since regaining independence was hard one for thousands of workers. Large soviet inherited factories like VEF went into bankruptcy. Government in odds in being unable to maintain all post soviet industry decided to give away to privatization. In various cases the new owners were unable to maintain these factories, while others were simply looted. Many believed it was done on purpose for personal wealth of the new national elite. While some persons involved it was true, the collapse of the soviet industry can be explained for myriad of objective reasons. First soviet industry was all tied to Soviet marked that had collapsed, second the Soviet military had lot of grey orders from these factories that were now lost. Third that soviet industry was hopelessly backwards and foreign investors had no interests in them. A vile version that foreign companies saw new rival in Latvian industry and wanted to destroy it. However, it was so weak that they possibly could not rival Western companies for decades. It was far better to be bought by them for low price, but most like VEF old leadership refused. Fourth factor that new Latvian government that for two years was concentrated for almost impossible task of restoring independence now got in whirlwind of economic and social fallout that was caused by collapse of the soviet economy and rapid transition to free market. The government and new state intuitions were amateurs, often clueless of how to save the industry and made mistakes and fell for bates. Nevertheless it was a major social disaster that has not been fully recovered.

European Union continued to destroy Latvian economy, for instance it closed the Latvian sugar industry

When Latvia joined EU many hoped for immediate prosperity that did not come after 1992. However, many were disappointed by many regulations, directives and recommendations. Also EU investment was and is always under regalement and bigger countries still get the bigger cut. Not only that EU contributed to the closure of the Latvian sugar industry. This action however was not done because EU had vile intentions but because in 2004 it lost a case to World Trade Organization that allowed 49 poorest countries to export sugar into EU without fees and tariffs. To rescue EU sugar industry and compensate those who would be now dropped out of the market. EU offered the companies who can’t produce ton of  sugar for 404 euro were asked to leave the market and received compensations for their closure. And Latvian companies of centuries of experience were one of them. Now most sugar in Latvian stores are from Poland and is one of the most expensive in EU. It is rather unfortunate situation, but EU did that for many other countries because it was forced to.

As much of the EU positive and negative effect to Latvian economy there is many factors. EU has contributed to some sectors of economy and has hindered others. EU tries to work for common good and tries to keep balance and that balance is not always good for some countries. However, EU has no vile intention to sabotage Latvian economy if it had such it would let Latvia go bankrupt in 2008-2009, but obviously that would be against the common good and balance.

These were the some of the myths of the Latvian history. Every nation has its own historical myths and explaining them helps understanding the history better.

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Baltic Germans

The Jaunpils  Castle

Typical Baltic German Castle at Jaunpils

In late Medieval ages Holy German Empire became overpopulated. People had trouble finding land and jobs in the cities. In families with more than two children the third son was unable to inherit land from his family. So many Germans had to find a new place to live. The Germans looked to the east. Eastern Europe offered free lands to maintain and local people were poor and in much lower numbers. Also the Eastern European kings needed immigrants from the west to protect their lands from Mongolian invasions. This allowed the Germans to migrate to such places as Transylvania (in present day Romania), Bohemia (Sudetenland, Czech Republic) and other eastern parts. Later on the behalf of empress Katrina II Germans entered Russian lands.

But nobody invited Germans to Baltic lands. In 12-13 century Germans started a military expansion to the east under Crusader banner. Crusades in Latvia have been discussed in many posts before in this blog. Find them using tags or search.

First Germans in Latvia were Crusaders and Church missionaries.  Along with them came German merchants that settled in Riga. When all Latvian land became part of Livonia, more Germans came here. Crusaders became nobles and established castles around Latvia. Others mainly merchants lived in larger cities. In the 13th century there were 15 thousand Germans opposite to 160 thousand ancient Latvians. Also 20 thousand Livonians lived in Latvia. Despite the low numbers Germans were political majority. They held all political rights and titles; they got rights to land and ownership of local peasants. Ancient Latvians were mostly peasants that worked for German landlords for all their life with no rights for their own land. Latvians got little chance for education that would raise their social status. In cities Latvians could only have low rank jobs that were called “shameful jobs”. But Latvia escaped high scale colonization of German peasants. Livonia was hard to reach from Germany because of independent Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. If the Germans would enter Latvia in larger masses than Latvians would put at high risk of assimilation. There are however records of Latvian and Livonian entry into German noble families. One of the most famous Baltic German noble family Fon Lieven is said to originate from Livonians.

During the time of Reformation most Germans supported Martin Luther reforms and became Lutherans. Lutheranism and other protestant movements were highly common among German immigrants in Eastern Europe. Swift to Lutheranism also helped Latvians for the first religious texts were translated into Latvian.

The crush to German nobility was Livonian war that started in 1558. Livonia was at risk of being conquered by Russia. That did not happen thanks to Poland-Lithuania and Sweden, but the Germans had to give up their Crusader order. In 1561 the Livonia order ceased to exist. However Germans managed to keep all their rights because of the favor by Polish king Sigismund Augustus. A document containing promised privileges by Polish king gave wide rights to Germans in Latvia. But this document has not preserved until this day and nobody hasn’t seen it for a long time. Because of this historians speculate that document is falsification. Despite that Germans used this phantom document to protect their rights for many years.

However Poles did not keep all promises. Riga faced trade controls from Polish administration. Poles tried to restore Catholicism by removing few churches and imposing new calendar. This caused Calendar revolt in Riga that lasted from 1584 to 1589 and was defeated with the help of traitors within Germans. But in Duchy of Courland and Semigallia that was autonomous from Poland Germans had time of their lives. Germans ruled the Duchy and had a free hand in politics and religious matters. Their best days ended in 1795 when Duchy was added to Russia.

Germans in Swedish Vidzeme faced hard times when the Swedish administration decided to revise German ownerships and give large portions of land to Swedes. But in Riga Germans were supported because Sweden needed to keep the favor of Riga that got larger population than Stockholm. The Germans build many beautiful trade residences in Latvia like Reitern house and House of Danenstern in Martalu Street.

After Vidzeme capitulated to Russia things changed. One side of Germans led by count Johann Patkul conspired against Sweden to support Russia. However many German nobles were part of Swedish army and captured Patkul and sentenced him to death. But Russia at first did not want to conflict with the Germans. General Sheremtjev signed deal with Germans to allow them autonomy and official use of the German language. Latvians were completely subjected to Germans. Taxes and corve’s were increased. This was the highest point of Latvian enslavement that continued many decades until serfdom was abolished.

Russian emperor Peter I favored German aristocrats. He invited them to his court at Petersburg. The new city itself was built with the help of German engineers. Peter I needed well-educated Germans modernize his new empire.

In the 18th century there were 40 thousand Germans in Latvia. Because of Enlightenment in Western Europe many intellectuals entered Latvia most notably Johan Herder who worked in the Riga Dome School. German scholars started to show interest for Latvian folklore and language. Ernest Glik did tremendous work of translating the Bible in Latvian. Pastor Gothart Stender wrote many educational books in Latvian promoting Latvian education. Favored among Latvian are German scholar Garibl Merkel and his work “Latvians”. In this book he criticizes the Latvian enslavement and praises Latvian culture. This was one of the first times when information about Latvians was shown to the outside world. The work of German educators helped Latvians to get a national identity in future.

In 1766 first and last attempt of German colonization happened in Latvia. By the favour of empress Katrina II 85 Germans from Pfalz settled in Hirchen (Irši) parish near Aizkraukle. All of them were peasants who lived closely in Hirchen village. In 1914 there were a 8000 people who were born in Hirchen.  However only 1570 lived there because others left home to find luck in Riga, Russia or in Western Europe.

Germans living in Latvia often did not call themselves Germans. They identified themselves as Baltic Germans (deutchbalten). In 1817 and 1819 serfdom was abolished in Courland and Vidzeme (but still in Latgalia). German educators put even higher pressure to educate Latvians. They however wanted only elementary education for them. Latvians peasants still were objected to German landlords despite the abolishment of serfdom. That caused rapid Latvian conversion to the Orthodox Church to move away from the Germans. About 40397 Latvians became Orthodox Christians. To stop this leader of liberal German reformists Hamilkar von Felkerzam managed to allow Latvians rent land from the Germans and re-buy it in longer time. This finally allowed Latvians to become farmers.

The Germans got high influence in Russian politics. The Russian army was filled by German high rank officers. The Germans took posts in the Russian government. German academics and scientists pushed Russian progress. Only Noble prize winner from Latvia is German chemist Wilhelm Ostvald. In middle of 19 century 140 thousand Germans lived in Latvia.  They took part in the industrialization and controlled all industrial sectors in Latvia. They were wealthiest social group. But the growing sentiment of Russian nationalism or Slavophilism started to push pressure on the Germans. Russian Czar Alexander II started the process of Russifaction  and Unifaction of Russian Empire. In 1885 Nikolay Manasein revision cancelled the Baltic German autonomy, abolished German courts and made Russian language the official language in state matters. Baltic Germans did not receive any support from German Empire that wanted to keep good relations with Russia. 2000 Baltic Germans emigrated to Germany because of anti-German reforms. However Germans kept their status in industrial and commercial sector. They still worked in state offices because Russians were not eager to work in the Baltic provinces. All Majors of Riga were Germans (except Englishman John Armisted) no Russian ever wanted to lead Riga.

The Germans felt remorse to Latvians who gained more freedom because of Russian reforms. However the wave of Russifaction hit Latvians by prohibiting the Latvian language in schools and public places.  But Latvians were free to form their organizations and speak privately in Latvian. When a wave of revolution hits Latvia in 1905 the Latvian-German conflict sparkled in blood and fire. For the few months Russian administration lost control over Latvian rural areas that were taken by revolutionary committees. Revolutionaries burned 200 German mansions in all Latvia. The Germans formed self defense squads to fight armed social democrats and peasants. When things begun to heat up; Germans asked for Russian help. General Aleksey Orlov led “punishment expeditions” to stop revolution. Punishment battalions killed 1615 revolutionaries.

A new hit for Germans were the start of First World War. The Germans suddenly become haunted minority blamed for all calamities of the war. Russian administration destroyed the prosperous German controlled industry by evacuating all factory equipment to inner Russia. Even tram lines were taken to Russia. Despite this a large part of Germans fought with the Russian army against their brothers in Baltic front.

A new hope for the Germans was Brestlitovsk peace agreement that gave all Baltic lands to Germany. On November 8 1918 Baltic Germans gathered in Riga to proclaim the “Baltic State”. This state should compromise Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and restore all rights for Germans. However in November 11 Germany signed capitulation act and in November  18 Latvia proclaimed its independence. The idea of Baltic State now was obsolete. Germans however did not lose hope for it until 1920. In 1918 Germans supported Latvian government because of growing danger from Soviet Russia. Germans made Landesver an army from Baltic Germans and ex members of the German army to help the Latvian army. With their help the Bolsheviks were pushed away from Riga however Germans quickly turned against Latvians by organizing coup 1919  April 16 in Liepaja. A plan to capture Karlis Ulmanis government failed and Germans formed a puppet government lead by Kārlis Niedra a pro-German pastor. Their plans failed completely when their armed forces were defeated by joint Latvian and Estonian forces near Cesis on June 22. By pressure of the US, England and France a ceasefire was signed and the Germans were forced to recognize the Latvian government. Germans Edvin Magnuss become minister of justice and Robert Erhard became minister of finance. Landesver was taken under Latvian control.

However radical German forces lead by General Ridiger von der Goltz and Russian whiteguard Pavel Bermont- Avalov attacked Riga in November of 1919 but failed once again. By this time more Germans supported Latvia. Paul Schiemann new German leader officially supported Latvian independence. Landesver forces took part in the liberation of Latgalia in 1920 from the Soviets. 54 German soldiers were awarded with the highest Latvian military award the Order of Lachpesis (Bear Slayer).

After the war Germans came to conclusion that they need to integrate in the Latvian politics.  A new party called “Baltic German democratic party” was formed. It was the most successful minority party in Latvia that won 6 seats in every election. Jewish and Russian parties had far lesser results because of their political divisions. A massive blow for German landlords was the Agricultural reform. Latvian government wanted to get rid of German landlords once and for all. 1300 properties of German mansions were confiscated. Noble families lost their mansions and palaces. Another boiling point was a German commemoration of Landesver. In 1929 a Landesver soldiers’ cemetery was established in Riga. A large monument was built. After few weeks monument was destroyed with explosives by unknown people. Resented Germans took all pieces of destroyed monument and connected to one piece.

Despite of deep divide Germans kept the status in industry and commerce. An autonomy in education was kept, a German self funded schools worked in all Latvia. Even the national reforms of Karlis Ulmanis regime could not hinder German place in Latvian economy.

But nothing was so crucial to Germans as the rise of National Socialism. Nazi Germany exported Nazi ideology to Baltic Germans. In 1933 a Nazi organization “Bewegung” (Movement) was established in Riga. Nazi supporters gained success by removing democrat Paul Schiemann from the leadership and excluding other democrats. Nazi leader Erich Krueger had ties with German SS and SD. The Nazi government wanted to make “fifth column” to fulfil their expansionist plans. Nazi movement made bitter danger for Latvia.

After signing non-aggression pact with Soviet Union it became clear to Hitler that once Latvia would be taken by the Soviets, the Baltic Germans will be oppressed by them. So he issued call to Baltic Germans to return to their ethnic homeland. Not all Germans in Latvia wanted to move. The majority however feared the coming Soviet occupation and used this chance to escape. In 1939.-1940 51 thousand Baltic Germans left Latvia. Only 11 thousand Germans stayed. After Soviet Occupation 10500 still remained. Those who moved to Germany however could not live in Germany itself but were moved to Nazi occupied Poland. There they met tragic fates in 1944-1945.

In 1989 by Soviet Census there were 3789 people calling them Germans. A large part of them came from mainland Russia. Only 944 were born in Latvia. 49% of Latvian Germans spoke only in Russian. After regaining of independence Germans organized new organizations, but there is a divide between German-speaking Germans and Russian speaking Germans. By the dates of 2007 there are 4226 Germans in Latvia. Some Germans from Germany move to Latvia to find jobs or move here because they married with Latvians. The last census in 2011 gathered 3042 Germans now living in Latvia.

German culture in Latvia has been destroyed by two-world wars. But the German presence can be seen in many places in Latvia. The buildings in Riga, mansions in rural areas. Latvian language and music have been influenced by the Germans. Latvians despite the conflicts own a lot of Germans and German factor will always have a place in Latvian history.

Selected Sources:

Krupņikovs, Pēteris. (1980). Melu un patiesības palete. Riga: Zvaigzne 1980.

Duhanovs, Maksims. (1986). Baltijas muižniecība laikmetu maiņā : Baltijas muižniecības politika 19.gs. 50.-70.gados un tās apoloģētiskās historiogrāfijas kritika. Riga: Zinātne.

Dribins, Leo, Spārītis Ojārs. (2000) Vācieši Latvijā. Riga: Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts. Etnisko pētījumu centrs.

Dribins, Leo (Ed.) (2007) Mazākumtautības Latvijā : vēsture un tagadne. Rīga : Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts, 2007.

Pistohlkors, Gert, Von. (Ed.) Deutsche Geschichte im Osten Europas: Baltische Länder, Vol 4.Berlin: Seidler Verlag.

Cerūzis, Raimonds (2004). Vācu faktors Latvijā (1918-1939) : politiskie un starpnacionālie aspekti = German factor in Latvia (1918-1939) : political and inter-ethnic aspects. Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

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Old Prussians

wiitingis

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.

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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.

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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.

Namejs

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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The Legend of Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky

800px-Nicholas_Roerich,_Guests_from_Overseas

Varyags are arriving at Russian Land

While early Baltic tribes had trouble building their nation states, the first form of a united Russian nation formed in the 10th century. Its beginnings are not too clear making controversy among Russian historians and their colleagues from other countries. The main question is- how important was the role of Scandinavian Vikings in the birth of the Russian nation and the state. The Swedish Vikings used large Russian rivers to take the road from Scandinavia to Constantinople the capital of the Byzantine Empire and trade with Arabian Caliphate. They used river Volkhov, Dnepr, and Volga. They also used Daugava which called Dvinsk in Russian. The Russians called Vikings Varyags – (Варяги). The sailors started to settle in local settlements and begin to enforce their rule on local Slavic tribes. They eventually assimilated with local Slavs but kept their contacts with Scandinavia for many years to come. The Varyags established such important and historic centers like Novgorod and Kyiv. Eventually all tribal centers became one large country with Kiev as capital getting name Kievan Rus (Ки́евская Русь).

The country reached highest point when in 988. Vladimir the Great (987.-1015) married the Byzantine princess Anna and converted to Orthodox Christianity for it was the main Byzantine main confession. Russia was placed on the world map and became engaged with Orthodox culture. Today its argued how much was the importance of Scandinavian Varyags. There are interpretations that Varyags was not just Swedes but almost every form  of sailors and raiders not regarding their nationality. Indeed the Primary Chronicle (По́весть временны́х лет) tells Varyags were Norsemen known as the Rus (русь), Swedes, Normans and Angles.  There is another word meaning foreigner of every nationality as nemets (немец) in that time now meaning German. Primary Chronicle also tells that first mighty Russian rulers were Rurik and his brothers from the Norsman (Rus) who started the first Russian dynasty which ruled until the 16th century.

Even if this could mean that Russia could be founded by non-Slavic sailors, they were just elite and elite always are shorter than the lower classes. As said earlier the Varyagian elite became more Slavic and assimilated itself but the name of Russia and Russian people could originate from Rurik and Rus from Norselands.

The Russian writing the Cyrillic alphabet were taken from Bulgaria. The years of Yaroslavl the Wise were Golden years of Kievan Rus. Many marvelous buildings were built  as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kyiv. After the death of Yaroslavl the Rus begun to decay in inner struggle between the heirs of Varyags who battled for the  tittle of Duke and Grand Duke of Rus. The contacts with the western world were weakling and finally in 1097 all Dukes made an agreement which split Rus in many small Russian Duchies.

The Baltic tribes were endangered by Duchies of Polotsk and Novgord Republic. The divided Russian states were in danger from nomadic tribal raiders like Kipchacks who settled across the Black Sea. But in the 13th century the more mortal danger came from the steppes of Mongolia. The mighty Mongolian tribes introduced a medieval Blitzkrieg to Chinese, Persians, Arabs and Indians. And the Russians were their next target. In 1237 the Khan Batu first arrived at Ryazan, Vladimir and Suzdal pillaging and raiding their lands. In 1239-1240 the Mongols returned this time taking Kyiv and making its way to Poland and Hungary. It was only the death of the Grand Khan of Mongols the Genghis Khan’ that saved Western Europe from Mongolian Doom. Khan Batu returned to mainland to fight for the throne.  The Great Mongol Empire divided in various Khanates. Khan Batu became the ruler of the Golden Horde which stretched from the river Irtysh to Danube and to Uralian mountains and North Caucasus.

At this time one of the sons of Mongol imposed Grand Duke Yaroslavl was making his career. He was no other than Alexander Nevsky. He lived in Novgorod. Novgorod for unclear reasons were not sacked by the Mongols. There are versions that Mongols who had cavalry based army distracted from fighting in wooden areas of Novgorod. There are even extreme theories that Mongols were scared off by the large lake monster, who still lives in one of the lakes near Novgorod. Whatever was the cause the Novgorod did not face the doom from the Mongolians. But Novgorod was endangered by Swedes who now was more Crusaders than the Vikings. In 1240 the Swedes started a Crusade to Novgordod. Swedes crossed the river Nev. Alexander aged only 19 managed to assemble a strong army and head to meet the Swedes. Swedes spent too much time on their campsite by river Nev. At July 15 Nevsky attacked the Swedes at their campsite.  Surprised by the attack the Swedes were defeated and destroyed. Alexander got the name Nevsky after this battle. Some historians however, dispute the authenticity of this event, as it was mentioned only by Orthodox sources and not mentioned in Western Catholic chronicles. It could be just be a skirmish, however it created a legend of Alexander Nevsky.

Nevsky prepares for battle. From movie Alexander Nevsky 1938

But it was not the only wonder done by Alexander. In 1242 new threats from German Crusaders came. In 1240 the Livonian Order lead by Bishop-Prince Hermann of Dorpat attacked the lands of Novgord and captured Pskov. The people of Novgorod requested Alexanders help, he was in Pereslavl at this time. Next year he took back Pskov and on April 5 1242  he met the Crusaders on the narrow strait connecting the parts of lake Piepus. He fooled the over confident Crusaders making them stepping on the frozen lake. The slippery frozen ice gave disadvantages to Crusaders whose armor was too heavy. At last they tried to retreat but got themselves even deeper on the frozen ice fields, finally the ice started to collapse dooming the too heavy knights. However, as modern research shows that ice collapse never took place as it was not mentioned in the sources, and this dramatic episode was created in the 1938 Soviet movie.

Alexander Nevsky stopped the Western Crusader advance. By this he also sealed the border of Livonia to the east that later became borders of Estonia and Latvia. It was the Poles who again tried to intervene Russia in the 16th century during the Times of Troubles. But in the field with Mongolian invaders Nevsky showed a different face. He collaborated with Mongols helping to quell any uprisings against invaders. But he did that because he could not resist the Horde as he could do with the Crusaders. He tried to keep the most modest relations with Mongols to keep his own power and save Russia from Western Crusaders which he viewed as more dangerous than the Mongols.  As so he kept Russia as Orthodox land and helped to strengthen up the Muscovite State which was the root of the Russian Empire. He saved the Russians from more serious Mongol attacks and when after long years since his death, the Russian Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible finally pushed away the Mongolian invaders. Novgorod paid heavy price – in 1570 Ivan IV invaded Novgorod that had rule of republic and trade and political ties with the west and sacked the city killing at least 2 thousand people. The Republic of Novgorod was rival to the despotic Muscovy and Tsar Ivan IV wanted to monopolize his power over the Russian cities.

Alexander Nevsky has considered as a holy figure since his death in Russian culture. He is canonized as a saint. The Russian Emperor Peter I The Great issued a beautiful military decoration the Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky. Stalin also ordered to make a Soviet Order of Alexander Nevsky for his war generals. Also a movie by Sergei Eisenstein the Alexander Nevsky was done in 1938. It’s a classic piece of cinematic art. The movie came as a propagandist warning that Russia is capable of defeating any Western enemy. Since the main enemy was German Teutonic Knights they were symbolized as German Nazis in the minds of viewers of that time. However, when in August 23 1939 the Soviet Union created alliance with Nazi Germany, the movie was removed from public viewing. After the war with Germany broke out in 1941, the movie again became popular as it’s message was clear – that who invades Russia with spear, dies from spear.

In 2008 Russian TV show Name of the Russia Alexander Nevsky was voted as the greatest Russian in all times. He was capable of defeating Stalin, Peter I and Lenin showing that the legend of 19 year old man capable of defeating the western enemy is very favorable for present day Russians. However, skeptics pointed that popular vote was manipulated to avoid rather controversial first place for Stalin. Since the present day Russian government is confronting the Western countries, the Alexander Nevsky is considered as hero in Russia.

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The Livonian Order

Livon ord

The Seal of Livonian Order

The German Crusader disaster in 1236 at the battle of Saule marked a major change in events of the Crusades in the whole Baltic region. The core of the leadership of The Order of The Brothers of Sword was eliminated and Order could no longer function properly. This was the bitter danger for the German power in the Latvian land. Riga needed protection, the earlier conquered lands needed to be held against still free Pagan tribes. A large portion of Curonians and Semigallians were free from Crusader rule and not to mention the Lithuanians who could make a powerful raid against Germans. So proper action was needed to be done to save whole Crusader campaign in the Baltic.

Unlucky for early Latvian tribes a powerful alternative was found- the Teutonic Order or The German Order. Details about this order was described in a post about Order of The Brothers of Sword. At this time when the Brothers of Sword were destroyed the Teutonic Order was the best power to take its part in conquering the Latvian land. Even before the battle of Saule the Master of the Order tried to make deal with the Teutonic Order. But no deal was made. After the battle pope Gregor IX forced the Teutonic Order to incorporate The Brothers of Sword in their ranks with condition that King of Denmark gets his lost land in Northern Estonia back including the city of Revel (Tallin). In 1237 The Grand Master of Teutonic Order Herman from Salza declared the full incorporation of Brothers and give the mission to Heman Balke to go to Riga and consolidate the situation in Livonia and  fulfill the pope’s orders. At this time the conquered Latvia and Estonia was called Livonia or the Terra Mariana (Land of Saint Mary). So in future posts the German acquired lands will be called Livonia. This name was used for many centuries to name the lands of Estonia and Latvia even after the breakdown of Livonian Confederation.

Herman from Balke made his voyage to Livonia with escort or 60 knights, enough to compensate the causalities of Saule. In 1238 June 7 he finished talks with Danes and gave their lost lands back. This was protested by ex-Brothers of Sword who were the ones who detracted the land from the Danes. But the protesters were removed from their posts and some of them were even sent to the Holy Land (Palestine). New knights did not show any sign of protest against this deal.

The Teutonic Order did not conquer the Brother of Sword lands but acquired them legally. The old form of ruling structure was kept and many ex-Sword brothers kept their seats. However the new Master Dietrich from Gröningen no longer wanted to cooperate with old Sword Brothers and removed them from their office and took their lands. Since the Livonia and Prussia which was the main Teutonic base of operations was separated from each other, the knights of Livonia became the Livonian Order. It was still a branch of Teutonic Order fully depended on it, but still kept some form of free action in their zone of operations. Since the Teutonic Order was rich organization the Livonian Order could get enough supplies and reinforcements to make their wars more effective than Brothers of Sword.

In 1240 Livonian Order   captured Russian city Pskov but were defeated by legendary Duke Alexander Nevskya  on the ice covered lake Piepuss in 1242 This battle was an even bitter failure than a battle of Saule and stopped the German Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East) for many centuries. After that the Order took their attention on easier targets in Courland.  Order started to build castles in Courland like the castle of Kuldīga (Goldingen) and castle of Klaipėda (Memel). Crusaders managed to take control of Lithuanian coast making Lithuania a land locked country for many centuries.  In 1252 The Lithuanian Ruler Mindaugas finally agreed to baptize and was recognized by Pope as legitimate Catholic King. Since Crusaders had no progress with the conquer of Lithuania, making them officially Christians was the only thing what they could do. Mindaugas gave Samogottia to Order, but Order was too weak to actually take it.

Mindaugas was a bloody tyrant and double-crosser; some years after the Order was forced to fight with him and in 1260 alongside Curonians, the Lithuanians defeated the Order near Durbe. Two years later Mindaugas was killed by conspirators and Lithuania switched back to Paganism.  Despite that the Order survived the blow and defeated Curonians and finally Semigallians and established numerous outposts around Livonia, like Dünaburg (Daugavpils) and Mitau (Jelgava) which became an important cities.

After the defeat of the last native resistance the Order established himself as the primary power in the Livonian Confederation. It ruled the most lands in Livonia and was the main defense force of the confederation.  It had to rival with Archbishop of Riga who ruled large lands in Vidzeme and administration of Riga who desired more freedom from the Order and the Church. This caused Civil Wars between Riga and the Order. Later Order again acquired Northern Estonia and Revel. The Order lived until 1561 when forced by Livonian breakdown the last Grand Master of the Livonian Order Gothard Ketler became the Duke of Courland and Semigallia.

Selected Sources

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

Militzer, Klaus. (2005) Die Geschichte Des Deutschen Ordens. Stuttgart. Kohlhammer.

Grīnberga L. (Ed.) (1999) Ceļvedis ordeņu vēsturē. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.


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