Tag Archives: Latgalians

Latgale – a part of Latvia

The flag of Latgale next to flag of Latvia

The flag of Latgale next to flag of Latvia

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

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

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

The ancient Latvian tribes map on 12 century

The ancient Latvian tribes map on 12 century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latvian post stamp showing  the lakes of Latgale

Latvian post stamp showing the lakes of Latgale

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

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

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

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


Comments Off on Latgale – a part of Latvia

Filed under Historical Articles

The battle for Daugava waterway. The fall of Jersika

The place where once the city of Jersika once stood

Despite the fact that German Crusaders had no competitors for conquering the Latvian land they still had to cope with Russian interests. Russian Dukes had no intention to annex Latvian lands, but they needed the people living across river Daugava waterway to be loyal to them because it was an important waterway for trade with the West. We have seen the Russian interventions in Livonian lands in previous posts. German merchants saw the Russians as competitors for their trade interests and they urged Crusaders to persuade Crusade to the lands across the river Daugava.

At year 1206 the Crusaders sieged the Livonian castle of Sala where the present day city of Salaspils is located. The Castle of Sala was vital port point for Crusaders. At the same year the Crusaders captured Lielvārde located 20 km from Ikšķile, next was Aizkraukle located 20 km from Lielvārde. It was captured the year earlier.

20 km from Aizkraukle there was Koknese. Koknese was a large center ruled by ruler Viesceķis. He was aware that Russians of Polotsk will not protect him from the Crusaders and decided to become a vassal of Bishop Alberts. There are many questions about the nationality of Viesceķis. The Chronicle of Henry dose doesn’t give his nationality, but claims that he converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity and changed his name to Vjačelsavs. According to archaeological findings the Koknese was inhabited by Latgalians, Selonians and kriviči– meaning Russians. The Chronicle of Henry even calls Koknese the “Russian palace” (castro Ruthenico). This was because there was a Russian garrison and Russian colonists located in Koknese. Their task was protecting Koknese as an important Russian trade base. The number of Russians in Koknese was not insignificant but was noted by the Germans, because when they stormed the Koknese castle they tried not to kill them, fearing to make diplomatic conflict with the Duchy of Polotsk.

Crusaders captured Viesceķis and took him to Riga, but released him and let him go back to Koknenese as their vassal. With him they send Crusaders and builders to Koknese to build a stone castle there. But neither Viesceķis nor Russians were not ready to accept the new rulers and attacked the Germans who were busy building stone walls. But Bishop Albert assembled army of 300 men and head straight to Koknsee. Viesceķis requested Duke Vladimir to help, but he left him and his Russian colonists alone. When the Crusaders came the frightened Russian merchants took all their belongings and burned down Koknese castle and left in a hurry. Selonians and Latgalians were forced to flee in forest hideouts. At year 1209 Koknese fully became a part of Crusader land and the new stone castle was built there.

At year 1208 the Crusaders attacked the Selonian castle of Sēlpils. Selonians made alliances with Lithuanians and that was danger for Crusaders. Crusaders together with subjected Livonians and Latgalians stormed the Sēlpils and forced Selonians to give up. Selonian resistance was quelled and it marked the end of this tribe.

Lielvārde, Koknese, Sēlpils was an important gain for the Crusaders, but the great castle and city of Jersika was still free from Crusader rule. It was vital to capture this basic center, for it was richest early Latvian castle and capturing it will make the whole waterway of Daugava under Crusader control.

The Chronicle of Henry calls Jersika a “city” (ad civitatem). Jersika was a large center protected by a wooden wall and fence. There was Russian garrison and Russian merchant colonist like in Koknese. There were wooden Orthodox Church and many trade markets. It was a city for early Latvian measures but was not close to Riga as there were no stone buildings there. The ruler of Jersika was Visvaldis, he was engaged with Lithuanian ruler’s Daugeruth daughter therefore an ally with Lithuanians against Crusaders. Together they attacked Riga at 1203 forcing Germans to organize Crusade against Jersika.


Visvaldis the ruler of Jersika

The attack began in the summer of 1209. The attack was unexpected for Visvaldis and Crusaders entered Jersika with ease. They killed the local fighters, pillaged the city and even ruined the Orthodox Church taking all its sacred belongings. Visvaldis and his comrades managed to flee, but his wife was captured and taken to Riga. Crusaders burned down Jersika and told Visvaldis that he must head to Riga to make peace with Bishop Albert to get his wife back.  He did so and signed the act of capitulation becoming a vassal of Bishop Alberts.

Jersika the largest early Latvian center was burned to the ground and Crusaders had achieved their goal- the river Daugava waterway to the Polotsk was theirs. It was done in 10 years. The first phase of the Crusades in Latvian land ended. Now they were strong enough to attack Semigallians and Curonians.

Selected sources:

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

Radiņš, Arnis. (1996) Ceļvedis Latvijas senvēsturē. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Comments Off on The battle for Daugava waterway. The fall of Jersika

Filed under Historical Articles

The Latgalians- a distinct Latvians or a different nation?

Latgalian woman and man from 8th century.

Latgalians were the largest tribe of four Latvian tribes and still present day Latvian inhabitants of Latgale differs from Latvians in other Latvian regions. The most notable distinction is the Latgalian dialect which cannot be understandable even to other Latvians. The mentality of Latgalians also differs from other Latvians as well as the cultural ways. This why the question of Latgalian distinction from other Latvians persists until this day. During the recent years of independence the Latgalians have experienced a cultural rebirth, they are using their dialect more freely, and their dialect is popularized by the Latgalian singers.  In the ranks of nationally oriented Latgalians there are even some idle calls for separation from Latvia or at least calls for Latgalian cultural autonomy. Sadly in recent years the leading callers of the Latgalian autonomy has nothing to do with Latgalians and their heritage.

This situation is not severe as it sounds to be. Latgale or Latgale is not a Basque Autonomous region in Spain. There is no Latgalian ETA like in Spain.  In fact Latgale is not only populated by ethnic Latgalian Latvians, there is a long history of Russian, Polish and Jewish presence at Latgale. After the World War the Jewish presence which was in fact very large now is almost gone, but the Russian and Polish minority still makes an impact in Latgale.

The question why Latgale so differs from other parts from Latvia is answerable by checking the Latgalian history.  Now before we start there is one thing to note.  In Latvian language there is a difference between word Latgaļi and Latgalieši. The word Latgaļi is accorded to old Latvian tribe before the coming of crusaders. The word Latgalieši means the all present day Latvians who live in Latgale.

When Latgalians became subjects of the Livonian Confederation there was little difference from other early Latvians. The German rulers enforced Christianity to all natives. The borders of five Latvian regions were not completely settled. This changed in 16th Century. The Livonian War (1558-1561) destroyed the old Livonian order. Polish rulers divided Latvian Livonian territory in two parts- Courland, Semigallia and Selonia became a Duchy of Courland and

Semigallia. The Vidzeme and Latgale were joined in Duchy of Pārdaugava (means the other side of Daugava). The Pārdaugava Duchy however did not last long; it was changed as a simple province of Poland-Lithuania.  Before Polish rule as a result of the Reformation the Lutheranism as the leading church was established in all of Livonia. The Poles strived to change this- they tried to ban Lutherans and revert to complete Catholicism. It was not successful in Courland and Semigallia- the Dukes resisted the Polish efforts. In Riga it caused riots but in Latgale it was the other case. Polish policy of counter-reformation was successful in Latgale reverting all Latgalians completely to Catholicism.  Other confessions in Latgale are a minority until this day. To show how much Catholicism is important in Latgale there are two notable facts- the Basilica of Aglona is one of the sacred Catholic centers in Europe.  And the Cardinal of the Latvian Catholic Church as a Latgalian Jānis Pujats.

The St. Mary Ascension basilica of Aglona.

However it was the War between Swedes and Poles (1600-1621) which set Latgale apart from other parts of Latvia. The war divided the Vidzeme and Latgale into two pieces. One- Vidzeme became a Swedish possession- the other- Latgale stayed as a Polish province known as Inflantija. The Swedes were Lutherans and Catholicism was frown upon from Vidzeme.  Now Latgale became a completely internal region of Latvia.

After the succession of Poland, Latgale became a part of the Russian Empire. The Russian government didn’t bother to make a standalone Latgalian province, instead they joined Latgale with Vitebsk- city in today’s Belarus.  The province of Vitebsk was formed.

During this time of foreign power imposed separation the Latgale preserved its unique dialect, the ways of national dress and cuisine.  To show how Latgalian dialect differs lets compare words written in official Latvian and Latgalian.  The mother- māte muote, father- tēvs tāvs, he- viņš-jis, her- viņa-jis. Riga- Rīga- Reiga. Latgalian dialect is more similar to Lithaunian and even Belarusian than official Latvian language. It may mean that during the centuries of separation from rest of Latvia, the Latgalians kept the most authentic Latvian language dialect, while Latvian language was influenced by German and Latvian languages.

The question of Latgale became important when Russian Revolution took place in 1917, and there was a chance to establish a sovereign Latvian state.  Considering the fact that Latgale was a part of the Province of Vitebsk there was a real fear of Latgale becoming part of Russia rather than Latvia.  There were even poetic calls for unification of Latgale, the Latvian poet and leftist politician Rainis (Jānis Pliekšāns) wrote “The both sides of Daugava will be never part! One  Courland, One Semigallia, One Latgale is ours!” However at April 26 1917, in Rēzekne the Latgalian Second congress made an historical resolution claiming Latgale as different region than Vitebsk and associated themselves with Latvia. This paved the way for all four Latvian region unification in one country of Latvia.

At the time of the First Republic of Latvia, Latgalians were active politicians. They participated in all five parliamentary elections. There were plenty intellectual writers who justified Latgalians as an independent nation, but many approved either – one nation two languages, or one nation one language.  Prominent Latgalian politician Francis Trasuns wanted Latgalian dialect to become a juridical equal to Latvian language, while others hoped the language differences will disappear. There were 20 political Latgalian movements, not just national but religious, farmer, and even socialistic.

After the Soviet Occupation all national movements were considered as enemies of the state. Despite that Latgalian dialect perceived.  Today the Latgalian national movement is once again alive. There is not a large influx of Latgalian parties but there is Latgalian music bands and folk bands and even Hollywood movies translated in Latgalian.

At the end I must say that we could not clearly depict Latgalians as a different nation which is not an integral part of the Latvian nation. The two most visible differences are Catholic Conversion and Latgalian dialect. We however can compare Latgalians to Ukrainians as they got different  Slavic language but close to Russian, but the Latgalians newer completely ideologically separated themselves from Latvians or Latvia as Ukrainians did. So the most correct way to perceive Latgalians is describe them as Latvians with different dialect and cultural differences.

Since last year few Russian nationalist groups sponsored by the Kremlin have made calls for Latgalian autonomy. These people are mostly Slavic origin and have no connection with original Latvian Latgalian activists and personalities. Their supporters are Russians, Byelorussians and Poles of Latgalia who live there. In such way they are ignoring that Latgalia is a historical Latvian region and all the other minorities who entered there have no right to abuse the ideas of Latgalian autonomy, for their political means. It has been reported that people striving for such fake autonomy is supported by the Russian foreign intelligence service. Therefore such actions are hostile to the Latvian state. So we must remember that Latgalia and Latgalians are integral part of the Latvian nation.

Selected Sources:

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga:  Zvaigzne ABC

Zeile,Pēteris. (2006) Latgales kultūras vēsture : no akmens laikmeta līdz mūsdienām. Rēzekne: Latgales Kultūras centra izdevniecība.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava

Comments Off on The Latgalians- a distinct Latvians or a different nation?

Filed under Historical Articles