When Latvia proclaimed independence on November 18 1918 the borders of the new country were not clearly determined. The general idea was that Latvia should be based on three main regions – Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemgale), Vidzeme and Latgale. However, when it came to actual border setting between various neighboring countries. Latvia has border related issues with Lithuania and Estonia where Latvia lost the dispute. However, the question of the Ilūkste district and the town of Grīva – claimed by Poland and Lithuania – gained and controlled by Latvia remained unsolved for many years. The Polish- Latvian border dispute caused ethnic friction between Latvians and Poles within the disputed territory. In the end on 1931 it resulted tense diplomatic conflict between Poland and Latvia. How this dispute evolved and how it was solved will be discussed in this article.
The Ilūkste district was located in southern part of Latvia, on the left side of the river Daugava. The two main centers were Ilūkste and Grīva. Grīva was located on the left bank of river Daugava right across Daugavpils. Today both cities are joined together, however then Grīva and Daugavpils were administratively separated by the river. Also this district was part of the Courland Province of the Russian Empire, while Daugavpils or Dunaburg was within the Province of Vitebsk. As being located between crossroads of Lithuania, Belarus and Latvia the district was ethically diverse containing Latvian, Lithuanian,Polish, Belarusian and Jewish communities. So both Poland and Lithuania considered that they should have this piece of land.
Polish armies entered the district on August-September 1919. On September 27 the Red Army was forced to abandon the left side of Daugava and retreated to Daugavpils fortress. The Polish government decided that the district must be annexed by Poland. It was mainly do to the strategical reasons as Poland wanted the border to run along the river Daugava. Also the significant Polish population was the argument to include this district within Poland. The district was formed in six parishes Borne, Demene,Kalkūni, Skrundaliena and Borovka. They were added to Polish Braslava district.
However, Latvian government regarded this district also with sizable Latvian population as their legitimate land. On December 1919 both Polish and Latvian armies liberated Latgale from the Red Army. The Polish Military command issued to local Polish administration in Ilūkste to prevent any attempt of establishing of the Latvian authority. On February 22 before Warsaw conference the Polish Foreign Ministry decided to issue demand to Latvia to give up its claims on Ilūkste district. On the spot both sides started to bring in their own governing bodies which resulted in conflict. Latvians attempted to issue new Chief of the Police in Grīva while it was de facto controlled by the Poles. He was turned away, same happened with Latvian border guards who were instructed to establish border posts along the Latvian claimed border line. Poles turned them away and they were forced to establish the posts along the river Daugava. Petitions were gathered along the left bank against giving the disputed land to Latvia. If not the person was threatened to be deported to Latvia and was punished with high fees.
On February 26 the chief of Latgale region A Bērziņš reported to Foreign Affairs ministry that this district can only be gained back by guns. As on March 1 1920 Latvian FA gathered delegation to Warsaw, the notion was to convince Poland of restoring the borders of the former Courland province. Meanwhile Polish FA had already decided that Poland will keep the district. In Warsaw the Polish side argued that border line along the Daugava will be effective in case of military assistance to Latvia. Polish foreign minister F Patek even admitted that this territory is rightfully Latvian but still insisted on turning it over to Poland. Latvian side refused to accept this and the question remained open. Latvians saw the danger of Polish having border along Daugava that would make them easily to influence or even capture Latgale. So the talks ended with no result. It was no secret that Polish nationalists wanted to restore Poland within its 1772 borders that means also Latgale or even whole Courland was under Polish deepest desires.
Latvia was in risk of loosing this territory for ever. Still in June Latvian side even manged to stage a propaganda trip along the district under the guise of Lutheran clergy visit to Latvian churches. The pastor asked people to pray God for “free, independent Latvia, all the regions of our homeland including those not yet liberated and our Constituent Assembly”. According to 192o census the 1500 km² wide area was populated by 18 571 people. 1702 Latvians, 6116 Poles, 758 Lithuanians, 3015 Belarusians, 6612 Russians, 323 Jews and 45 Germans. The Polish made census on 1919 gathered 9207 Poles, 1273 Belarusians, 251 Lithuanians, 5068 Russians, 1396 Latvians and 134 Jews. In so the both data greatly conflicted in numbers of the size of the Latvian and Polish communities. However, they both showed that the Latvia community is rather small comparing to Polish, Russian and Belarusian communities. For a long time this land was dominated by the Polish language and Christian church. Many people were unable to determine their true ethnicity and fluctuated between being Polish or Latvian. Also Belarusians had trouble as they were unsure of being Polish, Russian or even Latvian. Therefore there was large room for error or even fraud in these statistics.
On summer 1920 the situation unexpectedly turned the other way around. Polish offensive in Ukraine was crushed and swift Soviet counter attack begun. The Polish forces in Ilūkste were in danger of being torn off from the main forces. Poland was unsure of the Latvian actions kept one division to protect the north side. Latvia was unable to take direct part as it has signed ceasefire with Soviet Russia and talks for peace agreement was under way.
However, as Polish forces were pushed inwards, the Latvian army started to cross the river and enter the Ilūkste district. At same time the Lithuanians appeared to gain their share of the district. A small gunfights without causalities erupted and Lithuanians had to turn back. With the help of the English military mission representatives the dispute between Latvians and Lithuanians were calmed and Lithuanians backed off. As there was no Soviet forces around and no Poles, Latvian forces took over the territory. Local populace afraid from the Soviets and disorder welcomed Latvian forces.
Latvians had a hard time restoring order in the devastated district and installing loyal officials as nearly all past officials were Poles. Poland was caught in the war for survival and missed the event. On Autumn 1920 after the Polish victory over the Soviets at the Battle of Warsaw, Polish armies headed back towards the Ilūkste district. Polish forces captured Vilnius and reached the Latvian held territory on November. However, Poland was not willing for the conflict with Latvians and decided to leave by the demarcation line until issue is solved diplomatically.
While some local Poles protested the Latvian power, others like Belarusians decided they are better off with Latvia then with Poland. Despite Polish efforts on March 20 1921 The International Commission lead by D Simpson decided that Ilūkste district belongs to Latvia. However, the commission was intended to solve Latvian-Lithuanian border issues and because of Vilnius conflict it disregarded the Polish claims. Therefore Poland still kept its claims.
In next following years the question remained unsolved. Poland despite formal claims and protest notes did not make strong actions to gain Ilūkste back. Meanwhile the situation in the region stabilized. Latvians schools were opened, the Latvian education in Ilūkste was great concern for Riga. Poles had rights for state funded minority schools. Also the Belarusians gathered to open their own schools.
The issue was raised again sometimes. On 1923 the Polish Sejm (parliament) received 28 people signed memorandum from “the Latvian occupied parishes”. Some of the petitioners had Russian and even one Latvian surenames indicating poloniziation. On 1922 the Latvian Polish Political party declared that it cannot issue their candidates in Ilūkste district because of “sworn allegiance” to Poland on 1919. In the result only one candidate from Latgale was elected into Latvian Saeima. Later they canceled this fruitless principality and issued candidates in Zemgale election district to gain better results.
Latvians placed a great pressure on Ilūkste resulting national frictions. The leading anti-Polish discourse stated that after the centuries of polonization that has made one large quarter of the Ilūkste Latvians into Poles, the Polish politicians and the Catholic church still try to polonize people of Latgale. The Polish schools were accused of spreading “traitorous spirit”, Catholic Church was accused of boosting separatism. The suspicion affected Belarusians too as they were accused of separatism and their teachers placed on trial. Incidentally the cause of this trial was map showing Belarusian ethnic borders in one of the schools within Ilūkste district. The Latvian secret police thought that the map was actually map of the future Belarusian state that included Ilūkste district. In the end the Belarusian trial ended in fiasco forcing secret police to free the teachers. Meanwhile Poles in their newspapers accused Latvians of chauvinism and attempts of undermining the Polish language and culture. Poles also accused Belarusians of attempts of taking away Polish kids and turning them into Belarusians. As matter of fact both Latvians and Poles even questioned if there such nation as “Belarusians”. Another important factor was the resurgence of the Latgalian nationalism. Latvians of Latgale have distinct dialect that some of them considers a distinctive language. As Latgalian nationalists campaigned for Latgalian autonomy and official Latgalian autonomy status, they issued strong messages of confrontation towards Poles of whom the viewed as the representatives of the “dark Polish times”. Polish activists argued back that they rule in 16-18th century was good and more better then the Russian Tzarist rule.
As Poland after 1926 became autocratic dictatorship by Juzef Pilsudsky the Latvian Poles became more reliant on the Polish Mother State. Poland sponsored Polish minority movements. All the historic dates like the uprising of 183o and 1836 were celebrated making Latvians cringe as these events were made to restore united Polish commonwealth. Latvian Polish Union gained 2 deputy seats in the parliament and even more in local elections. The influence of the Polish state and regime was clearly visible in the Latvian Polish daily paper “Dzwon” (The Bell) where an ode to the president of Poland Juzef Pilsudsky was published. It was written by local from Krāslava a town with significant Polish minority. From today’s perspective that is a clear sign of the Polish “soft power”.
After many years of passive tension the Ilūkste dispute reached the boiling point. On 1931 the Ilūkste Catholic church tried to increase the number of church masses in Latgalian language. The local Poles were not impressed. On April 26 and May 3 during Latgalian church mass the Poles started to sing their Polish prayers loader than Latgalians. As both sides tried to sing loader then another the mass turned into riot. Many were arrested in result. A scandalous trials followed mostly issuing small term punishments for shouting the church and disrupting the civil order.
In Riga the Saeima parliamentary investigative commission was made and it concluded that the polonization has taken place in Ilūkste district and the Latvian Polish Union is responsible. The commission accused the Union of spreading separatist teachings in Polish schools and spreading school text books from Poland that marked Ilūkste as Polish territory. 1931 was also the election year boosting up the campaign against the rival Polish party. Polish Union split up in the pro-Latvian and pro-Polish block. Despite that two Polish representatives were elected, the Polish Union was temporally shot down and their six owned Polish schools were closed. The main Polish newspaper “Dzwon” was closed. Later do the “formal reasons” the Latvian Polish Union was disbanded. The Polish ambassador from Riga was temporary called off.
Despite condemnations from Warsaw and rumbling Polish press, Poland did not made any serious steps against Latvia. After all Latvia was one of the main Latvian trade partners and in secret deal between the two states on 1929 Poland by agreeing to pay compensations to compensations to Polish citizen former land owners (including Ilūkste district) had de facto agreed on Ilūkste Latvian possession.
As Latvian population in the district increased (sometimes it was done artificially, by registering Pole or Belarusian as Latvian), and more Latvians taking over local administrations the tensions cooled down. The Poles made new party and restored their newspapers. However, on 1934 when Kārlis Ulmanis seized power, the new party was again banned. On 1933 both sides started negotiations on the border issue. The commission from the both countries finally reached agreement on 1938 ending the issue once and for all. Interesting event between 1933 and 1938 was the closure of the newspaper “Pēdējā Brīdī”. The newspaper had published article about celebrations of 1836 uprising that did not take place for some reason. Article included reference to the Polish claims of 1772 borders, that angered the Polish ambassador. The Latvian Foreign Ministry received complaints from him and asked to punish the newspaper. Newspaper was fined for “spreading hate across the society”, soon after that the censors encountered another “bad” article about Baltic Germans and the Latvian Police and was closed down for “the bad conduct”.
That was last of the tensions. Eventually Ilūkste became recognized as a Latvian city. On 1939 after Eastern Poland was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union the border with Poland was lost forever. Now the Ilūkste district shares border with Lithuania and Belarus. Still ethnically diverse the Ilūkste district has become an integral part of Latvia.
Jēkabsons, Ēriks. (1995). Sešu Pagastu un Grīvas pilsētas problēma Latvijas Polijas attiecībās. Latvijas Vēstures Instituta Žurnāls. Nr.1
Jēkabsons Ēriks. (1996) Poļi Latvijā. Rīga.
Newspaper “Dzwon” 1931
The Latvian History Archive. Ministry of the Society Affairs. Press and organization fund 3724.f. The “Pēdējā Brīdī” case Nr. 549.
Various Latvian Newspapers 1920-1936