What Should I Know About Latvia?

Brendan McGuigan

Latvia is a large country in Northern Europe. It covers 24,900 square miles (64,600 sq. km), making it a bit bigger than the state of West Virginia. It shares borders with Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Russia, and has coastline along the Baltic Sea.

By 2004, Latvia had joined both the European Union and NATO.
By 2004, Latvia had joined both the European Union and NATO.

People first arrived in the area that is now Latvia more than 12,000 years ago. Permanent settlements appeared along the shore of the Baltic Sea about 5,000 years ago. The Baltic tribes began appearing soon after. These tribes would eventually start forming larger groups, including those that would form the nearby kingdom of Lithuania. In the 10th century in Latvia, there were a number of important tribal groups, including the Couronians, who by the 13th century would widely be known as the Baltic Vikings.

Latvia is located in Northern Europe.
Latvia is located in Northern Europe.

German Crusaders arrived in the early 13th century to tame the pagan Balts, who were largely refusing to convert. By the end of the 13th century the Germans had taken loose control of most of the region, lumping it in with nearby Estonia to form the Livonian Confederation. The Livonians didn’t expand much, instead focusing on trade for the next few centuries.

By the end of the 16th century the Livonian Confederation had been conquered by the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Swedes took control of parts of the region, most notably Riga, in the early 17th century. Throughout the 17th century Latvia became more unified, with a distinct culture and language emerging that connected all Latvians.

At the end of the 18th century, when Lithuania was taken by Russia, all of Latvia came under Russian control. Reforms pushed through Latvia over the next century, and a nationalist movement formed in the 19th century. After World War I, Latvia declared independence in 1918. In 1934, the Prime Minister seized power through a bloodless coup, and suspended Parliament.

The Soviets occupied the country during World War II, and remained after the War had ended. Those who pushed for independence in this period were subject to Stalinist deportation to gulags, or summary execution. Latvia remained under Soviet control for the next few decades, until the break-down of the Soviet Union.

In 1991 Latvia declared its independence, quickly reinstating democratic structures and liberalizing their markets. The country quickly stabilized and saw rapid growth in the following years. By 2004 the country had joined the European Union and NATO.

The capital of Riga is one of the high points of Latvia. Full of ancient castles and churches, with gorgeous architecture, and a resounding bar life, the Old Town section of Riga can feel like taking a step back in time a few centuries. Churches throughout the country also make for great sites to visit, with the Aglona Basilica from the end of the 17th century being perhaps the most famous. The countryside of Latvia is also worth seeing on its own merits, with rolling hillsides and picturesque towns such as Sigulda allowing one to shed the modern world.

Flights arrive in Riga daily from most major European cities, and Americans can fly in via one of these hubs. Trains link Riga with Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, and buses link the country with Western Europe. Ferries also connect Latvia to both Germany and Sweden.

Latvia was part of the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991.
Latvia was part of the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991.

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