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Like the Lithuanians, Latvians are descended from the tribes that migrated into the Baltic area during the second millennium B.C. Subsequently, they mixed with the indigenous Finno-Ugric tribes and formed a loose defensive union of Latvian tribes. Until the end of the thirteenth century, these tribes were preoccupied with the constant threat of invasion and subjugation, first by the Vikings and the Slavs and later by the Germans. Early in the thirteenth century, the Germanic Order of the Brethren of the Sword forcibly began to convert the pagan Latvians to Christianity. They were finally subdued by the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights, which then established the Livonian Confederation, a state controlled by landowning German barons and Catholic clergy but with no strong central authority. The Latvian people were reduced to enserfed peasants. By the end of the sixteenth century, the power of the Teutonic Knights had weakened considerably, and Latvia was partitioned between Sweden and Poland, with only the Duchy of Courland remaining autonomous under the Polish crown. Russia, desiring to reach the Baltic Sea, also wanted Latvian territory. These desires were realized in the reign of Peter the Great, when Sweden was forced to cede its Latvian territory to Russia. With the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century, the remainder of Latvia fell under Russian control. In the nineteenth century, Latvians experienced the same period of national reawakening as the other nations in European Russia.
When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, Latvians sought national autonomy. Overrun by the German army, and formally ceded to Germany by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, Latvian nationalists overcame both German and Soviet Russian forces before they established an independent Latvian Republic later in 1918. Latvian independence lasted until 1940, when the Latvians, like the Lithuanians and Estonians, were forced first to allow Soviet troops to be stationed on their soil and then to accept a communist government. Shortly thereafter, Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Thousands of Latvians were killed or deported by the Soviet regime in 1940 and 1941 and again after the Red Army drove the Germans out of Latvia at the end of World War II. The Latvian peasantry was forcibly collectivized. Like the Lithuanians, Latvians carried on a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation forces until 1948.
The vast majority of the almost 1.5 million Latvians in the Soviet Union in 1989 lived in the Latvian Republic, but they constituted a bare majority (52 percent) in their own republic. Russians made up almost 34 percent of the republic's population, with about twice as many Russians residing in the Latvian Republic as in the Estonian Republic or the Lithuanian Republic. The rest of the population consisted of considerable numbers of Belorussians, Ukrainians, and Poles.
The Latvian language is a distinct language, although it belongs to the same group of Indo-European languages as Lithuanian. The first books in Latvian appeared in the early seventeenth century, but literary Latvian was not fully established as a national language until the nineteenth century. In 1989 about 95 percent of all Latvians in the Soviet Union and 97.4 percent of those living in the Latvian Republic claimed Latvian as their first language.
The Latvian Republic was one of the most urbanized republics in the Soviet Union. In 1989 about 70 percent of its population resided in urban areas, which made it the third most urban republic. The most populous city was the capital, Riga, with about 915,000 people; two other cities had over 100,000 people each. Latvian cities have become very Russified, however, by the continuous influx of Russians. The Latvian Republic also has a highly educated population. In 1986 the republic ranked fourth in the proportion of people with higher or secondary education. The more urbanized Russians in the republic, however, reaped most of the benefits of higher education. In the early 1970s, Latvians ranked only twelfth in the number of students in higher and secondary education and sixth in the number of scientific workers compared with their share of the Soviet population.
In 1984 the percentage of Latvians in the CPSU in the Latvian Republic was well below the percentage of Latvians in the republic. In the past, non-Latvians or Russified Latvians, some of whom could no longer speak Latvian, have held the top posts in the party leadership of the republic.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents