Sunday, November 8, 2015


Latvia, to me, has always conjured up images of cold, snowy woods with struggling families bundled up sitting close to preserve heat, drinking hot chocolate laced with booze. In July. (Just kidding. It’s probably in May.) All I know is that my husband tried to find a set of headlight covers for my Mitsubishi Outlander, and the cheapest ones we could find were in Latvia, and they weren’t cheap. 

The country of Latvia is named after the Latgalians, one of the original Baltic tribes who inhabited the area. The name for this country in other languages is usually some derivative of Latonia or Lettland, which is based on the original word Latgalian. 


Located in northeastern Europe, Latvia is surrounded by Estonia to the north, Russia to the east, Belarus to the southeast, and Lithuania to the south. It also has a fairly long coastline along the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. Roughly half the area of Latvia is forested land—in fact, there is still much of these lands (including wetlands, lakes, and rivers) that are untouched. And subsequently, Latvia is one of the world’s most environmentally friendly countries. 


This country also enjoys a temperate climate albeit cold in the winters. However, the winters can be slightly milder closer to the coast and harsher the farther inland you go. The summers are still not quite as warm in Latvia: the average July temperatures are only about 67ºF. But they do experience four distinct seasons, each about the same length. 


There were several Baltic tribes, including the Latgalians and the Livonians, who were settled in this area as early as 3000 BCE. During the Medieval period, the city of Riga became an important port city and trading center. The three centuries after the Medieval Era was a period in Latvia’s history that saw many changes. Livonia at that time encompassed the modern-day countries of Estonia and Latvia, and they later succumbed to Polish and Lithuanian rule. Later on, Sweden entered into the fight for this area and won: it became known as Swedish Livonia. As German influence began to infiltrate their culture, Lutheranism spread as well. The 19th century brought changes to Latvia’s social structure in the form of land reform as well as movements to promote a Latvian nationalism against Polish, Russian, and German social and political influence. However, Latvia became swept into the Russian expansion. At the same time, they did see a gain in its economy and infrastructure with the building of ports, banks, factories, schools, parks, streets, museums, theatres, and railway. Latvia remained under Russian control throughout WWI; after the war, they fought for their own independence and won. However, they were again part of the Soviet Union during WWII and immediately invaded Poland. Nazi Germany invaded Latvia to fight the Russians, and by the end of WWII, tens of thousands of Latvians had been killed. Even after the end of the war, Latvia remained under Soviet control; nationalists were shipped out to Siberia and the rest were forced into collective farms. When Russia broke apart in 1991, Latvia was once more its own country. Those who were citizens (and their descendents) before 1940 were granted citizenship again. However, those who arrived during the Soviet years (including many former Russian nationals) were not granted the same citizenship status. They were, however, able to naturalize in and become citizens later, but there are still many non-citizens still living in Latvia. The country did join the European Union and has become a cultural capital of Europe. 


The capital city is Riga, the largest city in the country. It’s a port city located on the Gulf of Riga just at the mouth of the Daugava River, which runs through Latvia, Belarus, and Russia. The city itself was founded in 1201, and parts of its old city center are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Riga has been the host of several international music, film, sports, cultural, and governmental events. In the eight centuries it’s been a city, Riga has been under control of 12 different governments. Riga is also the center of government, housing an international airport and public transit, museums, universities, parks, theatres, and stadiums. Riga is renowned for its architecture, especially art nouveau buildings. 

Latvia had a fairly growing economy until the global economic crisis of 2008 proved too much. Rising housing costs was one reason their economic bubble burst and soon their unemployment rose to nearly 22%—the highest in the EU. Latvia’s economy is fueled by transportation and transit of goods. The three main ports of Riga, Ventspils, and Liepaja are some of the busiest ports in Europe. Latvia deals with the transport of crude oil and its products, but also deals with hydroelectric power and is also the location of one of the largest underground gas storage facilities in Europe. 


Most people here speak Latvian, the country’s official language. Latvian is one of the Baltic languages, related to Lithuanian. The Livonian language is nearly extinct and is protected by law along with Latgalian, which has become a dialect of modern Latvian. There are still a number of Russian speakers in Latvia. All schools use Latvian as the language for education, but they also teach English (which is widely understood and used in business and in touristy spots) and either German or Russian. 


By far, the vast majority of Latvians are Christian. And more specifically, Lutheranism is the largest denomination, followed by Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodox. There are also a smaller number of Latvians who practice a type of paganism called Dievturi, which is stemmed from Latvian mythology. Latvia also has a significant number of people who don’t practice any particular religion at all. 


Latvians have made some very important discoveries and inventions that have helped shape the course of the world. For example, Latvian scientist Juris Upatnieks invented 3D holography. (Star Wars has everything to thank for this.) And one Latvian tailor invented a type of material you’re probably wearing right now: Jakobs Jufess came up with jeans (Levi Strauss was the one who supported his invention financially). Although they didn’t invent ice hockey (that is widely attributed to England or Scotland), Latvia is also one of three countries where ice hockey is the most popular sport (the other two are Finland and Canada—I would’ve thought there’d be more). Their culture overall is similar to Lithuania and other areas in the region, and I’m very excited to try the Latvian recipes I picked out.

Up next: art and literature

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