Ready to move on to genealogical sources? See Part 2 of this primer here.
Part 1 – Historical Context
What You Need to Know about Latvia
Latvia is a country in northeastern Europe, bordered by Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania. The official language is Latvian, an Indo-European language of the Baltic branch, related to Lithuanian. Latvia has a population of just over 2 million people.
Latvia only gained independence as a nation-state relatively recently – first declared in 1918, then occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, Nazi Germany in 1941, and by the Soviet Union again in 1944 until independence was re-declared in 1991. Latvia joined the European Union in 2004.
Latvia has always been a multiethnic country. The majority population is ethnic Latvian, historically predominantly Lutheran, but with Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Baptist minorities. The second-largest ethnic group in modern Latvia are Russians, who are predominantly Orthodox. Historically, Latvia also had significant Jewish and German (Lutheran) populations, though both of these were reduced significantly as a result of the Second World War – the Jews by the Holocaust, and the Germans returned to the Third Reich by the invitation of Adolf Hitler to help with creating a “greater Germany”.
Thousands of Latvian residents of all ethnicities were also deported to Siberia by the Soviet forces, and thousands also fled West in the last days of the Second World War to escape Soviet occupation. After several years in Displaced Persons camps, they emigrated to countries all over the West, most commonly Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
What You Need to Know about Latvian Emigration
Latvians emigrating to places outside of Latvia, particularly en masse, is a relatively recent phenomenon, compared to many other countries. The system of serfdom in place while Latvia was a part of the Russian Empire (and prior to that under a myriad of other rulers) restricted the movements of the peasantry significantly, with permission required to move even to the neighbouring manorial estate. Even after serfdom was abolished (in Kurzeme province in 1818, in Vidzeme province in 1819, and in Latgale province only in 1861 at the same time as the rest of the Russian Empire), the movement of people was meticulously controlled and recorded.
Keep in mind that these are just general movements – your ancestor may have been an independent spirit who did not fit the characteristics of any of these emigrant groups.
The first mass movement of Latvians to outside of the Latvian provinces began in the late 19th century, when there were a large number of landless peasants. The Latvian provinces had a relatively high population density, which, coupled with the fact that land prices were high for peasants wishing to buy out their land from the German manorial estate barons, meant that the landless peasants began to look elsewhere for the possibilities of owning their own land. They ended up being offered cheap land all over the Russian Empire, and thousands of families took these offers. The majority of these families settled in the guberniyas of Saint Petersburg, Mogilev, Ufa and Vitebsk (the part that was not modern-day Latgale). Many of these Latvian colonies were assimilated, others dissolved by Latvians returning to Latvia, while some do continue to maintain their Latvian heritage today.
The first movements to the West began a few decades later, at the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. These emigrants were of two varieties – the first, like their Eastern emigrant brethren, came in search of new opportunities and land, many settling in Boston, Philadelphia and northern Wisconsin, USA. The second were political migrants, who were typically active in social democratic or autonomist political circles. Particularly in the years following the 1905 Russian Revolution, many Latvian political activists found themselves abroad, since the revolution had been particularly strong in the Latvian provinces.
A unique instance of Latvian emigration took place in the early 1920s – the early days of the Latvian Republic. Thousands of Latvian Baptists followed their pastor Jānis Iņķis to the forests of southern Brazil, where they established the colony Vārpa. Some Latvians still live in Vārpa today, though most have dispersed to other parts of Brazil.
The largest mass emigration of Latvians occured as a result of the Second World War. As mentioned above, thousands fled to escape the Soviet occupation, and later travelled to new homes across the world.
The following links may be of use for you to read about the historical situation in Latvia:
“A Millenarian Migration: Vārpa” by Arnolds Kārklis. Story of the history of the Vārpa colony.
ROOTS=SAKNES by Bruno Martuzāns. A wonderful resource on Latvian history and genealogical documents in context.
Also the following books (mostly in Latvian):
Apine, Ilga. 1905-1907 gada revolūcija Latvijā un latviešu sociāldemokrāti. Rīga, 2005.
Kārklis, Maruta, Līga Streips and Laimonis Streips. The Latvians in America: 1640-1973. New York, 1974.
Krasnais, Vilberts. Latviešu kolonijas. Melbourne, 1980.
Melnalksnis, Augusts. Latviešu kolonijas. Valmiera, 1918.