Since the Second World War, Siberia and the Russian Far East are associated with deportations and prison camps. It is difficult to imagine that in decades past, thousands of Latvians and other Balts traveled there willingly to make new homes. But that is precisely what happened – in the late 19th century, with land in Latvia at a premium – and with the accompanying premium cost – many thousands of Latvians decided to seek their fortune in the inner depths of the Russian Empire, where land was cheap and sometimes even free, as long as it was cultivated. The Russian Empire government wanted to colonize the vast stretches of its empire, and thus provided incentives for peasants from the Western parts of the empire to move east.
And so it happened that Latvian colonies dotted the map all the way from Latvia to Magadan, on the sea of Okhotsk, which connects to the Pacific Ocean. For the most part, these colonies were established along the Trans-Siberian Railroad or the major rivers – the Volga, Ob, Yenisei and others. They also reached south to the Caucasus mountains and central Asia, with colonies in Yeysk and Tashkent.
One of the oldest Latvian colonies in the former Russian Empire still exists today – Lejas Bulāni, founded near the Yenisei river in 1854. What is perhaps most miraculous of all about this colony is that even though it was founded 150 years ago, people there still speak Latvian. Not exclusively of course, Russian is spoken as well, and most young people inevitably head to the Russian cities for work, but there has been a steady stream of Latvians from Latvia visiting the colony, either to stay for awhile as Latvian language teachers, or on cultural/historical trips to learn more about the community. A number of my museum colleagues at the Latvians Abroad Museum and Research Centre have been there, most recently this past spring.
This community is so small that it is almost impossible to find it on a modern map – but it is there, as are other Latvian communities across the globe. Latvians are everywhere!