Latvia is not and has never been one monoethnic entity. Certainly, Latvians – and Luteran Latvians, at that – have made up the majority, but they are not the only ones living in Latvia. Throughout the years, there have been many different ethnicities and religions living here, sometimes spread out, and sometimes in enclaves.
These historical enclaves are what I will be writing about today – I say “historical”, because for the most part, they either no longer exist, or they are no longer exclusive enclaves.
Let’s start with a religious enclave – the Suiti of western Kurzeme, near the Baltic Sea coast between Liepāja and Ventspils. The Suiti are Latvians, but instead of being Lutherans, as was the norm in Kurzeme, they are Catholics. While Kurzeme did become Protestant during the Protestant Reformation, this changed in the mid-1600s, when the son of the local baron married into Polish nobility, which required him to become Catholic. And so it was that all of the estates he owned – Alšvanga, Adze, Basi, Deksne, Dūre, Feliksberga, Grāveri, Gudenieki and hen later on also Birži and Almāle, also had to convert to Catholicism. The ensuing isolation in what was otherwise a sea of Protestantism meant that they preserved aspects of Latvian culture that changed in other parts of the country, including a unique dialect and traditional clothing. The Suiti still exist today and are even listed by UNESCO in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Another religious (and ethnic) enclave in western Latvia was that of Old Believers in Virbi, between Talsi and Sabile. Old Believers are a group that split off from the Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century after Patriarch Nikon instituted a number of reforms. They did not accept these reforms, were branded schismatics and persecuted in Russia. Many took refuge in Latvian territories – which did eventually come under the auspices of the Russian Empire, but since most control was still in the hands of German barons, it does not appear that they suffered further persecution at this time. In fact, this group of Old Believers in Virbi came about in 1908, when agricultural reforms meant that land was bought by the government and sold to people without land – which in this case ended up being a large group of Old Believers. What happened to the Latvians living in the area? I don’t know and would need to investigate this further, since I don’t believe that the Old Believers were there prior to that – from the sounds of it, they came with the railway that was finished at that time between Rīga and Ventspils. The Old Believers consecrated their church, the Neivekene Old Believers’ Church, in 1928. However, by 1990, the community no longer existed, and the church fell into disrepair and was torn down.
The third enclave I am going to mention today is an ethnic enclave – the German colony of Irši (Hirschenhof in German), in central Latvia. This German colony came about in the 18th century when Catherine the Great invited German farmers to move to the Russian Empire. They would be free peasants subject directly to the crown. They were guaranteed religious freedom, their own government and representatives, as well as the right to rent taverns. For awhile they were even exempt from taxes and military service. The local Latvian serfs were dispersed to other nearby estates. Eventually people started emigrating from the colony to cities around the Baltic provinces, but until 1939, the area was still predominantly German. In 1939, however, most repatriated to Germany and no Germans live there today.
Are your family’s ancestors from one of these enclaves? Or did they live nearby and know the people who lived there? Share their stories in comments!