This week, we travel to Latvia in northeastern Europe, the middle of the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Latvia borders the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga, with Estonia to the north, Russia to the East, Belarus to the southeast, and Lithuania to the south. Latvia also has one of the world’s oldest flags (only surpassed by Denmark)! Its current flag has been in use since 1280.
By the end of the 18th century, the Latvian nation was subject to Russia. A national renaissance developed in the late 1980s, spurred by Soviet campaigns for glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (economic and political restructuring). Some of the first opposition organizations included Helsinki-86, a group that sought to secure basic human rights established in the Helsinki Accords. An opposition Latvian Popular Front emerged in 1988 and won the 1990 elections. Soviet efforts to restore their control led to violence in the capital of Riga in January 1991. In August, the Latvian legislature declared full independence, which was recognized by the Soviet Union on September 6, 1991.
While its land is primarily flat lowlands scattered with hills, Latvia has over 12,000 lakes and 3000 small lakes, many of which drain into the Baltic Sea. The largest, the West Dvina, gets much of its supply of water from melting snow. Since early times, it has been an important water route since it is connected to the basins of the Dnieper, Volga, and Volkhov rivers. It was part of the great trade route from the Baltic region to Byzantium and to the Arabic east. As for its land, more than half of Latvia is covered with forests, meadows, pastures, swamps, and wasteland, making it one of Europe’s greenest countries. Forests comprise more than one-third of the total area, and about one-tenth of the forests are cultivated.
Ethnic Latvians make up about 60% of Latvia’s population. Russians comprise about 25%, and smaller groups include Belarusians, Ukrainians Poles, and Lithuanians. The official language is Latvian, but almost 33% speak Russian. Smaller language groups include Romany, the language of the Roma, and Yiddish, a Germanic language. The majority of Latvians are Christians, but about 25% are nonreligious. Latvia has a huge capital relative to its population, since over 33% of its people live in Riga. However, during summer weekends, many vacation in their countryside cottages.
Because of its history, Latvia has worked hard to preserve its distinctive language, folklore, and customs. The most important annual festival is Jāņi, which is based on an ancient pagan ceremony that celebrates the summer solstice. It is considered bad luck to fall asleep before dawn during Jāņi. Huge bonfires are lit, and staples of Latvian cuisine are prepared, including ķimeņu siers (caraway cheese), bacon, berries, potatoes, sausages, soups, and rye bread. Other common dishes include smoked or salted herring, and berry pies and tarts with sour cream. At the heart of Latvian culture is the Latvian folk song, or daina. Dainas, which are generally no more than four lines long, tend to be stories of family or love or are related to myths.