Latvian history is characterized by repeated occupation for over eight centuries mainly due to its central location in European trade routes which made it a highly contested region from the 11th century onwards. Germany controlled the country from the 13th to the 16th centuries, followed by Poland in the 16th century, and then the Swedes took over from the early 17th century to the 18th century before it finally became a part of Russia in 1721.
In the early part of the 20th century (1918), Latvia declared independence for the first time although this period was marked by instability- first a civil war that lasted two years, and which was closely followed by two more decades of political instability.
The Great War
At the start of World War II, Latvia came under the control of the USSR before being occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940, which lasted until the end of the war. During this period, over 90,000 Gypsies and Jews were tortured and murdered in the infamous Nazi concentration camps.
The Cold War Era
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the USSR resumed control of Latvia. During this time, the forced adoption of Soviet policies coupled with immigration from other areas of the USSR dramatically changed Latvian culture. To begin with, Russian was officially adopted as the country’s second language with its citizens forced to adopt Russian farming methods. In addition, the USSR based many of its factories in the country, especially Riga, inevitably precipitating a shift to manufacturing as the core of the Latvian economy.
In 1987, the first protests against Russian rule began to be witnessed when over 5,000 people gathered in the capital, Riga. Subsequent widespread demonstrations followed throughout the rest of the country in 1988, culminating in over two million Baltic States’ citizens creating a human chain as a symbol for calls for independence in 1989.
During this time, the PLF (Popular Front of Latvia) was gaining support and momentum and in 1989, they voiced their support for the independence of Latvia. In 1990, the party won a majority in the elections but it would not be until 21st August 1991 that the country would declare its independence. On 6th September 1991, Russia officially recognized Latvia as an independent state and a week later, the newly established country became a member of the United Nations.
In the present day, Latvia still retains the economic and cultural influences from each of the countries that have been involved in its centuries of occupation, but most importantly, it has still held on to its unique Latvian culture. However, language still remains a contested social issue even though Latvian is recognized as the country’s official language. The foregoing notwithstanding, other languages are still widely spoken- with Russian being the first language for a somewhat sizeable minority of this Baltic state.
Agriculture and manufacturing remain the largest economic activities in the country despite an economic downturn experienced in 2008 which curtailed the progress of what had been up to that point, Europe’s fastest growing economy. Today, Latvia has largely recovered from this economic contraction although unemployment still remains high relative to where it was before 2008.
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