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a nation; the main population of the Latvian SSR. According to the 1970 census, there were 1,430,000 Latvians in the USSR, including 1,342,000 in the Latvian SSR and 88,000 in the other republics (the RSFSR, Estonian SSR, Lithuanian SSR, and Byelorussian SSR). There are about 160,000 Latvians outside the Soviet Union—in Europe, the Americas (chiefly the USA, Canada, and Argentina), and Australia. Their language is Latvian. Religious Latvians are mainly Protestants of various denominations; in Latgale they are Catholics.
The Latvians’ self-designation, latvieši, derives from the ethnonym “Latgals” or “Letgals” (in Russian chronicles, let’gola), an ancient Latvian national group. Neighbors to the Latgals were the Selonians, Zemgals (zemigola), and Korshes (kors’). The ancestors of all these ancient Latvian tribes reached the territory of present-day Latvia from the south as early as the Neolithic period (beginning of the second millennium B.C.). Gradually they moved northward, crowding out or assimilating the Balto-Finnic tribes—the ancestors of the Estonians and Livs —who were living in Vidzeme and Kurzeme.
During the first millennium A.D., as a result of the wide spread of iron implements and then of plow farming, livestock raising, and various crafts, relatively rapid development of productive forces and a deepening of social inequalities among the Latvians took place. The ancient tribal groups became the Old Latvian nationalities. By the turn of the second millennium A.D., early feudal relations had taken shape. The Latvian nation began to form in the process of ethnic consolidation of the various Old Latvian nationalities. However, this process was retarded in the late 12th and early 13th centuries by the invasion of German conquerors, the Crusaders, who subjugated virtually the entire Baltic Region (except Lithuania), turned the native population into disenfranchised serfs, and forced Catholicism on them.
The consolidation of the Latvian nation was completed by the early 17th century. During the feudal period, two separate cultures had existed in Latvia: the culture of the ruling classes, who spoke German, and that of the exploited toiling classes (chiefly peasants), who stubbornly retained their native language and many ancient skills, customs, and rituals. Feudal divisions had also contributed to the formation among the Latvians of local ethnic groups that partly corresponded to the ancient tribal divisions.
In the 16th century, Lutheranism spread throughout almost all of Latvia. (In Latgale, after the Counterreformation, as a result of which the region was made part of Catholic Poland until the last quarter of the 18th century, Lutheranism was eradicated.) An extremely unfavorable effect on Latvian economic and cultural development was produced by the bloody events during the Livonian War of 1558–83 and the Polish-Swedish War of 1600–29.
After the abolition of serfdom in Latvia in 1817–19 (in Latgale, 1861) and the Industrial Revolution of the 1830’s to 1850’s, a national bourgeoisie and proletariat began to form. A bourgeois Latvian nation took shape in the 19th century.
Since 1940, as a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Latvian people have followed a course of socialist development that led in the postwar years to the abolition of the exploiting classes and the consolidation of the Latvians into a socialist nation. The Latvians have created a rich and distinctive material and spiritual culture. Its best traditional forms, particularly those of applied and decorative arts, oral folk literature, music, dance, and mass choral celebrations, have been given new life and become popular outside Latvia. At the same time, Latvian culture has been enriched by new features borrowed from other peoples of the USSR.
REFERENCESIstoriia Latviiskoi SSR, 2nd ed. Riga, 1971.
Narody Evropeiskoi chasti SSSR, vol. 2. Moscow, 1964.
Terent’eva, L. N. Kolkhoznoe krest’ianstvo Latvii. Moscow, 1960. (Trudy Instituta etnografii, Novaia seriia, vol. 59.)
Cheboksarov, N. N. “O drevnikh khoziaistvenno-kul’turnykh sviaziakh narodov Pribaltiki.” Sovetskaia etnografiia, 1960, no. 3.
Strazdiņš, K. Latviešu sociālistiskānācija. Riga, 1961.
N. N. CHEBOKSAROV