This site is the Latgale Research Center. What then, exactly, is Latgale?
Latgale, also known as Lettgallia, Latgola, or Latgalia, is the most eastern region of the Republic of Latvia. It shares a substantial amount of its border with Russia and Belarus, making it, historically, a geopolitical bridge between the Baltic and the Slavic states. Indeed, sporadic Polish immigration and occupation throughout the centuries have left an indelible mark on the region.
The ancient area of Latvia and its immediate vicinity consisted of several Baltic tribes, all of whom were ethnically and linguistically separate from the rest of the Baltic and Europe: the Selians, the Couronians, the Livs, the Semigallians, and the Latgalians. Through centuries of migration of other peoples since the first century AD, the Latgalians, the largest of these tribes, moved west into what is now known as Latgale. The movement ended by the tenth century when all the tribes had essentially settled into their own territories. The first half of the millennium saw advancements in metalwork, agriculture, and increase in trade. This last point, especially, is due to their location near the Gulf of Riga and between Europe and Asia. All these improvements made it easier to migrate.
Politically, the early Baltic people were unique for the period. Latvian historian Andrejs Plakans notes that the tribes – which itself is, technically, an incorrect term, since the Latvian cilts has a different connotation – were not monarchies, nor did they rely on a single leader. European scholars, when contacting these people, used the Latin term rex (king) for their leader, which is also incorrect. There were several chieftains within the same tribe, certainly, but it is unknown exactly how much power or influence they had over others. It is also unknown whether the ancient Latgalians’ society was strictly stratified by class.
Due to their proximity, other societies frequently influenced the Latgalians. Christianity was first introduced to the region from neighboring Russian principalities. The Livonian Crusades in the thirteenth century, led by the Germans, brought a strong Catholic presence to the region, setting up ecclesiastical orders and bishoprics. Along with this new religion, a more structured feudal system was integrated. Through the next three centuries, these Baltic tribes slowly lost their individual identity and started to blend into a relatively unified culture. No longer would they strictly consider themselves Latgalians, or Livs, or Selians; now they will all identify, through one form or another, as Latvian. The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, brought in by many Baltic Germans and the distaste of the supposed worldly bishops, led the area to be predominantly Lutheran across several social ranks.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as an aftermath of the war against the Tsardom of Russia in the late sixteenth century, allowed yet another foreign power into Latvia. This helped the Counter Reformation, the Catholic Church’s response against the rise of Protestantism, continue full force into the region after having succeeded in Poland, with some historians theorizing that they succeeded in converting more than half of the population in Latgale. The Swedish Empire, by 1625, conquered Riga and other influential cities; however, only Latgale remained under Polish rule, referred to as Polish Livonia. This had far-reaching effects; even today, the region is religiously, linguistically, and culturally distinct from the rest of Latvia.
Just over a century later, when King August III of Poland died in 1763, Russian Empress Catherine II took the opportunity of the impending Polish civil war to conquer the land. This reduced Polish control to one-third the size as before. Latgale now fell to Russian rule, which lasted until Latvia declared independence. During this century-and-a-half rule, the population of Latgale underwent severe Russification. The area of Latgale, legally, no longer existed; instead, it was divided into three separate districts. Second, and perhaps more significantly, they were subjugated to increasingly anti-Latvian laws: Russian was to be the official language of both the government and in education, effectively banning the Latvian language; those who are in mixed marriages must convert to Russian Orthodoxy, and so on. Ironically, despite the ban of Latvian, literature in the vernacular increased during these laws. Furthermore, these laws did not stop the population from keeping a distinct cultural identity; they did not stop being Latvian. These laws were repealed in 1904.
The twentieth century saw both more foreign influence, and for the first time in centuries, independence. The First World War devastated the Baltic region, making it a battleground between Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany. When the Russian Revolutions of 1917 overthrew the tsar, leaving a power vacuum from the occupying Russians, Latvia declared its independence on November 18, 1918. There was a two year war between December 1918 and August 1920 between the Latvian independence movement and the newly formed Soviet Russia (with Germany briefly in the conflict, as well). The Latvians won, and Russia recognized their independence.
From 1920 until the occupation from the Soviet Union in World War II, Latvia was its own nation with their own identity. As with any new nation, though, they ran into a number of difficulties: Latvian infrastructure was crippled during the war; trying to create a separate constitution and government proved nearly impossible; and the adoption of a relatively weak currency (the lat), which replaced the Latvian ruble. However, agricultural reforms were successful, doubling the number of farms in fifteen years. Additionally, perhaps as a trait of national pride, voting in elections for Parliament (Saeima) remained very high.
On the eve of the Second World War, in August 1939, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia signed a secret agreement, called the Molotov-Rippentrop Pact, in which the two nations agreed to split Eastern Europe. The Soviets would get the Baltic nations and Finland, and the Nazis would receive the western half of Poland. So, within months, Latvia was integrated again into Russian control as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Only the next year did the Baltic once again fall under another foreign power. Nazi Germany, having broken the Pact signed a year earlier, invaded the Soviet Union and eventually becoming part of Greater Germany as the Reichskommissariat Ostland (Realm Commissariat East Land). During their four year occupation, about 200,000 civilians were killed during the war, and citizens fought on both sides of the war.
When the Soviets returned in 1944, hundreds of thousands of Latvians sought refuge into Germany. Once again under the Soviets, Latvia was fully integrated as thousands of dissidents were deported into gulags as far as Siberia. By the end of World War II, Latvia had lost, through war, fleeing, deportation, or execution, a third of their population. Ethnic Russians also immigrated into Latvia, further destabilizing the region.
Latvia again declared independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, basing their law on the 1922 Constitution. Today, nearly twenty-five years later, the country continues to be a mixture of East and West. They are part of NATO and the European Union and have, since 2014, adopted the euro as currency. On the other hand, nearly a quarter of its citizens are ethnic Russian and the country still has a unique culture to the rest of world.
The Latgalians in particular have had a unique history compared to the rest of the nation. This has made their culture, as mentioned earlier, distinct from western Latvia. They had a relatively late “awakening” during the late 1890s, in which they looked at their own history and folklore. The language they spoke, separate from the standard Latvian, is one of the points of interest. Some members of the Latgalian intelligentsia wanted the language to be preserved; others, however, wanted the standard Latvian to be taught. This debate helps show that the contradictory interest of the period: on the one hand, Latgale wanted to be seen as unified with the rest of the nation; on the other, that unification may very well have erased their unique history.
From there, into the modern day, Latgale is a mixture in being united and separated from other Baltic nations. They are a people who pride themselves about their heritage, despite the centuries of occupation and forced assimilation.