Latvia is a comparatively small country in north-eastern Europe, whose present population is 2.2 million, inhabiting a land area of 65 thousand km2. Latvia is one of the few countries whose population was larger 20 years ago, and even 100 years ago, than it is today. This is the effect of two world wars, deportations, emigration and a demographic crisis.
Majority (two thirds) of the population is concentrated in the cities, especially in the capital, Rīga, which is home to one third of the inhabitants. In few European countries is the capital city as dominant as it is in Latvia, particularly in the fields of industry, science and finance. The rural population, rather than being concentrated in villages, is mostly scattered on family farms, conforming to the historical pattern of individual farmsteads dispersed in the landscape, and in many cases quite isolated. Such dispersed farmsteads are rare in the Latgale region and along the coast, where people mostly live in small villages. Characteristically, in Latvia each of these countless farms has a name, in many cases a historic one.
Table 1. The population of Latvia’s cities, 2009 (thousands).
Rīga 713 Ventspils 42
Daugavpils 104 Rēzekne 35
Liepāja 84 Valmiera 27
Jelgava 65 Jēkabpils 25
Jūrmala 55 Ogre 26
It is possible to see in this historical pattern of dispersed settlement the origin of particular Latvian character traits: reserve, self-reliance, independence and persistence. Latvians may seem somewhat anti-social to others – overly reticent individualists – but in fact it’s simply that Latvians need more time to develop trust and friendship
As in many parts of Eastern Europe, so too in Latvia, ethnic consciousness is very pronounced, sometimes even predominating over national or religious consciousness. The basis for this strong kind of ethnic consciousness emerged during the centuries of rule by the German nobility, when all Latvians were peasants and servants, while the Germans were masters – a distinction that was strictly observed for centuries. The recent years of Soviet oppression, too, have only served to reinforce Latvian ethnic consciousness, since Latvians tend to contrast themselves with Soviet state and the large body of ethnic Russian immigrants who arrived during the Soviet era.
Major changes in the composition of the population occurred during and after the Second World War. In the first place, almost all the Baltic Germans left Latvia at the outbreak of war. Then, in 1941, the occupying Soviet authorities began deporting people to Siberia on a mass scale. This was followed by the Nazi German invasion, which brought virtual annihilation of the Jewish population, and the slaughter of the majority of the Roma. At the close of the war, several hundred thousand people fled from Latvia in fear of renewed Communist oppression and eventually found refuge in various countries around the globe: the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, etc. When the Soviet Army invaded Latvia again in 1944–45, the Communists recommenced repression against the local population, culminating in 1949, when 45 thousand of the most prosperous farmers were deported to Siberia in a single day. This deportation virtually eliminated armed Latvian resistance to the Soviet authorities, and the farmers were forced to join collective farms. In order to make up for the depletion of the workforce, and evidently with the aim of changing the country’s ethnic composition, Moscow organised the migration of many hundreds of thousands of Russians into Latvia. During the years of Soviet occupation, a total of at least 1.5 million immigrants arrived in Latvia, half of whom stayed to live here. Latvia’s Russian population increased fivefold, while at the same time the Latvian population did not even regain its pre-war level.
As a result of the Soviet occupation, Latvia’s ethnic composition changed significantly: the proportion of ethnic Latvians fell from at least 80% before the Second World War to 52% in 1989, and has increased to 59% in 2010. Meanwhile, the proportion of Russians grew from under 9% before the Second World War to as much as 30% in 1989. Latvians predominate significantly in the countryside and in the smaller towns, and to a lesser extent also in the environs of Rīga. Most of the Russians live in Rīga and the other cities, and also in Latgale, where in certain areas they constitute up to half the population. Other ethnic groups, too, are concentrated mainly in Rīga and the other cities. The majority of Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles and Jews speak Russian, while the Lithuanians, Estonians and Roma are for the most part Latvian-speakers.
There are only minor differences in the level of education and in socio-economic position between the Latvians and the minorities, and there is no reason to consider that the minorities experience inferior living conditions or lower incomes. Latvians predominate particularly in such areas of employment as public administration, agriculture and education, while the minorities tend to be employed more in transportation, industry and construction. Analysis of income levels leads to the conclusion that there are no significant differences in this regard. It should be added that among the minority population there is a greater degree of segregation, since they are slightly more represented among the very poorest and also among the very richest people in Latvia. Likewise, comparison of the ethnic composition of the unemployed and employed workforce does not reveal any major ethnic differences.
When Latvia regained its independence, a principle of inherited citizenship was applied: all those who had been citizens of the Republic of Latvia in 1940, before the Soviet occupation, automatically regained Latvian citizenship, and it was bestowed automatically on all the direct descendants of the citizens. The people automatically granted Latvian citizenship also included hundreds of thousands of people from the minorities – Russians, Poles, Belarusians, Jews and others. The remainder of the population, i.e. those who had arrived in Latvia in recent decades and their descendants, were offered a choice of either applying for citizenship from their country of origin or becoming permanent residents of Latvia without Latvian citizenship (‘non-citizens’). A small section chose the former option, and at present Latvia is home to 50 thousand foreign citizens, mainly Russian nationals. Most, however, chose the second option, which also envisages the possibility of naturalisation. This process is open to anyone who has lived in Latvia for at least five years and passes a test in knowledge of Latvian language and history. During the past decade, more than 100 thousand people have chosen to become naturalised as Latvian citizens, and Latvia currently has one of the highest rates of naturalisation among EU countries.
© Text: Ph.D. Ilmārs Mežs, 2010
© The Latvian Institute
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