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Latvia - SOCIETY

Latvia - Population


Latvia's population has been multiethnic for centuries. In 1897 the first official census in this area indicated that Latvians formed 68.3 percent of the total population of 1.93 million; Russians accounted for 12.0 percent, Jews for 7.4 percent, Germans for 6.2 percent, and Poles for 3.4 percent. The remainder were Lithuanians, Estonians, Gypsies, and various other nationalities.

World War I and the emergence of an independent Latvia led to shifts in ethnic composition. By 1935, when the total population was about 1.9 million, the proportion of Latvians had increased to 77.0 percent of the population, and the percentages for all other groups had decreased. In spite of heavy war casualties and the exodus of many Latvians to Russia, in absolute terms the number of Latvians had grown by 155,000 from 1897 to 1935, marking the highest historical level of Latvian presence in the republic. Other groups, however, declined, mostly as a result of emigration. The largest change occurred among Germans (from 121,000 to 62,100) and Jews (from 142,000 to 93,400). During World War II, most Germans in Latvia were forced by Adolf Hitler's government to leave for Germany as a result of the expected occupation of Latvia by Stalin's troops. The Jews suffered the greatest tragedy, however, when between 70,000 and 80,000 of them were executed by the Nazi occupation forces between 1941 and 1944. Latvians also suffered population losses during this period as a result of deportations, executions, and the flight of refugees to the West. By 1959 there were 169,100 fewer Latvians in absolute terms than in 1935, in spite of the accumulated natural increase of twenty-four years and the return of many Latvians from other parts of the Soviet Union after 1945.

The balance of ethnic groups in 1959 reflected the vagaries of war and the interests of the occupying power. The Latvian share of the population had decreased to 62.0 percent, but that of the Russians had jumped from 8.8 percent to 26.6 percent. The other Slavic groups--Belorussians, Ukrainians, and Poles--together accounted for 7.2 percent, and the Jews formed 1.7 percent. Indeed, one of the greatest concerns Latvians had during the almost half-century under Soviet rule was the immigration of hundreds of non-Latvians, which drastically changed the ethnic complexion of the republic. Even more, with each successive census Latvians saw their share of the population diminish, from 56.8 percent in 1970 to 54.0 percent in 1979 and to 52.0 percent in 1989. With each year, a net average of 11,000 to 15,000 non-Latvian settlers came to the republic, and such migration accounted for close to 60 percent of the annual population growth. The newcomers were generally younger, and hence their higher rates of natural increase helped to diminish the Latvian proportion even more.

The threat of becoming a minority in their own land was one of the most important elements animating the forces of political rebirth. There was a widespread feeling that once Latvians lost their majority status, they would be on the road to extinction. During the period of the national awakening in the late 1980s, this sentiment produced a pervasive mood of intense anxiety, perhaps best expressed by the popular slogan "Now or Never." It also came across very bluntly in "The Latvian Nation and the Genocide of Immigration," the title of a paper prepared by an official of the Popular Front of Latvia in 1990. By then, largely as a result of the great influx of new settlers encouraged by Soviet authorities, Latvians were a minority in six of the largest cities in Latvia. Even in the capital city of Riga, Latvians had shrunk to only about a third of the population. Thus, they were forced to adapt to a Russian-speaking majority, with all of its attendant cultural and social patterns. There was not a single city district in Riga where Latvians could hope to transact business using only Latvian. This predominantly Russian atmosphere has proved difficult to change, in spite of the formal declaration of Latvian independence and the passing of several Latvianization laws.

Even in the countryside of certain regions, Latvians are under cultural and linguistic stress from their unilingual neighbors. The most multinational area outside of cities can be found in the province of Latgale in the southeastern part of Latvia. There the Daugavpils district (excluding the city) in 1989 was 35.9 percent Latvian, Kraslava district 43.1 percent, Rezekne district (excluding the city) 53.3 percent, and Ludza district 53.4 percent. For several decades, Latvians in these districts were forced to attend Russian-language schools because of the dearth or absence of Latvian schools. Not surprisingly, during the Soviet period there was a process of assimilation to the Russian-language group. With the advent of independence, Latgale has become a focal point for official and unofficial programs of Latvianization, which include the opening of new Latvian schools, the printing of new Latvian local newspapers, and the opening of a Latvian television station for Latgalians. A major thrust in Latvianization is also provided by the resurgent Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.

Most Latvians themselves are not aware that by 1989 they had become a minority of the population in the usually most active age-group of twenty to forty-four. In the age category of thirty-five to thirty-nine, Latvians were down to 43.0 percent of the total. The period spanning the years from the late teens to middle age usually provides the most important pool of people for innovation and entrepreneurship. The relatively low Latvian demographic presence in this group could partly account for the much smaller visibility of Latvians in the privatization and business entrepreneurship process within the republic.

<>Population Changes since Independence

Updated population figures for Latvia.


Latvia - Population Changes since Independence


In 1994, according to official estimates, Latvia had a population of 2,565,854 people. This figure was smaller than for the 1989 census (2,666,567), reflecting a fundamental change in the demography of Latvia. The population in the republic decreased for the first time since 1945, except in 1949 when more than 40,000 Latvians were deported. Between January 1989 and January 1994, the total decrease was more than 100,000.

Two important factors have contributed to this change. During 1991, 1992, and 1993, the natural increase was negative; in other words, more people died than were born. The moving variable has been the number of births. In 1991 the total number born was only 34,633, which was 8.7 percent less than in the previous year and 18 percent less than in 1987. The number of deaths remained about constant. For the first time since 1946, more deaths than births occurred in 1991--by a margin of 116. This gap increased significantly in 1992, when 3,851 more deaths than births were recorded. The death rate increased from 13.5 per 1,000 in 1992 to 16.3 per 1,000 in 1994, and the birth rate fell from 12.9 per 1,000 in 1992 to 9.5 per 1,000 in 1994. The postponement by many families of procreation is not surprising in view of the economic traumas suffered by most people and the general political and economic uncertainties prevailing in the country.

An even more important factor at work in the overall decrease of population has been the net out-migration of mostly nonindigenous individuals. The principal factors affecting the direction of migration included Latvia's declaration of independence and its laws checking uncontrolled immigration into the country. Independence brought a shift in political power to the Latvian group. Many individuals who could not adjust to living in a newly "foreign" country or who did not want to accommodate the new Latvian language requirements in certain categories of employment decided to leave.

A sociological poll published in November 1992 indicated that 55 percent of non-Latvians would not move east (that is, to other parts of the former Soviet Union) even if they were offered a job and living accommodations; 19 percent expressed a willingness to do so (3 percent only temporarily); and 26 percent said they did not know whether they would move. Only about 205,000 non-Latvians out of 1.3 million living in Latvia were willing to leave permanently if offered jobs and roofs over their heads. Aside from economic considerations, this surprisingly strong attachment to Latvia by non-Latvian ethnic groups is attributable to the fact that many of them were born in Latvia and have had little if any contact with their forebears' geographical areas of origin. According to the 1989 census, of the non-Latvian ethnic groups in the country, about 66 percent of Poles, 55 percent of Russians, 53 percent of Jews, 36 percent of Lithuanians, 31 percent of Belorussians, and 19 percent of Ukrainians had been born in Latvia.



Latvia - Marriage and Divorce


In spite of Latvians' fears of becoming a minority and in spite of the strains caused by Russification and language inequities, a relatively high proportion of Latvians have married members of other ethnic groups. Some 30 percent of marriages involving Latvians were of mixed nationality in 1988 (although only 17 percent of all marrying Latvians in 1988 entered into mixed marriages). This rate of intermarriage was one of the highest of any titular nationality in the republics of the Soviet Union. Comparable rates were found in Belorussia (34.6 percent) and Ukraine (35.6 percent); a much lower rate was found in Estonia (16.1 percent). The marriage statistics of 1991 do not indicate any significant changes in this respect, with just under 18 percent of all Latvians marrying members of other ethnic groups.

Latvia has an extremely high divorce rate, but there is no adequate explanation for it. In 1991 Latvia registered 22,337 weddings and 11,070 divorces, for a divorce rate of 49.6 percent. Among various ethnic groups, these rates vary: Latvian males, 39.1 percent, and females, 39.9 percent; Lithuanian males, 52.7 percent, and females, 45.0 percent; Polish males, 43.7 percent, and females, 54.5 percent; Russian males, 60.2 percent, and females, 58.3 percent; Belarusian males, 58.8 percent, and females, 61.0 percent; Ukrainian males, 64.4 percent, and females, 65.2 percent; Jewish males, 67.6 percent, and females, 65.9 percent; and males of other ethnic groups, 64.8 percent, and females, 70.0 percent. During the first nine months of 1992, as compared with the same period in 1991, marriages decreased by 10 percent, but divorces increased by 24 percent. For every 1,000 marriages, there were 683 divorces.

Perhaps the instability of marriage accounts for the relatively high percentage of births outside of marriage. In 1989 in Latvia, 15.9 percent of infants were born to women who were not married. In Lithuania the comparative rate was 6.5 percent, but in Estonia the rate was 25.2 percent. In the Soviet Union as a whole in 1988, the rate was 10.2 percent.


Latvia - Urbanization, Employment, and Education


Latvia was one of the most urbanized republics of the former Soviet Union, reaching an urbanization rate of 71 percent in 1990. Subsequently, the rate of urbanization decreased and was estimated to be 69.5 percent in 1992. Part of the reason for the decline no doubt can be found in the out-migration of non-Latvians to other republics. It seems probable, as well, that a slight shift back to rural areas occurred as a result of the start-up of some 50,000 private farms.

The rapid economic changes of the early 1990s have brought about an employment reorientation by various ethnic groups. The division of labor between Latvians and non-Latvians that prevailed in 1987, the most recent year for which such data are available, offers a general indication of where the groups work. The Latvian share was above average in culture and art (74.6 percent), agriculture (69.5 percent), public education (58.8 percent), communications (56.7 percent), administration (56.4 percent), credit and state insurance (55.1 percent), and health care and social security (53.5 percent). Latvians were significantly underrepresented in heavy industry (36.3 percent), light industry (33.6 percent), machine building (31.0 percent), the chemical industry (30.1 percent), railroad transport (26.5 percent), and water transport (11.5 percent). The work categories facing the greatest threat of unemployment are those with the fewest Latvians. This may create future strains and possible confrontations between Latvians and non-Latvians if solutions are not found.

In the long run, however, higher education might be an important variable in advancement and adjustment to new economic situations. In 1989 only ninety-six out of 1,000 Latvians completed higher education, compared with 115 out of 1,000 for the entire population. The most educated were Jews, with a rate of 407 per 1,000 completing higher education, followed by Ukrainians with 163 and Russians with 143. Belorussians, Poles, and Lithuanians had a rate below that of the Latvians. One of the key variables accounting for this spread in educational achievements is rural-urban location. Jews and Russians are much more urban than Latvians or Poles. It is difficult to compete in entrance examinations after attending schools in rural areas where there are regular official interruptions in the fall for harvesting and in the spring for planting. Distances and poor transportation networks provide another obstacle to completing secondary school. Most institutions of higher learning are located in Riga. Unless one has relatives or friends there, it is difficult to find living accommodations. Student residences can cater to only a small proportion of applicants.

One of the unique aspects of the Latvian education system was the introduction during the 1960s of schools with two languages of instruction, Latvian and Russian, in which each group held classes in its own language. About a third of all schoolchildren went to these schools, and the others attended the purely Latvian or Russian schools. Extracurricular activities and parent-teacher events were expected to be held together, and almost inevitably they were conducted in Russian because of the imbalance in language knowledge. These schools did not foster interethnic friendship, as originally hoped, and they were being phased out in post-Soviet Latvia. In the 1993-94 school year, sixty-nine out of 574 such primary schools remained.

All children, from about the age of six, must complete nine years of primary schooling, which may be followed by three years of secondary education or one to six years in technical, vocational, or art schools. In the 1993-94 school year, a total of 76,619 students were enrolled in primary schools, 242,677 in secondary schools, 27,881 in vocational schools, 19,476 in special secondary institutions, and 7,211 in special schools for the physically and mentally handicapped. There were eighteen universities and other institutions of higher education, with 36,428 students. The literacy rate approached 100 percent.

One of the innovations introduced with independence was the reestablishment of schools or programs for other ethnic groups. Before the Soviet occupation in 1940, Latvia had more than 300 state-supported schools offering instruction for different ethnic groups: 144 Russian, sixty Jewish, sixteen Polish, thirteen Lithuanian, four Estonian, one Belorussian, and eighty-five with several languages of instruction. All of these except the Russian schools were closed after 1945. After 1990 various ethnic groups were offered the opportunity of again maintaining schools in their own language of instruction, and by the 1993-94 school year some 210 schools were in operation: more than 200 Russian, four Polish, one Estonian, one Lithuanian, one Ukrainian, and one Jewish. Latvia had the first Jewish secondary school in the entire Soviet Union. It should be noted that most of the non-Latvian groups had largely assimilated with the Russians, and many of their members did not speak their native tongue.


Latvia - Health and Welfare


In the early 1990s, the health care system that Latvia inherited from the Soviet regime had yet to meet Western standards. It continued to be hampered by shortages of basic medical supplies, including disposable needles, anesthetics, and antibiotics. In 1992 there were some 176 hospitals, with 130 beds per 10,000 inhabitants--more than in Estonia and Lithuania--but they were old, lacked modern facilities, and were concentrated in urban areas. The number of physicians, forty-one per 10,000 inhabitants, was high by international standards, but there were too few nurses and other paramedical personnel.

At a time when most of the modern world was experiencing rapid strides in the extension of average life span, the Soviet Union and Latvia were going backward. Between 1965 and 1990, the male life span in Latvia decreased 2.4 years, from 66.6 to 64.2 years. For females, there was a decrease between 1965 and 1979 from 74.4 to 73.9 years, but the average life span rose to 74.6 by 1990. In comparison, in 1989 the average life expectancy in the Soviet Union was 64.6 for males and 74.0 years for females. Overall, Latvia then ranked eighth among the Soviet republics. For males, however, Latvia was eleventh, ahead of three Soviet Central Asian republics and Russia. Among females, Latvia did better, sharing fourth ranking with Ukraine.

According to the calculations of a Latvian demographer in 1938-39, Latvia was about thirteen years ahead of the Soviet Union in life expectancy. No doubt, an important role in lessening the average life span statistics was played by the massive in-migration of people after 1945 from mostly rural and poverty-stricken parts of the Soviet Union. Even in 1988-89, within Latvia there was a difference of 0.8 year between Latvian and Russian life expectancy. Standardized rates that account for urban and rural differences show that Latvians live 1.7 years longer than Russians.

Perhaps no other index of the role of Sovietization is as indicative as the gap in life expectancy between Latvia and Finland, the Baltic states' northern neighbor. In 1988 Finland registered life span rates of 70.7 years for males and 78.7 for females, which were 6.5 and 4.1 years higher than the respective rates in Latvia. By 1994 life expectancy in Latvia had increased only marginally: 64.4 years for males and 74.8 years for females, compared with Finland's rates of 72.1 years for males and 79.9 years for females. During the 1930s, Latvia's rates had been higher than those in Finland and on a par with those of Austria, Belgium, France, and Scotland.

The infant mortality rate rose to 17.4 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1992, after a steady decline beginning in 1970 and an estimated eleven deaths per 1,000 live births in 1988. Its rate was higher than that of Estonia and Lithuania and almost three times the rate of infant mortality in Finland. In 1994 there were 16.3 deaths per 1,000 population in Latvia. The primary causes of infant deaths in Latvia are perinatal diseases; congenital anomalies; infectious, parasitic, or intestinal diseases; respiratory diseases; and accidents and poisonings. Environmental factors and alcoholism and drug abuse also contribute to infant mortality.

Latvia outpaced most of the other republics in the Soviet Union in deaths from accidents, poisonings, and traumas. In 1989 some 16 percent of males and 5.6 percent of females died from these causes. The suicide rate of 25.9 per 100,000 in 1990, or a total of 695, was more than twice that of the United States. In 1992 the number of suicides increased to 883. Other major causes of death include cancer, respiratory conditions, and such stress-related afflictions as heart disease and stroke. Although drug addiction and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) are on the increase, their incidences are not yet close to those in many Western countries.

Traffic deaths in 1990 reached a rate of 43.5 per 100,000 population, or a total of 1,167. There were 245 homicides in 1990, a rate of 9.1 per 100,000. This increase represented a dramatic jump from 1988, when the rate was 5.8, and from 1985, when it was 5.2. The greater availability of weapons has been one cause. More important, Riga and other cities have been targeted by mafia-style criminal gangs intent on carving up and stabilizing their areas of operation against other gangs. Still another cause is the decrease in the efficiency of law enforcement organs because of low pay, rapid turnover of cadres, lack of gasoline for automobiles, and language problems. The rise in criminal activity has increased Latvians' stress, interfered with their enjoyment of life, and impaired their well-being, health, and physical survival.

Another important ingredient affecting the survival of people in Latvia includes dangerous life-styles and substance abuse. Alcohol consumption rose from an average per capita rate of 1.9 liters per year in the 1920-34 period to 11.7 liters per year in 1985. This sixfold increase in alcohol consumption has had deleterious effects in many other areas of life and health and is one of the main causes of traffic deaths, drownings, fires, and crime.

Most Latvian males are inveterate smokers. A study of six cities in the mid-1980s discovered that 63 percent of men were active smokers, 13 percent had quit, and only 24 percent had never smoked. Smoking takes a particularly heavy toll in Latvia because the allowable tar content in cigarettes is high (three times as great as in Finland), most of the cheaper brands do not have a filter, and most men prefer to inhale deeply. There is a high incidence of illnesses related to smoking and environmental pollution, such as emphysema, lung cancer, bronchial asthma, and bronchitis.

Another habit dangerous to health is the preference for fatty diets and minimal attention to exercise. The economic hardships of recent years appear to have decreased the number of grossly overweight people. This may be one of the few unintended benefits of the reconstruction period.

The total number of pension recipients in Latvia grew from 603,600 in 1990 to 657,700 in 1993. Old-age pensions accounted for the largest number of awards (500,300), followed by disability pensions (104,200) and survivor's pensions (26,300). Old-age pensions remained very low, ranging from LVL15 to LVL23.5 (for value of the lats--see Glossary) per month, depending on the number of years of work.


Latvia - Religion


In 1935, before Latvia's occupation, official statistics indicated a fairly broad spectrum of religious traditions. Evangelical Lutheranism was the single most widespread creed, claiming the attachment of 55.2 percent of the population and 68.3 percent of ethnic Latvians. Roman Catholicism was the second most popular choice, preferred by 24.5 percent of the population and 26.4 percent of ethnic Latvians. Because it was especially entrenched in the economically less-developed southeastern province of Latgale (70 percent in this region) and was commonly seen as being regional rather than national, Roman Catholicism's impact on the secular world of politics and culture appeared muted in comparison with that of Lutheranism. The Orthodox Church of Latvia had a following of 9 percent of the population, with its greatest concentration among Russians and other Slavs but with 33 percent of its support also coming from ethnic Latvians. Old Believers (see Glossary), constituting 5.5 percent of the population, are a unique Russian fundamentalist sect whose forebears had fled persecution from the tsarist empire in the seventeenth century and had found refuge in then Swedish- and Polish-controlled Latvia. About 5 percent of Latvia's citizens were Jewish. The rest of the pre-World War II population was scattered among an array of Protestant denominations.

World War II and a half-century of Soviet occupation and persecution of believers fundamentally changed the religious spectrum. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, with an estimated 600,000 members in 1956, was affected most adversely. An internal document of March 18, 1987, spoke of an active membership that had shrunk to only 25,000. By 1994 religious congregations in Latvia numbered 819, of which 291 were Lutheran, 192 Roman Catholic, 100 Orthodox, fifty-six Old Believer, seventy Baptist, forty-nine Pentecostal, thirty-three Seventh-Day Adventist, five Jewish, three Methodist, and two Reformed.

Part of the explanation of the diminished status of Latvia's Lutheran Church is to be found in its relative weakness as an institution, unable to withstand the pressures of occupation as robustly as the Roman Catholic Church. For centuries Latvian attachment to Lutheranism was rather tepid, in part because this religion had been brought by the Baltic barons and German-speaking clergy. During Latvia's earlier independence period (1920-40), efforts were made to Latvianize this church. Original Latvian hymns were composed, Latvian clergy became predominant, and the New Testament was translated into modern Latvian. During the tribulations of World War II, Latvians intensified their religiosity, but at the same time the Lutheran Church suffered serious losses. Many of the most religious and talented individuals and clergy fled as refugees to the West or were deported to Siberia. A large number of church buildings were demolished by war action.

The Roman Catholic Church had a much closer historical bonding with its flock. During the period of national revival through the latter part of the nineteenth century in Latgale, the clergy were among the leaders of enlightenment and an important bastion against Russification. They nurtured and were themselves members of the Latgalian intelligentsia. During the years of communist occupation, the greater commitment demanded by the Roman Catholic Church helped maintain a higher degree of solidarity against atheist incursions. For the church, the practice of confession was a useful method for monitoring the mood of the population and for organizing initiatives to counter or prevent serious cleavages or even surreptitious activities by the communist leadership. Direct guidance from Rome offered some protection against the manipulation of clergy by state functionaries. Finally, the population of Latgale did not have the same opportunity to flee from Latvia because it was cut off earlier from access to the seacoast by the Red Army. Roman Catholic clergy, who were unmarried, were also more inclined to remain with their religious charges, whereas Lutheran clergy had to take into account the safety of their families.

Most Latvian Jews were annihilated by the Nazis during World War II. After the war, a certain number of Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union settled in Latvia. Many of them had already endured antireligious campaigns under Stalin, and there were many obstacles placed in the way of reviving Jewish religious activity. Most former Latvian synagogues were confiscated by the state for other uses, and nowhere in the entire Soviet Union did there exist any centers for rabbinical education. After Latvia's independence in 1991, there was a resurgence of interest in religious affairs. Five Jewish congregations served the growth in demand for services.

The statistics for 1991 point to an interesting pattern (see table 21, Appendix). At that time, far more people were baptized than married in church. Part of the explanation can be found in the requirement by some religions, including Lutheranism, that people must be first baptized and confirmed before having a religious wedding. Another possible explanation for this phenomenon is that the communist state was quite successful in sowing doubts about religion among the young and the middle-aged. Many, especially former members of the Komsomol and the communist party, feel uncomfortable in their personal relationship with the church but also have a desire to open more options for their offspring. Indeed, it is a common phenomenon to see nonreligious parents sending their children to Sunday school for the sake of "character building." In the process, however, some of the parents have become tied to a church and have joined the congregation.

During communist rule, every effort was made to curtail the influence of religion. All potential avenues of contact with the population were cut off. Schools, media, books, and workplaces were all off-limits to religious organizations. Even charity work was forbidden. Indeed, the family itself was not at liberty to guide children into active church work until the age of eighteen. Thus, no Sunday schools, religious choirs, or camps were open to young people. Religious publications, with a few exceptions, were limited to yearbooks and song sheets for Sunday services. Regular churchgoers were subject to various pressures, including harassment at work and comradely visits by local atheists. Anyone with career ambitions had to forgo visible links with religion. The state successfully preempted the most important church ceremonies of baptism, confirmation, weddings, and funerals by secular ceremonies. In 1986 the Lutheran Church registered 1,290 baptisms, 212 confirmations, 142 marriages, and 605 funerals--a fraction of the activity that was to occur in 1991. Evidently, a revolution in the status of the church occurred within that brief period.

Starting with 1987, the Lutheran Church experienced a revival pioneered by a group of young, rebellious, and very well-educated clergy who formed the organization Rebirth and Renewal (Atdzimsana un Atjaunosana). There were confrontations with communist authorities and with the ossified hierarchy of the Lutheran Church itself, which had become somnolent and very accommodating to the demands of secular powers. With the advent of political plurality, the Lutheran Church was able to expand its role and its activities. Church buildings were refurbished, demolished churches were renewed, Sunday schools were opened, religious education was provided in day schools, and the media reported sermons and religious discussions. For several years after the liberalization of church activities, religion became extremely fashionable. Part of this boom, as acknowledged by the Lutheran clergy, was a rebellion against authorities that coincided with the general political effervescence.

The Roman Catholic Church also went through a process of renewal, but its changes were not as marked because it had been able to maintain a strong presence in the population even under the most adverse conditions. Thus, in 1985 the Roman Catholics performed 5,167 baptisms, about five times as many as the Lutherans. In 1991 the Roman Catholics performed 10,661 baptisms, more than double the number in 1985. Among the Roman Catholics baptized in 1991, only 40 percent had been born in families in which the parents had married in church.

A major change in the geography of the Roman Catholic Church also presented problems. Whereas in 1935 more than 70 percent of Roman Catholics resided in the southeastern province of Latgale, by 1990 only 42 percent lived there. Thus, many Roman Catholics lived throughout Latvia, where often no churches of their creed existed. There has been much ecumenical goodwill, and the more numerous Lutheran churches are being used by Roman Catholics and by other religious groups. Administratively, the Roman Catholic Church comprises the Archdiocese of Riga and the Diocese of Liepaja.

Latvia's Roman Catholic Church received a great moral boost in February 1983 when Bishop Julijans Vaivods was made a cardinal. This was the first such appointment in the history of Latvia and the first within the Soviet Union. No doubt part of the willingness of the communist party to accommodate the Roman Catholic Church in this way was the fact that Vaivods was eighty-seven years old in 1983. Yet, he confounded the communists by living until May 1990, thus providing more than seven years of leadership.

Vaivods, who studied theology in St. Petersburg and was an eyewitness to the Bolshevik Revolution, was also an extremely able tactician. His efforts on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in the Soviet Union are a classic case of stubborn, low-key, but effective opposition to party pressure. The Soviet regime had decided to allow Roman Catholic congregations outside Latvia and Lithuania to die by not allowing them new clergy. Almost daily, delegations of Roman Catholic faithful from various parts of the Soviet Union came to Vaivods during the 1960s pleading for help. He sent Latvian priests to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Tallinn, and other cities, in spite of local shortages. When pressed by the delegations to allow their own people to enroll in Latvia's Roman Catholic seminary, Vaivods made it clear that the obstacle was not the church but rather state authorities who had given him instructions to claim that the seminary was too small. Under pressure, the authorities relented and allowed a trickle of seminarians from outside Latvia, but as punishment they took away almost half of the seminary's rooms. The church skimped and struggled but did not change its policy. By 1978 the expropriated space was returned, and three years later permission was granted for the construction of a new seminary. Thereafter, seminarian numbers increased rapidly from eighteen in 1980 to 107 in 1989. Most of the students were non-Latvians slated for service in other areas of the Soviet Union.

Latvian Lutherans also provided help to their brethren in other Soviet republics. Lutheran clergy were trained in Latvia for Lithuania. More important, Bishop Haralds Kalnins single-handedly took care of scattered German Lutherans outside the Baltic region. Besides ministering and preaching, he was empowered to ordain religious workers and to settle questions of theological education. In one six-day trip to Kazakhstan in 1976, the bishop held seven services in which 400 people received Holy Communion, twenty children were christened, thirty-five youths were confirmed, and ten couples were married. He was able to carry this load in spite of his advanced age.

The pre-World War II independent Orthodox Church of Latvia was subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate after the war, and its new clergy were trained in seminaries in Russia. It remained a major religious organization in Latvia because of the heavy influx of Russians and other Orthodox Slavs after the war. Only in 1992 did the Orthodox Church of Latvia become administratively independent once again. Its cathedral in the center of Riga had been transformed by the communists into a planetarium with an adjoining coffee shop popularly dubbed "In God's Ear." The cathedral is now being restored to its original architecture and purpose.

With the advent of independence, several other changes were introduced as well. Potential Lutheran pastors could now receive their training through the Faculty of Theology, which is affiliated with the University of Latvia. The Roman Catholics acquired a modern new seminary, but they had problems recruiting able scholars and teachers as well as students. Most Roman Catholic seminarians from outside Latvia have returned to their respective republics, and new seminarians are being trained locally. The new freedoms have allowed many other religious groups to proselytize and recruit members. Under conditions of economic and political uncertainty, their efforts are bearing fruit. Such denominations as the Baptists, Pentecostals, and Seventh-Day Adventists have made significant inroads. Charismatic movements, animists, Hare Krishna, and the Salvation Army have all attempted to fill a void in Latvia's spiritual life. Undoubtedly, there is great interest among Latvians in spiritual matters, but it is difficult to know how much of it is genuine and how much reflects the ebb and flow of fashion and will be replaced by other trends.


Latvia - Language and Culture


The Latvian language, like Lithuanian, belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Latvian is an inflective language, written in the Latin script and influenced syntactically by German. The oldest known examples of written Latvian are from catechisms published in 1585. Because of the heavy influx of ethnic Russians and other Slavs after World War II, nearly one-half of the country's population does not speak Latvian (see table 22, Appendix). Most ethnic Latvians speak Russian, however, and many also know German (see table 23, Appendix).

Latvian culture is strongly influenced by folklore and by the people's attachment to their land. Christian rituals often are intermingled with ancient customs, and pagan geometric symbols remain evident in the applied arts. Ancient folksongs, or dainas , that were first collected and published in the mid-nineteenth century, most notably by Krisjanis Barons, are a cultural treasure. In 1888 the great epic poem Lacplesis (Bear Slayer) by Andrejs Pumpurs was published, marking the dawn of modern Latvian literature. Janis Rainis (1865-1929) usually tops the list of Latvia's greatest writers. One of the most prominent figures in Latvian literature today is the poet Imants Ziedonis, who also has established a fund to promote the development of Latvian culture.

Latvia has a number of theaters (mostly in Riga), an opera, a symphony orchestra, and a permanent circus. Riga's Dome Cathedral houses one of the largest and most famous organs in the world. The works of many prominent Latvian artists are displayed at the National Fine Arts Museum and at the many art galleries in Riga. Other museums include the Museum of History and Navigation and the Museum of Natural History. There are 168 public libraries in the capital. Books and periodicals are published in Latvian and in other languages.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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