Global True Lithuania Encyclopedia of Lithuanian heritage worldwide


Latvia and Lithuania are known as "brother nations". Not only they are neighbors which never fought a war but their languages are the final remaining examples of once mighty Baltic language group. 30 000 Lithuanians live in Latvia today, comprising 1,5% of total population.

Lithuanian-Latvian ethnic boundary have always been a fluid one with many frontier villages and towns ethnically mixed. The current oficial boundary was established by arbitration in 1922, after both Lithuania and Latvia became independent from Russian Empire. Some heavily Lithuanian towns and villages were left on the Latvian side, including Aknīste (Lithuanian: Aknysta), Ilūkste (Lithuanian: Alūkšta). These border areas still have sizeable Lithuanian communities.

Lithuanians shared Latvian cities

Latvia also became a refuge for Lithuanians at times when occupational govenments persecuted them. In 1795-1915 both Lithuania and Latvia were occupied by the Russian Empire. Lithuanians however felt a bigger wrath of the Czar with Lithuanian language banned and a decision made to leave Lithuania an agricultural hinterland.

Latvia, on the other hand, had its cities and industry developed (and faced no language bans). Riga had over 500 000 inhabittants in 1914, almost the same number as it does today (650 000), and was 3rd-5th largest city of the Russian Empire. 35 000 of them were ethnic Lithuanians mainly seizing the oppurtunity to work in factories. With their homeland still agricultural this meant that there were more Lithuanians in Riga than in any city or town of Lithuania itself.

Total number of Lithuanians in Latvia was 100 000 in 1914. Many lived in the cities closer to the border: Daugavpils (Daugpilis), Jelgava, Liepāja (Liepoja). In Liepāja 25% of population (17 500 people) were Lithuanians and the city's gymnasium became the alma mater of the future Lithuanian elite. Among its students were two of the three interwar presidents of Lithuania (A. Smetona and A. Stulginskis), several ministers, writers and politicians. Today its building houses Liepāja University (Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela 4).

Former Liepaja Gymnasium. For now it lacks commemorative plaques for famous Lithuanians who taught or studied there. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Prominent Lithuanians also studied at Jelgava (Mintauja) gymnasium (prime ministers E. Galvanauskas and M. Šleževičius, female politician G. Petkevičaitė who presided over the first meeting of restored Lithuanian parliament in 1920 at the time when women still lacked voting rights in most foreign countries). On the magnificient neoclassical palace of this Latvia's first institution of higher education (built in 1775) there is a plaque for president A. Smetona who also studied here (address: Akadēmijas iela 10).

Antanas Smetona commemorative plaque on the Jelgava gymnasium and the building itself. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After independence (1918) most of the Latvia's urban Lithuanians repatriated and helped expand Lithuania's own cities. A community of 30 000 remained; in 1931 Lithuania and Latvia signed a treaty on schooling in each other's languages. 9 Lithuanian schools existed in Latvia at the time (until Soviet occupation).

Cooperation in freedom struggles

During their wars of independence against Russians in 1919-1921 Lithuania and Latvia cooperated. Lithuanian troops reached the suburbs of Daugavpils in fighting bolsheviks; a 9 m tall monument for Lithuanian volunteers now stands in Červonka village. One of the 31 graves here had been moved to Kaunas as the Unknown soldier grave before World War 2.

Sadly this grave was destroyed by Soviet occupational regime (1940-1941, 1944-1990) but the Červonka memorial survived. Moreover, under the Soviet occupation both nations faced Stalinist genocide and hundreds of thousands Lithuanians (entire families) were forcibly expelled to Siberia in cattle carriages. Many did not survive the harsh climate and forced labour but those who did were finally allowed to leave Siberia after Joseph Stalin died. However many were still not permitted to return to Lithuania so they chose Soviet-occupied Latvia to start up their new lifes. After independence a cross has been built for Lithuanian and Latvian anti-Soviet guerillas in Červonka.

Lithuanian soldiers graves in Červonka, Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuania and Latvia also cooperted in the freedom struggle of 1989-1991. As Soviet troops attacked Vilnius on 1991 30 11 (killing 14 civilians) Latvians went out to protest. Posters against these Soviet/Russian actions are now exhibited in the Barricades museum.

Lithuania-related Latvian protest banners from 1990 in the Barricades museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A memorial for Baltic Way wherein 2 million Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians connected their capitals hand-in-hand in an anti-Soviet protest stands in central Riga.

Street plaque at where Baltic Way stood in 1989. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Modern Lithuanian community in Latvia

The largest Lithuanian community is today in Riga. In 1995 it re-established a public Lithuanian full time school where children are taught from age 7 to 18 (address: Prūšu iela 42A). Lithuanian language, history, geography and culture are compulsory lessons but the school is so prestigious that this does not preclude ethnic Latvian and Russian children from attending it (only some 50% of its 400 pupils are Lithuanian).

The tradition of undergraduate studies in Latvia has been renewed when SSE Riga English-language international college has been established in Riga (Strēlnieku iela 4a). 20% of its students are Lithuanian citizens.

Lithuanian school in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although smaller than they once were the Lithuanian communities still exist in Daugavpils (~1% of population), Liepāja, Jelgava.

After 1990 independence Riga became a popular place for Baltic representative offices of companies and its airport became a popular entry point to the Baltic States. For most Lithuanian companies that grew too large for operating in a single country alone Latvia became the first foreign market (convenient for cultural and economic similarity as well as a neighboring location). To this day Lithuanian exports to Latvia well surpasses the imports. Lithuanian-owned trademarks and franchises such as Maxima retail stores, Čili pica pizzerias and others are among the market leaders in Latvia.

A Maxima store in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvia also acquired a "Lithuanian seaside resort" Pape. Lithuanian sea shore is very short (91 km or 1 km per 33 000 people) and gets especially crowded while its Latvian counterpart is much more spacious (494 km, or 1 km per 4 000 people). As such some Lithuanians decided to "extend" own seashore by buying up homes of Latvian borderland fisherman village Pape in the 1990s (the real estate prices were much lower on the Latvian side of the border). After both countries joined the European Union and customs control was abolished it may already seem that they succeeded as its hard to understand where the true boundary goes without seeing signs.

Crusader castles and palaces of their descendents

Earlier in history Latvia was the base for the Order of Livonia in 1237-1561. These German crusading knights had christianing and conquering Lithuania as their main (unsuccessful) goal. Its castles still remain in Cēsis (former capital), Sigulda and Bauska.

Ruined Bauska castle, one of numerous fortifications built at key locations by the Livonian knights in order to fight Lithuanians. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanians forced the Order to become their vassal as the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. Under this status the palaces of Jelgava and Rundale were constructed, the later still the greatest palace in the Baltic States.

Rundale Palace, one of the greatest palaces constructed in the former realm of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanians had to defend Latvia from other empires in massive battles. While eventually they have lost entire Latvia to Russia (1795), they have been more successful for a while, winning a massive Salaspils battle near Riga in 1605 (the site is currently marked by a memorial stone).

Salaspils battle memorial. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Vilnius Baroque churches/monasteries of Latgale

However Lithuanians had the largest direct influence in Eastern Latvia (Latgale) where Lithuanian monks successfully reintroduced Catholic faith in 16th-18th centuries after a brief Lutheran period. They have constructed churches of Vilnius Baroque style in local towns (the style is characterized by tall lean twin towers, developed in Vilnius). Some of the remaining ones: Berzgale (St. Ann church, 1770), Pasiene (Holy Cross church and Dominican monastery), Viļāni (Acchangel Michael, 1777, and Bernardine monastery).

Aglona, the prime pilgrim location of Latgale and whole Latvia has even more Lithuanian details. Its Vilnius Baroque styled Virgin Mary Assumption church is famous for a miraculous painting that has been created using the Virgin Mary painting at Trakai church as an example. Dominican monastery stands nearby. Moreover, Agluona is famous as the place where the first Lithuanian king Mindaugas was murdered in 1263 by Treniota. Therefore a statue for Mindaugas and his wife Morta has been erected there in 2015.

Aglona basilica, Vilnius baroque in style. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There is so much of Lituanity and Catholic faith (associated with Lithuanian rather than Latvian nation) in Latgale, and the local Latgalian language/dialect is so different from standard Latvian, that during the 1918-1922 territorial disputes an opinion existed that Latgalians are Lithuanians rather than Latvians and therefore Latgale should belong to Lithuania.

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