Livonian History

by Uldis Balodis

Livonia, a placename that has existed in Europe for the last eight centuries, today refers to no country and no place. Still there is a nation, the Livonian nation, and as all nations, it has a home. This home once stretched much of the length of the Baltic Sea coastline of present-day Latvia, but in the last century had dwindled to a fraction of this area, covering just the very fringe of the northwestern coast of Latvia. The Livonian nation had seen and suffered much. Over the centuries it had come close to extinction on several occasions, but the atrocities committed against it by the Soviet regime during its fifty year occupation of the country have driven it to the very brink of extinction. Today, their ancient homeland confronts the dangers posed by irresponsible development and by beach erosion, which threatens to wash away the very coast the Livonians have known as home for millennia. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, numbering only several hundred with but a handful of speakers of their language remaining, the Livonians seem to be facing an uncertain future. But how did these people come to be where they are? And what could the past tell us about their future?

Ancient to Early History

To begin a discussion of the history of the Livonian people, it is important to become acquainted with several Latvian placenames that will be used. Latvia historically has been divided into four regions, Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Zemgale, and Latgale (occasionally, Eastern Zemgale will be referred to as a fifth historical region, Selija). (See Figure 1) The names being loosely connected with the tribes and peoples that had inhabited each region in the past. The same tribes and language groups that in time came to combine to form the Latvian people. Though there exist English analogs to these names (Curonia, Livonia, Semigalia, Latgalia, and Selonia, respectively), these seem to be somewhat awkward as in some cases, especially when speaking of Livonia, the same geographic term can refer to several different historical regions or divisions.

According to the archeological record, the ancestors of the modern-day Livonians have lived in the Baltic area for approximately five thousand years (Karma 1995: 76). The Livonians speak a language closely related to Finnish and Estonian, and more distantly to Hungarian. It is a member of the Finno-Ugrian family of languages, which along with the Samoyedic languages forms the Uralic language family that stretches from Scandinavia east across northern Siberia and south to central Europe where Hungarian is spoken. Livonian may even be a very distant relative of languages such as Korean and Turkish, as in recent decades it has been hypothesized that the Altaic and Uralic language families may form a single larger language family (the Uralo-Altaic family of languages).

Initially, the name „Livonia“ specifically referred to the land inhabited by the Livonian people. It first appears as such in an 11th Century Runic inscription in Sweden. In the 12th Century the Livonian people are mentioned in the Chronicle of Nestor, where they are referred to as lib' or lyub', and are given as a nation paying tribute to Russia. By the turn of the 13th Century, the arrival of German traders and missionaries in the Livonian lands, also marked the beginning of the early recorded history of the Livonian people (Karma 1995: 76). The most famous record would become the Livonian Chronicle of Henry. Covering the time period from the eighth decade of the 11th Century till the year 1227, it records the conquest of the Baltic and Livonian lands by the Germans and Teutonic Knights.

Teutonic Conquest and the Establishment of Feudal Livonia

As the tribe inhabiting the coastal areas of what was to become Latvia, the Livonians were the first to encounter what would soon be many foreigners coming by sea to Kurzeme and Vidzeme. By the end of the 12th Century German missionaries and traders had begun flowing into the Livonian lands. Around 1164 the monk Meinhard arrived with a group of traders. He worked as both the confessor and accountant of this group, and soon after his arrival learned Livonian and began seeking converts among the Livonians he encountered. Meinhard had the first church built in Livonia, in the town of Üksküla (Latvian Ikskile; modern Livonian Iks kila, meaning „one town“), and in 1186 he was made the first bishop of Livonia. (See Figures 2 and 3)

By the time he died in 1196, Meinhard had made only limited progress in his missionary work. Few Livonians had been converted to Christianity, and it became clear to Rome that other means would be necessary to accelerate conversion among them. In 1199, Pope Innocent III announced a Northern Crusade in Livonia to convert the Livonians, Balts, and Estonians to Christianity. In 1202, Innocent created the Order of the Teutonic Knights (Fratres militie Christi de Livonia) that would be responsible for much of the forced conversion, and ultimately, subjugation, of the indigenous tribes of the region (Balodis 29-30).

Over the course of the next decades, the German clergy and the Teutonic Knights played one tribe against another, capitalizing on pre-existing rivalries and conflicts among the tribes to weaken and conquer all of them. To their credit, the Livonians and the Baltic tribes held out for decades, fighting the foreign invaders, but ultimately succumbed to the superior material and military resources of the Teutonic Knights.

By the middle of the 13th Century, a new Livonia was being created. This would become the second geographic entity that would be known under this name. This Livonia, however, came to include land not inhabited by the Livonians themselves. By the end of the 13th Century it had become a confederation of what effectively were 5 feudal states (4 bishoprics and the land administered by the Teutonic Knights). Declared by Pope Innocent III to be St. Mary's Land (Terra Mariana, Terra Matris, or Terra beate Virginis), this Livonia covered much the same territory as present-day Latvia and Estonia (Balodis 32). (See Figure 4)

As the primarily German ruling class continued to consolidate its power and control over Livonia, the Baltic and Finnic tribes, and especially their languages, were left increasingly marginalized. Not only Livonian, but also the other indigenous Baltic languages, came to be excluded from any meaningful context outside of daily interaction among the speakers themselves. It was also at this time that the Livonians began to be pushed back, and their lands began to decrease in area. A trend that, once begun, would continue well into the twentieth century. Finally, with the consolidation of foreign power and establishment of at least the outward trappings of the Christian religion in the Baltic area, the Livonians themselves would disappear from the historical record for the next three centuries. Little is known about the specifics of their situation, but it is known that they did not take easily to the imposition of foreign religion and power in their land. (Vääri 228) They would struggle against both, and thus come to experience further repression and attempts to weaken their will by the foreign ruling class.

One Livonia falls, another is created

The Livonian confederation lasted until the middle of sixteenth century, when feuding among the statelets of the confederation was utilized by the Russian Empire to its advantage. In 1558, the Russians crossed the Livonian border in the north and took Narva and Tartu (located in the eastern part of present-day Estonia). The Confederation was caught completely off guard by this invasion. The states scrambled to mobilize forces they did not have and to arm the Livonian and Latvian peasants. The peasants had long since become subjects, no better than indentured servants or serfs to the primarily German landowners. They had not been allowed weapons for quite some time, and many had no knowledge of how to use them. In other cases, the landowners balked at the thought of arming their peasant subjects, for the fear that the non-German peasants would turn against the landowners themselves.

As a result, the Russian forces swept through Livonia, and after a final battle in 1560, many towns and fortifications were surrendered to the Russians without a fight. Though the confederation was finished, in 1559 its leaders had made one last agreement, a defense agreement. This time with Poland-Lithuania. The Polish-Lithuanian forces routed the Russians in Livonia and took the entire region, with the exception of Tartu. In 1561, the lands constituting what had been the Livonian confederation, largely came under the control of Poland-Lithuania. The northernmost part of the territory, the northern half of modern-day Estonia, ultimately came under Swedish rule, while the large Estonian island of Saaremaa came under Danish control. Kurzeme and Zemgale were formed into a duchy that became a subject state of Poland-Lithuania. (Balodis 70-2)

Along with these changes, the term Livonia too took on a new meaning, with the formation of a territory consisting of Vidzeme, Latgale, and the southern half of present-day Estonia. This territory was to be administered jointly by Poland and Lithuania. As with the Livonian confederation, this Livonia was also not connected in any particular way with the Livonian people. Now the Livonians were divided between two different jurisdictions. The Livonians living in Vidzeme on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Riga were living in the province of Livonia, while those living on the western shore of the gulf, in Kurzeme, had come under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Kurzeme. But practically speaking not much had changed for the Livonians or the Baltic tribes that had by this time begun to coalesce into the Latvian people. Those in power were still largely the unassimilated descendants of the original German landowners and missionaries of centuries past, and German was still the language used for official functions.

Wars and changing hands

The 16th Century was a complicated time for what had been the Livonian confederation. On one hand, the establishment of Polish-Lithuanian control over the area saw some improvement in the status of the Latvian language, though not the Livonian language. Jesuit monks in Vilnius had translated and published the Catholic Catechism in Latvian, and had increased the educational opportunities of non-German children in Riga, by opening a boarding school providing free education. On the other hand, the division of Livonia would come to foster instability in the region (Balodis 76).

After failed attempts to unify the Kingdoms of Sweden and Poland-Lithuania, war erupted between the two states in 1600. This war, lasting until 1629, was largely fought in Livonia, decimating the territory. As a result, the Livonian and Latvian peasant population decreased dramatically. In 1629, the borders and definition of Livonia would change one last time, with the cession of Vidzeme and the southern part of present-day Estonia to Sweden. Latgale was left to the Poles, who would come to call it Inflantia, the Polish term for Livonia. (Balodis 79, 82) (See Figure 5)

During the Swedish period, the lives of peasants would not become significantly easier. Though they had been given a certain amount of legal recourse and rights, by this time the movement and freedom of peasants had been severely restricted as they had come to be legally bound to the manor and land they worked. The situation was not better in the Duchy of Kurzeme, where the peasants effectively had no rights at all, and were bound not only to the land that they worked, but also were entirely under the jurisdiction and control of their landowners (Balodis 83-87, 102-3).

The same time period also saw the reemergence of the Livonians in the historical record. In the Chronica der Prouintz Lyfflandt of Balthasar Rusow, we read only that by the beginning of the sixteenth century there remained only very few Livonians in their traditional lands. Similarly, in the Ehst-, Lyf-, und Lettlaendische Geschichte of Thomas Hiärne, we read that during the same time period, the few Livonians still remaining in Vidzeme, were located primarily near Salaca, Limbazi, and Liepupe. Hiärne, also writes that there were more Livonians remaining in Kurzeme than in Vidzeme. Already three centuries prior to their disappearance, we can see the differences developing between the these two communities. While Hiärne says that the Livonian communities in Kurzeme were still on the whole exclusively Livonian, the Vidzeme Livonians were already living in communities mixed with Latvians. A fact that would certainly contribute to their eventual assimilation by the end of the nineteenth century. (Vääri 228-9)

Russian Rule

With the Swedish victory in its war against Poland-Lithuania, the other great powers of Europe felt threatened. War erupted once more in the Baltics, this time between Sweden and Russia. Russia would be the victor in this conflict, and in 1710 took the province of Livonia as its prize. By the end of the eighteenth century the lands of the Duchy of Kurzeme too had been absorbed by Russia. The situation of the peasantry reached its lowest level yet. Under the new order, the rights and privileges of the German landowning class were protected, while the rights of the Latvian and Livonian peasants were rendered effectively non-existent. Laws binding peasants to the manors and adjoining lands that they worked, also limiting their right to free movement, were harshly enforced. Without any fear of legal repercussions, the German landowners could resort to punishments including maiming and execution of peasants that would attempt escape from their bondage. The non-German peasant classes had effectively become slaves in their own land. Restrictions on the free movement of peasants would continue to stay in effect for nearly another century, being lifted only in 1804. (Balodis 110-3, 117)

During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Livonian population in both Kurzeme and Vidzeme continued to dwindle. This was aided by an epidemic of bubonic plague that ravaged the towns and countryside. In northern Kurzeme, the Livonians were rendered practically extinct, with a population of 1600 on the coast being reduced to 10. Miraculously, by the middle of the nineteenth century the number of Livonians living in northern Kurzeme had returned to about 2000.

The Livonians living on the northern coast of Kurzeme were divided between two different tracts of manor land. This fact led to the emergence of the western and eastern dialects of Kurzeme Livonian. Due to the fact that laws limiting the free movement of peasants prevented the peasants from the two manors interacting as much as they would perhaps otherwise, the Livonian spoken in each area began to take on unique characteristics. The western dialect of Kurzeme Livonian would come to be spoken in Piza and Luz, with a transitional dialect being spoken in Ire, and the eastern dialect being spoken in the remaining towns to the east (Karma 1995: 77). Both dialects would remain mutually intelligible, though the eastern dialect would eventually come to form the basis of the Livonian literary language in the late twentieth century.

In Vidzeme, the situation of the language was arguably worse than in Kurzeme. Traditional beliefs had persisted among both the Latvians and Livonians. Though both nations had been officially Christianized, in many ways Christianity was still a foreign religion. Much of the clergy did not speak Latvian or Livonian, and were largely motivated by worldly pursuits rather than spiritual ones. In addition, the clergy were often in league with the landowners, aiding in the oppression of the peasants. (Balodis: 113)

Well into the eighteenth century, there are reports of the Christian clergy in Vidzeme not only condemning traditional spiritual practices, which perhaps would not be that surprising, but also actively working to eradicate traditional practices with actions such as cutting down trees in Livonian sacred groves. To further break the will of the Vidzeme Livonians, the clergy also advocated a policy of forbidding the Livonians from speaking to each other or teaching their children Livonian. The mainly German landowners took to breaking up communities of Livonian speakers, by moving Livonian families and scattering them among the far more numerous Latvian-speaking peasants. This did much to accelerate the assimilation of the Vidzeme Livonians. So much so that by the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Livonian language in the region was moribund and on the verge of extinction (Karma 77).

The First National Awakening

The arrival of foreign invaders in the Livonian lands six centuries earlier, had brought the Livonian people nothing but destruction and humiliation. Where they still lived, they had been made servants in their own land, and their language, once one of the major languages of the Baltic area, had been eliminated from all spheres of public life, leading to what appeared as an accelerating march towards extinction. So it is somewhat of a historical irony that a new breed of outsider would plant the seed for the rebirth of the nation's self-awareness.

In the case of the Livonians, Latvians, and other European nations that had not known the existence of their own modern state or had been marginalized from influential positions in their society by a foreign power, a national awakening could mean many things. It usually would involve a realization that the culture and language of the group was not in any way inferior or less interesting than that of an outside culture or language present in the same society. After often being told of the inherent inferiority of their language and way of life, these nations could take pride in what was their own. In some cases the result was the creation of a national literature, or in the case of many Northern European nations, national epics (Finnish Kalevala, Latvian Lacplesis, etc.) that in some way also extolled the heroic past of the people. Often this would lead to the establishment of a nationalistically-minded intelligentsia and the formation of an independent state, as it did for the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

For the Livonians, their first great national awakening began as a result of the linguistic work that was done on their language in the middle of the nineteenth century. Already at the end of the eighteenth century, the similarities and likely relationship between Estonian, Finnish, and Livonian, had been noted by A.V. Hupel in his Topografische Nachrichten. (Vääri 230) In 1846, Finnish linguist Andreas Johan Sjögren visited the Livonian communities in both Vidzeme and Kurzeme. He would return to Kurzeme in 1852 to continue his research. At the time he recorded the presence of 724 speakers of the western dialect and 1600 speakers of the eastern dialect, for a total of a 2324 speakers of Livonian in Kurzeme. (Vääri 233) After his death, his work was continued by Ferdinand Johann Wiedemann, a researcher of Estonian descent from Tallinn, capital of present-day Estonia. Wiedemann visited the Kurzeme Livonians in 1858, publishing Livische Grammatik nebst Sprachproben under both linguists' names in 1861 (Karma 1995: 78).

Wiedemann and Sjögren's work would become the first great linguistic work on Livonian. Even today, a century and a half after it was first published, the depth of the scholarship provides a truly fascinating resource for those interested in Livonian. While Sjögren primarily lists examples of Livonian collected on his journeys to Kurzeme and Vidzeme, Wiedemann adds a fascinating hundred page long introduction that discusses the history of the Livonian people, as well as, their culture and traditions, along with a detailed analysis of the grammar of Kurzeme Livonian. Due to the fact that by this time Vidzeme Livonian was nearly extinct, Sjögren and Wiedemann's collaboration provides one of the very few records of the Vidzeme dialect of Livonian.

The arrival of the linguists on the Livonian coast in Northern Kurzeme would ultimately lead to the publishing of the first non-linguistic texts in Livonian. Compared to the other major languages of Europe, the languages of the Baltic area came to be written relatively late. The first texts in Latvian appeared only in the sixteenth century, with texts in Livonian only appearing in the middle of the nineteenth century. Earlier small collections of recorded words had appeared, primarily collected by travelers and authors of the earlier chronicles. These collections stretch back to the aforementioned Chronicle of Henry, with the phrase maga magamas (difficult to translate, literally "sleep sleeping") appearing as the first example of Livonian mentioned in the historical record. However, all of these collections of words did nothing to elevate the literary level of the speakers of Livonian themselves, more so they were seen as curiosities and items of interest intended for outsiders.

In their work with the Livonians of Northern Kurzeme, the linguists encouraged and assisted their main informants in translating the Gospel of Matthew into Livonian. The gospel was translated into the eastern dialect by Nika Polmanis (1823-1903), and into the western dialect by Jan Prints Sr. (1796-1868) and his sons Jan Prints Jr. (1821-1904) and Petõr Prints (1831-1889). To this day, the Prints or Prince family is known as one of the more famous Livonian families that helped lay the groundwork for the future evolution of literary Livonian.

Polmanis, as well as, Prints Sr. and his sons, were primarily of a religious or educational vocation. Polmanis had been a teacher in Kuostrõg and a sacristan in Kuolka. Similarly, Prints Sr. was a sacristan in Piza. His sons Petõr and Jan Jr. were a local teacher and town elder, respectively. The publication of the translations was complicated by a peasant uprising among the Livonians in 1859 and 1860 in the town of Dundaga in Northern Kurzeme. As a result, the landowners would evict many of the Livonians from their homes and rent out their land to more obedient non-Livonian peasants from further inland. (Karma 1995: 78)

In 1863, two years following the publication of Livische Grammatik, Wiedemann had found a willing publisher, a British Bible publishing house in London. The books were published the same year. Polmanis' translation into the eastern dialect appeared as Das Evangelium Matthäi in den östlichen Dialect des Livischen zum ersten Male übersetzt von dem Liven N. Pollmann. The translation by the Prints' family into the western dialect appeared as Das Evangelium Matthäi in den westlichen Dialect des Livischen übersetzt von dem Liven J. Prinz und dessen Söhnen P. Prinz und J.P. Prinz. (Vääri 234) (See Figure 6)

In the following decades, there would be a limited output of written Livonian. Still, outside circumstances once again came to intervene in the Livonians' attempts to build their own nation and cultivate their national sense of self. With the arrival of the first decades of the twentieth century along with the tumultuous years of World War I, the Livonians once again were scattered, their homeland ravaged by another conflict. But this time the groundwork had been laid, and in the years following this war, more would be accomplished than ever before to create a modern Livonian nation.

Second National Awakening: Interbellum Years and the Rise of the Livonian Nation

With the end of World War I and the establishment of the Republic of Latvia in 1918, the stage was set for a dramatic improvement in the conditions and use of the Livonian language in its traditional home on the northern fringe of Kurzeme. The most dramatic improvement since the loss of self-determination seven centuries earlier. At the beginning of the twentieth century there still remained a fairly concentrated population of Livonian speakers inhabiting 12 small towns in Northern Kurzeme. The towns were somewhat isolated from the rest of Kurzeme by a belt of uninhabited forests and swamps, which allowed the Livonian identity of the area to be preserved. Soon after the end of the war, in the early 1920s, a new generation of linguists began arriving on the Livonian Coast. The two most notable researchers of this group were Finnish linguist Lauri Kettunen (1885-1963) and Estonian ethnographer Oskar Loorits (1900-1961). (Karma 1995: 78) As Sjögren and Wiedemann before them, Kettunen and Loorits were interested in the Livonians not just as research subjects and linguistic informants, they also were concerned with improving the status and use of the Livonian language.

Soon after the establishment of the independent Latvian state, the seven century long grip on power by the German manor lords and landowners was finally broken with a land reform enacted by the government between 1920 and 1924. Most of the German landowners were permitted to keep their family residence and approximately 50 ha of land. About 52% of the expropriated land became the property of the Latvian government, while the rest was divided among 144, 681 farmers and landless peasants. The result was that for the first time the Latvians and Livonians had the chance to determine their own fate in their own land (Balodis 209-210).

In truth, this applied most to the Latvians, who now had the chance to build their own state with their own language as its medium of communication. During the first independence period between 1918-1940, the Latvians composed approximately 75% of the population of the country. At about the same time, according to the 1935 state census, the Livonians composed 32% of the population of their coastal homeland (944 individuals out of 2746 total residents), stretching from Luz to Mustanum. 29% of the population in these towns (790 individuals) still spoke Livonian, but only 215 individuals reported using their language at home. (Suvcane 9)

here were provisions for minority language education in Latvia, extending mainly to the Russian, German, Polish, and other larger ethnic minorities in the country. But with the establishment of Latvian independence, no immediate move was made to set up Livonian language education in the towns where the language was still spoken. However, it is also true that there did not really exist any Livonian speakers who had been trained as primary or secondary school teachers, and certainly not any Latvian speakers who had been trained as schoolteachers and also spoke Livonian.

This and other issues needed to be resolved, and would lead to the establishment of Livõd It (the Livonian Union, henceforth LU) on April 2, 1923. Initially, Livõd It sought to not only provide Livonian language education for the schools in the coast towns, but also to unite all the Livonian towns within the boundaries of a single district (pagasts, in Latvian). In both cases the LU had difficulty working with the Latvian government to achieve its aims. Sadly, it seemed that though the Latvians themselves had only recently thrown off the yoke of foreign domination, this did not mean that the Latvian government was necessarily any more understanding or sympathetic to the yearning of the Livonian people to express and promote their own culture and language in their homeland. The idea for the creation of a Livonian national district (See Figure 7) was tossed around by Latvian lawmakers in the Interior Ministry, but ultimately was refused. This refusal seemed to stem from a fear that the consolidation of the entire Livonian nation into a single district could ultimately lead to demands for some form of local sovereignty. (Vääri 241)

Though unsuccessful in lobbying for the creation of a single Livonian district, the LU would have more luck in convincing the Latvian government to permit Livonian language classes in the coast schools. The government ultimately would give its grudging permission to allow Livonian to be taught as an elective subject once a week. Having received permission to teach the language in the schools in their homeland, the Livonians were faced with one other problem, namely that there were no trained teachers of Livonian, and no books for teaching the language. This unusual situation and the unprecedented opportunity to have their own language taught in their own schools, called for an unusual solution. The teaching of Livonian in the coast schools was undertaken by the Livonian sailor Mart Lepst, who would ride on horseback from town to town, teaching at each school one day a week. (Karma 1995: 78-9) Though the language instruction was still not of a level to where non-Livonian-speaking children could hope to learn Livonian at school, the teaching of the language in the coast schools raised the status of the language and also led to the production of teaching materials that helped establish and strengthen what would become the basis of the modern Livonian literary language and orthography.

Still, the Livonian Union knew that only one thing would ensure that the language could be taught at these schools on a consistent basis, and that would be actual Livonian speakers trained as teachers. With this thought in mind, the LU helped three Livonian young people, Petõr Damberg (1909-1987), Hilda Griva (later Cerbaha, 1910-1984), and Alise Gutmane, enrol in the Jelgava Teachers' Institute, located in the Southern Latvian city of Jelgava. Already before completing his course of study at the Institute, Damberg was invited to Finland in 1933 to prepare what would become his magnum opus and one of his most memorable contribution to the furthering of writing and education of Livonian, his Jemakiel Lugdõbrantõz Skuol ja Kuod pierast (Mother tongue reading book for school and home, henceforth JLSK). The book, a collection of 91 short stories written in Livonian, was intended by Damberg not only as a reader for children studying Livonian at school, but also for home use (Karma 1994: 127).

After completing their course of study, almost unbelievably, none of the three young teachers received teaching positions in their home district on the coast. Soon thereafter Petõr Damberg would be required to report for his mandatory military service in the Latvian military, while the other two students were sent to teach elsewhere (Karma 1994: 127-8).

When Damberg's book, JLSK, was published in 1935, it was received to great acclaim. However, in order for it to be used in schools, it had to gain the approval of the Latvian Education Ministry. After many delays and much hesitation, the ministry denied approval to the book, as its content was said to „conflict with the life and idea of the Latvian state.“ (Karma 1994: 128) Following diplomatic appeals from the Finland, a compromise was reached. The book could be used in schools, as long as it included a page at the end with a Latvian folk song, a short text on Latvian history, and the Latvian national anthem. Unfortunately, approval of the book came only shortly before the outbreak of World War II, so the useful life of the book in the Livonian schools was quite short (Karma 1994: 128).

Still, any education at all in Livonian, remained one of the great achievements of the LU. In addition to sending the three Livonian young people to the Teachers' Institute in Jelgava, the LU also sponsored other young Livonians who wished to study abroad in Estonia and Finland. It also did much to build ties between the Livonians and their linguistic relatives, the Estonians, Finns, and Hungarians. The 1920s and 1930s also saw a sizeable increase in publications in the Livonian language. Among them was a collection of Livonian poetry called Livõd Lolõd (Livonian Songs) by Korli Stalte, another Livonian cultural luminary of the time. During his life, Stalte was the editor of several Livonian publications, the author of a number of Livonian books. He taught Livonian in the village school in Ira, and between 1937 and 1942, along with Livonian Edgar Volganski-Valgama, translated the New Testament into Livonian. (Karma 1995: 79) Stalte and his family would come to form another of the most important Livonian families, with his relatives continuing to be an active and influential force in Livonian cultural life to this day .

In 1931, the Livonian students from the Jelgava Teachers' Institute, aided by Finnish financial support, began publishing „Livli“ (the Livonian), a monthly newspaper in Livonian. (Karma 1995: 79) During the same year, Finnish pastor Helle Kalervo Erviö began to journey to the Livonian Coast several times a year to hold mass in Livonian. To have Livonian as the language of the church on the coast had long been a dream of Livonians working to raise the status of their language in their homeland. In time, Erviö learned Livonian, and came to the coast on a fairly regular basis until 1938. (Vääri: 241) Church services in Livonian, just as Livonian language instruction in coast schools, were to remain a relatively infrequent phenomenon. Still, they too could be viewed as a great achievement. At the close of the 1930s, the status of the Livonian language had reached unprecedented heights, achieving roles in the dynamic of the languages used by the residents of the Livonian Coast, that had not been seen in over seven centuries.

One final dream would be realized prior to the abrupt end to Latvian independence at the onset of World War II. Construction began on what would come to be known as the Livonian National Hall (Livlist Rovkuoda), a center in the largest Livonian town, Ire, that would serve as a focus for the Livonian people, their work and ambitions. It was hoped that it would come to be seen as a symbol of their nation, a nation that had come to be more clearly defined than ever before in the previous two decades, its status secured in ways not possible for the previous eight centuries. The Hall was officially opened on August 6, 1939.

But these achievements were to be short-lived. Within three weeks of the unveiling of the new Livonian Hall, unbeknownst to the Livonians or anybody else, the Soviet and Nazi governments had signed the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing Europe between the two powers. After some final negotiation between the Soviets and Germans, it was agreed that the Baltics were all to come under the Soviet sphere of influence (Karma 1995: 79).

The same year the Baltic States were each forced to sign cooperation agreements with the Soviet Union, giving the Soviets the right to establish military bases on the territory of the three countries. (Balodis 277-8) There was little the three small states could do, facing such an overwhelming power. The hope among the Baltic governments was that by lying low, hopefully the conflict would pass over them. The Finns who had been given a similar ultimatum by the Soviets, refused to sign the pact. As a result, they would be attacked by the Soviets anyway. However, because they did not succumb to the initial Soviet demands, the Finns had the chance to defend themselves before the Soviets had the opportunity to disarm the populace and overthrow their government, as they would in each of the Baltic States. At the end of World War II, the Finns would maintain their independence, while the Baltics would lose theirs.

Shattered Dreams: The Years of Soviet Domination

The arrival of World War II brought with it great destruction to the coast that had by now become the only homeland remaining for the Livonian people. By the summer of 1940, Latvian president Karlis Ulmanis had been forced to appoint a government hand-picked by Soviet authorities. One of the first orders of business for the new government was to organize and stage elections for a new „People's Parliament“ (Tautas Saeima, in Latvian). Only one political party was allowed to compete in these elections and it was composed solely of persons approved of by the puppet regime imposed on Latvia by the Soviet authorities. Shortly after the predictable outcome of these "elections," the new parliament requested the admittance of Latvia to the Soviet Union as a constituent union republic. (Balodis 281-5)

The new parliament was hardly representative of the true will or opinions of the citizens of Latvia, and its decision to petition and ultimately join the Soviet Union violated the Latvian constitution. The constitution stated that any international agreement or law adopted by parliament that alters the nature of the sovereignty of the Latvian state could only be enacted with the approval of a majority of the nation's citizens through a national referendum. No poll was held, but nevertheless the request by the puppet parliament was gladly accepted by the Soviet government. As a result, the Republic of Latvia became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic on August 5, 1940. (Balodis 286-7)

Initially, the new Soviet government tried to assure the residents of the Baltics that little would change. But these assurances soon showed themselves to be false. By the end of 1940, political repressions were well underway. Opponents of the Soviet regime who had fought for Latvian independence two decades earlier were being arrested and sent to labor camps in Russia. (Balodis 293-5)

As for the Livonians, soon after the incorporation of Latvia into the Soviet Union, the National Hall in Ire was seized by the new Soviet government, the Livonian Union and other Livonian organizations were banned, publication of Livonian books was forbidden, as was the teaching of Livonian in schools. (Karma 1995: 79) All that had been achieved in the previous decades was uprooted in a few short months, and sad to say this would only be the beginning.

The following year, 1941, came to be referred to by the Latvians as Baigais Gads (The Year of Terror). On the night of June 14, 1941, thousands of men, women, and children all over Latvia were arrested by Soviet authorities, loaded onto cattle cars, and deported to slave labor camps in Siberia. (Balodis 297-300) This was the beginning of a policy of ethnic cleansing that the Soviet government would continue to carry out in the Baltic States over the course of the next decade. The deportations affected the Livonians as much as the Latvians. Many of the innocent people taken from their homes on their ancestral coast that night would never return. (Karma 1995: 79) Seen in the light of the centuries of German and Russian domination of the Baltics, as well as, the policies of the Soviet Union against other non-Russian nationalities in the previous decades, these repressions were hardly surprising. The ultimate goal, as it had been earlier, was the further weakening and assimilation of the nationalities indigenous to the Baltic area, in the process consolidating the power of the colonial regime in the territory. This policy would prove to be especially disastrous for nations, such as the Livonians, who were not strong in number, and thus proved to be easy targets for eradication by the Soviets.

Within weeks the forces of Nazi Germany would come to push the Soviets out of Latvia. The Nazi occupation did not bring any real change for the situation of the Livonians. Though during the years of German power in the Baltic States, linguists from Finland and Estonia were permitted to visit and continue to gather information about the Livonians. Beginning in 1944, as the tide of the war turned, the Soviets began to force the Germans out of Latvia.. Towards the end of the war, some of the fiercest battles came to be fought in Kurzeme, where the Germans held out until the fall of Berlin in 1945.

As the war drew to a close, the future of their homeland filled with uncertainty, many Livonians saw a closing window of opportunity to flee their land for the relative safety of the west. In the Spring of 1945, with access to the sea still open to them, the same sea that had nurtured and sustained them and their ancestors for centuries past, these sailors and fisherfolk returned to it one last time, to flee their homeland and its turmoil for Sweden. Fully one half of the Livonian nation left their coastal home that spring, most never to return. Some would come to stay in Sweden, while others would emigrate further, along with the Latvians, to the four corners of the earth. (Vääri 243-4)

With the reestablishment of Soviet power, came new repressions against the Livonians. Many had fought against the Soviets in the waning days of the war, and now those that remained were sent along with many Latvians from Kurzeme to what were called filtration camps. The intent of these camps was to root out potentially subversive elements, as well as, deepen the feelings of helplessness and terror among the local populace. Soon thereafter on March 25, 1949, came the second wave of mass deportations. In some cases people that had been taken in the first round eight years earlier had made their way back to their homes, only to be taken away again. (Karma 1995: 79)

By the 1950s, the guerrilla war that had raged in the Baltic States had been largely quelled, and Soviet authorities began to take the final step in clearing the coast of its ancient inhabitants. The coastal strip where the Livonians had lived for millennia was declared a sensitive military zone and largely off-limits to non-military personnel. The way that the Soviets accomplished their aim of ridding the coast of its residents was particularly insidious. After the waves of deportations and ethnic cleansing, there were already far fewer people living there than before. A 1948 expedition by Tartu University Prof. Paul Ariste (1905-1990) had recorded the presence of only about 500-800 Livonians in the area. Perhaps as little as a quarter of the number that had lived there prior to the war and the subsequent Soviet occupation. But now to ensure that the others would leave, the Soviet authorities began to eliminate any sort of civilian infrastructure in the area. Stores, schools, and hospitals were closed, and with access to the sea being completely restricted, the fishermen who knew no other way of life, were denied their livelihood. The result would be that in relatively short order the coastal villages emptied of their inhabitants, as people were forced to seek employment and homes elsewhere. (Karma 1995: 79)

The point had been reached in the 1950s where there no longer was a Livonian homeland. Aside from some elderly Livonians that had stayed in their homes on the coast, the Livonians were now completely scattered. Half the nation had fled during the war and now was living intermixed with the Latvian refugee community around the world. The other half had been forced from its ancestral home, and those who had not been sent to labor camps in Siberia, were now scattered across Latvia. The Soviet authorities refused to recognize the existence of the Livonian nation, and forbade it from being listed as an official nationality in passports and other documents. Livonians who spoke their language openly or tried to teach it to their children were persecuted.

The decades of Soviet occupation wore on. As the yoke of foreign oppression continued to weigh heavily on all the nations of the Baltic, much was being done to change the essential nature of the three countries by the occupation government. The most severe changes were seen in Estonia and Latvia where the Soviets undertook an extensive project of constructing large industrial complexes similar to those in other parts of the Soviet Union. Though an environmental catastrophe in its own right, this industry still held in it the possibility for new jobs and opportunities for people living in both states. However, improving the lives of the local people had never been a concern for the Soviet regime. The need for workers at the new factories was used as an excuse to import large amounts of people from outside of the Baltic. Soon it would become clear that this seemingly innocuous plan to fill job vacancies was really an ambitious plan by the Soviet regime for fundamentally altering the ethnic composition of these countries.

The newcomers were given a great deal of preferential treatment. They were often given first choice of housing and jobs in Latvia. In time, many would choose to remain, as even during the years of the occupation, the Baltic States were still seen as a window to the west, having a significantly better standard of living than many other parts of the Soviet Union. Retired military personnel who had been stationed in the countries would also be encouraged to remain. Over several decades these policies would result in several hundred thousand new residents in Latvia, the vast majority of whom were Russian speakers who would never take the time to learn Latvian. By the end of the occupation at the beginning of the 1990s, the Latvians would form barely one half of the population of the entire country (51%), whereas the primarily Russian minority would form the balance of the remainder. (Auns et al.: 419-421) This was quite a change from 1940, when Latvians formed approximately 75% of the population of the state, and the Russian minority was less than 10%. (Ozolina 1999)

In addition, the role of Latvian was severely reduced during this time. The primacy of Russian was encouraged in all spheres of life. The situation for Livonian would be even worse. With Latvian being forced from many of the roles it had occupied previously, Livonian was given little notice. Its speakers scattered and persecuted, it seemed like little could be done to improve the status of the nation or its language.

From Darkness into Light: The Third National Awakening

In the Livonian community, its third national awakening seems most memorable for what would occur in the 1990s. Latvian independence would be restored and in this new political context the Livonians would ultimately receive more recognition on the national level than they ever had earlier. Still, when considering the history of the nation and this epoch in its history leading up to the present, it is important to note that this revival in Livonian cultural activity began many years earlier, decades before the end of the Soviet occupation of Latvia.

It could be said that the third national awakening began on January 29, 1969. That day in Viljandi, Estonia, the city would mark Livonian Culture Day, which became the first open recognition of the Livonians and their culture in several decades. In August of the following year, during the unveiling of a new museum commemorating the history and culture of Baltic fishermen, several songs were sung with words written by the Livonian poet, Korli Stalte. This would ultimately lead to the founding of two Livonian folk music ensembles in 1972. Livlist (Livonians) and Kandla (zither) were not only responsible for bringing new life to the folk music traditions of the Livonians, but were also instrumental in paving the way for many similar Latvian folk music ensembles in years to come. (Karma 1995: 79)

Through the course of the 1970s till the end of the 1980s, these folk music ensembles would form the backbone of Livonian cultural activity. Though the Soviet regime had permitted this small revival, the situation was still complicated and Livonians seeking to actively promote their culture and language had to tread carefully. By the end of the 1970s some work was being done in publishing small amounts of written Livonian. In 1980, the Latvian language division at the University of Latvia published a small collection of Livonian folk songs with Latvian translations and a short description of the written language. Livonian seemed to be gaining some modicum of acceptance, despite decades of persecution by the Soviet regime. However, when several Livonians went to the Soviet government and the Communist party with a request to be able to give Livonian as their nationality in official documents, they and many members of the Latvian intelligentsia that had supported them in this move were severely rebuked by the party leadership and government. Real progress would have to wait a few more years. (Karma 1995: 80)

Winds of change: The End of the Soviet Occupation

Perestroika and glasnost, the policies pioneered by Mikhail Gorbachev, would ultimately bring the opportunity for great changes across the Soviet Union. In time, these changes would reach as far as the shore of the Gulf of Riga, where the Livonians had made their home for centuries. The mid-1980s were still a difficult time for the Livonians. Individuals teaching or promoting Livonian still lived under the threat of persecution or pressure from the Soviet authorities for undertaking such actions.

Change would come to both the Latvians and the Livonians in the late 1980s, largely inaugurated by the first large scale public demonstration protesting the occupation. This occurred on June 14, 1987, when a large group of people walked through the streets of Riga to the Freedom Monument (Brivibas piemineklis, in Latvian), to mark the anniversary of the mass deportations carried out by Soviet authorities 46 years earlier. Many more demonstrations demanding recognition of the atrocities committed by the Soviet government and even independence from the Soviet Union would follow, not just in Latvia but across the Baltics and in other parts of the Soviet Union. On November 26, 1988 the Livonians officially restored the Livonian Association under the name the Livonian Cultural Union (Livõd Kultur It), which in time would be renamed Livõd It. The following year the LCU marked the 50th Anniversary of the construction of the Livonian National Hall in Ire. The same year in Riga, the LCU began to organize a program of Sunday school classes for studying Livonian. (Karma 1995: 80) After five decades of silence, Livonian could once again be studied and spoken without fear of persecution.

The period from 1990 to 1991 marks the transition from occupation to independence for all three Baltic countries. On May 4, 1990, the Latvian government adopted a resolution restoring the independence of the country. At the time few nations recognized this declaration. Widespread acceptance and recognition of Baltic independence would only come in late August and September of 1991 after the collapse of the failed coup in Moscow and the effective dissolution of the Soviet Union soon thereafter.

In the intervening year and a half, the Latvian government adopted a resolution, on February 4, 1991, creating a special region for the Livonians in the area of their traditional villages in northern Kurzeme. This region, given the Livonian name Livõd Randa (the Livonian Coast), was designated as a „national protected territory of Livonian culture and history“ (valsts ipasi aizsargajama libiesu kulturvesturiska teritorija, in Latvian). Later that year on March 19, 1991, the Livonians, along with the Latvians, were identified as the two nations indigenous to the territory of Latvia in a piece of legislation dealing with the support for the cultivation of the cultural autonomy of the nations of the Republic of Latvia. (Karma 1995: 80) (See Figure 7)

Both of these decisions were a great victory for the Livonians. At long last not only were they recognized as being partners with the Latvians in the newly restored independent Latvia, but also a region had been created for them in their traditional homeland where, ideally, a truly Livonian sense of place could be maintained and encouraged. However, in practice the true effectiveness of this region in promoting Livonian issues has been limited. The main problem has remained the same as always, which is that the traditional Livonian villages are divided between two different national districts (rajons, in Latvian).

Livõd Randa itself does not have very much administrative jurisdiction, it is not an autonomous region, but in practice is a much more nebulous entity. Its administration is often frustrated in its attempt to make a real and meaningful impact in the territory, due to the fact that to enforce any decision it has to contend with the authority of several different jurisdictions (two districts, several smaller local jurisdictions, as well as, a national park in the eastern half of the territory).

In 1992, the Livonians restarted publication of Livli (Livonian), the national newspaper that had been published in Livonian in Latvia during the 1930s. Now, however, the great majority of articles appear in Latvian. In 1993 there was an attempt by a young Livonian poet, Valt Ernstreit, to create a publication exclusively in Livonian, a supplement to the newspaper, called Livli+. But this and other attempts to create publications exclusively in the language have never experienced a run beyond a few issues.

Also during 1992, the Livonian community began to organize its annual summer camp, intended primarily for children of Livonian descent. Held every year in Ire, originally called Tsitsorlinkist (chirping birds, in Livonian), since the late 1990s it has been known as Piski Ted (little star, in Livonian). (Karma 1995: 80) Piski Ted refers to a poem written by Korli Stalte likening the Livonians to a star, remaining distinct as it shines among the myriad stars in the sky. The camp is like any summer camp, with sports and crafts activities for the children. However, in addition to this there is an hour of Livonian language instruction every day. These activities have been greatly aided by the work of modern Livonian cultural activists such as Zoja Sile, who has administered the camp for many years, in addition to teaching Livonian at the camp and authoring learning materials for use by the children. In 2000, linguist Kersti Boiko published her book Livõ Kel (Livonian language) which is a collection of Livonian language lessons for speakers of Latvian. This user-friendly and easy to understand book has been a great asset to the children at the camp and others who wish to gain a working knowledge of Livonian.

The 1990s also saw the election of two Livonians to the Latvian parliament, which was the first time in the nation's history that any Livonian had held a national political office. (Karma 1995: 80) As the number of native speakers continues to dwindle, there has been a continuing and diligent effort by linguists and cultural activists to continue to perfect the orthography and publish books in Livonian. In 1998, a long held dream was realized with the publication of a bilingual Livonian-Latvian anthology of Livonian poetry, Ma Akub Sinda Vizzõ Turska! (I'm craftier than you are, cod! [the title refers to a Livonian folk song in which a fisherman is uttering this declaration to the fish he is trying to catch])

Still the 1990s leading up to the present day have also seen a continuing and predictable decline in the number of native speakers of the language, the great proportion of whom are now over 70. One rare exception is Julgi Stalte, a young woman in her mid-20s, who in addition to being a member of the proud Stalte family, learned Livonian as a child from her grandfather. She continues to do much to popularize Livonian, not only singing in her family's folk music ensemble (Skandinieki), but also in forming her own group, Tulli Lum, that released an album of contemporary Livonian music in the early 2000s.

Looking to the Future

Looking ahead, it can be said that the future of Livonian is unclear. It seems fairly certain that the Livonian identity will persist, as today there remain several hundred people in Latvia and around the world who consider themselves to be Livonian. There are certainly examples of cultural identities that persist even after the core language of the culture has fallen into disuse (the Samaritan community in Israel comes to mind).

In order to effect a real revival of the Livonian language, a consistent and constant effort has to be undertaken by the body of potential speakers. In some ways the situation of Livonian is not unlike that of Manx Gaelic, a language that „died“ as it was already being reborn. The last native speaker of Manx Gaelic passed away in 1974, but by this time much work had already been done for decades to document the language of the last native speakers. In fact by 1974, many Manx Gaelic enthusiasts were already learning the language, and setting the groundwork for today, where the language is being increasingly utilized in Manx society and even taught in public schools as an optional subject. (Thomson 1998: 321, Thomson 1992: 101-2)

Similarly, today as Livonian faces a future in the coming years with a very small amount of native speakers, much work has already been carried out to document the language of those still left who can recall a time when there actually were Livonian-speaking communities. A portion of the young Livonian community is interested in learning and passing on the language, and is utilizing the opportunities open to them to study and learn it. The main difficulty here arises from few opportunities to practice speaking, due to the simple lack of anyone to converse with. In addition, the traditional Livonian homeland today is devoid of Livonian speakers, and the vast majority of the residents in the coast towns are non-Livonian.

Perhaps the largest obstacles to the revival of Livonian come from the present state of Latvia and a certain amount of close-mindedness of regular people towards the idea of learning a language like Livonian. While the economic situation in Latvia has improved since the end of the occupation, life is still hard for many people, and learning a language spoken by so few can seem frivolous. Even those who have the means to live comfortably may find studying Livonian a waste of time. Learning a language with so few speakers does not bring the possibilities for travel or economic mobility as the study of major languages would.

Still these are not insurmountable obstacles. In the years following the reestablishment of Latvian independence, Livonian identity was seen as interesting and even desirable. This led some Latvians to extol their Livonian roots so far as to claim Livonian nationality. While it is doubtful that there exists the seed for a mass movement among Latvians to learn Livonian, it does seem that this kind of enthusiasm for the identity can encourage at least some outsiders to participate in the language's revival. Showing the Livonian identity as a distinct yet integral component of the identity of the Latvian state, too could help overcome the impression that the language holds no value or is not worth learning. Such an argument could resonate with the Latvian intelligentsia, which has a history of supporting Livonian cultural aspirations.

After the great plague, with only ten Livonian speakers left in the coastal villages, within a century and a half the Livonians once again numbered in the thousands. But times have changed and it is difficult to say whether this often told story will prove a relevant comparison to the present situation. Still, today truly is a uniquely hopeful time for the peoples of the Baltic States. Having weathered another foreign occupation, all three countries are now well on the road to restored prosperity and a decent life for their residents. In addition, the added security and stability offered by membership in the European Union will hopefully aid efforts by the Livonians to preserve their identity. So that the language of the coast dwellers may again sound from Piza to Kuolka, and greet Mierjema (Ocean Mother) each day as it has since the beginning of time.


Fig. 1. Latvia and its historical regions

Fig. 2. Ikskile Church (photo: Uldis Balodis, 2000)

Fig. 3. Ancient Homeland of the Livonians (Karma 1995: 77)

Fig. 4. The Livonian Confederation: Terra Mariana

Fig. 5. Borders of Livonia under Swedish and Russian rule (1629-1918) (FEEFHS)

Fig. 6. Title page of the Gospel of Matthew in the Eastern dialect of Livonian (Karma 1994: 124)

Fig. 7. Livõd Randa (Karma 1995: 78)

Fig. 8. The Livonians and Livonian speakers (1852-2000) (Suvcane: 9)