Virtual Livonia is an on-going project, which over the course of the last eight years has sought to establish an online presence for the Livonian people, as well as, educate the world about this nation, its language, and its culture. I became interested in the Livonians nearly ten years ago. As a Latvian, especially one growing up in the refugee community in the West, I had always had an interest in the other major nations of the Baltic States, the Lithuanians and the Estonians. I'd spent time studying Old Prussian, an extinct West Baltic language, but in time I began to wonder if there was more. Reading books of Latvian history, the Livonians were always a recurrent theme. They were one of the great nations of the Baltic region. For centuries the Livonians had lived side by side with my own ancestors. And really, by the end of the twentieth century, often our ancestors were the same people. Certainly, many Livonians had Latvian relatives, but likewise the influence of Livonian could be felt in the culture and even language of the Latvians. It seemed that much of what set apart our language from that of our linguistic cousins, the Lithuanians, was the influence of Livonian. But what had happened to these people? When I began my search a decade ago, I assumed there were still many of them. But soon I would be amazed to learn that there were only about ten speakers of the language left, with maybe a couple hundred individuals claiming Livonian as their identity.
And so was born the idea for Virtual Livonia. It was not easy finding information about Livonian. There were no easily available books, and it would be years until I would actually find a speaker of the language. My initial idea was to share what I knew about the Livonians, while also providing a forum for others to pass on what they knew to those interested in the language and culture. The first version of the site went online in June of 1996, the summer before I would begin my university studies.
Over the course of the next years the page would experience some success. Virtual Livonia was instrumental in having an article appear about the Livonians, in the New York Times in 1997, as well as, featuring them in a brief program on CNN International in 1998. In 2000, the pages would be extensively revised. In the months following the completion of my baccalaureate degree in linguistics, I would create a web version of a book of Livonian texts, Livõd Tekstõd, by Valda Suvcane. The summer of that year I would make my first journey to the Livonian Coast, studying the language, meeting speakers, and exploring the coast villages where the Livonians had made their home for centuries.
The pages would remain untouched for three years, until they would be erased without explanation from their home on the geocities server. By this time I had embarked on a course of graduate study unrelated to languages or Livonians, and there was little time to make revisions. The graduate study would end unexpectedly, and once again I found myself with an opportunity to turn my attention to this distant shore that had fired my imagination for so many years.
The new revision of the page took form over the course of several months. The final result would be markedly different than anything I had envisioned in the beginning. It would combine many of my interests. My interest in the language itself, my love of photography, my love of telling stories. The result would be something approaching a complete experience of the coast. Visitors could learn about the language, even hear spoken examples in the Language section and in the off-site links given in the Resources section. They could learn about the history of the nation, by reading the article on history in the About Livonia section. An article which provides a perspective that endeavors to focus on events from the perspective of the Livonians. They can walk through the coast towns, as I did, by visiting the Sojourn section, viewing photographs and reading the accompanying stories. In the end I felt that I had come to create the very site that I wished I could have found ten years ago, when I first became interested in this language and culture.
As I launch the third incarnation of this site, my hope is that it will continue to fulfill its original purpose, as a source of information about this little-known nation living on the shores of the Baltic Sea. But also that others can share in my experiences of that summer four years ago. A summer that was meaningful, but also beautiful, amazing, as well as, profound. So, please enjoy, and please share your comments and questions with me.
November 18, 2004
Notes about Virtual Livonia
Both Livonian and Latvian are languages filled with diacritical marks that are not in the standard character sets of most browsers. As a rule, in the general text, letters with diacritical marks are underlined. Equivalents for each underlined letter are given below.
In this site, I have chosen to use the Livonian names for their coastal villages. These names, however, are unlikely to appear on any popularly available maps of Latvia. A map with Latvian placenames given in parentheses is available here.