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Latvia, The People of Latvia

dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lacplesis, mass deportations, Riga Technical University, population of Latvia

The population of Latvia (2002 estimate) is about 2,366,515, yielding an average population density of 37 persons per sq km (96 per sq mi). Latvia is highly urbanized. Some 69 percent of the population lives in urban areas, with nearly one-third of the total population residing in Riga. Other important cities include Daugavpils, an industrial center; and Liepaja, a seaport with an ice-free harbor. Numerous towns and small cities are located along the country’s rivers, waterways, and coastal areas.

Ethnic Latvians constitute about 55 percent of the population. Russians, who live mostly in Latvia’s urban areas, are the largest minority, representing about 32 percent of the population. Other minorities include Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles, and Lithuanians. Before 1940, when the Soviet government annexed Latvia, Latvians comprised about 77 percent of the population within Latvia’s present-day boundaries. After World War II ended in 1945, a large influx of Russian workers into Latvian cities reduced the Latvians’ overwhelming majority. The Latvian population also decreased significantly during the war and the subsequent Soviet-conducted mass deportations to Siberia and other parts of the USSR.

The official language of the republic is Latvian, an Indo-European language related to Lithuanian. Ethnic minorities in Latvia often also speak their own native languages, which include Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish. Lutheranism, a Protestant denomination, is the traditional religion of most Latvians, with the exception of those in eastern Latvia, who are predominantly Roman Catholic. Other forms of Christianity—most notably Eastern Orthodoxy—are practiced by ethnic minorities to various degrees. There is only a small community of Jews in Latvia, as most of the country’s Jewish inhabitants were killed by German Nazis and their Latvian collaborators during World War II. Religious expression was strongly discouraged during the Soviet period. However, most Soviet restrictions on religion were lifted in the late 1980s, stimulating a revival of religious practice.

Latvia has an adult literacy rate of nearly 100 percent. Education is compulsory for nine years beginning at age six or seven. Universal and free education has been strongly emphasized in Latvia ever since the period of independence prior to Soviet annexation. Since 1991 Latvia’s educational system has been restructured according to an international model put forth by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Since Latvian was adopted as the official state language in 1989, the study of Latvian has become compulsory in all schools. However, Latvia has a number of schools that offer primary instruction in minority languages. The largest institution of higher education is the University of Latvia (founded in 1919), located in Riga, followed by Riga Technical University (1862).

Latvian culture is rooted in native folklore, which survived the centuries through a rich oral tradition of ancient legends, songs, and poetic verses. Subjects of folklore have commonly included the seasons, myths, family life, and the land. Latvia’s national epic, Lacplesis (1888; The Bear Slayer)—written by Andrejs Pumpurs—is based on traditional Latvian folk stories. Latvian literature emerged most notably in the 19th century, as more Latvians began receiving formal education. Among the first writers of note were Indrikis the Blind, who published poetry in the early 1800s, and Juris Alunans, the first widely published Latvian poet. The most prominent figure in Latvian literature is the poet and playwright Janis Rainis, whose greatest work, the epic tragedy Fire and Night (1905), deals with Latvian prehistory. Rainis was also a social reformer who spent six years in Russian imperial prisons and 15 years in exile in Switzerland before becoming independent Latvia’s minister of education in the 1920s. During the Soviet period the Communist regime imposed severe restrictions on artistic expression, and many Latvian writers, such as Anslavs Eglitis, fled their homeland to live and work abroad. Latvia’s most prominent contemporary writers include poet Vizma Belsevica and novelist Alberts Bels.

Museums in Latvia include the Latvian Historical Museum (1869) and the Rainis Museum of the History of Literature and Arts (1925), both located in Riga. Latvia’s national symphony orchestra and philharmonic orchestra are critically acclaimed. The country’s highly rated Riga Ballet, known as one of the best in the former USSR, has produced stars such as dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Other popular cultural activities include the country’s many folk festivals and the permanent circus in Riga. Popular spectator sports include basketball and soccer.

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