Until the end of the 12th century, the territory of modern Latvia was mostly inhabited by ancient Baltic tribes, consisting of the Latgali, Kurshi, Seli and Zemgali peoples. These tribes had not yet formed a state, and were primarily farmers who practiced nature religions.
Ruled by German knights (13th – 16th Centuries)
Around the end of the 12th century, German crusaders invaded the territory of modern Latvia to convert the pagan population to Christianity. These crusaders established a feudal state confederation, named Livonia at the beginning of the 13th century. Livonia occupied the territory where modern Latvia and Estonia are now situated. Native tribes became subjugated as serfs to German landholders.
In 1201 German crusaders founded the city of Riga at the mouth of the Daugava river. In 1282, Riga joined the Hanseatic union, and Cesis, Limbazi, Koknese and Valmiera later joined as well. The Hanseatic union was a trade union of northern Germanic cities, which fuelled regional development. Because of its strategic location, Riga became an important trading point between the West and East.
Ruled by Poles and Swedes 16th – 17th Centuries)
Having spread throughout Europe, the reformation movement entered Livonia in 1522. As a result of the reformation, Lutheranism became consolidated in Kurzeme, Zemgale and Vidzeme. However, the Roman Catholic Church still dominated in Latgale, which was under Polish-Lithuanian control. These sweeping religious changes undermined the Livonian statehood.
In 1558, Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Princedom and Sweden warred for control of Livonian territories. Poland soon acquired the territory of modern Latvia, but the fighting between Sweden and Poland didn’t end. During the war Vidzeme and Riga fell under Swedish control.
In the 17th century, the Kurzeme dukedom, under the Polish-Lithuanian princedom, experienced an economic boom and captured colonies in Gambia (Africa) and Tobago in the Caribbean (for more information, see “Maza konkista Herzoga Jekaba”).
During Swedish rule, Riga became the largest Swedish city, and Vidzeme became known as the “bread warehouse of Sweden” as it provided the bulk of Swedish grain.
Also during the 17th century, separate Latvian tribal groups merged into a modern Latvian people, speaking the same language. The first books in Latvian were prayer-books, which appeared in the middle of the 16th century, using gothic fonts.
Latvia Becomes Part of the Russian Empire (1710 – 1917)
During the Northern War (1700 - 1721) between Russia and Sweden, Peter I captured Riga after 8 months of siege. Vidzeme then came under the control of the Russian empire. In 1722, Latgale also fell under Russian control as a result of Polish-Russian territorial divisions. The Kurzeme dukedom joined Russia in 1795 after a third wave of territorial divisions.
Although Latvia was now part of the Russian Empire, the laws governing it were very different from the ones in “middle-Russia”. The German barons who controlled most of the large manors continued to enjoy full privileges. For example, they were allowed to run local government and to create new laws. During the years of 1817-1819, serfdom was abolished in most of the territories of modern Latvia. However, mass education was only introduced in 1887, when schools that taught in Russian were legalized. The Russia reign also saw the influx of Jewish people and Old Believers into Latvian lands, as they fled persecution. A large Old Believer population remains in Latvia today. However, Latvia’s Jewish population was almost completely destroyed during the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944.
At the end of the 19th century, industrial development led to population growth in Latvia. The territory of modern Latvia was Russia’s most developed province. Riga became Russia’s second largest harbour, after St. Petersburg and Russia’s third primary industrial centre following Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Latvia experienced a rising tide of national sentiment near the end of the 19th century, and independence movements began to form. The first Russian revolution of 1905-1907 further stimulated the desire for Latvian independence. After the fall of the Russian monarchy in February of 1917, Latvian representatives in the Russian council demanded the formation of an independent Latvian state.