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Flag of Livonia.svg
Total population
more than 300
Regions with significant populations
Latvia (Livonian Coast)
Livonian, Latvian
Related ethnic groups
other Finnic peoples

The Livonians or Livs are the indigenous inhabitants of Livonia, a large part of what is today northwestern Latvia and southwestern Estonia.[4] Unlike ethnic Latvians, Lithuanians, and most of the other peoples of Europe they do not speak an Indo-European language, but speak the Finno-Ugric Livonian language, a language which is closely related to Estonian and Finnish.

Historical, social and economic factors, together with the ethnically dispersed population, have resulted in the diminution of the Livonian population, with only a small group surviving in the 21st century. According to the 2000 census, there were only 177 Livonians in Latvia.



The linguistic ancestors of modern Livonians may have lived on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea around the Gulf of Riga as early as 1,800 B.C. The first speakers of Indo-European Baltic languages, i.e., the linguistic ancestors of today's Latvians and Lithuanians are thought to have arrived in the area around 2,000 B.C. The exact date of Finno-Ugric migration to Baltic area has been disputed, but according to DNA studies, there were Uralic peoples in the Baltic some 10,000 years ago. These peoples later merged to the Balts and Finnic-tribes.[5]

The Middle Ages

Baltic tribes in 1200 - The Livonians inhabited the area north of the Balts, north of the Daugava river and around Cape Kolka in Courland.

Historically, Livonians lived in two separate areas of Latvia; one group in Livonia and another on the northern coast of Courland. Those who lived along the Courland coast were referred as Curonians, together with Balts living there[6]. The Livonians referred to themselves as rāndalist ("coast dwellers"), which indeed they were, supporting themselves mainly with fishing, but also with agriculture and animal husbandry. Since they controlled an important trade route, the river Daugava (Livonian: Väina), their culture was highly developed through trade with the Gotlanders, Russians and Finns, and, from the end of the first millennium A.D. onwards, with the Germans, Swedes and Danes.

However, along with the traders came missionaries from Western Europe who wanted to convert the pagan Livonians to Christianity. It has been suggested that first person to convert some Livonians to Christianity was Danish archbishop Absalon, who supposedly built a crunch to Livonian village today known as Kolka. In the 12th century, Germans invaded Livonia, and based themselves in Ykskyle, today known as Ikškile. Archbishop Hartvig II converted some Livonians in the surrounding area, including local Livonian elder Caupo of Turaida, who would later ally himself with Germans. After Meinhard died in 1196, hes place was taken by Berthold. Berthold tried to convert Livonians by force, and he made two raids on Livonia. The first one took place in 1196, but he was forced to retreat to Germany after being ambushed near Salaspils. He tried again in 1198, but this time he was killed by Livonian soldier Ymaut. Berthold was followed by Albert von Buxhövden, who forced Livonian leaders at the river Daugava's mouth to give him land to build a Christian settlement. Building started in the year 1201, and later it would grow to become the city of Riga. When this did not immediately induce the Livonians, Estonians, and Baltic peoples in its hinterland to convert, a knightly order was formed, the Knights of the Sword, primarily consisting of Germans, to bring salvation to the pagans by force. In a campaign which was a part of the wars known as the Northern Crusades, these knights defeated, subdued and converted the Livonians, and in 1208 Pope Innocent III declared that all Livonians were converted to Christianity.[6] Afterward they had to join the Knights of the Sword as infantry during the wars against the Estonians and the Latvian tribes, which continued until 1217.

During the Livonian Crusade, once prosperous Livonia was devastated, and whole regions were almost completely depopulated. This vacuum was filled by Latvian tribes - Curonians, Semigallians, Latgallians and Selonians - who started to move into the area around 1220, and continued to do so for at least thirty years. They settled mostly in the Daugava Valley, so that the Livonians of Livonia in the East were cut off from those living on the Peninsula of Curonia in the West.

Because of the ongoing resistance of the Latvian tribes, the Knights of the Sword eventually had to look for support to the much more powerful Teutonic Order, which up until then was active primarily in Poland and Lithuania. Having been reorganised as a subdivision of the Teutonic Order and renamed the Livonian Order in 1237, the former Knights of the Sword finally overpowered the Curonians in 1267, and subsequently the Semigallians in 1290. From then on most of Latvia remained under German control until the 16th Century, with the City of Riga and several other cities forming independent, German-ruled bishoprics and the Livonian Order ruling the rest of the land.

Under Foreign Powers (1558-1795)

In the middle of the 16th Century the Livonian Order as well as the independent bishoprics were in turmoil because of the growing influence of Martin Luther's Reformation. Seeing a chance in the resulting military weakness of the Order, Czar Ivan the Terrible of Russia invaded Livonia in 1558 to get access to the Baltic Sea. However, Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth entered the war as allies of the Livonian Order, resulting in almost a quarter of a century of war. The outcome of this Livonian War (1558–1582) was a Russian defeat, but also the dissolution of the Livonian Order. Livonia and South Eastern Latvia were claimed by Poland-Lithuania, while Curonia became an independent duchy with Gotthard Kettler, the Livonian Order's last Grandmaster, as its first Duke.

After only ten years of rest an entirely new series of wars ravaged Livonia from 1592, between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden, which had claimed Estonia after the Livonian War. Eventually the Swedes were victorious, and in 1629 they could finally call Livonia and the City of Riga their own. In Estonia and Livonia the period of Swedish rule is still looked back upon as a kind of golden age. Although it is part of a long history of foreign occupation the Swedes did much to help their subjects in the Baltic region. For example, under the 17th Century Swedish Kings Gustav II Adolf and Charles XI general elementary education was introduced, the Bible was translated in Estonian and Latvian, and a university was founded in Tartu, in southern Estonia.

Although Sweden kept the Poles and also the Danes at a distance, this could not be said of the Russians. In the Great Northern War (1700–1721) Czar Peter the Great utterly destroyed Sweden's pretensions to being a regional superpower. And in the Treaty of Nystad (1721), Estonia and Livonia, which were at that point after more than twenty years of war again completely devastated, were claimed by Russia. Curonia continued to be ruled by its Dukes for another three quarters of a century, but in 1795 that region also became a Russian possession as part of the Third Partition of Poland.

Assimilation and isolation (1795-1914)

Partly because of the recurring devastation of war and the mingling of refugees which those entailed, the Livonians of Livonia were eventually completely assimilated by the Latvians. The last remnant of this once vibrant nation was made up of several families living along the river Salaca (Livonian: Salatsi), but in the second half of the 19th Century the Livonian language and culture completely disappeared from the region known to this day as Livonia, the last known speaker of eastern Livonian dialect died in 1864, though according to some reports there were still some people in early 20th century on Pole area, who knew they decanted from Livonians.[6] In the Latvian dialect spoken in Livonia, a large number of Livonian loanwords have survived, and other traces of Livonian can by found in many geographical names in the region.

In Curonia, the Livonian language and culture also came under heavy pressure, but here it retained a last foothold on the outermost tip of the Curonian Peninsula. Several factors made sure that in this area, known as Līvõd rānda, the Livonian Coast, Latvian culture was too weak to assimilate the Livonians. For one thing, the society of the Livonians living in this area was exclusively sea-oriented and based on fishing, while that of the Latvians in the interior was exclusively land-oriented and mostly agricultural. This distinction meant there was not a lot of interaction between the two groups. Also, the Livonian Coast was separated from the interior of the Peninsula of Curonia by dense forests and impassable marshlands, which made regular interaction even less likely. Actually the people of the Livonian Coast had much closer ties to the inhabitants of the Estonian island of Saaremaa, across the Gulf of Riga to the North. In their isolated fishing villages these Livonians kept to themselves for centuries. It was not until the 20th Century that the outside world intruded in their quiet existence.[6]

World War I

In 1914, Russia entered the First World War by attacking the Germans and the Austrians from the East, but soon it was pushed back in a series of devastating German victories, which eventually left almost the entire Baltic region in German hands. The Livonian Coast was occupied by the Germans in 1915 and at their approach many Livonians fled their homes, often never to return. Main destinations were Estonia and inner parts of Latvia. The rest of the people were driven from their homes by the Germans, and had to wait until 1919 before they were allowed to return.

The Russian defeat and the subsequent abdication of Czar Nicholas II opened the door for Lenin and the communists to make a grab for power in Russia, leading to the establishment of the Soviet government in Russia in 1917. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the following year ended the war between Germany and Soviet Russia and left the Baltic region firmly in German hands. However, after the German capitulation in 1919, the Baltic peoples rose up and established the independent republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The Livonian Revival of the Interbellum Years

File:Livonian National Costumes.jpg
Livonian couple in Riga wearing national costumes, photograph from late 19th century.

The Livonian Coast became part of Latvia, and although the Latvians, like their Estonian and Lithuanian neighbours, soon abandoned democracy, Livonian language and culture experienced a revival during the reign of Latvian president Kārlis Ulmanis. The clearest expression of this revival was the establishment of the Livonian Society, on April 2, 1923, which considered itself the representative of the Livonian people. Also, a Livonian language choir was founded and Livonian song festivals were held along the entire Livonian Coast. Furthermore, a Livonian flag was adopted, with the colours green (for the forests), white (for the beaches) and blue (for the sea), and a division similar to the Latvian flag (e.g. three horizontal bars with the middle one half as wide as the outer ones). Although the Latvian government prohibited the formation of an ethnic Livonian parish within the Lutheran Church of Latvia in 1923, it approved the introduction of the Livonian language as an optional subject in elementary schools in the villages of the Livonian Coast that same year. The thirties saw the publication of the first Livonian language reader, poetry collections of several Livonian writers, and a monthly magazine in the Livonian language, called "Līvli" ("The Livonian"). Also, contact was made with related peoples, like the Estonians and the Finns — spurred by the Finnish promotion of closer ties with the kindred Finnic peoples — and in 1939 the Livonian Community Centre in Mazirbe (Livonian: Irē) was founded with subsidies from the Estonian and Finnish governments.

This cultural revival of the Interbellum years served to give the Livonian people for the first time a clear consciousness of it own ethnic identity. Before, they had always referred to themselves as rāndalist ("coast dwellers") or kalāmīed ("fishermen"). From the twenties and thirties on, though, they began to call themselves līvõd, līvnikad, or līvlist ("Livonians").

The Second World War

In 1940, Latvia, like Estonia and Lithuania, was occupied by the Soviet Union. This occupation and the subsequent German invasion of 1941 ended all progress the Livonians had made in the preceding twenty years. All cultural expressions were prohibited and just like twenty years before, the inhabitants of the Livonian Coast were driven from their homes. Most of them spent the war years in Riga or Western Latvia, but some fled across the Baltic Sea to Gotland. The Curonian Peninsula was one of the areas where the Germans held out until the general capitulation of May 5, 1945, which meant there was not a house left standing when the Livonians returned home after the war.

Repression by the Soviet Union

In the Soviet era the Livonians were hard-hit by repressive measures from Moscow. For one thing, they were not allowed to sail far enough from shore to continue their fishery. For another, like the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, large numbers of them were deported to Siberia between 1945 and 1952, with a clear peak in 1949, when agriculture was collectivised in the Baltic states. Also, in 1955 a Soviet military base was constructed in the middle of the Livonian Coast. To accomplish this, some Livonians were forcibly moved to villages farther from the coast. Subsequently, the Western villages of the Livonian Coast had to be almost completely evacuated when the Soviet Union made its Baltic coastline (its Western border) a "closed border area" where no one was allowed to live.

Livonian culture was repressed during the Soviet period. For example, the Livonian Society was banned and the Livonian Community Centre expropriated and given to others. Within the Latvian SSR, the Livonians were not recognised as a separate ethnic group.

Modern situation

It was not until the early seventies that Livonian singers were allowed to found a choir named "Līvlist" ("The Livonians") in the Western Latvian city of Ventspils. The eighties, with Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika opening the Iron Curtain, brought change. In 1986, the Livonian Cultural Society was founded, which was later renamed the Livonian Union (Livonian: Līvõd Īt).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvia became again an independent country. In this new nation the Livonians were finally recognised as an indigenous ethnic minority, whose language and culture must be protected and advanced. All rights and possessions which were taken away from them during the Soviet era were now returned to them. For example, the old Livonian Community Centre in Mazirbe (Irē) was given back and transformed into a historical museum, called the House of the Livonian People. Also, the Livonian language was reintroduced in the elementary schools in the villages of the Livonian Coast, though this time not as an optional subject, but as a mandatory one.

Furthermore, on February 4, 1992, the Latvian government created a cultural historic protected territory called Līvõd rānda - the Livonian Coast - which included all twelve of the Livonian villages: Lūžņa (Livonian: Lūž), Miķeļtornis (Pizā), Lielirbe (Īra), Jaunciems (Ūžkilā), Sīkrags (Sīkrõg), Mazirbe (Irē), Košrags (Kuoštrõg), Pitrags (Pitrõg), Saunags (Sǟnag), Vaide (Vaid), Kolka (Kūolka), and Melnsils (Mustānum). The Latvian government discourages settlement of ethnic Latvians and other non-Livonians in this area and prohibits alterations to historic village sites. Also, it is prohibited for anyone to start a hotel, restaurant, or other public establishment which might adversely influence the Livonian culture or draw outsiders into the area.

Today, many Latvians have some Livonian ancestry. However, there are only 176 people in Latvia, who identify themselves as Livonian. According to data from 1995, the Livonian language was spoken by no more than 35 elderly people, of whom only 15 to 20 spoke it fluently. An article published by the Foundation for Endangered Languages in 2007 stated that there were only 182 registered Livonians and a mere six native speakers.

The last Livonian, who had learned the Livonian language as a part of an unbroken chain of Livonian generations, was Viktor Berthold (b. 1921). He was buried on the 28th of February, 2009 in the Livonian village of Kolka in Courland.


  1. ^ Inhabitants of Latvia by nationality and citizenship. Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (in Latvian)
  2. ^ Population of Estonia by ethnic nationality, mother tongue and citizenship
  3. ^ Ethnic composition of Ukraine 2001
  4. ^ Minahan, James (2000). One Europe, Many Nations. ISBN 9780313309847.
  5. ^ Y-Chromosomal Diversity Suggests that Baltic Males Share Common Finno-Ugric-Speaking Forefathers
  6. ^ a b c d Vilho Niitemaa ja Kalervo Hovi, Baltian historia, Helsinki 1991, ISBN 951-30-911-0

External links