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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Latvia: The Country and its People in the 20th Century

The People

Latvia has a declining population. Its birth rate is among the lowest in the world, and the death rate is approximately double the birth rate. Compared to about 2,000,000 in pre-war Latvia, the population now numbers about 2,300,000, but much of the increase has been mechanical and achieved by large-scale ethnic engineering.

Thus it is just short of amazing that there are still enough Latvians left to make Latvia Latvia. World War II and the ruthlessly inhuman population policies of the occupying regimes endowed newly-independent Latvia with a society that would never have evolved naturally. The proportion of Latvians is slowly inching up to 60%, but it is still far below the 75%-plus mark at the end of the first independence period. In major cities, the Latvians constitute a minority. Rīga is only 40% Latvian.

Nazi policies of displacement and annihilation are responsible for the loss of ethnic Germans, who made up a small but economically and culturally important part of 3%, and the wholesale murder of Latvia's Jews. There are only some 5000 indigenous Jews left.

Large-scale Soviet population engineering with its aim of creating a Russian-speaking homogenized Soviet society resulted in further shifts – by deportation of natives and immigration of non-natives. The ethnic Russian population has grown from the pre-war 10% to about 30%, most of them Soviet-era immigrants, including retired officers, former government functionaries, managers and other members of the Soviet ruling elite.

As immigrants during occupation, they and their descendants are not granted automatic citizenship, but Latvian law allows them to become naturalized citizens by passing a Latvian language, history and constitution test. The rate has been slow, however, and social integration has been even slower, resisted both by the immigrants themselves and to some extent by the Latvians.

Though Latvian is the official state language, Russian is still a de facto second language. The last major demonstrations broke out around 2004 when ethnic Russian schools, a relic from the Soviet era, were ordered to start teaching 60% of the subject matter in Latvian. Officially unrecognized Soviet memorial days are still publicly celebrated by considerable numbers.

However, despite ultra-national groups on both sides, there have been few major confrontations between the sides. It seems that invisible lines have been drawn that neither side is ready to cross. Other immigrant ethnic groups have been more willing to become part of Latvian civil society than the large Russian contingent.

The Soviet legacy still weighs heavily on the development of civil society. For one, the Soviets endowed the future with a society that was divided ethnically and by privilege, with some groups, to use George Orwell's term, still considering themselves more equal than others. For another, the society was organized and financed from above. Social initiatives of other kinds were frowned upon and in many cases suppressed.

Thus the post-Soviet development of non-governmental social organizations as volunteer, self-financing institutions has been slow. Many organizations rise and fall depending on external financing. Politically engaged organizations are frequently looked upon and criticized as quasi-political groups that interfere in the due process of national government.

It may take another generation or two for a fully functioning and self-assured civil society to come about.



Author Bio:

Dr. Valters Nollendorfs has a Ph.D. in German literature from The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is a Professor Emeritus of German from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught from 1961 to 1995. Dr. Nollendorfs lives in Riga, Latvia and volunteers at the Museum of the Occupation as Director of External Affairs and Project Director for Nakotnes Nams (Building for the Future), a major reconstruction and expansion project that involves planning and development of a new exhibition and major fundraising.

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Location:  Northeastern Europe
Capital:  Riga
Communist Rule:  1940-1941 / 1944-1990
Status:  06.09.91 - independence recognized
Victims of Communism: