In search of the last Livonians

In search of the last Livonians
02 July 2024

On a cold Saturday morning, I jumped on a bus heading towards the tip of Cape Kolka, on the coast of the Gulf of Riga. As I started to read about the history of Latvia after my arrival in Latvia, I was struck by the strong ethnic variety within the country. Latvians, Germans, Russians, Poles have shaped the history of today’s Latvia. Yet, one small ethnic group often goes under the radar. Although indigenous in Latvia, the Livonians now only represent a tiny ethnic minority in Latvia.

Who are the Livonians? 

Claiming to have inhabited the northern coast of Courland for 5000 years, the Livonians were mostly fishermen and coast dwellers. In the 16th Century, they found themselves at the center of the Livonian War, a 25-year-long struggle for control of the Baltic Sea between Russia, Sweden and Poland. During World War I, the Germans gained control of the region and forced many Livonians to flee their home, often never to return. After the first independence in 1918, Livonian culture experienced a revival, but World War II put an end to this Livonian Renaissance. The Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States in 1940, and the Nazis invaded Latvia a year later. Livonians again fled their home, but the repression continued even after the War. Between 1945 and 1952, a significant number of Livonians were deported to Siberia. Those who remained on the coast were not allowed to sail far from the shores, as they were suspected to share intelligence with other countries. As a result, they could not continue their fishery, which was the basis of their economic life.

Since 1991

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Livonians were recognized as an ethnic indigenous minority. Successive Latvian governments implemented policies to protect their culture and language. Nonetheless, only 182 people claimed a “Livonian identity” in 2007. The Livonian language itself is in great danger; in 2009, Viktor Berthold, the last native Livonian-speaker, died at the age of 88. Livonian was soon declared dead, but in 2020, newborn Kuldi Medne, daughter of two Livonian language activists, became the only living native Livonian-speaker. As I arrived in Kolka, I was amazed by the beauty of the coast. Preserved from tourism, the Cape Kolka is a wild sandy beach at the junction of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. 

Established at a walking distance from the beach, the Livonian Community House traces back the history of this people, showing traditional artefacts and costumes. I highly recommend anyone in Latvia to visit this museum – on some days, you may be lucky enough to even meet with some of the last living Livonians…


This article was brought to you by Theo, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Riga

Featured image, licensed on Creative Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0, was taken by M.Strīķis, .

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