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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Ethnic Minorities in Interwar Latvia: Preliminary Findings from the Archives

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Vera Volkmann

My PhD project examines loyalty and minority conflicts in Latvia in the interwar period. I focus on the case study of Daugavpils as a city in a border region that was formerly at the periphery of a multi-ethnic empire and then became part of a newly founded nation-state. My research investigates how multiple ethnic, religious and national identity constellations turned the Baltics into an area of conflict. I analyse how loyalty conflicts among the population of Latgale in interwar Latvia emerged as a result of parallel and interacting social, political and national processes at the local level, based on case studies of minority school controversies and local elections.

Latgale: An Outlier in Interwar Latvia?

The eastern region of Latgale constitutes an exception within Latvia because it was not part of the three Baltic governorates of the Russian Empire (Kurland/Kurliand, Livland/Lifliand and Estland/Estliand), which had extensive autonomy rights and were governed by a German-speaking elite, known as Baltic Germans. Instead, Latgale was part of Vitebsk governorate, which meant that it was more strongly attached to the empire in terms of administration and it did not have any autonomy rights. These historical circumstances, as well as the fact that Latgale was a border region of Latvia, led to a much higher concentration of Russian-speakers, as well as a large Belarusian-speaking group. Additionally, the region had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and remained under its rule until the Polish Partitions in 1772, even after the other parts of the region that now comprises Latvia had been conquered by Sweden in 1629. Therefore, there was also a socially dominant Polish minority in Latgale who were often estate owners, like the Baltic Germans in the three Baltic provinces.

In Latgale, there was also a relatively large group with a local Latgalian identity and language variant. This local population strongly identified with their region, variant of the Latvian language and Catholic religion, which set them apart from Latvians living in other parts of today’s Latvia. Moreover, the region was religiously heterogeneous. Most of the population was Catholic, whereas the majority of Latvians and Baltic Germans in other parts of Latvia were Protestants. The Russian-speaking group was divided into Orthodox and Old Believers. The Old Believers fled to the region in the 17th century after the schism of the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, Latgale became part of the Pale of Settlement for the Jewish population within the Russian Empire, which is why many Jewish families settled in Latgale, especially in cities like Daugavpils.

After the First World War and the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920), the situation in Daugavpils was quite different from the rest of Latvia. The border situation in Daugavpils was unclear for some time and many people had fled due to several front lines crossing the area during the War of Independence. Daugavpils was only liberated from the Bolsheviks at the beginning of 1920 with the help of the Polish army. In some circles of the Polish speaking minority, this raised hopes that the region might belong to Poland in the future. 

View of Daugavpils. Reproduced with permission from the Daugavpils Regional Museum.

Minority Schools

In the 1920s, some ethnically-Polish Latvian citizens and some Polish citizens living in Daugavpils were arrested for subversive agitation and for allegedly opening illegal Polish schools in an attempt to “Polonize” the rural population. They were accused of propagating the idea that the region would soon become part of Poland by using maps showing these new borders in schools and by hanging Polish state symbols (such as the white eagle) and portraits of Józef Pilsudski, Poland’s head of state. This regional conflict rippled up to a bilateral diplomatic level. The Polish diplomats then accused the Latvian authorities of harassing the Polish minority and violating their minority rights, which were guaranteed by the constitution of the newly founded state, whereas the Latvian authorities questioned their loyalty towards the newly founded Latvian state. 

I have also found some accusations about a Belarusian separatist movement in police files. In connection with these accusations, I also discovered a description of the so-called “Belaruski Parces” of 1924-25 in Daugavpils. During these years, several teachers from Belarusian minority schools in Daugavpils and other Latgalian towns were brought to trial after being accused of using maps and materials in their schools that claimed that these parts of Latgale were inherently Belarusian. They were accused of received funding and materials from Minsk for their cultural work. The teachers were charged with high treason, but ultimately cleared of all charges. However, this event shocked the Belarusian community and was maybe one of the reasons why the number of Belarusian schools and pupils declined in the years that followed.

City Council Elections

In the course of my research, I have also taken a closer look at the first City Council elections in independent Latvia in 1920. As there are no detailed population statistics available for that year, and the population was continuously and rapidly changing shortly after the end of the First World War and the following War of Independence, I cannot compare how the respective minority groups were represented in the City Council. However, some very interesting findings emerge from studying this election. Firstly, one can see that there were many Jewish parties up for election. Probably, this is because Jews were already politically very active in Latgale before 1914 and could rely on some pre-existing political structures. However, the Social Democratic Bund was completely missing from these elections (they reappeared in later elections), even though Daugavpils had been one of its strongholds before the war. The Social Democratic Workers Party was represented, but it was very weak compared to future elections, which was surprising given that the social democratic movement had been very strong in the city. Presumably, many Social Democrats and Bund supporters had fled following the defeat of the Red Army and not yet returned, as the political situation was still uncertain and people who were connected to the socialist movement were often arrested.

Daugavpils City Council, 1920-1922. Reproduced with permission from the Daugavpils Regional Museum.

Another very interesting discovery is that many members of the Party of the Polish Citizens of Daugavpils, which was the strongest party after the elections and gained 21 out of 60 seats in the City Council, lost their electoral mandate after a protest by Latgale’s election administrator. Members of the party did not have Latvian citizenship, only Polish. Consequently, only one of the 21 elected members could remain in the City Council and the missing seats were filled from other party lists. It is not clear to me how these seats were filled, but it was likely according to these parties’ votes and the number of members on their lists. The Ceire Zion Party profited most from this event and gained 10 seats, followed by the Old Believers who gained 4 seats. There were no new elections and the proportion of votes was therefore completely misrepresented. This was likely due the fact that the situation in the city was still very chaotic and many people were not yet registered and had no papers. However, it is striking, that only the Polish party was affected by this turn of events and suffered severely.

Questions for Future Research

There are some further interesting questions regarding the population structure, elections and parties that I want to examine more closely in my further research. How do people obtain Latvian citizenship in the early post-war years and which people are registered to vote? What does the data say about the degree of political activity of the different ethnic groups at the local level? What changes in the city population are there after the First World War and how do they affect the different minority groups? Were there any political measures taken by the Latvian state authorities to turn this multi-ethnic population of a city that used to be at the periphery of an empire into loyal citizens?

Vera Volkmann (M.A.) holds a B.A. in European Studies from Otto-von-Guericke University of Magdeburg and an M.A. in East European Studies with a major in East European History from the University of Regensburg. Currently, she is an academic employee at the Herder-Institute in Marburg and a PhD candidate at Marburg University, working in the LOEWE Research-Group "Regions of Conflict in Eastern Europe" with her project focusing on minority and loyalty conflicts in Latvia in the interwar period.

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