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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

In conversation with Prof. Aleksandrs Ivanovs about History in and of borderlands

Catherine Gibson

Latgale (Latgalian: Latgola; Russian: Latgalia) is the name of a region in today’s eastern Latvia, which borders Russia to the east and Belarus and Lithuania to the south. Throughout modern history, the territory of Latgale has been situated at the geopolitical border of many different states. In the 17th century it was administered as a vassal named Polish Livonia (Inflanty Polskie) at the northernmost extent of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1772, following the first partition of the Commonwealth, the region was incorporated into the western borderlands of the Russian Empire. It also formed the northern border of the Pale of Settlement. During the 20th century, the region marked the eastern border of the independent Republic of Latvia and Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. Today, the region lies on the external border of the European Union and is inhabited by a diverse mix of people who self-identify as Latgalians, Latvians, Russians, Old Believers, Belarusians, and Poles.

Map of Latgale within the Russian Empire by the Polish Livonian historian Gustaw Manteuffel (Gustav von Manteuffel) in Inflanty Polskie (Poznań: 1879).

What impact have the multiple border changes in the region’s past had on how Latgale’s history has been researched and written? How are these different geopolitical orientations constructed into a meaningful narrative of the region’s past in Latvia today? On my journey to find answers to these questions, I interviewed Aleksandrs Ivanovs, Professor of History at Daugavpils University, Leading Researcher at the Institute of Regional Studies at Rēzekne Technological Academy, and an expert on Latgale’s historiography. Below are some excerpts from our conversation:

CG: What are, in your opinion, the main trends in the historiography of Latgale? AI: The historiography of Latgale is a very interesting problem. Latgale was for a long time detached from the other historical regions [of present-day Latvia] and it has a rather specific ethnic composition and historical heritage. The model of the history of the region can be described in the following terms. Alien powers who came there, for example, left their heritage, and this heritage remains for a long time. And as a result, а mixture of different heritages and layers has emerged. They exist at the same time but they are not a melting pot, they cannot mix.

Photograph of ‘Church hill’ (Baznīcu kalns) in Daugavpils (193?). A Lutheran cathedral, Roman Catholic church, Orthodox cathedral and an Old Believer church stand around a crossroads in Daugavpils – a local symbol of the region’s religious and ethnolinguistic diversity.

CG: What impact has the complex geopolitical history of the region had on the development of Latgale’s historiography? AI: On the one hand, the history of Latgale has not assumed an important place in the history of Latvia. The [urban] centres in Latgale do not play an important part in the history of the Latvian state. There are not many historians in Latvia and most of them are in Riga. They work either in the University of Latvia or the Institute of the History of Latvia. They pay attention to Latgale from time to time, for example there are research papers on archaeology and on the ancient Latgalians. However, in the structure of the historians’ community in Latvia, I would think that about 70 per cent of historians do their research within the 20th century of the history of Latvia. Other research topics appear only sporadically.

On the other hand, Latgale is being studied rather intensively as a specific region. Nowadays there is a Latgalian Research Institute here [at the University of Daugavpils]. The history of Latgale has become rather popular for local Latvians. In fact, most of the research work on the history of Latgale is conducted not by professional historians but by amateurs, local people who are rather aged and who have plenty of time to make such work, but the level and quality of their work is not sufficient.

Photograph of the ‘United for Latvia’ (Vienoti Latvijai) monument in Rēzekne (1939). Latgale’s history was incorporated as a regional component of Latvian historiography after Latvia gained independence in 1918.

CG: What factors account for this local interest in Latgale’s history? AI: The Latgalians - the people of Latvian origin who live there - have a sense that they are associated with this region and that they are detached from the bulk of the nation and the processes within the nation-state. They are convinced that other Latvians from other parts of Latvia see them as people who are underdeveloped, who differ from Latvians living in Kurzeme and Vidzeme. As for me, I am an ethnic Russian. In Riga, Kurzeme and Vidzeme, the people here do not associate me with this region. But Latvians in Latgale, they have a particular ethnic self-consciousness of being Latgalians. It is important to remember, however, that the history of Latgale is fragmented within the history of Latgale region. The notion of the history of this region is quite different for the local Russians, for example, who are also divided into some groups: those who arrived and have lived here since the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries - Old Believers mostly - and Soviet Russians. They have two different images of the history of Latgale. The same is also true of the Polish inhabitants.

CG: How much research has been done on Latgale outside of Latvia? How much do we know about the historical connections between Latgale and neighbouring regions in today’s Russia, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland? AI: In my opinion, Latgale should be studied as a complex multi-ethnic region taking into consideration the impact from Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Russia, other Latvian regions and also Estonia. However, these studies are very fragmented. For example, Polish historians in Poland tried to make a lexicon related to the Latgalian language, but they did this work separately from Latvian historians. We have been informed, we know that they have such research projects, but we haven’t seen the results and we haven’t been invited to cooperate in this work. In Lithuania they seldom pay attention to Latgale, in my opinion. In Belarus they have studied the history of Latgale within the context of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and separately from researchers in Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. In Russia, I suppose only that Latgale only appears nowadays in political discourse due to some political developments. So, overall, this research has been fragmented and because of that, the history of Latgale has not been represented within the national context. However, it is a very interesting object of research as a case study of a rather complex and very individual historical region.

CG: What challenges does the dispersal of archival material pose for researchers interested in the history of Latgale? In what ways might these be characteristic of borderland or ‘peripheral’ regions more generally? AI: Up until the 16th century, the bulk of the material can be found in the Latvian historical archives, but the majority of these materials have not been researched. As for the Polish times of Latgale, I suppose that some records can be found in Poland. For the 19th century imperial period, primary records can be mostly found in Belarus in the National Archives in Minsk, since the centre of the province was in Vitebsk. There are also many historical records in the archives of St Petersburg in Russia related to this period of time. For example, the building of the Daugavpils fortress in the early 19th century was supervised by the ministry of defence in St Petersburg. In Moscow, there are also the Archives of Old Charters which include many records related to the Latgale region from the times of Ivan the Terrible in the 17th century. As for independent Latvia, these archival documents are available in Latvian Historical Archives. I suppose that this is quite common in cases of such regions.

This interview was conducted in March 2015 as research for the book Between History and Memory: Latgale’s Palimpsestous Past in Contemporary Latvia published by Tartu University Press in December 2016. I am very grateful to Aleksandrs Ivanovs for his permission to share some excerpts from our conversation here.

Catherine Gibson is a doctoral researcher at the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, where she works on the history of ethnographic cartography in the north-west Russian Empire in the 19th century. She is a co-editor, with Tomasz Kamusella and Motoki Nomachi, of The Palgrave Handbook of Slavic Languages, Identities and Borders (Palgrave 2015). She has taught the history of Latgale at the University of Latvia in Riga and her publications on Latgale can be found here. She also maintains a website of ethnographic maps of the north-west Russian Empire. Catherine has a MA in Baltic Sea Region Studies from the University of Tartu, an International Masters in Economy, State and Society of Eastern Europe and Russia from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, and a MA in English Literature and Modern History from the University of St Andrews.

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