The History of the Occupation of Latvia

Fake News: Russia Bought the Baltic States from Sweden in the 18th Century

Fake News: Russia Bought the Baltic States from Sweden in the 18th Century

Author: Viesturs Sprūde

With surprising regularity since the early 1990s, the story of how Tzar Peter I bought the territory of the Baltic States from the Swedish Crown in the form of a peaceful commercial deal in 1721 has been discussed in the Russian information space, not to mention on social networks and in online comment “battles”. If a list of “top” amusing arguments, which have been discussed in the media and sometimes also in Russian political circles over the last couple of decades, to substantiate Russia's claim on the Baltic States was drawn up, the aforementioned argument could rank first.

Relatively recently, in May 2017, the Russian language website 201day.wordpress.com, which positions itself as a history portal providing "objective information only", published the following text that characterises the essence of the matter: "Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians, for some reason, seem to have forgotten that Tzar Peter I BOUGHT them from the Queen Ulrika Eleonora with all lands, real estate, and even livestock. And not only bought them, but gave freedom to the Baltics. (..) Any historian would confirm that the deal was concluded on 10 September 1721 (as per the text. - Ed.) Tzar Pyotr Alexeyevich paid two million roubles for a portion of Ingria, Karelia, Estonia and Vidzeme. According to the current exchange rate, excluding interest, that is about 350 million dollars.”

This “fact” has been either republished or retold online in various interpretations numerous times, but especially aggressive promotion and multiplication of the story began in 2015, when the Ministers of Justice of the Baltic States issued a joint declaration on the need to calculate and recover the losses inflicted by the USSR occupation, pointing to the duty of Russia to assume responsibility for that.

The story of “the purchase” is gladly republished by Russian language media in Latvia as well. For instance, on 26 October 2017 by vesti.lv, where a statement by Russian columnist Anatolijs Vasermans claimed that Latvia and Estonia are currently “an occupied part of Russia” because they were bought in 1721 for two million thalers, which were nicknamed “Jefimki” in the Russian Empire. “The return” can be organised at any time and the action that is required to do that is a referendum on the exit from the EU and “return” to Russia.


Subjection in Three Phases

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania did not become a part of the Russian empire at once or during one year. Preaching “we bought you” to Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, inter alia, means admitting the historical illiteracy of the preacher themselves. If we focus on the Latvian case, it must be remembered that the Russian Empire did not buy the territory of Latvia in the 18th century, as was the case with Alaska, but seized it bit by bit in three different attempts.

Riga and Vidzeme was seized from Sweden during the brutal Great Northern War, which lasted from 1700 to 1721 (Riga surrendered on 4 July 1710 after eight months of siege, worn out by regular bombing, famine and plague). It is known from history that Peter I started thinking about the annexation of “Livonians” only after defeating King Charles XII of Sweden at the battle of Poltava in 1709, which explains why Vidzeme was looted barbarically at the beginning of the war and residents were taken captive and brought to Russia. Peter I corroborated his conquest by the treaty of Nystad on 30 August 1721, which was a peace treaty between Russia and Sweden signed in the Finnish town of Nystad.

Meanwhile “Polish Vidzeme”, or Latgalia, or Inflantia, became subject to the Imperial Crown of Romanov Dynasty Russia in 1772 during the so called first division of Poland. Prussia, Austria and Russia simply used the internal unrest, as well as the military and political weakness of Rzeczpospolita (the joint state of Poland and Lithuania) to annex pieces on the pretext of “restoring order”.

Latgalia was on the list of lands that Russia found attractive. 1795 was the year of the third division of Poland, namely, complete elimination of this country. This time Russia obtained the former vassal state of Poland - the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, which had become the actual protectorate of Russia already since the second decade of the 18th century.

Talk of “buying Courland and Semigallia from the duke for 1.4 million thalers", as voiced by Russian State Duma deputies Valery Rashkin and Sergey Obukhov in 2015, is sheer nonsense. Ernst Johann von Biron, the last Duke of Courland was the placeman of Petersburg and the favourite of the Empress Anna Ivanovna. He fell from grace under the rule of the new Empress Catherine II, but was pardoned later and regained his title. By the help of her persons of influence, by generous promises to retain privileges and manors, “by threats and by promises”, as the historian Arveds Švābe writes, Catherine II achieved the outcome, where the nobility of the duchy “unanimously pleaded” to accept the accession of Courland to Russia in March 1795.

Not to mention Latvian serf peasants, even Biron was not asked any questions! When the duke learned about the result of the intrigues, he himself stepped down from the throne on 17 March 1795. This decision made his bitter cup a bit sweeter - Catherine II promised Biron an annual pension in the amount of 69,000 thalers and granted a single “fee for damages” in the amount of two million roubles. Furthermore, the ex-duke could move as many serfs as he deemed necessary from his Courland properties to manors in Germany. There was no question of any type of “buying” Courland.

The Nystad “Deal”

If we return to the Nystad peace treaty of 1721 and the “2 million jefimki”, which were, allegedly, paid by Russia for Vidzeme, we just need to read the text of this treaty. The text of Section 4 of the Russian version of the treaty, which was published in 1992 in the volume of documents Under the Flag of Russia ("Под стягом России"), clearly states that “the provinces of Vidzeme, Estonia and Ingermaland, as well as a part of Karelia was by means of weapons conquered from the Crown of Sveji (Swedes - author) in war". Peter I had indeed made an offer to pay two million thalers or “Jefimki” to the Swedes for Vidzeme and Estonia, but the Swedes categorically turned down the offer.

Furthermore, the sum was ridiculously low, in comparison with the value of the lost lands. As the historian and the researcher of Vidzeme during the Swedish rule, Edgars Dunsdorfs (1904 - 2000), wrote: “The representatives of Sweden protested, arguing that in this case the type of obtaining of the Baltic provinces would change – instead of being lost in war, they would be sold. (..) The solution was found by mentioning the purchase sum in the section of the treaty, which regulated the evacuation of troops from occupied Finland.” Namely, Section 5 of the treaty indicated two million thalers as “promised” in compensation for the territories of Finland lost by the Swedes. It is not clear whether this sum was ever paid.

The compensation had to be paid after the ratification of the peace treaty, however, the parliament of Sweden – Riksdag – refused to ratify the Treaty of Nystad until 1723, because they considered it to be humiliating. Dunsdorfs notes that the parliament, which consisted of the representatives of Swedish noblemen, clerics, citizens and free peasants, did so only after Peter I, on the aforementioned year, organised a demonstrative navy trip from Kronstadt to Revel (Tallinn).

Sweden could not come to terms with the loss of Vidzeme and Estonia throughout the entirety of the 18th century, and planned to the retake the territory either by war, or diplomatic games, or even by dynasty marriages. Therefore, Sweden and Russia were at war repeatedly in the territory of Finland for the next hundred years, hoping that they could have the luck of retaliating near the Baltic sea.

However, the Swedish had no success. Despite all that, Stockholm continued to dream of Vidzeme up until the early 19th century. This stubbornness, by the way, serves as an indirect confirmation that the interpretation of 1721 as the moment when a two million “Jefimki” deal was reached by mutual agreement is a sheer fantasy.

The preparation of this report was supported by the Latvian Ministry of Culture

  • 1939 - 1940 Okupācijas priekšvēsture
    1939 - 1940
    Occupation prehistory
    • 23 August 1939
      The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany sign a non-aggression treaty.
    • 1 September 1939
      Germany attacks Poland – World War II begins; Latvia declares neutrality.
    • 17 September 1939
      USSR attacks Poland.
    • 5 October 1939
      As a result of military and political pressure, Latvia signs a “bilateral assistance” agreement with the USSR, allowing military army bases to be placed on Latvian territory.
    • 30 October 1939
      Nazi Germany signs an agreement with the Latvian government to transfer ethnic Germans living in Latvia to Germany.
    • 15 June 1940
      USSR attacks several border guard posts on the eastern border of Latvia.
    • 16 June 1940
      USSR presents Latvia with an ultimatum demanding Latvia allow unlimited Soviet troops to enter Latvian territory.
  • 1940-1941 Padomju okupācija
    Soviet occupation
    • 17 June 1940
      USSR occupies Latvia.
    • 20 June 1940
      A new government, created by Moscow and led by Augusts Kirhenšteins, is installed in Latvia.
    • 14-15 July 1940
      Rigged, non-democratic elections, which contravene Latvian election laws and the Latvian Constitution, take place; only one party participates – Latvijas Darba Tautas bloks [Latvian Workers’ Bloc].
    • 21 July 1940
      The illegally elected Parliament declares Latvia a Soviet Socialist Republic and requests that the USSR admit it to its Union. Kārlis Ulmanis steps down as president; he is arrested and deported to Russia the following day.
    • 5 August 1940
      Latvia is admitted to the USSR.
    • 13 August 1940
      The All-Union Communist Party (bolshevik) (AUCP(b)) Central Committee ratifies the constitution of the Latvian SSR.
    • November 1940
      The Soviet Russian Criminal Code officially becomes law in Latvia.
    • 14 May 1941
      The Soviet government and the AUCP(b) begins planning mass deportations and repressions of Latvian citizens by adopting the secret decision "On the deportation of foreign elements from the Baltic republics, Western Ukraine, and Moldavia ".
    • 13-14 June 1941
      The Soviet Union deports 15 443 inhabitants of Latvia.
  • 1941-1944/45 Nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas okupācija
    Nazi German occupation
    • 22 June 1941
      Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union. Hostilities begin on Latvian territory along with Nazi occupation.
    • 16 July 1941
      Berlin creates the administrative region Ostland – Latvia is one of the four regions that make up Ostland.
    • July 1941
      The first mass annihilation of Jews begins – the largest actions take place in Riga, Daugavpils, and Liepāja, as well as in other smaller towns.
    • 30 November 1941
      Killing of Jews in the Riga Ghetto begins. In total, 70 000 Latvian Jews were killed. Thanks to the efforts of local citizens, 400 Latvian Jews were saved.
    • 5 December 1941
      The German army is defeated at Moscow.
    • 7 March 1942
      Nazi occupiers create the Landesselbstverwaltung – local administrative rule.
    • 29 января 1943 года
      Nazi occupiers adopt regulations for the arrest of Latvia’s Roma population and their incarceration in concentration camps.
    • 11 February 1943
      Orders are passed for the creation of a “voluntary” Latvian legion under the auspices of the SS; mobilization is often involuntary.
    • 13 August 1943
      Representatives of the four largest parties from the last Latvian Parliament found the Latvian Central Council (Latvijas Centrālā Padome – LCP) in Riga, which calls for the renewal of Latvian independence. Konstantīns Čakste is named head of the LCP.
    • 28 November 1943
      USA president Franklin Roosevelt, Great Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin meet at the Teheran Conference. Stalin succeeds in gaining permission to have a free hand in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe after the war.
    • 22 March 1944
      189 Latvian politicians submit a resolution to the Nazi occupiers for the renewal of Latvian independence, which is denied.
    • 18 July 1944
      The Soviet army defeats German troops and crosses the Latvian border at Šķaune in Ludza county. The second Soviet occupation begins.
    • End of July – beginning of August 1944
      German occupiers allow General Jānis Kurelis and the chief of his headquarters, Captain Kristaps Upelnieks, to create a separate military unit. It cooperates with the LCP in the hopes of becoming the nucleus of the army of independent Latvia.
    • 8 September 1944
      The last LCP meeting to occur on Latvian soil takes place at which a declaration for the renewal of Latvian independence is adopted.
    • 20 November 1944
      Unable to control troops under the command of Kurelis, German SD units arrest all military personal at his headquarters. Eight officers are convicted and shot. The remaining military personnel are imprisoned in concentration camps.
    • 5 February 1945
      Leaders of the USA, GB, and the USSR meet at Yalta. During discussions, Soviet demands are met, and the Soviets occupy Latvia once again.
  • 1944/45-1953 Staļinisma terors. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    Stalinist terror
    • 8 May 1945
      WWII ends on Latvian territory; German forces in Kurzeme surrender, including the 19th Latvian Legionnaire division.
    • 3 October 1945
      The first meeting of members of the LCP who have escaped to Germany takes place in Lustenau, Austria. Latvian citizens in exile continue the struggle for Latvian statehood.
    • 6 October 1945
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council members accept Moscow’s decision to annex the city of Abrene and six neighbouring townships to the Russian SSR.
    • 10 February 1946
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council elections take place.
    • 17 February 1947
      In order to weaken communist rule in Eastern Europe, the USA begins transmission of the Voice of America, which is listened to in Latvian territory illegally.
    • 29 January 1949
      USSR Council of Ministers decide to deport members of the National Partisans and their supporters, as well as wealthy farmers (kulaks) from Latvia to Siberia.
    • 25 March 1949
      Soviet occupiers carry out the second mass deportation of Latvian inhabitants to Siberia – in total 42 322 people.
    • July 1949
      As a result of repressive Soviet occupation politics, the number of collective farms (kolkhozes) triples, creating 3857 kolkhozes.
    • 17 January 1953
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council adopts the decree creating a new Latvian SSR flag.
    • 5 March 1953
      Stalin dies.
  • 1953-1959 “Atkusnis”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 12 September 1953
      Nikita Khrushchev becomes First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee (CPSU CC).
    • 14 May 1955
      Creation of the Warsaw Pact.
    • 25 February 1956
      At the CPSU 20th Congress, Khrushchev openly speaks of crimes committed by Stalin and condemns the Stalin “personality cult”.
    • 23 August 1956
      The uprising by the people in Hungary is put down by Soviet forces.
  • 1959-1985 “Stagnācija”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 7–8 July 1959
      Latvian CP plenum condemns the national communists.
    • 13 August 1961
      The GDR closes the border to West Berlin; building of the Berlin Wall begins.
    • 10 October 1964
      Khrushchev is forced to resign as First Secretary of the CPSU CK; Leonid Brezhnev takes his place.
    • December 1965
      The Hydroelectric Station at Pļaviņas begins operation.
    • 27 May 1968
      Calls for ending censorship and freeing political prisoners in Czechoslovakia initiates the “Prague Spring” demonstrations.
    • 20 August 1968
      Soviet troops put down the “Prague Spring”.
    • 25 December 1979
      Soviet forces invade Afghanistan.
    • 10 November 1982
      Leonid Brezhnev dies; Yuri Andropov becomes First Secretary of the CPSU CK.
    • 9 February 1984
      Yuri Andropov dies. Konstantin Chernenko becomes First Secretary of the CPSU CK.
    • 10 March 1985
      Konstantin Chernenko dies.
    • 11 March 1985
      Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the leader of the CPSU CK and the Soviet Union.
  • 1985-1990/91 “Perestroika”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 10 July 1986
      The first Latvian human rights organization Helsinki-86 is founded in Liepāja.
    • October 1986
      Widespread public support for the environmental protection of the Daugava River begins.
    • 28 February 1987
      The Environment Protection Club (Vides aizsardzības klubs – VAK) is founded.
    • 14 June 1987
      Helsinki-86 invites people to lay flowers at the Freedom Monument to commemorate the deportations in 1941.
    • 23 August 1987
      A protest takes place by the Freedom Monument to commemorate the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
    • 27 April 1988
      VAK organizes protests against the proposed construction of a metro in Riga.
    • 1–2 June 1988
      The Latvian Creative Society organizes a plenum. Journalist, Art Academy professor, and member of the Supreme Council Mavriks Vulfsons publicly declares that Latvia was occupied in 1940.
    • 10 July 1988
      The Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības kustība – LNNK) is founded.
    • 16 July 1988
      VAK organizes a protest in Mežaparks at which the Latvian national flag is flown.
    • 8-9 October 1988
      Latvian National Front (Latvijas tautas fronte – LTF) founding congress. Dainis Īvāns is elected leader.
    • February 1989
      The pro-communist supporters of Moscow Interfront organize protests – they oppose proposed policies to stop migration to Latvia from other Soviet republics and to give the Latvian language official national status.
    • 5 May 1989
      Latvian SSR SC adopts a law granting Latvian national language status.
    • 23 August 1989
      The Baltic Way – a human chain over 660 km long is formed through all three Baltic countries to commemorate the 1939 Hitler- Stalin Pact.
    • 9 November 1989
      The Berlin Wall falls.
    • 18 November 1989
      Mass demonstrations for an independent Latvia on the banks of the Daugava with over 500,000 participants.
    • 18 March 1990
      Latvian SSR parliamentary elections.
  • Neatkarīga Latvija
    Independent Latvia
    • 4 May 1990
      Latvian SSR SC adopts the resolution for the restoration of Latvian independence.
    • 2 January 1991
      Soviet special forces OMON occupy the press building in Riga; there are armed attacks by OMON against other strategic government sites.
    • 13–27 January 1991
      Residents of Latvia create barricades in Riga to protect key locations from forces loyal to Moscow.
    • 3 March 1991
      Inhabitants of Latvia participate in a referendum on declaring an independent democratic state – two-thirds vote for restoring independence.
    • 12 June 1991
      Boris Yeltsin is elected president of Russia.
    • 19 August 1991
      Radical communist attempt a coup in Moscow – the August Putsch.
    • 21 August 1991
      Republic of Latvia Supreme Council declares the Republic of Latvia as an independent democratic state.
    • 22 August 1991
      Iceland is the first nation to recognize Latvian independence.
    • 24 August 1991
      The Russian Federation officially recognizes Latvian independence.
    • 17 September 1991
      Latvia joins the United Nations.
    • 30 December 1991
      The Soviet Union officially ceases to exist.
    • 14 February 1994
      Latvia joins the NATO program “Partnership for Peace”.
    • 12 March 1999
      The first post-Soviet nations join NATO – Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.
    • November 2002
      Prague summit. NATO leaders decide to invite Latvia to begin negotiations for admittance.
    • 20 September 2003
      Referendum on joining the European Union.
    • 29 March 2004
      Latvia becomes a member of NATO.
    • 1 May 2004
      Latvia becomes a member of the European Union along with 10 other nations.