The History of the Occupation of Latvia

Soviet Occupation and Language Politics in Newly Independent Latvia

Soviet Occupation and Language Politics in Newly Independent Latvia

Author: Ivars Ījabs


The USSR was comprised of 15 national republics in which the respective languages were afforded a significant role in education and culture, but Russian was the lingua franca – the language of communication between the republics. Officially, the Soviet regime did not pursue a policy of assimilation. Yet in reality, the national languages were gradually pushed out of individual state administration and the public sphere, in general, in favour of Russian. A fully valued education and career opportunities were only possible through the Russian language, which also gained the upper hand in the media.

The language situation in Latvia during Soviet occupation was influenced not only by Soviet imperialist language policies, but also by attitudes towards the policy of mass migration into Latvia. By the end of World War II, a significant number of Soviet military personal had come to Latvia, and their family members soon followed. Later, most migrants came to support the industrialization policy – approximately 500,000-700,000 from other Soviet republics, but primarily Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia where Russian was the dominant language.

The Russian-speaking segment of the population of Latvia grew rapidly. Essentially, these migrants were not motivated to integrate into the Latvian language-speaking space; segregation on a national scale was given priority. Special “Russian classes” were created for migrant children in dual-language schools, and later, a parallel school system – Russian and Latvian – was created.

In employment, too, there was little motivation for the migrants to learn Latvian, and language acquisition was very low. State companies and agencies often used Russian as the language of communication, which most Latvians spoke in varying degrees of proficiency.

As a result, “asymmetrical bilingualism” developed. During the National Awakening, a joke circulated about bilingual Latvians and mono-lingual Russians: “The person who speaks two languages is a nationalist; an internationalist – only speaks one.”


With the renewal of Latvian independence, one of the main political tasks was to change language policies, entrenching Latvian as the only national language in Latvia. The status of the Latvian language was already strengthened in 1989 with the adoption of the Language Law. However, real change took place in 1992 when changes to this law required knowledge of Latvian for many jobs in the public and private sector, including teachers, police, prison guards, etc.

The scope of this change was significant considering that many people who had previously worked in these professions had never learnt Latvian. This required plans for mass language lessons, which was achieved with the assistance of the UN Development Program.


In 1992, all institutes of higher education teaching in languages other than Latvian were closed. Primary and secondary education continued to be taught in Russian, but with an incremental increase of classes taught in Latvian. In 1995, minority language primary schools were required to teach two classes in Latvian; in secondary schools – three.

The most significant changes took place in 1998 when a law was passed requiring state-funded schools to teach almost all classes in Latvian by 2004. These changes were viewed very negatively by the Russian-speaking segment of the population and ultimately brought about the creation of “Russian-speaker” political parties.

Discontent among Russian-speakers gained momentum in 2003 and 2004 and the largest mass protest – supported by a Russian-backed organization – since the renewal of Latvian independence forced the government to temper the proposed reforms.

The new law stipulated that 60% of all lessons must take place in Latvian, and 40% could take place in the minority language. Another modification allowed students to answer secondary school exam questions, posed in Latvian, to be answered either in Latvian or the minority language.

These school reforms continue to be a source of discussion in terms of their effects on the quality of education, as well as the degree minority language teachers actually adhere to the law. Language use in minority-language schools continues to be politicized. Some political factions have called for a return to the original goals set out in the initial 1998 law, but political forces that protect Russian-language rights warn of repeated mass protests using the slogan “Russian schools are our Stalingrad.”


Language use issues are not limited to education alone. In 1999, the Parliament passed the State Language Law that regulates the use of the official language in various sectors. This law was the result of a long process and included admonishment from EDSO and EU officials regarding restrictions on language use in a democratic country.

Use of the state language is strictly controlled in the public sector. Language use is generally not controlled in the private sector, with the exception of sectors that serve public interests (such as the service sector). Regulation of the public sector is balanced by human rights considerations and rights to free speech as guaranteed by the Latvian Constitution. Yet, the efficacy of these regulations can be called into question.

The most significant issue is the level of knowledge of the state language and its use since the renewal of independence. In addition to political decisions, a host of other factors have influenced this – demographics, migration, and economic globalization. But in the case of Latvia, language politics have played a significant role, and the results of this should be analysed.

First of all, the level of knowledge of Latvian has improved dramatically over the last 25 years. This is most noticeable among the younger generation, but knowledge levels among the older generation remain comparatively low.

This was well documented in the 2014 survey that collected data on inhabitants’ self-evaluation of Latvian language skills. Among Latvia’s Russian-speaking residents between the ages of 18 and 24, 61.6% evaluated their Latvian language skills as high; but only 12.2% of those between 55 and 74 thought they spoke Latvian well.

Differences in language skills were also noted regionally: 51.7% and 48% of Russian-speakers in Zemgale and Kurzeme respectively considered themselves fluent in Latvian, however, only 21.6% in the capital, Riga, and 19.2% in Latgale. This supports the well-known socio-linguistic conclusion that good language skills are more dominant in those areas in which daily contact with the language takes place – in this case, regions inhabited mostly by Latvian speakers. Areas such as Riga and Latgale have large Russian-speaking populations, reducing the need to speak Latvian.


Reducing the role of the Russian language in the public space has also been one of the main political goals, thereby diminishing the hegemonic status of Russian during the Soviet occupation. One example of this is the ratification, in 2005, of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, at which time Latvia stipulated reservations regarding the use of minority languages with state authorities (art. 10, par. 2) and rights regarding translations of individuals’ names and place names (art. 11). This political agenda leads to the question of the current status of the Russian language in Latvia today.

Among those inhabitants whose mother tongue is Latvian, Russian language skills have diminished, but this decrease has not been offset by an increase in Latvian language skills among Russian-speakers. The most notable difference here can be witnessed in differences in age groups.

The older generation of ethnic Latvians generally speaks Russian: 72.9% of people aged 55-74 indicate fluency in Russian, but only 33.1% of Latvians aged 18-24 do so. Here, location plays an important role. Ethnic Latvians who live in cities and regions with high concentrations of Russian-language speakers tend to have better Russian language skills.

Statistics about Russian-speakers indicates that proficiency in Latvian does not guarantee use of Latvian in all spheres of life. They tend to use Latvian in social situations that require it, such as during contact with federal or municipal government agencies. Use of Latvian in the workplace is increasing, although in some business spheres Russian continues to dominate completely or partially.

Russian-speakers in Latvia sometimes speak Latvian to their friends, but currently available data does not indicate that this is a growing trend. Changes have been noted on the street and in shops, favouring the use of Latvian.

The fact that non-Latvians use Latvian relatively little in their everyday lives, despite good Latvian language skills, may be attributed to reticence of ethnic Latvians to speak in Latvian to their non-Latvian friends and acquaintances, often switching to Russian or more recently, English.


The use of language in the media is also a sensitive issue. Latvia clearly has two parallel information spheres – Russian and Latvian – and the content is not always similar. Russian language media is often influenced by Russian Federation media, which leaves a lasting influence on the Russian-speaking population, particularly electronic media.

A 2014 survey showed that 50.8% of the Russian-speaking population watch Russian media more frequently than Latvian media and 30.1% watch Russian television almost exclusively, while among Latvian speakers, the percentages are 12 and 3.2 respectively.

This clearly indicates the split in the information sphere, which also clearly shows problems for the spread of increased Latvian language use. However, results indicate the heightened prestige of Latvian among non-Latvians, who deem knowledge of the state language to be necessary and view this knowledge positively.


In general, the status of the Latvian language has improved, both in legal as well as social contexts. The majority of migrants who came to Latvia during the Soviet occupation have learned to speak the state language. Use of Latvian is self-evident in many of the spheres of life from which the language had almost been pushed out of during the 1980s.

Yet, as Latvia rejoins the West, entrance into global economic and social processes have offered new challenges to the language, most notably the swift onslaught of English into many spheres of life – from education to state administration. It is precisely for this reason that protecting the Latvian language will continue to play an important role in politics, so much so that the importance of the language has been entrenched in the constitution.

It is important to note that lessons from history should be taken into consideration, including aspects of the “carrot or stick” dimension. The Latvian language is one of the bases of the Latvian state, and for this reason, protection of the language should not take on populist dimensions, but rather responsible and competent actions by the government.

  • 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.