Thursday, May 22, 2014

Latvia; A lesson in archeological history

Ancestral research involves more than gathering the stark, vital statistics of a life. One’s heritage can be difficult to appreciate without a personal story or a cultural impression. And so it is with my grandfather; I know him by the formal accounts of his exploits. Nicholas Augustus Ludwig Dozenberg’s story began in Riga, Russia (now Latvia) in the year 1882. He is the most recent immigrant in the family and, for this fact alone, his story holds a certain fascination. I wonder what it was like growing up a multilingual lad (Lettish, Yiddish, Russian and German) in central Europe, seeing monumental medieval structures on every corner. Alas, I am separated from 19th century Russia by years, distance, language and culture – so cultivating a sense of his time and place is both an archeological and an historical dig.



In Nicholas’s time, his native land wrested itself from the shackles of centuries-old feudalism and helped turn the tide of unwelcomed foreign influence. Indeed, the entire European continent was weary of monarch rule, leading to an overthrow in the First World War. Peasants starved in the Latvian land, alongside their Russian counterparts, and threw off their indentured futures for new, untested political ideologies, namely communism and socialism. Others envisioned a more democratic form of government. It wasn’t until 1921 that the bell of sovereignty was heralded for the first time in Latvian history.

Physical landscape

Latvia, a postage stamp-sized country sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania, lies on the border of the Baltic Sea. This section of the European continent is easily overlooked from the viewpoint of the Western world. At first glance, one might presume Latvians share no difference with their Baltic sisters. This is a false assumption. Latvians, or Letts, are quite distinct. Modern Latvia includes 25,700 square miles: approximately the combined size of Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The country incorporates 2,980 lakes, with marshes and bogs taking up about 7% of the total land mass. Cultivated land occupies approximately 60%, and forests 29%.


Ancient Latvia, or “Amberland,” (named for the natural Amber gathered from her shores) was a desirable possession of foreign powers, owing to its rich natural resources and strategic location. Political influences where felt from the Swedes, Scandinavians, Vikings, Poles, Russians, and, most notably, German merchants and missionaries. Renewable resources include: fish, amber, fertile agricultural land, Kuronian oak (strong timbers suitable for shipbuilding), and water sources providing hydro-electric power. Latvia prospered as an international seaport and point of entry for several large and important tributaries into the inner continent. Trade routes were established along these watery highways and were soon dominated by German entrepreneurs.

German Lutheran churches and mercenary soldiers (the military arm of the church) steadied their grip on the indigenous Letts, establishing the framework for feudalism. Feudalism appointed Barons to limit the rights of many natural born citizens by taking their land. This archaic ruling class lingered in Latvia long after Westernization had been established in Europe proper. 


Latvian proper is bound to overbearing Russian and German neighbors. These influences have served to sharpen a unique cultural identity. Foreign domination has been integrated by contrast of the preserved native Latvian culture. The country’s true identity shows as a blending of these factors. Natives adopted naming traditions and married in closely defined and perhaps arranged relationships. It was a common practice to marry cousins to ensure a pure ethnic bloodline. The “Dainas,” serves as a testimony of their cultural solidarity. This collection is no less than 36,000 accounts of folklore, legends, song, art and other forms of ancient history recorded so that it may still be known today. Traditional Latvian song and dance festivals are community celebrations of cultural pride.

Political Landscape

Gaining political control of their own country was a hard won victory. At the dawn of the 19th century, Agraian Reform (1804) granted some recognition to peasants, but did not grant them freedom from German land barons. Nonetheless, the Barons did start to feel some pressure from the underclass and allowed limited land rights.


Latvians pushed for the right to an education taught in their native language. In the 1830s, displaced farmers were allowed to live in cities, taking up trades and working in factories stimulating the growing middle class. The industrial revolution was not far behind. Riga, the capital city, experienced rapid development. In the year 1851, there where 63 factories. 1852 ushered in the first telegraph line for shipping news. In 1862, the Polytechincal Institute for higher education was opened. The Riga-Jelava railway opened its lines in 1868. In 1872, the first iron railway bridge over the River Daugaua was completed. 1887 saw electricity made available on the commercial market. By 1889, the railway to Riga-Pskov-St Petersburg was available and in 1904 the first modern water supply was installed in Riga. These were all great accomplishments for a city that was undeveloped a century before.

The German Lutheran Church played an integral part in political wrangling. Missionaries brought Christianity to an unchurched people’s group. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, the Order of Teutonic Knights and the Knights of the Livonia Order acted as a de facto government, directing internal and foreign policy. It wasn’t until 1738 that, under the direction of the Moravian Brethern, pastors where trained for the purpose of shepherding native Letts. Nearly a hundred years later (1832) the church was reorganized, granting Evangelical Lutheran pastors some independence from their squires.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that publications of all varieties were available in Lettish, signaling a cultural triumph. (A search of the Latvian archives for genealogical research proves this point. Virtually all records are in German. (Discovering Latvian Roots Blog Post: "Struggling with German Script?")  Predecessors to this development were Lettish language newspapers first published in 1824. The St. Petersburg Gazette began publication in 1863, was distributed in Livonia and Kurland, and included political reporting. Undoubtedly, this spurred the palpable unrest of the recently educated underclass. A national awakening demanded satisfaction. Popular writers rose to the occasion. A notable example is “The Time of the Land-Surveyors,” (1879) authored by the Kaudzites brothers, teachers who wrote a fictional account of the lives of farming peasants and German land barons. This novel was so popular it brought the pot to a simmering boil. (It is interesting to note that this book, celebrated as a landmark work, was only recently translated into German. It is still not available in English.)

And so my desire to know my grandfather better has lead me to a unique glimpse into European history seen through the eyes of the Letts, a sturdy, proud peoples with an indomitable spirit.

sources: A History of Latvia, by Alfred Bilmanis, copyright 1951, by Princeton University Press
Thanks +Antra Celmins

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