Tag Archives: Latgalians

The battle for Daugava waterway. The fall of Jersika

The place where once the city of Jersika once stood

Despite the fact that German Crusaders had no competitors for conquering the Latvian land they still had to cope with Russian interests. Russian Dukes had no intention to annex Latvian lands, but they needed the people living across river Daugava waterway to be loyal to them because it was an important waterway for trade with the West. We have seen the Russian interventions in Livonian lands in previous posts. German merchants saw the Russians as competitors for their trade interests and they urged Crusaders to persuade Crusade to the lands across the river Daugava.

At year 1206 the Crusaders sieged the Livonian castle of Sala where the present day city of Salaspils is located. The Castle of Sala was vital port point for Crusaders. At the same year the Crusaders captured Lielvārde located 20 km from Ikšķile, next was Aizkraukle located 20 km from Lielvārde. It was captured the year earlier.

20 km from Aizkraukle there was Koknese. Koknese was a large center ruled by ruler Viesceķis. He was aware that Russians of Polotsk will not protect him from the Crusaders and decided to become a vassal of Bishop Alberts. There are many questions about the nationality of Viesceķis. The Chronicle of Henry dose doesn’t give his nationality, but claims that he converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity and changed his name to Vjačelsavs. According to archaeological findings the Koknese was inhabited by Latgalians, Selonians and kriviči- meaning Russians. The Chronicle of Henry even calls Koknese the “Russian palace” (castro Ruthenico). This was because there was a Russian garrison and Russian colonists located in Koknese. Their task was protecting Koknese as an important Russian trade base. The number of Russians in Koknese was not insignificant but was noted by the Germans, because when they stormed the Koknese castle they tried not to kill them, fearing to make diplomatic conflict with the Duchy of Polotsk.

Crusaders captured Viesceķis and took him to Riga, but released him and let him go back to Koknenese as their vassal. With him they send Crusaders and builders to Koknese to build a stone castle there. But neither Viesceķis nor Russians were not ready to accept the new rulers and attacked the Germans who were busy building stone walls. But Bishop Albert assembled army of 300 men and head straight to Koknsee. Viesceķis requested Duke Vladimir to help, but he left him and his Russian colonists alone. When the Crusaders came the frightened Russian merchants took all their belongings and burned down Koknese castle and left in a hurry. Selonians and Latgalians were forced to flee in forest hideouts. At year 1209 Koknese fully became a part of Crusader land and the new stone castle was built there.

At year 1208 the Crusaders attacked the Selonian castle of Sēlpils. Selonians made alliances with Lithuanians and that was danger for Crusaders. Crusaders together with subjected Livonians and Latgalians stormed the Sēlpils and forced Selonians to give up. Selonian resistance was quelled and it marked the end of this tribe.

Lielvārde, Koknese, Sēlpils was an important gain for the Crusaders, but the great castle and city of Jersika was still free from Crusader rule. It was vital to capture this basic center, for it was richest early Latvian castle and capturing it will make the whole waterway of Daugava under Crusader control.

The Chronicle of Henry calls Jersika a “city” (ad civitatem). Jersika was a large center protected by a wooden wall and fence. There was Russian garrison and Russian merchant colonist like in Koknese. There were wooden Orthodox Church and many trade markets. It was a city for early Latvian measures but was not close to Riga as there were no stone buildings there. The ruler of Jersika was Visvaldis, he was engaged with Lithuanian ruler’s Daugeruth daughter therefore an ally with Lithuanians against Crusaders. Together they attacked Riga at 1203 forcing Germans to organize Crusade against Jersika.


Visvaldis the ruler of Jersika

The attack began in the summer of 1209. The attack was unexpected for Visvaldis and Crusaders entered Jersika with ease. They killed the local fighters, pillaged the city and even ruined the Orthodox Church taking all its sacred belongings. Visvaldis and his comrades managed to flee, but his wife was captured and taken to Riga. Crusaders burned down Jersika and told Visvaldis that he must head to Riga to make peace with Bishop Albert to get his wife back.  He did so and signed the act of capitulation becoming a vassal of Bishop Alberts.

Jersika the largest early Latvian center was burned to the ground and Crusaders had achieved their goal- the river Daugava waterway to the Polotsk was theirs. It was done in 10 years. The first phase of the Crusades in Latvian land ended. Now they were strong enough to attack Semigallians and Curonians.

Selected sources:

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Radiņš, Arnis. (1996) Ceļvedis Latvijas senvēsturē. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historical Articles

The Latgalians- a distinct Latvians or a different nation?

Latgallian woman

Latgalians were the largest tribe of four Latvian tribes and still present day Latvian inhabitants of Latgalia differs from Latvians in other Latvian regions. The most notable distinction is the Latgalian dialect which cannot be understandable even to other Latvians. The mentality of Latgalians also differs from other Latvians as well as the cultural ways. This why the question of Latgalian distinction from other Latvians persists until this day. During the recent years of independence  the Latgalians have experienced a cultural rebirth, they are using their dialect more freely,  their dialect is popularized by the Latgalian singers.  In the ranks of nationally oriented Latgalians there are even some idle calls for separation from Latvia or at least calls for Latgalian cultural autonomy. Sadly in recent years the leading voices of the Latgalian autonomy have nothing to do with Latgalians and their heritage.

This situation is not severe as it sounds to be. Latgalia is not a Basque Autonomous region in Spain. There is no Latgalian ETA like in Spain.  In fact Latgalia is not only inhabited by ethnic Latgalian Latvians, there is a long history of Russian, Polish and Jewish presence at Latgalia. After the World War the Jewish presence which was in fact very large now is almost gone, but the Russian and Polish minority still makes an impact in Latgalia.

The question why Latgalia so differs from other parts from Latvia is answerable by checking the Latgalian history.  Now before we start there is one thing to note.  In Latvian language there is a difference between word Latgaļi and Latgalieši. The word Latgaļi is accorded to old Latvian tribe before the coming of crusaders. The word Latgalieši means the all present day Latvians who live in Latgalia.  So if you found yourself in Latvia- don’t mix both notions.

When Latgalians became subjects of the Livonian Confederation there was little difference from other early Latvians. The German rulers enforced Christianity to all natives. The borders of five Latvian regions were not completely settled. This changed in the 16th century. The Livonian War (1558-1561) destroyed the old Livonian order. Polish rulers divided Latvian Livonian territory in two parts- Courland, Semigallia and Selonia became a Duchy of Curland and Semigallia. The Vidzeme and Latgalia were joined in Duchy of Pārdaugava (means the other side of Daugava). The Pārdaugava Duchy however did not last long; it was changed as a simple province of Poland-Lithuania.  Before Polish rule as a result of the Reformation the Lutheranism as the leading church was established in all of Livonia. The Poles strived to change this- they tried to ban Lutherans and revert to complete Catholicism. It was not successful in Courland and Semigallia- the Dukes resisted the Polish efforts. In Riga it caused riots but in Latgalia it was the other case. Polish policy of counter-reformation was successful in Latgalia reverting all Latgalians completely to Catholicism.  Other confessions in Latgalia are a minority until this day. To show how much Catholicism is important in Latgalia there are two notable facts- the Basilica of Aglona is one of the sacred Catholic centers in Europe.  And the Cardinal of the Latvian Catholic Church as an bornhearted Latgalian Jānis Pujats.

Cathedral of Aglona

However it was the War between Swedes and Poles (1600-1621) which set Latgalia apart from other parts of Latvia. The war divided the Vidzeme and Latgalia into two pieces. One- Vidzeme became a Swedish possession- the other- Latgalia stayed as a Polish province known as Inflantija. The Swedes were Lutherans and Catholicism was removed from Vidzeme.  Now Latgalia became a completely internal region of Latvia.

After the succession of Poland, Latgalia became a part of the Russian Empire. The Russian government didn’t bother to make a standalone Latgalian province, instead they joined Latgalia with Vitebsk- city in today’s Belarus.  The province of Vitebsk was formed.


During this time of foreign power imposed separation the Latgalia preserved its unique dialect, the ways of national dress and cuisine.  To show how Latgalian dialect differs lets compare words written in official Latvian and Latgalian.  The mother- māte muote, father- tēvs tāvs, he- viņš-jis, her- viņa-jis. Riga- Rīga- Reiga.

The question of Latgalia became important when Russian Revolution took place in 1917 and there was a chance to establish a sovereign Latvian state.  Considering the fact that Latgalia was a part of the Province of Vitebsk there was a real fear of Latgalia becoming part of Russia rather than Latvia.  There were even poetic calls for unification of Latgale, the Latvian poet and leftist politician Jānis Rainis wrote “The both sides of Daugava will never part! One Courland, One Semigallia, One Latgalia is ours !” However at December 1917  in Rezekne the Latgalian Second congress made a historical resolution claiming Latgalia as different region than Vitebsk and associated themselves with Latvia. This paved the way for all four Latvian region unification in one country of Latvia.

At the time of the First Republic of Latvia, Latgalians were active politicians. They participated in all five parliamentary elections. There were plenty intellectual writers who justified Latgalians as an independent nation, but many approved either – one nation two languages, or one nation one language.  Prominent Latgalian politician Francis Trasuns wanted Latgalian dialect to become a juridically equal to Latvian language, while others hoped the language differences will disappear. There were 20 political Latgalian movements, not just national but religious, farmer, and even socialistic.


Latgallian prewar political party poster

After the Soviet Occupation all national movements were considered as enemies of the state. Despite that Latgalian dialect perceived.  Today the Latgalian national movement is once again alive. There is not a large influx of Latgalian parties but there is Latgalian music bands and folk bands and even Hollywood movies translated in Latgalian.

At the end I must say that we could not clearly depict Latgalians as a different nation which is not an integral part of the Latvian nation. The two most visible differences are Catholic Conversion and Latgalian dialect. We however can compare Latgalians to Ukrainians as they got different  Slavic language but close to Russian, but the Latgalians newer completely ideologically separated themselves from Latvians or Latvia as Ukrainians did. So the most correct way to perceive Latgalians is describe them as Latvians with different dialect and cultural differences.

Since last year few Russian nationalist groups sponsored by the Kremlin have made calls for Latgalian autonomy. These people are mostly Slavic origin and have no connection with original Latvian Latgalian activists and personalities. Their supporters are Russians, Byelorussians and Poles of Latgalia who live there. In such way they are ignoring that Latgalia is a historical Latvian region and all the other minorities who entered there have no right to abuse the ideas of Latgalian autonomy, for their political means. It has been reported that people striving for such fake autonomy is supported by the Russian foreign intelligence service. Therefore such actions are hostile to the Latvian state. So we must remember that Latgalia and Latgalians are integral part of the Latvian nation.

Selected Sources:

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga:  Zvaigzne ABC

Zeile,Pēteris. (2006) Latgales kultūras vēsture : no akmens laikmeta līdz mūsdienām. Rēzekne: Latgales Kultūras centra izdevniecība.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava


Filed under Historical Articles