The history of Latvia is best described as a troubled whirlwind of fierce struggle and downright rebellion.
The Latvians and Lithuanians are the two surviving peoples of the Balt branch of the Indo-European ethnolinguistic group. The Balts are thought to have spread into the southeastern Baltic area around 2000 BC from the region that is now Belarus and neighbouring parts of Russia. (The term Balt, which was derived from the Baltic Sea, was first used in the 19th century.) Those people who stayed behind were assimilated, much later, by Belarusian or Russian Slavs (who are ethnically the Balts' nearest relatives). By the 13th century the Balts were divided into a number of tribal kingdoms.
The Latvians are descended from those tribes who settled in the territory of modern Latvia, such as the Letts (or Latgals), the Selonians, the Semigallians and the Cours. The Latgals, Semigallians and Cours gave their names to Latvian regions: Latgale, Zemgale and Kurzeme.
The Selonians settled between the Daugava River and northern Lithuania. During succeeding centuries of foreign rule, these tribes (and to a large extent the Finno-Ugric Livs who inhabited the northern coastal regions of Latvia) lost their separate identities and became merged in one Lettish, or Latvian, identity.
The first Christian missionaries arrived in Latvia in 1190 and tried to persuade the pagan population to convert. It was an uphill battle: as soon as the missionaries left, the new converts jumped into the river to wash off their baptism. In subsequent years more missionaries would arrive, and more Latvians would submit and then renounce Christianity.
In 1201, at the behest of the pope, German crusaders, led by Bishop von Buxhoevden of Bremen, conquered Latvia and founded Rīga. Von Buxhoevden also founded the Knights of the Sword, who made Rīga their base for subjugating Livonia. Colonists from northern Germany followed, and during the first period of German rule, Rīga became the major city in the German Baltic, thriving from trade between Russia and the West and joining the Hanseatic League (a medieval merchant guild) in 1282. Furs, hides, honey and wax were among the products sold westward from Russia through Rīga.
Power struggles between the church, knights and city authorities dominated the country's history between 1253 and 1420. Rīga's bishop, elevated to archbishop in 1252, became the leader of the church in the German conquered lands, ruling a good slice of Livonia directly and further areas of Livonia and Estonia indirectly through his bishops. The church clashed constantly with knights, who controlled most of the remainder of Livonia and Estonia, and with German merchant-dominated city authorities that managed to maintain a degree of independence from 1253 to 1420.
Latvia was conquered by Poland in 1561 and Catholicism was firmly rooted. Sweden colonised Latvia in 1629 and occupied the country until the Great Northern War (1700-21), after which it became part of Russia.
Soviet occupation began in 1939 with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, nationalisation, mass killings and about 35, 000 deportations, 5000 of whom were Jews, to Siberia.
Latvia was then occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945, when an estimated 75, 000 Latvians were killed or deported. The Jewish population suffered greatly during this period. The Germans captured Rīga on 1 July 1941.
At the end of WWII the Soviets reclaimed Latvia and occupied the country for another 40 years.
The first public protest against Soviet occupation was on 14 June 1987, when 5000 people rallied at Rīga's Freedom Monument to commemorate the 1941 Siberia deportations. New political organisations emerged in the summer of 1988. The Popular Front of Latvia (PLF) quickly rose to the forefront of the Latvian political scene. The PLF, representing the interests of many Latvian social and political groups, garnered much grass-roots support and on 31 May 1989 the group called for the full independence of Latvia. Less than two months later, on 23 August 1989, two million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians formed a 650km human chain from Vilnius, through Rīga, to Tallinn, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
The PLF won a big majority in the March 1990 elections, but Russia barged back in on 20 January 1991. Soviet troops stormed the Interior Ministry building in Rīga, killing five people and injuring hundreds. However, the parliament in Rīga was barricaded, the people stayed calm, the violence drew Western condemnation of Moscow and the immediate threat subsided. In referendums in February and March 1991, big majorities in Latvia voted in favour of secession from the USSR. However, the West, not wanting to weaken Gorbachev further, gave only lukewarm support to the Baltic independence movements.
A 19 August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev in Moscow loosened the political stranglehold against full-fledged autonomy and Latvia declared full independence on 21 August 1991.
On 17 September 1991 Latvia, along with Estonia and Lithuania, joined the UN and began taking steps to consolidate their newfound nationhood, such as issuing their own postage stamps and currencies. In 1992 Latvia competed independently in the Olympic Games for the first time since before WWII. The pope visited all three Baltic countries in September 1993, but with the exception of these milestones, Latvia silently disappeared from the world's headlines.
June 1993 saw Latvia's first democratic elections. Valdis Birkavs, of the centre-right moderate nationalist party, Latvijas Ceļš (LC; Latvian Way) became the country's first postindependence prime minister. Guntis Ulmanis of Latvijas Zemnieku Savieniba was elected president - an office he held for two terms.
The country's postindependence government lurched from crisis to crisis, and a game of prime-minister roulette followed the Baltija Bank crash in 1995, when Latvia's biggest commercial bank went bust. With a staggering 204 million lati in liabilities - and thousands of Latvians deprived of their life savings - the crisis spread, and by the time the blood-letting was over, 40% of Latvia's banking system had disappeared. Elections that year saw Andris Sķēle emerging as prime minister.
Formal Russian recognition of Latvian independence was achieved in 1996 in exchange for Latvia reluctantly ceding the Abrene (Russian: Pytalovo) region - a 15km- wide, 85km-long sliver of territory down its northeastern border.
Nervous of Russian sabre-rattling and hungry for economic stability, Latvia became desperate to join NATO and the EU. By 1998 the West seemed less concerned about annoying Russia, which was fiercely opposed to eastward expansion by NATO, than previously, and the USA publicly pledged its support for Latvia, as well the other two Baltic nations, by signing the US-Baltic Charter of Partnership, in which it gave its support to Baltic integration into Western institutions, including NATO.
Latvia made world headlines again in May 1998, when the presidents of Estonia and Lithuania joined forces with the president of Latvia to publicly condemn Russia's political and economic pressure on Latvia, warning it was posing a danger to the region's future unity and integration with Europe. A medal awarded by Latvia to the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin for his role in helping Latvia secure its independence was spurned by Yeltsin following Latvia's imprisonment of a former WWII Soviet partisan in January 2000.
Presidential elections in 1999 saw Guntis Ulmanis defeated by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, Latvia's current president and the first woman president of an ex-USSR country. The fact that Vīķe-Freiberga was not among the five presidential candidates - all voted out in the first round of voting - made her final election all the more unusual. A long-time Canadian resident, Vīķe Freiberga brought experience in a multiethnic democracy to Latvia and assumed office unburdened by petty political connections. On the other hand, she only took Latvian citizenship the year before her election, prompting critics to claim she was less 'in tune' with the real Latvia than a lifelong resident.
Vīķe-Freiberga faced a tough challenge during her first days in office. On 5 July 1999 Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans resigned, prompting Andris Sķēle's appointment as PM at the head of a conservative government formed by Sķēle's People's Party, the LC and For Fatherland and Freedom. Three days later the Latvian parliament approved a controversial language law that invited criticism from the EU and made international headlines. Among the law's requirements, employees of private enterprises and self-employed people had to use Latvian at public functions. Latvian was also made obligatory at major public events, and was the language for all publicly displayed signs and notices. Heeding massive international pressure, Vīķe-Freiberga vetoed the bill and sent it back to parliament. The law was amended in December 1999, the same year Latvia was invited to start accession talks with the EU.
But the language issue remained hot. Another amendment to the language law in late 2000 stipulated that lawyers, taxi drivers, telephone operators and a host of other professions in the private sector had to speak a certain level of Latvian. Throughout 2001 debate raged as to whether those standing for political office should speak the official state language, climaxing in mid-2002 with parliament, heeding the advice of NATO, decreeing that they don't. A couple of months previously all hell had broken loose after an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) official in Rīga had suggested to Vīķe-Freiberga that Russian be made an official state language alongside Latvian. The response was an immediate amendment to the constitution by parliament declaring Latvian to be its only working language, and a statement of support from the EU saying that it was up to Latvia alone to decide its state language. By 2004 the primary language that school pupils were being taught in was Latvian.
Merriment spilled across Rīga's streets in 2001 as the capital celebrated its 800th birthday. To herald the event, the city council raised old Rīga's 14th-century House of Blackheads from the ashes and built itself a new town hall too - allegedly based on the city's original town hall but in fact a complete fabrication on the part of architects. This, coupled with the heady rash of commercial development enveloping the old city, prompted a subtle warning from Unesco that it was not unheard of for cities to be struck off the World Heritage List (a status Latvia's capital was awarded in 1997).
On 1 May 2004, the EU opened its doors to 10 new members, including Latvia, amid huge expectations of a secure border with Russia and better times to come.