Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image


Former Soviet republic and since August 1991 the independent Republic of Latvia. Latvia, with a 1945 population of approximately 1.3 million people, covers 24,938 square miles, roughly the size of the U.S. state of West Virginia. It borders on Lithuania and Belarus to the south, Russia to the east, Estonia to the northeast, and the Baltic Sea to the west-northwest. Latvia has a long history of changing governments and shifting populations. Its major industries include the manufacturing of buses, vans, railroad cars, synthetic fibers, agricultural machinery, fertilizers, electronics, pharmaceuticals, processed foods, and textiles.

From 1721 to 1918, Latvia was controlled by imperial Russia. Latvia gained its independence on 18 November 1918, although the republic was vexed by political turmoil and lasted only twenty-one years. The Nonaggression Pact of 23 August 1939 between Germany and the Soviet Union contained secret provisions whereby the Soviet Union would take control of Latvia. Thus, in October 1939, Moscow forced the Latvians to sign a treaty of mutual assistance, which gave the Soviet Union ground, air, and naval basing rights there.

On 17 June 1940, Soviet forces invaded Latvia. Three days later, a new pro-Soviet government was installed, and Latvia formally became a Soviet territory. Some 35,000 Latvians were either killed or deported within the first year of the incorporation. Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, occupying Latvia until 1944. Many Latvians considered the Nazi occupiers as liberators. However, this did not stop Germany from slaughtering as many as 90,000 Latvian Jews. The Red Army reoccupied Latvia in 1944, and many Latvians fled west during 1944–1945 to escape the return of Soviet control.

After the war, Latvians suffered severe hardships under Soviet rule because of their resistance to mandated socioeconomic changes and the collectivization of agriculture. As a result, more than 175,000 Latvians were killed or deported to Siberia and northern Russia. At the same time, a large-scale influx of Russians into Latvia lowered the number of Latvians there by 25 percent.

During the second Russian occupation, Latvia remained one of most economically advantaged and industrialized territories in the Soviet Union. The Latvian Communist Party was composed mainly of non-Latvian immigrants, who maintained political control and shaped cultural influences in the area for the next forty years.

In the late 1980s, with the advent of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform agenda, Soviet control of Latvia began to loosen. Demands for self-rule soon began to surface, and members of the local Latvian government joined with activists pushing for democratic reform. In the spring 1990 elections, Latvian nationalists won a majority of seats in the parliament and moved quickly to draft and adopt a constitution. A 1991 popular referendum resulted in a majority vote for secession from the Soviet Union. Latvia's independence drive was hastened by unforeseen events in Moscow. Two days after the coup attempt against Gorbachev, Latvia declared its independence on 21 August 1991, which was recognized by the crumbling Soviet government on 6 September 1991. Two weeks later Latvia joined the United Nations (UN), and in 1994 the last of the Russian troops left the country.

Latvia applied for European Union (EU) membership in 1995 and was accepted in 2004. It has become a preferred trading route between what is now Western Europe and Russia. Latvia's major trading partners are Russia, Germany, Britain, Sweden, and Finland. Latvia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999 and has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since 2004.

Arthur M. Holst

Further Reading
Misiunas, Romuald J., and Rein Taagepera. The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940–1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.; Shoemaker, M. Wesley. Russia, Eurasian States, and Eastern Europe. Harpers Ferry, WV: Stryker-Post, 1994.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
ABC-cLIO Footer