History of Latvia

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The History of Latvia began when the area which is today Latvia was settled following the end of the last glacial period, around 9000 BC. Ancient Baltic peoples appeared during the second millennium BC and four distinct tribal realms in Latvia's territories were identifiable towards the end of the first millennium AD. Latvia's principal river, the Daugava River, was at the head of an important mainland route from the Baltic region through Russia into southern Europe and the Middle East used by the Vikings and later Nordic and German traders.

In the early medieval period, the region's peoples resisted Christianisation and became subject to attack in the Northern Crusades. Today's capital, Riga, founded in 1201 by Teutonic colonists at the mouth of the Daugava, became a strategic base in a papally-sanctioned conquest of the area by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. It was to be the first major city of the southern Baltic and, after 1282, a principal trading centre in the Hanseatic League. By the 16th century Germanic dominance in the region was increasingly challenged by other powers.

Due to Latvia's strategic location and prosperous city, its territories were a frequent focal point for conflict and conquest between at least four major powers, Prussia (later Germany), Poland, Sweden and Russia. The longest period of external hegemony in the modern period began in 1710 when control over Riga switched from Sweden to Russia during the Great Northern War. Under Russian control, Latvia was in the vanguard of industrialisation and the abolition of serfdom so that by the end of the 19th century it had become one of the most developed parts of the Russian Empire. The increasing social problems and rising discontent which this brought meant that Riga also played a leading role in the 1905 Russian Revolution.

A rising sense of Latvian nationalism from the 1850s onwards bore fruit after World War I when, after two years of struggle in the Russian Civil War, Latvia finally won sovereign independence recognised by Russia in 1920 and by the international community in 1921. Latvia's independent status was interrupted at the outset of World War II when in 1940 the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, then retaken by the Soviets in 1944 after Germany surrendered.

From the mid-1940s the country was subject to Soviet economic control and saw considerable Russification of its peoples, but Latvian culture and infrastructures survived such that, during the period of Soviet liberalisation under Mikhail Gorbachev, Latvia once again took a path towards independence which eventually succeeded in August 1991 and was recognised by Russia the following month. Since then, under restored independence, Latvia has become a member of the United Nations, entered NATO and joined the European Union.

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