Baltic Blog 5: Latvia

So off to Latvia! Within a couple of hours we had breezed past the former passport control area, now peacefully unattended. Why on Earth would anyone—like the UK– want to leave the EU?

My initial reaction to Latvia was that it was just like Lithuania in many ways but   different in others. In terms of similarities, outside the cities the flat, deep green pastures dotted with small villages and farm houses are indistinguishable from those in Lithuania. Looking out a car window, you could be in either country. The languages are also somewhat similar–and the only ones like them in the world– and the words are equally obscure and unpronounceable for Americans. A typical person’s name will have a dozen consonants and maybe two vowels. The origin of  both  countries dates back thousands of years before the Common Area, but their “modern” histories did not begin until the Thirteenth Century. Both have an ample supply of Medieval “old towns.”  The size of the countries are pretty similar with small populations, only one big city, and very low densities, and the food is not all that different—lots of meat and potatoes and very good, local draft lager. Both countries were invaded by Germany at the beginning of World War II, watched their Jewish populations annihilated by the Nazis and suffered under the Soviet rule from 1944-1990. Both countries have been held together by a common bond of language, custom, music, and culture and while being subdued by powerful invaders, have hung together as a people. 

There are also differences, which are subtle but real. Perhaps most important, Latvia never was a formal nation-state before 1918. This was not the case with Lithuania, which was a kingdom as early as the Thirteenth Century and actually dominated Latvia during the period of the Grand Duchy and during its alliance with Poland. During the entire period before the early 20th century, Latvia  was ruled by foreign powers. In the very early period, the Twelfth through the Fifteenth Centuries, Latvia was home to German barons and Russian royalty and used for hunting preserves and summer estates. It was during the Swedish rule in the Seventeenth Century  that the Lutheran Church was introduced, and still today a majority of Latvians are Lutherans while there are almost no Lutherans in Lithuania, which is heavily Catholic.  Then came the domination by the Russians under Peter The Great, which expanded Russian Orthodoxy and lasted all the way until the end of World War I when Latvia finally became a country governed by the Latvian people.  All three Baltic territories  first became Christianized in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries during the Crusades—in other words by the sword not the dove. Lithuania was the last  country in Europe to fight to the bitter end against the Crusaders, not surrendering  into well  into the 1500s. Guidebooks maintain that paganism actually never completely gave up the ghost and still exists today  in Lithuania though only in small, isolated, rural areas.  I find this strangely reassuring since though a devoted Episcopalian, I have for some time also been a closet animist myself and believe God looks kindly on “primitive” people searching in their own way for the Divine.

The other distinction is that the main religion of Lithuania, the Catholic Church, is thriving compared to the experience of most churches of all types throughout most of Europe.  Our guides were quick to point out that unlike in Lithuania the average person in Latvia (and Estonia) is a “Chris’ter” –attending church only on Christmas and Easter, which one guide pointed out have their own dose of “paganism” (winter solstice and the rite of spring).  While most Latvians still do get baptized, the majority are baptized as Lutherans, not Catholics. 

The other big difference is that Latvia is much more diverse demographically with over 25% Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church has more than twice as many members as the Catholic Church in Latvia. The Russian influence goes back many centuries but is most despised for its post war occupation when most churches were shuttered and the clergy exiled to Siberia, most to die there.

Remnants of a robust religious past are everywhere. In all the cities we visited in both countries  the urban landscapes are dotted  with towering church spires—a mix of Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic –and for the most part, these structures  are beautiful, ancient, and  quite large, usually seating upwards of 500 congregants. 

Our first morning in Riga, the capital of Latvia, included a morning two-mile walking tour of the Old Town area, guided by a very enthusiastic, young woman in her thirties. The old towns are the centers of tourism in all the cities we visited, and the Riga Old Town  did not disappoint. At ten  in the morning on Friday, July 5, it was buzzing with outdoor cafes, small shops and tour groups. Unlike Vilnius, Riga also has a lot of city parks, with streams and fountains,  manicured lawns and tree-lined esplanades. Despite being smaller (650,000 versus almost a million), the city seems more prosperous than Vilnius, probably due to its large port and historic niche as the center of trade and culture in the Baltic states. 

That afternoon the choir began rehearsing in earnest for its first concert, which was held the following day to a packed house in a large, Lutheran church near the center of Old Town. Despite the lack of sufficient practice (according to Embry), they sounded great to me and were warmly received by an enthusiastic audience generally getting up there in years–like the choir.

We ended up spending two days in Riga with the choir singing the next day at the Sunday service at the same Lutheran church, which to my surprise was about a quarter full, more than I would have expected given the grim assessment of formal religion by our guides. Two clergy officiated and it seemed to me that we got two sermons from the towering pulpit—one from each minister. Both were read in monotones; and as I daydreamed, it occurred to me that it was probably a blessing  that the entire service was in Latvian rather than English. Of course, that could apply to a lot of church services. The most unusual part of the service was the communion part when the entire congregation marched forward and knelt on the cold marble floor as they  crammed into the chancel area. I stayed put in the pew and was glad I did since there was no way I could have handled that feat without help.

High marks for Latvia though the weather was generally mixed with one fabulous, though cool, sunny day and one with clouds and showers. Now off to Estonia!

3 thoughts on “Baltic Blog 5: Latvia

  1. Great description of their churches. Would love to know also: They are happy in the E.U.? Are they exercise freaks. Do they have green eyes? Would also love to see a picture! Sorry to be demanding, just like an armed chair explorer that I am.

  2. Joe,
    Thanks for the travelogue. I am reading a book about the last three months of WWII on the German-Russian front. Lots of gruesome history where you are and have been, in addition to the extermination of the Jews and Gypsies. On top of the horrors of war was wholesale rape of any woman found by the advancing Russians. It was a time and place that we can not begin to imagine.
    Best to Embry,


  3. “Both [sermons] were read in monotones; and as I daydreamed, it occurred to me that it was probably a blessing that the entire service was in Latvian rather than English. Of course, that could apply to a lot of church services.” Ouch! But for once, no guilt about daydreaming. Keep up the travel journal, Joe.

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