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Estonians in Latvia

History of Estonians in Latvia

Although Estonians today constitute just a small ethnic minority in the Republic of Latvia, a glance at Estonians’ history in Latvia reveals an interesting view of the extent and diversity of their presence.

The original Estonians who lived within the Latvian territory were called the "Leivus" and "Lutsis", and were established within insular linguistic enclaves. The habitat of the Leivus, who are believed to have numbered a few thousand, stretched from the southernmost tip of present day Võru County to Gulbene and Alūksne. The Lutsi villages were located in the vicinity of Ludza (from here derived the name Lutsi), and their climax population has been set at 4,000. Estonians have traditionally inhabitated the areas just to the south of the current Estonian-Latvian border.

The most significant Estonian community emerged in Riga in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Riga had become a leading industrial centre of Czarist Russia, experiencing an influx of textile factory workers, artisans, merchants and manufacturers. Young Estonians came to Riga in order to take advantage of the opportunities to study at the only technical university in the Baltics (for example, Kaarel Eenpalu, Jüri Jaakson, Mart Raud) and at the Riga Theological Seminary (including future Estonian President Konstantin Päts). In 1881 there were said to be 1,565 Estonians living in Riga, and by the early 20th century this number had grown to an estimated 28 thousand people.

Pre- and post-World War I many Estonians returned to their native country. Consequently, according to the first Latvian census carried out in 1920, 8,700 Estonians remained living in Latvia, most of them in the border areas in Valmiera (1,600 Estonians), Valka and Alūksne (4,100), as well as in Riga (1,600). Estonian communities of a few hundred people were also located in the ports of Liepāja and Ventspils.

A third period during which Estonians moved to Latvia occurred during the Soviet era, when the lack of national borders facilitated migration for work and studies.

Estonian societies

The biggest concentration of Estonian societies in Latvia was centred in Riga. The Imanta choral society was founded in 1880, bringing together young Estonian intellectuals and artisans, and boasted a library containing more than 2,000 Estonian-language volumes. Organizations such as the Aberg gymnastics society, the Vironia student fraternity, and the Riga Estonian Consumers Fellowship further established an Estonian cultural presence in the city.

Springing from the Estonian Temperance Society that was established in 1900 by the lawyer Jüri Jaakson and the temperance activist Karl Karp, the Riga Estonian Educational and Relief Society was founded in 1908, out of which came its present day legal successor, the Latvian Estonian Society. Jüri Jaakson was elected as the Relief Socitey’s first chairman, later becoming the Head of State of the Estonian Republic and the long-serving president of the Bank of Estonia.

The society was comprised of various interest groups whose activities included arranging courses, meetings and parties, and also included a choir and theatre troupe. Many well-known Estonians actively participated in the Riga societies, including the future heads of state Konstantin Päts and Kaarel Einbund (Eenpalu), future Foreign Minister Aleksander Hellat and writers and poets such as Eduard Vilde, August Kitzberg, Ernst Enno, and Mart Raud.

The activity and wealth of the Riga Estonians of those days is evidenced by the fact that in 1913 the society's 6-storey house at 62 Nometņu Street in the Āgenskalns (Hagensberg) quarter was built from contributions and loans, and that the society’s membership numbered approximately 540 persons at its height.

As the Estonians did not have minority status and its accompanying rights in the Republic of Latvia, many smaller societies and schools closed down in the 1920s, but the Riga Estonian Society continued up to 1939. During the years of Soviet occupation no official Estonian organizations existed in Latvia.

The Estonian Lutheran Churh has been active in Riga since the 18th century, while the Estonian Orthodox Church established its first congregation in the 19th century. The latter’s activities, however, came to an end in 1918 because of a lack of members. The Lutheran congregation, however, continued officially even during the Soviet era. Estonians also founded a Lutheran congregation in Alūksne.

The first Estonian language newspaper in Riga was the Eesti Koguduse Leht (Estonian Congregational Newsletter), of which the then pastor of the Estonian congregation, Theodor Tallmeister, published 12 issues altogether in 1914. In 1928 the society, in conjunction with the Postimees, started publishing the newspaper Läti Eestlane (Latvian Estonian), which initially was a weekly, later became a monthly newspaper, but eventually also halted its publications after the 11th issue.

The most active Estonian centre outside of Riga was Alūksne, where the Estonian Educational Society, the first of its kind, was founded in 1907. Estonian societies were organized in other border villages as well:in Ape, Liepna and Veclaicene. However, these Estonians soon assimilated into the rural populations.

Estonian language education in Latvia

The first Estonian-language school in Riga was founded at the end of the 19th century. It was a two-grade Peter-Paul church school intended for Orthodox believers. To improve educational opportunities a 6-grade elementary school was opened by the Estonian Educational and Relief Society, which from 1913 taught in the society's building. In those days slightly more than one hundred pupils studied there. The school existed from 1922-1940 as a 4-grade elementary school and was reopened in 1989 as a two-grade school.

In the years 1906-1946 an Estonian elementary school worked under the aegis of the Alūksne Educational and Relief Society. The number of pupils averaged approximately 60-70, but in the 1920s reached over 100 students. Some 4-grade Estonian schools were also established in Ape (with approximsately 80 pupils), Ainaži and Veclaicene (some twenty pupils). These schools closed down in the 1920s due to a lack of pupils. In Ainaži a naval school was founded in 1864, where the curriculum was taught in parallel in Estonian and Latvian until the Russification period of the 1880s. Border area Estonians (for example in Valka and elsewhere) often sent their children to schools in Estonia.

Estonians in Latvia today

According to the statistics of 2006, 2,540 ethnic Estonians officially live in Latvia.
The activities of the Riga Estonian Educational and Relief Society were resumed at the end of 1988, but under the name of the Estonian Society in Latvia. Presently, the society has approximately 100 members. The society primarily organizes cultural events, and one of its sub-organizations is the mixed choir Leelo.

In 1989 the Riga Estonian school was reopened as a two-grade school, but it has since expanded to a secondary school. During the 2006/2007 academic year the school had 155 pupils with wide-ranging backgrounds and levels of Estonian language abilities. The school has 15 teachers, five of whom speak and teach the Estonian language. As this is a state-financed school, the main part of the curriculum takes place in Latvian in accordance with Latvian state curricula; however, significant attention is focussed on Estonian culture, history and folklore, the Estonian language as well as on the teaching of Estonian songs and dances. The Estonian Ministry of Education and Research has sent to Riga a teacher of Estonian, also textbooks and books in Estonian have been sent to the school.

St. John's Church in Riga conducts a monthly service for its Estonian Lutheran congregation, with visiting Pastor Valdek Johanson conducting Estonian-language church service.

Radio Latvia broadcasts an Estonian-language programme once a month.

As of the beginning of June 2007, there are 1373 enterprises registered with Estonian investment in the Latvian Enterprises Register, of them over 700 have been 100% established based on Estonian capital. At the majority of the said enterprises, the management is international.

In May 2007, the Estonian Chamber of Commerce in Latvia was established by a group of entrepreneurs, the board of which Hele Lõhmus was elected to chair.


© Estonian Embassy in Riga Skolas 13, Riga LV 1010, Latvia tel. (371) 6781 20 20, e-mail: