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Livs – coast dwellers

Many centuries ago the Livs settled on the Courlandian Cape and in the region between the left basin of the Daugava River and southern Estonia. However in the XX century we can find their settlements only on the northern outskirts of Courland in the Latvian Republic. The range of the settlements in the last century has been narrowed down to only a few villages.

The Livoninan language belongs to the southern group of the Balto-Finnic languages (which are a part of the Finno-Ugric family). Its closest relative is Estonian, especially its southern dialect. According to Estonian and Finnish researchers the Livonian language was the first from the group to become independent in the beginning of our era. At the present only 8 people use it as their maternal tongue, 40 have learned it and the amount of Livs alive today does not exceed 177 people (data from 2000).

Just as with the other Balto-Finnic nations there is no one single name given to the Livs. The Latin word Livonia was first used to describe the historical fatherland of the Livs and only in the XIII century did the name spread and came to mean all of the territory controlled by the Brotherhood of the Sword. In latter years this term was used to describe the province which included southern Estonia and northern Latvia and it is here that we should search for the ancestral home of the Livs. It is assumed that the Livs inhabited a very vast region at the beginning of the modern era.

The size and strength of the Livs was the cause of their frequent appearance in ancient and latter chronicles. In these sources they are referred to as levioni. This is the term used by the Roman statesman and writer Pliny the Younger around 79 A.D. while describing the coastal regions of northern Europe. It is the source of latter names such as: Livonia, livonicus, Livoni etc. which were gradually adopted by the Livs themselves. However until the XX century they most often called themselves randalist meaning “coast dwellers” (sg. randali) or kalamied meaning “fishermen” (sg. kalamiez). A Russian chronicle from the beginning of the XII century uses the word lib when referring to Livs.

In the XIII century, a Latvian chronicler named Henry provides interesting information about the Livs. First Livonian words appear such as: maga, magamas (sleep, sleeping, sleeper) and names such as Ako and Caupo.

From the X to the XII century the region inhabited by Livs goes through a rapid economic development. As the influence of the Vikings grows less, economic ties are established with Gotland, Kievan Rus and the Finns. In the second half of the XII century as Christianization begins chronicles show the Livs as a more powerful nation than the Latvians. At that time Livs come into direct contact with German merchants who gradually begin to strengthen their position in the upper basin of the Daugava River. Following the Germans, the Brotherhood of the Sword comes to these lands and begins to convert the locals, at first peacefully, to Catholicism. Due to German and Russian expansion the weakening Livs lose their opportunity to form and independent state.

In 1148 a first temple is built on the western bank of the Daugava River and a year later a stone fortress as well. Around 1190 the Livonian prince Kaupo is baptized and bishop Meinhard continues Christianizing at a rapid pace. However it does not bring the proper results and Meinhard turns to the pope for military assistance. The pope decides that a crusade is in order during which Albert Buxhoevden (former bishop of Bremen) assumes the post of bishop. Being able to utilize 23 ships and a large force of crusaders he conducts missionary activity by force throughout the northern Baltic coast. In 1201 Riga is founded and from here Albert continues his mission. In 1206 he is at last victorious over the pagan Livs. He deploys them in his campaigns against their neighbors – Estonians and Latvians (the eastern tribe of the Latgalians).

Forced to change their faith and made to suffer by the German authorities, from this moment the Livs do not play a major role in deciding their nation’s fate. Together with the Latvians and Estonians they are outside the margin of the political happenings of the region.

In the effect that in the XVI century Livonia became a battleground of Denmark, Sweden, Moscow, and Poland the only possible way of underlining one’s national identity became the creation of literature in the native tongue. The first Livonian printed text comes from a four-language song-book published in 1525. The songs were mainly religious, sporadically published by the Church in order to propagate the current religion (from 1561-1621 the Polish-Lithuanian Catholicism and later Swedish Protestantism). The liturgy still remained Latin (up until the 26th of January 1936).

Between the years 1700-1721 part of Livonia was conquered by Peter the First and all of it became part of Russia after the first partition of Poland in 1772. The tsar strengthened the position of the aristocracy and levied further taxes upon the peasants which worsened the already critical situation of the Livs. The rapid assimilation process is best portrayed by the results of research conducted by Finnish scientist, A.J. Sjögren, who in 1846 counted only 22 users of Livonian in the area surrounding Riga and in the north of Courland. Thanks to his efforts Livonian grammar and dictionary were introduced in 1861. The language which was then codified was divided into to dialects – eastern and western. In was soon to be used in practice as the Gospel of St. Mark was translated in 1863.

During World War I many Livs were forced to abandon their villages. Many of them did not comeback.

The Livonian culture started coming back to life during the time of the First Latvian Republic. With great help from Estonians and Finns on the 2nd of April 1923 The Livonian Union (Livod It) was established and on the 18th of November of the same year the green-white and blue flag was officially recognized as the flag of Livonia. 20 Livonian books were published at that time, Livonian schools were established, since 1931 the magazine “Livli” stated coming out and in August of 1939 the Livonian House was established, a cultural institution whose aim was to broaden the relations with the other Balto-Finnic nations. The fact that melody of the Livonian, Estonian, and Finnish national anthem is the same also shows how strong the ties between these nations were.

During World War II Livs often changed states: until 1940 they lived in Latvia, then in a republic of the Soviet Union and then from 1941 to 1945 in a region occupied by the Nazis. After 1945 in Livonia and all of Latvia the communist social-economic policy was continued (collectivization and nationalization), which was accompanied by Russian colonization. The local populace (Livs, Poles and Latvians) were repressed against: deportations, gulags, prisons. By decree of the authorities Livs were forbidden to fish in the sea. In 1955 Soviet military bases sprang up between Livonian villages. People were forced to leave their settlements which caused the western settlement regions to be completely depopulated. All kinds of endeavors in favor of Livonian culture were forbidden and the nation found to be non-existent.

It was not until the time of the independence of the Latvian Republic (May 5th 1990) that we can talk about the renewal of favorable conditions for the development of the smallest Balto-Finnic ethnic group. Many kinds of endeavors are being carried out to protect Livonian heritage: the foundation “Livod Randa” is up and running, created in 1991 by the Latvian government as well as The Livonian Cultural Center in 1994. Livonian language is being taught at the University of Riga and in Mazirbe there is a festival of Livonian culture. The Livs have five folk bands and a newspaper (in Latvian) and even a representative in the Parliament.

Yet when we take a look at demographic indicators from recent years it seems obvious that the fate of native Livs is sealed and in the near future just as the other extinct Finno-Ugric tribes (Meria, Muromovians) will be looked upon only as a historical phenomenon. Maybe if the Livonian question was answered a bit earlier this situation would not have happened.



1. A. Bereczki A lívek története (w:) Nyelvrokonaink, red. Gy.Nanovszky, Budapest 2000;
2. www.suri.ee/r/liivi
3. encyklopedia.pwn.pl
4. www.christusrex.org
5. F. Oinas The Livonians. New Haven, Connecticut 1955;
6. L. Kettunen Untersuchung über die livische Sprache (w:) Phonetische Einführung. Sprachproben, Tartu 1925;
7. E. Tonisson Die Gauja-Liven und ihre materielle Kultur: II. Jh. – Anfang 13. Jhs, Tallinn 1974;
8. P. Ariste The Livs and the Livish Language, Riga 1958;
9. H. Mürk A Letter on the Ethnic Situation of the Livonians (w:) Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher, Wiesbaden 1987;
10. E. Vääri Die Liven und die livische Sprache in den Jahren 1920-1970 (w:) Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen, Helsinki 1971;


Translator: Szczepan Witaszek

About Miłosz Waligórski