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Baltic peoples have lived in Eastern Europe for over 4000 years. Initially they occupied a large area bordered by the Baltic Sea and extending down into the Prussian region of what is now Germany and east into what is now Russia. The Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian are among the oldest in Europe.

This area of Eastern Europe has served as the battleground of many wars. The Vikings came first. Then the Germans, the Swedes, the Russians and even France's Napoleon fought and pillaged through this territory. Gradually the territory occupied by Latvians shrank to its present day size, which is comparable to the size of the state of West Virginia.

After World War I, Latvia succeeded in breaking free from German/Russian domination and achieved its independence in 1918. Its first Prime Minister was Karlis Ulmanis, a graduate of the University of Nebraska. In the years between WWI and WW II, Latvia enjoyed rapid growth and prosperity and had one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Then WW II started and Soviet Russia forcefully annexed Latvia. What followed was a "Year of Terror" with a sizeable portion of the population deported to death camps in Siberia. Next came the Nazi German invasion which brought new hardships, death and concentration camps. The Nazis also succeeded in exterminating most of Latvia's Jewish citizens.

As the fortunes of war shifted and the Soviets reoccupied Latvia in 1944/1945, a sizeable percentage of the Latvian population fled for their lives. Latvia was subjected to a brutal, oppressive Soviet occupation which lasted for 56 years and resulted in arrests and executions of innocent citizens, massive deportations to Siberia, and a systematic effort to make Latvians a minority in their own country by flooding it with Russian speaking immigrants from Soviet controlled republics. Latvian language and culture were suppressed.

Finally, when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, Latvia regained its independence again and has started the long and difficult process of returning to its European roots. It has a peaceful, democratic government and currently enjoys one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. Latvia has joined NATO and the European Union.

Learn more about life in Latvia under the Nazi and Soviet occupations: