An Englishman in Latvia

On Latgale

August 26, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 20
On Latgale
An Englishman in Latvia
More Info
An Englishman in Latvia
On Latgale
Aug 26, 2023 Season 1 Episode 20
Alan Anstead

Latgale is Latvia's easternmost region and the country's poorest. It is a region of contrasts, with some distinct cultural differences from the rest of Latvia. For example, while most of Latvia is Lutheran, Latgale is predominantly Roman Catholic. The region’s history helps explain the religious differences in Latgale and its ethnic diversity. I spoke to Aldis Pušpurs to find out more about Latgale and Latgalians and to  Father Guntars Skutels, a young Roman Catholic priest, for his perspective on Latgale. You will also learn about places to visit in the region.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Latgale is Latvia's easternmost region and the country's poorest. It is a region of contrasts, with some distinct cultural differences from the rest of Latvia. For example, while most of Latvia is Lutheran, Latgale is predominantly Roman Catholic. The region’s history helps explain the religious differences in Latgale and its ethnic diversity. I spoke to Aldis Pušpurs to find out more about Latgale and Latgalians and to  Father Guntars Skutels, a young Roman Catholic priest, for his perspective on Latgale. You will also learn about places to visit in the region.

Thanks for listening!

On Latgale

Latgale is one of the historical Latvian lands. It is Latvia's easternmost region and the country's poorest. While most of Latvia is Lutheran, Latgale is predominantly Roman Catholic: 65.3% according to a 2011 survey. The region’s history - as a territory fought over by Polish, Lithuanian, Russian and Livonians for centuries - helps to explain both the religious differences in Latgale (it also has sizeable Russian Orthodox and Old Believer faiths and, until WW2, had a substantial Jewish population) and its ethnic diversity. The region has a large population of ethnic Russians, a significant Polish minority and a Belarusian minority. I describe Latgale as a region of contrasts, with some distinct cultural differences from the rest of Latvia. I will test this hypothesis on my two interviewees, Aldis Pušpurs - a former forestry manager who now has a guest house and museum deep in eastern Latgale, and Guntars Skutels, the young Roman Catholic priest of the neo-gothic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Viļaka. 

But first, to help us understand this diverse region, a short history of Latgale.

The Eastern Baltic Latgalian tribe originally populated the territory of what is now Latgale. Latgalians inhabited a large area, including Pskov in Russia and Vitebsk in Belarus. However, from the 13th century, the territory was fought over between Lithuanian dukes and the Bishopric of Livonia. It was eventually annexed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although most of the Duchy of Livonia was ceded to the Swedish Empire in 1621, Latgale remained under Polish-Lithuanian control. During this period, the Latgalian language was influenced by Polish and developed separately from the Latvian spoken in other parts of Latvia. In 1772, Latgale was annexed by the Russian Empire. Nearly one hundred years later, as part of Russia's anti-Polish policies, a period of Russification began, during which the Latgalian language (written in Latin script, not Cyrillic script) was forbidden. This ban was only lifted in 1904. After World War I, Soviet Russia wanted to regain Latvia since it had once been a part of the Russian Empire. The Red Army invaded Latvia in 1918 after the Latvian prime minister, Karlis Ulmanis, declared independence. In January 1920, a joint force of Latvian and Polish armies defeated the Soviet Army in the Battle of Daugavpils. After the signing of the Latvian–Soviet Peace Treaty, parts of the Vitebsk and Pskov regions were incorporated into the new Republic of Latvia, unifying ethnic Latvian territories under the Declaration of Independence. Although this ended the Latvian War of Independence, it was short-lived, as Latgale was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and Nazi Germany in 1941. In 1944, the second occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union began, which lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Latvian independence in 1991. Latgale then regained its place as one of the cultural regions of the Republic of Latvia, without some of its former territory that Russia kept.

The Geography of Latgale will also help us understand the region.

The land size of Latgale is 14,547 km2 - bigger than some European countries such as Cyprus and Luxembourg. Latgale is the easternmost region of Latvia. It is landlocked and has international borders with Russia and Belarus. The most populated cities in Latgale are Daugavpils (82,046) and Rēzekne (31,216), which were heavily industrialised during the Soviet Union. I recall travelling to those cities in the 1990s while working as a British Diplomat in Latvia. I was taken around desolate factories. Adidas had bought one and made training shoes and football boots with little health and safety for the workers. Another was producing tins of condensed milk. The market had evaporated (sorry for the pun), and everywhere in that factory had become a storage area for long-life tinned milk. Including the toilets, as I found out! 

However, Latgale is known as The land of lakes due to the large number of lakes in the region. The second biggest lake in Latvia is Lake Rāzna in Rēzekne Municipality, with an area of 58 km2. The lakes are in peaceful, unspoilt countryside. I have been there. If you visit, take your time, as many are stone/dirt roads. 

The region of Latgale historically has been a prolific producer of ceramic wares. Archaeologists have found that Latgalians have made pottery wares since early medieval times. Most Latgalian ceramic wares were used daily by local households for centuries, such as cooking pots and pots for honey, fruit preserves, sour cream and milk storage.

In the 20th century, Latgalian ceramicists started to create decorative wares, such as candlesticks and decorative plates. They gained international prominence when two ceramicists’ works were awarded a Gold Medal at the 1937 Paris Exhibition. Although the early Soviet period was a difficult time for Latgalian ceramicists, after the 1950s, they became better known domestically and within other Soviet countries. In 1958, Andrejs Paulāns and Polikarps Vilcāns became the first Latgalian ceramicists to be recognised as the People's Artists of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Latgale Ceramics Studio in Rēzekne was renamed the Andrejs Paulāns Folk Applied Art Studio in 1986. One of the streets in the Latgalian town of Preiļi is named in honour of him. His former workshop and kiln are now in the Rainis Museum in Jasmuiža, together with a unique tile stove made by the ceramicist Ādams Kāpostiņš.

Ceramics remains one of the trademarks of Latgale. In 2020, the Bank of Latvia issued a commemorative Latgalian Ceramics 2 Euro coin with a candelabra. We will explore this more in the interview with Aldis.

I wanted to know more about Latgale and Latgalians, so I spoke to Aldis Pušpurs. He has a lovely guest house where you can stay and an extensive collection of pieces about Latgalian life in his museum situated in a big wooden barn.

Me: Please, can you describe for me a typical Latgalian? 

Aldis: A typical Latgalian is the same as a Latvian, but who speaks Latgalian language or dialect.  Latgalians have more ethnographic cultural differences because ethnographical tradition has been developed in Latgale region more than in other historical cultural regions Latvian. Yes, language and culture. 

Me: Language, Latgalian language. I'm starting to see some signs in two languages. Latvian and Latgalian. Is Latgalian a dialect, or is it a different language? 

Aldis: Officially, we have Latgalian dialect, but there are a lot of discussions on whether it Is a dialect or a language. 

Me: Is it hard for someone from Rīga, who speaks Latvian, to understand the accent? Like in Britain, if I went to Glasgow in Scotland, I would have to listen carefully even as an English-speaking person. Words are different, it's got a strong accent. Is Latgalian language similar? 

Aldis: I think Latgalian language has a lot of dialects. In Daugavpils, Latgalians speak differently than in other parts of the region. I have met Latvians who say, "Oh, I don't understand what he speaks”, but mostly Latvians understand without problems.

Me: To me, Latgale, I'm sorry if this sounds a little simplistic; is a region of contrasts. I would describe this part of Latgale, where we are, as very strongly Latvian, almost nationalistic. And if I went down to Daugavpils or Rezekne, I would meet different people, and if I was listening on the street, I might say they seem to be speaking more Russian. And so I see this contrast. And when we were just talking before we started our discussion, we spoke about the Polish community in Latgale, which was quite new to me to know that they were still there. I knew there had been a Polish community here from history, but that they still keep the language alive in church services, keep the language alive in the schools, I think you were saying, in Rezekne and Ludza. Tell me more about these different contrasts, the different ethnic groups that make up Latgale.

Aldis: We have a lot of native Russians, native Polish and native different nationalities. These are more patriotic to Latvia, but those who came in Soviet times from Russia to Latvia and Latgale. Those are different people. 

Me: That’s the big cities and it was the result of the migration to work in the factories in those big cities. Latgale has a great tradition in ceramics, making of plates and objects. Is that correct? 

Aldis: Yes, it is correct and this tradition started because the Latgale region was not the richest but different, and it was the poorest region in Latvia. We have a lot of clay and people made ceramic things for everyday use.  Ceramics in Latgale was developed more than in other Latvian regions. Ceramics is still our tradition, they are more popular than in other regions. And it's an artistic form as well. Because we have poor soils, people look for an occupation. What can I do? We have an agricultural branch that is not crops but linen. Linen growing was very developed in the region. It grows in our poor soil.

Me: I would like to ask your advice as a Latgalian on some tips and places one should see. People coming to Latgale, what sort of things should they see, to experience, to understand this region? 

Aldis: You must visit guest houses for Latgalian traditional food, for Latgalian traditional drink. And you must see Latgalian churches: Aluksne, Ludza, Kraslava. Landscapes, lakes, forests. In the direction of Rezekne, there are a lot of very beautiful lakes. 

Me: You have a guest house here and the museum. We've stayed there. How can people find out about it if they are interested in staying at your guest house or seeing your museum? What would be the best way? 

Aldis: Google ‘Eglavas meznieciba’.

Me: Thank you very much.

Next, I travelled to Viļaka to meet Father Guntars Skutels. We have known Guntars for a few years. He officiated at the marriage of my wife’s eldest son to a Latgalian. A few weeks ago, he christened their son. Viļaka is a pretty small town with a catholic church on one hill, a Lutheran church looking at it from another hill, and a ruined castle on an island in a lake. It is a mere 7 km from the border with Russia but is very Latgalian!

Me: While most of Latvia is historically Lutheran, Latgale is predominantly Roman Catholic. I think I read 65% according to a 2011 survey. I'm sure history is part of that, but there must be other reasons as well. Why is Roman Catholicism so strong in Latgale? 

Guntars: It’s a historical reason because Latgale was under Polish rule and of course, Viļaka was a little bit too, and some persons remember church builders who were Polish, Barons, and some people remember, from grandmothers and grandfathers. A priest will be a local person. 

Me: We are in, if I can call it, your church. You're the priest here in Viļaka, which is a beautiful church. And the local people, your community here, are Latgalians. How would you describe your community? You just talked now about knowing their language. Can you speak Latgalian? Do you, in your services, use Latgalian language or pure Latvian? What about Polish as well? 

Guntars: My Polish is not very strong but I understand it. Now in Viļaka it was a big surprise because I do not come from Viļaka. My origin is Preiļi, it's two hours from Viļaka. It's a little bit different. When I came to Viļaka, it was a big surprise for me that people are very Latgalian. They have this patriotism of Latgale, of the Latgalian language. The Latgalian language is different, and some people in the first minutes told me, "Hey, you are not a local man, your language is different." I have some anecdotes or some jokes because one word in my Latgalian may mean another object here. In Preiļi ‘home’ is ‘sata’, in Viļaka ‘sata’ is ‘fence’. Someone called me and said I have some problems with my animals - these animals have broken my ‘sata’. Oh my god, in your home are some animals? What is happening? He said, no, no, Guntars, it's alright. Wow, what are you animals doing in your home? No, it's not my home - it's a fence they have broken! I was very surprised that the person was using Latgalian very strongly. 

Now there is a Russian border near, but in seven years, since I have been living here, only once I needed to use the Russian language in church to understand people speaking the language. Polish never. 

Me: Though in other parts of the diverse region, other parts like Rezekne, I'm told there is still a Polish community. I'm told that in the churches there may be one service in Polish on a Sunday. 

Guntars: We have some churches where we have three languages, Holy Mass in Latvian, and some prayers in Polish. Parts of the service may be in Russian -Polish people want to pray in Polish, but they don't have a good understanding of Polish. And they ask sometimes, "We need the Russian language, but we are living in Latvia. We need to use Latvian language." And there is a very strong folk tradition in church too, because when we have some big celebrations on 15 August in Viļaka, like in Aglona, we have this pilgrim procession around the church, and some people go in local dress. It's not typical in other churches. 

Me: Please tell me more about this church. It is so close, of course, to the border with Russia, and there were two wars that this church has been through, what different things that happened. Tell me more about the history of this church, please. 

Guntars: First, we need to understand the history of Viļaka because Viļaka’s name before was Marienhausen, the home of Maria. And this year we have a celebration. 730 years old is this city. It's not a very young city. And, of course, there was the first church. A little church, made by a bishop from Riga, Jochen Defekte, who wanted to make a place for Catholic and Slavic people. The church was in the centre of Viļaka. And finally, this is the fourth church in Viļaka, bigger than the others, and 132 years old only. But it took five years to build this church. The architect was from Riga, Florian Viganovski, Polish. And Alina Lippe-Lipska was the Baron of this region. It's Neo-gothic style, these coloured windows, it's fantastic. 

Me: Stained glass windows are magnificent. 

Guntars: Yes. And secondly, a very important thing, not typical in Latvia now, of course, the material is local. Of course, windows maybe not, or organ, which comes from Poland. But actually it's a very good material because we had two wars, yes, and this church was a little bit damaged in the Second World War, but now it's all right. And this church was built for 20,000 people. Now we have only 2,000 believers but it's not only a demographic situation in Latvia as we have other churches nearby. This was the local government centre. Now we have the centre in Balvi. 130 years ago, this was the centre of the region called Abrene. The border was not 6-7 km away but 37 km. In the church system we are bigger than Balvi church. This is the centre of 10 churches. 

Me: I also wanted to ask you about the Basilica of the Assumption of Aglona, which I visited in the 1990s, a long time ago. And I think I know that you went there very recently for the pilgrimage. Tell me more. I know it's the other side of Latgale. Please tell me more about this shrine and why it's so important for Catholics. 

Guntars: This is a place where many people come to. And in the Catholic Church, every country has some such place. In Latvia, this is the place. It's Baroque, a little bit different than Viļaka. But Viljaka church is a little Aglona. All priests must go to Aglona for the big celebrations on 15 August. But from Viļaka you cannot go because you have many persons in your local church. And every year we have four, five, six hundred, yes, hundreds of persons who come this day to stay in our church.  Yes, Popes have visited Aglona. John Paul II and Francis too. When I started studying in seminary I asked where is my location, why do I want to be here and after some meditation I said, "Yes, I remember when I was a child, I was in Aglona, this Mother of God." And I know very many stories in Aglona when persons have come and something happens, some mystical things happening. 

Me: Thank you, thank you very much.

After the interview, Guntars insisted on taking us up into the church tower to see the bell and the view. Little did we know that this would involve going up many open wooden stairs. It's not suitable if you dislike heights (that’s me). He rang the church bell as a demonstration. When we left the church, the police were outside. I think they may have been concerned about the church bell ringing. We sheepishly drove away!

In conclusion, Latgale’s history has sometimes developed alongside the rest of Latvia, with a distinct language and culture. Latgale has had more Polish and Russian influence, whereas the rest of Latvia had more Germanic influence. It may be a poorer, landlocked part of present-day Latvia, but it has much to offer the visitor, especially in eco-tourism. Beautiful landscapes. Wonderful lakes. Pretty villages and churches. And above all, super friendly Latgalians!

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