cultural studies

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The Latvian ethnicity

My Latvian ethnicity has always been a source of great curiosity for me. My paternal grandparents, Arvids and Ann Zirnis, were forced out of their native land when the Soviet Union invaded Latvia in 1940. The Zirnis farm was located just south of Riga, the nation's capital, and had been among Latvia's most successful farms for several generations. Because of my grandfather's power and wealth, he knew that his beloved homeland was no longer a safe place for his family. In secret, under the cover of night, he gathered his wife and five year old son, Andris, and set off for Germany. After two years of hiding, the family was finally able to leave war-torn Europe for the United States, and my father became the first Zirnis born in America.

Latvia belongs to the Baltic region of the East European Plain. The countries bordering Latvia include Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Belarus to the southeast, and Russia to the east. The east and northeast edge of Latvia is made up of 531 kilometers of Baltic Sea Coast. The landscape of the country is a patchwork of plains and forests interspersed with an abundant network of rivers and lakes. Latvia's climate is similar to that of northern New England in terms of seasonal patterns and average temperatures. Due to its location in relation to the Baltic Sea, humidity and precipitation are high. Latvians have a deep appreciation of nature, and large areas of various habitats remain undeveloped (The Latvian Institute, 2006).

The development of Latvian ethnicity and culture has been influenced by a long tradition of farming. In fact, many Latvian surnames that exist today were originally derived from the names of family farms. When Latvia started to keep official records in the 1800s, surnames had yet to be established among the people as a means of identification (Martuzans, 2002). Since farmsteads were of great importance to a society's survival, the names of each particular farm were common knowledge to the members of a society. Therefore, a person was identified by the individual name given at birth and the name of the farmstead in which one lived. Eventually, the names of many prominent farms were adopted as surnames by the families that owned them to signify their high social status (Martuzans, 2002).

Given the impact farming has had on cultural and ethnic development, it is not surprising that agriculture has historically been a major subsistence strategy for the Latvian people. No longer used as the main subsistence strategy, today agriculture only accounts for fifteen percent of the total labor force (Central Intelligence Agency, 2008). Most agricultural activity occurs on the relatively flat landscape of Latvia's open plains. While approximately one-fourth of Latvia's territory is suitable for agriculture, the most fertile land is located just south of the nation's capital on the central Zemgale Plain (Iwaskiw, 1995). The top three crops produced in Latvia are grain, potatoes, and sugar beets. As Latvia's most lucrative crop, roughly half of the total cultivable land is used for grain production. In comparison, only five percent of the land is used for potatoes and less than two percent for sugar beets (Iwaskiw, 1995). Because of Latvia's location near the Baltic Sea, a major issue for agriculture is heavy precipitation. The most crucial technologies needed to overcome this obstacle include drainage systems to combat flooding and ventilation systems to dry out water-soaked grain (Iwaskiw, 1995). Traditionally, the division of labor by gender involved a rigid segregation pattern. A more common pattern of labor division by gender for contemporary agricultural families is the dual sex configuration pattern. The main responsibilities for women still pertain to domestic household tasks and caring for the family, and men are still responsible for the more labor-intensive work on the farm (The Latvian Institute, 2006). However, instead of assuming the roles of superior male and inferior female, men and women maintain a balanced relationship in which no partner dominates over the other.

In the past century, each of the secondary institutions of culture in Latvia has experienced significant changes due to the hostile actions of the Soviet Union. In 1940, Latvia was invaded and illegally annexed by the Soviet Union (The Latvian Institute, 2006). To weaken the resistance efforts, hundreds of thousands of Latvian citizens were deported, placed in concentration camps, or executed. The Soviets targeted citizens who had power and wealth, along with anyone else suspected of opposing the Soviet agenda. Latvians were forced to endure life under Soviet control until they were able to declare independence in 1990 (The Latvian Institute, 2006).

Political organization was drastically altered following Soviet occupation. First, the Latvian centralized, democratic government was replaced by the Soviet's ultra-centralized totalitarian government. As is characteristic of totalitarian governments, political power was held by Soviet leaders and legitimized through force and violence. When Latvia regained its independence, political organization was altered once again by restoring the nation's former democratic government. As a parliamentary democracy, elected officials are given political authority by receiving the majority of the people's vote. The government is divided into three branches. The executive branch consists of the president, the prime minister, and the Council of Ministers. The legislative branch holds the unicameral Parliament, known as the Saeima, and is made of one hundred elected representing a variety of political parties. The judicial branch is split into two separate courts. The Supreme Court serves as the nation's highest appeals court, while the Constitutional Court specializes in cases involving constitutional issues (Iwaskiw, 1995).

Since the secondary institutions of culture are integrated, the changes that occurred in Latvia's political organization were also reflected in economics. Under Soviet control, the economic system was changed from capitalism to socialism. Private property was seized without being compensated for, employment and labor division was reorganized to fit the Soviet agenda, and all economic decisions regarding local issues were made by distant officials stationed in Moscow (Central Intelligence Agency, 2008). Because the Soviet Union isolated itself from the rest of the world, an anti-capitalism campaign in the media lead many Latvians to believe that their former economic system would have ultimately failed. Eventually, accurate information leaked in, and Latvians realized their standard of living had become much lower than that of the capitalist nations. Thus, Latvians were eager to return to a free market economy by the time their independence was finally restored.

With new policies supporting negative reciprocity and value-added exchange, the return to capitalism has allowed Latvia to become one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. In 2004, Latvia joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, which now accounts for eighty percent of Latvia's imports and exports (Latvian Institute, 2006). In particular, Latvia's main trading partners are Lithunia, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The main exports include wood and wood products, metals, textiles, and food products, while the main imports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, fuels, and vehicles. In 2008, the service sector accounted for almost seventy-five percent of Latvia's gross domestic product, the industry sector followed with twenty-two percent, and the agriculture sector fell to only three percent (Latvian Institute, 2006).

For the past couple of centuries, the majority of Latvians have followed some type of monotheism. Although the most prominent denomination was Lutheranism, large groups of people also practiced Roman Catholicism and the Russian Orthodox religion (Iwaskiw, 1995). Under Soviet rule, religious action and belief was discouraged in order to promote conformity among all members. As a result of the five decades of religious suppression, sixty-seven percent of Latvians today are not affiliated with any particular denomination. However, among those who are affiliated, Lutheranism remains the most popular denomination and is followed by twenty percent of the population (Latvian Institute, 2006). Although many Latvians consider themselves religious, few people actually attend religious services on a regular basis.

Latvians value home and family above all else, and this is one of the few areas that has withstood the tremendous struggles of the past century. In both rural and urban areas, extended families commonly share a single household. Grandparents play a major role in child-rearing and often take care of children in order for both parents to join the work force. Latvians practice monogamy, and although partners are typically chosen by love match, arranged marriages take place as well (Latvian Institute, 2006). While Latvians take great pride in their ethnic heritage, endogamy and exogamy are generally both acceptable. The post-marital residence has traditionally been patrilocal, which is still typical today. Similarly, patrilineal descent is the main way through which one's kin membership is traced (Latvian Institute, 2006).

Over the past century, the proportion of ethnic Latvians in Latvia has significantly decreased. Prior to the Soviet period, ethnic Latvians accounted for eighty percent of the population. Today, however, ethnic Latvians make up just over half of the nation's total ethnic composition. In contrast, the proportion of Russians, who form the second largest ethnic group in Latvia, has increased from nine percent to twenty-eight percent during the same time period (Central Intelligence Agency, 2008).

The oppression endured by ethnic Latvians under Soviet control created a strong sense of ethnic awareness and social divide between the two major ethnic groups. Latvians belonging to the upper class were either forced to flee or else faced deportation or execution, and many top professional and political positions were vacated. In order to pursue the goals of the Soviet Union, Russian immigrants were brought in to fill these positions (Latvian Institute, 2006). Since profession and power were sources of social mobility, many Russians enjoyed a higher social status than the native Latvians. As Russian values and ideals were pushed on by the Soviets, Latvians struggled to keep their ethnic identity from disappearing under the bombardment of foreign influence. When Latvia eventually regained independence, a top priority was to revitalize Latvian culture and tradition. Rather than trying to purge the nation of all Russian influence or make ethnic Russians inferior, Latvia worked towards creating an integrated society in which all ethnic groups could coexist. Because of this approach, the significant socioeconomic differences that once existed between ethnic Latvians and minority ethnicities are no longer present (Latvian Institute, 2006).

Works Cited

  • Central Intelligence Agency. (2008). Latvia. The World Factbook. Retrieved 14 November 2009 <>.
  • Iwaskiw, Walter. ed. Latvia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1995.
  • Martuzans, Bruno. (2002). Naming of Latvians. Retrieved 17 November 2009 from <>.
  • The Latvian Institute. (2006). Latvians. Retrieved 14 November 2009. <>.
  • Zirnis, Andris. Personal Interview. 7 November 2009.