From the earliest days of recorded history Latvia (Latvija) has been an important trading center. It's strategic location on the Baltic Sea made it part of the ancient trading route "from the Vikings to the Greeks", that stretched from Sweden in the north, through what is now Russia and Ukraine, to the Byzantine Empire across the Black Sea. In addition, Latvia (like its neighbor Lithuania) has long been famous for the amber that washes up on its Baltic coast. Latvian amber, at times more valuable than gold, was known even in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.
By the 12th century, Latvia was better known as a route for German traders dealing with Russia. The Germans founded Rīga in 1201 and, with the help of the Vatican's Northern Crusades, soon converted most of Latvia to Christianity. By 1260, the Livonian Confederation had been created that included most of present-day Latvia and southern Estonia. During these years, Latvia also became part of the Hanseatic League, a military and mercantile alliance of cities along the Baltic and North Sea coasts centered in Lübeck (present-day Germany) stretching west to London and east to Novgorod in Russia.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, parts of Latvia came under Swedish rule, while others came under Polish-Lithuanian domination. In the 18th century, during and after the Great Northern War, Latvia became part of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great. Finally, on November 18, 1918, in the ashes of World War I, Latvia proclaimed its independence – the first time. This independence, however, lasted only until 1940, when Soviet troops, acting in accordance with the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that placed the Baltic states in the Soviet sphere of influence, invaded and occupied the country. During World War II, Latvia fell to the German army and the Nazi campaign against Jews and others soon began with a horrific toll of tens of thousands deaths and deportations.
In 1944, Latvia was "liberated" by the Red Army and the new nightmare of Soviet occupation began. An estimated 175,000 Latvians were killed, imprisoned or deported to Siberian prison camps. Thousands more left the country to escape the repression. The Soviet years also saw the modernization of Latvian industry, but with that came the destruction of the agricultural sector through collectivization and the influx of many ethnic Russians. By 1989, ethnic Latvians comprised only about 52% of the population, down from 77% before World War II.
Finally, on August 21, 1991 – as the Soviet Union was becoming unglued – Latvia declared its independence (for the second time in the 20th century). In the years following independence, the Latvian economy grew rapidly and by 2004 it had one of the highest growth rates in Europe. In that year, Latvia (along with its Baltic neighbors) joined both the European Union and NATO. Curiously, the status of many of Latvia's ethnic Russians remains in a state of flux. Some 18% of Latvia's residents, primarily ethnic Russians, have not been granted full Latvian citizenship. Instead, they carry Latvian resident alien passports until they acquire full citizenship through Latvian language and history examinations, plus an oath of allegiance to the nation.
I spent about five days in Latvia in May 2006. During that time I was able to spend a few days in the capital, Rīga, plus overnight stays in the nearby seaside resort of Jūrmala and an area northeast of Rīga around Sigulda (billed as the "Switzerland of Latvia"). All in all, I enjoyed Latvia very much and would be happy to visit again sometime. It was an interesting mix of native Latvian, plus German and Russian culture – just as its history over the centuries would suggest.