An Englishman in Latvia

On the Livs

July 28, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 18
On the Livs
An Englishman in Latvia
More Info
An Englishman in Latvia
On the Livs
Jul 28, 2023 Season 1 Episode 18
Alan Anstead

The Livonians, or Livs, are an indigenous ethnic group in Latvia. They were one of the first nations to settle in what is now modern-day Latvia. They speak a different language, yet only 30 people can now converse in it fluently. Few people outside of Latvia, and many people living in Latvia, are unaware of the Livonians. We will get to know this wonderful ethnic group. I speak to the Chairperson of the Livonian Union to get an insight into the Livonian language, culture and history.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

The Livonians, or Livs, are an indigenous ethnic group in Latvia. They were one of the first nations to settle in what is now modern-day Latvia. They speak a different language, yet only 30 people can now converse in it fluently. Few people outside of Latvia, and many people living in Latvia, are unaware of the Livonians. We will get to know this wonderful ethnic group. I speak to the Chairperson of the Livonian Union to get an insight into the Livonian language, culture and history.

Thanks for listening!

On the Livs

The Livonians, or Livs, are an indigenous ethnic group in Latvia. They were one of the first nations to settle in what is now modern-day Latvia. They speak a different language yet have significantly impacted the Latvian language and culture. The Livonian language is regarded as dormant. Few people outside of Latvia, and I am afraid to say many people living in Latvia, are unaware of the Livonians. Let’s get to know this wonderful ethnic group!

Some context

I am in Mazirbe, Irē in Livonian, on the northwest tip of Latvia. Mazirbe is the cultural home of the Livonians. Apart from having one of the best beaches in Latvia and the Slītere national park surrounding the village, it has many Livonian cultural artefacts, not least the annual Livonian festival on the first Saturday of August. Mazirbe is a beautiful place. I would like to live here all year round. However, the school closed down a few years ago. A 4G telephone signal is sometimes possible, but good Wi-Fi is not. The village is slowly decreasing in population as people move to cities for jobs and education. Some investment in telecommunications would make a difference in job creation and the living standards of people in Mazirbe and the surrounding Livonian coast villages. Wake up, LMT, and invest some of those profits!


To start to understand the Livonian people, let’s first look at their history. The Livonians are a Finnic people indigenous to Latvia, speaking a Uralic language similar to Estonian and Finnish (and to a lesser extent to Hungarian). They have significantly impacted the modern Latvian language, formed from contact between the Livonians and several Baltic nations - the Latgalians, Semigallions and Curonians. The influence of Livonians can be seen in Latvian culture and cuisine. I just ate a delicious Livonian carrot cake for breakfast! The importance of indigenous Livonians is recognised in the Latvian constitution.

The Livonians were first mentioned in historical records at the beginning of the 12th century. In that century, the Livonians inhabited about a quarter of the territory of present-day Latvia. Gradually over the centuries, they assimilated into the Baltic tribes of Latvia, and the number of people identifying as Liv, and speaking Livonian, decreased. In a feudal system, Livonians and Latvians were only tenants in their homes and had to pay dues or do free labour for their German Baltic masters. For the fishermen and people of Mazirbe, this was to the Osten-Saken family at Dundaga castle. Do listen to my episode ‘On castles and invaders’ for more stories about Dundaga and its ghost who visited us! Livonian economic activity was determined by their environment - sea, forest or land for agriculture or livestock. The feudal system ended in 1920 with the Agrarian Laws, two years after Latvia declared independence from Russia. In the 1920s and 30s, Mazirbe had a church, school, post office, clinic with a doctor and midwife, pharmacy, tea house, barber shop, photographer’s studio, mills, fish smokehouse, brick kiln, several shops, a big fishing cooperative and a railway linking Mazirbe to Ventspils and Dundaga. There is only one shop, the church, and the Livonian Community House for socio-economic facilities: no school, railway line or industry. The inter-war years were good for Livonian culture with songs, books, and a newspaper in Livonian published. That favourable period ended with the Soviet-Russian occupation during and following the Second World War—the number of people identifying as Livonian decreased. Many emigrated or were deported. A few were murdered. Some were just afraid to declare their ethnic identity. To the Russians, anyone with a strong national identity was a threat. The Soviets banned coastal fishing. You can still see the ship graveyard in Mazirbe, where Livonian fishermen hid their boats in the forest behind the beach in the 1960s. A few boats remain, trees and plants growing through their wooden carcasses. Only when Latvia regained independence in 1991 was the Livonian legal status defined and protected. However, the 2011 Latvian census stated that only 250 Livonians were living in Latvia. This decreased to 170 by 2017. Of course, these figures are of people who identify themselves as Livonian and are not necessarily a complete indicator of ethnicity. But there is a clear trend.


Livonian is a Finnic-Uralic language, unlike Latvian - a Baltic Indo-European language. Linguistically, Livonian is closest to Estonian and Finnish and more distant to Hungarian and Sámi. Livonian is listed in the UNESCO ‘Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger’ as a critically endangered language. In ancient times, Livonian was spoken across much of present-day Latvia. In the 19th century, there were still 3000 speakers. By the mid-20th century, this had dropped to 1500 speakers. Presently there are less than 30 people worldwide who can communicate in Livonian. All is not lost, as the number of people who have learned the basics of Livonian has recently increased. 

Short language tutorials have been published on the Livonian Institute of the University of Latvia’s YouTube channel. They provide an introduction to the language, do watch these - they have English subtitles.

We talk more about language during the discussion with Ieva Ernštreite near the end of this episode.


Like some other ethnic groups in Europe, the Livonians have some symbols to represent their culture in addition to the language. They have a green, white and blue flag that was first raised on 18 November 1923 at the Mazirbe parish priest’s residence. My interlocutor, Ieva Ernštreite, will tell us an interesting story about the flag near the end of this episode. In preparation for raising the Livonian flag in 1923, the Livonian poet Körli Stalte wrote the words of a patriotic song, My Fatherland, and set it to the same melody as the Finnish and Estonian national anthems that were composed by the Finnish composer of German descent, Fredrik Pacius. The Livonian Union’s choir sang the anthem at the flag-raising ceremony. 

The Livonian Union built a Community House in Mazirbe in close cooperation and with finance from fellow linguistic kin in Finland, Estonia and Hungary. This was opened in 1939 but couldn’t be used for long due to the Soviet occupation during the Second World War and for decades afterwards. Only on 1 January 2000 did the Livonian Union regain ownership of the building.

The largest and oldest Livonian community organisation is the Livonian Union, established in Mazirbe in 1923. It was closed down by the Soviets but reestablished in 1988. Thanks to the activism of the Union, in 1991, the Latvian government recognised the Livonians as a nation indigenous to Latvia and safeguarded their identity and historic home region. This is enshrined in the Latvian constitution. The goals of the Union are to keep the Livonian language alive, to spread knowledge and learning and to help improve Livonian’s economic and social life.

In addition to the Union is the Livonian Culture Centre, established by Livonian cultural activists in 1994. They have an excellent website, ‘’, with English pages promoting the Livonian language and culture. Well worth a browse.

The Livonian festival

I fondly recall being invited to the annual Livonian festival on the first weekend of August as a British diplomat in Latvia in the second half of the 1990s. There was a really fun group of Estonian diplomats at the time, and we all had a great time in Mazirbe for the weekend. The organisers even let me camp right by the beach. That was when I fell in love with Mazirbe! The festival includes a procession to the shore to remember fishermen and sailors who lost their lives at sea and poetry, song and dance by the Community House—ending with a big party. The festival has been running since 1989. The 2023 event is on Saturday 5 August. If you are listening to this episode before then and haven’t planned for that weekend, I strongly recommend going to Mazirbe for the festival. It is a two-hour drive from Riga. 

Kuldi Medne

I always include a piece from the Latvian media in my episodes. This time the story is from Re TV, who reported that Kuldi Medne was the only person in the world who speaks Livonian as their first language. A three-year-old. Her parents, Renāte and Jānis Medņi had published a book to help parents and children learn and pronounce their first words in Livonian. 

Kuldi only understands Livonian, and to speak the language with her daughter, her mother Renate started learning it before she was born.

Janis Mednis explained, "We want to be a good example for others. You have to do it and dare to do it. We always talk about the Liv language, culture, and revitalisation, but it has to be done!"

The learning material is organised into 14 household topics. Each topic can be read in Livonian and Latvian and is supplemented with a small insight into the grammar, with a folk song, poem or rhyme suitable for children, and a list of words to learn.

Kuldi's name, translated from the Livonian language, means golden, so the book dedicated to her is called "Golden Child". As Kuldi Medne grows up and new topics enter her everyday life, the parents hope that the book can be continued as a series, and they also plan to record the first edition as an audio version.

That’s the media story. As a parent of children who speak two languages, I know how complex this can be to teach and use both languages. There has to be motivation - from the child as much as the parents. I wish the Mednis family well. The last remaining first-language Livonian speaker, Grizelda Kristiņa, died in Canada in 2013. 

I had the pleasure to talk about the Livonians with Ieva Ernštreite, Chairperson of the Livonian Union, at the Livonian Community House in Mazirbe.

Me: Please tell me more about the Livonian people, their culture, their history, and why Livonian people are so important to Latvia? 

Ieva: The importance lies in the fact that the Latvian Satversme or constitution clearly says that there are two indigenous nations in Latvia, which are Latvians alongside Luvonians. I would like to get this feeling myself and give it to other people that Livonians have always been there. The fact that we had lost this idea or this sense is different. We were very close also to losing the sense that we are Latvians because of very different reasons, because of the long 50 years of occupation. We should always keep in mind and remember that Livonians were everywhere and were first here.

Me: So many people, if they looked back in their history, would find in their ethnicity that actually they had some Livonian roots. 

Ieva: At least you hear more and more wherever you go, whether it's Vidzeme Livonians or Kurzeme or Riga or even Latgale, and you start telling about Livonian matters and cultures. One clear evidence of that is that in the village I used to live, Latgaleans married Livonian people, even in the last century, So that means that these roots really might have spread all over.

Me: And what I do know is that the Livonian people have a different language. It's a Finno-Ugric language rather than a pure Baltic language. Which is perhaps similar to Hungarian or Finnish or Estonian. 

Ieva: I would say the number one similarity is with Estonian. Then the next is Finnish. And then if you are very musical and very linguistically minded, you can trace some similar sounds in Hungarian. But that's not that strong, I would say. 

Me: How many people speak Livonian now? 

Ieva: On a daily basis if you say you go shopping, you go somewhere else, no one speaks Livonian anymore. The ones who have studied Livonian because of some linguistic interest or other reasons, do communicate in Livonian, but whether this is considered to be a kind of everyday or spoken language, that's a different thing, but they can communicate, But it doesn't mean that they will communicate in the Riga Central Market in Livonian with someone else. Unless they are from Tartu. 

Me: I understand there's a revival in people wanting to learn some Livonian. And you were telling me earlier about the summer school. 

Ieva: I would say the first signs of revival started immediately in 1989, when we again started our Livonian festivity on the same 6th of August as it was in 1939. So after 50 years, the first kind of urge was, let's organise Sunday schools. And the classrooms were just packed with people, of all generations, and we started to learn. And that was the start. But we did not have enough teachers. But at the same time, the summer camps I mentioned before, this year is the 30th summer that they are coming together. The programme was initially shorter.  Seven days. Now it's 10 days. it was initially just a touch of Livonian. Now they are on a more detailed programme. That means the older ones of the summer camp or summer school as we prefer to say because it's not a camp, it's a summer school, which means you learn. But for the summer, near the sea, and still it's popular. And so the ones who have been here for six years, for seven years, now they are 19. They are urged to become students of the language department of the Latvian University to get a qualified teacher status. If we don't have teachers, it's very difficult to continue.

Me:  Language is an important part of culture, but not the only part. It's arts and other things. How would you describe Livonian culture beyond language which of course is very prominent? 

Ieva: First of all, I think this is a sense of nature, especially for the Livonian people on this Livonian coast in the north of Latvia. This is nature which springs up everywhere in poems, in games, in songs, everywhere in language. That is one thing. What I also have noticed, is the ones who come to summer camp, when you show some old photos, and we ask them about childhood memories or grandmother's memory, that's a click. What they did, their relationship, how many kids they had, the different traditions from Latvians and so on. Culture, traditions, nature, and the sound of the language. And the sound of the language is very special. And we are very proud. Take the Livonian anthem, My Fatherland, and if they know it, you see their eyes when they sing it, and they know it by heart. That’s a very good sign and hope. 

Me: The other thing I noticed walking around the village is the flag. Tell me more about the flag. 

Ieva: You have to imagine that you are a fisherman. You are about to come back from fishing. You are looking forward to being at home and the first thing you see are the treetops from your boat. Then you move closer. Oh, that's the sand already, the beach. And then, now I am in the blue water, which is not always blue, but is supposed to be blue! This green, white, blue is like ABC for every Livonian. Whether it's a  flag, bookmark, envelope, or drawing, it's all there. The symbols are related to the sea, with the coast, with the dunes, with nature. You can see the collection of drawings in this hall. You'll find these symbols. 

Me: We're in this wonderful cultural centre with paintings around and lots of information boards and this big theatre we're sitting in and having a chat. What role does the cultural centre play? The doors are always open, it seems to me, and you're here running the centre. 

Ieva: Six weeks a year, in the summertime, the doors should be open. And it's really nice to be here because it has so many stories. This is guest book number two. The first one is so big. And if you read the text or the greetings left there, it's a history. But the building itself, it's a wonder here. Many people admire in the middle of nowhere, all of a sudden, there is this white palace. The story goes back to the beginning of the years when the Livonian Union was founded, 1923. And because the villages are pretty scattered, all these 12 villages, the active people of the Livonian Union at that time wanted to be together because the parish house was okay, but it has a different function as well. And somebody's idea was, why don't we have a house, a place where we can meet? And the place itself is in the centre of all the villages. 10 years of collecting all the resources and money and so on. And then in one year, it was ready. And again, the Finnish presence and the Estonian presence and the Hungarian presence have always been there. This time financial because the Finnish government, Estonian government, and Hungarian, all donated to build this house. The architect is a partnership of a Latvian and a Finn. It is a Finnish feeling here. It has no extras, just functional, just simple. And in one year, it was built, and you came in, and you read brown plates on the entrance in five languages, and it said that this house was built with the help and support of the mentioned governments. It was opened in 1939, 6th of August, but we had to leave soon after. The Livonian community organisation had to stop its work and had to leave the building. They managed to do some nice things here, to come together for dancing, for theatre, for singing, but that was just one year. And then it was over for 50 long  years of the occupation. It was terrible, but you know, children did not feel this, that you are in a kind of different system. I was 10 probably. But what was good was kept, yes, in the Soviet way, in the Soviet tradition - cinema, dancing, meeting, theatre, but under a different flag.  Well not only in Latvia, that was in many, many, countries. The painful or the very emotional thing was, I don't know what the English is for these wires which are very sharp, used say, when you want to, well, cross the border. 

Me: Barbed wire or razor wire.

Ieva: Yes, so there is a harbour with this wire, 20 meters left, 20 right, with this indicated. And that was the space in which you were allowed to swim, to enjoy the sea in my childhood. But when you are about 14, then you are full of energy and there were many of us and we were very active in again attending Sunday schools and language learning school gatherings and we had a lot of books where we could learn. But the thing is that the language should be used. 

Me: Ending our chat on a happy note, my observations. I came to the Livonian Festival in the first weekend of August in 1997, 1998, and possibly even 1999. I regularly came, I really enjoyed it, even though I couldn't understand very much, but I had some Estonian diplomat friends who would translate things for me, and I found it was a really wonderful thing. And now, some 30 years later almost, to see that still happens. The first weekend of August, you still have a festival here to celebrate Livonian language, to celebrate Livonian culture. And that's a wonderful thing. 

Ieva: It is. And we are very proud of it. And the quality and the people who are interested and coming here is really increasing. Because it's not only a Livonian festivity. It’s a place where the neighbours meet the neighbours. And their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren come together. That’s a meeting day of all villages, classmates, deskmates, whatever. 

Me: Thank you very much indeed for telling me so many wonderful things.

In conclusion, I support the fantastic activism of the remaining Livonian people and their supporters to protect the Livonian language and culture. It is essential to hold on to what we have. New is not necessarily better! While growing up in London and working at the British foreign ministry, I always felt myself as the underdog, not a part of the privileged, wealthy so-called elite. I naturally fell into working with the Roma ethnic group from the 2000s, another European ethnic group that has had to fight for their identity. In their case, first against the Catholic Church, then the Nazi Germans, and now against plain racism and discrimination. The Livonians don’t have such a fight. But the challenge of remaining relevant to Latvians and Europeans - I count myself as a European Englishman - is very important.

If this episode has touched you in any way, you can do your part. Read the excellent materials online at If you have the possibility, visit Mazirbe. Come to the Livonian Community House and learn about the Livonians. They even have a great cafe offering excellent pizza and fish and chips run by a local person! And enjoy beautiful Mazirbe, my favourite place in Latvia.

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