A Beginner’s Guide to Latvian Culture

The following is a collaborative effort from my C2 teenagers (17-18 years old), as a final project to crown our study of culture over the last few weeks. Each student contributed a section about an aspect of Latvian culture, although we agreed to keep the authors anonymous to prevent comparisons.

Language

Despite the fact that the only official language in Latvia is Latvian, in the east of the country people can easily find places where very few people speak Latvian and the overwhelming majority speak Russian. Another interesting fact is that more Russians can speak Latvian better than ethnic Latvians can speak Russian.

In the city of Riga, most people are used to dealing with people who do not have official language skills. Moreover, the majority of citizens (particularly youth) speak or at least know some basic phrases in English, so tourists can easily ask locals to help if needed.

Politics

Latvia as a country was established on 18th of November 1918. In 1940 Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union (allegedly occupied). On August 21st 1991 Latvia restored its independence.

De jure, Latvia is a democratic parliamentary republic. There are two major political parties who have full control over the country: Unity (Vienotiba) and National Alliance (Nacionala Apvieniba). alien-passport

Former USSR citizens were given “Alien’s” passports (genuine example on the right), which basically means that a person doesn’t have a citizenship. People with those passports don’t have a right to vote, nor can they travel freely around the European Union, although they can take an exam to earn full Latvian citizenship. Two thirds of non-citizens are ethnic Russians, who have lived their entire lives in Latvia.

Tax rates in Latvia are extremely high. Residents of the country are required to pay for almost everything, even for rain water. With minimal salary of just over 380 euros and an average salary of 623 euros, people have to pay 21% VAT and a 24% income tax, as well as other miscellaneous taxes, while offering almost no social security.

Religion

The main religion traditionally practiced in Latvia is Christianity. As of 2011, the largest religion in Latvia is Christianity (80%), although only about 7% of the population attends religious services regularly.  Lutheranism is the main Christian denomination among ethnic Latvians due to strong historical links with the Nordic countries and Northern Germany, while Roman Catholicism is most prevalent in Eastern Latvia (Latgale), mostly due to Polish influence. The Latvian Orthodox Church is the third largest Christian church in Latvia, with adherents primarily among the Russian-speaking minority.

St Peter's church Riga.jpgThe Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has 708,773 members. Roman Catholicism in Latvia has 430,000 members. Historically, the west and central parts of the country have been predominantly Protestant, while the east – particularly the Latgale region – has been predominantly Catholic, although Catholics are now common in Riga and other cities due to migration from Latgale. Historically, Lutherans were the majority, but Communist rule weakened Lutheranism much more than Catholicism, with the result that there are now only slightly more Lutherans than Catholics. The Latvian Orthodox Church is semi-autonomous and has 370,000 members; orthodoxy predominates among the Latvian Russian population.

Education

Being a student myself, I can review Latvia’s education system from the inside and, in my opinion, there isn’t a lot of things it stands out for. Like any other system, it has its own flaws but, at the same time, it’s being improved. Nevertheless, here are some general facts and personal opinions regarding education in Latvia:

1) Education in Latvia is free and compulsory.

2) Compulsory education includes 2 years of preschool education and a further 9 years of elementary education.

3) After elementary school, students may wish to acquire a profession or continue their studies in school (3 more years), after which they choose a university to acquire they tertiary education at.latvia-uni

4) Latvia’s Medical University (Strādiņa Universitāte) is considered to be one of the best in Europe, which is why many students come here in hope of getting a place. The average chance of getting a grant in this university is 3-4%.

Tolerance towards immigrants

Not long ago Latvia began accepting immigrants; local citizens have different opinions about them.

1) Some people think that due to exposure to foreign cultures Latvian culture will disappear. That’s why some people aren’t satisfied with them.

2) The host population doesn’t always want to think about the reasons why refugees are coming to their country; they tend to think that immigrants unfairly use the benefits of the country.

3) Because of past events like 9/11 people have biased opinions of foreigners and they are scared of terrorism.

4) It is claimed that immigrants don’t wish to assimilate indigenous traditions but supplant them with their own.

But the main thing is that this points aren’t seen very often in Latvia simply because we haven´t yet accepted as many immigrants as we should have. Instead of 700 there might be only 100 of them and this amount means there is very little cultural diversity.

Tolerance towards homosexuals

Latvia, being a post-Soviet country, has been known for it’s conservatism and unwillingness to accept something that is slightly different. Homosexuality is no exception. Being called “gay” in our country is considered to be an insult and homosexual people rarely declare their orientation in public places, since it will only cause them harm. You don’t express your feelings towards your significant other in public, otherwise you might be beaten up by some Latvian (or Russian) ‘heroes’.

For instance, we have a homosexual minster, Edgars Rinkevics, who publicly declared that he is gay (on Twitter by the way). Reactions were ´precious’: people posted insulting comments, recommend that he killed himself etc. Latvian society found it to be insulting to have a gay minister and the majority thought that it was a national disgrace.latvia-edgars-rinkevics

However, I think that majority of those judgemental people are rather old, aged 35 and up. Youth (16-25) are more accepting and base their opinion about someone on their actions, rather than orientation, although young boys tend to be quite judgemental towards homosexuals sometimes (maybe it’s a way of hiding the fact that they are gay themselves).

Holidays

Every country has their own list of holidays and, more or less, they are the same here as in the rest of the world. These holidays are Christmas, New Year, Independence Day and others.  latvia-traditional-holiday

But here in Latvia, there is one special holiday: this special day is Jāņi or Ligo. It’s an annual Latvian festival celebrating the summer solstice. On this day people weave wreaths out of oak leaves which symbolize the sun. People eat Jaņu cheese, made of caraway seeds, drink beer, sing a lot, and leap over fires to bring luck and health throughout the coming year.

Food

Traditional Latvian food mainly consists of products that Latvians grow. Staple foods consist of potatoes, meat and fish. Due to Latvia’s location on the coast of Baltic Sea, it has a lot of fish. For example, some time ago Latvia used to produce many sprats.

latvia-peas-and-baconSome traditional dishes include rye bread soup, grey peas with bacon, cheese with cumin seeds, and Sklandrausis (a sweet pie, made of rye dough and filled with potato and carrot paste and seasoned with cumin). Latvia is also famous for its delicious rye bread and Riga Black Balzam liquor.

Music

A few years ago the Latvian Ministry of Culture officially declared that Latvia is a ‘country which sings’ and there are some reasons for the appearance of this motto. First of all, Latvia has a very well-developed choir culture. Several years ago we even held World Choir Olympic Games where some Latvian choirs also participated.247-baltics-singing-latvia-tourism-618-pixels1

Another reason to consider Latvia as a ‘singing country’ is the Baltic song festival. It is the biggest amateur traditional dance and music festival in the Baltics which happens once every 4 years. It is an absolutely massive event which usually involves about 30,000 participants. The festival has a huge influence on Latvian culture and is included in the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List.

Film and Television

In Latvia, we don’t make many movies or TV series just because we can’t afford it, or we do but the government chooses not to give money to movies. At least really good ones that actually make sense. The best ones from Latvian movies are the old ones, like, ´Vella Kalpi´, ´The Child of Man´, ´Limuzīns Jāņu nakts krāsā´. I really suggest watching them.

From the new ones, ´Mother, I love you´ and ´Modris´ are the best ones, in my opinion. This year, a movie called “Svingeri” came out which is basically kind of a sex comedy.

I don’t suggest watching any of the TV series, to be honest. Especially not ´Ugunsgrēks´. It doesn’t even make sense and most of the characters should be old and dead right now but their age hasn’t changed since Season 1.

Art

The greatest works of Latvian artists are represented in the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art. Latvian artists are interested in exploring artistic landscapes and pushing the boundaries of art. For example, Latvia can be proud of works created by Mark Rothko and Maris Bishofs, who are both popular all over the world.

Mark Rothko was a Latvian artist who painted abstract expressionism (like the piece . Although he moved to the USA in 1913 at the age of 10, he was born in Daugavpils in southeast Latvia. Maris Bishofs is a living Latvian artist who is most famous for his drawings between 1984 and 2003 featured in publications like Time Magazine, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

latvia-mark-rothko

Bibliography

CYC260p class, International House Riga – Satva, Latvia.

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