|The word ethnicity is used here
to translate the Latvian word - tautība.
For the definition of ethnicity I have found nothing better on the Internet than the following: Defining ethnicity is not easy. It is not exclusively racial, or cultural, or religious, or even political. At its core it is probably psychological. It is whatever separates us from them; it is a shared sense of vulnerability, of shared fear, and at its best, of shared aspiration. It is also a safe harbor for collective hatreds. (Olin Robison)
I could add to this definition that ethnicity frequently is a shared sense of superiority, but I think that an investigator of genealogy should concentrate mostly on the definition of ethnicity by blood - a shared blood in the language of the definition above. Thus no problems arise, if both parents are of the same ethnicity, but some problems are encountered if both parents are of different ethnicities, and the problems become nearly insurmountable if the grandparents are of several different ethnicities. But I do not neglect cultural or linguistic or psychological or political aspects on this Site, because almost always they were of great importance for defining the milieu in which the ancestors lived. In any case, it is relatively easy to group the information relevant to family histories by ethnicities, and this grouping seems to be important enough.
Nothing similar to ethnicity was recognized in the Russia Empire on the official level. Even the only Census of the Empire (1897) did not register ethnicity. Instead both the religion and the mother tongue of a person was recorded. No ethnicity was shown in the official documents also (see for additional information Fundamentals of bureaucracy). It does not mean that nobody understood ethnic differences. For example, I possess a questionnaire, completed in Valmiera, concerning the believers of the Orthodox Church. In the questionnaire the Church officials were asked to inform what tribe the believers belonged to (kakovo plemeni in Russian). I am going to publish the document later. The Priest's response regarding the ethnicity of the believers was in the same sense that is adopted here.
Religion - a shared sense of the divine -.was very important for the people of the Empire. Historians inform that Catholic Latvians in Latgale frequently felt themselves closer to Catholic Lithuanians, Poles or Belorussians in spite of the fact that they spoke different languages, than to Lutheran Latvians from the Baltic provinces who spoke the same language (though different dialects).
In Latvia of the 1920s and 1930s ethnicity of the population was registered by the regular Censuses, but it was not mentioned in the official documents, for example, in passports. Traditionally the ethnicity of children of mixed marriages in Latvia was defined by the ethnicity of the father.
Ethnicity of Jews
In some historical periods ethnicity was so important that it needed to be defined very strictly. According to the Nuremberg Laws, in Nazi Germany one was considered a Jew, if he/she had three Jewish grandparents or had two Jewish grandparents and belonged to the Jewish community on September 15, 1935. A person who had two or only one Jewish grandparent was recognized as a Mischling - a crossbreed. Mischlinge were allowed to be alive however with serious restrictions in rights. For more information link to S.Wiesenthal center
By the way, this definition of a Jew differs from the one accepted by the Jews themselves. According to rabbinic Law, a Jew is a person born from a Jewish woman. So a person having even 3 Jewish grandparents may be not recognized as a Jew, but a person having only Jewish mother's mother would be a Jew, as long as the mother was not baptized or converted to another religion. If followed, this rule would mean that no half-Jews or quarter-Jews exist in the world - only 100% or 0% Jews.
It was interesting to observe in 1990 how this rule worked in practice in IIsrael. One could sometimes find there some leaflets in Russian fastened on walls, and these leaflets invited male olim (immigrants) from the Soviet Union to perform circumcision. The candidates were asked to produce the Soviet birth certificate of their mother. For your information, in this document the ethnicities of both parents were registered, and so it was clear that it was possible to check the mother's certificate for the ethnicity of the grandmother and to decide if the operation was needed at all. Strictly speaking, it would be necessary to check the ethnicity of the mother of mother's mother and so on, but I assume that this was found too cumbersome. It should be added that the checking of the certificate was necessary, because, according to the Law of Return, the citizenship of Israel could be granted also to children of male Jews who did not fit into the rabbinic definition of a Jew.
It should be stressed that, according to the Judaism, 100% Jews who converted to another religion lost their Jewish status completely (including the rights of the citizenship of Israel), but, according to the understanding of ethnicity adhered to on this Site, they still are ethnic Jews. And vice verse - a person, who converted to Judaism, is considered a Jew by Judaism (including the rights for citizenship of Israel), but remains in the same ethnicity by our rules.
The real life of Latvia and especially of the Soviet Union was different to rabbinic Law, and in these countries ethnicity and religion were completely different matters. In the USSR no statistics of religions were gathered, but the information about the religions of ethnic Jews and about the ethnicities of Judaists in pre-war Latvia is available on this site.
Ethnicity and citizenship
It is very important to distinguish between ethnicity, nationality and citizenship. It seems that nationality and citizenship in the modern English sense mean the same, and they are defined by the country, the passport of which the person holds. The ethnic origin is also registered in some passports, for example, in the passports of the former USSR or in Latvia passports of today.
Some people sometimes write to me or on the Internet something along these lines: "My family were Germans who considered themselves Russians by nationality. In 1918 when independent Latvia was created, they became Latvians." It is correct, if the citizenship is considered. But in fact this family were Jews by ethnicity, they lived in Germany and then migrated to the Russia Empire and later became citizens of Latvia. Ethnicity never changes and can never be changed.
I have tried to distinguish these terms throughout this Site even on lingustic level. Latvian as a noun here always means a person of Latvian ethnicity and Latvian as an adjective means something related to ethnic Latvians. For this reason I wrote above - Latvia passports not Latvian passports, because these passports are handed to all subjects of Latvia not only to ethnic Latvians. The same convention is accepted also for other ethnicities.
© Bruno Martuzāns. 1996-2002