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mazpuke3.GIF (425 bytes) Latvians. Migration history.

In this Page a short review of the migration history of Latvians in the reference period 1800-1955 is discussed. At the beginning of this period (1800) all Latvians were subjects of the Russia Empire. There were in the Empire about 780,000 Latvians in 1800 and about 1,350,000 in 1900. Population statistics for the period of independent Latvia is available in another Page.

Migration inside the Russia Empire
Migration to other countries
The Revolution of 1905
The World War I and the Revolution 1917
Soviet Russia and Soviet Union
Independent Latvia
Population changes in 1940-1941
World War II
Postwar losses in people


Around 1800 the vast majority of Latvians were serfs and could move to other places only with permission of their owner. However some Latvians were free, and the ways how they got the freedom are described in a separate Page. The free Latvians in the period of serfdom migrated but, as far as I know, primarily within their home province. The migration of Latvian serfs then was fully the responsibility of their owners. They could move their serfs to any place they wanted. I have some information about forced migration of Estonian serfs to manors of Livland, and I am sure something similar could also happen to Latvian serfs, though I have no direct information about such cases.

In 1801 a document of the Empire officials was distributed to the manor owners of the Baltic provinces which proposed them to organize the settling of their serfs to the border regions with China in the Irkutsk province of Siberia. The serfs were to be sent in families, and all family members were counted in the quota of recruits, so it was rather profitable to support the colonization of Siberia in this way, because the price of colonizers for manor owners was less - the market price of a woman was smaller than that of a man for recruiting. At this moment only the text of the document in German is available, and I will publish the document in more details later, but in any case I have no information how successful was the project - how many Latvian serfs were transferred to Siberia. It is known, however, that this project in general failed.

During the 19th century the Russia Empire took part in pretty many wars but the only warfare in the region of Latvia took place in the war of 1812 with Napoleon whose army entered Kurzeme [Kurland] province. In 1812 the quota of recruits was 1 man of 500 registered souls in Kurzeme and 14 of 500 in Vidzeme [Livland]. I do not know how many Latvians perished in this war, the only hint I have found in the book of A.Švābe on Latvian history /Švābe/ that informs that about 25,000 men with horses were mobilized in Kurzeme additionally for transportation needs of the Army, and nothing is known how many of them returned home.

The serfdom in Kurzeme [Kurland] province was abolished on August 25, 1817 and in Vidzeme [Livland] province on March 26, 1819. In Latgale (Vitebskas province) as well as in all other Russia Empire it was abolished much later on February 19, 1861.

However the real freedom to move to other places was not that easy to gain:

1) for this purpose the people needed family names to write in the travel documents. The naming of former serfs was going on in Kurzeme [Kurland] province in 1835, in Vidzeme [Livland] province in 1826 and in Vitebskas prov. 1866.
2) Another problem was purely economical one - to move somewhere, some relatively good money was needed.
3) Some legal problems also arose. Initially the former serfs were allowed to move anywhere only with permission of the appropriate manor owner, later they could settle without  problems inside the Baltic provinces. In 1846 the peasants of Vidzeme [Livland] province were allowed to settle in the cities and in the countryside of other part of the Empire. The peasants of Kurzeme [Kurland] province might settle in the towns of Russia beginning from 1848 and in the countryside beginning from 1856.

Migration inside the Russia Empire

So the first serious migration of Latvians could be registered at the end of the 1840s, when some peasants of Vidzeme [Livland] province settled in the Southern provinces of Russia. They wanted to get there their own land, because at that time it was practically impossible to get land even for rent in Vidzeme province.

Analogous migrations also occurred in the 1860s and 1870s and later. I have no direct information about the quantity of migrated people, and no lists were published, and I suppose they were never gathered, because even the investigations carried out at the beginning of the 20th century complained on the lack of information. However some facts are available.

For example, in the vol. 10 of /LKV/ one can find the information about Krusenhof which was a Latvian colony in Kostroma province, Galicha uyezd. The colony arose in 1862-65 when Latvians from Cēsis [Wenden] and Dobele [Doblen] vicinities bought Krusenhof manor together with 2 neighboring manors and created 25 farms. The price they paid was 25,000 roubles in gold, or 1000 roubles for a farm. To buy and later to divide a manor was the general scheme of acquisition of the land in many other similar cases.

The most intensive migration routes at the end of the 19th century were to the neighboring provinces of Pleskava, St. Petersbourg, Kauņa and others, later since 1870 also to Ufa, Orenburg provinces and beginning from 1890 also to Siberia. The migration to Vitebska province should be mentioned specially, because the Latvians from Kurzeme and Vidzeme provinces migrated to Latgale that was part of Vitebska province, as well as to other parts of this province. The Latvians of Latgale in their turn began to migrate after 1895 to Siberia, because they as being Catholics had limitations in land acquisition in other regions.

M.Skujenieks informs that, according to the results of the Census of 1897 /Skujenieks/, the number of Latvians in various provinces of Russia was the following:


Number of Latvians





Vitebsk (outside Latgale)


St. Petersbourg












Now Kauņa is in Lithuania; Vitebsk, Mogilev, Minsk are in Belorus; other regions are in Russia.

A total of Latvians from Kurzeme and Vidzeme who migrated to Latgale part of Vitebska province was about 30.000.

It is also worth to know that at the end of the 19th century some brain drain took place. In 1908 the list of Latvians, who studied in or have graduated from the higher education institutions of Russia, was published /Latweeschi/. It informs that 462 of the graduates worked in Kurzeme or Vidzeme and 563 i.e. 55% outside the Baltic provinces. Many returned home later, but, of course, it is not known how many of them.

The best source about the migration of Latvians to other provinces of the Russia Empire is /Krasnais/. It contains many names as well, and the book would be worth to translate and publish here, but it is clear I shall not be able to do that.

Migration to other countries

There is some information that at the beginning of the 1890s Latvians started to emigrate to the USA. However the number of emigrants is not known again. The letters of the descendants of these emigrants now on the Internet allow to suppose that there were more of them as I thought previously and some of them migrated even earlier.

The historians of social democratic movement assert /Dūma, Paeglīte/ that rather many people emigrated to Western Europe and to the USA at the end of the 1890s beginning from 1896. This emigration was called "first wave of revolutionary emigration". I have no numerical characteristics of this emigration. It should be mentioned that this wave as well as other revolutionary waves did not consist of equally thinking revolutionaries. Some of them settled in America for ever, some of them returned to Russia to take part in the Revolution of 1905. Some of them joined the Bolshevik party, some of them remained Social Democrats, and some of them left political parties. And, of course, some of them were neither revolutionaries nor Social Democrats.

The best source about the migration of Latvians to other countries is the above mentioned book of V.Krasnais /Krasnais/, though there are also some publications that have discovered mistakes in this book. For example, E.Katajs mentioned several of them, concerning Harbin in his memoirs /Katajs/, about life in Harbin in China (Manchuria) .

It follows from the book of V.Krasnais that 50 Latvians lived in Canada in 1893, that first Latvians arrived in Brazil in 1890 (see more about Latvians in Brazil in the page about Baptists and in the paper of V.Gruber), that Latvians migrated to Argentina and Australia after the Revolution of 1905, that some of them fought on the Boers side in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa and so on.

The Revolution of 1905

A large wave of emigration began in 1905 when the Revolution of 1905 came to the end and the active participants emigrated to Western countries or to Eastern provinces of Russia, where they hid themselves under faked names. The numerous trials of the revolutionaries ended about the first half of 1907, but the emigration continued at least till 1910. For these migrations some numerical estimates are available /Plakans/:

700 sentenced to prison or hard labor in Eastern parts of Russia
2600 executed
1800 expelled from the Baltic provinces.
5000 fled westward, 4000 from them to the USA

This source (and others) gave no numerical estimates of those who went eastward. It seems that the number could not be less than 5000.

A printed source with many names of the sentenced and executed revolutionaries /Piemiņas grāmata/ was published. All three volumes of the book have indexes of persons mentioned there, and the book should be useful for genealogical researches.


The World War I and the Revolution 1917

On August 1, 1914 the World War I began and caused enormously great migrations. It was especially hard time for the inhabitants of Kurzeme [Kurland]. In the spring of 1915, when German troops approached Kurzeme, a huge amount of refugees of different ethnicities left their homes and moved eastward obeying the order of the authorities of the Empire. The total number is estimated at 570 000 /Plakans/. Most of them remained in Vidzeme and Latgale i.e. in the regions of future Latvia, however many of them fled to the inner provinces of Russia.

This people began to return in 1918, but the Treaty on the refugees was signed between Russia and Latvia on June 12, 1920 and remained unchanged after the Peace Treaty was signed on August 11, 1920. The real reevacuation of the refugees began at the end of 1920 and continued till 1925. Not all of the refugees came back to their homes, some of them stayed in Russia. According to /LKV/, a total of Latvians in the USSR in 1926 was 151,410. This number includes the Latvians who lived their for a longer period, and, of course, those refugees who did not return. Needless to say, that no information of their names is available. The statistics of returning refugees are available in another Page.

Another cause of serious genealogical consequences was the creating of Latvian infantry troops in the Russia Army. At the beginning of the war about 20,000 soldiers were mobilized in the region of Latvia and about half of them fell during the first year of the war. Later, by early 1916  special Latvian troops were created with about 40,000 soldiers. It is assumed that at May 1917 Latvian troops consisted of about 30,000 soldiers. From LPE /LPE/ one can estimate that about 12,000 of them became Red Latvian Riflemen, went to Russia, where many of them played important role in the creating and supporting of the Bolshevik regime there. During Soviet times their role in Soviet history sometimes was mentioned and sometimes silenced, but the lists of people were never gathered. However I think that the losses of military people were registered in the troops during the war, so appropriate lists could somewhere exist.


Soviet Russia and Soviet Union

The Red Latvian Riflemen and the civil refugees formed the Latvian minority in the USSR of 200,000 (rough estimate) persons in 1930. At the end of the 1930s some waves of Stalin's massacres had special accents upon the Latvians in the USSR and as the result about 70,000 of them perished. The last number is a rough estimate calculated from the results of two Censuses, one at the beginning of the 1930s and other one at the end of the decade. It seems to be overestimated but it is widely distributed by most of the available sources except only some of them.

The recent publication of A.Stranga /Stranga/ informs about the results of other two investigations that gave more realistic number of 23 000 perished or about 26 000 of arrested and 5 000 executed Latvians. The paper of N.Ohotin and A.Roginskij /Ohotin/ comments on the order of November 30, 1937 which prescribed the arrest of those Latvians who presumably were members of counterrevolutionary organizations. The authors inform that 22,300 Latvians were sentenced and 16,600 of them shot during 1938 in the fulfillment of this order. The paper of J.Riekstiņš /Riekstins/ informs that 5400 ethnic Latvians were imprisoned in the camps of the Soviet Union to January 1, 1940, but this was the time when the main executions were over. No lists of these persons were created, but one may assume, however, that it would be possible to compile such lists, because all the sentences were documented.

The colonies of Latvians in the USSR are described in the book of V.Krasnais /Krasnais/. He asserted that there could have been about 600 Latvian colonies - the places where relatively many Latvians lived together.


Independent Latvia

The Latvian riflemen, who did not move to the Red Russia, were joined by draftees and created the Army of liberation of Latvia from Bolshevik troops. After the establishment of independent Latvia the participants of the liberation had serious privileges in the agrarian reform. For this and other reasons the lists of their names should exist, however I do not have them in my disposal and do not know at this moment where one can find them, except the list of the people, who were decorated for their heroism in these battles. The histories of particular Latvian military units in the WW1 were written in the 1930s, they contain a lot of names and the lists of those who fell in the warfare.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when Latvia was independent, some migration of Latvians to the USA and other countries existed, but I have no figures for this process. The most important was the migration of 2,223 Baptists to Brazil that took place in 1922 and 1923. Additional information about Baptist migrations is available. The quota of the USA for the immigration from Latvia was 142 persons in 1927 /LKV/ and one should not think that it was much greater in other years. If it was at the same level during the prewar time, then one can estimate the number of emigrants from Latvia (not only ethnic Latvians) to the USA at 2000 persons.

It is known that some Latvians, especially those who had German relatives, migrated to Germany at the end of 1939 when the German minority of Latvia was moved to Germany and Poland.

There was also some inner migration from one location to another and from rural to urban regions. I think that the most important was the migration of the hired labourers from Latgale region to Zemgale region. Theoretically the workers went back after the contract expired, but in practice it happened not always.


Population changes in 1940-1941

In 1940, when Latvia was incorporated in the USSR, a small unknown number of Latvians from the USSR migrated to Latvia. Much more important were the losses of the people because of the arrests. A total of arrested, exiled and executed persons during the year from June 1940 to June 1941 was about 27,600, according to the most reliable sources. I estimate the number of Latvians among them as 22,000. (The most frequently referenced total of the arrested persons is 35,000 that was reported in the publications of Nazi times.)

To tell the truth, this number is quite frequently speculated about. The standard politically correct approach is to speak about 35,000 victims without specification of the number of exiled and executed. It is supposed by default that all of them were executed. This is rather misleading approach, and a lot of people in Western countries do not try to seek for their relatives, because they think that all of their relatives were exiled and all the exiled perished. Really, many of them perished, but not all, and it is fully reasonable to investigate the fates of the relatives that were left in Latvia. For some understanding of the processes, the technology of arrests and the legal practice of that time is tried to explain here.

The main part of total human losses consists of those who were arrested and exiled on June 14, 1941. Their number was 14,200 that comprised 4200 arrested and 10,000 exiled persons. The number of Latvians among them was 11,400. The list of arrested and exiled people was compiled and published by the General Management of Latvia Archives in 1995 /Represētie/. The list gives information when an exiled person died in the exile or when he/she was set free. Unfortunately, the list is grouped by the living places of the people and in a living place the people are grouped by the number of the appropriate file in the NKVD archive. So it is difficult to find a person you know of only by the name.

The technology of the arrests and of the deportation was the following: At night of June 14, 1941 the groups of officials arrived at homes of the people, that should have been accused of a crime, and arrested them and their family members following the lists that were prepared beforehand. Then the family with some belongings was transported to a railway station and there the accused people - mainly the fathers - were separated from other family members. The accused people were sent to a camp, but their family members to the place of exile. The only exception of this scheme was if a family member was arrested prior to June 14, and it was later decided to exile the whole family. The exiled people were on their way to Siberia when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941.

The fates of the above two groups were very different.

The individuals jailed in camps were primarily shot in a year, if not, they died by other causes in another year, and only in rare cases they survived the war. In the published lists of the arrested and exiled people one can find only few persons who were set free from a camp in the 1940s. The book of biographies of the high rank officers /Virsnieki/ informs that 75% of higher rank Latvia officers arrested in 1941 perished in jail. I think that the share of perished 75% is rather low for the persons in camps, for other categories of imprisoned persons it should be higher - my guess is that about 95% of the prisoners perished in camps.

The another group, the exiled people, mainly survived, in spite of extremely hard living conditions. I am sure that the mortality of babies and kids was considerably greater and the same for elderly people, but the official politically correct statistics of today inform about the number of deceased people without attempts to compare their mortality with the average rate for non-exiled people.

In any case, if you have a family branch that was exiled in 1941, it would be a good idea to check the list of exiled people to find who and when were set free after 1956.

As a total of the repressed persons was 27,600, and 14,200 of them were arrested on June 14, 1941, the other 13,400 were arrested during the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941. It is clear that most part of them were sent to camps and I think that most of them perished, though again not all of them.

It would be quite normal to ask what were the crimes the people were accused of. The short answer is - nobody knows. Theoretically the arrested people were the opponents of the Soviet regime, but in practice even true supporters were arrested and real enemies of the Bolsheviks slipped out of the comb quite easy. Rich people were arrested but not all of them. I have at the moment more detailed information only about some of the cases, and I am feeling that in standard cases the arrested persons were denunciated. If somebody was arrested, they were asked what anti-Soviet activities they were involved into, who else collaborated with them and after some psychological and frequently physical pressure they said what and who, and then new people were arrested and investigated and confessed and so the cascade rolled further.


World War II

The WW2 reached the region of Latvia in few days after the Nazi troops invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. It took an additional week till all the region of Latvia went under Nazi Germany (July 8). The information concerning this period is overviewed in another Page.


Postwar losses in people

The postwar losses in people due to Soviet repression are discussed in a separate Page to make this Page shorter.



© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002