III World Congress of the Finno-Ugric Peoples

Helsinki (Finland) December 10–13, 2000

 
   
 

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Consultative Committee
of the Finno-Ugric Peoples

   

SPEECHES OF THE PEOPLES' REPRESENTATIVES


Aldis ERMANBRIKS

chairman of the Board of the Livonians' Union

A new century and also a new millennium will start after a few days. People and nations are looking forward to it with hopes and anxiety. This is true with the small nation of the Livs as well. It is so small that it cannot be smaller. That is why there is only one single question - is the time really coming that this nation will have only the past and no future?

Having never been a numerically large nation, the Livs, however, have a long and rich history. Five thousand years ago, their ancestors inhabited the present territory of Latvia. Being one of the seven Finnish nationalities around the Baltic Sea with its own language, culture and traditions, the Livs experienced the greatest upsurge from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries when their loyalty began to develop. Several centuries ago, a country that occupied a large part of the territory of the present-day Latvia and Estonia was named “Livonia” - after the Livs. Eight hundred years ago, the capital of Latvia - Riga - used to be a Livs' village. The Livs were also the first who struggled heroically against the German crusaders' invasion. However, the Livs were not alone in Latvia during the past few centuries. They lived alongside with much larger tribes of Baits. That makes us acknowledge that existence of the Livs was long ago threatened not only by wars, enemies and strangers, but by a peaceful assimilation as well. As early as in the 19th century, the Livonian language ceased to sound in Vidzeme. In another area of Latvia -Kurzeme - only 2374 people knew the Livonian language in 1881. It was a narrow and about 60-km long coastal zone with 12 fishers' villages in the North Kurzeme that was most protractedly populated by the Livs. Both World wars were especially destroying. Between those, a revival of the Livonian nation and a growth of their culture had started. The Livonian writing in Latin alphabet had developed earlier -in the middle of the 19th century, due to the Finnish and Estonian linguists, who studied and acquired this language at that time, as well as compiled its dictionary and grammar. The first book in the Livonian language - Matthew's Gospel - was published in London in 1863. Six Readers, Livonian - German dictionary, collections of folk songs, spiritual songs and notes were issued in the Livonian language during the 20s and 30s. A monthly newspaper “Livli” (the Livs) started to come out in 1931. It is the Finnish and Estonian linguists, especially Lauri Kettunen and Oskar Loorits, whom we thank most for fostering the Livonian revival.

The social organisation of the Livs, “Lîvõd Ît”, founded in 1923, contributed a lot into maintaining and development of the Livonian language and culture. The Livs did not have their own school, but the language could be learned at Latvian schools of the Livonian villages along the coast of North Kurzeme.

The construction of a new, big and modern Livonian House in a little fishers' village Mazirbe in 1939, turned out to be the largest gain of this small nation. This was completed with the help of kindred nations -Finns, Estonians, Hungarians, and Latvians as well.

The soviet occupation was the last crush to the strength of the Livs. The action of the Livonians' Union was forbidden, the Livonian House was nationalised and, worst of all - the coastal area populated by the Livs was announced to be a closed frontier zone with soviet military bases built up. Some of the villages ceased to exist at all.

However, the ethnic self-awareness of the Livs did not die, and in order to save the Livonian language and culture, folk-song groups were developed – “Kandla” in Ventspils and “Livlist” in Riga, in the early 70-ties. Later a group “Skandinieki” was founded and they also got involved into this action.

In 1989, the Livonians' Union “Lîvõd Ît”, was restored. Now it includes four regional sections, which comprise about 250 members. With the reestablishment of the independence of Latvian State, a new wake for the Livs started.

Members of the Livonians' Union are represented in the Latvian Parliament. Their deputy is Ilmars Geige. Before him, Dainis Stalls was the deputy, but now he has been elected into Riga City Council. The Livonians' Union holds annual Livonian festival that take place on the first Saturday of August in the village Mazirbe; they run exhibitions of the Livonian artists, they also celebrate jubilees, and promote studies of the Livonian language. The Livonians' Union has published the “Latvian - Livonian - English Colloquial Dictionary”, Student's Book of the Livonian language, a cassette of the song group “Lîvlist”, and a CD with Livonian songs recorded by the family of Stalts. The Latvian Radio programme “Walking through the Livland” tells about the life, culture and history of the Livonians. On the initiative of the Livonians' Union, one of the most attractive squares in the centre of Riga has been given the name of Livs this year.

At the beginning of 2000, due to a special law of the Latvian Parliament the Livonians' Union was given back its real estate - the Livonians' House in Mazirbe. Great labours will be needed for renovation and keeping this building. It will also require big resources. Therefore, just like in the year 1939, we are again facing the need to ask our kindred nations - Finns, Estonians and Hungarians - to assist in this work.

The Resolution of the Latvian Republic “About the rights and free development of the national and ethnic groups in Latvia” accepted on March 19, 1991, has a very significant role for the mutual relationships between the Livs and the state, as it recognises, for the first time, that the Livs are “an ancient native folk of Latvia”.

The favourable attitude of the state is also demonstrated by the resolution accepted in 1991, to establish the state-protected culturally-historical territory “Lîvõd Rânda” – “The Livonian Coast”, which was formed on the last area more tightly populated by the Livs, and receives a substantial funding from the state budget. Its administration pays the main attention to the research of the Livs' history, ethnography and culture, as 4 well as the language teaching. Every year summer camps for the Livonian children and youth are organised. The Livonian students are assigned certain scholarships.

Since 1992, the monthly newspaper “Lîvli” is being published again, and what is more, “The Livonian Almanac” is also periodically issued.

In 1994, a group of enthusiasts created “The Centre of Livonian Culture”, that holds exhibitions of the Livonian art, expands the international contacts with Estonia and the Nordic countries. The Centre has published “Selected Livonian Poetry” and the “Livonian - Latvian Dictionary” it has developed the song group of the young Livs – “Vîm”.

For the sake of solving many problems vital for the Livs and in order to involve public institutions, last year a long-term target programme “The Livs in Latvia” was advanced under the commission of the Prime Minister. This is not only a conceptual plan for solving the main problems, but it also includes some particular action programmes. Unfortunately, lack of resources hinders the work started so well.

Although many facts witness about successes in the last growth of the Livs, the process of assimilation is still going on. According to the data of the last population census in Latvia, 171 persons admitted themselves to be the Livs, and not more than 10 of these know the language. The language has completely lost its opportunity for practical everyday use. However, a lot depends on motivation and willingness to save one's ethnic identity and to be proud of the fact that every second Latvian has a part of Finno-Ugric blood. It is not only the genetic bond that unites us, but also the common historical memory - our fights, losses and victories. Moreover, the awareness that we still exist and that we will be here in the next millennium is the greatest victory of all.

Source: III World Congress of the Finno-Ugrian Peoples. Helsinki, 2000 [Joshkar-Ola, 2001], pp 47–49.

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I - Syktyvkar, 1992
II - Budapest, 1996
IV - Tallinn, 2004