A History of Polish-Latvian Relations

29.03.2018. 16:57

 Dr. hist.,  prof Ēriks Jēkabsons


Polish-Latvian relations date back as far as the 16th century when the last Grand Master of the Livonian Order and the archbishop of Riga requested King Sigismund August of Poland in dread of the assault of the Moscow tsar. This began the so called Polish period in the history of Latvia. Afterwards came the Livonian war with Stephen Bathory as the victor and the incorporation of independent Riga followed by the re-Catholicization of the Lutheran Riga and Livonia forced by the Polish king and his famous envoy Piotr Skarga, SJ. These events did not affect the Duchy of Courland which remained, until the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, under feudatory dependence on the Polish ruler at the same time enjoying a degree of autonomy. At the outset of the 17th century, the Latvian land was the scene of the Polish-Swedish war which had a decisive influence on its future. In the twenty-year-long warfare, which enfeebled the country and was famous for the glorious and victorious Battle of Kircholm, strikes the indecisiveness of Latvian peasantry which remained impartial when two opposing, foreign armies and rulers were struggling in their land. According to the Polish historical sources, Polish peasants backed Swedes; Swedish history, on the other hand, maintains that they supported Poles. The answer is far from simple. The peasants being the lowest social class behaved differently depending on the circumstances. If robbed and violated by the bypassing army, they fought back any detachment that seemed hostile. To speak of a uniform attitude of the Latvian nation of the time would certainly be a misunderstanding. In 1621 Swedes seized Riga and in 1629 a new alliance was concluded in Stary Targ (Altmarkt) which ruled that Riga and greater part of Livonia (today – Vidzeme) remained Swedish and today’s Latgalia Polish. That artificial division of Livonia underlay the incompatibilities which have been dividing the inhabitants of these lands ever since. The Polish influences in Vidzeme were slender and were totally erased by Swedes. On the other hand, Latgalia, also named Polish Livonia, remained under Polish sway also until 1772 and after when this area was incorporated into Russia as a consequence of the First Partition of Poland. Thus, the Polish language and culture permeated into Latgalia to the greatest extent. In this area, the historical threads of the Polish and Latvian nation meet and intertwine. An outstanding factor and indicator of Latgalian identity was certainly Roman Catholic religion.

herb Inflant

Livonian coat of arms

Herb Lotwa

Latvian coat of arms

Having been annexed to Russia in the 18th century, Latgalia retained the Livonian coat of arms granted by Sigismund August in 1566. In the 20th century, one of its details – a silver griffin – was embedded into the national emblem of independent Latvia in the recognition of Polish contribution to the country’s history. Many of the former liegemen of the Teutonic Order in Latgalia became entirely Polonized. Today’s Polish families of Platers, Zybergs, Borchs, Manteuffels, Mols and others have their roots in present-day Latvia. The families took an active part in the Polish 19th century uprisings, for example, Emilia Plater. In 1863 the involvement of the Latgalia landowners in the January Insurrection brought severe Russian repression aimed at the liquidation of Poles of Latgalia. Polishness in Latgalia, however, survived partly owing to a coincidence. In the second half of the 19th century, during the Russification of Latgalia many Latvian peasants became Polonized due to the lack of Latvian national affiliation and strong attachment to Roman Catholic religion, or else, “to Polish Church”. In many cases, peasants literally felt drawn to the nobility who would often hire teachers who taught Polish to peasants’ children besides the gentry’s. For peasants it was unacceptable to convert to the Orthodox religion and speak Russian as required by the Russian authorities. Polish was also the language of the Church. A well-known Polish socialist born in Latgalia, Bolesław Limanowski, confirms that as a child heard old peasants from Latvian villages bordering his father’s property spoke Latvian. By contrast, young peasants spoke Polish or Belarusian. This means that today’s Polish minority in Latvia has very specific roots; however, it does not mean that its representatives are not Poles. It is merely a branch of the Polish nation of very specific origin. This origin testifies to the fact that the Polish-Latvian history and also present times are closely entwined and the local Poles are attached to the Latvian nation and land.

In the second half of the 19th century, the main Polish social life centres were large industrial cities, Riga and Liepaja. The number of their Poles grew steadily due to the influx of students to Riga Technical University (its graduate was later President Mościcki and other distinguished Poles) and junior high schools (Józef Piłsudski’s brother studied in Liepaja) also in Jelgava. Other immigrants were labourers and intelligentsia. Riga was the Polish centre. In the years 1878–1879, few Polish social organizations were established, including two academic associations of the Technical University – Arconia and Welecja; they have been existing until today but now are seated in Warsaw.

The Polish reaction in Latvia to the 1905 Russian Revolution was uneven although, unlike German nobility, Polish landowners displayed greater understanding of Latvian approach. Few Polish noblemen from Riga took an active part in the revolution which, as it was in Poland, had a particularly rough character in the Baltic provinces. For example, in summer 1905 Ludwik Borowski under a pseudonym “Lord” joined one of the most audacious operations of Latvian fighters who attacked the Riga penal complex and freed some inmates. This can be justified by the historical attitude of Poles to Tsarism and suffered repressions. After the revolution, the same Tsarism was forced to temper the political system and establish the National Duma (local parliament). In consequence, some local Poles undertook bolder social actions, especially in Riga where a number of new Polish organizations were created, including 6 Polish elementary schools and two private junior high schools. On the other hand, some Latgalia landowners were elected to the National Duma where they cooperated in the same parliamentary club with Poles from Lithuania and Belarus.

Soon, the Great War broke out and completely redirected the history of Latvians and Poles to the new course. After the dissolution of the empires in November 1918, the Polish state was reborn and Latvian created. The Polish-Latvian relations throughout the entire interwar period might be perceived in two dimensions: international relations between the Latvian Republic and the Republic of Poland and the closely connected aspect of the activity of Polish minority in Latvia. As for the first dimension, it must be noted that the governing cooperation principles that surfaced in the preliminary period of these relations underlay the positions of both states in the region in the whole discussed time. The Polish-Latvian relations date back to 1919. The most momentous event of this cooperation was winter 1920, i.e. the Polish military assistance in the successful liberation of Latgalia from the Red Army.

Owing to the complex circumstances, the 1920 idea of a union of the Baltic states based on the triangle Warsaw–Kovno–Riga suffered first failure. The de iure recognition of Latvia by Poland in January 1921 concluded the initial period of the evolution of Polish-Latvian relations. Subsequently, the relations followed the pattern of total equality and impartiality.

All things considered, the relations between Poland and Latvia – the most influential neighbour positively disposed towards the independence of Baltic states – were initially very multifaceted. We can distinguish few stages of their development depending on the existing military and political condition in this region of Eastern Europe. All the countries of the region – the ones that endured the war, those that regained independence and those created after the disintegration of the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary – were to exist in the Europe totally distorted by the war and revolution. What added to the gravity of the situation was the lack of delimitated borders. The new political map of Europe was under construction and the process was highly determined by the military factor.

The level of Polish-Latvian relations was much diversified and, especially in the years 1919–1920, i.e. war and post-war conditions, their character was often rough and distinct. The fluctuations depended upon the military situation in the region, the relations with other states (Lithuania, Soviet Russia, Germany) and the Entente powers, let alone the dissimilar military and political objectives of both states conditioned by the size of their territories, populations, and what follows the influence in the system of the European states. Of certain import was also the activity and unfriendly attitude of the Polish nobility in Latgalia and Polish minority in general to the new Latvian state (Poland did not have Latvian minority or even an influential Latvian ethnic group).

All the mentioned factors did affect the Polish-Latvian relations started in 1919. They were founded on deep interest of both parties in mutual cooperation – both military and political. Generally speaking, the Polish-Latvian partnership in the years 1919–1920 was particularly beneficial for the latter. Owing to the support and direct diplomatic and even military assistance of Poland, Latvia was recognized internationally (initially de facto, and later de iure). Additionally, the Latvian lands were free and united. It is necessary to note that the direct and indirect support of Poland quieted Lithuanian claims to some of the Latvian territory. In specific historical periods and processes the invaluable and disinterested Polish help to the nascent Latvian state provided the foundation to amicable relations in the years to follow. Then, according to the Polish historian P. Łossowski, both states of no past cooperation experience were made to co-exist as neighbours and to surmount any suspicion. Although the Latvian suspicion did not entirely disappear in the period before the World War II, the Polish support and assistance in the years 1919–1920 have always testified to the generally favourable attitude of Poland to the idea of independent Latvia.

The main obstacles in the close cooperation of the Baltic states were the abovesaid distinct national interests and various, sometimes conspicuous, conflicts. Other, higher forms of cooperation were regular international conferences whose participants endeavoured to find common ground and joint stance on the Soviet Russia and general international processes. The conferences primarily served the exchange of information and the manifestation of some windows of cooperation.

Partly due to the reasons discussed above, the Polish-Latvian relations did not follow the accepted line of the Polish government and especially of Józef Piłsudski, who was personally in charge of many foreign affairs. However, owing to the existing local military and political conditions, Poland managed to take advantage of and even fuel the festering problems and misunderstandings between Latvia and anti-Polish Lithuania. This was achieved in defiance of state Lithuanian interest by the establishment of the Polish-Latvian border. This isolated Lithuania from the Soviet state. The Polish-Latvian border of the interwar period (104 km long) provided new cooperation opportunities for both states. Simultaneously, this situation translated onto the disgruntlement of the Lithuanian government, additionally inflamed by the Polish-Lithuanian conflict about Vilnius and vague and at times two-faced attitude of Latvia on this matter. Latvia’s objective was to maintain relatively positive relations with both mutually hostile neighbours – Lithuania and Poland. In fact, the existence of both these states was considered to be the assurance of Latvian independence. This course of action can be understood if undertaken by small states, but if a larger state pursues such a policy without being threatened by some other party, this may signal the intention of influencing or turning against neighbouring states. As far as Latvia is concerned, such a policy was aimed to safeguard, even at high cost, independence which had not been yet acknowledged in the international forum; another reason was the intent to maintain political balance between feuding and more or less friendly neighbouring states; if willing to cooperate, they might prospectively provide security for the whole region. The Latvian policy in question was particularly transparent in the case of Gen. Żeligowski’s operations in Vilnius and during secret talks on ceasefire with the Soviet Russia, and the related peace treaty with this state. Analyzing the Polish-Latvian relations in the years 1919–1920 and bearing in mind the overall situation, the reasons become evident of why both states were so restrained about rapprochement and the establishment of a defensive union of Baltic states, which might have radically divert the events of 1939–1940. Therefore, in the present day we need to study the distant past between the two world wars scientifically and objectively in order to avoid the repetition of past mistakes when each threatened state sought solution only in prioritizing their own narrow interests and neglecting the implication of mutual understanding and depolarization.

All in all, the Polish-Latvian relations should be regarded as correct and versatile with the exception of a 1931 incident. Poland unofficially recalled her envoy in Latvia, Mirosław Arciszewski. This was caused by the condition of the Polish minority, or rather a disparate opinion of both states on this condition. The issue was adjusted by way of mutual concessions. Bilateral relations ceased in September 1939. The seat of Latvian diplomatic mission in Warsaw burned and the authoritarian Latvian government fearing the invasion notified the Polish envoy of “the relations being pro tem suspended”. In September 1939, a considerable number of Polish soldiers were interned in Latvia – a neutral state – in accordance with international law. The international status of Latvia was radically altered in October 1939 when it became dependent on the USSR and hosted the Soviet military bases. Nevertheless, Latvian authorities treated the interned with due care and offered them humane conditions until the loss of independence in favour of the USSR in summer 1940. This attitude was resultant from the amicable approach of Latvian authorities to Poland and Poles and positive relations of the former years. On the other hand, the abrupt and unilateral termination of diplomatic relations with Poland by the authoritarian Latvian government was not easily explainable from political point of view, was certainly premature and compromised the principles of declared neutrality.

In independent Latvia Poles were the fourth most numerous minority (third after the relocation of the Baltic Germans to occupied Poland under the German-Soviet agreement) after Russians, Germans and Jews.

All the minorities in 1934 enjoyed almost unrestrained freedom in the development of political and social activity, education, press, etc. Germans, Jews, Russians and Poles had their representatives in the Latvian parliament – the Saeim. Some changes were instituted after the May 1934 military coup when Prime Minister K. Ulmanis used the arguments against the democratic system in Latvia to suspend the sittings of the parliament and institute authoritarian rule. One of his endeavours was the Latvianisation of all spheres of state’s and citizens’ activity, including minorities which, however, were permitted to continue their educative and social activity.

The Latvian census of 1920 recorded 52,244 Poles (3.4% of overall population). Out of this number 40,782 persons were Latvian citizens. Among the residents of Riga there were 7,935 Poles (4.3% of the entire population), in Liepaja – 2,904 (5.6%), Daugavpils – 8,178 (28.3%), Griva – 855 (34.8%), Kraslava – 506 (14.2%), Rezekne – 1,231 (12.3%). Most poles – 72.7% – in 1920 were employed in farming (mainly in Latgalia and the Ilūkste Poviat). Industry employed only 10.4%, transport – 4.2%. The percentage of literate ones among Poles in 1920 was relatively low (57.7%) but in 1935 reached 82.0%. In 1920 Latvian was spoken by 29.4% Poles (mostly the residents of Riga and Liepāja), but in 1935 this number rose several times. At the end of 1921, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that from among Poles dwelling in Latgalia only few dozen have higher education, few hundred – middle education and the remaining ones were not recorded; there were many illiterates; correct Polish is spoken only at church; in towns Poles speak a mixture of Polish and Russian, in the country – Belarusian. The ministry attributed this to Russian repression, which is only partly true. The process of the mixing of different nationalities in Latgalia, caused by many factors, also played a role. Its integral part was the Polonization and Russification of the Latvian and Belarusian peasantry. The proof of this phenomenon was a substantial number of Polish names among the Polish school graduates in the 1920s and 1930s in Latvia. Those Polonized manifested strong opposition to the Latvian authorities’ attempts at Latvianization. This means that despite their inherited names many of them – as opposed to the frequent instances of the so called “locals”, the people without specified national consciousness – considered themselves Poles and displayed national awareness and Polish mentality. They were a peculiar Latvian stem of the Polish nation with their own unique history.

In the 1920s and 1930s and earlier, some Polish scientists and politicians overstated the number of Poles in Latvia up to 80,000 and even 120,000 for political reasons. The local conditions were not taken into account in which the ethnically-unaware peasantry in 1897 associated Catholicism with Polishness. Besides, some more factors were neglected, i.e. the elevation of Latvian national consciousness in the 1910s and the outflow of many Poles during and after the Great War. On the other hand, Latvian authorities claimed that in the 1921 census the number of Poles had been artificially raised by way of some external factors. However, the censuses in the 1920s and 1930s should be regarded as fairly objective and reflecting the actual state of affairs.

The multi-cause fluctuation in the number of Latvian Poles was not glaring and they accounted for about 3% of the population. This number was not overwhelming, albeit in Latgalia, which was home to half of Latvian Poles, some traditions of religious and social life developing under Polish influences were still preserved. Over 50% of Latvian Poles dwelled in urban areas: the most in Riga – 16,571 (4.4% of the capital inhabitants). Until 1940 there had been a constant growth of Poles among the Latvian citizens. In 1935 there were 42,390 Poles (86.6%). However, the actual number of Poles residing in Latvia in the 1930s was greater if we include farm workers coming from Poland for temporary of permanent stay and not officially registered. Upon the outbreak of the World War II, there were 26,000 such people in Latvia, some intending to remain for good.

As early as in 1919, Poles had the representation in the Latvian provisional legislative body – Latvian National Council; from 1922 on Poles had been present in all Latvian parliamentary terms. Polish representatives were elected to the self-governments of Riga, Liepaja, Daugavpils and smaller towns and communes of Latgalia. As motioned by the Polish envoi in Latvia in 1922, on the occasion of the first Saeim election, Poles established the Polish Assocaition in Latvia – the only political organisation in the country (in 1932 it was renamed as Polish National Union in Latvia). The votes collected by the Polish electoral list was gradually increasing, yet it never exceeded 17,000 (two seats in the parliament). The Member of Parliament J. Wierzbicki held the position of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs for a few years. The Polish National Union, together with other organisations, was dissolved after the 1934 coup. From 1922 to 1940, a number of Polish press titles were coming out.

In 1919 independent Latvia permitted Polish education – elementary schools, from the early 1920s three junior high schools, and later one vocational school. In 1921 the Ministry of Education created the Polish Educational Board which supervised Polish schools until 1934 (after the 1934 coup only appropriate officers were employed in the ministry). The year 1931 opened with the largest number of Polish schools – 49, and learners – 5,992. Later, the numbers dwindled and in 1939 they were 18 and 2,149 respectively. The majority of Polish graduates of junior high schools continued their education in Latvian or Polish universities.

Of particular earnestness was the social and cultural activity. Initially, it was the domain of charitable, educational and Catholic movements – later supported by youth, musical, professional (teachers), farming and sports organisation. From 1934 there were annual sporting events for Latvian Poles. There was a Polish theatre and few puppet theatres. At the beginning of the 1920s, Polish scouting was formed. These organisations preserved steady relations with Poland (in particular with Vilnius). In 1938 the Association of Latvian Poles was instituted gathering over 3,400 people and guiding Polish social life. Polish organisations attached much attention to the dissemination of patriotism – in which they were mostly successful.

It was during the war for liberation when many Poles enlisted in the Latvian army. Nine were awarded the highest military decorations for heroism. In peacetime, Poles were active participants of the social life of Latvia offering their talents as artists, painters, etc.

With the outbreak of the World War II, the Polish social activity in Latvia was not suppressed, despite the evacuation of the diplomatic mission. Quite the contrary, Polish organisations intensified their operations, including clandestine ones, and provided the Polish was refugees in Latvia with both legal and illegal assistance. Owing to the help of local Poles, many interned Polish refugees managed to flee to Sweden. In the first days of September 1939 few young Poles volunteered to the Polish Army but the Polish diplomatic mission was made to reject them. Later, this youth established a clandestine organization, the Liberation of Poland.

In June 1940 Latvia fell under the Red Army occupation and in August was incorporated into the USSR. In July and August, first NKVD repression began against Latvian citizens considered a threat to the Soviet authority. It also affected numerous Poles who, like many Latvians, were grief-stricken and anxious about the occupation. Among the arrested, exiled and executed citizens there were many Polish priests, social activists, ex-officers of the Latvian Army, policemen, aizsargs. In 1940 the Soviets banned al most all social organisations, including minority initiatives. Only the minority schools were able to continua their operation. On 22 June 1941, Germany assaulted the USSR, which put Latvians in a new and unfamiliar, yet tragic and ghastly situation. The German census of 1943 revealed that the Latvian district was inhabited by 38,191 Poles – much fewer than after the previous census in 1935. Meanwhile, Poles were not particularly migrating. Quite the contrary, in 1943 in Latvia there was a group of former Polish farm workers who had failed to register as permanent residents as they were foreigners. Hence the conclusion that under German occupation it was more convenient for many Poles (or individuals of unspecified nationality who, for some reasons, declared Polish citizenship) to pretend Belarusians (their number in 1943 reached 40,699), Lithuanians (24,158 people) or Latvians.

German authorities were favourably inclined towards anti-Bolshevik social and political activity in Russian and Belarusian communities; by contrast, they were explicitly hostile towards the Polish minority. Only in autumn 1943 the authorities consented to the opening of few elementary schools in Riga and Latgalia. The attitude of Latvian Poles to the occupant was adamant. In 1941 they were eagerly joining Polish underground movement. Latvia had a Polish secret intelligence structure under the Union for Active Struggle, later Home Army. Of particular weight were the operations of the sabotage group Wachlarz. Many Poles were arrested by the Gestapo, executed or confined to concentration camps.

The circumstances in Latvia during the World War II had an impact on the Latvian Poles’ attitude to Germans. The decisive factor was the Soviet repressions of 1940 and 1941. In June and July 1941, Germans – the established and historical enemy of Latvians – were for the first time in history greeted in Latvia as liberators, by both Latvians and Latvian Poles. According to the testimony of the Polish social activist N. Liberys, Poles accepted the Soviet defeat with relief. At the onset of the occupation, Latvia hoped that Germans would return its independence and the relatives of the victims of Soviet tyranny would be able to seek revenge in continuing the guerrilla war or later serving as policemen. Many Polish soldiers of the 24th Red Army Territorial Corps formed from the former Latvian Army joined the partisan forces in summer 1941 to chase the Soviet detachments in retreat. Surprisingly and sensationally, a number of Polish volunteers enrolled in the supporting police units. At the beginning of 1943, a series of failures in the front triggered the organisation of the so called Latvian Legion. Almost all Latvian citizens – Latvians and Russians – were forced to join the legion or were called to arms. Likewise, many Poles who were registered as Latvians during the 1935 census shared their neighbour’s lot. There was also a group of Poles who enlisted in this military structure on their own.

All things considered, the Poles of Latvia treated both German and Soviet regime with outright and equal hostility. At the closing stages of the war, numerous Poles and thousands of Latvians left their homeland and headed for the west seeking shelter from Soviet occupation. After the war, a large number of the refugees remained in Western Europe and some in Poland. Those who stayed in Latvia were exposed to further Soviet repression. It is worth noting that Poles represented a significant force in the Latvian anti-Soviet underground guerrilla army. Besides, they were the only nationality group which had their own guerrilla detachments. In 1944 and 1945, a military unit commanded by a local farmer Worsław operated in the Kaplava Commune and later in western Belarus.

After the war, the Polish minority in Latvia was a factor in Polish-Latvian relations. From all the minorities in Latvia, only the number of Poles remained roughly unchanged after the war (in 1959 – 52.8 thousand, 1970 – 63 thousand, 1979 – 62.7 thousand, 1989 – 60.4 thousand). However, due to Russification and colonization of Latvia, the percentage of Poles decreased from 2.8% in 1959 to 2.3% in 1989. Since 1979 Poles has been again the fourth largest community in Latvia after Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. A number of Poles arrived to Latvia from western Belarus and western Ukraine.

Poles in Latvia together with Latvians and other local national groups were subject to Russification and Sovietisation. After 1949, when the last Polish school was closed down, only Latvian and Russian didactic centres were left. In Latgalia there were vast areas where children were able to attend only Russian schools. During the Soviet rule, Latvian Poles under went a twofold process: in Riga, Liepaja and other towns they were Latvianised due to the direct exposure to Latvian influences. On the other hand, chiefly in w Latgalia, the local Poles, Latvians and other nations were doomed to mass Russification. The effects of this policy have been observable until today; in some communes there are Russian-speaking communities of Catholic denomination. This mostly pertains to the middle-aged and young generation. It is often the case that the people of Polish descent speak Polish only at home or even use the mixture of Polish, Russian and Belarusian. In 1959 55.3% Poles admitted to Polish being their mother tongue; in 1970 – 32.5%, and in 1979 – only 21.1%. At the same time, increasingly more Poles accepted Russian as their mother tongue (in 1970 – 37.7%, in 1979 – 44.7%). In 1989 only 16,520 Poles spoke Polish. The remaining ones spoke Russian (32,734), Latvian (8,895), Belarusian (1,766), Ukrainian (310), other (191). All in all, 37.6% of Poles used Latvian, 87.9% Russian and 27.1% Polish. It is worth noting that among Ukrainians and Belarusians the knowledge of their mother tongue has always been relatively poor.

It was possible only under perestroika in the USSR to revive the social and political life of the national minorities in Latvia. Poles led the way in this revival beginning with 1988. Together with Latvians they struggled for Latvian independence which was successfully regained in August 1991. Currently, there are few Polish organisations in Latvia publishing their periodicals, 6 Polish state schools – in Riga (also high school), Daugavpils, Rezekne, Kraslava and Jekabpils and Polish scouting. Nevertheless, only about 1,500 people take an active part in Polish social life and the Polish schools are attended by 800 children. These numbers are not staggering, yet promising; hopefully, the Polish minority in Latvia will remain an integral element of the life of Latvia which has always been home to this specific branch of the Polish nation. This element is also a crucial factor in the development and preservation of good Polish-Latvian relations.