On this date in 1991, Latvia asserted its independence from the Soviet Union. The Republic of Latvia was founded on November 18, 1918, after centuries of imperial rule. However, its independent status was interrupted at the outset of World War II when in 1940 the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, then re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian SSR for the next fifty years. The peaceful Singing Revolution, starting in 1987, called for Baltic emancipation from Soviet rule. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvia declared the restoration of its de facto independence on August 21, 1991.
The Latvians are a Baltic people, culturally related to the Lithuanians, but not Estonians. Together with the Finnic Livs (or Livonians), the Latvians are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian is an Indo-European language and, along with Lithuanian, the only surviving members of the Baltic branch. Indigenous minority languages are Latgalian and the nearly extinct Finnic Livonian language. Despite subjection to foreign rule from the 13th to the 20th centuries, the Latvian nation has maintained its identity throughout the generations, most notably the language, culture, and rich traditions of storytelling and music.
To my mind the Singing Revolution that led to the freedom of the Baltic states is one of the most extraordinary independence movements in history. The Singing Revolution is a commonly used name for events between 1987 and 1991 that led to the restoration of the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The term was coined by an Estonian activist and artist, Heinz Valk, in an article published a week after the June 10–11, 1988, spontaneous mass night-singing demonstrations of banned patriotic songs at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. Subsequently huge crowds throughout the Baltic states gathered to sing banned songs, at one point exceeding 300,000 people. There were also other peaceful actions, such as mass crowds forming human barriers to prevent the movement of Soviet tanks, and, a personal favorite, the Baltic Way, a 600 km (373 mi) long human chain of people holding hands from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius on August 23, 1989, expressing Baltic unity and opposition to Soviet rule. The Singing Revolution led to the bloodless separation of all three nations from Soviet Russia.
Latvia has a few curious claims to fame. For example, all Stolichnaya vodka that is sold for export, and prominently labeled RUSSIAN VODKA, is distilled and bottled in Latvia. Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet film maker was born in Latvia (although his parents were not Latvian, and he spent little of his boyhood there). Leor Dimant (Leors Dimants) better known as DJ Lethal, turn table master and producer for the Rap Metal band Limp Bizkit for fifteen years, was born in Latvia.
But arguably the most widespread influence of any Latvian was that of Jacob Davis (Jacob Youphes) who teamed up with Levi Strauss (Löb Strauß) to produce rivet pocket jeans. Strauss ran a dry goods store in San Francisco where Davis ran a tailoring business producing tents, wagon covers, and blankets. Davis bought fabric from Strauss for his business. In 1870 Davis expanded his line to produce denim work clothes, also using cloth from Strauss. He had been using rivets on horse blankets, and conceived the idea of using them on work clothes to reinforce the pockets because customers were frequently coming to buy extra materials to mend torn pockets. In 1872 Davis suggested that he and Strauss collaborate, and so on August 8th they jointly filed a patent (granted in 1873), with Davis providing the ideas and Strauss funding the application. Subsequently Davis became plant manager at the first Levi Strauss clothing factory. Blue jeans, hallmark of U.S. culture for decades, were the brainchild of a Latvian immigrant and his Bavarian partner.
Latvian cooking is rather basic, with little in the way of seasonings. Piragi, bacon and onion stuffed egg bread buns, are a popular dish. To make them you make an egg bread dough, let it rise once, knock it down and roll it into a sheet. Then cut out circles of the dough, place a tablespoon of chopped bacon and onion that has been gently fried into the center of the circle, fold over into a semi-circle and shape into a crescent. Let the buns rise, glaze with beaten egg, and bake in a hot oven (400°F/ 200°C) for 15 minutes, or until golden. A tasty snack that you can find throughout Latvia.
Silke Kažoka is also typical, but more formal. It is a complex dish made of layers of salt herrings and grated vegetables interlaced with horseradish flavored mayonnaise and garnished with boiled eggs. Quantities are deliberately approximate to suit your own tastes. Tinned herrings in oil will work in this dish.
400 gm salt herring filets in oil
4 small potatoes, boiled and peeled
1 large carrot, boiled and peeled
2 boiled eggs
2 medium beetroots, boiled and peeled
1 cooking apple, peeled and cored
400 ml mayonnaise
1 tbsp prepared horseradish
chopped green onion for garnish
Coarsely grate the potatoes, carrot, beetroot, and apple, and reserve on separate plates.
Mix together the mayonnaise and horseradish.
On an oval platter make a layer of grated potato. Spread over the potato a thin layer of mayonnaise
Next add a layer of the chopped herring slightly smaller than the layer of potatoes. As the layering process continues the idea is to create a shallow hill. Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise over the herring.
Continue the layering with the carrots and apple, with mayonnaise on top of each.
The beetroot layer comes next and should cover the top and sides of the “hill.” Spread mayonnaise over the beetroot and work it into the layer a little with a fork so that the mayonnaise takes on the color of the beetroot.
Separate the whites and yolks of the boiled eggs. Chop the yolks and cut the whites into short ribbons. Decorate the sides of the “hill” with the whites, and spread the yolks on the top.
Refrigerate for at least two hours. Garnish with green onions and serve.