Marjo Mela, The Estonians on the Latvian Borderland.
Estonians are one of the oldest minorities in Latvia. The original Estonians living in the area
which today is part of Latvia were the Leivu people. The Lutsi (another Estonian tribe) were
probably brought as serfs to the Ludza area in the 18th century. In 2008 there were only 2 400
Estonians left in Latvia as this minority has been assimilated very quickly.
Migration from Estonia to Latvia began gradually in the 1860s when it became possible to
buy land in Latvia. Buying land was almost impossible in Estonia and, besides, many Latvian
manor house owners favoured Estonians and preferred to sell land to them rather than to Latvians.
Estonians lived mostly around Ainazi; Rujiena,the Valka district, Ape and Aluksne. They were
mainly farmers and gardeners; the landless people were for the most part field workers. It was
a common way to earn money for buying land by working in factories in Riga and Pskov areas.
This migration gave many Estonians an opportunity to social rising. In Estonia most of them had
been landless agrarian workers, in Latvia they were farmers.
The number of Estonians in Latvia reached its highest point before the First World War.
The first generation was linguistically Estonian but the second one was generally bilingual.
Estonians had problems with preserving their mother tongue and identity in the 19th century.
Rapid assimilation started really in the second generation as Estonians got often married with
people of Latvian, Russian or German origin. The determining factor of their language skills was
the choice of language or languages they spoke at home and what other languages they were
using to communicate with people outside home.
During the Soviet Era the Estonians led a quiet life in retreat and the Estonian language was
spoken only within the domestic walls. The Estonian Society and the schools were suppressed.
The Estonians, like many other ethnic groups, lacked all linguistical or cultural rights which, in
the main, were granted to Russians only.
Today only 30 % of Estonians in Latvia speak Estonian as their native language and they are
mostly elderly people. The one part of them speaks a southern variant of Estonian (vőru) and the
other part speaks the northern variant of standard Estonian.
Adults from the Border area who had in the Soviet Era an opportunity to go to school on the
Estonian side of the border were native speakers of Estonian. Their knowledge of Latvian is at
the spoken level and depends on the dialect spoken in their living area. Their knowledge of the
written language is not always very good. The most problematic issues are the verb prefixies,
as in Latvian dialects the prefixed verbs are used in a different way than in the standard written
The Estonian schools (in Latvia) are Latvian-speaking schools where Estonian is a foreign
language. It was so from the very beginning. Part of the pupils have an Estonian background;
one of the grandparents being a Latvian Estonian. There are pupils who are entirely Latvian, but
their parents think that it is no good learning a little-spoken language. The Estonian schools are
also quite small and so, of course, are the school classes.
It is also very difficult to estimate the level of knowledge in the Estonian language among the
Latvian Estonians, because the adult people do not like to discuss the matter and all the children
know Latvian It is also very difficult to estimate the level of their language skills, because they
do not want to write anything in their halting Estonian. The level of the Estonian spoken by
children is rather low and for many of them Estonian is a wholly foreign language.
Today the Estonians living in Latvia are more and more Latvian speaking and most of them
feel Latvian, though some of them, of course, have a double identity. It is difficult to say whether
there is any future for the Estonian language in Latvia. It seems that there will not be so many
native speakers of Estonian, but there will probably be a certain number of people who know
Estonian as a second or foreign language.