The Abrene region was long a point of contact and friction between the Finno-Ugric, Baltic, and Slavic languages, cultures, tribes, and countries. The Russian name for the town and region, Pytalovo, probably derives from the Finno-Ugric tulva, "tributary, flood"; the region was part of Tolowa (or Tholowa; Latvian: Tālava), a kingdom of the northern Latgalians, which for a period paid tribute to Mstislav the Brave of Smolensk (from ca. 1180); the area became part of Livonia in 1224.
In 1270s the area became a part of Livonia. The Balts east of a slight ridge at Viļaka were gradually Russified from the 15-16th centuries, but the philologists August Johann Gottfried Bielenstein and Kārlis Mīlenbahs, conducting linguistic field research in the area in the late 19th and early 20th century, found that many people, called "Russian Latvians" by the local Russians, still spoke the High Latvian dialect.
After the Bolsheviks were driven from what is now Latvia and Soviet Russia recognized Latvia's independence, in August 1920, it proved impossible to draw the border precisely along ethnographic lines because of the multicultural character of the borderlands; once the frontier was negotiated (the border was not finalized until April 7th, 1923), large communities of Latvians were left on the Russian side and large Russian and Belarusian communities were left on the Latvian side. Strategic concerns also played a part, because of an important railway junction within the Abrene region. The historian Edgars Andersons explains (in Latvijas vēsture 1914-1920 [Stockholm: Daugava, 1976]): "Especially in the north, the Russians had agreed to the Latvians' strategic demands, not complaining about the ethnographic principle having been disregarded. Several civil parishes were completely Russian."
The population of the entire district in the census of 1935, divided by ethnicity, was as follows: 60,145 Latvians, 45,885 Russians, 1,558 Jews and 648 Belarusians. The demographics differed sharply on either side of the Viļaka ridge, which bisects the district -- the eastern civil parishes had small ethnic Latvian minorities: 17% in Kacēnu pagasts, 5% in Linavas pagasts, 32% in Purvmalas pagasts, 5% in Augšpils pagasts, and 4% in Gauru pagasts. The civil parishes immediately to the west had strong Latvian majorities, ranging from 71% in Šķilbēnu pagasts to 91% in Viļakas pagasts. The town of Abrene itself, which developed around the Pytalovo railroad station, had 1,242 inhabitants, 484 of them ethnic Latvians.
The inhabitants held Latvian citizenship regardless of ethnicity. Parliamentary Latvia pursued a liberal policy of multiculturalism, guaranteeing education in minority languages from 1919. Modern schools providing bilingual instruction in Latvian, Russian, Belarusian, Yiddish and Latgalian were constructed (by 1936 there were 162 primary schools and 3 secondary schools in the district). The Latvianization policies of the authoritarian president Kārlis Ulmanis resulted in curtailing multiculturalism after 1934. Many minority schools were closed. The Abrene district as a whole differed from most of Latvia by religion, too -- it was 48% Orthodox, 38% Catholic, and 12% Lutheran.
With the Soviet occupation in 1940, the German invasion in 1941, the Holocaust, the return of Soviet forces in 1944, and the illegal mobilization of Latvian citizens by both occupying powers, severe demographic changes took place. The transfer of the eastern part of the district to the RSFSR was decided by a decree from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, based on a request by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR, in violation of even Soviet law (the 1936 constitution then in force required that changes in internal borders be confirmed by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, not the Presidium). Though the official documents transfer 1075.31 square kilometers, 1293.6 square kilometers were actually transferred.
The transfer was not formally finalized until 1946. The territory was subjected to forcible collectivization, accompanied by rampant robbery and destruction, including the demolition of farmsteads and mass mortality among livestock. Kulaks, nationalists, and "bandits" (often those accused of being Forest Brothers) were deported with their families (2728 persons in early 1949 and 1563 persons in May 1950), primarily to Krasnoyarsk. Officials from Russia proper replaced local administrators even at the village level, and even some who had fought for the Soviets were mistreated. In these circumstances, large numbers of people left for the Latvian SSR. Today there are substantial communities of former residents and their descendants in Balvi and Rīga. The former civil parishes joined to Russia are almost totally delatvianized.
The Latvian Foreign Ministry has reiterated "that Latvia has no territorial claims to the Russian Federation," however, and though there is some opposition (particularly among right wing parties) to formally ceding the Abrene region, surveys show that most Latvians don't believe that the transferred territory will ever again be administered by Latvia. Many in Latvia -- especially the former residents of the areas now in Russia -- are interested in seeking compensation from the Russian Federation, though. Currently, the Republic of Latvia compensates those who lost property. The former residents also complain of the difficulty of visiting their family graves, asking that the Latvian and Russian governments facilitate border procedures. Despite Latvia's assurances that it makes no territorial claims, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that Latvian wishes to get control of the area and that such claims are against the spirit of Europe. On April 29, 2005, Latvia announced that it would sign an interpretative declaration in conjunction with the proposed border agreement with Russia, noting that the border agreement would in no way affect "the legal rights of the Latvian state and its citizens" under the 1920 treaty. As a consequence, Russia scrapped the border agreement, as it saw this as attempt to prolong debate on Abrene.