The Livonians or Livs are the indigenous inhabitants of Livonia, a large part of what is today the northwestern Latvia and southwestern Estonia. Unlike the ethnic Latvians, Lithuanians, and most of the other peoples of Europe they do not speak an Indo-European language, but speak the Finno-Ugric Livonian language, a western Finno-Ugric language which is closely related to Estonian and Finnish.
Historical, social and economic factors, together with the ethnically dispersed population, have resulted in the dimunition of the Livonian population, with only a small group surviving in the 21st century. According to the 2000 census there were only 177 Livonians in Latvia.
The Livonians referred to themselves as rāndalist ("coast dwellers"), which indeed they were, supporting themselves mainly with fishing, but also with agriculture and animal husbandry. Since they controlled an important trade route, the river Daugava (Livonian: Väina), their culture was highly developed through trade with the Gotlanders, Russians, and Finns, and, from the end of the first millennium A.D. onwards, with the Germans, Swedes, and Danes.
However, along with the traders came missionaries from Western Europe who wanted to convert the pagan Livonians to Christianity. In 1201, the Bishop Albert von Buxhövden founded the City of Riga as a Christian settlement at the mouth of the river Daugava. When this did not immediately induce the Livonians, Estonians, and Baltic peoples in its hinterland to convert, a knightly order was formed, the Knights of the Sword, primarily consisting of Germans, to bring salvation to the pagans by force. In a campaign which was a part of the wars known as the Northern Crusades, these knights defeated, subdued and converted the Livonians in 1206 and 1207. Afterwards they had to join the Knights of the Sword as infantry during the wars against the Estonians and the Latvian tribes, which continued until 1217.
During the Livonian Crusade, once prosperous Livonia was devastated, and whole regions were almost completely depopulated. This vacuum was filled by Latvian tribes - Curonians, Semigallians, Latgallians and Selonians - which started to move into the area around 1220, and continued to do so for at least thirty years. They settled mostly in the Daugava Valley, so that the Livonians of Livonia in the East were cut off from those living on the Peninsula of Curonia in the West.
Because of the ongoing resistance of the Latvian tribes, the Knights of the Sword eventually had to look for support to the much more powerful Teutonic Order, which up until then was active primarily in Poland and Lithuania. Having been reorganised as a subdivision of the Teutonic Order and renamed the Livonian Order in 1237, the former Knights of the Sword finally overpowered the Curonians in 1267, and subsequently the Semigallians in 1290. From then on most of Latvia remained under German control until the 16th Century, with the City of Riga and several other cities forming independent, German-ruled bishoprics and the Livonian Order ruling the rest of the land.
After only ten years of rest an entirely new series of wars ravaged Livonia from 1592, between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden, which had claimed Estonia after the Livonian War. Eventually the Swedes were victorious, and in 1629 they could finally call Livonia and the City of Riga their own. In Estonia and Livonia the period of Swedish rule is still looked back upon as a kind of golden age. Although it is part of a long history of foreign occupation the Swedes did much to help their subjects in the Baltic region. For example, under the 17th Century Swedish Kings Gustav II Adolf and Charles XI general elementary education was introduced, the Bible was translated in Estonian and Latvian, and a university was founded in Tartu, in southern Estonia.
Although Sweden kept the Poles and also the Danes at a distance, this could not be said of the Russians. In the Great Northern War (1700-1721) Czar Peter the Great utterly destroyed Sweden's pretensions to being a regional superpower. And in the Treaty of Nystad (1721), Estonia and Livonia, which were at that point after more than twenty years of war again completely devastated, were claimed by Russia. Curonia continued to be ruled by its Dukes for another three quarters of a century, but in 1795 that region also became a Russian possession as part of the Third Partition of Poland.
Across the Gulf of Riga, in Curonia, the Livonian language and culture also came under heavy pressure, but here it retained a last foothold on the outermost tip of the Curonian Peninsula. Several factors made sure that in this area, known as Līvõd rānda, the Livonian Coast, Latvian culture was too weak to assimilate the Livonians. For one thing, the society of the Livonians living in this area was exclusively sea-oriented and based on fishing, while that of the Latvians in the interior was exclusively land-oriented and mostly agricultural. This distinction meant there was not a lot of interaction between the two groups. Also, the Livonian Coast was separated from the interior of the Peninsula of Curonia by dense forests and impassable marshlands, which made interaction on a regular basis even less likely. Actually the people of the Livonian Coast had much closer ties to the inhabitants of the Estonian island of Saaremaa, across the Gulf of Riga to the North. In their isolated fishing villages these Livonians kept themselves to themselves for centuries. It was not until the 20th Century that the outside world intruded in their quiet existence.
The Russian defeat and the subsequent abdication of Czar Nicholas II opened the door for Lenin and the communists to make a grab for power in Russia, leading to the establishment of the Soviet government in Russia in 1917. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the following year ended the war between Germany and Soviet Russia and left the Baltic region firmly in German hands. However, after the German capitulation in 1919, the Baltic peoples rose up and established the independent republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
This cultural revival of the Interbellum years served to give the Livonian people for the first time a clear consciousness of it own ethnic identity. Before, they had always referred to themselves as rāndalist ("coast dwellers") or kalāmīed ("fishermen"). From the twenties and thirties on, though, they began to call themselves līvõd, līvnikad, or līvlist ("Livonians").
Livonian culture was repressed during the Soviet period. For example, the Livonian Society was banned and the Livonian Community Centre expropriated and given to others. Within the Latvian SSR, the Livonians were not recognised as a separate ethnic group.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvia became again an independent country. In this new nation the Livonians were finally recognised as an indigenous ethnic minority, whose language and culture must be protected and advanced. All rights and possessions which were taken away from them during the Soviet era were now returned to them. For example, the old Livonian Community Centre in Mazirbe (Irē) was given back and transformed into a historical museum, called the House of the Livonian People. Also, the Livonian language was reintroduced in the elementary schools in the villages of the Livonian Coast, though this time not as an optional subject, but as a mandatory one.
Furthermore, on February 4th 1992, the Latvian government created a cultural historic protected territory called Līvõd rānda - the Livonian Coast - which included all twelve of the Livonian villages: Lūžņa (Livonian: Lūž), Miķeļtornis (Pizā), Lielirbe (Īra), Jaunciems (Ūžkilā), Sīkrags (Sīkrõg), Mazirbe (Irē), Košrags (Kuoštrõg), Saunags (Sǟnag), Vaide (Vaid), Kolka (Kūolka), Pitrags (Pitrõg), and Melnsils (Mustānum). The Latvian government discourages settlement of ethnic Latvians and other non-Livonians in this area and prohibits alterations to historic village sites. Also, it is prohibited for anyone to start a hotel, restaurant, or other public establishment which might adversely influence the Livonian culture or draw outsiders into the area.
Today, many Latvians have some Livonian ancestry. However, there are only 2,000 people who identify themselves as Livonian, 1,700 of whom live in the twelve villages of the Livonian Coast, while another 300 live elsewhere in Latvia, mostly in the capital Riga, but with some in cities in Western Latvia, like Ventspils, Talsi, and Dundaga. According to data from 1995, the Livonian language was spoken by no more than 35 elderly people, of whom only 15 to 20 spoke it fluently. An article published by the Foundation for Endangered Languages in 2007 stated that there were only 182 registered Livonians and a mere six native speakers.