Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Guest author Toby Screech travels to the heartland of the Livonian minority in Latvia to visit the their annual cultural festival. Not as grand as the main Latvian event in Riga, it is an altogether more intimate affair. And it reveals that the Livonian identity today is hardly more than the ephemeral memory of a once mighty realm.

article summary —

Wander along the gravel roads of northwest Latvia, through seemingly endless forests and rolling meadows, where tiny villages of scattered wooden houses with immaculate gardens (punctuated always by Soviet blocks of flats) slumber in utter isolation. Here you will find Cape Kolka (Kolkasrags), the land’s end separating the open Baltic to the west from the Gulf of Riga to the east. And you may notice that Kolka, and other place names nearby, are not Latvian. They are Livonian, the relics of a language that once spread far and wide.

One Livonian coastal village, oddly enough known by a Latvian name, Mazirbe, is the heart of Livonian culture. Here the Livonian House of the People was built in 1939. The plaque on the wall proudly announces that it was partly funded by their kindred races, the Estonians, Finns and Hungarians. For the Livonian language is completely alien to Latvian. The latter, though only distantly related to its Slavonic neighbours, is a member of the Indo-European family which includes almost every language spoken in a swathe of territory stretching from Bengal to Iceland. But Livonian is part of the Finno-Ugrian language group, which has its origins far to the east and includes Sami, Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian.

Mazirbe, with just over 100 residents, is one of the largest Livonian villages (the smallest, L?ž?a, has two). And it is in these coastal villages that the Livonians celebrate their annual cultural festival. There is traditional storytelling, there are specialities to eat and, as one would expect in Latvia, there is a lot of singing. Old and young present songs and dances on stage, indoors and out.

This is very different from the Latvians’ national folk song and dance festival (described in hidden europe 25), with its forty thousand performers and sumptuous costumes, which floods Riga for weeks. At Mazirbe, we saw just a few dozen performers, most of them in their everyday clothes. Although known all across Latvia, the Mazirbe festival retains the intimate, unfussy atmosphere of a village event. And just a few dozen people watched. But the small scale in no way detracts from the quality of the performance, or from the participants’ wholehearted and uncomplicated enjoyment.

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Toby Screech is a professional linguist who lives in Amsterdam and Liverpool.

This article was published in hidden europe 36.