Latvian media recently reported that the last native speaker of Livonian died in February. However, Livonians themselves believe he may not be the last.
"People have been talking about the last (native) Livonian (speaker) dying and suddenly it emerges that he is very far from the last," Valts Ernstreins, 34, one of the leaders of Latvia's Livonian Cultural Center told AFP. He says he knows of five native Livonian speakers living on three continents.
In Latvia, the recently deceased Viktors Bertholds belonged to the last generation of children who started their primary Latvian-language school as Livonian monolinguals.
Thought to be born in 1921, Bertholds avoided being mobilized in either the Soviet army which occupied Latvia in 1940 or German forces that took it over a year later. After Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Bertholds taught Livonian in children's summer camps.
"If you think about numbers, then of course, it does not look very good," says Ernstreins, who also owns a cozy store stuffed with Livonian paraphernalia in the Latvian capital, Riga.
Still he is stubbornly optimistic about the future of his tiny ethnic group: "The culture is going to live."
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Over the last two centuries, Livonians have enjoyed the support of their Finno-Ugric brothers – Estonia, Finland, and Hungary in their efforts to preserve Livonian.
The three countries helped to build Mazirbe's pride, the Livonian Community Center, in 1938.
A green-white-blue Livonian flag waves in the sea breeze outside the building today, a sight seen near many homes in Mazirbe. Among some young Latvians, it has become hip to learn Livonian and Livonians hope the trend will help them preserve the language.
"It's hard. I want to say something. I look in a dictionary, but there is no word. So you decide to speak or not to speak," says Janis Ertmanis, a 22-year-old student at the University of Latvia as he thumbs through a thin Livonian-Latvian dictionary.
Although Ertmanis has no Livonian blood, he is taking Livonian classes paid for by the government simply because he wants to learn more about the small nation. "I can be their friend, but I'll never be one of them," he reflects.
The Finnic Livonians inhabit the western Latvian region of Courland, bordering the Baltic Sea. At one point, the Livonians likely formed the southernmost of a series of Finnic populations which stretched uninterrupted along the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, from Livonia to Estonia, Ingria, Karelia, and finally Finland. However, the eastwards expansion of Christian powers of northern Europe changed all this.
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.
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Partly because of recurring devastations of war and the mingling of refugees which those entailed, the Livonians of Livonia were eventually completely assimilated by the Latvians. The last remnant of this once vibrant nation was made up of several families living along the river Salaca (Livonian: Salatsi), but in the second half of the 19th Century the Livonian language and culture completely disappeared from the region known to this day as Livonia. However, in the Latvian dialect spoken in Livonia, a large number of Livonian loanwords have survived, and other traces of Livonian can by found in many geographical names in the region.
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.
As the article on Livonians in The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire observes, despite this relative isolation the numbers of Livonians continued to drop, from two thousand towards the end of the 19th century to one thousand in independent Latvia. There, things at first improved before becoming catastrophically worse.
Through the plebiscite of 1923, the Livonians tried to gain permission to establish an ethnic parish but the Latvian government forbade it. However, their culture made noticeable progress in the Latvian Republic. A choir was founded, the Livonian Society created, and Livonian song festivals took place on the Livonian coast of Courland. Livonian language became an optional subject in schools in 1923. Teacher, Mart Lepste, used to ride on horseback from village to village and teach Livonian to those who so wished. A national awakening and desire to develop the Livonian ethnic culture was spurred by the movement to promote closer ties among kindred people in Estonia and Finland in 1920--1930. In 1939 a Livonian Community Centre opened its door at Irel on the Livonian coast, sponsored by the larger kindred nations. All these achivements were annulled with the beginning of World War II and during the following Soviet occupation. Economic and cultural life practically ceased to exist. During the war, just as it had been in World War I, the Livonians were evacuated from their homes and some families fled to Sweden. The life of the Livonians who had returned to their damaged homes changed radically. For instance, they could not go fishing any more because a restricted zone had been established by the Soviet border guard. The Livonians alike the other Baltic peoples suffered from the deportations to Siberia in 1949. All ethnic culture was suppressed. The Livonian Society was banned, the Livonian Community Centre given to others. Even in Latvia Livonian national identity was not recognized. As a curiosity only one registered Livonian lived in the coastal villages of Courland in 1989 (Kolka Area).
Since 1991 there have been attempts to reestablish Livonian culture--in 1992 the Latvian government created the protected Livonian coast (Līvõd Rãnda) area--and the Internet has been a boon to the very dispersed Livonian population, as Uldis Balodis's Virtual Livonia shows. Despite this, it seems quite certain that Livonian culture will cease to be an actively practiced culture by the end of the 21st century, if it hasn't in fact ceased to do so already.