The Livonians (or Livs) are the indigenous people of the region of northern Latvia and southwestern Estonia. They speak a language,Uralic Livonian, that is related to Estonian and Finnish.
The majority of the early people who settled in Latvia and Lithuania were of the Balt tribes who migrated north to Lithuania and Latvia (the Balt people came to be known as Latvians).
The Livonians are from a different group,who migrated earlier(3,000 -2,000 BC) to the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea from the Ural Mountain region. Livonians who settled in the interior of the northern region were farmers. Along the coastline,they were a fishing people.
In time missionaries came from Germany who sought to convert the Livonians to Christianity(often by force) with mixed early results.
In 1201 the German Bishop,Albert von Buxhovden, forced the Livonian leaders to give him land to build a Christian settlement. That early settlement would eventually become Riga,the capital of Latvia.
When that did not achieve the desired result of Livonians giving up their pagan ways,it was decided that a Crusade out of Germany was in order, to forcibly convert the Livonians to Christianity (along with the Estonians and Baltic peoples in the farthest reaches) .
The Livonian Crusade.
A knightly order was formed for this purpose,called aptly enough, the Knights of the Sword. By 1208,Pope Innocent III deemed the campaign to "defeat,subdue and convert" the Livonians a success - they had all been saved.
And now as part of the "saved people",the Livonian were required to join the Knights of the Sword as infantrymen to help bring the same war to the Estonians and the Latvian tribes. This campaign to "save" all of these people lasted until 1217.
In the process of being saved,Livonia,which had once been a prosperous territory,was destroyed with whole sections depopulated. Starting in 1220,Latvians moved into the empty central Daugava river valley,effectively cutting off the two groups of Livonians from each other. The eastern tribe in the interior and the western tribe along the northern coast of the Curonian peninsula. (see map above)
And here is how countries take away another country's independence in the campaign to "help" that country's population leave their "barbarian foundations" behind and become civilized.
Those darn Latvians proved a tough nut to crack in the campaign to convert them into a civilized Christian society - so hard that the Crusaders turned to the more powerful Teutonic Order who were busy "saving" Poland and Lithuania. By 1290,all of these people were subdued - I mean "saved." And once Germany had control of the region,she never gave it back to the native people.
Riga and a few other cities became German ruled bishoprics and the rest of the land was ruled by the Teurtonic Order (renamed the Livonian Order). Nice deal - go in to supposedly save a people's soul and end up wealthy at those people's expense.
And then along came Martin Luther and his Reformation in the 16th Century which ignited the Thirty Year War,fought primarily on German soil. And that in turn caused turmoil within the Church and its associated Orders and Bishop cities in the Baltic region.
Internal division creates weakness as leaders turn inward in an internal power struggle.
Russia,sensing an opening,decided the time was ripe for an invasion of Livonia. Russian czar, Ivan the Terrible, had his eye on a corridor to the relatively warm waters of the Baltic Sea.And off they went in 1558 to try and wrest territory in Livonia away from the Livonian Order.
Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth came to the aid of the Livonian Order against Russia,seeing their coming fate if Livonia fell. After a 24 year war,the Russians were pushed back. But in the place of the Livonian Order,the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth decided their reward was to take over control of Livonia and part of Latvia,while the last head of the Livonian Order was given an independent duchy to rule.
This pattern of big dogs fighting over the bone of Livonia was to continue. As Livonian's numbers in the east were reduced and new populations entered their living space as refugees, pushed from other areas of conflict, the result was that the Livonians were eventually completely assimilated by the Latvians in Livonia. There are still a few families living along one of the rivers in Livonia,but the language and culture completely disappeared as a viable element in the east.
Remember that the Livonian people had been geographically divided from each other. The Livonians who were in the interior eastern region were more vulnerable. First, because they were smack in the middle of the territory everyone wanted.But mainly,because they interacted with a larger population on a regular basis - it was inevitable that the smaller entity would be absorbed by the larger.
But the Livonians who lived on the tip of the Curonian peninsula were far enough away from population centers to not be affected. Their territory was buffered by a dense forest and impassable marshlands. And there was the fact that there were no large Latvian populations near by so there was less interaction between the two peoples and less assimilation and the resulting loss of language and culture. It was actually to the people of the Estonian island of Saaremaa that Curonian Livonians developed the closet ties.
After WW1,the Baltic people rose up and established the independent republics of Estonia,Latvia and Lithuania. The Livonian Coast became part of Latvia.
Along with the regional blossoming of discovering a self-determined identity,the Livonian people also revived their language and culture via the Livonian Society. They started a Livonian language choir,adopted a Livonian flag,held Livonian song festivals and the Livonian language was taught as an optional subject in the elementary schools. Previously the Livonian people had always referred to themselves as "coast dwellers" or "fishermen",but now they started to refer to themselves as Livonians.
And then everything ended.
In 1940,the region was occupied first,by the Soviet Union,and then Nazi Germany.
The Livonians were driven from their homes.It is said that when they returned after the war,not a house was left standing.
As so often happens when a people are occupied by a dominant entity - the dominant power seeks to extinguish any identifier around which those subjugated people might rally.
Under both German and Russian regimes - before,during and after the war -all cultural expression of Livonian identity was prohibited,any type of organization,like the Livonian Society,where people would meet in a large group was prohibited,community centers that might provide space for a large social group to meet were expropriated and given to the dominant population that moved in. And finally Livonians were not recognized as a separate ethnic group - effectively ghosting them.
Under the Soviet occupation,the coastal Livonian fishermen were not allowed to take their boats far enough from shore to catch enough fish to make a livelihood of fishing anymore.
Large numbers of Livonians were deported to Siberia between 1945 and 1952,just as other Baltic populations were, to free up the farmland Livonians owned, to be incorporated into the new agricultural collectives for Russian immigrants. In addition,a large Russian military base was built in the middle of the Livonian Coast and whole villages were displaced. Eventually the whole Baltic coastline was deemed a "closed military area" where no one was allowed to live and so was emptied of the native population of Livonians.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Latvia became an independent country,Livonians were accorded the rights of an indigenous ethnic minority whose language and culture must be protected and advanced.
The last person to have learned Livonian as a mother tongue died in 2013. As of 2010, there were approximately 30 people who had learned it as a second language.
As of 2011,there were only 250 people in Latvia who registered as Livonian in the census.