Geography. Latgale is a cultural-historical region in Latvia’s east, encompassing Balvi, Krāslava, Ludza, Preiļi and Rēzekne districts, as well as parts of Daugavpils (north of the Daugava), Jēkabpils and Madona (east of the Aiviekste and Pededze rivers) districts.
Latgale is the region of Latvia furthest from the Baltic Sea and stretching the furthest into the continental interior. This means that the winters there are colder, the summers warmer and temperature fluctuations greater than in Latvia’s west. Average annual rainfall in Latgale is 600 - 700 mm, i.e. less than in the Kurzeme and Vidzeme highlands, but greater than on the Zemgale Plain.
The terrain of Latgale is formed by the Eastern Latvian Lowland and the Latgale Highland. These differ sharply in their relief forms, vegetation and population density. The Eastern Latvian Lowland was formed by the former ice sheet. The topography is mostly flat with a gentle slope toward the Daugava and Lake Lubāna. Areas which are especially flat have seen the growth of the biggest bog region in Latvia, with the Teiči, Lielais (Great), Kņovi and other bogs.
To the southeast of the Eastern Latvian Lowland rises the Latgale Highland, the most extensive highland in Latvia (around 100 x 80 km). It has several foothills: Lielais (Great) Liepukalns (289 m above sea level), Mazais Liepukalns (266 m above sea level), Mākoņkalns (289 m above sea level), Sauleskalns (211 m above sea level) and others. A climb to the top of these foothills affords a view over many lakes (the largest of which, Lake Rāzna, covers 57.6 km2) and lake clusters. Not for nothing is Latgale known as the "land of the blue lakes".
There are no natural boundaries separating the Latgalians from regions inhabited by neighbouring peoples. Since ancient times, the Latvians of this region have had contacts with the Estonians in the north and the Lithuanians and Poles in the south. All of the major European religions (Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy) are present in Latgale, and Judaism also found a home there. Therefore, since time immemorial this region of Latvia has been a space where different spiritual and material cultures have met and interchanged.
History. The first inhabitants came into Latgale at the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 8th centuries B.C. Opinions differ about the origins of the Latgalians’ forebears and how they came to Latgale. However, there is consensus about the fact that between the 9th to the 12th centuries i.e. during the late Iron Age Latgalian culture was flourishing in the region. This is demonstrated by the remains of clothing and jewellery found in gravesites (crowns, neck rings, pendants, rings, bracelets, brooches and decorative pins).
In the historical sense, Latgale is all of Latvia east of the Daugava – the territory inhabited in the 13th century by the Latgalians (Letthi or Letthigalli). This also included what is now central Vidzeme i.e. the middle stretches of the Gauja River, to the west of which the Livonian lands began. In the early 13th century Latgale was divided into several territorial units. The most important of these was the state of the King of Jersika, Visvaldis, which consisted of several districts.
Since bygone times, Latgale’s advantageous geographic location near the important Daugava waterway has been a reason for aggressive designs on the territory by neighbouring peoples. From the 11th century the Duchy of Polock tried to bring the lower reaches of the Daugava under feudal control, but in the 13th century it encountered serious competition in the form of merchants, crusaders and pilgrims from Germany and other Western European lands. United by Bishop Albert, in 1209 these forces subjugated the state of Jersika, followed by the whole of Latgale a few decades later.
The region was part of the Confederation of Livonia from the 13th century to its demise in 1561. Although the confederation was not a unified state, it had common foreign and domestic policies which helped to form and consolidate the Latvian nation. This process was disrupted by the Livonian War (1558 - 1583). The hope of the last Livonian Order Master Gothards Ketlers to preserve the confederation as a vassal state of Polish King Sigismund II Augustus was not realized, and a struggle for the Livonian inheritance began between Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Lithuania and Poland. As a result, the historic territory of Latgale, which since 1562 had been part of the Duchy of Trans Daugava, and from 1582 part of the Cēsis Presidia, came under the direct rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After the Swedish-Polish War (1600 - 1629) the Commonwealth only managed to retain the current territory of Latgale. The Aiviekste River became the boundary between the Lutheran north or so-called Swedish Vidzeme and the Catholic south or Polish Vidzeme (Inflantie Polskie, Livonia polonica).
The administrative organization of this province of the Commonwealth took several decades to stabilize. In 1677 the Warsaw Parliament adopted a constitution for Latgale under which its territory was granted the status of Woivodztwo Inflantskie. The King of Poland kept the duke’s title for himself, but appointed stewards to govern separate districts. The most important of these was the Daugavpils Steward, which came with the title of vaivads. The Bishop, castellan and vaivads of the Inflantia were members of the Polish Senate. Daugavpils was also the seat of a legislative body for Latgale.
In these so-called Polish times Latgale began a separate life from the rest of Latvia. A role in this was played not only by political boundaries and differing conditions for cultural development., but also religious ones (in contrast to the rest of Latvia, Catholicism took hold in Latgale) and national (it underwent an intensive Polonization process, to which even the local German nobility was subject). Latgale also remained isolated from the rest of Latvia after the First Partition of Poland (1772), when it was annexed by Russia. Initially Latgale was included in the Pskov Province, but in 1796 it was transferred to the Belarusian Vitebsk Province. It retained this status right up to its integration into independent Latvia. In accordance with the Constitution of 1922, Latgale became one of the four cultural-historical regions of Latvia. In 1940 the territory of independent Latvia including Latgale was occupied by the USSR, but since August 1991 it has been part of the restored Republic of Latvia.