Although Estonians today constitute just a small ethnic minority in the Republic of Latvia, a glance at Estonians’ history in Latvia reveals an interesting view of the extent and diversity of their presence.
The original Estonians who lived within the Latvian territory were called the “Leivus” and “Lutsis”, and were established within insular linguistic enclaves. The habitat of the Leivus, who are believed to have numbered a few thousand, stretched from the southernmost tip of present day Võru County to Gulbene and Alūksne. The Lutsi villages were located in the vicinity of Ludza (from here derived the name Lutsi), and their climax population has been set at 4,000. Estonians have traditionally inhabitated the areas just to the south of the current Estonian-Latvian border.
The most significant Estonian community emerged in Riga in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Riga had become a leading industrial centre of Czarist Russia, experiencing an influx of textile factory workers, artisans, merchants and manufacturers. Young Estonians came to Riga in order to take advantage of the opportunities to study at the only technical university in the Baltics (for example, Kaarel Eenpalu, Jüri Jaakson, Mart Raud) and at the Riga Theological Seminary (including future Estonian President Konstantin Päts). In 1881 there were said to be 1,565 Estonians living in Riga, and by the early 20th century this number had grown to an estimated 28 thousand people.
Pre- and post-World War I many Estonians returned to their native country. Consequently, according to the first Latvian census carried out in 1920, 8,700 Estonians remained living in Latvia, most of them in the border areas in Valmiera (1,600 Estonians), Valka and Alūksne (4,100), as well as in Riga (1,600). Estonian communities of a few hundred people were also located in the ports of Liepāja and Ventspils.
A third period during which Estonians moved to Latvia occurred during the Soviet era, when the lack of national borders facilitated migration for work and studies.