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Latvia - History of Flag

Last modified: 2023-06-03 by zachary harden
Keywords: latvia | historical | demonstration |
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image by Željko Heimer, 8 April 2002

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History of the Flag

The Latvian flag is reputed to date from 1279, which would make it one of the oldest national flags.
Stuart Notholt, 5 October 1995

The earliest extant reference to the Latvian flag is in a volume called the Livlandische Reimchronik which dates from the 14th century. It describes a banner 'red in colour, cut through with a white strip' used by a Latvian military unit in 1279. The reference was unearthed by a scholar, Janis Grinsbergs, in the 19th century and was popularized as an ethnic flag for the Latvian people by students at the University of Tartu in 1870.

The current colours and proportions were adopted on 18 November 1918 when Latvia became independent, having previously been established in this form in May 1917. It was recognized by law on 20 January 1923.

When the Communists annexed Latvia in June 1940 the flag became illegal within Latvia itself. However, the west never recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states and Latvian legations continued to operate in western capitals. These continued to use the Latvian flag, as did Latvian emigrés worldwide. The Latvian flag began to be used again in Latvia in 1988, and was legalized on 29 September 1988, replacing the Soviet Latvian flag on 27 February 1990. Latvia formally regained its independence on 21 August 1991.

Principal source for the above: "The Flag Bulletin" XXXI:6/149, Published by the Flag Research Center, Box 580, Winchester, Mass 01890 USA, November/December 1992, ISSN 0015-3370
Stuart Notholt, 12 December 1995

According to "Flags" by Carol P. Shaw, there are conflicting stories about the origin of the Latvian flag. It was first mentioned in a Latvian chronicle of a battle in 1280, where a battalion from Cesis, a northern region, bore a red flag with a white stripe which was also the banner of a castle there. Another legend refers to the leader of a Latvian tribe who was wounded in battle and wrapped in a white sheet. The part of the sheet on which he was lying remained white, but the two edges which were folded over him were stained by his blood.
Bruce Tindall, 13 December 1995

The Constituent Assembly of Latvia declared the official flags by a law passed 1922-02-15, signed by the President 1923-01-23. The law also provided for flags and pennants to used by the President, Prime Minister, other military and civil officials, warships, fortresses, etc. -- in all a total of seventeen different flags.
Source: "The Flag Bulletin" VIII:3, Published by the Flag Research Center, Box 580, Winchester, Mass 01890 USA, Summer 1969, ISSN 0015-3370
Dave Martucci, 7 September 1996

From <>:
Many legends about the origin of the Latvian flag come from the early Middle Ages. One of them, describe events that occurred before Christianity was established in the Baltics: "A Latvian castle was surrounded by Estonian troops. The siege lasted several weeks and the starving residents considered surrender. The only alternative was to charge over the battlements to break the enemies lines. Knowing this, an old kokle (Latvian lute) player, suggested a short prayer and full scale attack. A ram was sacrificed and the old man took off his shirt and dipped it in the sacrificial rams blood. The shirt was completely soaked in blood except where it had been held. The old man attached this red-white-red coloured material to a shaft. Waving this as a standard the warriors attacked and drove their enemy away. Ever since then Latvian fighters have used this flag."
That is the legend. What about more reliable sources? In the late 1860's one Latvian student (later Dr. Lautenbach-Jusmins) at the University of Tartu, checked The Rhyme Chronicle of Livonia (the chronicle of the Order Of Livonia in two volumes written in rhymes, recording the history of Baltic's from the 1290's and glorifying the German crusaders) and found at lines 9219 through to 9223 information on Latvian flag:

"A Brother and a hundred men had come from Wenden to Riga to defend the land, as I have heard. They had been notified. They came in a courtly manner, with a red banner which was crossed by white, in the manner of the Wends. Wenden is the name of a castle from which this flag bacame known, and it is located in the land of the Letts, where women ride in the same fashion as men do. I can tell you this in all truth, this is the banner of the Letts. " from Livlandische Reimchronik by Dr. Ausma Regina Jaunzemils, Stanford University

The current design of Latvian flag was approved in May 1917, at a meeting of the Art Promotion Association. Several proposals were reviewed. Finally the design with red-white-red flag having colour ratio 2:1:2 was accepted. The designer was Ansis Cirulis. The design was officially adopted as the Latvian flag. During the Soviet era (Latvia was incorporated in the Soviet Union in 1940) the use and keeping of this flag was prohibited. The governing Communist Party considered it the symbol of forces hostile to Soviet power. Only in the spring of 1990 was the red-white-red flag restored as the official Latvian flag.
Santiago Dotor, 30 October 1998

From <>:
Written records of the red-white-red Latvian flag have existed since the second half of the 13th century. Bearing a red flag with a white stripe ancient Latvian tribes went to war against ancient Estonian tribes. This would place the Latvian flag among the oldest flags of the world. At the end of the 1860's Latvian student, folklore researcher and later, professor Jekabs Lautenbahs–Jusmins found reference to the use of a red-white-red flag in The Oldest Rhyming Verse Chronicle of the Livonian Order (in Latvian: Vecaka Atskanu hronika). The Chronicle depicted events in Latvia in the second half of 13th century (till 1290) and glorified the feats of the crusaders in converting the pagan inhabitants of the Latvian region to the Christian faith. Based on the aforementioned historical record, the present day flag design was adapted by artist Ansis Cirulis in May of 1917. The red colour of the Latvian flag is a particular dark red tone that is referred to as “Latvian red” in the rest of the world. The flags colour proportions are 2:1:2, but the correlation of the width and length of the flag is fixed as 1:2. The Latvian national flag, together with the national coat of arms was affirmed in this format by a special parliamentary decree of the Republic of Latvia that was passed on June 15, 1921.
Jarig Bakker, 13 May 2000

Wends have also some possible influence in Latvian flag history. According to some historical hypotheses in early 10th century near todays Ventspils was setlement of western slavs tribe Wend (name of main river of western Latvia Venta (german Wendau, Windau) comes from this tribe). They live there untill 12th century (Germen influence in Balticum). Wends have moved eastwards - 1st to Riga, then in central Vidzeme and founded settlement Cesis (german Wenden). According to historical documents Wends troops have red/white flags as all western slavs (like today).
As refered above (and in other documents too) from chronicles and legends the flag come from Cesis neighbourhood. Some historians point of view is that Wends was great part in this "Latvian military unit" (realy there were Livs (Livonians) and Latgalians). Wends as separate etnicity were recognized untill 16th century.
Gvido Pētersons, 19 September 2000

Latvian colleagues I met in Budapest for a scientific congress told me an interesting story about the Latvian flag. They said that after the prohibition of the Latvian flag by Staline regime, Latvians became fanatic supporters of the football club Spartak Moscow, because its colour were red-white-red ("normal" red) and matches were a good opportunity to expose the prohibited flag. Authorities understood quite quickly the trick ... and the Spartak was ordered to change its colours. They also told me that all the stories on the origin of the Latvian colours were convenient tales.
The licence plates of Latvian cars have the national flag on them.
Ivan Sache, 15 October 2000

From <>:
The flag of Latvia have existed since the second half of the 13th century. Bearing a red flag with a white stripe ancient Latvian tribes went to war against ancient Estonian tribes. This would place the Latvian flag among the oldest flags of the world. The distinctive dark red color of the Latvian flag is often referred to in the rest of the world as “Latvian red”.
Dov Gutterman, 25 January 2002

Flags used in 1989 Demonstrations

image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 23 December 2005

In 1989-1991, there were many demonstrations in the Baltics against Soviet rule where medium red latvian flags were used (we can say it is medium red because of Russian, Lithuanian and even Soviet flags flying along). This was caused either by lack of adequate fabric and/or by ignorance about the details of the 1921-1937 flag. These quickly disappeared, replaced with correct ones.
António Martins-Tuválkin, 23 December 2005

Reintroduction of the Modern Flag

A Latvian friend of mine, who subscribes to many Latvian journals, says that the way they achieved independence in 1990 was by "nullifying" or canceling all Soviet legislation between 1940 and 1990. It was in this way that they reverted to their own national flag and probably to all 17 of the flags adopted in 1923.

To confirm this, I found the following on the Latvian Government Information WWW pages:

  • Declaration of the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR on the Renewal of the Independence of the Republic of Latvia (Adopted: 4 May 1990)
  • (excerpt) Being determined to restore de facto the free, democratic, and independent Republic of Latvia, The Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR decides:
    • Section 2
      To declare null and void from the moment of inception the decision of 21 July 1940, by the Parliament of Latvia: "On the Republic of Latvia's Joining the USSR".
    • Section 3
      To re-establish the authority of the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia, adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 15 February 1922, in the entire territory of Latvia. ...

Dave Martucci, 5 September 1996