Courland: where did the fourth Baltic republic disappear and what does Russia have to do with it


In a world where the love of freedom and independence of small peoples is so valued, it is even strange that no one raises their voice in defense of Courland. Here, by the way, one could once again make claims to bad Russia, which treacherously trampled on its independence. But wait… It seems that this time someone else has become the main usurper…

The history of this state dates back to the 16th century. Its name consists of the German root «lands» and indications of local residents — the Baltic tribe of the Curonians, who lived along the sea from the mouth of the Neman to the Gulf of Riga.

German influence on this region (so unambiguously reflected in the name) began at the turn of the XII-XIII centuries with the Crusades in the Baltic states. There was no statehood in these territories at that time, and the Germans happily took the land into their hands, quickly suppressing the resistance of the Curonians with “iron and blood”. First, the knightly Order of the Sword was formed, then it was transformed into the Livonian Order, and in this form they ruled the Baltic lands for three centuries.

The Moscow kingdom of Ivan the Terrible put an end to hegemony. The outbreak of the Livonian War put the Order on the brink of disaster. His last master, Gotthard Kettler, decided to make the most of the situation. He gave his state to the Poles, in return retaining the territory of Courland and prudently fenced off from Russia by the lands of the Commonwealth.

Meanwhile, Ketler had already changed Catholicism to Lutheranism, which saved him from having to share land with the church and send tithes to Rome. To loyal knights who joined him, the newly-minted duke distributed estates into ownership and introduced serfdom throughout Courland. Naturally, the ruling class were entirely Germans, and the Balts were doomed to serve them.

The descendants of Ketler ruled the duchy until 1711, achieving considerable success. Suffice it to say that Courland colonized the island of Tobago in the West Indies and the mouth of the Gambia River in Africa. However, as often happens, the greedy and stupid ruler Friedrich Casimir Ketler skipped everything accumulated by his ancestors, and the outbreak of the Northern War completed the job.

And again, an attempt to blame Russia for the fall of the proud duchy suggests itself, but, alas, everything was the other way around. The independence of Courland was trampled on by the Swedish king Charles XII, but Peter I just returned the lands to Frederick III Wilhelm Ketler and tried to strengthen his position by marrying his niece Anna Ioannovna. The marriage did not last long, the duke died shortly after the wedding, and his widow handed over the leadership of the state into the hands of Pyotr Bestuzhev-Ryumin.

The further history of Courland was closely connected with Russia. Anna Ioannovna, who headed the empire, made her favorite Biron a duke. After his exile, the place was actually empty. Even when the Polish king appointed Charles of Saxony as Duke, most of the local nobles refused to obey him, remaining faithful to Biron’s oath.

In 1762, Catherine II restored the once omnipotent temporary to the throne, but forced them to observe religious tolerance and allow the construction of Orthodox churches. The Lutheran nobility protested and it was difficult for Biron (and then his son) to retain power. As a result, after the third partition of Poland, Peter Biron abandoned Courland, giving it to the power of St. Petersburg.

In 1802, Alexander I ordered the formation of a university in Mitau, but the Courland (German) nobility unexpectedly opposed it. I had to transfer the educational institution to Derpt. And in 1817, the Russian emperor abolished serfdom in Courland.

The Germans tried twice more to regain this territory, occupying it during the First and Second World Wars, but they failed to keep it. But Latvia was able to, especially since there were no ethnic Curonians left for a long time. The last native speakers died out in the 17th century under the careful management of the Germans. So there will never be an independent Courland, but Russia has nothing to do with it at all.