There’s more than meets the eye with the flag of Latvia. What looks like a simple triband flag is actually quite a unique design with medieval roots.
While the flag wasn’t officially approved until 1922, evidence of the flag’s use stems back to the 13th century. The Rhymed Chronicle of Livonia, a record detailing the history of Latvia and Estonia, mentions the use of a red, white, and red flag during a 1279-1280 battle. According the the chronicle, Namejs, leader of the ancient Latvian Semigallian tribe, lead an attack against Teutonic crusaders who had taken the city of Riga. Having received word of the attack, home guards from the city of Cēsis came to the aid of Riga, bearing a red, white, and red triband flag. (I found it strange that the Latvians came to the aid of the crusaders, but from what I could tell, Cēsis did not see eye to eye with Namejs.) It should be noted that several Latvian cities, including Riga and Cēsis, joined the Hanseatic League around this time, whose colors were also red and white.
Another popular but more legendary tale of the flag’s origins says that a Latvian tribal chief was mortally wounded in battle and wrapped in a white sheet. The sheet became soaked in blood everywhere except where the chief’s body was, leaving a clean, white stripe. The tribe used the sheet as a flag in their next battle and were able to drive back foreign invaders, cementing the flag’s popularity amongst all of Latvia’s tribes.
The area that would become modern Latvia went through a series of rulers for the next few centuries, including the Polish and Swedes. Eventually, the Swedes would give up the territory to the Russian Empire in 1710 after losing The Great Northern War. Russian culture dominated the area until the late 19th century when a new generation of Latvian intellectuals started to form a unique Latvian identity. Encouraged by the starting phases of the Russian Revolution, they began searching for things uniquely Latvian. In 1870, a group of students came across the descriptions of the medieval Latvian flag.
Unfortunately, the more popular the idea of an independent Latvia became, the more problems arose around what the flag actually looked like (there were no detailed descriptions beyond a color arrangement or surviving flags). People debated about the shade of red and the proportions of the stripes (an even 1:1:1 ratio or the current 2:1:2 ratio) until the height of World War I. By 1917, prominent Latvian artists agreed upon the basic ratios and colors found in a design Ansis CÄ«rulis had created on a postcard earlier that year.
With the power vacuum left by the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I, Latvia declared independence on Nov. 18, 1918. While the basic design of the flag was set, there were still many color and proportional variations depending on the manufacturer. The proportions that we know today would be set on June 15, 1921 when new laws for the Latvian Republic were made official. The exact red color tone, known as carmine red, would not be set by law until 1923.
The flag quickly became popular among the Latvian people, but its initial use would be short lived. The Soviet Union forced Latvia into a “mutual assistance pact” in 1939 which allowed the Soviet Union to set up a puppet government. A year later, Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (LSSR) and all former national symbols were banned, including the flag. The Nazis would take Latvia in the summer of 1941 and encouraged the locals to fly the flag alongside the German flag. This would also prove short lived, as the Nazis quickly outlawed any national symbols. The Soviets retook Latvia in October of 1944 and retained control for almost half a century, continuing their original ban on the national flag.
The Soviets introduced the flag for the LSSR in 1953 – a traditional red Soviet flag with wavy white and blue lines at the bottom (a pretty cool design, I must admit). While the original Latvian flag was still illegal in the country, many Latvians exiles outside of the country displayed the flag during rallies and protests.
By the late 1980s, Soviet leaders began rolling out political and economic reforms which paved the way for independence in many Soviet Bloc countries, including Latvia. Use of the original Latvian flag was so great that Soviet leaders couldn’t control its use and made it legal once again on Sept. 29, 1988.
With its newfound legal status, the flag’s use became almost unanimous; so much so that the Soviet government reinstated the flag as the official national flag in February of 1990, more than a full year before the country would declare its independence. A handful of institutions still loyal to the Soviet government still flew the LSSR flag until the country declared independence on Aug. 21, 1991.
Vexillologically speaking, the Latvian flag stands out for its unique shade of red (often described as a brownish purple) and its uneven stripe proportions.
Latvia’s naval jack follows the tradition of Russia and the Baltic states of using a uniquely colored St. Andrews cross and St. George’s cross combination in an obvious nod to the original British “Union Flag”.