CONFESSIONS OF A BETRAYER. How Latvian are we really to celebrate the National Independence? Pt.1

Until two weeks ago I was only sure about being a fourth generation Latvian. From my father's side I was also vaguely aware of a possibly true statement that my last name could have been initially assigned 8 generations ago. Presumably. From my mother's side.... Here the story gets slightly puzzling. Mom's father was keeping all to himself along with a twist of mystique about his Southern European looks and reasons of his mysterious presence in some Nazi camps during WWII. Meanwhile - mom's grandmother might have had German blood. Might have not.

milda, zelma, capital r, riga, 2018

When many seek a renewal of Latvian identity during the Centenary, and many prove their patriotism by indulging into nationalistic rants against migration, minorities and in favour to conservative governance, I got my DNA tested. Simply to find out - am I a truly Latvian or an offspring of another migrant betrayer to Latvian identity.


In 2008 a legendary book with photographs by Inta Ruka, a renowned Latvian artist back then already, was published. It was covering the inhabitants around an old workers' dormitory house at Amālijas street 5a in Āgenskalns suburb, a house and a book that are to blame for my interest about this neighbourhood to launch a year later.

One thing that struck my mind was a picture with a couple in their mid-late thirties taken in 2005. A two from a very common, closer-to-lower class, yet with an incredible statement: "Rita's great-great-grandfather came to Riga 100 years ago. Bought land. And built a house. Rita with Uģis and kids moved here in 2001..." After that, through years, I also heard from a couple of friends that they still lived in their great-great-grandfather's owned flat in an old Art Nouveau 5-storey house.

For me, a lad from the deep country, such succession seemed like an impressive stunt of family heritage and ties. Of course, one cannot deny, that many families still live in the same farmstead for a century or more, too. Yet, when considering cities, a 5-generation timespan for my universe back then seemed like eternity - who could have been able to survive the whole 100 years through Soviet nationalization to be able to stick to the city and even to the same apartments of their ancestors?

Later on, of course, I realized that many were economical migrants and later on, in many cases, such continuity of generations in flats was broken by Soviet union and nationalization, thus proving - it's a slim chance your family could live the same apartment for a century. Yet the question is - are there many families like that left? Are there many, who have seen/heard  of some 4 - 6 generations passing before their eyes/recollections and consider themselves deeply Latvian. Are 100 % sure today that their ancestors are natives, or at least from the Baltic State region?

No doubt there were many themes and topics under cross-fire in the last two years related to how Latvian Centenary should be celebrated from an ethnic perspective. For some it was all about getting Latvian migrants back when getting all refugees and non-Caucasian, non-Latvian speaking students or  employees out (while not making comfortable conditions to none of them).

The opposition said - we were refugees 100 years ago during WWI, some remind us of WWII, when dozens of thousands of Latvians escaped the war similarly to many crossing boarders now. Such themes made me questioning about my own ancestry - knowing my family have been native Latvian speakers for at least a century, am I really sure my ancestors 300 years ago were innocent, suffering Baltic Aryans?


That's why, on my soon-approaching and Latvia's already past birthday I decided to do a DNA test. First a general, autosomal try on MyHeritage and later uploading data to MyFamilyTreeDNA to see, where can I go from there. Even if it would give me a hazy, estimated view on my last 5 - 8 generation material from both maternal and paternal side, it would, at least, be something.

Turns out I am superficially what I think I am and what others think I am - a total Baltic guy with a probable Eastern-Central European touch. Yet there is something heavier below the surface worth digging for:
  1. When setting up my family tree on MyHeritage I came to conclusion that no matter what ways I try to go I am a true Latvian-native-speaker for 4 generations and 140 years, when the oldest ancestor, my great-great-grandfather from father's side was born. Meanwhile, already turns out that, from female/mother's side, the earliest, 4th generation is represented by a few surnames that could be identified with Lithuanian roots as well as something Germanic - maybe of a Swedish or German ancestry.
  2. When viewing my Ethnicity Estimate on MyHeritage it states I am 100 % Baltic. When uploading my DNA data to MyFamilyTreeDNA, it gives a bit different result to consider - the wast majority of my ancestry up to 8 generations ago slides down to more Eastern European roots - Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, South of Lithuania, And then, surprise, surprise - 10 % of me might be of Finnish Lakeland-Lapland intersection ancestry. The results are somehow oxymoron. There are two, almost cardinally opposite parts of Europe that could hardly meet, yet remember - I live now in the exact middle and in the Baltic, where everybody from Europe have been.

  3. When looking at my ancient Origins, my DNA largely consists of genetic material typical to Hunter-Gatherer group (migrated to Europe less than 45 000 years ago) and a quarter of Farmers group also - both civilizations that entered Europe from North Africa and the Wester part of Middle East. Looking at the bottom map one can configure that a super large part of my genetic material definitely origins and mixes up in Anatolia (Major part of present Turkey) before entering Central-Eastern Europe for some extra Metallica!
    This "Anatolian situation" could explain my "not so Baltic, not so white" look, that I could have inherited from my grandmom (father's side) or from my mystery granddad (mother's side). When time-spanning my DNA evaluation, the "Anatolian situation" could have happened not later than 8 - 7 thousand years ago, until Metal Age Invaders could have finished up by adding up their tiny 15 % at least 2 - 4 millenniums later. Maybe this is my Finish ten per cent eventually.


So, the step one of my experiment has been done. Now I am saving money for my own paternal (Y-DNA) and maternal (mDNA) tests for step two. I really much hope to do that in a not-so-distant future, so I could update this post with more discoveries on how "Latvian" I am, and inspire others to find out, how "native" they actually be.

Since my first autosomal results were out, I have been reached by a man from deep Canadian midlands, who claims the DNA match application has detected us being very distant relatives, and he claims there might me a Baltic German succession. Then there is a woman of Latvian origin and yet unknown place of belonging (Lithuania, Latvia or Poland, or elsewhere?), who states of being my 5th cousin or even a further relative (which is some 200-250 years ago and counting). She states that her mDNA proves us both sharing Polish, Scottish, Finnish, Celtic, Chinese, Russian etc. blood.

Of course, all this could be true - MyFamilyTreeDNA displayed I might eventually have something in my genes from the native Finns or Poles. Yet I better get my own DNA tested further to know for sure rather that to indulge into exited, yet unclear, approximate assumptions. A few can deny that Europe, at least a half of inhabitants, who come from Hunter-gatherer and Farmer groups, are distant relatives, and I would be foolish to be interested in drawing hasty conclusions on gossip basis.

A new centenary has begun to Latvia, but this is where my article ends for a while. The results I got were not really surprising, yet the further research could be very much an Indiana Jones adventure I really look forward to. I would rather write into law a new section, that orders you to fulfill a full DNA test if you are cuffed for racist slur.

The question still comes down to does it only make you Latvian in XXI century, if you speak the Language, know a folk song, have an deported relative or wear mittens? I rather believe that a native is one, who, yes might speak the mother tongue of the area, but also identifies oneself with more global values differentiated by surroundings of LAND and cherishes it rather than blindly follows a set of constructed traditions, politics or assumptions what Latvian means. If it's only being of a bearded Pagan origin, I am not sure we agree on the same thing.

Mārtiņš Eņģelis