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Jekabpils Becomes Normal

Updated on November 8, 2014
The green is Sweden. The orange is Courland and striped blue Lithuanian-Poland. Pink is Estonia. The red dots are Riga, then Jekabpils and finally Daugavpils.
The green is Sweden. The orange is Courland and striped blue Lithuanian-Poland. Pink is Estonia. The red dots are Riga, then Jekabpils and finally Daugavpils. | Source
Old Believers
Old Believers | Source
Orthodox crossing of himself. Two fingers joined with thumb, they use three fingers all together.1  Old believer crossing of himself, two fingers.2
Orthodox crossing of himself. Two fingers joined with thumb, they use three fingers all together.1 Old believer crossing of himself, two fingers.2 | Source

Jekabpils Becomes Normal

When the Swedes sunk their barges in the Daugava River in Latvia, around 1658 in the Swedish-Russian War, Krustpils was the only town on that spot. The town was halfway between Daugavpils and Riga. These were the first and second largest towns in Latvia, on the Baltic Sea. Riga was entrance to trade from Europe; and Daugavpils was at the border to Belarus and trade from the east. The Swedes didn't want the Russians to make money using the river to go up to Riga.

The invading Russians did not trust the people of the town of Kruspils. They were also at war with Poland at the same time, and Kruspils was their town. At that time there was a tavern called the Sala or Island on the other side of the river, along with a prisoner of war camp belonging to Tzar Alexis. They grew it into a town.1 Then they cleverly invited run away serfs from Poland and Sweden, and Cossacks who were Polish at that time, to live across the river in the new sloboda, or free city. They called the town Jekabpils. They said no one who hauled freight had to pay a tax or go in the army, and they would not be returned to their owners. It was a pretty good deal for a peasant.

In those early days it was a good place for bad people. Any serf who ran away was the type who had no friends or relations they cared to see again, or they were criminals. The town was filled with rough types, except for those fleeing religious persecution. They kept to themselves.

Those fleeing religious persecution were there because all religions were tolerated and there was work. Religious toleration was regarded as a bad thing in 1650. It was considered a necessary evil in this town of insignificant people. It showed the Russians cared more about the transport of cargo than their monopoly on God.

Jekabpils became a center for Catholics in Lutheran Latvia, which it remains to this day. Russian Orthodoxy was brought in also as there were Russians dominating the city, and they had to live with the Old Believers fleeing from their persecution. These Old Believers were Orthodox extremists who opposed the Russian state and all changes to the service. There were of course Lutherans too.

The Russians left in 1667 at the end of the other war with Poland, which had outlasted their war with Sweden by none years. The town became part of Courland, an independent territory of Latvia with ties to the Polish Empire. That was good. The Duke of Courland was Jacob Kettler. He is remembered as the greatest ruler in Courland history. He understood that his job was to create a good economy for Courland. To this end he won the only Latvian overseas possessions, one in West Africa on the river Gambia; and he took possession of Tobago from the Dutch in the West Indies.

The town of Jekabpils brought in a lot of money. So in 1670 the Duke gave everyone “Magdeburg” rights as “merchants” which meant they could not be arrested as runaways. It was a very polite name for smugglers and cargo haulers.

By that time the war was over and those who wanted to return to agricultural work could do so. The Lemenen Ungernhof manor hired people from Jekabpils. It was in Krustpils parish across the river, and owned by the Baron Ungern-Sternberg.2 That family came from Hungary in the 1200s along with the Teutonic Knights. They owned many plantations in Latvia and Estonia and were rarely on their working estates.

Jekabpils was still a rough place at that time. There were not enough people for complete segregation of cultures. It was home to gamblers, smugglers, robbers, as well as the fundamentalists. There were people from all over there with many different languages and churches. The only condition for living in that town was that you be willing to work transporting cargo on the river. The locals, old believers, smugglers and runaways, knew where all the barges lay.

By 1690 there were 150 homes, and maybe 800 people in the town of Jekabpils. This was large for Latvia, almost the size of Daugavpils. It was still a town like the old west where runaway serfs could be free; also smugglers and criminals and there was limited law and order. A lot of bad characters came to that town to transport cargo. The town was well known to smugglers as a very good place to lay low.

Because of the reluctant condition of religious freedom, Old Believers lined the streets of their section. They did not interact with the bad elements in the town. Their women covered their faces and went in the cabins when they saw nonbelievers. The men looked away as though any stranger could be the instrument of damnation. The Old Believers thought everyone else was going to hell. They came to the town to be free from persecution, so they could worship the true God and escape Satan.

What constituted the devil is considered very trivial by most people today. But it was very serious to them. The Russian Patriarch Nikon introduced changes in the 1650s in order to move the liturgy closer to that of the Greek Church. In the this way he hoped to encourage the return of radicals who had turned to the Greek service.

In Russia the way you crossed yourself was very important. Old Believers believed the changes of Patriarch Nikon were evil and wrong. The Old Believers held two fingers, pointer finger straight, middle finger bent. They thought if they crossed themselves incorrectly, they would go to hell. They said the name of Jesus differently from the Orthodox. Also the Orthodox said the Lord's Creed skipping the word True, formerly in the prayer. They made the direction of the procession counterclockwise and the words of the Alleluia were changed from twice to thrice. For this the Old Believers rebelled against the church and state, died martyrs burning at the cross or starving in prison cells and clung to each other in foreign lands.

Old Believers spoke Russian poorly. None of them were rich people. Their women moved like old mules that did not want to go except to avoid a beating. No one envied them.

One day the Old Believers would win out. By the next century the town was known for its honest hard working, and very religious citizens.


1 Jekabpils, Wilkipedia

2 Belozersky, NA. Section IX

3 Schuyler, Eugene page 75

4 Schuyler, Eugene page 76


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    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Interesting hub, AJRG. I had no idea Latvia ever had colonies, regardless of how small those possessions might have been. I have to admit that reading this, I wondered "when does a cult become a religion and, conversely, when does a religion become a cult"?

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