Resilient.

This word, combining strength and flexibility, is the one which best characterizes Latvians, their history, their present condition and, one must believe, their future.

But there is another word as well - surprising. Again and again Latvians have confounded expectations, done what few others would have thought possible and even fewer thought likely.

Only slightly more than one hundred and fifty years ago the Latvians were almost entirely a nation of landless peasants, with barely any property, political rights or advanced cultural institutions. Yet even then they were strivers - their literacy rate was very high, and over the next century and a half they built the structure of a modern, cultural nature almost from scratch, achieved independence for their country not once, but twice, and joined some of the most exclusive clubs in the world - the European Union and NATO.

More than once they have seemed to be hanging by a thread over an abyss, yet, like in some movie "cliffhanger", again and again they have escaped these dangers and continued their advance.

During the First World War the front lines ran right across the middle of the country, one third of the population became refugees, industry and agriculture were devastated, and victory for either the German Empire or the new Soviet state would have meant more misery for the country. Many feared for the very survival of the nation. Yet, as the war came to a close Latvia declared its independence and went on to enjoy this freedom for twenty years in a period that, for all its faults, is still remembered as something of a golden age.

Then came World War Two, occupation, deportations, genocide. When the fighting ended Latvia was in Stalin's clutches. Although many Western countries did not recognize Latvia's incorporation into the USSR, as the years went by the thought that the country would regain its independence moved from the category of the highly improbable to the seemingly impossible. At the same time policies of Russification and massive immigration from the rest of the USSR, at a rate higher than for almost any other European country then or now, meant that by the end of the 1980s there was a real danger that Latvians would become a minority in their own country.

Yet, as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika created the first cracks in the totalitarian facade, a massive independence movement arose - the Latvian Popular Front. The speed with which it achieved its goals seems even more surprising today than it did at the time - less than three years after the Popular Front's founding Latvia had regained its sovereignty.

The country's heterogeneous population (at independence slightly more than half the inhabitants were Latvian, while the rest were mainly immigrant Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussian), and, possibly, the unconscious influence of the similarities between the words "Baltic" and "Balkan", which were constantly confused by Western visitors at the time, led some observers to warn of bloody ethnic conflicts, yet none of these alarmist scenarios came to pass. Latvia successfully worked to rejoin the West and witnessed a profound, in many ways brilliant transformation from a run-down dirty grey Soviet existence to the colourful liveliness of a modern European country.

Yet the transition from communism was not the last test. Eager to develop as quickly as possible after the years of Soviet stagnation, Latvia plunged head-long into the overexuberant growth of a real estate bubble and then, perhaps inevitably, fell into the deepest economic downturn in the world during the international financial crisis.

Once again Latvia seemed ready to fall into the abyss, suffer default and devaluation. Once again the expert predictions were dire, the signs of hope few. And once again Latvia achieved what almost nobody thought possible, not only overcoming the crisis, but doing it convincingly - cutting its budget deficit to almost zero, achieving the highest growth rates in the European Union, and fulfilling the criteria to join the eurozone.

Latvia is an escape artist, a country that has had more than its share of perils yet has always come out of them in style. If history is any guide, it will continue to surprise in the future as well.

Pauls Raudseps is a commentator for the weekly magazine "Ir". This article appeared in German on 6 October, 2013, in a special edition of the Frankfurter Allgemaine Sonntagszeitung devoted to Latvia and the European Days of Culture 2013.

Pauls Raudseps, 15.11.2013