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In a related question, @defaultlocale posted this excerpt:

Article 2. Possession of Latvia citizenship Citizens of Latvia are:

  1. persons who were citizens of Latvia on June 17, 1940 and their descendants who have registered according to the procedures established by law, except persons who have become citizens (subjects) of another state after May 4, 1990;
  2. persons who have obtained the citizenship of Latvia through naturalization or another manner according to the procedures established by law;
  3. children found within the territory of Latvia whose parents are not known;
  4. children with no parents who live in an orphanage or boarding school in Latvia;
  5. children both of whose parents were citizens of Latvia on the day of birth of such children, regardless of the place of birth of such children.

Law of citizenship, Latvia, 1994

But how would a person living in Estonia or Latvia prove that their family settled in the country over 50 years ago? Both countries were occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, so presumably many documents were irrevocably lost during the war. Was it based on knowledge of the local language? Based on names and surnames? Or is my assumption incorrect and everyone's family history was available in government records?

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Yes, most citizens had spared some documents, or they could order a transcript from the state archives. It may be surprising, but most of the documentation survived during the war, and it was also kept in order during the Soviet rule.

Some people who were born in Abrene district, now in Russia, had to request the Russian archives for a copy of their record, but even that worked well. And those who could not provide proper documents but had witnesses or other indirect proof could go to court.

There was also some corruption and black market for faking the records, at least in Latvia in early 1990s, I remember some gangs first boasted how easy was to buy the citizenship and that got expelled when the fake was discovered.

Note that all that happened before the 1994 Citizenship law you are quoting was adopted. Until then, the law from 1919 was used, with some temporary amendments. In practice, most citizens of the first republic and their descendants had restored their political rights during 1992 and could elect Saeima in June 1993, which then adopted the new Citizenship law, and only then the naturalization of the other residents could gradually start in 1995-1998.

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    That's correct. As far as I remember, my mother could gain citizenship both by her Latvian birth certificate from 1939, and by her Soviet passport, which indicated her ethnicity as Latvian and her place of living in Latvia. I don't remember how I got my Latvian passport, but supposedly I took with me a copy of hers. Or maybe it was all already determined by archives and citizenship department and I just had to present my Soviet passport. – Gnudiff Oct 20 at 10:18
  • Interesting that the archives were preserved despite the war. Did the Soviet government evacuate them for safekeeping or did the Nazi army simply not care enough to destroy them? – JonathanReez Oct 20 at 15:56
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    @JonathanReez There were several archive institutions in Latvia, dealing with different kinds/topics of documents. Some part of Latvian Historical archive (dealing with documents pertaining to territory of modern day Latvia starting from 12th century) was evacuated during WW2 (link in Latvian latvijasarhivi.lv/index.php?&115 ) but plenty remained and as far as I know, mostly preserved. Neither Germans nor Soviets were ones to wantonly burn documents. Unlike books. – Gnudiff Oct 20 at 21:05
  • @Gnudiff that is very surprising to hear. Asked a follow up question: history.stackexchange.com/questions/61828/… – JonathanReez Nov 12 at 19:47
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I'm not sure how they did this in practice, but Article 13 of this Law creates a lot of tracks to become a citizen without going through naturalization:

Article 13. Exceptions to naturalization requirements
(1) After this Law comes into force, citizenship of Latvia can be individually granted to persons:

  1. one of whose parents is a Latvian or a Liv and who permanently reside in Latvia or have repatriated to Latvia, and to their spouses, if they have been married for at least 10 years;
  2. who were former USSR citizens and their direct descendants, who are permanent residents of Latvia on the day this Law comes into force and who were entitled to the citizenship of Latvia (in accordance with Article 1 of the August 23, 1919 "Law on Citizenship") but did not exercise this right, and to their spouses, if they have been married for at least 10 years;
  3. who legally entered Latvia and permanently resided there on June 17, 1940, and to their descendants, who on the day this Law comes into force are permanent residents of Latvia (the provisions of this Subparagraph do not apply to persons who have entered Latvia in accordance with the Mutual Assistance Pact between Latvia and the USSR of October 5, 1939);
  4. who, during the German occupational regime from 1941 to 1945, were forcibly transferred to Latvia and stayed there after the end of this occupational regime and to their descendants who, on the day this Law comes into force, are permanently residing in Latvia;
  5. who have acquired a general education in a school with the Latvian language as the language of instruction and who have permanently resided in Latvia for no less than five years as of the submission date of their application for naturalization;
  6. who were Lithuania or Estonia citizens on June 17, 1940 and their descendants, if they or their descendants have permanently resided in Latvia for no less than five years as of the submission date of their application for naturalization;
  7. who have been married to a Latvia citizen for at least ten years and who have permanently resided in Latvia for no less than five years as of the submission date of their application for naturalization
  8. who have an excellent command of the Latvian language in compliance with the regulations issued by the Cabinet of Ministers.

People in one of these categories could obtain citizenship without having to go through the naturalization process, i.e. through another manner according to the procedures established by law.

So, ethnic Latvians, Livs, and people fluent in Latvian didn't have to prove their families' residency in 1940. Instead, they could have applied for citizenship directly.

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  • But did most people have any documents proving their family history? – JonathanReez Oct 19 at 22:43
  • @JonathanReez Yeah, I don't have an answer for that :) Ethnicity was written in Soviet passports, that's a starting point. – default locale Oct 19 at 22:45
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    Many people tried to save their documents through war and further times. Remember, that unlike in the US, in most of Europe everybody had to have some "papers". I have my parents hold on to their and their parent's birth certificates for sure. There were also church birth records, plenty of them have survived. – Gnudiff Oct 20 at 11:46

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