COURLAND, or Kurland, one of the Baltic provinces of Russia, lying between 55° 45' and 57° 45' N. and 21° and 27° E. It is bounded on the N.E. by the river Dvina, separating it from the governments of Vitebsk and Livonia, N. by the Gulf of Riga, W. by the Baltic, and S. by the province of East Prussia and the Russian government of Kovno. The area is 10,535 sq. m., of which 101 sq. m. are occupied by lakes. The surface is generally low and undulating, and the coast-lands flat and marshy. The interior is characterized by wooded dunes, covered with pine, fir, birch and oak, with swamps and lakes, and fertile patches between. The surface nowhere rises more than 700 ft. above sea-level. The Mitau plain divides it into two parts, of which the western is fertile and thickly inhabited, except in the north, while the eastern is less fertile and thinly inhabited. One-third of the area is still forest.
Courland is drained by nearly one hundred rivers, of which only three, the Dvina, the Aa and the Windau, are navigable. They all flow north-westwards and discharge into the Baltic Sea. Owing to the numerous lakes and marshes, the climate is damp and often foggy, as well as changeable, and the winter is severe. Agriculture is the chief occupation, the principal crops being rye, barley, oats, wheat, flax and potatoes. The land is mostly owned by nobles of German descent. In 1863 laws were issued to enable the Letts, who form the bulk of the population, to acquire the farms which they held, and special banks were founded to help them. By this means some 12,000 farms were bought by their occupants; but the great mass of the population are still landless, and live as hired labourers, occupying a low position in the social scale. On the large estates agriculture is conducted with skill and scientific knowledge. Fruit grows well. Excellent breeds of cattle, sheep and pigs are kept. Libau and Mitau are the principal industrial centres, with iron-works, agricultural machinery works, tanneries, glass and soap works. Flax spinning is mostly a domestic industry. Iron and limestone are the chief minerals; a little amber is found on the coast. The only seaports are Libau, Windau and Polangen, there being none on the Courland coast of the Gulf of Riga. The population was 619,154 in 1870; 674,437 in 1897, of whom 345,756 were women; 714,200 (estimate) in 1906. Of the whole, 79% are Letts, 8% Germans, 1.7% Russians, and 1% each Poles and Lithuanians. In addition there are about 8% Jews and some Lives. The chief towns of the ten districts are Mitau (Doblenskiy district), capital of the government (pop. 35,011 in 1897), Bauske (6543), Friedrichstadt (5223), Goldingen (9733), Grobin (1489), Hasenpoth (3338), Illuxt (2340), Talsen (6215), Tuckum (7542) and Windau (7132). The prevailing religion is the Lutheran, to which 76% of the population belong; the rest belong to the Orthodox Eastern and the Roman Catholic churches.
Anciently Courland was inhabited by the Cours or Kurs, a Lettish tribe, who were subdued and converted to Christianity by the Brethren of the Sword, a German military order, in the first quarter of the 13th century. In 1237 it passed under the rule of the Teutonic Knights owing to the amalgamation of this order with that of the Brethren of the Sword. At that time it comprised the two duchies of Courland and Semgallen. Under the increasing pressure of Russia (Muscovy) the Teutonic Knights in 1561 found it expedient to put themselves under the suzerainty of Poland, the grandmaster Gotthard Kettler (d. 1587) becoming the first duke of Courland. The duchy suffered severely in the Russo-Swedish wars of 1700-9. But by the marriage in 1710 of Kettler's descendant, Duke Frederick William (d. 1711), to the princess Anne, niece of Peter the Great and afterwards empress of Russia, Courland came into close relation with the latter state Anne being duchess of Courland from 1711 to 1730. The celebrated Marshal Saxe was elected duke in 1726, but only managed to maintain himself by force of arms till the next year. The last Kettler, William, titular duke of Courland, died in 1737, and the empress Anne now bestowed the dignity on her favourite Biren, who held it from 1737 to 1740 and again from 1763 till his death in 1772. During nearly the whole of the 18th century Courland, devastated by continual wars, was a shuttlecock between Russia and Poland; until eventually in 1795 the assembly of the nobles placed it under the Russian sceptre. The Baltic provinces - Esthonia, Livonia and Courland - ceased to form collectively one general government in 1876.
See H. Hollmann, Kurlands Agrarverhältnisse (Riga, 1893), and E. Seraphim, Geschichte Liv-, Esth-, und Kurlands (2 vols., Reval, 1895-1896).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)