True Lithuania

Are Lithuanians unwilling to regard minorities as Lithuanians?

Every citizen of Lithuania is regarded as a citizen of Lithuania by every other citizen of Lithuania, regardless of his/her origins or religious beliefs. There is simply no movement in Lithuania, popular or unpopular, that would seek to strip minorities of their citizenship.

However, the word "Lithuanian" in English essentially has two separate meanings. The first meaning is "A citizen of Lithuania" (nationality) and another is "Ethnic Lithuanian" (ethnicity). People of numerous ethnicities do live in Lithuania. Ethnic Lithuanians form a majority (~85%), but the ethnic minorities are also proud of their cultures. They neither consider themselves to be ethnic Lithuanians nor seek to be considered ethnic Lithuanians. In Lithuania, there is even an option to request the ethnicity to be written next to nationality on a Lithuanian passport, which people of the ethnic minorities often do (in total, more than half of Lithuania's citizens ask their ethnicity to be included in their passports). In the Lithuanian censae, people are also asked about their ethnicity (on the other hand, there are no questions on ancestry or race).

Ethnic map of Lithuania. The minorities are largely concentrated in the east. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While the word "Lithuanian" describes both the nationality and ethnicity in English, in Lithuanian language the situation is more complex. In the passports, the nationality is written as "Lietuvos" (Lietuvos pilietis), while ethnicity (if Lithuanian) as "Lietuvis" (in the regular speech today, however, "Lietuvis" is also sometimes used for nationality due to the influence of the English language).

Labeling somebody who is not an ethnic Lithuanian to be an ethnic Lithuanian may be controversial both among the ethnic Lithuanians and the minority in question.

Historically, the ethnic Lithuanians are indigenous to Lithuania. Some of those who self-identify as Poles and Latvians possibly also are indigenous. The other communities have moved in from elsewhere during the 14th-21st centuries. Interethnic marriages were rather uncommon before the 20th century. They are still an exception rather than a rule today and in such families, an offspring often chooses one of the parent ethnicities.

Why some foreigners believe the myth about Lithuanians not seeing minorities as equal?

In addition to the linguistic issues, ethnicity on itself is a concept difficult to understand to the Americans and Australians, because most do not have it, having descended from people of various immigrant ethnicities.

However, the notion of ethnicities is an extremely popular form of identification in Central/Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere where the populations are still mainly indigenous.

It is difficult to precisely define what ethnicity is, as it typically may include any number of such traits like native language, culture, religion, race, ancestry, self-identification and more. Which traits are included in the definition, depends on the particular ethnicity and region. For example, while Serbs and Croats are considered to be separate ethnicities based primarily on different dominant religions (they essentially speak the same native language), eastern and western Latvians are considered to be a single ethnicity, despite having different dominant religions.

Even though mostly hereditary, ethnicity is not "race" as it is mostly invisible. Ethnicity is not "ancestry", as people of the same ethnicity may come from different countries. Ethnicity is not an "immigrant background", unless you'd count somebody whose forefathers arrived 200 or 400 years ago as having an immigrant background. While ethnicities may have their own "typical religions", one who converts out of them is not regarded to have lost his/her ethnicity (in this fashion, the majority of Lithuania's self-identifying ethnic Jews actually are non-Jews by faith, something baffling to the foreign Jews to whom being a Jew is mainly about religion).

By the way, in America and Australia, ethnic self-identification is popular in one particular group: the native indigenous populations. There, ethnicities are defined as "tribes" or "nations" (e.g. Cherokee, Navajo, Anangu). A non-Navajo who moves into Navajo territory is not to be considered a Navajo (nor, in most cases, he/she would seek to be recognized as a Navajo) - however, this does not mean that he/she would be unwelcome there. Likewise, referring to a non-Native-American as a Native American would be controversial.

Just like the Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians are proud of their indigenous heritage and many most still consider themselves part of the original Nation/Tribe even after moving away from the "Homeland" (yet at the same time they also consider themselves Americans or Australians), so does many European and Asian people, most of whom are indigenous to the continents, consider themselves to be part of their ethnic Nation as well as of their political nation.

Is this myth insulting to Lithuanians and why?

Yes. Firstly, such claims are insulting because they make Lithuanians look unwelcoming when this is clearly not the case.

Secondly, claims that the Western divisions of society into groups (e.g. into nationalities, races, religions, and ancestries) are acceptable, whereas the divisions less popular in the West (e.g. into ethnicities) "should be abandoned everywhere", seem to convey the idea that the Lithuanian (and Central/Eastern European or Asian, in general) culture is somehow inferior to that of the West.

In addition to this myth being insulting to Lithuanians, sometimes those who do not understand the dual meaning of word "Lithuanian" get unnecessarily insulted as well. The phrase "He is not a Lithuanian" could mean either "He is not a Lithuanian citizen" (but he maybe ethnic Lithuanian, e.g. part of the Lithuanian community in Poland) or "He is not an ethnic Lithuanian" (but he may be a Lithuanian citizen). Presuming that "Lithuanian" means ethnicity, a Lithuanian-American may be insulted by being called "not a Lithuanian" solely because he has no Lithuanian citizenship, whereas an American who just got Lithuanian passport may feel insulted being called "not a Lithuanian", because he would incorrectly presume the word "Lithuanian" means citizenship. It may be thus sometimes useful to replace the word "Lithuanian" by either "ethnic Lithuanian" or "citizen of Lithuania" when speaking in English.

See also the "Are Lithuanians fascists/racists/Nazis?" myth

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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