Ethnic relations in Soviet-occupied Lithuania (1945-1990) | True Lithuania
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Ethnic relations in Soviet-occupied Lithuania (1945-1990)

As World War 2 ended and the Lithuanian guerilla war received no serious help from the West it became clear that the Soviets were there to stay. They have established the dominance of the Russian language and culture as well as state atheism; many non-Russian traditions were loathed. This was supported first by outright Stalinist genocide, then by milder persecutions. Lithuanians proved to be impossible to lure to the Soviet side, however, and thus an attempt was made to court Lithuania's minorities instead, which were also increased in size through settlement campaign. Despite all this, pro-independence thoughts were not rooted out and Lithuanians seized the moment to restore freedom in 1990.

Lithuanian-Russian relations (1945-1990) were those of a dominant colonialist nation (Russians) and a dominated nation (Lithuanians). Russian language and culture were heavily promoted by the state; even the anthem of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic mentioned the "Great Russian nation" but not the "Lithuanian nation". Russian settlers were moved in at large numbers (increasing their population share from 2,5% to ~10%). Most of them did not learn the Lithuanian language but all Lithuanians had to learn Russian, making Russian the new lingua franca. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were murdered or expelled from Lithuania by the Russian regime. All the Catholic monasteries were closed but the Russian Orthodox monastery permitted to remain open. Such a situation was despised by many Lithuanians who hoped to end this oppression through independence. After the failure of the 1940s-1950s guerilla war Lithuanians generally kept their opinions private (as voicing them aloud would have led to prison or psychiatric ward sentences) but still tacitly acted in the way they saw to best prevent the assimilation of Lithuanians into Russians (e.g. refused to speak Russian in shops or were extremely against their kids marrying a Russian). After a thaw of the 1980s, the pro-independence voices were said aloud again.

A postcard of a Soviet-built shop in the new district of Žirmūnai, Vilnius. These new districts typically had significant parts of their population Russians (moved in from Russia). The name of the shop is written in Russian here: during the occupation, the official names, inscriptions, and documents were either bilingual or Russian-only. Furthermore, the name itself is 'Minsk', a city in the Soviet Union outside Lithuania: many buildings, streets were (re)named during the occupation in non-Lithuanian-originated names and many monuments were erected for Russians (primarily communists)

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1945-1990). The Soviet occupational government effectively replaced much of Lithuania's Polish community by deporting local Poles to Poland and "importing" Poles from Belarus in their place. The "new Poles of Lithuania" no longer had the sense of being also Lithuanians that many of the "old Poles of Lithuania" had. This helped the Soviet regime to use "divide and conquer" stratagem to play Poles against Lithuanians on numerous occasions (see: Russian-Polish relations).

Russian-Polish relations (1945-1990). Russians sought to somewhat appease Poles to make them more content with the Soviet rule and possibly play them against Lithuanians. As such, Poles were given more rights than were common for non-autonomous Soviet minorities. For example, Poles had public schools with Polish as the medium of instruction. This helped to create (retain) more diversity in Lithuania, which in turn helped to promote the Soviet cause and Russian language as a "necessary lingua franca", as the Poles would be taught Russian but not Lithuanian (as a second language). Over the decades, Russians have hastened Russification policies and more and more Poles started to speak Russian even to their children (~20% of Lithuania's Poles spoke Russian natively by the 1990s). Lithuania's Poles did indeed become pro-Soviet, fearing that because of being unable to speak Lithuanian they would feel alienated in an independent Lithuania. Even in 1990 free elections, Polish-majority districts voted for the Soviet Communist party.

These charts show that in the late Soviet era (1989) some half of the Polish families were sending their children to Russian schools rather than Polish ones, something encouraged by the Soviet regime. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russian-Jewish relations (1945-1990). Lithuania's Jewish community became Lithuania's ethnicity which would be Russified the most. Under the Soviet occupation, the majority of Lithuania's Jews would become atheists. By the 1970s their traditional Yiddish language gave way to Russian, which Jewish parents began to use to speak even to their own kids. While Russians would accept such "Sovietized Jews" amongst them, allowing them to rise to powerful positions, they would at the same time largely wipe out the "traditional" Jewish heritage of Lithuania. Many synagogues and Jewish religious cemeteries were destroyed in the 1950s-1970s. Jewish gravestones were often reused to build Soviet buildings. Soviets constructed many memorials to the victims of "fascist Germany", but none of them mentioned Jews explicitly, instead claiming that "Soviet citizens" were targetted. While most Jews at the time actually did become exemplary Soviet citizens (abandoning their own language, faith, and customs), they did not really want to live in the economically backward totalitarian Soviet Union. Some 50% have used the legal option to emigrate during 1959-1989, e.g. for "repatriation to Israel" (an emigration option that was not available to other ethnic communities and refused even to some Jews, to the dismay of Jewish diaspora). The Soviet Union also sought to play the increasingly influential Jewish diaspora against pro-freedom Lithuanians. The Soviet Union published propaganda works in English wherein many key anti-Soviet Lithuanians were accused of participating in the Holocaust. While such works had no historical basis (and the blamed Lithuanian-Americans were typically proved to be innocent by the OSI investigations), they were often accepted by the Jewish diaspora which was at the time passionately searching for the participants of the Nazi German genocide still at-large. At the same time, some of the people who truly murdered Jews during World War 2 were left untried in the Soviet Union itself, as long as they posed no threat to the Soviet regime.

Gravestones of a destroyed Vilnius Jewish cemetery, once used as a building material by Russians, have been molded into a memorial by the Lithuanians after 1990.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1945-1990). As the generations changed, Lithuanian-Jewish relations in Lithuania itself became both better and less relevant. With their numbers declining and culture assimilating, Jews were less and less regarded as power on themselves; instead, individual Jews were allying themselves with other powers. Some Jews still were genuinely pro-Russian/Soviet, a few did eventually become pro-Lithuanian but (possibly) the majority stayed out of these affairs conforming with whoever had the upper hand in politics (in 1945-1990, this meant the Soviet Union). A bigger Lithuanian-Jewish divide formed in Western countries. Both emigre communities there had very different collective memories of World War 2, as visible in their press and books of the time. Most Lithuanians would remember suffering at the hands of the Soviets, often aided by Jewish collaborators. Most Jews, on the other hand, would remember suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany, often aided by Lithuanian collaborators. Both the Lithuanian thought of "Liberation from the Soviets in 1941" and the Jewish thought of "Liberation from Nazi Germany in 1944" seemed radical and hateful to the other community (as what was "liberation" to one community meant genocide to the other). The ethnic Lithuanian and Litvak emigre communities remained separate as Litvak refugees integrated into wider Jewish communities while Lithuanians cooperated more closely with Latvian and Estonian diasporas with whom they shared their fate.

Russian-Russophone** relations (1945-1990). In addition to ethnic Russians, many people of other Soviet-ruled ethnicities were moved to live in Lithuania, primarily Ukrainians and Belarusians. After migration, these communities would often become Russophone (Russian-speaking) and assimilate into the Russian minority. That's because no schools, cultural institutions, TV or radio in these minority languages existed in Soviet Lithuania. Instead, these minorities were expected to use the wider-than-necessary network of Russian institutions. That meant they often abandoned their own languages and customs as useless.

One of the first buildings completed in WW2-ravaged Vilnius was the newly-established Russian-language theater (built by German POWs under Soviet orders). Its patrons were expected to (and did) include more than just Lithuania's Russian community. While ethnic Lithuanians would not frequent it that much as Lithuanian-language theaters were not closed down, for people from Lithuania's other minorities (Ukrainians, Belarusians, etc.) this was the only theater to go, as those minorities had no theaters of their own (and they were taught Russian language but not Lithuanian, so they could not have used the Lithuanian cultural institutions)

Russian-Gypsy relations (1945-1990). The rapid changes forced upon Lithuania by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union effectively destroyed the foundations on which the traditional Gypsy life was based. There was no more "Lithuanian village" with Lithuanian peasants who could trade with Gypsies or hire them for temporary works (instead, there were collective farms that had regular workers). Even their nomadic lifestyle itself was effectively banned, forcing many Gypsies to settle in the slum-like permanent "Taboras" near Vilnius. However, at the same time, the leftist Soviet regime provided Gypsies a previously-unavailable opportunity to live off government handouts, which many of them chose. While the Soviet government attempted to "integrate Gypsies" by "helping them" to live like the rest of the population, this generally failed. While the traditional Gypsy authorities slowly disintegrated, their lifestyle with large families, male dominance over the females, little education for children has remained. Lithuania's Gypsy community increased through Gypsy migration from the rest of the Soviet Union, however, unlike some other ethnic minorities, the Gypsies were not Russified, most of them speaking their own language and continuing their own culture.

Lithuanian-Russophone** relations (1945-1990). Lithuanians generally viewed other Soviet ethnicities in a more positive light than the Russians, seeing them as "sharing the plight of Lithuanians". That was especially true for the members of communities that also opposed russification, such as Latvians, Estonians, Western Ukrainians, and Georgians.

Lithuanian-Westerner* relations (1945-1990). While the Soviet Union put a massive effort into anti-Westerner propaganda (showing Westerners as morally corrupt and exploited by their own governments and peers), few Lithuanians actually bought any of it. Many would clandestinely listen to "Voice of America" and seek for rare banned literature and music imported from the West. Much of the knowledge Lithuanians had about the West came via diaspora relatives many had. Even though contacts with such relatives were closely watched by the Soviet secret services, Lithuanians generally understood that Western societies were much freer and richer than the Soviet ones. The Lithuanian diaspora itself put tremendous work in (re)establishing Lithuanian institutions abroad and lobbying the governments of their "new homelands" to help Lithuania. They were mostly successful in preventing the Western governments from recognizing the Soviet occupation of Lithuania but had no success in gaining military support for the Lithuanian struggle. Such lack of Western support (on top of words) for communist-occupied Eastern Europe became known as "Western betrayal". It likely tarnished the reputation of the West more than the Soviet propaganda did. To this date any discussion about a help NATO or EU would provide in case Russia attacks Lithuania would have many participants expecting another "Western betrayal".

Three Lithuanian partisans in 1950. They came back to Soviet-occupied Lithuania after a carefully-planned mission in the West to receive training. That was one of the very few times when Lithuanian pro-freedom activists have actually received actual help from the West. With just a few Lithuanian partisans so trained, it proved to be insignificant and Lukša-Daumantas was killed a year after this mission, with the partisan leadership itself destroyed within three years.

*Westerners (as used in this article) are people of the Western world, except for Germans. The group includes British, French, Spanish, Italian, American, Scandinavian, Dutch, and other Western ethnicities.
**Russophones (as used in this article) are ethnicities of the former Soviet Union (mainly Soviet settlers and their children), excluding Russians. Many of them speak Russian natively, most others speak better Russian than Lithuanian (hence the term). The two largest Russophone ethnicities are Belarusians and Ukrainians, smaller groups include people from Caucasus, Central Asia, Volga region, and Moldova.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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