True Lithuania

Orthodoxy in Lithuania

In Lithuania, the Orthodox faith is perhaps even more ethnic than Judaism. That is, the vast majority of Lithuania’s Orthodox population is ethnically Slavic, primarily Russian. This is in stark contrast to Latvia, Estonia or Finland where there are many Orthodox people of titular ethnicity. Interestingly, a separate Lithuanian Orthodox Church doesn’t even exist. All the Orthodox Church buildings are directly subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church based in Moscow.

Vilnius, for centuries the capital of multi-religious Grand Duchy of Lithuania, had Orthodox churches since the 14th century. But this faith came to the other parts of Lithuania only after the annexation by the Russian Empire in 1795. Czarist policy of Russification brought large domed churches to the new wide squares and straight avenues, and so even today in Vilnius 19th century districts the Orthodox churches outnumber the Roman Catholic ones. Every major town of the 19th century Lithuania received its own Orthodox church (more than a single one in Vilnius and Kaunas). A minority of these buildings were ceded to the Roman Catholic community after the 1918 independence, but the iconic neo-Byzantine facades and domes remained intact even there.

Saint Nicholas church in central Vilnius is among the few Orthodox churches built before the Russian Imperial occupation of Lithuania in 1795. It was established as early as 1350, the current building dates to 1514 with major upgrades in 1865. It served the Uniate community in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In an Orthodox church, you may feel as being suddenly transferred to a land further east because there are usually no Lithuanian words whatsoever. Even signs for tourists are typically available only in Russian and English. Website of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania lacks any non-Russian version.

The bond between the Russian nation and the Orthodox church continued well into 20th century. Even the anti-religious Soviets had preferential treatment of the Orthodox church in Lithuania. Under the Soviet rule, a large number of Catholic churches were closed down, whereas almost every Orthodox church remained open. Thus there was an equal number of open Catholic and Orthodox churches in Soviet Vilnius even though Catholic devotees outnumbered Orthodox ones by 10 to 1. The only monastery permitted to operate in Lithuania after the Soviets disbanded all the others was the Russian Orthodox Holy Spirit monastery in Vilnius.

There are 43 Orthodox churches in Lithuania with the most interesting being in Vilnius. 4,6% follow the faith.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Hello,
    I would like to know the names and locations of any Orthodox monasteries that existed in Lithuania around 1890, and where there records from that time may be stored. I am of Lithuanian descent and am trying to obtain information about one of my grandfathers. Thank you.

    • As the Russian Imperial authorities have at that time promoted Russification, there were numerous Orthodox monasteries, usually as “replacements” for Catholic monasteries. However, nearly all of such monasteries were closed after the Russian Imperial rule ended. Definite lists and information are hard to come by due to temporary nature of many such monasteries and the fact that most of the monks were not locals. Some of the Orthodox monasteries are better known, however, such as the Holy Spirit (Vilnius), Surdegis, Antalieptė, Kaunas (Pažaislis).

      If you seek birth and death records (when rites were performed by monks), these are typically stored in Lithuanian archives. We may offer archive search services.

  2. Correction. My prior Email gave an incomplete address. Sorry.

  3. As i know some of the first christian Lithuanians had adopted the Eastern rite by Byzantine and Rus missionaries way before the Teutonic Order or thr Polish Commonwealth bring Catholicism.A lot of the nobles of the eastern Lithuanian tribes had adopted Orthodoxy(before its annexation by Muscovy or the Teutonic Order’s expansion) .Most of them moved after the “crusades” of Lithuania in the east,in lands such as Belarus,Ukraine and Russia who became Slavs through the centuries(like many Lithuanians became Polish after they became Catholics).So also Lithuanians were Orthodox and not just Russians who had been tranfered there .

    • You are correct that eastern part of the Lithuanian state was Orthodox-majority in the Medieval era. However, these lands were not in modern-day Lithuania but rather in modern-day Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. While some Lithuanian-speakers did convert into Orthodoxy (mainly those who migrated to Orthodox-majority lands), most of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Orthodox population were Slavic-speakers. See “Grand Duchy of Lithuania” section of True Lithuania website: http://www.truelithuania.com/grand-duchy-of-lithuania-until-1569-258 .

      While it is true that entire Belarus was populated by Balts (arguably, proto-Lithuanians) at one time in history, this was actually in the Iron Age, 1st millennium AD. At the time the whole area was Pagan. Slavicization actually came to these Eastern Baltic lands either before Christianization or approximately at the same time.

      I will underline again, that what I write here is about lands that are no longer part of Lithuania. Few of these Medieval Orthodox Slavs ever lived in the lands of modern-day Lithuania. The only place with a significant population of Orthodox people there was Vilnius city because it was the capital and thus a location where people from all over the Grand Duchy came to. Vilnius indeed has a few Medieval Orthodox churches.

      Elsewhere in modern-day Lithuania however, the Orthodox populations first came as Russian settlers in the 19th century (under the Russian rule, see the article here: http://www.truelithuania.com/the-rule-of-russian-empire-in-lithuania-1795-1918-254 ). And the Russian Orthodox churches there all date to 19th or 20th centuries. The church was thus expanded as a Russian church by the Russian government, and even the older parishes of Vilnius became predominantly Russian. Therefore, what is written here is of little significance now, as currently the Orthodox church in Lithuania is overwhelmingly Russian (there is a just a single small non-Russian parish in the entire Lithuania; it uses the Lithuanian language and is mainly aimed at the converts or offspring of mixed families who are Russian Orthodox, yet speak Lithuanian better than Russian).

      There is also one Ukrainian-speaking church in Vilnius, but it is Eastern Rite Catholic (Uniate) rather than Russian Orthodox. See article on them here: http://www.truelithuania.com/eastern-rite-catholicism-uniate-christianity-490


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