True Lithuania

Society of Lithuania

This article is about the economical divisions and personal relations. See also articles on the Ethnic divisions and the Religious divisions.

Socio-economic groups of Lithuania

In the Lithuanian society class divisions are low-key. Members of very different affluence levels more usually than not live in the same neighborhoods, buy at the same shopping malls and send their children to the same public (rather than private) schools. Complex history, where classes were frequently shuffled by various occupational forces, played a part in this.

The influential elite of Lithuania consists of several very different groups. The first group is that of the so-called "Soviet nomenclature". To the dismay of 1990s independence activists many of these remained in powerful positions, continuing their old practice of conformism with whoever is in power and reciprocal cronyism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union many of them have switched their ideals to pro-European Union (as this is where the new winds are blowing). Slow lustration meant that unlike in some other ex-communist countries the people of Lithuania were not informed on who served totalytarian institutions during the Soviet occupation. The former "nomenclature" is typically reluctant to show off its wealth as this would attract unwanted attention and questions.

After independence the Soviet "nomenclature" was joined in the competition for the political power by the former independence activists (mainly intellectuals). In vying for economical power, the "nomenclature" was in some sectors outcompeted by 1990s self-made men who established retail, import/export and other businesses in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as privatised those Soviet "businesses" that the "nomenclature" didn't want. As the new opportunities were most eagerly grabbed by people in their 20s and 30s the Lithuanian millionaire community of the era was younger than in many other countries. In the early 1990s people were eager to put their newly acquired wealth into large suburban homes and expensive cars, but with time this trend diminished, although a constant and stable group of Lithuania's rich "elite" publicises their endevours in socialite magazines.

Relative lack of labour-intensive industries means that there are quite few industrial workers in Lithuania. Labor unions are generally weaker than in the western Europe and they suffer a certain image problem as a part of society associates them with the former Soviet regime (when the state was both the only true employee and the real power behind the puppet labour unions). Businessman, on the other hand, are skeptical of the labour unions because of the situations when their leaders mobilize the unions for their own personal gain rather than that of the workers.

Traditional intellectuals may be considered another class that consists of teachers, doctors, scientists and classical artists. Loyal intellectuals were supported by the Soviet regime, moreover, their jobs used to be the most prestigious ones as they offered access to various other people. This access was more important than money in the Soviet society where many goods could have been obtained only through personal relations with some official responsible for distribution. After independence the education and healthcare remained public rather than private (leading to mediocre salaries) while classical art failed to attract enough customers to be commercially viable. Therefore some intellectuals, while deeply critical of the Soviet totalitarism, believe that the current system is treating them unfairly. However, it may be so that a significant part of this group has failed to adapt, with (for example) universities still choosing which research projects to undertake based on personal relations with the scientists, which impedes the will of private companies to fund these projects.

Other significant force in the society are the peasants. Some 12% of the workforce is in agriculture, but this is diminishing as agriculture turns into another form of business, partly funded by the European Union money and impossible without sacrifying workforce numbers for technology and economies of scale. Emotional peasant protests against government policies and roadblocks by farming equipment of 1990s are therefore a thing of the past, replaced by other forms of lobbying.

Historical classes, such as the nobility, are completely meaningless, as they were stripped of their final benefits some 100 years ago. Subsequently the Soviets completely destroyed their culture and remaining landholds.

A certain underclass, so-called asocial people, exits living on benefits and criminal activity. Many of them are dependant on drugs and alcohol. Among the criminals there is their own division into castes, largely inherited from the Russian and Soviet prison system.

Age groups and genders in Lithuania

Retired people are generally less well-off than in the West due to former Soviet policies. There have been no pension funds in Lithuania, meaning that the current workforce (rapidly decreasing due to emigration) is forced to pay the pensions to the entire retiree population (23% of all citizens). The old age pension is therefore relatively small but even this puts a great strain on the economy, pushing the state to borrow money at high costs.

The Soviet clichés imposed on every age group had a person's life neatly divided into distinct "age bands", each with its own duties. For example, playing board games, watching animation and drinking refreshing drinks had been only acceptable to children, only adults were allowed to eat at restaurants, while the pensioners were expected to stay at home (garden) and help rear grandchildren. Many watched with disbelief as president Valdas Adamkus (a Lithuanian-American) drank Coca Cola in the 1990s - "is he still a child?" question lingered.

This mindset still limits retired people's lifestyle. For example, unlike in the West, it is uncommon for old Lithuanians to travel abroad as many consider themselves to be too old and unhealthy for this. Perhaps due to lack of safety during their lifetimes most retirees are saving a large share of their incomes (in their home rather than in the mistrusted banks). This further reduces the actual disposable incomes of the retirees and leads to sad stories when these savings are stolen by con-artists specializing at this.

The youth is generally more westernized than their parent or grandparent generations and the old social divisions give way to the new ones that are common in the Western Europe. The common way to grow up is to attend kindergarten, attend school 7 to 18 and then immediately seek university education (up to Master's degree). Most people start to seek job only after completing their studies; prior to that they commit their free time to "being students" instead (partying, etc.), save for occasional summer job. While some of this dates back to the Soviet age-group clichés things change: back then universities were reserved only for the most capable while army conscription and vocational education for the rest.

Women are prominent in Lithuanian public life, making up more than 49% of the labour force (a larger share than in every single Western European, Northern European and continental American country). Female suffrage dates to the very first democratic elections in Lithuania (Great Seimas of Vilnius, 1905).

Personal and family relations in Lithuania

The basis of Lithuanian nation is nuclear family. The number of kids have been decreasing recently; today a family of four (two parents and two children) is the social norm. It is now acceptable for couples to forego marriage (see: marriage traditions).

Lithuanian language has a multitude of words to describe obscure family relations (e.g. "kaliboba" - 4th husband, "dieveris" - husband's brother, "laigonas" - wife's brother). This signifies the importance a wider family once had but today these words are largely forgotten. Under Soviet occupation it was common to relocate people - therefore now relatives rarely live nearby and meet only on special occasions if at all.

Housing shortage under the Soviet occupation meant that three generations frequently had to share the same apartment. This changed now and adult children usually move out.

After family an average Lithuanian spends much of his remaining free time with friends. "Friends" include select relatives, (former) classmates, (former) university mates, workmates. Friendships are generally within the same age group.

In Lithuanian villages the "everybody knows everybody else" tenet still holds true. In cities however the neighbor relations essentially have been destroyed by the centrally-planned Soviet urbanization (when very different people used to be moved into the same neighborhoods). Average urban Lithuanian knows very little about those who live next door even for years. Not saying "hello" to one's neighbor is not considered rude. This is somewhat changing in post-independence housing developments where more similar people (in age, salary, education) acquire apartments.

A typical large Soviet residential in Klaipėda. Nearly every such building houses some rich businessmen and poor pensioneers, Lithuanians and Russians, workers and alcohol addicts living of social security. At one time even the acting Prime Minister lived in such apartment. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

On the other hand many keep relations with people far away as massive emigration led to virtually everybody having some relatives and childhood friends abroad (until 2004 mostly USA but now mostly European Union). They come back for holidays and cheaper medicine and may send remittances.

Home and away: Lithuanian public/personal space

A large modern detached family house is the coveted accomodation to many (a popular saying goes that "Every Lithuanian has to plant a tree, raise a child and build a house"). In Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipėda however a non-Soviet apartment can also be a status symbol. The majority live in old houses (villages/towns) and Soviet apartments (cities).

Nearly every family owns its home, over 90% without any bank credits attached. Rental is considered acceptable only for students and expatriates. Most homes are even self-designed (at least the interiors).

On average every Lithuanian has 26,2 m2 of living space. 36% live in detached homes, 63% live in apartments (the division is 15%-85% in cities/towns and 80%-20% in villages). Main dwelling types are: pre-WW2 detached homes (mostly wooden, lacking amenities; 7,8%), Soviet detached homes (mostly rural, many prefab; 21%), 1990s detached homes (mostly large, self-designed; 2,5%), 2000s detached homes (Western style; 3,1%), apartments in pre-WW2 urban buildings (downtown and prestigious; 5,8%), early Soviet apartments (mainly city downtowns; 3,6%), late Soviet apartments (prefab micro-districts, largely uneconomical; 46,8%), post-independence apartments (modern, ranging from economic to massive, 7,7%).

A great care is taken to keep the home tidy and comfortable. It is not entirely a personal space however and guests are commonly invited (removing shoes is a must). This cherished "home" ends abruptly at the front door (front gate) - the staircases/public yards may be dirty and derelict. In the Soviet apartment blocks this has been a necessity as the inhabittants are simply too different to agree on common rules. In modern housing developments there is more respect for common good.

Lithuanians are especially attached to location; many spend entire lifes (or at least entire adulthood) in a single home. Even when buying a new apartment most prefer improving size/quality but not the neighborhood (this helps city districts to remain socially heterogenous). However the historical fondness of location has found its limits: many (especially the youth) "improve status" by moving from towns to cities, from non-capital cities to Vilnius, from city apartments to suburban houses or emigrating abroad. While Lithuanians used to build homes "for generations" until 1990s today they increasingly take the new mobility into account.

Many older Lithuanians are fond of gardening. This was condoned by the Soviets who allowed urban dwellers to own suburban gardens in exetensive "garden districts". Some families move to these gardens for summertime; others have built permanent homes there. Nearly all village dwellers own some crops or cattle, even if they have other jobs. Urban relatives may come to help in harvests.

After independence (and scrapped Soviet travel limitations) an annual or more frequent foreign holidays became a norm. Middle-aged and small-town people prefer package holidays in the same Turkish or Egyptian resorts. Young generation increasingly travels independently. Still, Lithuanians love their own seaside and the local resorts get extremely crowded in summer weekends (even if nearly everyone agrees that they have far too little sun).

A car is a kind of obligatory "home away from home" and well cared for. Intra-city public transport is thus used mainly by the poor and those unable to drive. Used prestigious cars are prefered to new(er) small ones.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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