True Lithuania

Russians

Although Russians now are only the second largest minority (5,88%) it certainly is the most visible one. You are likely to hear Russian music in certain bars and restaurants or see the Russian TV stations on.

This is because the population of Russians in Lithuania is mostly urban and centered in the tourist cities of Vilnius and Klaipėda where they make 15% and 23% of all citizens respectively. Additionally, the town of Visaginas built for workers of the Soviet nuclear power plant in the 1980s is over 55% percent Russian. Very few Russians live in smaller towns and villages.

A Russian bar in Vilnius. The urban popularity of Russian music and media exceeds Lithuania's Russian community, but still, they aren't mainstream. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The first Russians came to Lithuania as early as 18th century – these were Old Believer refugees from the Russian Empire. Another wave of Russians came when Lithuania itself was integrated into Russian Empire and the czar attempted a policy of russification. Entire Russian villages supplanted Lithuanian ones in this period of the 19th century while the Russian government workers and soldiers settled in the cities.

Still however after the World War 1 Russians made up only 2,3% of Lithuania’s people. Their share increased fourfold under the Soviet occupation when a state-sponsored campaign resettled many people from other Soviet republics to the newly built micro-districts surrounding major Lithuanian cities. Every new factory had many Russian workers and (especially) executives.

This colonization was more conservative in Lithuania than in Latvia and Estonia (where over a quarter of the population is now ethnic Russians and the main cities became Russian-majority by the 1980s). After 1990 independence the Lithuanian government (unlike those of Latvia and Estonia) offered citizenship to every person who lived in Lithuania by the time of the dissolution of USSR – regardless of ethnicity, languages spoken or family history.

Many older ethnic Russian nationals of Lithuania, therefore, do not speak Lithuanian language let alone English. This included even the director of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant as well as several key businessmen. That generation, however, is slowly fading away, whereas the new generation of Russians (educated in the schools of independent Lithuania) typically speak both Lithuanian and a western foreign language in addition to their native Russian.

While the local Russian youth is well integrated, the Soviet past still causes some friction. Most of the Soviet politicians were Russian. So were the officers and soldiers (including those stationed in Lithuania), as well as the members of NKVD Vilnius HQ (responsible for genocide). Russians, their language, and culture enjoyed a privileged status in the Soviet society (at the expense of minorities, among them Lithuanians). While most of those responsible for genocide left Lithuania after independence, many remaining Russians regard the Soviet Union quite positively (something that is not understandable to the relatives of Soviet genocide victims).

A Soviet army monument in Palanga. Russian military victories had been the key part of the Soviet national myth and every downtown had such a monument. Unlike the Lenin statues, many of these controversially remain standing despite the Soviet army occupation and atrocities. For many ethnic Russians, the Soviet conquests still stir ethnic pride. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Half of Lithuania’s Russians are Orthodox, about 12% are Old Believers, additional 12% are Roman Catholics. Russians are also among the most irreligious groups of people in Lithuania with 25% being atheists, although irreligion is declining.

See also: Top 10 Russian sights in Lithuania

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Ethnicities 3 Comments