True Lithuania

Russophones (Ukrainians, Belarussians and others)

The word "Russophones" often baffles English readers when it is used in Baltic States contexts. Is "Russophone" a euphemism for "Russian"? Not really, it is a wider term.

While the majority of settlers Soviet Union sent to the Baltic states were ethnic Russians, far from every one of them was. Other ethnicities from the Soviet Union would also arrive, including Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Azeri, Moldovans, people from Central Asia.

Neither of these ethnicities (with the exception of Belarussians) existed in Lithuania prior to 1940 in numbers larger than 50 individuals. People from all them share certain similar traits. Despite different origins, they are quite frequently using the Russian language at home and they likely speak Russian better than Lithuanian or (at least those born before ~1975) speak no Lithuanian at all. Due to this reason, they are often grouped together with Russians under the term "Russophone". While the term is mostly used in Latvia and Estonia, it is useful to understand the post-Soviet ethnic tapestry all over the Soviet-controlled lands.

Politically the "Russophones" typically identify the Soviet Union positively and are more likely to be atheists than most other ethnicities.

The above traits are more pronounced in some ethnicities (Ukrainians, Belarussians, interethnic Russophone families) and are less pronounced in some others (Georgians for instance). 55% of the Belarusian community speak Russian natively (only 35% speak Belarusian). The same is true for 66% Jews, 56% Ukrainians, 47% Tatars, 38% Estonians, 36% Armenians, 36% Georgians, 31% Moldovans and 27% Azeris.

The Russophone community was partly created by the Soviet policies which did not establish any non-Russian Soviet language schools, theaters, or media outside of that language's titular homeland, forcing the increasing internal migrants (and some historical minorities) to use the wide network of Russian institutions instead.

Alexander Pushkin Russian language school in Pašilaičiai borough of Vilnius. Like most new Soviet schools it was build based on a typical project. Attendances of Russian language schools declined since 1990 but most are still open. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The offspring of Russophone families would often consider themselves Russian (if at least a single parent would be a Russian) or, after 1990 independence of Lithuania, Lithuanians (especially if one of the parents was Lithuanian). This assimilation of their youth into Russian and Lithuanian communities made the share of Russophones to decline rapidly: only ~5% of Lithuania's Belarusians and Ukrainians were younger than 19 according to 2011 census.

Due to a wide knowledge of the Russian language in Lithuania, people of the former Soviet Union (especially Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia) continue to immigrate, albeit in lower numbers than in 1940s-1980s. This trend became prevalent the first time ~2006-2008 when new Russophone immigrants would take jobs in construction, truck driving, and similar. While the 2009 economic downturn temporarily stopped such immigration, the numbers of new Russophones swelled again in the late 2010s. This time, Russophones would fill in the gaps left by emigrants in service jobs as well. Therefore, controversially, the main cities of Lithuania returned to the dreaded Soviet-era situation where some services would only be provided in Russian, as a restaurant chef, a salesman or a taxi driver would speak no Lithuanian.

However, new Russophone immigrants are often less Russified than the Soviet-era settlers, some of them are actually even anti-Russian due to the Russian aggression against their homelands (e.g. Ukraine or Georgia). Still, even these immigrants often use the Russian language to communicate in Lithuania as they don't speak Lithuanian, while the people of Lithuania don't speak their native languages (Ukrainian, Georgian, etc.). Some of these "new Russophones of Lithuania", however, prefer to speak English over Russian (if they speak English).

Lithuanian views towards Russophones typically depend on their stance. The more Russified ones are often regarded as Russians, however, the other ones that seek to defend their cultures from russification often get the sympathy of Lithuanians. Using the term "Russophones" when speaking about them may be controversial.

Around 2% of Lithuania’s population was from one of these ethnicities (excluding the ethnic Russians) in 2011, likely a higher number today.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Ethnicities 4 Comments
Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I think the Belarusians probably deserve their own category rather than being lumped in with more recent arrivals.
    (If only because I would like to read and learn from such an article!)

    historically they’re very important and massively influential for example on the Lithuanian form of spoken Polish

    • You are correct that Belarusians have a longer history in Lithuania than the other ethnicities mentioned here and perhaps they should be separated.

      The current form of the article was chosen because the modern-day Belarusian community in Lithuania is mainly descending of these more recent arrivals rather than of the historic Belarusian community.

      In 1923, Belarusians made 0,2% of Lithuanian population (excluding Vilnius region), and in 1931 Belarusians made 0,9% of the population in Vilnius city. It could be roughly calculated that in total, there were approximately 0,3% of Belarusians in the territories of modern-day Lithuania. In comparison, by 1989 this number was 1,7% (six times larger).

      Moreover, since 1940, the policies toward Belarusians of the government (Soviet) were similar to the policies towards other ethnicities lumped here, i.e. russification was rampant and expected, no cultural institutions were permitted to exist. Therefore, the difference between modern-day ex-Soviet communities not that big, with most of them going to Russian (some now Lithuanian) schools and significant share speaking Russian at home, etc.

      • There was no name Belarus in 14 century.The Moscowitz called them Litva people(Fedorovska letopis book)The majority of population of Great Duchy of Lithuania in 14 -16 century was (Old Ruthenians) or Belorussians & Ukrainians- over 2 mln. Population of ethnic Zhemaytians in 14-15 century was around 400 thousands only.The state language mainly was Old Ruthenian (Belorussian).
        The historical Statut (Law book ) was written in Old Ruthenian language.
        This rare book was purchased by Belarus museum at auction in Great Britain in recent years. Regards

        • Grand Duchy of Lithuania did indeed have a Slavic population majority at its further territorial extent, from the early 1400s to 1569 Union of Lublin. It also used an Eastern Slavic language as the written language. It is not the same as the modern-day state language, however: at the time, only a few people (e.g. scribes) knew writing and therefore written languages were not the ones spoken by the leaders usually or the ones spoken in the capital (e.g. entire Western Europe used Latin language as a written language in the Medieval times).

          The areas of modern-day Lithuania (also Kaliningrad Oblast, northeast Poland, and northwest Belarus) were inhabited by ethnic Lithuanians (i.e. Balts, not Slavs). Vilnius had some East Slavic (Old Ruthenian) population in the 14th-16th centuries (there are still 4 remaining Orthodox churches dating to that era on the eastern side of the Old Town which used to be an Eastern Slavic district of Vilnius at the time). However, even in Vilnius, the majority of the population was Lithuanian and for every Orthodox church, there were numerous Catholic churches. Gradually, both Lithuanian and Eastern Slavic inhabitants of Vilnius adopted Polish language and customs, and by the 19th century, Vilnius was largely Polish-speaking. A minority of them have since reverted to the Lithuanian language, especially during the National Revival ~1900.

          Samogitians were (and still are) a unique group living in Western Lithuania. They had a separate region “Duchy (Elderate) of Samogitia” at the time. Currently, they are usually considered to be a part of Lithuanian nation, although some of them may disagree.


Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.