True Lithuania

Ethnicities in Lithuania: Introduction

The majority ethnicity in Lithuania is Lithuanians, who make up 85,08% of the population and are the country's original inhabitants.

Poles come second (6,65%), mostly concentrated in Southeast Lithuania, including Vilnius. Russians are third at 5,88% with their liveliest communities in cities.

Fourth largest ethnicity in Lithuania are the Belarusians (1,2%), the fifth are the Ukrainians (0,55%). Together with the other ethnicities of former Soviet Union these two are sometimes labeled Russophones and are also concentrated primarily in the cities.

Other traditional minorities in Lithuania are the Jews, Germans, Tatars, Latvians, Karaims and Gypsies, each of them dating to 14th-15th centuries but consisting of 0,1% or less population today.

Inter-ethnic relations are generally good in Lithuania. Unlike in many European nations, the Lithuania’s largest ethnic minorities enjoy public schools where the language of instruction is their native one rather than the official Lithuanian language. However, other points of language policy raised discussions recently, such as the legality of Polish street names in the Polish-dominated municipalities.

Inter-ethnic marriages used to be shunned by peers while under the Soviet occupation (as the offspring were then likely to assimilate into Russophone culture, threatening the long-term existence of Lithuanian nation) but are now generally a non-issue if both spouses belong to the traditional communities.

Like elsewhere in the Eastern Europe the concept of nation is more associated with ethnicity than citizenship, therefore using the term "Lithuanian" for ethnic minorities may be controversial (both among the minority in question and the rest of population). Conversations about one's ethnicity are generally welcome.

All the traditional communities (well over 99% of the population) are White. Races are thus seen as an external issue used to describe the global (rather than local) diversity.

Ethnic map of Lithuania. The minorities are largely concentrated in the east. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Lithuanians (85% of Lithuania's population) are among the European ethnicities living in their current location for the longest, their forefathers having arrived 2000 BC at the latest. However, the story of Lithuanian nation is that of extreme odds against them and spectacular revivals.

First major threat were the Crusaders as Lithuanians were the largest remaining pagan nation in Europe. Lithuanians successfully defended their lands in alliance with Poland (15th century) but still adopted Christianity. Lithuanians thus avoided the Germanization that assimilated the Prussian culture after Crusader conquest.

The next threat to Lithuanians came peacefully from the Polish culture. Poland became the center of new Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Lithuanian-speakers were more and more relegated to peasantry whereas the nobility adopted Polish language and ways of life.

The end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth brought little hope as the new ruler – Russian Empire - banned Lithuanian language altogether. It was however under these harsh conditions that the Lithuanian national revival started, giving birth to an independent Lithuanian nation-state in 1918.

After a brief period of freedom the Soviet occupation began. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia by the Soviets, including women and small children (many never to return, some not even surviving the initial "journey" in cattle trains). Additional hundreds of thousands were simply killed in this Stalin-led genocide. Vast formerly Lithuanian areas were completely Russified with both the population and placenames replaced (especially in Lithuania Minor).

This history forged the Lithuanian ethnic group. Having suffered a great loss of life and culture at hands of foreign nations, Lithuanians seek that this plight would be acknowledged by the world.

Most Lithuanians would mention these among their key historical facts: the defiance of Christian crusaders (13rd-15th centuries), the book smugglers (1863-1904), the Soviet occupation and genocide (1940-1941, 1944-1990) and the non-violent successful freedom struggle, epitomized in the 1989 Baltic Way human chain

Stereotypically, Lithuanians are considered (and consider themselves) to be envious. Another common belief among Lithuanian men is that the Lithuanian women are among the prettiest in the world, while Lithuanian beer and Lithuanian basketball are among the world's best. Lithuanian folk songs and the art of cross-making are recognized by UNESCO.

Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage whereas Lithuanian cuisine includes the famous potato dumplings cepelinai, various meat, bread and potato dishes.

Genetically Lithuanians are the most similar to Latvians, Estonians, and Finns, all four nations sharing the same dominant DNA haplogroup (N1c). They have fair skin, more than 80% have light-colored eyes and many have light-colored hair (a stereotypical Lithuanian is thus blue-eyed blonde, even though such people are a minority). Lithuanians are among the tallest peoples of the world (this maybe explains their affinity for basketball).

Lithuania and some surrounding areas in modern-day Russia, Poland, Belarus, and Latvia are the traditional heartlands of the Lithuanian nation (with some 2,8 million Lithuanians living in the area). However, the emigration has been rampant since the 19th century. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, Brazilians and Argentines have Lithuanian ancestry, while post-1990s trends of emigration lead primarily to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway and Spain.

It is difficult to say how many Lithuanians live in these countries as many people of Lithuanian heritage there are intermixed and no longer consider themselves Lithuanians nor follow the Lithuanian culture. If considering only those for whom being Lithuanian is more than just family history, there may be ~600 000 Lithuanians in the USA and Canada, ~500 000 in Western Europe, ~50 000 in the former Soviet Union (excluding Latvia and Belarus), ~25 000 in Latin America, ~10 000 in Australia. As the emigration to Western Europe was more recent, Lithuanians there tend to speak Lithuanian and still keep contacts many relatives in Lithuania, while the young Lithuanian-Americans, Lithuanian-Australians or Lithuanians from the former Soviet Union often do not.

Cepelinai meal, folk songs, Lithuanian basketball and the art of cross making are among the most potent symbols of the Lithuanian nation. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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From ~17th century until the very 20th century Lithuanians and Poles were literally a single nation. The same person would even use two names for himself in each language. For example, a famous interwar lawyer used “Michał Römer” and “Mykolas Römeris” respectively.

The situation of the Polish language was similar to that of English in Ireland. After Poland and Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin (1569) and became a single country, the Polish language gradually became the one favored by the ruling nobility. Eventually, it displaced Lithuanian language from more and more areas as Lithuanian was regarded to be the language of the lower classes. Capital city Vilnius and its surroundings as well as the manors in many places of Lithuania (except for Samogitia) switched to Polish over generations.

An 1822 book by Adam Mickiewicz (Lithuanian: Adomas Mickevičius), a famous poet who wrote praises for Lithuania in the Polish language. In his days (1798-1855) the term Lithuanian included Polish native speakers of Lithuanian descent. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

All this “Gente lituanus natione polonus” (Lithuanian tribe, Polish nation) way of thought came to a halt with Lithuanian national revival and the World War 1, after which Poland and Lithuania became separate entities. Still, however, the first Polish President Narutowicz was actually a brother of a signatory of Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence better known as Narutavičius, while the Polish dictator Józef Piłsudski regarded himself to be Lithuanian. Piłsudski was born in Zalavas (a village near Švenčionys) and he ordered to bury his heart in Vilnius (Rasos cemetery).

The dispute of both countries over Vilnius region and the subsequent Soviet occupation which used “Divide and conquer” tactics proved to establish the final boundary between the nations. Few would call themselves to be “Polish speaking Lithuanians” today, with most such people now considering themselves to be Poles (despite their forefathers having been ethnic Lithuanians rather than migrants from Poland). Neutral ethnic identity "a local" (tutejszy), popular pre-WW2, also nearly disappeared.

Currently, the Polish community is largely concentrated in southeastern Lithuania (Vilnius environs) and maintains a rural way of life. Vilnius city, while predominantly Polish-speaking in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was somewhat Lituanized due to urbanization, but still, it hosts 100 000 Poles in its homes (19,39% of Vilnius population and a half of Lithuania's Polish community). Nearly all-Catholic, the Poles are the most religious ethnic community.

Traditionally (since ~17th century) there was much multilingualism and diglossia in the Vilnius area and the manors. The language to use used to depend on circumstances and political views on the Polish-Lithuanian issue. This multilingualism used to be Polish-Lithuanian or (in some villages) Polish-Belarusian but it was displaced by Russian-Polish bilingualism during the Soviet Russification drive. With the restoration of independence (1990) the situation is changing once again.

Plaque with a Lithuanian street name and its Polish translation in ~92% Polish Medininkai village (Vilnius district municipality). The local authority promotes Polish while the government prefers Lithuanian. Russian, Belarusian and pidgins thereof are also spoken but less visible publically. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuania's Polish community took a great hit under Stalin's policies when some 200 000 primarily Polish people (as many as there are Poles in Lithuania today) were moved from Lithuania to settle the lands acquired by Poland from Germany in the World War 2, while others were deported to Siberia. However, some new Poles were brought into Lithuania from Belarus in the same era. After 1950 the share of the Polish community in Lithuania largely stabilized (currently 6,65%). Today, it is the only minority of Lithuania to have a strong minority rights political party with the Lithuanian Poles Electoral Action having the majority in the predominantly Polish municipalities and enjoying representation in both Lithuanian and European parliaments.

See also: Top 10 Polish sites in Lithuania

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Although Russians now are only Lithuania's *second* largest minority (5,88%) it certainly is the most visible one. A tourist who visits Lithuania is far more likely to hear Russian music in restaurants and bars, see Russian TV stations turned on than those in any other of the Lithuania's minority languages.

One reason 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 the 18th century – these were Old Believer refugees from the Russian Empire. Another wave of Russians came when Lithuania itself was integrated into the 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-officials and soldiers settled in the cities.

Still, however, after World War 1 and 1918 Lithuanian independence, 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 the 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 the 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 some prominent figures in business and the public life. That generation, however, is 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 Union's 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).

People celebrating Soviet victory day at Antakalnis cemetery in Vilnius, the city's largest burial place for Soviet soldiers. They lay red flowers at the graves, carry images of soldier relatives and the controversial St. George strip symbol

Mostly ethnic Russian people celebrating the Soviet victory day at Antakalnis cemetery in Vilnius, the city's largest burial place for Soviet soldiers. Given that the Soviet victory in World War 2 meant decades of Soviet occupation for Lithuania, such activities are extremely controversial among Lithuanians. ©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

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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.

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While some Jewish craftsmen lived in Lithuania since the 14th century, the number of Jews peaked in the 19th century after Russian czar designated Lithuania one of the few Imperial lands where Jews would be allowed to settle. At that time the Jews were primarily businessmen, controlling some 80% of the country's small businesses and 90% of large businesses in the mid-19th century. Nearly all Jews were urban dwellers and they became the majority in a few towns and a significant minority in many others. In the 1880s-1930s town Jews were moving to cities; great numbers emigrated (primarily to South Africa, Palestine, and the USA) decreasing the overall Jewish population in Lithuania.

Subsequently, the Jewish community was greatly hit by the Nazi German occupation and its Holocaust (1941-1945). The remaining Jews have largely emigrated to Israel.

Historically the Lithuanian Jews, known as Litvaks, spoke Yiddish, but with the Soviet occupation, many switched to Russian in the 1970s. Currently, a new switch to Lithuanian is taking place. The only secular Jewish school in Vilnius chose Lithuanian as the medium of instruction (the sole religious school offers education in both languages). Less than 10% of Lithuania's Jews spoke Yiddish natively in 2001, the majority of them elderly, and that generation has mostly died out now. 66% declared Russian to be their native language in 2001 census (this percentage is second only to the ethnic Russians).

A statue dedicated to the Gaon of Vilnius. The final commentator of Talmud he is among the many Litvaks who have influenced the worldwide Jewish culture. On the right side of the picture, the original buildings of the Vilnius Jewish district remain. On the left, however, a Soviet kindergarten, based on a typical project, replaced the Vilnius Great Synagogue, demolished by the Soviets beforehand. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A disproportionally large number of Lithuania's Jews collaborated with the Soviet occupational authorities, with 30,6% of Lithuania's communist party members in 1940 being Jewish (80% prior to mass recruitment). Religion, shunned by the communists, also lost ground: according to the 2001 census, only 25% of Jews profess Jewish faith with the majority of Lithuania's Litvaks being atheists (the biggest atheist percentage among all ethnic communities).

Thus there are similarities between the modern Jewish minority and the Russophone community in their linguistic, irreligious and political preferences.

The widespread atheism causes friction between Jewish religious and secular (ethnicity-based) communities over who are the descendants of interwar Jewry and should be entitled to receive back the real estate nationalized by the Soviets and related compensations.

1923 census enumerated 153 743 Jews in Lithuania (excluding Vilnius region), or some 7,1% of the entire population (the share was decreasing). It is estimated that by 1939 Lithuania had up to 200 000 Jews (including Vilnius region). The 1959 Soviet census found 24 672 Jews in the Lithuanian territory (a decrease of 88%, most of it attributable to the German genocide, but some to successful emigration, Soviet expulsions, or deaths while fighting for the Soviets). Due to emigration to Israel, this number further shrunk to 12 392 in the 1989 census (-50%), to 4 007 in the 2001 Lithuanian census (-68%), and to 3 050 in the 2011 census (-24%).

Currently, there are far more people of Litvak origin outside Lithuania than inside; 70% of South Africa's 85 000-strong Jewry alone have Litvak origins.

Since the 2000s, however, the interest in Jewish culture greatly resurged in Lithuania itself, with hundreds of new monuments and plaques for Lithuania's Jews unveiled and many events regularly held celebrating their culture. Nearly always this is funded by either the government of Lithuania or the foreign Jewish communities (rather than a small remaining Jewish community of Lithuania).

Books of the Minorities Section of the Lithuanian National Library reading room. 64% of the books are about Jews, despite them making 0,1% of the population and never in history more than some 13%. This shows the massive interest and research about the community in Lithuania in recent years.

Books of the Minorities Section of the Lithuanian National Library reading room. 64% of the books are about Jews, despite them making 0,1% of the population and never in history more than some 13%. Additionally, there is a separate Jewish reading room. All this shows the massive interest and research about the community in Lithuania in recent years. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Lithuania's German minority is somewhat forgotten today but there was the time when it was among the most important ones, playing a key role in the development of the Lithuania's cities and trade.

A part of Lithuanian territory - the so-called Klaipėda region - has been ruled by Germany for centuries (13th-20th centuries). While culturally that area was part of Lithuania Minor , the Lithuanian majority there was already fragile by the 20th century with the Klaipėda (German: Memel) city itself being predominantly German.

While German knights attacked Lithuania, they never conquered it. Instead, the first German inhabitants came to Lithuanian cities while the nation was still Pagan (14th century) peacefully as traders and craftsmen. The Lithuanian dukes saw them as beneficial to the economy as they brought in advanced western ideas and contacts with them. Lithuanian city laws were then modeled on German city laws. In their societal position, Lithuania's Germans were thus comparable to Jews.

A different story happened in a part of Lithuania known as Lithuania Minor. It was conquered by German knights and was ruled by German countries from 13th to the 20th century. There, Germans were not a somewhat closeted minority they were in the rest of Lithuania. There, German culture and language was the elite culture. Ethnic Lithuanians would also adopt it over generations, leaving the Lithuanian majority fragile by the 19th-20th century. Klaipėda city itself in fact had a German majority at that time.

German national romantic style is common in the early 20th century buildings of the Lithuania Minor, where Germans made a significant minority until World War 2. These iconic red bricks were also a popular building material for barns and farmsteads in the region. The building in this picture was constructed in 1909 in Šilutė (German: Heydekrug) and now houses a vocational school. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the interwar period, the Germans made up 4,1% of Lithuania‘s population (41,9% in the Klaipėda region and 1,4% elsewhere, mostly in cities and Sudovia). Sadly this community was all but destroyed by the advancing Soviet armies in the World War 2. Most were either killed, expelled, or evacuated never to return. A few, however, remained while some others chose to come back after Lithuania became independent once again. Currently, Germans are the 7th largest ethnic community of Lithuania, made up of 3 200 people.

However, according to the 2001 census, only 804 (27%) of Lithuania's Germans spoke German natively. The majority (1587, or 54%) spoke Lithuanian, while a significant minority (18%) named Russian as their native language. Additionally, unlike in the interwar period when the German minority was predominantly Lutheran today only 39% of them are Lutherans, another 39% are Roman Catholics and 13% are irreligious. These linguistic and religious shifts were influenced by the Soviet policy which unofficially equaled all Germans to Nazis and discriminated them. Therefore many Germans who managed to remain in Lithuania feared speaking German or to do other things attributed to their German ethnicity while the Soviet occupation continued, and especially so in the 1940s-1950s.

Because of all this, the German community remains rather unknown in Lithuania: most locals would believe that a German must be a foreigner or a recent immigrant.

Surviving German inscriptions in Klaipėda Region. Once purposefully painted over by the Soviets, now they are sometimes uncovered to build a relation with the area's history. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A part of Lithuania's Germans is the so-called "wolf children". Orphaned due to World War 2 and the Soviet genocide they were wandering through Lithuania of the late 1940s and many were secretly brought up by Lithuanian peasants.

See also: Top 10 German sites in Lithuania

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Turkic minorities: Tatars and Karaims

Tatar and Karaim minorities of Lithuania are frequently thought of as similar.

Both these communities have Turkic roots and their presence in Lithuania dates to the 15th century when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania spanned from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It is these barren lands in modern-day Ukraine where both Tatars and Karaims originate from, their ancestors brought to their current residences by Grand Duke Vytautas the Great.

However, other than these superficial similarities, Tatars and Karaims are very different.

Tatars are Sunni Muslims. They were brought to Lithuania to serve as soldiers, their villages established at the Grand Duchy boundaries and around the capital city Vilnius. The lives of Tatar leaders were somewhat similar to the Catholic nobility. Tatars gradually lost their language and they speak Lithuanian natively today, but their Muslim faith survived and continued to distinguish them. Vytautas the Great brought in some 13 000 Tatars, but much less remain today with most Tatar villages disintegrated over the centuries.

An additional influx of Tatars reached Lithuania under the second Soviet occupation (1944-1990) together with other Soviet ethnicities. These Tatars were however largely from the Volga region and may be considered a different ethnicity. Arguably they have more similarities to the Russophones than to the traditional Lithuanian Tatars. In total, there are 3 000 Lithuanian Tatars and Tatars from the Volga area. A third of them speak Lithuanian natively, therefore, there may be 1 000 Lithuanian Tatars and the remainder are largely Volga Tatars, two-thirds of whom speak Russian natively.

The owner of Lithuanian Tatar museum in Subartonys village (Dzūkija) holds a Lithuanian Tatar flag that has been inspired by Islamic symbolism. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Tatar heritage in Lithuania includes 4 active mosques (three wooden village ones and a brick one in Kaunas) and Muslim cemeteries in Tatar villages. Surviving Tatar villages are Raižiai (Alytus district municipality), Keturiasdešimt Totorių and Nemėžis (both in Vilnius district municipality), but with the exception of the mosques, there is little historical architecture there. Late June every year a traditional ethnic holiday Sabantuy takes place in Trakai. Čeburekai (a Tatar dish used to be taken by soldiers to war) has been appropriated into mainstream Lithuanian cuisine as a popular fast food.

Karaims, on the other hand, practice their own Karaite faith, an offshoot of Judaism. They do not consider themselves to be Jews, however, and no government that ruled the area did. Even the Nazi German regime did consider Karaims to be a separate ethnicity, sparing them from the Holocaust.

Unlike Tatars, Karaims were always primarily city-dwellers rather than soldiers (and in this trait similar to Jews). Initially brought by Vytautas the Great to the Trakai town and Panevėžys area they eventually followed common migration patterns and established their community in Vilnius. However, Trakai remains the heartland of Karaims, and their dishes, such as kibin (Lithuanian: kibinai) pasties or krupnik alcoholic beverage, may be readily tasted in the town.

Karaimų (Karaim) street in Trakai not far from the town's famous castle. Almost every home has three façade windows, peculiar to the Karaim tradition. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Interestingly, Karaim cuisine gained a foothold in Lithuania that is far disproportional to the Karaim share of the population. In addition to tasting kibins (pastries with meat) at a local fast food stall, you may investigate Karaim culture in the Karaim museum (Trakai) and two active Kenessas (temples) in Vilnius (Žvėrynas borough) and Trakai. The Karaimų street in Trakai still boasts many homes with traditional three Karaim facade windows.

Unlike Tatars, the Karaims managed to preserve their Turkic language, but their numbers are lower with the 2001 census enumerating merely 273 Karaims (138 in Vilnius, 65 in Trakai and 31 in Panevėžys). This is an endangered ethnicity worldwide as even in their Ukrainian homeland there are only some 1 000 of them left.

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Latvians, together with the Lithuanians, are the only nations speaking Baltic languages left in the world. Their relations are generally very good, and they call each other brothers. While there have been some political downtimes, this has never made Lithuanians and Latvians dislike each other.

There are only some 3 000 Latvians in Lithuania - much less than there are either Poles, Russians or Belarussians, the three other ethnic groups with whom Lithuanians share their borders. One part of Latvians lives in historical communities in northern Lithuania close to the border of Latvia. Another part of Lithuania's Latvians lives in the major cities where they have largely immigrated in the 1940s and later from Latvia-proper.

In 1918, when both Lithuania and Latvia became independent from the Russian empire the ethnic boundary was far more diluted. There was a short dispute on where the Lithuanian-Latvian border should run, solved by a peaceful arbitration in 1922. Still, the new border left many people "on the wrong side", with some northern Lithuanian towns (e.g. Palanga) being 10%-25% Latvian. Overally, there were 14 883 Latvians in Lithuania according to the 1923 census (0,7% of the entire Lithuanian population) and several times that number of Lithuanians in Latvia.

Subsequently, the minorities on both sides of the border declined due to various reasons, not the least among them emigration to their newly-established ethnic homeland. The Soviet population transfers failed to replenish the communities.

The Latvian nation is multi-religious with strong Roman Catholic and Lutheran communities. Latvians of Lithuania were traditionally overwhelmingly Lutheran (in 1923 as much as 91% of Lithuania's Latvians were Lutheran). Today however only 36% of Lithuania's Latvians are Lutheran, another 36% are Roman Catholic and some 21% are irreligious (as per 2001 census).

Būtingė Lutheran church near Šventoji borderland (built 1824) is one of the last borderland parishes to offer occasional Latvian prayers. The sermons are however Lithuanian, possibly due to lack of Latvian-speaking priests. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Perhaps because of their cultural similarity to Lithuanians the Latvians of Lithuania generally receive less public attention than other traditional minorities of comparable size.

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Gypsies (Romani people)

Unlike in many southeastern European countries, Gypsies make up only a small portion of the Lithuanian population (2 500 people) but they used to be very visible for those who seek. Next to Vilnius international airport, there was a unique Gypsy district ("Taboras") full of illegally constructed wooden shacks whose owners refuse to pay any taxes. It was demolished in 2020.

This favela-like district (the only such in the Baltic States) of some 500 people was a major drug dealing spot and all attempts to curtail this activity or to resettle the Gypsies into social housing had failed before.

Due to the participation of a large part of Lithuania‘s Gypsies in criminal activities as well as the self-isolation of this community, the opinion polls usually show that the Gypsies are the least wanted neighbors.

Gypsy ethnicity formed after their ancestors departed northern India at 300 BC for reasons unknown. They reached Lithuania in 15th-16th centuries AD through Persia (passed by in the 11th century) and Byzantium. Being the last nomads of Europe Gypsies used to migrate regularly with their entire villages ("Taboras") of related families, led by a baron or a king. Under the Soviet rule all Lithuanian Gypsies settled down and many traditional authorities disintegrated although the informal Gypsy law court still takes place.

Children playing at the Čigonų (Gypsy) street in Taboras of Vilnius. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Many Lithuanian Gypsies self-style themselves Christian but are not practicing. Unique unwritten moral code with its own taboos supplants both religious and secular morals. Exotic to an outsider it (for example) permits Gypsies to steal yet forbids them to have a toilet inside their home.

The family is of utmost importance and Gypsies have more children than any other Lithuania's community. Unregistered teenage marriages (14-16-year-old girls) are common. Some children attend school yet others do not as education is not valued. Money is, however, held in high esteem and the more affluent a Gypsy is the more honorable he is considered by his peers (disregarding the source of wealth). Most Gypsies are officially jobless although a few have successful musical careers.

Lithuanian Gypsies consist of traditional (pre-1940) communities and Soviet-era migrants from Ukraine and Moldova. These two groups speak different dialects of the Romany language. Taboras of Vilnius housed a quarter of total Lithuania's Gypsy population, the remainder spread among smaller communities in other cities and some towns.

After Lithuanian accession to the European Union (2004) and the abolition of border control additional Gypsies immigrated from Southern Europe, some of them nomadic and seasonally moving between EU member states.

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New Immigrants

Independent Lithuania attracted many new immigrants from poorer and/or war-torn countries. Seeing a darker-skinned, black or Asian face was a very rare experience even in the largest cities of Lithuania in the years up to 2000 (one could literally not see one in months). In the 1990s, the new immigrants were so unusual that a disproportionately large number of non-white immigrants became instant TV or music celebrities precisely because of their “exotic looks”.

Not any more so, even though the percentage of non-European immigrants and their children is still somewhat lower in Lithuania than in the Western European countries such as France or the UK. After all, in Lithuania, most salaries are significantly lower so it is better to migrate further west.

Still, the majority of new immigrants come from the former Soviet Union and therefore strengthen the already existing Russian and Russophone communities rather than establishing new ones. They tend to fill the jobs which too few Lithuanians would do at home, such as the construction sector of the 2007 boom era or the burgeoning IT sector as well as truck driving today. Good command of Russian helps them in Lithuania where Russian is still understood by 70% locals (while an inadequate knowledge of English often precludes from migrating further West). In many cases, they fill the gaps in the job market left by emigrated Lithuanians (who are allowed to freely move into Western Europe and have fewer language barriers). Citizens of the former Soviet Union countries make up 1,6% of Lithuania's permanent residents, with 0,6% being Ukrainian citizens, 0,4% Belarusian, and 0,4% Russian.

After Lithuania joined the European Union, increasingly many of its key businesses became owned by Western Europeans. Multinational companies would often move in expatriates into the higher-paid and executive positions. Most of these are Western Europeans as they could freely reside in Lithuania. As the Western social security payments often surpass middle-class Lithuanian salaries, only the higher class Westerners would relocate to Lithuania. Citizens of the other European Union countries make up 0,6% of Lithuania's permanent residents.

Some new immigrants (mainly Asians) work in ethnic businesses, for example, Chinese or Indian restaurants, Turkish kebab kiosks, or Thai massage parlors. But even these positions are sometimes held by Lithuanians or the established ethnic minorities.

The most famous foreigners who live in Lithuania are basketball players (mostly South Slavs and African Americans). They are few in numbers, however, and usually move out after several years.

In addition to immigrants, there are large numbers of foreigners temporarily living in Lithuania. Many of them are ERASMUS students. This is a European Union-wide program that allows a university student to spend a semester or two in another EU country.

Not all students are temporary. Lithuania became a popular destination to study medicine and technical sciences among Indians and Arabs, especially the Lebanese. Some of them continue their careers in Lithuania.

Lithuania has maintained a policy of promoting skilled migration and migration from neighboring countries which helped to avoid interethnic tensions so far. However, in 2015 European Union coerced Lithuania into transferring over a thousand of mostly African illegal migrants from Western European countries into Lithuania. This has raised the Lithuanian "unwanted immigrant" annual intake many times, leading to fears that problems that now plague Western Europe (increased crime, riots, terrorism, strains on social services, interracial and interreligious conflicts, a need for self-censorship) would also spread to Lithuania. The European Union was also accused by Lithuanians of sharing problems rather than solving them and attracting even more illegal migrants by granting them what they want (life in Europe with government handouts), despite them disregarding the law.

Lithuania has also served as a minor destination for genuine refugees from the East, especially Chechnya and Afghanistan. While disproportional numbers of them have been also associated with joblessness and crime, their lower numbers and more historical similarity to Lithuanians (e.g. the shared plight of Soviet/Russian occupation) generally precluded them from making a higher impact on the situation.

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Ethnic relations in Lithuania

History of Lithuania is often presented in very different lights depending on whoever writes it. There are numerous "positions" on various issues, quite often correlating with the ethnicity, religion and/or nationality of the author.

The reason for this is that for different groups of Lithuania's people each period tend to bring extremely different prospects. At the same time some groups prevailed, others were persecuted or even murdered en masse (and vice-versa). Naturally (often perhaps subconsciously), a person from a particular group, even if he is a historian, tends to put more emphasis on his or her own group, consider their losses to be more tragic, their own mistakes to be less grave, and their own victories to be more glorious.

This article aims to present all the standpoints on the history of Lithuania and the reasons why they exist by explaining the ethnic relations in Lithuania in every period of its turbulent history. The article is grouped by periods, and then by pairs of ethnicities.

First, however, we present a rough scheme of Lithuanian history which shows what was the situation for each group during each historical period, ranging from 1 (which means genocide) to 9 (which means domination beyond the borders of modern-day Lithuania). This diagram is capable of explaining differing opinions on various eras.

Of course, this diagram is a simplification: the reality was more complex, with each group subdivided into many sub-groups which also often faced different issues.

Diagram of the position of the ethnicities in Lithuania in different years. 1 - genocide, 2 - heavy persecution, 3 - medium persecution, 4 - low status (but little ethnic persecution), 5 - mediocre status, 6 - high status (but no cultural domination), 7 - threatened domination in Lithuania, 8 - undisputed domination in Lithuania, 9 - domination beyond the area of modern-day Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1253-1569)

Grand Duchy of Lithuania largely peacefully expanded southwards and eastwards to become the largest country in Medieval Europe, ruling Ukrainians and Belarusians. However, being pagan, Lithuanians were also outcasts of Europe, having German crusades launched against them. Wishing to end such a situation and "modernize", Lithuanians sought to cooperate with nations such as Poles and Germans, adopting some of their cultural and economic practices and/or allowing their immigration.

Lithuanian-Belarusian/Ukrainian relations (1253-1569). Lithuanians expanded their country into Belarusian and Ukrainian lands by peaceful means, such as marriages. There was no animosity between these groups. While it was understood that the leaders of Lithuania are Lithuanians - i.e. the Pagan, later Catholic nation - Belarusians/Ukrainians also had a fair share of influence as well. Lithuanians who were sent to rule Slavic lands would learn to speak Belarusian/Ukrainian and often adopt the Orthodox faith. Moreover, as Lithuanians had no written language prior to their annexations of Belarus and Ukraine, they have adopted a Slavic language (together with Latin) for literary purposes. Ordinary people were not expected to adapt their faiths anytime.

Expansion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into the Belarusian/Ukrainian areas, superimposed on modern European state boundaries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-German relations (1253-1569). Medieval Germans were a large restless nation that has expanded eastwards. One major goal was to spread Christianity: Germans have established military orders aimed at conquering then-pagan Lithuania, and these centuries of Lithuanian-German battles are still well remembered in Lithuania (as a result, Germans conquered Western Lithuania that later became known as Lithuania Minor). However, much of the German "expansion" was peaceful, as German traders and craftsmen migrated into Lithuanian-ruled cities. Tolerant and mostly rural Lithuanians sought to (l)earn as much as possible from the well-established German urban culture. Thus German city laws were copied by Lithuanian cities, while German traders were allowed to operate Christian churches in Vilnius and Kaunas even while Lithuania was still pagan.

Battle of Žalgiris (Grunewald), 1410. Lithuanians and Poles have decisively defeated the German knights. From then on, the Lithuanian-German boundary stood firm for hundreds of years. On its western side (Lithuania Minor) the German overlords had many Lithuanian peasant subjects. On its eastern side, Lithuanian overlords had some German merchant subjects.

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1253-1569). Lithuanians and Poles were neighboring nations sharing some enemies, leading to much cooperation. Eventually (1386), Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila (Polish: Jagiello) was crowned as a king of Poland, establishing a joint dynasty and even more contact. While Poland was smaller in size, it was more Western in culture. Wishing to integrate into the "framework of Europe" and end the devastating wars against German orders, Lithuanians chose to adopt Western practices such as Christianity, administration, and heraldry. These practices generally came to Lithuania in their Polish variants, leading the formerly pagan Lithuanian high society to become outwardly somewhat similar to their peers from Poland.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1253-1569). After grand duke Gediminas invited western craftsmen and merchants to Lithuania, the first Jews arrived. Afterward, Lithuanian rulers granted numerous privileges for Jews, giving them a special status that made them "free people" rather than the property of local nobles (as most non-noble Lithuanians were at the time). In general, Lithuanian leaders saw Jews as useful for the economy, while Lithuanian peasants intermingled little with Jews.

One of the letters of Gediminas that invited foreign craftsmen into Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-Turkic relations (1253-1569). By the 15th century Lithuanians have conquered Turkic lands (modern-day southern Ukraine). Grand Duke Vytautas the Great brought local populations of Tatars and Karaims from there to Lithuania. Typically, they lived in separate districts and towns. Each minority at the time had its own role; while Karaims were town dwellers like Jews, Tatars were generally expected to serve in the military like the Lithuanian nobility. Both groups were allowed to continue professing their faiths, erecting kenessas, and mosques.

A wooden Tatar mosque in Raižiai, one of the traditionally Tatar villages. While this particular mosque has been constructed in 19th century, the unique Lithuanian Tatar style has been likely continuously used since the times Tatars arrived. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era (1569-1795)

After Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed in 1569, the nobility of both nations slowly integrated into one, mostly through Lithuanian nobles adopting Polish customs. Polish and Lithuanian nobilities were increasingly seen as a single nation, which also included the Belarusians. In addition to them, there were numerous "exotic" minorities, such as Jews, which were seen as foreigners, but nevertheless usually enjoyed great tolerance and protection

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1569-1795). Lithuania was a lesser partner in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Polish nobility had the most important say on most issues. As such, throughout the era Polish culture and language were seen as more prestigious by the Lithuanian elite, causing it to adopt the Polish way of life over generations. Polish thus became the primary language of manors and Vilnius city. Many of these "Polonized Lithuanians" would see themselves as being both Poles and Lithuanians. Still, the overwhelming majority of Lithuanians remained non-Polonized but they were landless peasants, having little rights and say over issues.

The representatives of the nobility from every voivodship of Poland-Lithuania with their local clothes and emblems. Polish (left) and Lithuanian (right) flags crown the central tent. Anonymous painting of 18th century. Note the lack of differences between Lithuanian and Polish nobility, seeing itself as a single nation.

Lithuanian-German relations (1569-1795) in Lithuania Minor largely mimicked the Lithuanian-Polish relations in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as Lithuanians adopted the German language and culture over generations. However, while nearly all local Lithuanians converted to the German Lutheran Church, they did not abandon their language, with the world's first Lithuanian language books printed in areas under German sovereignty. In Lithuania-proper the German minority, now Lutheran as well, was rather isolated from the society-as-a-whole and kept low-key, participating in their own businesses and urban affairs but not the national politics that were reserved for nobility.

Catechism of Martynas Mažvydas was the first printed book in Lithuanian, printed in the German-ruled part of Lithuania (1547). Throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth period, more Lithuanian books were printed in German-ruled Lithuania minor than in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth itself, where the Polish language predominated as the literary language.

Lithuanian-Russian relations (1569-1795). As the power of Muscovy was rising in the 16th-18th centuries, it gradually became the main menace of Lithuania. Officially viewing much of Lithuania as "historically Russian", it would often invade and sack Lithuanian villages and towns, detaching more and more Lithuanian lands. However, in the 17th century, a schism within the Russian Orthodox church made some Russians a target of persecutions in Russia itself. Lithuania offered refuge to them. Establishing many far-away villages they started Lithuania's Russian Old Believer community.

Old believer churches, the centerpoint of the Russian Old Believer refugee villages they have established in the 17th-18th centuries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Polish-Belarusian/Ukrainian relations (1569-1795). Like Lithuanian culture, the Belarusian/Ukrainian culture was now secondary to Polish. The government attempted to bring Belarusians and Ukrainians closer to Poles by imposing an Eastern Catholic church on them, which would still follow Russian Orthodox rites but recognize Papal authority.

Josaphat Kuntsevych, inspired by Polish policies, encourages his fellow Belarusians to join the Eastern Catholic church. Later he was killed for his ideas, but the Eastern Catholic church took hold.

Lithuanian-Belarusian/Ukrainian relations (1569-1795) grew increasingly less relevant. Firstly, Lithuania ceded entire Ukraine to Poland in 1569, essentially losing its Ukrainian population. The remainder of Grand Duchy was culturally divided between Lithuanian-speakers and Belarusian-speakers, however, increasingly both groups were reduced to peasants who had little contact outside their immediate area (as the nobility and elite of both groups became Polish-speaking and effectively became a separate "noble nation").

Russian-Belarusian/Ukrainian relations (1569-1795). Russians have officially regarded Belarusians and especially Ukrainians of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as natural allies and the proof that these lands are Russian. While some of them (especially Ukrainians) did indeed cooperate with Russians, this would typically not bring them the desired results of freedom.

Lithuanian/Polish-Jewish relations (1569-1795). Polish-Lithuanian nobility, seeing mostly craftsmen and merchant Jewry as useful to the economy, further extended the special rights of Jews that were above those of most Lithuanians, and accepted Jewish refugees from the lands where they were persecuted. Jews were regarded as a separate nation by Poles and Lithuanians and granted self-rule, a kind of state-within-a-state. Polish-Lithuanian Christian churches, however, sought to convert the Jews, mostly unsuccessfully.

Lithuanian/Polish-Gypsy relations (1569-1795). Unlike in various Western European countries, Gypsies were allowed to freely roam in Lithuania. Polish-Lithuanian nobility allowed them to spend time in their lands, sometimes performing various arts. Some Polish-Lithuanian nobles were appointed as "Gypsy kings" and had to ensure that the Gypsies pay taxes and abide by the laws.

Lithuanian/Polish-Westerner* relations (1569-1795). It became popular to hire artists from Western Europe (especially Italy) to design and decorate buildings and churches of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility, while some Westerner merchants arrived for trade. While there were numerous such residents in Lithuania over the Rennaisance and Baroque centuries, they were usually either just temporary residents, whereas those few who remained longer assimilated into the Polish-Lithuanian culture. As such, while Westerners left a significant legacy in the form of key buildings and arts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there was never a true Italian, French, or English community in pre-modern Lithuania.

Italian-designed sculpture-filled interior of Ss. Peter and Paul church in Vilnius, still among the most famous sights of Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russian Imperial era (1795-1918)

To many people of Lithuania, the 1795 Russian Imperial rule started as a mere change of the regime. However, by the mid-19th century, it turned into a major Russification drive, where non-Russian ethnicities were expected to assimilate into the Russian nation. Based on their sizes and relationship with the ruling regime, the ethnic communities of Lithuania found themselves in different situations and developed separate goals under such pressure. Even the centuries-old Polish-Lithuanian unity withered. Ultimately, Lithuania and Poland became independent separate countries in 1918.

Polish-Russian relations (1795-1918). Right from the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poles resented the Russian rule, organizing two revolts (1831, 1862) that took place in Lithuanian lands as well. The revolts failed, however, and part of the Polish nobility of Lithuania was persecuted for supporting them. Poles were seen by Russians as one of the most dangerous minorities to the unity of the Russian Empire.

Polish-led mutineers against the Russian czar

Lithuanian-Russian relations (1795-1918). The massive Russian discrimination of Lithuanians began in the 1860s (after the second Polish uprising) when the Lithuanian language was outlawed from public use and print. Other policies included the deportation of some Lithuanians to Siberia, settlement of Lithuania by ethnic Russians, mass conversion of Catholic churches to Russian Orthodox use, dispossession of the Lithuanian nobility. These policies named "Restoration of the Russian beginnings" as Russians believed that "before becoming Polonized, Lithuania was ethnically Russian", denying the existence of the Lithuanian nation altogether and seeing Lithuania merely as a pawn in the Russian-Polish struggle for dominance. Lithuanians safeguarded their assaulted culture illegally by "bookcarriers" (who smuggled Lithuanian books from Lithuania Minor) and "daraktoriai" (secret teachers of the Lithuanian language). Such "cultural defense" eventually turned into a massive Lithuanian national revival. After discriminatory measures were finally curbed in 1904, Lithuanians increasingly demanded even more: autonomy and later independence.

As part of the 'restoration of the Russian beginnings', Russians have reconstructed the St. Nicholas Orthodox church from a local Baroque to a more-Russian-looking Neo-Byzanthine style.

Lithuanian-German relations (1795-1918) in the German-ruled part of Lithuania were rather good. However, the area was gradually slowly Germanizing as ethnic Germans moved into its towns while Lithuanians who moved into towns also often would switch to speaking German over generations. As such, the Lithuanian-speaking area of Prussia/Germany halved during the 19th century. That said, there was no state-sponsored persecution of Lithuanians. They were allowed to print Lithuanian language materials both for local use and to smuggle into Russian-ruled Lithuania where they were banned.

'1890s Lithuanian newspapers printed in German-ruled Lithuania minor. The left one is for local use, using more German loanwords and a German fraktur typeset, while the right one is meant for export into Lithuania-proper. This illustrates the mostly peaceful Germanization that went on in Lithuania Minor

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1795-1918). In the early 19th century, Lithuanian and Polish intellectuals shared an idea to recreate Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, fighting in two failed uprisings against Russia together (1831, 1862). As the century progressed however and serfdom was abolished, more and more Lithuanians began seeking to establish Lithuania independent of both Russia and Poland. While this included some nobles, the ideas became more widespread among non-nobles who were getting increasingly educated (after all, only 27,7% of nobles spoke Lithuanian in 1897, with 59,4% speaking Polish natively, whereas the peasants were primarily Lithuanian-speakers). Lithuanian-Polish relations thus largely coincided with class relations between landless peasants (Lithuanians) and landed nobility (Poles). It should be noted that "Lithuanian" and "Pole" were largely a cultural choice at the time as most local self-identified Poles would actually be of Lithuanian descent. Later, after it became usual to consider oneself just a Pole or a Lithuanian, there were cases where even siblings would "choose" different ethnicities.

An 1822 book by Adam Mickiewicz (Lithuanian: Adomas Mickevičius), a famous poet who wrote praises for Lithuania in the Polish language. In his days (1798-1855) the term Lithuanian included Polish native speakers of Lithuanian descent. Soon afterward, however, the goals of two nations divulged. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russian-Jewish relations (1795-1918). Russians viewed the Jewish population of the Empire with distrust, but they also used Jews to dilute ethnic majorities in the Empire's Western lands, among them Lithuania. These became the only Imperial areas where Jews could freely settle, so-called "Pale of Settlement" and some towns thus even became Jewish majority. Jews were allowed to control the area's business (85%-95% of Lithuania's businessmen were Jewish in the era), leaving the political sphere to Russians. Even if the Jewish businessmen may have been well-off by Russian standards, Russia as a whole was poor on the global scale. So by the late 19th century, many Jews would opt to emigrate to the USA or Palestine, decreasing their population share in Lithuania.

The map of the Jewish pale of settlement superimposed on the ethnic map of pre-WW1 Europe. As it is clearly visible, the eastern boundary of the Pale of Jewish settlement follows closely the eastern boundary of minority-majority regions of the Russian Empire. The Jewish pale of settlement nearly entirely corresponds to the area of the Russian Empire that was inhabited by Belarusians, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Romanians. The Jewish settlement allowed to make these areas more diverse (making any unified separatism more difficult), whereas Russia's heartland became more ethnically Russian

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1795-1918). Lithuanians and Jews had very little contact as Lithuanians were nearly all peasants (working land) while Jews nearly all lived in towns (doing business), and neither group had political powers. The only time they would interact was when Lithuanian peasants would visit marketplaces and fairs. While nationalism was on the rise both among Lithuanians and Jews, these ideas did not clash as nationalist Jews (Zionists) generally saw Lithuanian independence as an irrelevant cause and instead wanted to create Israel in Palestine, where many emigrated. To Lithuanians, the Lithuanian independence meant regaining sovereignty from Russians and lands from Polish-speakers, with Jews not considered as enemies (the business sphere where Jews dominated was considered to be of secondary importance to most Lithuanians). Jews were also the most culturally different community an average Lithuanian of that pre-travel era would encounter, giving them a unique place in Lithuanian folklore.

A market day in pre-war Gargždai. Town markets were one of the very few places where Lithuanians (buyers) and Jews (sellers) would have a reason to talk to each other and even there the conversations were limited to the sale.

Lithuanian-Gypsy relations (1795-1918). While there were few Gypsies in Lithuania, they had more contact with Lithuanians than other ethnic minorities. That's because most Lithuanians were peasants, and Gypsies generally traveled among the peasants, trading with them (and sometimes stealing from them). Gypsies thus became ingrained in the Lithuanian folklore nearly as much as Jews (a much larger community). In the 19th-century Lithuanian folklore, Gypsies are often romanticized, described as hot-tempered and good lovers (a stereotypical role filled by Italians, Spanish or French in the 21st-century imagination).

Russian-Gypsy relations (1795-1918). Russians sought to make Gypsies live a sedentary life. However, they failed. It is assumed many Gypsies have left Lithuania altogether, or simply evaded any censae.

Lithuanian-Westerner* relations (1795-1918). After Russia abolished the slavery-like serfdom many Lithuanians had previously endured (1861), Lithuanians became free to leave their "noble owners". Hundreds of thousands chose to leave their homeland altogether, especially for the USA. This was the first massive direct contact between Lithuanians and Westerners. Speaking little English, Lithuanian-Americans remained a separate community, establishing their own massive churches and other institutions. They also rallied foreign support for Lithuanian rights within the Russian Empire as well as Lithuanian independence. On the other hand, as Lithuania was just a province of the Russian Empire, almost no Westerners would come to live there at the time, making the Lithuanian emigrants (and their letters home) the only Lithuanian-Westerner link.

The first wave Lithuanian-Americans campaign for the liberty of Lithuania in the 1910s.

Interwar (1918-1940)

Lithuania became independent (1918) but Poland occupied Vilnius (1920). In the eyes of interwar Lithuanians, the Polish occupation of their capital was the main problem and injustice of interwar Europe. In hoping to regain Vilnius, they wanted to see Russians and Germans as allies - but as the time went on and totalitarianism entrenched in Russia and Germany, it became clear that these two nations have their own plans for Lithuania, and local Russian and German minorities also became suspicious.

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1918-1940) reached their nadir (the reminiscences of which are felt even today). After World War 1 (~1918) Polish leaders sought to restore the old Polish-dominated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but Lithuanians no longer wanted that. In a series of Polish-Lithuanian conflicts, Poland seized Eastern Lithuania (Vilnius region) in 1920, leading to a two-decade-long international conflict (1920-1939). During it, the Vilnius region was ruled by Poland, but claimed by Lithuania as its "treacherously hijacked heartland". In the Polish view, the Vilnius area was predominantly Polish-speaking and therefore Polish. In the Lithuanian view, Vilnius had been its traditional capital and the area always had a Lithuanian-majority population, even if the bulk of it started to speak Polish natively over the recent centuries; moreover, Poland recognized Vilnius as part of Lithuania before annexing it. During this period ethnic Lithuanians were treated with suspicion in Poland (including in the Vilnius region) and ethnic Poles were treated with suspicion in Lithuania. These minorities were seen as "fifth columns" that likely worked to either attach the Vilnius region to Lithuania or to attach entire Lithuania to Poland. Negative views of the other ethnicity were common in newspapers, caricatures, and even poetry of the era. Polish-Lithuanian bilingualism became less common on both sides of the border.

Every Lithuanian interwar celebration would have included symbolic gestures against Polish occupation of Vilnius. Slogans 'Hey Lithuanian, don't forget Vilnius' and 'We won't calm down without Vilnius' are visible here.

Lithuanian-German relations (1918-1940) slowly went from friendship to animosity as more and more Germans adopted Nazism. In the 1920s Lithuanians and Germans understood each other well as both felt treated unfairly after World War 1, losing significant lands where their ethnicity was in the majority. However, as time went by and Hitler came to power, German "unofficial claims" were expanded to Klaipėda Region (Memelland), an area with 41% Germans and 58% Lithuanians that was detached from Germany after World War 1 and recognized as an "autonomous part of Lithuania" after 1923 successful Lithuanian-led Klaipėda Revolt. By the 1930s Klaipėda region's ethnic Germans grew increasingly anti-Lithuanian, many joining Nazi organizations and some conducting terrorist activities. They generally felt forced to live under a "more primitive" Lithuanian culture - a situation they sought to end by joining their region to strengthening Germany. In reality, however, Lithuanian culture never gained supremacy in the Klaipėda region, where the entire local elite was German and most of the elected politicians pro-German as well. Lithuanian government merely offered a "Lithuanian alternative" to German education and media. Even its ability to enforce laws in Klaipėda grew increasingly limited as local Germans had the entire German Reich behind them. For instance, while Lithuania has conducted the first-in-Europe crackdown on Nazi organizations in 1935 (after the local Nazis had murdered a political opponent), the pressure by the German Reich forced Lithuania to pardon death sentences. In 1939, after Hitler's ultimatum, Germany annexed Klaipėda; Hitler was cheerfully welcomed by the local Germans while many Lithuanians left the Klaipėda region afterward, some forcibly. To make the matters more complex, in addition to the "obvious Germans" and "obvious Lithuanians", there were many "shades of grey" in the Klaipėda Region: those Lithuanians whose families were Germanized enough during the centuries of German rule to already consider themselves separate from the rest of Lithuanians. During the 1925 census, these people would identify themselves simply as "Klaipėdians" (rather than either "Lithuanians" or "Germans"); often, they would side with Germans on the cultural issues, complicating the Lithuanian cause in Klaipėda region further.

Weapons and symbolics confiscated from a German Nazi cell in Klaipėda after the 1935 Lithuanian crackdown on the local nazis

Lithuanian-Russian relations (1918-1940) initially seemed largely irrelevant. After defeating Russian reconquest attempts in 1918-1920, the Lithuanian government, pre-occupied with Poles, did not see the local Russians as a major threat. Moreover, most Russians departed after the Russian rule ended in Lithuania ~1915. Many of the remaining Russians (~2,5% of the total population) were Old Believers living in far-away villages. Urban Russians were too few to hope to stop the inevitable changes (e.g. the ascension of the majority Lithuanian language to the dominant status, conversion of many Russian Orthodox churches back to Catholic use). In the political sphere, the newly-Soviet Russia was initially too pre-occupied with Civil War and war against Poland to put any pressure on Lithuania, so it just played along. It even courted Lithuania to some extent, also attracting the support of some prominent Lithuanians who saw Russians as possible allies against Poles. With the rise of Stalin, the Russian government abandoned the "global communist revolution" approach and instead took a nationalist line whereby Poland and Lithuania were seen simply as "temporarily lost" Russian lands. Lithuanians grew increasingly wary of the Russian regime but couldn't do much about it. In 1939, a Soviet ultimatum forced Lithuania to allow Soviet military bases in, and these bases were then used to depose the free Lithuanian government.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1918-1940) were generally positive as independent Lithuania ended their state-sponsored discrimination (such as the limitations on their settlement and organizations). Jewish communities were given significant autonomy and a reserved seat at the government for their affairs. Jews generally recognized the new free Lithuanian government. However, even though more and more Lithuanians moved to cities and towns (some of which had effectively been a Jewish domain in the Russian Imperial era), there was still little contact between Lithuanians and Jews as they usually had different jobs and different faiths (therefore different holidays, pastimes, and almost no interethnic marriages). It seemed as if two different nations lived under the same urban sky. The share of Jews was declining due to popular emigration to South Africa and Palestine and lower birth rates. While more Lithuanians became businessmen, Jews still remained greatly overrepresented in that sphere. Suggestions for affirmative action to redress the Lithuanian underrepresentation in business were largely turned down by the "philosemitic" government of Antanas Smetona (1926-1940). In the 1930s, the popularity of communism and pro-Soviet thoughts among local Jews began to cause concern to Lithuanians.

Jewish bank in Kaunas. Established in 1920 (building constructed in 1925) it was one of many Jewish public and private institutions that sprung up in the interwar Lithuania.

German-Jewish relations (1918-1940). While elsewhere in Europe Germans grew increasingly negative towards Jews by the 1930s, in Lithuania this was still little visible until ~1937. That's because the cities with the most Germans (in the Klaipėda region) had very few Jews, and vice-versa. Moreover, the primary cause of Klaipėda's German Nazis was to "leave Lithuania and join Germany". On the other hand, having learned about the discrimination of their kin in Germany, Lithuania's Jews became tough on the local Germans. Many ethnic Germans were fired from Lithuania's Jewish businesses after 1934 (due to Jews being overrepresented among the business owners, a relatively big percentage of non-Klaipėda region Lithuania's Germans worked at Jewish businesses). After the pressure and clandestine actions of Nazi Germany made Lithuania slowly lose its grip over the Klaipėda region and its revert to Germany began to seem imminent, the local Nazis started to aim at the small Jewish population of Klaipėda city, with the German-dominated city council enacting discriminatory policies. By the time Nazi Germany occupied the Klaipėda region in 1939, all the local Jews fled the area to the rest of Lithuania or emigrated.

Lithuanian-Westerner* relations (1918-1940). After their World War 1 victory, the Western superpowers (France, United Kingdom, USA) dominated in the world. As such, Lithuanians worked hard to achieve their recognition and support. It was difficult, however, as Western powers generally sought to retain the post-WW1 "status quo" (which included Vilnius as a part of Poland). Such Western support for Poland has swayed 1920s Lithuanian opinions in favor of Germans and Soviets who sought to change that status quo. On a more personal scale, a few educated Westerners actually came to live in Lithuania, establishing businesses here or helping to develop its army. A lot more such "immigrants" were actually Lithuanian emigrants returning from the USA and investing their money in the homeland. Uneducated peasant Lithuanians, on the other hand, continued to flow to America in the 1920s but this trend has all but ceased in the 1930s as the Lithuanian economy improved and Western powers were hit by the global crisis. Older diaspora communities would help fund Lithuania which many still saw as their true homeland, while Lithuania itself funded the new-and-still-poor diaspora communities in Latin America (e.g. establishing Lithuanian schools there), seeing diaspora in the "safe far-away countries" to be essential for the survival of Lithuanians in the case of another foreign occupation.

The popularity of basketball in Lithuania is a result of the Lithuanian-Westerner relations of the interwar period. Basketball was 'brought in' from the USA by Lithuanian-Americans, who helped Lithuania to score its European champions title and bring the championship to Lithuania (in this image).

World War 2 (1940-1945)

During World War 2, Lithuania experienced alternating occupations and genocides (Soviet-Russian 1940-1941, Nazi German 1941-1944, Soviet-Russian after 1944). Each occupational regime had ethnic groups it supported and the ones it condemned to murders and persecutions. While many people of Lithuania would have preferred continuing freedom to any occupation, idealistic hopes for this were dashed. Instead, people often had to choose the "less evil" power of the two, and which one was "less evil" for you depended on which community you came from. This created a bitter divide between the ethnic communities that would linger on throughout the 20th century.

Lithuanian-Russian relations (1940-1945). Soviet occupation of Lithuania soon brought in heavy persecution of Lithuanians. Most of the perpetrators were Russians who formed the bulk of Soviet officials and occupational army (in Lithuanian language the "Soviet occupation" is thus often referred to as the "Russian occupation"). Lithuanians who had any associations with patriotic, devout religious or non-communist political beliefs arrested and killed. Even Boy Scouts, those who simply owned a Lithuanian flag or those who did not cast their vote at a single-candidate mock election was targetted. By 1941 June the persecution turned into genocide, as 2% of the entire population of Lithuania were expelled to Siberia in a single week, most to die there. In the same month, Lithuanian mutineers and German soldiers forced the Soviets out of Lithuania, but only after the Soviets had mass-murdered Lithuanian political prisoners in order for them not to be liberated. The Soviet occupation was replaced by Nazi German occupation. However, the fresh memories of Soviet terror were so potent that even at this time it was the possible return of the Soviets (rather than the Nazi German persecutions) that caused the greatest fear amongst Lithuanians. After Soviet return became inevitable (~1944) some 100000 Lithuanians decided to flee westwards instead of facing nearly certain death. Tens of thousands of others took up weapons, launching a guerilla war. Still, Russians restarted their genocide that was at the cruelest in Lithuania Minor, which was entirely Russified with both population and placenames replaced (now most of it is known as Kaliningrad Oblast). But hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were also expelled from Lithuania-proper, even though the calls for all-out destruction of Lithuanians by a Russian minister for Lithuanian affairs Mikhail Suslov ("There will be Lithuania but without the Lithuanians") were not materialized. Some Lithuanians escaped persecutions by collaborating with the Russians, which often included giving out or even killing their own relatives and neighbors. Others made it seem that they are pro-Soviet by keeping their real opinions in secret, often even from their own children. Lithuania's Russian minority, on the other hand, often genuinely collaborated with the new Soviet regime, as that regime was based on Russian culture and language which were both better understandable to them than the Lithuanian culture.

Lithuanians murdered by the Soviets in Rainiai massacre, one of many brutal mass murders of Lithuanians masterminded by Russians in World War 2 Lithuania. Out of the at least 73 bodies only 27 could be identified due to mutilations. Prior to death, the victims were tortured: their genitals severed and put into their mouths, eyes picked out, bones crushed, skin burned by hot water and acid, they suffered electrocution. The victims were recently arrested by the Soviets for such 'crimes' as participating in the Boy Scout movement or owning a Lithuanian flag.

Russian-Jewish relations (1940-1945). Communist and pro-Soviet thoughts became popular among Lithuanian Jewry in the 1930s. At different times ~1940 Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Jews made up from 30% to 80% of Lithuania's communist party ranks despite being merely 7% of the total population. As Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, large numbers of Jews welcomed the occupational army and a disproportional number of Jews thus became collaborators with the Soviet occupational regime. Even to non-communist Jews, it often seemed as if it was better (safer) to conform to the Russian rule and culture, just as they had previously conformed to the Lithuanian rule. After all, both Lithuanian and Russian cultures were equally foreign to Jews. After the German occupation of Lithuania (1941) which heavily persecuted and murdered Jews, Russians also became seen as the power most likely to drive Nazi Germany out of Lithuania. This was another reason why many Jews joined Soviet partisans in the latter stages of World War 2.

Ethnic composition of the Soviet partisans operating in Rūdninkai forests, responsible for, among other crimes, the mass murder of a Polish-Lithuanian Kaniūkai village. Such ethnic composition, with Russians and Jews the two dominant ethnicities, was common in most of Lithuania's genuinely pro-Soviet institutions and organizations of the early 1940s. This particular table was made by historian Rimantas Zizas, translated by True Lithuania.

Lithuanian-German relations (1940-1945). As the situation under Soviet (Russian) rule became more and more tragic, Lithuanians developed hopes that Germans (the only other great power in Continental Europe) would liberate them, which partly came to the truth in 1941. Lithuanians even believed that Germans would allow them to restore independent Lithuania and attempted to form a government in 1941 as the Nazi German armies invaded. However, Germans stripped this government of any powers and the government disbanded itself not wishing to be used to legitimize German war crimes; all Lithuanian political parties were then banned. While the Soviet-style mass murders of ethnic Lithuanians ceased and most anti-Lithuanian discriminatory Soviet measures were canceled, a slow realization came that Germany was just another imperial Power, itself responsible for the deaths of some 20 thousand ethnic Lithuanians. Underground anti-Nazi cells started to spring up in Lithuanian cities. They mostly worked in non-violent ways, such as publishing anti-Nazi press and hiding Jews from the Holocaust. Lithuanians were reluctant to take arms against Germany because every loss of Germany would make the Soviet re-occupation of Lithuania more likely, which was what Lithuanians feared the most. As the re-occupation started to seem inevitable by ~1943-1944, Lithuanians were already planning their next struggle against the Soviet Union.

Bilingual 1942 Nazi German posters in Šiauliai declare: 'The liberated Lithuania continues the struggle against the Bolshevism' and 'We are thankful to Adolf Hitler, our liberator'. Both the Nazi German and Lithuanian flags are waving, even though the former outnumbers the later (however, during the Soviet occupation the Lithuanian flag has been outlawed altogether). Such German propaganda was typical to the era: it sought to remind the far greater horrors of Bolshevism (recently suffered by the Lithuanians) in order to present the German nation as liberators or helpers in a mutual fight.

German-Jewish relations (1940-1945). Nazi Germany sought to Germanize much of Eastern Europe. Among the local non-German ethnicities, Jews were considered to be among the worst. Thus, Germans started persecuting of Lithuanian Jews right after the 1941 occupation. The situation gradually worsened: at first, mainly the Jews who collaborated with the Soviet regime were targetted, but soon Jewish civilians would be also murdered in their hundreds in many towns, including children. Eventually, the remaining Jews were forced to live in designated ghettos. Later even these Jews were massacred locally or in German concentration camps elsewhere. The Jews who were able to hide or run away did so, often never to return. Some fought back in the forests amongst Soviet partisans. Some others prolonged their own lives by collaborating with Nazi Germany and helping them to murder other Jews or hide the previous murders. This Nazi German genocide (Holocaust or Shoah) became the most tragic event Lithuanian Jewry ever faced and the main reason why its numbers decreased by up to 88% between census years of 1923 and 1959.

Entrance to the Jewish ghetto of Vilnius, established by the German occupational regime. Jews who lived in the ghettos were generally not allowed to leave on themselves.

German-Gypsy relations (1940-1945). Germans have regarded Gypsies to be "less evolved human beings" due to their poorness and due to most of them not doing any organized work or education. As such, a decision was made to "Treat Gypsies like Jews", effectively condemning them. As Gypsies always lived a nomadic life, it is unclear how many of Lithuania's Gypsies were murdered by Nazi Germany, the estimates ranging from 100 to 1000.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1940-1945). The collaboration of some Jews with the Soviet regime (1940-1941) created some anti-Jewish sentiment among Lithuanians. Nazi Germany, seeking to enlist locals to their cause, exploited these sentiments by a massive propaganda campaign which both positioned Nazi Germany as the main/only fighter against the evil of communism and then equaled all Jews to communists. As this happened soon after a major Soviet crime against humanity when 2% of entire Lithuania's population were killed or expelled in a single week, some Lithuanians answered the calls for cooperation/revenge by collaborating with Nazi Germany (the collaborators would also be rewarded in status by the Germans, or at least be able to avoid persecutions). Despite the Nazi German propaganda, however, most Lithuanians understood that the whole Jewish community should not be blamed for the actions of the Jewish-Soviet collaborators. Therefore, it became popular to save Jews (using such means as hiding them at home). By the number of Israel-recognized "righteous-among-nations" people per capita (i.e. non-Jews who saved Jews), Lithuania ranks second in the world only to the Netherlands (and the first in Central/Eastern Europe).

A 'righteous-amog-nations' certificate issued by Yed Vashem museum in Jerusalem proves that Kazys Grinius, an interwar president of Lithuania, participated in saving Lithuania's Jews from the Holocaust

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1940-1945) . While Lithuanians and Poles both were victims of the same totalitarian regimes, the interwar animosity between them did not subside. The main question was, should Lithuania and Poland both be liberated after World War 2, which country would then have Vilnius region? Thus Lithuanian and Polish freedom fighters operated separately in the Vilnius region, effectively making the WW2 in Vilnius a complex fight of four parties, each of them an enemy of every other party: Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Lithuanian partisans, and the Polish Armia Krajowa (with shifting short-term unofficial alliances). Lithuanians and Poles would blame each other for some war crimes and civilian murders. These war crimes, however, were not of the same scale as Soviet and Nazi German genocides.

Local Lithuanians greets the Lithuanian army as it has gained the control of Vilnius in the November of 1939 (to be followed by Polish protests next day). Less than a year later, however, Vilnius and entire Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet Union. This was the general trend that the Polish-Lithuanian conflict was overshadowed by World War 2, with both nations effectively reduced to pawns in that global conflict.

German-Russian relations (1940-1945). At the beginning of World War 2, the German and Russian governments cooperated in partitioning Eastern Europe (Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact). According to the final version of this partition, the Klaipėda region was taken by Germany (1939) whereas the rest of Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union (1940). Lithuanians were recognized by Germany as a "Soviet nation" and many ethnic Lithuanians were deported from the now-German Klaipėda region. On the other hand, Germans from the rest of Lithuania were moved to Germany. Ethnic Germans and Russians then had little contact, but actually, both nations sought to expand further at the expense of the other. The war began in 1941: Germans sought to expand their "living sphere" by Germanizing Slavic (including Russian) Eastern Europe, while the Soviets sought to expand their totalitarian communism. Soviets were successful. Their soldiers, having received much hateful anti-German propaganda throughout the years, would kill and rape German civilians on a massive scale, removing Germans from entire provinces. Few Germans remained in Soviet-occupied Lithuania and those who did were especially discriminated: they had to hide their ethnicity, language, and religion long after World War 2 in order to save themselves.

A column of German and Lithuanian refugees who attempted to flee the Klaipėda region was overran by Soviet tanks. Such wanton killings (as well as torture and rapes) of the despised Germans at the hands of conquering Russians were extremely common in the mid-to-late 1940s Europe, resulting in deaths of some 2 million German civilians and expulsion of some 16 million. In Lithuania, the local German community, which consisted of 4% of the population prior to World War 2, basically ceased to exist.

German-Polish relations (1940-1945). Throughout the German rule, Poles generally saw Germans as an imperialist enemy power that has partitioned their country together with the Soviet Union in 1939. However, many Poles regarded the prospect of Soviet occupation as an even worse one. Additionally, the Poles sought to ensure that, after World War 2 ends, the Vilnius region would be reintegrated into Poland rather than into Lithuania. All these goals meant that while Polish guerilla Armia Krajowa (ruled by the government-in-exile and staffed by local Poles) fought against Germans, it has also cooperated with them to some extent in their fights against both Soviet and Lithuanian partisans, that way seeking to ensure the "best possible" outcome for Poles after World War 2 ends.

Russian-Polish relations (1940-1945). Most Poles generally saw Soviet Union (Russia) as an imperialist power that has partitioned Poland together with Germany. As the Polish-inhabited areas of Lithuania fell under Soviet rule, the local Poles suffered the Soviet persecution first hand, many deported to Siberia or killed (25000 people of Vilnius in 1939, for example). Such experiences made Poles especially wary of Russians and even after Lithuania was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, the Polish and Russian (Soviet) partisans would not join forces; they even fought each other. Very few Poles fought alongside Russians, forming pro-communist Gwardia/Armia Ludowa (the influence of this organization was later exaggerated by communist historians during the Cold War). However, unable to outgun the Russians, the Polish Armia Krajowa sometimes cooperated with the Russians in Lithuania during the later stages of the World War 2, incorrectly believing that this would ensure Poles a better situation after the war ends in the then-inevitable Soviet victory (with Vilnius-within-Poland being a major goal).

Polish (Armia Krajowa) and Russian soldiers patrol in Vilnius streets together after the mainly Polish efforts routed the Nazi German troops away. However, the bliss was short-lived, as the next day Russians have arrested their Polish 'allies' and then either murdered them, expelled them to forced labor or made them switch their allegiances to Soviet army

Polish-Jewish relations (1940-1945). Like Lithuanians, many Poles were dismayed by the Jewish collaboration with the Soviet Union which has occupied the once-Polish-controlled Vilnius region. Such collaboration, which was also popular among some other minorities (e.g. Belarusians), further entrenched the opinion that only the citizens of titular ethnicity could be trusted.

Minority people (i.e. non-Polish and non-Lithuanian) eagerly accept propaganda disseminated by the Soviet soldiers in the Soviet-occupied Vilnius region. Such an image, and even more so the images of minorities collaborating in killing the locals, lingered well beyond World War 2, supporting the idea among Poles and Lithuanians that the minorities such as Jews, Russians, and Belarusians are necessarily 'fifth columns' even if they would be citizens.

Soviet occupation (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.

Independence era (post-1990)

As Lithuania became independent in 1990, Lithuanian culture flourished once again, while ethnic minorities were allowed full democratic participation. However, past discrimination suffered by Lithuanians made Lithuanians wary of these perils returning. On the other hand, some people from ethnicities that enjoyed a privileged past wished to see it returning, and such tensions, while low-scale, were used by foreign powers (especially Russia) to gain supporters among Lithuania's minorities. The need to "safeguard Lithuania from another Russian invasion" was among the reasons for swift integration into Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union. However, the EU integration also caused an unprecedented foreign influence over Lithuania (excluding the times of occupations) and massive levels of migration

Lithuanian-Polish relations (post-1990). As Poles make a majority in some Lithuanian municipalities they were able to establish a successful political party and demanded more rights to their language (such as using Polish placenames in minority-majority areas or writing their names in Polish letters). Lithuanians largely refused, seeing this as "dangerous" (the collective memory of Polonization still lingered). The tension created by these issues remained on the political level. On some questions, the common Polish views go in-line with those of patriotic/conservative Lithuanians (e.g. the importance of Catholic faith), while on others they are the exact opposite (e.g. language policy). The fact that Poland is now an ally of Lithuania (within NATO since 2004) generally helped to achieve a moderate reconciliation on historical issues.

Plaque with a Lithuanian street name and its Polish translation in ~92% Polish Medininkai village (Vilnius district municipality). These plaques, installed by the Polish-majority municipalities, are part of a long legal struggle that typically finds them illegal and contravening the official language laws. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-Russian relations (post-1990). After some initial tension ~1990 (when many Russians still sought to restore the Soviet Union) Lithuanians and local Russians found a peaceful modus vivendi by the late 1990s as Lithuanians increasingly stopped fearing a Russian invasion. Some third of Lithuania's Russians emigrated in the early 1990s (including most responsible for the Soviet Genocide). Still, some of those who remained also had anti-Lithuanian opinions and often chose not to learn the Lithuanian language. However, their children would usually speak Lithuanian and become more integrated. By the 2000s, anybody who would see the local Russian minority as dangerous would have been considered an alarmist. After the resurgence of Russian Imperialism under Putin and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, however, the Lithuanian-Russian relations soured yet again. Increasingly many Russians shown outward pro-Imperialist signs (e.g. the George Strips), while a wary Lithuanian government banned some Russian TV stations for broadcasting anti-Lithuanian propaganda.

Grafitti on the barricades that were used to fend off the invading Soviet-Russian troops in 1991 January depicts Russia as a monster devouring the smaller nations. Such an image of Russian goals would sometimes take a backseat and sometimes resurge, but never fully dissipate. The events of 1991 January themselves cause a great rift between Lithuanians and Russians, as they are still recent enough for most Lithuanians to remember them well, while Russian media has created and disseminated conspiracy theories claiming that these events were a Lithuanian 'inside job'. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Polish-Russian relations (post-1990). After 1990 independence the Polish and Russian causes divulged as the communities were very different: Russians were mostly urban and less religious while Poles were mostly rural and very religious. In the 2010s, however, the expanding Polish party has been increasingly successful to also attract the Russian electorate. The gap between communities may have dwindled as more Russians became religious and more Poles adopted an urban lifestyle. Furthermore, local Poles still regard the Soviet Union somewhat less negatively than Lithuanians, making them seem to be natural allies for Russians in an era when fear of a new Russian occupation made Lithuanians distrust Russians once again.

Valdemar Tomaševski, the leader of the Polish minority rights party, is wearing a St. George's strip during the times of Ukraine war. This symbols came to symbolize Russian imperialism and such Tomaševski's actions were denounced by Poland's politicians who also widely support Ukraine against Russia. However, in Lithuania, local Russians and Poles seem to have more common ground than Poles of Poland have with the Russians from Russia. Image ©V. Balkūnas, source 'Lietuvos Rytas'.

Russian-Russophone** relations (post-1990). Even after independence the Russification of non-Russian Soviet minorities (Belarusians, Ukrainians) continued. Russian-Belarusian and Russian-Ukrainian marriages are extremely common, and the offspring usually considers himself/herself Russian and has Russian as the native language. However, as the Lithuanian economic situation improved, more people of ex-Soviet nationalities immigrated and these new migrants often shared more patriotic and even anti-Russian views (especially after Russia's 2000s-2010s invasions into Georgia and Ukraine).

Lithuanian-Russophone** relations (post-1990). After achieving their independence, Lithuanians tended to extend compassion and support to those ex-Soviet nations who also sought similar freedom, peace, and democracy, especially Chechens in the 1990s, Georgians ~2008, Ukrainians ~2014, and Belarusians. Such support would come from both the people and the state, often angering Russia. It included charity, memorials, official celebrations of these minorities' national days, accepting migrants and more. On the other hand, the more Russified / pro-Russian people of these ex-Soviet minorities are generally seen the same way as Russians are.

A monument for the president of de facto independent Chechnya Dzhokhar Dudayev in Vilnius. The freedom struggle he led against Russia inspired many Lithuanians, who could relate to the Chechens. The memorial is adorned by a poem of a famous Lithuanian poet Sigitas Geda: 'My son! If you will survive until the next century / And you'll once stop to look around from the heights of Caucasus / Remember that there too were men who had risen a nation / And went on to defend the sacred ideals of Freedom.' Parts of the poem invisible after the memorial was vandalized, likely by the local Russians. Image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (post-1990). To most local Jews the most important change independence of Lithuania brought was the possibility to leave the economically ravaged Lithuania without having to face Soviet bureaucracy. 75% of Lithuania's remaining Jewry did so between 1989 and 2011, making the relative decline nearly similar to that of the 1923-1959 period (which included the Holocaust) and leaving just 3000 Jews in Lithuania. As such, the Lithuanian-Jewish relations increasingly became those between the now-free Lithuanians and diaspora Jews. The opening of borders allowed the free exchange of opinions for the first time since 1940, and the rift seemed big. Diaspora Jews understood and cared little about what Lithuanians have suffered during the Soviet occupation; they, however, cared much about Holocaust victims and knew that some perpetrators were still hiding in Lithuania. Lithuanians, on the other hand, knew surprisingly little about the Holocaust (as their forefathers have not suffered it while the Soviet view did not accentuate Jews as the key victims). On the other hand, Lithuanians suffered a lot under Soviet Genocide when victims would often be killed after false allegations. As such, Lithuania of the early 1990s attempted to rehabilitate all the victims of the Soviet regime, which would have also included the small percentage that was tried for real war crimes. After Jewish protests, such attempts were quashed. Lithuania then initiated court cases against WW2-era collaborators with the Nazi German occupational regime and, feeling a further pressure of diaspora Jews (mostly via the US and Israeli governments), paid over 100 million Litas to largely diaspora-ruled Jewish organizations in compensation for Soviet-nationalized Jewish properties (a remedy not available to any other ethnic community, even though all communities faced the Soviet nationalization and property destruction). While learning about the Jewish heritage of Lithuania became popular and many memorials were built for the Jewish tragedy, many Lithuanians also feel that this "coming to terms with history" is extremely one-sided: Israel has refused to either try or extradite Jews who participated in the Soviet Genocide of Lithuanians, while some diaspora Jews became instrumental in the Soviet Genocide denial. Seemingly few diaspora Jews try to understand Lithuanians in the same way as Lithuanians now try to understand Jews. This is likely because Western-based Jews often consider the situation in WW2 era Eastern Europe through the lens of the WW2-era Western Europe. The fact is, that throughout the Cold War (1940-1990) the World War 2 *in Western Europe* was well researched, and the situation there had been a relatively simple two-sided war between the genocidal totalitarian Nazi Germany and independent Western European countries (France, UK, the Netherlands, Belgium). World War 2 in Eastern Europe, including Lithuania, was a much more complex affair, however, with two genocidal totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) overrunning free countries; moreover, throughout the Cold War, there was no independent research into these areas, with many facts, numbers established arbitrarily by the Soviet propaganda. In the 1990s, the first post-WW2 local independent research discovered what the Soviets had manipulated and attempted to hide, and sought to share their knowledge with the West. For example, the Soviet murders that dwarfed the Holocaust in numbers (that had previously been known only from the personal accounts of the few survivors who fled to the West) became well-researched and much-talked-about among the Eastern European historians after 1990. To some Jews of the free Western World, however, such newly-available research was difficult to come in terms with, as in the Western European WW2 history it was any "new research" that typically came from biased sources, rather than vice-versa. Since the 2000s, wishing to keep a good relationship with Jews, Lithuanians are often directing their research away from potentially controversial issues, leaving the Holocaust underresearched (the "holes" in research are often replaced by empathic media-style declarations that are sometimes based on the old Soviet-era biased research or on guesses).

A sculpture to a Jewish doctor Tsemakh Shabad in Vilnius is just one among several thousand statues, memorial plaques and other symbols dedicated to Jews erected in post-1990s Lithuania that has filled the 'void of knowledge' about Jewish life that existed in Soviet Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Nongypsy-Gypsy relations (post-1990). As Lithuania became independent, the Gypsy district (Taboras) of Vilnius became a major drug sale point which has also contravened other laws, e.g. avoiding paying for electricity. Lithuanian government attempts to curtail this by establishing a heavy police presence or relocating the Gypsies altogether generally failed until the 2010s. While the Romani people were few in number and would not have garnered wider attention, bigger problems in the Southeast Europe where Gypsies are more numerous led to various international initiatives to improve the conditions for the community.

Children playing at the Čigonų (Gypsy) street in Taboras of Vilnius. With high birth rates, unofficial teenage marriages, illegal economy and schacks in place of homes this remains a favela-like world apart from the non-Gypsy world. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-Westerner* relations (post-1990). After the 1990 independence, Lithuanians began to eagerly explore the Western culture and sought to imitate the more effective and democratic economic and political systems. Helped by a few early Westerner immigrants, various Western traditions also came into Lithuania, usually resulting in a unique fusion. After Lithuania joined the EU, Western influence became more direct and not always welcome. Some Westerners (such as Western European officials) looked down upon Lithuania, explaining certain cultural differences to mean that Lithuanians are "backward" and that they will eventually "come up with the West". This made some Lithuanians (including those who signed the Declaration of Independence) question the Western influence, claiming that such viewpoints remind those of colonialist nations. However, the majority continued to follow the "Westerner steps", replacing more and more cultural traits with the "superior" Western ones.

During the 2000s, English language has largely displaced the Lithuanian language from trademarks (even Lithuanian-owned). Only 5 out of 29 visible here on Panorama mall are Lithuanian-language, all of them created at 1995 or earlier. European Union regulations largely render Lithuania powerless in promoting its language for local commerce. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-African/Asian/Latin relations (post-1990). After 1990 the first Asians (excluding Russophones**) and, to a lesser extent, Africans and Latin Americans came to live in Lithuania. Lithuania was poor, so nearly all of them were either cultural migrants (fond of Lithuanian culture) or people who knew well in advance what to do in Lithuania (e.g. establishing ethnic cuisine restaurants or playing basketball professionally). As such, the Lithuanian views towards these early migrants were positive; some of them became TV or musical celebrities precisely because of their "exotic looks". There was no "political correctness" in the Western sense (whereby one is expected not to notice racial differences); the differences were noticed but treated with respect by the majority. As time passed and Lithuania grew richer, however, it became a minor destination for economic migrants who had fewer possibilities to prosper. Additionally, the reputation of Africans/Asians/Latin Americans was somewhat tarnished by Lithuanian emigrants to the West, who would report to their relatives back in Lithuania about the problems Western countries had with their non-European-originated populations. In this way, negative opinions on some groups (especially the Muslims) were imported from the West. European Union decisions to "share" illegal migrants are also expected to import the Western problem of the ethnic-religious conflict itself, unheard of in Lithuania for decades. The idea of Western-style "political correctness" and self-censorship is also currently promoted by some, mostly as a supposed benefit for these new migrants.

One of the many small groups of immigrants that capitalized on their 'exotic looks' were the Native Americans from Bolivia. Typically they would dress in their ethnic costumes and sell records of Native American music in streets, sometimes playing their folk music instruments themselves. Currently, the people in the major cities are already too used to various races and ethnic traditions for such 'marketing' to work. However, the Native American music salesmen may still get attention in small towns, such as during the Zarasai town festival of 2015 in this image. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


*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.

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