The majority ethnicity in Lithuania are Lithuanians, who make up 85,08% of population and are its original inhabittants. Still however, there are towns and entire regions where other ethnic groups surpass Lithuanians in numbers. The picture becomes even less clear when you think about the past as many different peoples passed through Lithuanian soil.
Fourth largest ethnicity in Lithuania are the Belarussians (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.
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.
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).
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 succesfully defended their lands in alliance with Poland (15th century) but sill 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 great loss of life and culture at hands of foreign nations Lithuanians seek that this plight would be acknowledged by the world.
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 ethnic 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.
Lithuania and some surrounding areas in modern-day Russia, Poland, Belarus and Latvia are the traditional heartland of 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 primarilly to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway and Spain.
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 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, Polish language gradually became the one favored by 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.
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 cemetary).
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 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 Vilnius area and the manors. The language to use depended on circumstances and political views on the Polish-Lithuanian issue. This multilingualism used to be Polish-Lithuanian or (in some villages) Polish-Belarusian, but was displaced by Russian-Polish during the Soviet russification drive. With the restoration of independence (1990) the situation is changing once again.
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. However some new Poles were brought in to 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 Lithuanian Poles Electoral Action having majority in the predominantly Polish muncipalities and enjoying represenation in both Lithuanian and European parliaments.
Although Russians now are only the second largest minority (6,37%) it certainly is the most visible one. You are likely to hear Russian music in certain bars and restaurants or see the Russian TV stations on.
This is because the population of Russians in Lithuania is mostly urban and centered in the tourist cities of Vilnius and Klaipėda where they make 15% and 23% of all citizens respectively. Additionally the town of Visaginas built for workers of the Soviet nuclear power plant in the 1980s is over 55% percent Russian. Very few Russians live in smaller towns and villages.
The first Russians came to Lithuania as early as 18th century – these were Old Believer refugees from the Russian Empire. Another wave of Russians came when Lithuania itself was integrated into Russian Empire and the czar attempted a policy of russification. Entire Russian villages supplanted Lithuanian ones in this period of the 19th century while the Russian government workers and soldiers settled in the cities.
Still however after the World War 1 Russians made up only 2,3% of Lithuania’s people. Their share increased fourfold under the Soviet occupation, when a state-sponsored campaign resettled many people from other Soviet republics to the newly built micro-districts surrounding major Lithuanian cities. Every new factory had many Russian workers and (especially) executives.
This colonization was more conservative in Lithuania than in Latvia and Estonia (where over a quarter of population are now ethnic Russians and the main cities became Russian-majority by the 1980s). After 1990 independence the Lithuanian government (unlike those of Latvia and Estonia) offered citizenship to every person who lived in Lithuania by the time of the dissolution of USSR – regardless of ethnicity, languages spoken or family history.
Many older ethnic Russian nationals of Lithuania therefore do not speak Lithuanian language let alone English. This included even the director of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant as well as several key businessmen. This generation however is slowly fading away and 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 Russian youth is well integrated the Soviet past still causes some friction. Most of the Soviet politicians were Russian. So were the officers and soldiers (including those stationed in Lithuania) and the NKVD Vilnius HQ (responsible for genocide). Russians, their language and culture enjoyed a privilleged 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 Soviet Union quite positively (something that is not understandable to the relatives of Soviet genocide victims).
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.
Together with the ethnic Russians the Soviet government settled many people from other parts of the Soviet Union in cities like Vilnius and Klaipėda. These are Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Azeri, Moldovans, people from the 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 Russian language at home and they likely speak Russian better than Lithuanian. Due to this reason they are usually grouped together with Russians under the term „Russophone“.
Politically the „Russophones“ frequently 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% speaks 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.
Due to wide knowledge of the Russian language in Lithuania people of the former Soviet Union (especially Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia) continue to immigrate, albeit on lower numbers than in 1940s-1980s. This was especially prevalent before the economic downtime of 2008 when they used to take construction, truck driving and other similar jobs. Despite immigration the Russophone share decreases with assimilation: only ~5% of Lithuania's Belarusians and Ukrainians are younger than 19.
Around 2% of Lithuania’s population are from one of these ethnicities (excluding the ethnic Russians).
While some Jewish craftsmen lived in Lithuania since 14th century the number of Jews peaked in 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 primarilly businessman, controlling some 80% of the country's small businesses and 90% of large businesses in mid-19th century. Nearly all Jews were urban dwellers and they were the majority in a few towns and significant minority in many others. In 1880s-1930s town Jews were moving to cities; great numbers emigrated (primarilly to South Africa, Palestine and the USA) decreasing the overal 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 1970s. Currently a new switch to Lithuanian is taking place. The only seccular 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 now speak Yiddish natively, the majority of them elderly. 66% declared Russian to be their native language in 2001 census (this percentage is second only to the ethnic Russians).
A dysproportionally 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. 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 modern Jewish minority and the Russophone community in their linguistic, irreligious and political preferences.
The widespread atheism causes friction between Jewish religious and seccular (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 ennumerated 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, some of it to succesful emmigration and some to Soviet expulsions). Due to emmigration to Israel this number further shrunk to 12 392 in 1989 census (-50%), to 4 007 in 2001 Lithuanian census (-68%) and to 3 050 in 2011 census (-24%).
Currently there far more people of Litvak origin outside Lithuania than inside; 70% of the South Africa's 85 000-strong Jewry alone have Litvak origins.
The Klaipėda Region that was joined to Lithuania after the Klaipėda Revolt of 1923 had been a German-ruled territory since the 13th century Baltic crusades. While it is a part of Lithuania Minor cultural area the Lithuanian majority there was already fragile by the 20th century with the Klaipėda (German: Memel) city itself being predominantly German. In the area Germanization had been taking place with local Lithuanians adopting German language and customs over generations (similar to polonization in Lithuania-proper).
Additionally there were some ethnic Germans in Sudovia and the main cities, although these numbers were far behind those in Latvia or Estonia. German traders came to Lithuania when it was still pagan, German knights followed them, but unlike its northern neighbors Lithuania as a whole was never subdued by German rulers until the World Wars.
In the interwar period the Germans made up 4,1% of Lithuania‘s population (41,9% in the Klaipėda region and 1,4% elsewhere). 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 atheists. These linguistic and religious shifts were influenced by the Soviet policy which unofficially equalled all Germans to Nazis and discriminated them. Therefore many Germans who managed to remain in Lithuania feared to speak German or to do other things attributed to their German ethnicity while the Soviet occupation continued, and especially so in 1940s-1950s.
A part of Lithuania's Germans are so-called "wolf children". Orphaned due to World War 2 and the Soviet genocide they were wandering through Lithuania of late 1940s and many were secretly brought up by Lithuanian peasants.
Tatars and Karaims are frequently thought of as similar peoples. 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 superficious 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 lifes of Tatar leaders were somewhat similar to the Catholic nobility. Tatars gradually lost their language and 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.
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 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.
Tatar heritage in Lithuania includes 4 active mosques (three wooden village ones and a brick one in Kaunas) and muslim cemetaries 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.
Interestingly, Karaim cuisine gained a foothold in Lithuania that is far dysproportional to the Karaim share of population. In addition to tasting kibins (pasties 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 tradtional three Karaim facade windows.
Unlike Tatars the Karaims managed to preserve their Turkic language, but their numbers are lower with 2001 census ennumerating 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.
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 however - much less than there are either Poles, Russians or Belarussians. One part of Latvians lives in historical communities in the 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 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 dilluted. 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).
There were always significantly more Lithuanians in Latvia than there were Latvians in Lithuania however, both in the borderland and in the major cities.
Subsequently the minorities on both sides of the border decreased 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.
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).
Perhaps because their cultural similarity to Lithuanians the Latvians of Lithuania generally receive less public attention than other traditional minorities of comparable size.
Unlike in many southeastern European countries Gypsies make up only a small portion of Lithuanian population (2 500 people) but they are very visible for those who seek. Next to Vilnius international airport there is a unique Gypsy district ("Taboras") full of illegally constructed wooden shacks whose owners refuse to pay any taxes.
This favela-like district (the only such in Baltic States) of some 500 people is a major drug dealing spot and all attempts to curtail this activity or to resettle the Gypsies into social housing have failed so far (and there were many).
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 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.
Many Lithuanian Gypsies self-style themselves Christian but are not practicising. Unique unwritten moral code with its own taboos supplants both religious and seccular morals. Exotic to an outsider it (for example) permits Gypsies to steal yet forbids them to have a toilet inside their home.
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 succesful musician careers.
Lithuanian Gypsies consist of traditional (pre-1940) communities and Soviet era migrants from Ukraine and Moldova. These two groups speak different dialects of Romany language. Taboras of Vilnius houses a quarter of total Lithuania's Gypsy population, the remainder spread among smaller communities in other cities and some towns.
After Lithuanian accension to European Union (2004) and abolition of border control additional Gypsies immigrated from Southern Europe, some of them nomadic and seasonally moving between EU member states.
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. In 1990s the new immigrants were so unusual that dysproportionally large number of non-white immigrants became instant TV or music celebrities precisely because of their “exotic looks”.
Not anymore 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.
Many new immigrants work in ethnic businesses, for example Chinese or Indian restaurants, Turkish kebab kiosks or Thai massage parlours. But even these positions are sometimes held by Lithuanians or the established ethnic minorities.
There are also jobless immigrants. This is more prevalent among refugees from war-torn countries typically coming from the southeast.
In addition to immigrants there are large numbers of foreigners temporarily living in Lithuania. Many of them are ERASMUS students. This is an 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 place to study medicine and technical sciences among Arabs, especially the Lebanese. Some of them continue their careers in Lithuania.
There are also business expatriates in many foreign owned companies, for example the largely Scandinavian-owned banking sector. Some others play basketball at Lithuanian clubs (especially South Slavs and African Americans).