Ethnic Groups in Lithuania: The Majority and Minorities | True Lithuania
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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.

The fourth largest ethnicity in Lithuania was the Belarusians (1,2%), though by now they are certainly surpassed by Ukrainians (0,55% before the Russo-Ukrainian war, likely ~3% today). Together with the other ethnicities of the former Soviet Union, these two are 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, 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 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 the Russophone culture, threatening the long-term existence of the Lithuanian nation) but are now generally a non-issue if both spouses belong to the traditional communities.

Like elsewhere in 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 the 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 global (rather than local) diversity.

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

See also - History of ethnic relations in Lithuania

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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 the Lithuanian nation is that of extreme odds against them and spectacular revivals.

The first major threat was 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 the 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 the 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 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 people of the world (this maybe explains their affinity for basketball), with an average male height of 1,81 cm.

Lithuania and some surrounding areas in modern-day Russia, Poland, Belarus, and Latvia are the traditional heartlands of the Lithuanian nation (with some 2,7 million Lithuanians living in the area). However, 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 the 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 ethnicity, 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 who was 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 regime (which used “Divide and conquer” tactics to saw discontent among the Soviet-occupied ethnicities) 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 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 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 it was displaced by Russian-Polish bilingualism during the Soviet Russification drive. With the restoration of independence (1990), the situation is changing once again towards Polish-Lithuanian or Russian-Lithuanian.

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 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.

In addition to this older Russian community, more Russians immigrated into Lithuania in 2010s and 2020s. Many of them claimed to be political refugees or leaving Russia beacuse of disagreement with the regime of Vladimir Putin. While Lithuanians generally sympathize with such stance, there are controversies. Some or many of the supposed "opposition figures" are believed to be economic migrants or (worse) infiltrated Russian operatives - who would quickly become collaborators in case of a Russian invasion of Lithuania. Among the reasons for such beliefs are the fact that many of the new Russian immigrants tend to integrate little into Lithuanian society, refusing to learn Lithuanian language in a similar fashion as Soviet settlers used to refuse. This returned Vilnius and some other Lithuanian cities to the 1980s situation where it was common for a regular Lithuanian to find out that a salesman or a taxi driver speaks no Lithuanian and expects you to know Russian. This is especially controversial in Lithuania, the national conciousness of which is largely based on the struggle to preserve its language that seemed to have been victorious until the ~2010s.

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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Eastern Europeans (Ukrainians, Belarusians and others)

Eastern Europeans, sometimes called "Russophones", are a group of people who migrated from the areas of the former Soviet Union, besides Russians. They include Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Central Asians, and people from the Caucasus.

These communities are all rooted in the controversial Soviet settlers - people who were sent to Lithuania from other parts of the Soviet Union between the 1940s and 1980s in order to dilute the Lithuanian population there.

After Lithuania became independent (1990) and its economy improved (~2010s), the Soviet settlers who remained were joined by new migrants from the same now-formerly Soviet countries. Nowadays, they leave their homelands because of poverty, dictatorships, or wars (e.g. Ukraine) and they choose Lithuania in particular because of its advanced economy, knowledge of Russian, common history, and (often) relatives who already live there from the Soviet occupation era. By 2022, these new migrants have surpassed the Soviet settlers and their descendants in numbers, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a massive refugee flow towards Lithuania.

Neither of these Eastern European ethnicities (with the exception of Belarussians) existed in Lithuania prior to 1940 in numbers larger than 50 individuals. People from all of them share certain similar traits. Despite different origins, many are using the Russian language at home and they likely speak Russian better than Lithuanian or (at least those born before ~1975 or recent immigrants) speak no Lithuanian at all. Due to this reason, they are often grouped together with Russians under the term "Russophone", although this has been increasingly controversial.

The "Old Eastern Europeans" (Soviet settlers and their descendants) 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% pre-refugee-era Ukrainians, 47% Tatars, 38% Estonians, 36% Armenians, 36% Georgians, 31% Moldovans and 27% Azeris.

The "united and separate" 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 often considered themselves Russian (if at least a single parent would be a Russian) or, after the 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 Eastern European ethnic minorities to decline rapidly: only ~5% of Lithuania's Belarusians and Ukrainians were younger than 19 according to 2011 census.

Moreover, soon after the 1990 independence, some third of Lithuania's Soviet settlers swiftly emigrated for their titular homelands or Russia, leading to a quick and sharp decline back then.

That said, due to a wide knowledge of the Russian language in Lithuania, people of the former Soviet Union (especially Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia) continue to immigrate. 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. This trend peaked in 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine meant some 70 000 Ukrainians came to Lithuania as refugees, more than doubling the Eastern European population in a matter of months.

However, new immigrants from ex-Soviet countries are often less Russified than the Soviet-era settlers, many 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 Eastern Europeans of Lithuania", however, prefer to speak English over Russian (if they speak English) and much more of them than ever before seek to integrate by learning at least some Lithuanian.

Today, thus, the community is divided, although not so much along ethnic lines as the invisible line that separates the more Russified Eastern Europeans (primarily of Soviet settler origins but also some economic migrants) and those strongly anti-Russian who blame Russia for the reasons they had to leave their home countries in the first place (dictatorships, wars, etc.). Still other Eastern Europeans (or possibly the majority in some ethnicities) are somewhere in between the two value poles.

Lithuanian views towards Eastern Europeans 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 terms "Russophones" or "ex-Soviets" when speaking about them is increasingly controversial, as many of them would not want being associated with Soviets or Russians. That's why this article now uses "Eastern Europeans" as the main term, even though this term has its drawbacks as the article is only about some particular Eastern European ethnic groups.

Despite being generally supportive of Ukrainian or Belarusian struggles defending their own cultures from Russian, in 2023, Lithuanians begin growing increasingly uneasy with the growing numbers of these Eastern Europeans as well. Firstly, there is a question of how many of the supposed refugees are those who actually sympathize with Russia but just avoid publically aknowledging it as it became so politically incorrect in a post-Ukraine-invasion Europe (however, should Russia attack Lithuania, these people would quickly become collaborators). Secondly, there is a discontect with the fact that many of even legitimate refugees continue speaking Russian as "lingua franca" with little effort of learning Lithuanian, redressing the decades-long post-occupation Lithuanization and moving the Lithuanian cities back to the era when there were many people (Soviet settlers) who expected everybody in Lithuania to speak Russian to them as they considered Russian language or culture to be superior.

Around 2% of Lithuania’s population was from one of these ethnicities (excluding the ethnic Russians) in 2011, likely about 5% 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 the Russian czar designated Lithuania as 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 the 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 the 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 the Vilnius region). The 1959 Soviet census found 24 672 Jews in the Lithuanian territory (a decrease of 88%, most of it attributable to the Holocaust, 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 a time when it was among the most important ones, playing a key role in the development of 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 most of 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 the 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 were the elite culture and language. Ethnic Lithuanians there 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 during World War 2 when Lithuania was turned into a battlefield between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Nearly all the local Germans were either killed or expelled by the Soviet Union, or evacuated by Nazi Germany 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 against them. Therefore many Germans who managed to remain in Lithuania feared speaking German or doing 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 relationship 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 fewer 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 that 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. Lithuanian-Latvian relations are generally extremely cordial, 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 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. Overall, 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, Romani people (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 Romani people 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.

Romani ethnicity formed after their ancestors departed northern India in 300 BC for reasons unknown. They reached Lithuania in the 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 Romani law court still takes place.

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

Many Lithuanian Romanis 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 Romanis to steal yet forbids them to have a toilet inside their home.

The family is of utmost importance and Romanis 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 Romanis consist of traditional (pre-1940) communities and Soviet-era migrants from Ukraine and Moldova. These two groups speak different dialects of the Romani language. Altogether, out of the Lithuania's small historic ethnic communities, Gypsies were able to retain their language the best. Taboras of Vilnius housed a quarter of total Lithuania's Romani 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.

*The words "Romani people" and "Gypsies" are used interchangeably here. The correct way of their use varies globally. To some, "Romanis" are only a certain subgroup of "Gypsies" (which includes Lithuania's Gypsies). To others, "Romani people" is the politically correct term to replace "Gypsies" altogether. Yet to others "Gypsies" is still seen as the most correct word (especially in its translations to the local languages, such as Lithuanian). "True Lithuania" takes no stance on the issue and follows the usage elsewhere.

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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 anymore so, even though the percentage of non-European immigrants and their children is still somewhat lower in Lithuania than in 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% of locals (while an inadequate knowledge of English often precludes them 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). In 2011 census, citizens of the former Soviet Union countries made up 1,6% of Lithuania's permanent residents, with 0,6% being Ukrainian citizens, 0,4% Belarusian, and 0,4% Russian. However, the Russo-Ukrainian war swelled the Ukrainian population in 2022 as Lithuania accepted ~70 000 Ukrainian refugees, with Ukrainians alone now making some 3% of Lithuania's population.

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 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 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.

Moreover, in 2021, Belarus began to use illegal immigration as a tool of revenge against the Lithuanian government for supporting Belarusian opposition. Belarus invited thousands of potential migrants from Africa and Middle East to come to Minsk by air, and then moved them to Lithuanian border (later also Polish border). At the time, the border was largely unsecured, and European Union laws limited the possibilities of Lithuania to turn back the migrants, leading to unprecedented waves of illegal immigrants that overwhelmed Lithuania.

Lithuania has also served as a minor destination for genuine refugees from the East in the 1990s-2000s, 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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