True Lithuania

Myths about Lithuania – introduction

Regular foreigners, foreign media, foreign politicians, and even foreign researchers often encounter and unwillingly spread some misconceptions about Lithuania.

Some of the misconceptions about Lithuania have their roots in subtle language and cultural differences, others come either from biased sources of information (e.g. Soviet propaganda) or superficial sources of information (e.g. TV shows), and yet others might have been true in the past but are no longer so. All of them tend to get repeated even by many reputable people, therefore it is often impossible to discover that something is a myth just by checking your sources.

Here we have collected the top myths about Lithuania foreigners often have. We try to also analyze how each of these myths came into being.

Note: many of these myths may be insulting to Lithuanians or even regarded to be a manifestation of anti-Lithuanian hatred. Therefore, if you have Lithuanian friends or business contacts, please avoid mentioning them.

Broadly, the key misconceptions about Lithuania can be grouped into four categories, ranging from the least insulting to the most insulting:

1.The myths that Lithuania is a worse place to be than it really is - that it is extremely poor, unsafe. These myths do not take into account the progress Lithuania made since the Soviet occupation ended but may be seen as a genuine faux-pas since the progress has been too fast for the public opinions to go in line with it.

2.The myths that Lithuania is a new country/nation which previously was Russian, Polish, Belarusian or that Lithuanians are similar to the Russians. In reality, Lithuania was the medieval Europe's biggest country and Lithuanians as a culture developed in this land long before most other European cultures (~4000 years ago). People who perpetuate these myths may be seen as ignorant by Lithuanians but not necessarily malevolent as these myths are usually repeated simply due to oversimplification of history.

3.The myths that incorrectly or superficially explain the Lithuanian culture and language arriving at various wrong conclusions. The most prevalent among those is the myth that Lithuanians are unwilling to consider minorities as Lithuanian but the myth about racist Lithuanians often also has roots in incorrect interpretations of Lithuanian culture. While believing such myths may arguably be somewhat acceptable for tourists, the fact that there are some foreigners who live in Lithuania for many years and yet continue to repeat these myths baffles and deeply saddens many Lithuanians. The long-term believers of such myths may be seen as being either ignorant, prejudiced or having a cultural superiority complex.

4.The blatant or indirect denial of the occupations, persecutions, and genocides suffered by Lithuanians in the 20th century or portrayals of the Lithuanian victims as responsible for their own fate or even for the fate of others. These myths (most of them originating in Soviet propaganda) claim that either Lithuania has joined the Soviet Union willingly, that Lithuanians were communists, that Soviet Union has liberated Lithuania and was better than Nazi Germany or that Soviet rule in Lithuania had many bright sides. Interestingly, there are other (just as insulting) myths that claim exactly the opposite: that Lithuania supported the Nazi Germany, that Lithuanians were or even are Nazis. These myths are not only seen as extremely insulting by Lithuanians but also as dangerous, as similar myths have been used by Russia in order to denigrate the statehoods of Lithuania and other Central/Eastern European countries and promote wars against them.

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Are Lithuanians similar to Russians?

Lithuanians are different from the Russians on most key traits that define ethnicity. Lithuanians have their own Lithuanian language and they write using Latin script, not Cyrillic. Lithuanians are not even Slavs - together with Latvians, Lithuanians are Balts. Lithuanians are not Orthodox - they are mostly Roman Catholic.

While both the Russian and Lithuanian nations were ruled by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the statuses of them were greatly different, as Russians were the dominant nation while Lithuanians the nation under Russian domination (i.e. the relationship was similar to that between the Western nations and their conquered African and Asian colonies).

Currently, Lithuanians are orienting themselves westwards (EU, NATO) whereas Russia is creating its own Eurasian Union.

Lithuanians and Russians both are whites and (Indo-)Europeans, but that is about it.

Why so many people believe Lithuanians are similar to Russians?

Throughout the Cold War, it was common in the West to refer to "Soviets" as Russians in popular contexts (in the sports commentary, press, etc.) and many Westerners, therefore, still see the former Soviet Union as nearly all-Russian or all-Slavic.

However, by 1989, only 51% of the inhabitants of the Soviet-Union-held areas were actually Russians, even if they were the leading ethnicity. The rest of the Soviet Union was composed of extremely different ethnicities of multiple languages (Slavic, Turkic, Baltic, Fino-Ugric, Kartvelian...), faiths (Islam, Buddhism, Christianity...), races (European and Asian). In fact, the Soviet Union collapsed precisely because most of the people in the nations that achieved independence (including the Lithuanians) were extremely different from the Russians.

Ethnic map of the Soviet Union. Only the territories in red had Russian majority or plurality

Ethnic map of the Soviet Union. Only the territories in red had Russian majority or plurality and even that majority/pliurality in many areas was artificially created through planned population resettlement during the Soviet era itself

Why is the "Lithuanians are similar to Russians" myth so insulting to Lithuanians?

To an outsider, it may seem that such a genuine mistake as to consider Lithuanians to be similar to their neighbors Russians should not be insulting. Indeed, if somebody would call a Lithuanian to be a Swede, a Czech, or a Latvian, likely no Lithuanian would feel insulted.

However, to be called a Russian is insulting to many Lithuanians, because of history wherein the Russian Empire and the Russian-led Soviet Union have occupied Lithuania, persecuted Lithuanians and, under Stalin, perpetrated their genocide. When they are considered Russians, Lithuanians often feel that their freedom is negated and their past history is erased. After all, if not for the past occupations, they would likely not be mixed up with Russians by so many foreigners. Moreover, some of the past persecutions were done by the Russians precisely on the pseudo-historic basis that Lithuanians were simply "Polonized Russians": namely, in the 19th century, the Lithuanian language was banned in Lithuania by the ruling Russians in order to "restore the Russian origins" of Lithuanians.

Based on the historical relations between these two nations, mixing up Lithuanians and Russians makes many Lithuanians feel as insulted as Pakistanis are insulted after getting mixed up with Indians, or Jews and Arabs after getting mixed with each other.

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Did Lithuania support the Nazi Germany during WW2?

No. Lithuania never did fight World War 2 on the Axis side. Adolf Hitler has offered Lithuania to do that in 1939 and invade Poland together, which Lithuania has refused, despite the deep-rooted Lithuanian-Polish conflict over Vilnius.

Even before that, Nazism was regarded in Lithuania to be a dangerous foreign ideology. While there had been nearly no ethnically Lithuanian Nazis, Nazism was becoming increasingly popular among Lithuania's German minority in the 1930s, leading to a Lithuanian-government crackdown on the Nazi organizations in 1935. This was the first anti-Nazi trial in Europe after Hitler's rise. For that, Lithuania paid a heavy price: in addition to a German economic boycott, Hitler even had Lithuanian sportsmen banned from Berlin Olympics in 1936.

During World War 2, Lithuania has declared its neutrality. However, this neutrality was not honored by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, who proceeded to partition Central/Eastern Europe according to their own Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. In 1939, Nazi Germany annexed Klaipėda Region; in 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the rest of Lithuania. Many Lithuanians hoped a German-Soviet war could allow Lithuania to restore independence but these hopes were all in vain: in 1941, Nazi Germany simply occupied entire Lithuania. As Lithuanian key figures were not content with Nazi German occupation, Nazi Germany sent many of them into concentration camps.

Throughout 1941-1944, Lithuanians regarded Nazi Germany to be an enemy power that has occupied their country, and the despise for the Nazi German regime grew as the occupation went on and its true nature became apparent. Therefore, unlike even in Latvia and Estonia, Germans were unable to erect a local SS legion in Lithuania due to Lithuanian officers and soldiers fleeing en masse after they have learned the German plans for them. Lithuania also became the 2nd country in the world and 1st in Central/Eastern Europe by the number of righteous-among-nations people per capita (i.e. Yad-Vashem-recognized non-Jews who saved Jews from the Holocaust).

In 1944, as the Soviet-German front reached Lithuania once again, tens of thousands of Lithuanians once again attempted to win freedom by establishing their own guerilla armies to secure free Lithuania. Once again, this ended in failure as the Soviet Union defeated first the Germans (1945) and then (by the 1950s) the Lithuanian guerillas.

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

How did the myth that Lithuania supported Nazi Germany came into being?

The major source for this misconception is Soviet propaganda. In order to excuse their domination of the Eastern/Central Europe and the occupation of Lithuania, they sought to portray everyone who fought against them as Nazis ("fascists"), including all the Lithuanian pro-freedom activists. In the Soviet historiography, "fascist" was a catch-all term used for many non-communists, including pre-Soviet Lithuanian leaders, Lithuanian guerillas, Lithuanian emigre. Interestingly, even the entire post-war West Germany was called fascist, and the Berlin wall was officially known as "Anti-fascist wall" in the communist areas.

Furthermore, Soviets sought to present Eastern Front to have been the same as the Western Front where the "rightful side" (Allies) has defeated the "wrongful side" (Axis). The Eastern Front reality was extremely different, however.
*In Western Front, Axis was represented by a genocidal totalitarian regime (Nazi Germany) while the Allies were represented by democratic nations (Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc.) who fought for their own independence.
*In the Eastern Front, on the other hand, both the Axis and the Allies were represented by genocidal totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, respectively), and these regimes both (in full cooperation until 1941) were invading and partitioning the independent countries in-between, among them Lithuania, Poland, Finland, and others. These nations were essentially a third force in the conflict and they tried as best as they could to stand against the overwhelming foreign forces. Obviously, any attempt to fight both powers at one time would have ended in quick defeat, therefore, some of them tried to save their own independence (and thus their own people from genocides) by making various low-scale agreements with one totalitarian regime or the other. Many of them "switched sides" during the war once their leaders came to believe that this would help lower casualties and increase the likelihood of post-war independence.

Lithuanians murdered by the Soviets in Rainiai massacre, one of the brutal mass murders 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.

The claims about "fascist" Lithuanians also often point to the real Lithuanian collaborators with the Nazi German regime and make a logical fallacy claiming that the fact that such collaborators existed somehow implies that Lithuania or the Lithuanian nation supported them. However, all these stories are entirely taken out of context and they invariably fail to mention that:
*In every Nazi-occupied land and, in fact, in every occupied land during any war there were some collaborators with the enemy forces.
*In the same fashion as there were Lithuanians who collaborated with Nazi Germany, there were also Lithuanians who collaborated with the Soviet Union (and that also happened in every Soviet-occupied land).
*Neither collaborators with Nazi Germany nor collaborators with the Soviets had any official or popular support from any Lithuanian institutions or organizations, which were nearly all banned by both occupational regimes.

By the same "logic" that says that "Lithuania supported Nazi Germany because there were Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazi Germany" it would be equally possible to "prove" that any occupied nation has supported any occupying regime (and, in fact, such arguments are indeed regularly used in any pro-occupation propaganda anywhere in the world). It would even be equally possible to "prove" that countries like Sweden, USA, Australia, Germany supported the Islamic State - simply because their citizens were fighting for the Islamic State.

By the way, in order to artificially increase the number of Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis, the anti-Lithuanian propagandists and those who inadvertently cite them sometimes lump various Lithuanian freedom fighters with Nazi collaborators. One of the most popular targets for such smearing is the 1941 June mutineers. As the Soviet-German war began, the June mutineers deposed the Soviet Union occupational regime hoping that Nazi Germany could then be persuaded to recognize Lithuanian independence. Their plot failed - Nazi Germany has occupied Lithuania (just as the Soviet Union did before) and many June mutineers ended up in German concentration camps. The key argument in favor of June mutineers being Nazis is based on the fallacy of undistributed middle: "The June mutineers fought the Soviet Union. The Nazis fought the Soviet Union. This means the June mutineers must have been Nazis".

However, here we remind that in the Eastern Front, World War 2 was fought between three sides, not two. June mutineers, just like the Republic of Lithuania before them and Lithuanian guerillas after World War 2, represented that third side (independent Lithuania). Clearly, they had very different goals from the Nazi German goals. In fact, their goals of free Lithuania seemed dangerous enough to Nazi Germany to get them locked up.

A 'righteous-amog-nations' certificate issued by Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem proves that Kazys Grinius, an interwar president of Lithuania, himself participated in saving Lithuania's Jews from the Holocaust. In comparison, no key political figures of interwar Lithuania murdered people in the Holocaust.

Another myth born in anti-Lithuanian propaganda is the claim that, supposedly, more Jews percentage-wise were killed in Holocaust in Lithuania than anywhere else and that, supposedly, this proves Lithuanians "collaborated more eagerly" with Nazi Germany than the other nations. Both claims are simply false. The Holocaust death rates were equally high in every country directly ruled by Nazi Germany during World War 2 that had large pre-WW2 Jewish populations (i.e. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany itself, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, etc.). There are varying estimates for exact death rates in each country and the "ranking" of the countries. That is because the margin of error is big, making differences statistically insignificant. That's why the same propaganda claim that "nation X were the most avid Nazi collaborators" that is used against Lithuania is also used against many other countries of Eastern Europe. Usually, the countries that are at odds with Russia at the time are targetted (e.g. Ukraine ~2015). That's because these claims often originate in Russian media and are then republished in the West.

In reality, the only Axis-ruled countries where the majority of their large pre-WW2 Jewish communities did not perish in the Holocaust were the allies of Germany that retained at least some sovereignty (e.g. Italy, Bulgaria). That is because no other nation shared the Nazi German levels of antisemitism, and so if governments allied-to-Germany had any independence left, they typically refused to carry out the Holocaust or scaled it down as much as was possible. Lithuania, however, was directly occupied and had no autonomy left.

Why is the "Lithuania supported Nazi Germany" myth insulting to Lithuanians?

Firstly, these claims are wrong and they show the claimants' ignorance about the history of Central and Eastern Europe. Secondly, they purport that Lithuanians had no real desire for independence but instead wanted to fight for Nazi Germans who were actually their enemies throughout the period (at best, many Lithuanians may have considered them "2nd enemy after the Soviets", see the "Did the Soviet Union liberate Lithuania" myth). Thirdly and most importantly, such claims misattribute the World War 2 crimes in Lithuania on Lithuanians themselves, who (together with the neighboring nations) were actually among the biggest victims of the World War 2 era.

The facts speak for themselves: 32% of the area's ethnic Lithuanians were murdered, expelled or forced to flee (almost a million people). The entire region of Lithuania Minor was ethnically cleansed with some 130 000 Lithuanians killed there alone (and this was just a minority of all the murdered Lithuanians). Most of those who were killed or persecuted supported independent Lithuania, free from the totalitarian invaders; many fought for it actively, many others performed clandestine actions such as disseminating anti-occupational press or hiding Jews from the Holocaust.

Yet there are foreign commentators who forget all this, focusing instead on comparatively few collaborators (who were considered traitors or criminals by most of their peers) and claiming these collaborators somehow represented all Lithuania(ns). To add more hurt, they mix up these collaborators with genuine freedom fighters. Who wouldn't feel insulted?

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Is Lithuania extremely poor / third world?

The average Lithuanian is richer than the average person in countries where 85% of the world's population live. Lithuania has the same array of goods and services available that you'd expect in any rich country (shopping malls, trademarks, IT infrastructure, hotels, etc.). In some ways, such as broadband internet speed, Lithuania actually leads the world.

Countries richer than Lithuania are green in this map while those poorer than Lithuania are red (rated by GNP (PPP) per capita, 2017, source: CIA World Factbook / World Bank). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Why so many people believe Lithuania is third world?

In ~1990, the poorness of Lithuania was not entirely a misconception. Back then, the Soviet-ravaged Lithuanian economy lagged behind the West by an order of magnitude.

However, a lot has changed since then as Lithuania has been swiftly closing the gap. The gap has not been entirely closed and Lithuania is still poorer than most of Western Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia or Japan. However, the difference is no longer truly visible to an outsider, except, perhaps, for a few particular fields.

In the rapidly-developing countries such as those of Central/Eastern Europe, foreign conceptions are often slower to change than the reality.

By the way, even back under the Soviet occupation, Lithuania was not as "third world" as some people may imagine it. While the Soviet system effectively made nearly everyone extremely poor in terms of goods and consumer services (for instance, having a car was a kind of luxury, foreign travels hardly possible, Vilnius had just ~10 restaurants in total and the shop shelves nearly empty), the Soviet system still managed to retain a better-than-the-world-average healthcare and education, leading to a nearly universal literacy (comparable to that of the West), for example, and no malnutrition. Despite the Soviet policy of redistributing much of the Lithuanian products to Russia, Lithuania was the richest of the so-called Republics of the Soviet Union (except for Russia itself). Of course, compared to the West, that was little but it was not as bad as in many of the contemporary third world countries.

Lithuania closing the gap with the West economically. In 1995, Lithuania's GNP per capita made up only 21,69% of the Finnish GNP per capita. It rose to 72,81% by the year 2017

Lithuania closing the gap with the West economically after the liberation from the Soviet Union. In 1995, Lithuania's GNP per capita made up only 21,69% of the Finnish GNP per capita. It rose to 72,81% by the year 2017

Is the "Third-World-Lithuania" myth insulting to Lithuanians?

To most Lithuanians, the belief that Lithuania is poor is not insulting.

In fact, most Lithuanians themselves still hold a belief that, compared to the rest of the world, Lithuania is much poorer than it really is. The fact that most of Lithuanian emigrants and travelers tend to go to the few richer countries or the "bastions of luxury" within the poorer countries (e.g. the Egyptian seaside resorts), and only a few actually see poverty in the foreign countries, tends to enforce this opinion.

However, the belief that Lithuania is "third world", as Lithuania was shown in a few Western-made movies (with malnourished people living in slums, etc.), may be regarded to be insulting as it is simply so far on the negative side of the truth.

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Did the Soviet occupation of Lithuania had any bright sides?

Soviet occupation has dragged Lithuanian economy and human rights decades behind Western Europe and perpetrated genocide (see "Soviet Union has liberated Lithuania", "Lithuania is third world" myths). While you may write the bright sides you believe the Soviet Union had in the comments of this article - and, who knows, maybe we'll find some minor ones, so far, there is no bright side of the Soviet Union known to us (compared to the non-communist world of the same era).

How did the myth of "Benevolent Soviet Union" appear?

Interestingly some older Lithuanians themselves are often as responsible for this myth as the Russians. While the Russians have an obvious goal of perpetuating this myth (claiming that the Soviet/Russian rule was not as bad as it was), for older Lithuanians the reasons are mostly emotional. For them, the Soviet occupation era was their youth. The Soviet products, even if inferior to the global standards, have a deep emotional impact on them. This is especially true for the generation born in the Soviet Union after the Soviet Genocide (1940-1953) as they did not witness neither the free pre-Soviet Lithuania nor the worst crimes of the Soviet Union. Caught by nostalgia, they may still claim that "in Soviet times" (i.e. in their youth) the movies, the music or food were better than today.

Furthermore, some Lithuanians are unable to counter-argument a common Russian argument that "Many roads, factories, homes and more were built in Soviet Lithuania". While it is true, three other facts are equally true:
*It was Lithuanians themselves who built these things under the Soviet occupation. Whatever was built using materials imported from other Soviet Republics or by people from other Soviet Republics was more than offset by the contribution the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic was forced to make in developing other Republics. In total, Lithuania was a net contributor rather than a net recipient in the Soviet economy.
*In the capitalist countries of the era, far more roads, factories, and homes were built and in far better quality. It is safe to claim that had Lithuania been not occupied by the Soviet Union, its economy would have advanced far more - that's because every single capitalist economy of Europe was far in advance of every single communist economy of Europe by 1990, when the communist systems collapsed due to their economic backwardness.
*Many of the things built in Lithuania under the Soviet occupation were built for the Soviet Union rather than for Lithuania (for example, Cold War military factories). They provided no benefit to the people of Lithuania and folded quickly soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.

It is important that, as Soviet occupation was so long, to understand its results they should not only be compared to pre-occupation Lithuania but also to the non-communist contemporary world. It is obvious that in 1990 all the world was more economically developed than in 1930 simply due to the technologic progress, so the Soviet Union made some progress as well. However, that progress in the communist world was much slower than in the non-communist world. And Lithuanians would have never chosen a communist regime by themselves, given that communist ideology was never popular in Lithuania; the ideology was entirely imposed by the Soviet Union, together with totalitarianism.

In the upper diagram, GNP per capita (PPP) of 1995 is compared. This was just after communist regimes have ended and the economic data from once-communist countries became reliable enough. At that time, every single ex-communist-ruled country lagged by an order of magnitude behind every single non-communist country. Fast forward to 2017 (the lower diagram) and we see that after two more decades of free market rule, the differences became much less pronounced, with most Western countries richer than most once-communist-ruled countries only relatively insignificantly. Lithuania has even became richer than Greece and Portugal.

In the upper diagram, the European country GNP per capita (PPP) in 1995 is compared. This was just after communist regimes had ended and the economic data from once-communist countries became reliable enough. At that time, every single ex-communist-ruled country lagged far behind every single non-communist country. The average always-capitalist country was 308% richer than an average once-communist-ruled country and 378% richer than Lithuania. Fast forward to 2017 (the lower diagram) and we see that after two more decades of free market rule, the differences became much less pronounced, with most Western countries richer than most once-communist-ruled countries relatively insignificantly. Now, the average difference stood at 108% while the average always-capitalist country was richer than Lithuania by just 48%, signifying the superiority of the market economy over the planned communist economy. Lithuania has even become richer than Greece and Portugal.

The often-foreigner-made claims that the Soviet Union made Lithuania egalitarian are also wrong, arising from the fact that claimants typically don't know that while the official salaries may have varied little within the Soviet Union, the Soviet system was far from egalitarian as there were other means to ensure that some people eventually got far more privilleges.

The Soviets also did not advance women rights in Lithuania, as is sometimes wrongfully claimed in foreign media: women rights already quite advanced in 1940 (in comparison to contemporary Western Europe): for instance, the female suffrage was granted in 1905 and 1926 presidential elections of Lithuania already had an equal number of male and female candidates (two each). In fact, in Soviet society female role was more limited than in many contemporary Western countries and the entire Soviet political elite was male. Women re-entered the high politics after the 1990 independence, with the first prime minister of restored Lithuania being female.

In Lithuania itself as well as Russian media, some people claim that the Soviet Union was in some cases "better than independent Lithuania" because of certain problems that did not exist then but exist in Lithuania now, primarily the massive emigration. However, emigration is actually a direct result of Soviet occupation which shattered the Lithuanian economy, making it much poorer than the Western countries. People did not emigrate from the Soviet Union because they wanted to stay - they did not emigrate because they were not allowed to emigrate or, in most cases, even travel. The few population groups that managed to slip away from the Soviet Union did so, among them over a half of Lithuania's Jews, Poles, and Germans (who were permitted to emigrate to Israel, Poland, and Germany, respectively), as well as 100 000 others who were quick enough to flee on the eve of Soviet re-occupation of Lithuania in 1944. Furthermore, the massive emigration from Lithuania started not immediately after its independence but rather after Lithuania joined the European Union (2004), removing the migration controls - so it is a drawback associated with EU membership and has no relation whatsoever with Lithuanian independence from the Soviet Union itself.

Is the myth of "Benevolent Soviet Union" insulting to Lithuanians?

To many Lithuanians yes. However, some other Lithuanians themselves believe and repeat this tenet.

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Are Lithuanians racists, fascists or Nazis?

Far from any of that. Lithuanians are far more often self-conscious and self-bashing than self-glorifying, being conscious of their country because of its perceived poorness compared to the West. Even the moderate nationalist parties (e.g. Tautininkai) have failed to enter the parliament, whereas the far-right National Democratic party had to disband itself due to low membership (compare that to the West). Neo-nazi opinions have no support whatsoever in the wider society and are considered radical even by the moderate nationalists.

Lithuanians are neither against Jews (in fact, there is now a great resurgence of interest in Litvak culture) nor they are against Russians (as an ethnicity). Russian culture, music, TV and other events are popular among ethnic Lithuanians as well (at least among the older generations that were universally taught Russian in schools).

That said, Lithuanians are often wary of the Russian politics (due to the history), especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But the popular notion is that politics and culture should be separated.

How did the myth of racist/fascist/nazi Lithuanians appear?

This misconception seems to have several different sources.

The first is biased Russian media. It tends to put a heavy emphasis on extremely rare acts of hooliganism (e.g. a one-time smearing of a Russian consulate in black paint by vandals) by claiming that such acts prove some general trends or enjoy widespread support in Lithuania. Furthermore, it tends to show regular popular patriotic events in Lithuania (for example, grassroots independence day parades) as being racist or Nazi or Russophobic in nature. Western media often inadvertently picks up this narrative, because some Western journalists are still not evaluating the Russian media critically enough and use it as a possible source, despite it being especially biased. Furthermore, some of the strongly Russian-backed online sources are masked as an independent or even Lithuanian, making it difficult for an outsider journalist to understand who is who.

Independence day parade in Vilnius with people carrying Lithuanian flags. By the Russian media and the foreign media that recited it the same parade has been declared to have been fascist. Among the main arguments was that somebody shouted antisemitic slogans in a similar parade in the year 2009. In Russian media coverage of the event, however, such slogans are claimed to be 'common', and Western media sometimes picks up this narrative. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The second reason for this misconception is the ignorance in Lithuanian history. Those who promote this misconception typically claim that in Lithuania, certain Nazis (or Holocaust participants) are respected or even honored by plaques, street names, and statues. This is, however, simply not true. No Nazi and no Holocaust participant is widely (let alone officially) respected in Lithuania and none of those who are respected were murderers in a genocide (as much as it is known). The genocide perpetrators are punished severely according to Lithuanian law. The "honored people" in question are typically anti-Soviet guerillas and activists whose only "crime" is that they fought against the same enemy (Soviet Union) as Nazi Germany did but for entirely different goals (namely in the name of the freedom of Lithuania). Foreigners often fail to understand that World War 2 was a conflict of more than two sides in the Eastern front (see "Did Lithuania support Nazi Germany during WW2" myth), attributing all enemies of the Allies to Nazi Germany. Ultimately, the "Lithuania honors Nazi collaborators" claims also often (though far from always) can be sourced to Russian media.

The third reason is a rather subtle difference in the meaning of "Lithuanian" in English and Lithuanian languages (see the myth "Are Lithuanians unwilling to regard minorities as Lithuanian")

The fourth reason for the misconception is cultural differences. Lithuanians don't have the notion of "political correctness" that exist in the West.

So, while any real instances of racism undoubtedly get universally condemned by Lithuanians (e.g. attacks or persecutions based on race or ethnicity), Lithuanians would not see something that is simply politically incorrect in the West as racism at all. For example, in Lithuania, it is acceptable to talk about one's racial features or ethnicity and this does not cause an insult.

To many Lithuanians, the Western political correctness often seems to be inexplicable, akin to the "blasphemy rules" in the fundamentalist societies. Why is it acceptable in the West, for instance, to talk (or even joke) about someone's blonde hair or height, but not his/her skin color or "Asian eyes" - even if all of those actually are inherited traits? Why is simply noticing something that is plainly visible so frowned upon? Moreover, how could, in a free society, saying something that is neither damaging nor dangerous to anybody make a person lose his career, as so often happens in the West?

During Užgavėnės carnival, Lithuanians traditionally dress as "somebody else": animal or a person of different gender, ethnicity or social class, all of which are traditionally represented by masks (in this image, however, most people uses just clothing and wigs to represent the characters). While cross-dressing also became acceptable in the West, dressing as somebody of a different ethnicity is now frowned upon there due to political correctness, especially when there is an attempt to change one's racial features (e.g. blackface). Some Westerners who know little about the Lithuanian traditions thus have attacked Užgavėnės traditions in their media. However, the only targets are typically those who dress as Jews or (to a lesser extent) Gypsies. To Lithuanians, this is all baffling: why is it ok for a man to dress as a woman and even as a Hungarian but not as a Jew? ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A lot of these cultural differences could likely be explained by a different history. In the West, colonialism, slavery, and racial genocides are a historical fact. That likely made the Westerners to fear the history repeating itself to such extent, that instead of (or in addition to) targeting the "actual problems" such as discrimination (regardless of what group is discriminated against) or persecution (regardless of what group is persecuted), they began targeting the division of the society by certain traits (that were often a basis for such persecution) as unwelcome on itself, apparently seeking its disappearance through a forced silence.

In Lithuania, however, there was never a racial (rather than ethnic/religious) persecution, nor did Lithuania had any extra-European colonies or was involved in the slave trade, nor did Lithuania had significant minorities of the other races. To Lithuanians, therefore, skin color is just another physical trait of a person, like his/her height or hair color. Naturally, when rare, it may attract attention, in the same fashion an especially tall height would, for example.

Interestingly, as there were religious persecutions in Lithuania, religion is typically a much less acceptable topic for conversation than race/ethnicity and much less so than it is in the USA. Still, while jokes about religion may be unwelcome in polite Lithuanian society and remind of occupation-era-propaganda, Lithuanians tolerate more freedom-of-speech about religion than Westerners tolerate about race.

Final note: Obviously, like any country, Lithuania has some people who have real hatred against certain population groups. This article does not claim that there are completely no such people in Lithuania - rather, it challenges a myth that such radical ideas are somehow more prevalent in Lithuania than in the Western world while, in fact, the opposite is true.

Is the "racist/Nazi Lithuanians" claim insulting to Lithuanians and why?

In addition to the obvious reason for being insulting (no non-Nazi would like to be called a Nazi), such allegations are regarded by most Lithuanians as dangerous. In the case of Ukraine, Russia has used similar baseless allegations in its propaganda to turn its people and many people in foreign countries against Ukraine.

In order to prevent other countries or its own people from questioning its motives, Russia regularly accuses its targets of either Nazism or terrorism, as both of these are two are despised worldwide and may seem a genuine reason for an invasion to somebody who knows few real facts about the area.

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Did Soviet Union liberate Lithuania and was it better than Nazi Germany?

The Soviet Union was just another foreign occupational regime for Lithuania and the Central/Eastern Europe. Moreover, the Soviet Union was worse than Nazi Germany on nearly all counts. It killed more people than Nazi Germany did both in Lithuania and Eastern Europe as a whole. It persecuted most local ethnic groups far more, banning many things that stayed unbanned during the Nazi occupation (such as the Lithuanian flag, for example). It was responsible for genocides of at least 14 nations and it Russified the entire Lithuania Minor region, killing some 300 thousand people in that region alone. During the Holodomor in Ukraine alone, more Ukrainians were killed (7+ million) than Jews during the entire Holocaust by Nazi Germany, for example.

The Soviet Union also had no legal right to Lithuania (see the "Lithuania was Russia" myth) and so in no way, its re-occupation of Lithuania in 1944 (when Soviets have recaptured Lithuania from Nazi Germany) could be seen as liberation legally either.

Statistics of people lost to Lithuania 1940-1959, both per event and per perpetrator. The tables are compiled consulting multiple sources (turmoil and subsequent propaganda made the exact figures impossible to find out, so approximations vary somewhat per source. Moreover the boundaries of Lithuania switched multiple times in the era). The per-event table lists the murdered and the refugees/deportees in separate rows where possible; where impossible they are put together and the approximate share of those killed is provided instead (most/many/some).

Why do some foreigners believe that Soviet Union has liberated Lithuania?

Firstly, while the Soviet Union was worse than Nazi Germany in "nearly all counts" and to most Central/Eastern European ethnicities, to some ethnicities the Soviet Union was actually a much better (or less evil) regime. Among such ethnicities were the Russians, whose culture and language had a privileged status in the Soviet Union. Among such ethnicities were the Jews, who suffered an ethnic genocide under Nazi Germany but not under the Soviet Union (where Jewish communists were generally accepted by their Russian peers by contemporary standards and were able to attain influence).

The historians and columnists from these ethnicities that were treated better by the Soviets than by Nazis often write on the matter from their own ethnic standpoint. They regard the Soviet invasion of Lithuania in 1944 to be liberation because it seemed to be a change for the better *for their own group* (yet a change to the worse for most others).

The "Soviet liberation of Lithuania" was also part of the official Soviet historiography that is still often followed in Russia. This historiography is/was written in such a way that Russia(ns) would be always shown in a positive light.

Throughout the entire Cold War, Lithuanians and other Central/Eastern European countries were effectively silenced, any real historic research banned in there (people declaring facts contradicting the official Soviet thought were even put into mental asylums). On the other hand, Soviet Union, even if mistrusted in the West, had an influence, while most surviving Jews have also remained in (or eventually moved to) that "free side of the Iron Curtain", allowing themselves to be heard in the free world.

The Lithuanian and Central European voices were limited to much smaller emigres, often targetted by the Soviet Union, and so they had only a limited role in writing the history of their own nations, making the notion that "The Soviet Union liberated Lithuania" sometimes still repeated by the Western media and historians, and the notion that "The Soviet Union was better than the Nazi Germany" even more common.

Why is the "Soviet liberation of Lithuania" myth so insulting to Lithuanians?

Both the "Soviet liberation of Lithuania" and "Soviet Union was better than Nazi Germany" claims are especially insulting to Lithuanians and other nations of the region, as they implicitly regard a Lithuanian, a Latvian or a Ukrainian life (more of which were lost due to the Soviet Union actions) to be less important than a Russian, a Jewish, a British or a French life (more of which were lost due to the Nazi German actions).

Moreover, any notion that "The Soviet Union has liberated Lithuania" is seen as dangerous in that it legitimizes the Soviet (and now Russian) control of the area, and whitewashes its presence in Lithuania. Because in order for the Soviet Union to liberate Lithuania in 1944, Lithuania must have been rightfully Soviet prior to the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation, so the claims that the Soviet Union liberated Lithuania automatically recognize the Soviet 1940-1941 occupation of Lithuania as legitimate, which it wasn't (see "Did Lithuania join the Soviet Union?" myth).

In Eastern Europe, World War 2 was not a two-sided conflict but at least three-sided conflict, and both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were invaders in Lithuania and other countries of the region (see "Lithuania supported the Nazi Germany during WW2" myth).

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Is Lithuania very dangerous?

Lithuania is, statistically, at least as safe crime-wise as the USA is. One difference is that in Lithuania there are no safe or unsafe districts, with the crime being evenly spread. Therefore, one doesn't have to worry about staying in a bad district. However, at the same time, none of the districts are safe enough to leave a car with valuables on the open inside, for example (but, with increasing migration of criminals to the West, the same can also be said about the Western societies).

Aside from criminal dangers, Lithuania has much fewer dangers than most Western countries. There was never a deadly terrorist attack in the entire Lithuanian history, for instance. Lithuania also lacks any natural calamities: earthquakes, tornadoes, strong hurricanes, and volcanos do not happen there. While some people from outside the region fear to visit Lithuania due to the perception that Central/Eastern Europe is under a perennial war threat, in fact, the last act of war on Lithuania happened on 1991.

Murders-per-capita map of the world: the bluer the country is, the safer it is; the redder the country is, the more dangerous it is crime-wise

Murders-per-capita map of the world: the bluer the country is, the safer it is; the redder the country is, the more dangerous it is crime-wise

Why some foreigners believe the myth that Lithuania is very dangerous?

The lack of knowledge about the Eastern/Central Europe, the association of it with political strife that happened there during the lifetimes of most people and still happens in some places (e.g. Ukraine) makes some Westerners subconsciously believe the entire region is unsafe. However, each country should be evaluated individually for the situation there nowadays.

The fact that there are criminals from Central/Eastern Europe who emigrated to the West may also contribute to the misconception. After the Central/Eastern European countries joined the European Union and the borders were opened, the emigration was massive and possibly a disproportionate number of emigrants were criminals as, for criminals, richer Western countries provided far greater criminal-earnings opportunities, no notoriety-in-Lithuania effects, better prison conditions and more. Such "exodus of criminals" likely made Lithuania even safer (crime rates decreased significantly since independence), although at the same time it strengthened the myth of unsafe Lithuania abroad.

Is the "Dangerous Lithuania" myth insulting to Lithuanians and why?

This myth is more inconvenient than insulting: Lithuanians want foreigners to visit their country and invest there; such myths harm those possibilities.

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Are Lithuanians unwilling to regard minorities as Lithuanians?

Every citizen of Lithuania is regarded as a citizen of Lithuania by every other citizen of Lithuania, regardless of his/her origins or religious beliefs. There is simply no movement in Lithuania, popular or unpopular, that would seek to strip minorities of their citizenship.

However, the word "Lithuanian" in English essentially has two separate meanings. The first meaning is "A citizen of Lithuania" (nationality) and another is "Ethnic Lithuanian" (ethnicity). People of numerous ethnicities do live in Lithuania. Ethnic Lithuanians form a majority (~85%), but the ethnic minorities are also proud of their cultures. They neither consider themselves to be ethnic Lithuanians nor seek to be considered ethnic Lithuanians. In Lithuania, there is even an option to request the ethnicity to be written next to nationality on a Lithuanian passport, which people of the ethnic minorities often do (in total, more than half of Lithuania's citizens ask their ethnicity to be included in their passports). In the Lithuanian censae, people are also asked about their ethnicity (on the other hand, there are no questions on ancestry or race).

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

While the word "Lithuanian" describes both the nationality and ethnicity in English, in Lithuanian language the situation is more complex. In the passports, the nationality is written as "Lietuvos" (Lietuvos pilietis), while ethnicity (if Lithuanian) as "Lietuvis" (in the regular speech today, however, "Lietuvis" is also sometimes used for nationality due to the influence of the English language).

Labeling somebody who is not an ethnic Lithuanian to be an ethnic Lithuanian may be controversial both among the ethnic Lithuanians and the minority in question.

Historically, the ethnic Lithuanians are indigenous to Lithuania. Some of those who self-identify as Poles and Latvians possibly also are indigenous. The other communities have moved in from elsewhere during the 14th-21st centuries. Interethnic marriages were rather uncommon before the 20th century. They are still an exception rather than a rule today and in such families, an offspring often chooses one of the parent ethnicities.

Why some foreigners believe the myth about Lithuanians not seeing minorities as equal?

In addition to the linguistic issues, ethnicity on itself is a concept difficult to understand to the Americans and Australians, because most do not have it, having descended from people of various immigrant ethnicities.

However, the notion of ethnicities is an extremely popular form of identification in Central/Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere where the populations are still mainly indigenous.

It is difficult to precisely define what ethnicity is, as it typically may include any number of such traits like native language, culture, religion, race, ancestry, self-identification and more. Which traits are included in the definition, depends on the particular ethnicity and region. For example, while Serbs and Croats are considered to be separate ethnicities based primarily on different dominant religions (they essentially speak the same native language), eastern and western Latvians are considered to be a single ethnicity, despite having different dominant religions.

Even though mostly hereditary, ethnicity is not "race" as it is mostly invisible. Ethnicity is not "ancestry", as people of the same ethnicity may come from different countries. Ethnicity is not an "immigrant background", unless you'd count somebody whose forefathers arrived 200 or 400 years ago as having an immigrant background. While ethnicities may have their own "typical religions", one who converts out of them is not regarded to have lost his/her ethnicity (in this fashion, the majority of Lithuania's self-identifying ethnic Jews actually are non-Jews by faith, something baffling to the foreign Jews to whom being a Jew is mainly about religion).

By the way, in America and Australia, ethnic self-identification is popular in one particular group: the native indigenous populations. There, ethnicities are defined as "tribes" or "nations" (e.g. Cherokee, Navajo, Anangu). A non-Navajo who moves into Navajo territory is not to be considered a Navajo (nor, in most cases, he/she would seek to be recognized as a Navajo) - however, this does not mean that he/she would be unwelcome there. Likewise, referring to a non-Native-American as a Native American would be controversial.

Just like the Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians are proud of their indigenous heritage and many most still consider themselves part of the original Nation/Tribe even after moving away from the "Homeland" (yet at the same time they also consider themselves Americans or Australians), so does many European and Asian people, most of whom are indigenous to the continents, consider themselves to be part of their ethnic Nation as well as of their political nation.

Is this myth insulting to Lithuanians and why?

Yes. Firstly, such claims are insulting because they make Lithuanians look unwelcoming when this is clearly not the case.

Secondly, claims that the Western divisions of society into groups (e.g. into nationalities, races, religions, and ancestries) are acceptable, whereas the divisions less popular in the West (e.g. into ethnicities) "should be abandoned everywhere", seem to convey the idea that the Lithuanian (and Central/Eastern European or Asian, in general) culture is somehow inferior to that of the West.

In addition to this myth being insulting to Lithuanians, sometimes those who do not understand the dual meaning of word "Lithuanian" get unnecessarily insulted as well. The phrase "He is not a Lithuanian" could mean either "He is not a Lithuanian citizen" (but he maybe ethnic Lithuanian, e.g. part of the Lithuanian community in Poland) or "He is not an ethnic Lithuanian" (but he may be a Lithuanian citizen). Presuming that "Lithuanian" means ethnicity, a Lithuanian-American may be insulted by being called "not a Lithuanian" solely because he has no Lithuanian citizenship, whereas an American who just got Lithuanian passport may feel insulted being called "not a Lithuanian", because he would incorrectly presume the word "Lithuanian" means citizenship. It may be thus sometimes useful to replace the word "Lithuanian" by either "ethnic Lithuanian" or "citizen of Lithuania" when speaking in English.

See also the "Are Lithuanians fascists/racists/Nazis?" myth

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Is Lithuania a new country / nation?

No. On the contrary, Lithuania is among the world's oldest countries.

Lithuania was established at least in the 13th century, making it much older than all the current American and African countries and many European countries. In the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was Europe's largest country.

Moreover, the Lithuanian culture is indigenous and it predominates in the area for at least 4000 years, which is much longer than many other current cultural majorities not only in Australia (~200 years) or America (~500 years), but also Europe, where such cultures as Spanish or the French had formed only some 2000 years ago.

Establishment an expansion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th-14th centuries, superimposed on modern European state boundaries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Why do some foreigners believe Lithuania is a new country?

Lithuania has recently suffered a long period of occupations and foreign domination. It has regained independence most recently in 1990. This makes some foreigners believe that this was the first time Lithuania came into being as a separate country. However, this is far from the truth. There were two earlier periods Lithuania existed. The first one went on for centuries until 1795, when the Grand Duchy was conquered by the Russian Empire. Still, Lithuanians sought to restore the Grand Duchy and revolted multiple times. Eventually, Lithuanians restored a much smaller state. Even this Republic of Lithuania is, however, already over 100 years old, as it was established in 1918 and continuously existed since then according to the international law, despite being occupied in 1940-1990 (see the misconception "Lithuania was Russia" for explanation).

Is the "Lithuania is a new country" myth insulting to Lithuanians and why?

Depends on the exact claim. Some claims, e.g. claim that the Lithuanian nation was established in 1990, may seem somewhat insulting but, in general, this is not a major faux-pas unless coupled with "Lithuanians were Russians" or similar tenets.

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Was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania really Lithuanian?

Grand Duchy of Lithuania was established by the ethnic Lithuanian (Baltic) leaders hailing from the Lithuanian ethnic lands. Later, however, the country expanded into Slavic and even Muslim lands. At its peak, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania did control lands well beyond ethnic Lithuania and, at the time, just 30% of its people were ethnic Lithuanians.

However, ethnic Lithuanian dynasties were still the ruling elite. While ethnic Lithuanians were pagan, so were the leaders and the entire Grand Duchy was considered pagan. After the leaders converted to Catholicism, so did the ethnic Lithuanians and so the entire Grand Duchy became considered to be Catholic. The plurality or majority of the Grand Duchy inhabitants may have been Orthodox Slavs both for some time before and after the official conversion of Lithuanians (and the Lithuanian leaders) - yet, the Grand Duchy was never considered Orthodox.

Outside the period of its highest territorial extent, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania also had a Lithuanian cultural majority.

However, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not a nation-state in the modern sense. It did not seek to impose the Lithuanian language, religion, customs, or culture on its non-Lithuanian inhabitants. On the contrary, if the dukes would move from Lithuanian lands to rule the non-Lithuanian lands, they would commonly adopt the local language and religion. Even the written language of the Grand Duke's court was chosen by convenience: East Slavic and Latin languages were initially used, to be replaced by Polish later as the importance of Poland has increased.

Establishment an expansion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, superimposed on modern European state boundaries. Grand Duchy of Lithuania encompassed today's Lithuania and Belarus, as well as parts of Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

How did the myth that Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not related to Lithuania appear?

The myth of a non-Lithuanian Grand Duchy of Lithuania rests precisely on the fact that it was not a nation-state, making it easy for the historians of other countries to emphasize those traits of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that were more related to their ethnicities than to the Lithuanian ethnicity, thus claiming the entire Grand Duchy of Lithuania effectively was "their country".

Such claims are common in Belarus and Poland, mainly in the ethnicity-centered view on history that seeks to promote their ethnic history as more glorious and important.

For example, some Belarusians claim, that because an East Slavic language was used for writing by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania court, most of the Grand Duchy's nobility or even people in its main areas must have also spoken it natively. Moreover, as modern-day Belarus formed the bulk of Grand Duchy's East Slavic lands, that East Slavic language must have been Old Belarusian. On top of these, such authors claim that ethnic Lithuanians must have inhabited a much smaller land at the time, likely just Samogitia, and were merely a minor group in the Belarusian-led-and-ruled Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Such claims are, however, unscientific. They can easily be rebutted by the studies of placenames, among other things. In fact, Lithuanians did inhabit a somewhat larger area at the time than they do today, as parts of modern-day Belarus have Lithuanian-originated village names.

In fact, all the written-language-based claims about the Grand Duchy's demography are based on "exporting" the modern-day nation-state idea to a much-different Medieval era. Unlike today, in the Medieval era, it was very rare for the main spoken language to also be the written language. Most of Western Europe, for example, wrote in Latin but nobody spoke it natively. After all, only a few people could write at all at the time, and the leaders of the Grand Duchy themselves were illiterate. The written language used to be learned by the scribes together with the writing itself.

In conclusion, as Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not a "nation-state", it cannot be fully attributed to any single ethnicity in the way some later empires could have been, making this point moot.

So, while the Lithuanian ethnic group is the one that Grand Duchy of Lithuania clearly was most closely associated with, it is also wrong to believe that Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a kind of Lithuanian ethnic empire, or that there used to be a Lithuanian culture and language thriving "right to the Black sea" (some ethnic Lithuanians who are less knowledgeable in history tend to hold such beliefs and they are just as wrong as the Berlarusian beliefs that what is modern-day Lithuania used to be a Belarusian-speaking territory).

Is the non-Lithuanian Grand Duchy myth insulting and why?

These claims tend to be more funny than insulting to the general Lithuanian society as they don't expect the claims to be taken seriously. Typically, Polish claims tend to be disliked more as they are more widespread in the world than the Belarusian claims (which are little known beyond Belarus).

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Were Lithuanians Poles?

No. Poland and Lithuania had a joint country between the years 1569 and 1795 (known as Poland-Lithuania, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Republic of Both Nations). However, Poland and Lithuania were separate entities within that state in the same fashion as Austria and Hungary were in Austria-Hungary or England and Scotland are in Great Britain. No part of modern-day Lithuania was part of the Poland entity; the boundaries of the Lithuanian entity went far beyond the boundaries of modern-day Lithuania.

However, in the whole Poland-Lithuania, Polish language became the lingua franca of the elite. Thus, as the centuries passed, the Lithuanian nobility and the people around capital Vilnius increasingly used Polish even when speaking among themselves. Peasants, on the other hand, remained Lithuanian-speaking and they formed the population majority. The situation seemed to be similar to that in Ireland, where the English language replaced Irish Gaelic (although in Ireland the linguistic shift eventually went much further).

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its highest territorial extent (1616-1657) superimposed on modern European state boundaries. Poland and Lithuania entities are shown separately. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That said, in Lithuania, there was much bilingualism and diglossia with many people, including the nobles, spoke both Polish and Lithuanian and switched the language depending on circumstances. Even names used to be translated into whatever language one used at the time: for example, a famous Lithuanian lawyer of the era would sign “Michał Römer” when writing in Polish and “Mykolas Römeris” when using Lithuanian. It is impossible to say which of the two names was the "real one" as it simply depended on the language of the document.

At one time, it was shameful to be a Lithuanian speaker (Lithuanian was a "peasant tongue"), so they accentuated their acquired Polish cultural traits. Then, since the 19th century, a certain group of educated Lithuanians sought to encourage using native Lithuanian for all sorts of situations, including literature, politics, and science. This National Revival gained traction and followers. In the end, even parts of Lithuanians who spoke Polish natively and were not taught Lithuanian by their parents would learn "the language of their forefathers". Some, however, remained opposed to this "Lithuanization".

Only in the 20th century did the Polish and Lithuanian nations finally separated completely and most of those who considered themselves both Poles and Lithuanians then adopted a single ethnicity with even siblings sometimes choosing different ethnicities. They were forced to do so as Poland and Lithuania came into war over Vilnius region and dual loyalties were no longer possible. What was a political choice finally turned into something more, and some people of Lithuanian ancestry chose to "become" Poles.

In conclusion, Lithuania and Vilnius had many people who spoke Polish, however, most of these people were indigenous and of Lithuanian origins. There was little actual Polish immigration into Lithuania before the 20th century.

Simplified map of the ethnic-linguistic situation of Lithuania ~1900. The areas marked as 'Slavic-speaking Lithuanians' were populated by people of Lithuanian origins but using Polish or Belarusian as their main language of communication. Such a map is too small to depict the mixed areas, numerous ethnolinguistic enclaves, diglossia and dual identities that prevailed alongside ethnolinguistic boundaries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Why some foreigners believe that Lithuanians were Poles?

Outsiders often tend to oversimplify history. Instead of its full name (Poland-Lithuania or the Republic of Both Nations), outsiders often call the 1569-1795 joint Polish-Lithuanian state to have been just "Poland".

Furthermore, the link between Lithuanian ethnicity and Lithuanian language is so strong in the modern Lithuanian psyche that it is often impossible to think that there used to be many ethnic Lithuanians who spoke little or no Lithuanian. Such beliefs, however, themselves date to the National Revival era that popularized Lithuanian language knowledge as essential for a "real Lithuanian".

Furthermore, outsiders (and even many local researchers) have a difficult time understanding that the subtle-but-major difference that censae before the 1920s and 1940s asked for the "native language" while censae after that asked for "ethnicity". They often lump both censae leading to false claims that in 1933 under one percent of Vilnius inhabitants were ethnic Lithuanians, for example (in reality, less than 1% said Lithuanian was their native tongue; however, they were allowed to choose just a single tongue and Polish was still the prestige language in Vilnius of the era). Such interpretation is as illogical as claiming that everybody who had English as a native language in pre-independence Ireland was actually ethnically English rather than Irish.

It may be said that Irish and Lithuanian situations are diametrally opposite. In Lithuania, the National Revival was so successful in convincing people to speak Lithuanian that Lithuanian language was saved but that alienated a minority who didn't choose to speak Lithuanian despite all the National Revival effort; they ultimately ceased to consider themselves Lithuanians by the mid-20th century. In Ireland, on the other hand, all the descendents of Irish people are still considered Irish despite their language knowledge but this lack of promoting the language meant the Irish language was essentially lost and remains widely spoken only in some villages as the other people switched to the widely-spoken English.

Is the "Lithuanians were Poles" myth insulting to Lithuanians?

This claim is insulting to some Lithuanians, especially older ones who still have the collective memory of Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilnius region (1920-1940). However, as the Polish and Lithuanian relations are now much better and the historic conflict fades away, it is usually not seen as insulting as the claims that Lithuania was Russian or that Lithuanians are similar to Russians. The Polish-language-domination era that was once thought by Lithuanians to have been a real dark age for their nation is now also being rediscovered in a more neutral light. Still, that doesn't make the claims that Lithuanians were Polish any more real.

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Did Lithuania join the Soviet Union and was Lithuania communist?

No, Lithuania never joined the Soviet Union and very few Lithuanians were communists. Lithuania was illegally occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 using coercion and the presence of the Soviet military force.

In 1939, the Soviet Union presented an ultimatum to Lithuania requiring Lithuania to permit Soviet troops into its territory. The number of the Soviet troops required to accept was larger than the number of soldiers of the Lithuanian army. Understanding that resistance was futile (at the time the Soviet Union cooperated with Nazi Germany and had recently defeated Poland), Lithuania accepted the ultimatum. Lithuania briefly remained independent but the Soviet troops within its territory effectively made it impossible to defend its territory. In 1940 they were used as a pressure tool to depose the government of Lithuania. The president of Lithuania fled to the USA.

Soon after the occupation, Soviets began expulsions and mass murders of various Lithuanian population groups.

Had Lithuania rejected the ultimatum of 1939, it would have faced a certain war against the Soviet Union. Finland rejected a similar ultimatum in 1939, resulting in Winter War. Latvia and Estonia accepted similar ultimatums.

In Lithuania, communism was never popular. Even in theory, it couldn't have been, as, prior to the Soviet occupation, Lithuania was an agricultural country with few industrial workers and Maoism was not yet born. Furthermore, Lithuanian land had already been redistributed from the nobility to peasants during the 1920s land reform. This meant that the regular Lithuanian peasants (rather than some aristocrats who inherited their lands) were the primary targets for Soviet nationalization-of-most-property and mass-persecution campaigns. At the time the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1940, Lithuania's communist party was minuscule in size (~1400 members) and even within that party, less than half of the active members were ethnic Lithuanians (the ethnic composition of key Lithuanian Communist Party cadres in 1937, according to Comintern data, was: Lithuanians - 46%, Jews - 45%, others (mostly Russians) - 9%; in comparison, the ethnic composition of the general population of Lithuania was Lithuanians - 80%, Jews - 7%, Russians - 2%).

Generally, the Lithuanian Communist Party was regarded by most Lithuanians to be merely a vehicle of anti-Lithuanian activities and collaboration with the Soviets. The majority strongly opposed the occupation and many have fought against the Soviet Union as guerillas.

Lithuanian freedom fighter officer awards a female citizen. In 1944-1953 Lithuanian forests sheltered an entire guerilla state with its own government, army, and courts of law. Afterwards, it was crushed by the Soviet armies.

While there were more Lithuanians who joined the Soviet communist party after the occupation began to seem undefeatable, most of those people simply did it for gains in influence and material conditions (membership in the Communist party was beneficial for a career in Soviet-occupied Lithuania).

Moreover, once the possibility of restoring Lithuania became real (~1989), even the Lithuanian members of the Soviet Communist Party severed their ties with the Soviet Communist Party and created a separate Lithuanian Communist Party, which soon renamed itself Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party and abandoned any relations with communism or dictatorship.

How did the myth of Lithuania joining the Soviet Union and being communist appear?

This myth rests entirely in the Soviet propaganda which sought to promote the Soviet Union as peacefully unified.

Soviet historians worked hard in order to find communist Lithuanians in the history of pre-WW2 (pre-Soviet-occupied) Lithuania. Soviet propaganda has suddenly elevated these once-barely-known figures to the status of leaders, martyrs, and representatives of the "real opinions" of the whole Lithuanian nation. Supposedly, the existence of a few Lithuanian communists before the Soviet occupation proved that Lithuania wanted communism and to be a part of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union tried to promote itself as a kind of European Union of today, where nations have supposedly joined on their own will and still retained some independence. This was far from the case, however, as the Soviet Union was basically expanded by conquest and the conquered lands (including Lithuania) had almost no real autonomy and definitely no right to secede. The rights of the Republics that were written in the Soviet laws were not actually given in practice.

Why is the myth of the once-communist Lithuania so insulting to Lithuanians?

Communism always was and still is a real anathema to most Lithuanians, a system responsible for their country being economically ravaged. The Soviet occupation resulted in hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian deaths (see "Soviet Union has liberated Lithuania" myth) and this was something most Lithuanians foresighted but simply had no means to resist, being a small nation.

In Lithuania, the word "communist" thus has a very negative meaning. Genuine communists and pro-Soviet people are widely regarded to be either idiots (those who are "too stupid to understand" that the far-leftist economic system leads to even more poverty, even all the genocides aside), and/or people full of cruel hatred because of their own jealousy and prejudices. By claiming "Lithuanians were communists" or "Lithuanians willingly joined the Soviet Union", one does not merely wrongly interprets history, one (in the eyes of Lithuanians) essentially claims that Lithuanian people are either idiots or hateful murderers, and that they are themselves responsible for their 20th-century tragedies. Among ethnic Lithuanians, being called "a communist" basically has the same level of insult as being called "a Nazi" does, due to the fact that both regimes perpetrated genocides.

Interestingly, there is another exactly opposite (and equally wrong) myth that Lithuania supported Nazi Germany during World War 2.

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Is (was) Lithuania a part of Russia?

Lithuania is not and was not Russia. During the 1940-1941 and 1944-1990 periods, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. This occupation was contrary to international law and not recognized by most democratic countries.

Even under the official explanation of the Soviet Union, however, Lithuania was never part of Russia. Rather, the Soviet Union, according to its own law, consisted of 15 Republics, one of which was Lithuania and another of which was Russia.

In reality, these Republics had little power, and the power over the Soviet Union rested in Russia's hands. Still, however, being "part of Russia" and "being ruled by Russia" are two different things, just as neither Ireland nor India were ever parts of England, despite once being ruled from England.

Why do some foreigners believe Lithuania was a part of Russia?

Many people outside the region know little about the Central/Eastern European history. In these areas, "Soviet Union" and "Russia" (as well as "Soviets" and "Russians") were often used as synonyms, while the unique situation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as occupied independent countries (rather than parts of the Soviet Union) was overshadowed by the global picture of the Cold War. Now, even the Cold War is history, and so people often simplify and forget things even more.

Why is the "Lithuania was Russia" myth so insulting to Lithuanians?

To most Lithuanians, the notion that "Lithuania was Russia" is greatly insulting for a number of reasons. Firstly, such notion implies that Lithuania was somehow rightfully or willingly part of Russia, and only then decided to be a separate nation, which is not the case, as Lithuanians considered themselves a separate nation long before occupied by the Soviet Union.

Also, this misconception incorrectly implies that Lithuanians are related to Russians (or even descended from Russians). See the article on the "Lithuanians are similar to the Russians" myth to know more why it is insulting.

Note: the "Lithuania was Russia" claim refers to Lithuania having been a part of the Soviet Union, which is addressed above.

However, even earlier, during the era of global colonialism, between the years 1795 and 1915, Lithuania was also ruled by the Russian Empire (which, together with French, British, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch and other empires, has partitioned the world). This rule was a result of the joint Russian-Prussian-Austrian partition of the Poland-Lithuanian state and was never recognized by Lithuanians, who participated in numerous revolts against the Russian rule. The status of Lithuania was then in some (though not all) ways comparable to a colony as laws have differed from Russia-proper. Russian Emperors used a separate title "Grand Duke of Lithuania" since the conquest.

While many Lithuanians would prefer saying "Lithuania was occupied by the Russian Empire", it is probably not so much of a faux-pas to say "Lithuania was part of a Russian Empire" or, on the safe side, "Lithuania was ruled by the Russian Empire". However, "Lithuania was a part of Russia" is still generally not acceptable.

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