Myths about Lithuania | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Myths about Lithuania

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

Some of these misconceptions 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 10 negative 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.

"Lithuania is / was Russia"

THE TRUTH: 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 THE MYTH? 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.

INSULTING? 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 "Lithuanians are similar to the Russians" myth to know more why it is insulting]

"Lithuanians are similar to the Russians"

THE TRUTH: 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 THE MYTH? 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

INSULTING? 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 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 is similar to mixing up Jews and Arabs, or Indians and Pakistanis.

"Lithuania has (willingly) joined the Soviet Union / Lithuanians were communists"

THE TRUTH: Lithuania was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 using coercion and the presence of the 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 Lithuania was an agricultural country with few industrial workers and Maoism was not yet born. Furthermore, Lithuanian already had 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 target for Soviet nationalization-of-most-property and mass-persecution campaigns.

While there were 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.

WHY THE MYTH? 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 early 20th century Lithuania. These once-barely-known figures were suddenly elevated to the status of martyrs and representatives of the "real opinions" of the whole Lithuanian nation by the Soviet propaganda after the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. 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.

INSULTING? Very much so. 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.

"Lithuania supported the Nazi Germany during WW2"

THE TRUTH: 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 the Lithuania's German minority in the 1930s, leading to a 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 the 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, Soviet Union annexed the rest of Lithuania).

Nazi Germany has occupied entire Lithuania in 1941. While it sought to enlist Lithuanians to their cause, no prominent Lithuanian figures have ever joined it. Unlike in Latvia and Estonia, Germans were unable to erect a local SS legion in Lithuania due to Lithuanian 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. Yed-Vashem-recognized non-Jews who saved Jews from the Holocaust).

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

WHY THE MYTH? 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 known as "Anti-fascist wall".

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 collaboration 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 war 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.

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 sometimes 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.
*Likewise, there were some Lithuanians who collaborated with the Soviets (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 "Lithuanians supported Nazi Germany because there were collaborators with 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). Furthermore, it would be equally possible to "prove" that countries like Sweden, USA, Australia, Germany supported the Islamic State - simply because significant numbers of their citizens were fighting for the Islamic State.

In order to artificially increase the number of supposed collaborators, the anti-Lithuanian propagandists and those who inadvertently cite them sometimes lump June (1941) anti-Soviet mutineers together with the Nazi collaborators. The June mutineers deposed the Soviet Union occupational regime hoping that Nazi Germany would recognize Lithuanian independence or at worst significant autonomy. Their plot failed - Nazi Germany has occupied Lithuania just as the Soviet Union did and many mutineers ended up in German concentration camps. The only argument in favor of June mutineers being Nazi collaborators 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.

INSULTING? Yes. Firstly, these claims are wrong and they show either 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 "Soviet Union liberated 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 one of 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, instead focusing 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?

"Lithuania is extremely poor / third world"

THE TRUTH: 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 (GNP per capita 2017) are green in this map while those poorer than Lithuania are red. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

WHY THE MYTH? 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.

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 support 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).

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

INSULTING? 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.

"Soviet occupation in Lithuania had its bright sides"

THE TRUTH: 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).

WHY THE MYTH? 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 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 deep emotional impact to them. This is especially true for the generation born in the Soviet Union after the Soviet Genocide (1940-1953) as they did not see nor know about the free pre-Soviet Lithuania nor the worst crimes of the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, some Lithuanians are unable to counter-argument a common Russian argument that "Many roads, factories, homes and more were built in the 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 a far better quality. Had Lithuania been not occupied by the Soviet Union, its economy would have advanced far more as 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 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.

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 salaries may have differed little, the Soviet system was far from egalitarian as there were other means to ensure that some people eventually get 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.

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

"Lithuanians are racists / nazis"

THE TRUTH: 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.

WHY THE MYTH? 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.

Independence day parade in Vilnius with people carrying Lithuanian flags (2012). By the Russian media and the foreign media that recited it the same parade has been declared to have been fascist. Among the main arguements was that some fascists used to participate in the independence day parades some years ago. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The second 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). While cross-dressing is also acceptable in the West, dressing as somebody of a different ethnicity is frowned upon there due to political correctness, especially when there is an attempt to change one's racial features. Some Westerners who know little about the Lithuanian traditions thus have attacked Užgavėnės traditions in their media. The primary 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 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.

INSULTING? 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.

"Soviet Union has liberated Lithuania / Soviet Union was better than the Nazi Germany"

THE TRUTH: 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 "Lithuania was Russia" above) 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 THE MYTH: 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.

INSULTING? Both claims are especially insulting to Lithuanians and other nations of the region, as they implicitly regard a Lithuanian, Latvian or Ukrainian life (more of which were lost due to the Soviet Union actions) to be less important than a Russian, a Jewish or a Westerner 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.

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" above).

"Lithuania is unsafe"

THE TRUTH: 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.

WHY THE MYTH? 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.

INSULTING? More inconvenient than insulting: Lithuanians want foreigners to visit their country and invest there; such myths harm those possibilities.

"Lithuania is a new country / nation"

THE TRUTH: Lithuania was established at least in the 13th century, making it much older than all the American 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 THE MYTH? 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 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 above misconception "Lithuania was Russia" for explanation).

INSULTING? 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 (see above).

"Lithuanians are unwilling to regard minorities as Lithuanians"

THE TRUTH: 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 (instead of their 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", 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. The other communities have moved in from elsewhere during the 14th-21st centuries. Interethnic marriages were very uncommon before the 20th century and currently, an offspring often chooses one of the parent ethnicities.

WHY THE MYTH? 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.

Even though mostly hereditary, ethnicity is not "race" as it is often 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 its 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 despite of moving away from the "Homeland" (at the same time still being 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.

INSULTING? 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.

"Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not anyhow related to Lithuanians"

THE TRUTH: 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.

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.

WHY THE MYTH? 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 the 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, easily rebutted by the studies of placenames. 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.

INSULTING? 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 that are known little beyond Belarus.

"Lithuania was Polish"

THE TRUTH: 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).

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. At one time, it was shameful to be a Lithuanian speaker (Lithuanian was a "peasant tongue"), so they accentuated their acquired Polish cultural traits. Since the 19th century, it became somewhat fashionable to speak Lithuanian. 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 adopting a single ethnicity with even siblings sometimes choosing different ethnicities.

So, 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.

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.

WHY THE MYTH? 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, 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 just 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).

INSULTING? It is insulting to some people, 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. 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.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Another great article, but specifically regarding ethnicity, it made me wonder why the concept of ethnicity really only lives on in the mainstream in Central/Eastern Europe and not in Western Europe? Western Europe also comprises a mostly indigenous population, albeit with more immigration especially in recent decades, but it seems like the concept of ethnicity is weaker there, if not entirely absent. I am wondering if that is a more recent phenomenon due to political correctness or if it dates back further

    • In some places, e.g. France, it dates further. A major difference was the centuries-long continuity of the Western European countries on approximate similar boundaries (at least within Europe). So, unlike in the Eastern Europe, people could also identify with citizenship more as it was commonly the citizenship of them, their parents, their grandparents, etc. Furthermore, some of these long-standing countries were actually quite divided ethnically/linguistically (e.g. France), so emphasizing citizenship over ethnicity or language was a mean to remove regionalism or possible separatism. “We are all French, despite our origins” idea was first used to put French identity above Brettan or Basque or Occitan but is now used the same way vis-a-vis immigrants (wherein “French” is citizenship, not ethnicity, and the word is nearly never used for ethnicity).

      In some other places it is more recent and related to political correctness. Yet there are still many areas in Western Europe where concept of ethnicity does exist, e.g. in Spain. There, however, it seems to be used by minorities only (e.g. Catalan, Basque), while the government would prefer all-encompassing “Spanish” to mean citizenship rather than ethnicity (so, “Spanish” is not used for “people of Spain speaking Spanish natively for centuries”, in the way it would probably be used should Spain be in Eastern Europe). Ethnicity was used as a mean reason for German or Italian unifications (however, ethnic radicalism in Germany under Hitler then pushed the locals in trying to deny ethnicity altogether). Ethnicity is still the driving force behing Flemish nationalism in Belgium, as well as arguably the Scottish nationalism. However, with lots of immigration, any separatist force also has to include people of non-local ethnicity to achieve the alread y difficult-to-achieve majority. Furthermore, the regionally prevailing idea of citizenship as the “main division” also makes those who suggest establishing any new countries to also concentrate on the “future citizenship” rather than ethnicity (however, if not for a differing ethnicity (as the word is understood in Eastern Europe), there is little reason to believe there would be Flemish, Basque, Catalan, or Scottish nationalisms).

      So, the answer is twofold – on the one hand, different history made “citizenship” more appealing self-identification in Western Europe. On the other hand, recent political ideologies made “ethnicity” less appealing / popular.

  2. Very cool article!
    But I wish lithuania was real, it would be great!

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