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Soviet era emigration from Lithuania (1945-1989)

After the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania in 1944, they essentially banned emigration, making Lithuania one large prison for those who remained there and did not manage to flee in time together with the 1944's Second Wave of Lithuanian migration.

Still, there were tens of thousands of people who emigrated from Lithuania at this time, using the limited opportunities that were still available.

Why did people migrate from Soviet Lithuania?

Soviet-occupied Lithuania was a terrible place to live, especially in the 1940s-1950s. A genocide was underway with hundreds of thousands murdered or expelled (often to their deaths), anti-Soviet guerilla war was raging without much hope, most of the freedoms were curtailed (including cultural, religious, freedom of speech, and others), while the economy was drifting into self-destruction.

So the question should be not “Why did some emigrate?” but rather “Why did not everybody emigrate?”. The reason for this was that the Soviet Union basically banned emigration outside of the Union. Illegal emigration was also typically impossible as:
1. There was no single border crossing between Lithuania and the "Free World". Lithuania was separated from it by the Baltic Sea or other communist-ruled countries with tightly defended borders.
2. Lithuanians were generally not allowed to travel abroad and the few who were allowed (e.g. sportsmen who went to the Olympic games) were closely watched, implicitly knowing that any escape attempt on their part would put their own families back in Soviet Lithuania in jeopardy.
3. Ethnic Lithuanians were also generally barred from jobs that would give them access to foreign countries (e.g. pilots flying international routes).

The existing ways for Lithuanians to emigrate were:

Way 1: Emigration to other parts of the Soviet Union. The sole "universal" opportunity for emigration was within the Soviet Union to other Soviet republics and even that was regulated. Still, the Soviet regime sometimes encouraged such migration in order to populate some empty regions or build infrastructure, allowing such emigrants to earn money or have a rare opportunity to live abroad. Being patriotic, most Lithuanians avoided that, as such migration meant losing their family culture and having to integrate into the local Russian communities, besides, many parts of the Soviet Union were even worse off economically and freedom-wise than Lithuania was. Moscow or Saint Peterburg were exceptions as they offered intellectual career opportunities unavailable in Lithuania (e.g. for scientists). Still, many Lithuanians sacrificed those to stay in Lithuania, moreover, few were allowed to move to the main cities of the Soviet Union (only those loyal to the regime were).

Way 2: Ethnic minority repatriation. The Soviet Union actually allowed some people to emigrate outside of the Soviet Union. Claiming that “every ethnic group should live in its own country”, the Soviet Union would permit out people belonging to ethnic groups that mostly lived outside of the Union: Lithuania's Jews were allowed to Israel, Germans to Germany, Poles to Poland. Even among those groups, however, many were refused out of the Soviet Union (e.g. those who ever worked in factories vaguely related to military effort). Those who were permitted gladly took the opportunity (or even bribed the officials to get their "ticket out"). This was called "repatriation", although in many cases neither the people in question nor most of their ancestors ever lived in the country they were being repatriated to: the only reason was that they had the same ethnicity as the ethnic majority of that country.

Way 3: Infiltrations. In addition to the said ethnic minorities, a few ethnic Lithuanians were allowed to emigrate by the Soviet Union as well. In some cases, they may have managed to get emigration permits through bribery. In most cases, however, it is believed such people were KGB agents meant to spy on the Lithuanian diaspora. They would typically claim to have been “anti-Soviet activists” in the Soviet Union and thus courted the Lithuanian diaspora leaders. In reality, however, no real ethnically Lithuanian anti-Soviet activists would have ever been allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union or to freely move within the Union for that matter.

Way 4: Escapes. The rarest and most difficult form of "emigration" often required hijacking vehicles or a great deal of successful deceit. The Hollywood-like escape stories were often converted into films in the "free world" (e.g. "The Hunt for the Red October", "Defection of Simas Kudirka").

Way 5: Poland's (Punskas/Seinai) Lithuanians. Post-WW2 territorial borders were drawn in such a way that a part of ethnic-Lithuanian-majority territories fell under the rule of Poland. While Poland was equally backward economically and also communist-ruled, the regime there was freer and it allowed people to emigrate. As such, the descendants of this small Lithuanian minority living in a few Poland villages next to the border of Lithuania make up a disproportionately large part of some Lithuanian communities abroad.

Way 6: Perestroika era (late 1980s) exceptions. After Soviet Union embraced perestroika and glasnost (democratization and transformation into capitalism), emigration restrictions loosened. Suddenly, people who were long waiting for previously-impossible-to-get emirgation permits received them. Often those were either people who had relatives in America (e.g. aging grandparents who needed care) or love in America (which they found through the increasingly possible international contacts, e.g. fell in love with Lithuanian-American tourists visiting Lithuania), although some „adventurous seekers of better life“ gradually also joined the trend.

Note: Second Wave. While technically the Second Wave of Lithuanian emigrants (DPs) fled Lithuania during the occupation as well, they did so using the World War 2 confusion before the Soviets completely reoccupied Lithuania. Their story is explained elsewhere.

Note:Exiles. This article is only about voluntary migration. Hundreds of thousands of people from Lithuania were also deported forcibly by the Soviet Union in the years 1941-1953 but their story is explained in another article.

How many people did emigrate from Soviet Lithuania

Way 1: Emigration to other parts of the Soviet Union. Some 30 000 left Lithuania for other parts of the Soviet Union until 1959 alone.

Way 2: Ethnic minority repatriation. Lithuanian historic ethnic minorities were more than halved in numbers as whoever had the opportunity emigrated to their at least somewhat freer "ethnic homelands":
200 000 Poles left. The current Polish population in Lithuania is also 200 000, although many of those have been relocated from Belarus by the Soviets.
12 000 Jews left in 1959-1989 alone. The current Jewish population in Lithuania is 3050.
10 000 Germans left, in addition to 51 600 already resettled to Germany in 1941 and up to 100 000 fleeing ~1944-1945. The current German population in Lithuania is 2418.

Way 4: Escapes. Less than a hundred people are known to have escaped Soviet Lithuania to the "free world" illegally. The number between 1951 and 1976 stood at 24, or less than one per year.

Way 6: Perestroika era (late 1980s) exceptions. The numbers are not researched well enough primarilly because it is difficult to differentiate these migrants from the Third Wave that began to rise ~1990. Wherever someone immigrated in 1989 or 1991, their cultural experiences are often similar.

Where did people from Lithuania emigrate to from Soviet Lithuania?

Way 1: Emigration to other parts of the Soviet Union. Those who took the legal opportunity to move to other parts of the Soviet Union for work often ended up either at the Virgin Lands (Kazakhstan area of not previously used agricultural pastures) or the Baikal-Amur mainline construction, two of the Soviet mega-projects.

A Soviet propaganda postcard encourages the building of the Baikal-Amur mainline

A Soviet propaganda postcard encourages the building of the Baikal-Amur mainline

Way 2: Ethnic minority repatriation. Ethnic minorities were legally allowed to emigrate solely to their "titular homelands". For Poles, that was Poland. For Germans, that was communist East Germany (as they were not allowed to migrate to West Germany). Given that these two countries were also communist, such migration was easier to control for the Soviets. Jews, however, were allowed to emigrate to Israel, which was capitalist and not controlled by the Soviet Union anyhow. Therefore many Jews, after telling the Soviet authorities they would emigrate to Israel, emigrated to the USA instead.

Way 3: Infiltrations. Soviet infiltrators typically moved to the key capitalist countries where the largest Lithuanian diaspora existed, mainly the USA, Canada, and such.

Way 4: Escapes. Those who escaped Lithuania typically asked for asylum in the first country where they managed to get to (often those were the capitalist states that neighbored the Soviet Union, such as Sweden or Turkey). However, in most cases, eventually, they would migrate to countries with old Lithuanian DP communities. Even if they had no relatives there, inspiring and rare stories of their escapes would often give them a kind of hero status in Lithuanian communities abroad.

Sculpture of S. Kudirka

Sculpture of Simas Kudirka who escaped a Soviet ship by jumping into an American ship. Still, Americans returned him to the Soviets where he was imprisoned, but the backlash and publicity meant that the USA was forced to eventually negotiate Kudirka's release and permit to leave the Soviet Union. Simas Kudirka became a popular topic of Lithuanian-American art

Way 5: Poland's (Punskas/Seinai) Lithuanians. Lithuanians from Poland mostly migrated to Canada.

Way 6: Perestroika era (late 1980s) exceptions. These Lithuanians left for countries where Lithuanian communities already existed, as having relatives there was often a prerequisite. Mostly, that was the USA or Canada.

How did emigrants from Soviet Lithuania live after emigrating?

Way 1: Emigration to other parts of the Soviet Union. Many of the intra-Soviet emigrants aimed to return, after earning money and having an "adventure" that was otherwise hard to get in the Soviet Union where travel was tightly controlled. Some, however, would marry non-Lithuanians and continue to live there, something encouraged by the Soviets and feared by the Lithuanian relatives back in Lithuania, for whom it would be just another step to the destruction of Lithuanian ethnicity. Those who left for a career (e.g. scientists) would also often continue to live abroad. While the Soviet Union has (to some extent) permitted Lithuanian culture within Soviet-occupied Lithuania itself, once Lithuanians migrated to other parts of the Soviet Union, they were expected to essentially "become Russians" with no public Lithuanian cultural activities allowed. So, speaking Lithuanian to other Lithuanians often was the only Lithuanian activity they could take and many did not even have any nearby Lithuanians to speak to. After Lithuania became independent or even before it, significant numbers of such emigrants returned but many were already too old and too distanced from Lithuania to consider this (e.g. no longer able to express themselves in Lithuanian well enough).

Way 2: Ethnic minority repatriation. The repatriated minorities typically integrated into the local populations without thinking any more about their origins in Lithuania. This was easy for them as they went to places where their own ethnic culture predominated.

Way 3: Infiltrations. Infiltrators would perform whatever missions they were given. That could include joining and spying on the Lithuanian diaspora organizations and reporting their plans to the Soviet Union. They could also try to gain access to foreign media and promote pro-Soviet ideas; when said by ethnic Lithuanians, such ideas, contradicting the stance of the official Lithuanian diaspora, were meant to make the foreigners confused about the reality (instilling thoughts such as "Some Lithuanians say Soviets are brutal, yet others say they are benevolent - so, it must be just a political disagreement, like Democratic-Republican one in the USA" or "I clearly don't understand who is right there - so maybe I should not actively campaign for Lithuania").

Way 4: Escapes. Too few people have escaped the Soviet Union from Lithuania to make generalizations, however, their lives were often unified by a star-like status in the diaspora that garnered support and attention.

Way 5: Poland's (Punskas/Seinai) Lithuanians. In Canada, Punskas Lithuanians created their own organizations but they generally integrated into the main organizations established by the DPs who arrived after 1944. Like the DPs and unlike the later emigrants, Punskas Lithuanians tend to be especially patriotic and value their language, something they had to safeguard even back in Poland where it was a minority language.

Way 6: Perestroika era (late 1980s) exceptions. Perestroika era migrants typically spoke no English language and understood very little about the life in a democratic and capitalist country where they had never lived before. As such, they often clinged to the established Lithuanian communities, mostly led by DPs, which helped them to find work and start their life. However, initially, some of these old communities viewed the perestroika migrants with distrust, expecting them to be possible Soviet spies (as, prior to perestroika, only spies would receive „emigration permits“).

How did the children and grandchildren of Soviet-era migrants live?

Way 1: Emigration to other parts of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had banned any Lithuanian activities (schools, clubs, media, theaters, etc.) outside of Soviet Lithuania, expecting the Lithuanian intra-Soviet emigrants to assimilate into Russians and use the Russian language and institutions instead that were available all over the Union. This meant Lithuanian language and culture had little use in the other parts of the Soviet Union and the children of Lithuanian migrants typically already did not speak Lithuanian, although the importance Soviet culture placed on ethnicity (the ethnicity used to be written even in passports and apartment deeds) meant that they still knew themselves to be ethnic Lithuanians (in a mixed family, one could choose one of the parents' ethnicities). After the Soviet Union collapsed and the atmosphere became freer, Lithuanian organizations were established in some cities of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan by the descendants of Soviet-era migrants. Such organizations are mostly Russian-speaking but they try to rediscover parts of Lithuanian culture. In the 2010s-2020s, when Lithuania became significantly more affluent than most of the former Soviet Union, many descendants of these Soviet-era migrants used their roots as a way to get a Lithuanian residence permit or passport. Economic opportunities and prestige presented by their "European connection" encouraged some of them to also rediscover their Lithuanian roots, switch their official passport-inscribed ethnicity (e.g. from their mother's "Russian" to their father's "Lithuanian"), and send their own children to a special boarding school in Lithuania.

Way 2: Ethnic minority repatriation. The lives of the children of the repatriates were not any different from the lives of other locals. After Lithuania became independent in 1990 some descendants of the repatriates would visit Lithuania or research their roots and even restore citizenship (these activities seem to be the most popular among Jews in order to get access to the European Union that Germans and Poles have anyways).

Way 3: Infiltrators . Too few people are known infiltrators to make generalizations.

Way 4: Escapes. Too few people have escaped the Soviet Union from Lithuania to make generalizations.

Way 5: Poland's (Punskas/Seinai) Lithuanians. The love for Lithuania was passed on to the next generation just as it was passed on for many generations while living in Poland. The descendants of Punskas Lithuanians are among the Lithuanian-Canadians most likely to go to a Lithuanian Saturday school.

Way 6: Perestroika era (late 1980s) exceptions. Speaking only Lithuanian (and Russian), the perestroika era migrants often created Lithuanian families and spoke Lithuanian to their children, making these children very much exposed to Lithuanian culture.

What heritage they have left?

They left little visible heritage.

Way 1: Emigration to other parts of the Soviet Union. They were not allowed to build anything Lithuanian outside Soviet Lithuania, although after independence local Lithuanians participated in building memorials for Lithuanian deportees in Kazakhstan and Russia. A few monuments were also built or streets named after Lithuanian workers who participated in the construction back in the Soviet era.

Memorial plaque for the Lithuanian priest

Memorial plaque for the Lithuanian priest who managed to build the Central Asia's only Catholic church during the Soviet occupation. Karaganda.

Way 2: Ethnic minority repatriation. They didn't feel to have been Lithuanians and also saw no need to anyhow commemorate this descent.

Way 3: Infiltrators . They had no interest nor numbers to leave any heritage.

Way 4: Escapes. Their stories inspired movies and art. They integrated into older Lithuanian communities.

In Hunting for the Red October Hollywood flick, Sean Connery plays a Lithuanian submarine captain who secretly sailed to America. The real story that inspired this was more prosaic and included a sailor who crossed the Baltic Sea to Sweden

In the Hunt for the Red October Hollywood flick, Sean Connery plays a Lithuanian submarine captain who secretly sailed to America. The real story that inspired this was more prosaic and included a small ship captain Jonas Pleškus who crossed the Baltic Sea to Sweden

Way 5: Poland's (Punskas/Seinai) Lithuanians. The only group of Soviet-era Lithuanian migrants that left some heritage in the form of memorials in Canada.

Way 6: Perestroika era (late 1980s) exceptions. As they have joined the old Lithuanian communities, they continued the heritage of these institutions as the older generations passed out. In this, they were joined by later Third Wave migrants.

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  1. Exceptions were possible though, like in case of Tomas Venclova.

    • While it is not possible to say 100% for sure, given that such data is not openly accessible, from what is known, Tomas Venclova’s case was most likely an infiltration by the Soviet Union (i.e. “Way 3” in the article).

      Key reasons to believe so (especially the C reason, although A and B puts it into context):

      a)Tomas Venclova is a member of a communist family. His father Antanas Venclova was a famous Soviet collaborator who went to Moscow to ask the Soviet Union to annex Lithuania. Antanas Venclova then became the minister of education of Soviet Lithuania.

      b)The official story is that Tomas Venclova suddenly decided that “he does not agree with communism” and wrote a letter to the Soviet officials asking to let him go. Supposedly, these officials agreed and Venclova was permitted to emigrate to the USA. This simply was not what could have happened in the Soviet times, period. Otherwise, tens of millions of people from all over the Soviet Union would have written such letters and emigrated, including all the ones who risked their lives to escape. In reality, even people who had credible reasons to emigrate (e.g. parents living in the USA) were not allowed to leave until the late 1980s, except for the specific ethnic minorities. Anybody writing such a letter would have been arrested, persecuted, forcibly treated in a mental asylum, exiled, or murdered by the Soviets, with his/her family targetted as well – depending on the exact time such a letter would be written at. The only better-known story of such “permitted emigration” of a truly anti-Soviet figure is that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, however, he was a Nobel Prize winner and his arrest/murder would have caused serious image problems for the USSR. Not so in Tomas Venclova’s case who became somewhat more well known only after leaving the Soviet Union. On the other hand, his strongly collaborationist family background would have meant that, in the Soviet system, he would have been trusted enough to undertake foreign missions in the Western world.

      c)Tomas Venclova’s criticism of Soviet/Russian system has always been extremely superficial. On the other hand, it is almost always followed by a more powerful criticism of Lithuania and Lithuanian diaspora, for instance, labeling various key anti-Soviet pro-independence figures of both Lithuanian diaspora and post-independence Lithuania as “pro-fascist”, “pro-Nazi”, etc. – very much in-line with the official then-Soviet and now-Russian propaganda claims.

      In other words, he would never, for example, analyze the Soviet mass murders, crimes, the numbers of victims, etc. Instead, he would vaguely say something like “I disagree with the Soviet/Russian regime”, then continuing on that he disagrees with the Lithuanians as well. He would take far more time/pages to provide arguments against Lithuanians, so to a “neutral” listener, it would seem Lithuanians are the worse (or at least “just as bad”) side.

      This is exactly the way Soviet agents operated. They did not openly claim that they are pro-Soviet, which would have immediately shut all the doors to them to both Lithuanian diaspora and American institutions and media. When 90-99% of their “target audience” was anti-Soviet, it was completely hopeless to attempt changing that by challenging it directly.

      Instead, the infiltrators would have started with some minor criticism of the Soviet Union in order to make the listeners believe that the person is “on their side”. Instead of openly “whitewashing” Soviet crimes, they would rather leave them (almost) unmentioned, and quickly move on targetting the supposed wrongs of Russia’s/Soviet Union’s opponents. Their goal would not be to claim the Soviet Union is innocent (which would have been impossible given that the Soviet murders of tens of millions were widely known in the West) but rather to claim that Soviet Union’s opponents are as tainted as the Soviet Union / Russia itself; that independent Lithuania would be at least as bad as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, etc.

      I.e. while in reality the only European regime that could be somewhat compared to the Soviet Union in terms of numbers of people killed and persecuted for the sole reason of their faith, ethnicity, etc., was that of Nazi Germany, the Soviet/Russian propaganda attempts to shift the “moral equality” comparison from “Soviet Union = Nazi Germany” to “Soviet Union = NATO” / “Soviet Union = Western world”, etc. This is often done by cherry-picking the “worst of the worst” from the opponents (e.g. actions of some US war criminal in Vietnam, or some Lithuanian collaborator with Nazi Germany), obfuscating that further and not mentioning any numbers, begging the conclusion “So, both sides are guilty of this”, even though in the Soviet Union that was the official policy/orders and repeated millions or tens of millions of times (with perpetrators lauded) whether among the opponents this may have been a criminal excess and happened just some times (with perpetrators punished in the end).

      In fact, these propaganda traditions (known as “whataboutism”) continue on with the Russian Federation media aimed at the West, such as “Russia Today”. Knowing it is impossible to make Westerners believe that Russia is more democratic than the Baltic States, for example, these sources would seek to establish a moral equivalence instead: e.g. they would reply the accusations of minority discrimination in Russia by claiming that “Russians are also discriminated in the Baltic States”. Careful analysis would show that pies are compared to oranges: massacres / tortures / persecutions of minorities in Chechnya, for example, are compared with the fact that the Russian language has no official status in the Baltic States.

      However, such analysis is left out from such works on purpose, playing on emotions and hoping that the reader is not educated enough to understand it. The same goes for Venclova’s work: Lithuania is the prime target there, and Russia/Soviet Union only as much as it is needed not to lose his credibility.

      In one of the more striking examples, Venclova tries hard to challenge the moral equivalence between Soviet Union/Russia and Germany (openly denying that the Soviet Genocide was genocide), and then create a moral equivalence between Soviet Union/Russia and independent Lithuania / Lithuanian diaspora (“I disagree with both”).

      Yet again, I have no access to KGB archives and such data might no longer exist. However, if somebody would ask me “Give me an example of HOW SHOULD a good Soviet infiltrator have acted in order to damage the pro-independence Lithuanian interests abroad, promote Soviet/Russian interests, and at the same time retain his/her credibility and influence in the West”, I would definitely say “He/she should have acted just like Tomas Venclova did”.

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