The LITHUANIANS

by “The Warrior” (Senior Member, AnthroScape)

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edited for style by Alan Craig, 2018

Lithuanians are the Baltic ethnic group native to Lithuania, where they number a little over 3 million. Another million or more make up the Lithuanian diaspora, largely found in countries such as the United States, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Russia, United Kingdom and Ireland. Their native language is Lithuanian, one of only two surviving members of the Baltic language family. According to the census conducted in 2001, 83.45% of the population of Lithuania proper identified themselves as Lithuanians, 6.74% as Poles, 6.31% as Russians, 1.23% as Belarusians, and 2.27% as members of other ethnic groups. Most Lithuanians belong to the Roman Catholic Church, while Lietuvininkai, who lived in the northern part of East Prussia, before World War II, were mostly Lutherans.

History

The territory of the Balts, including modern Lithuania, was once inhabited by several Baltic tribal entities (Sudovians, Curonians, Selonians, Samogitians, Nadruvians and others), as attested by ancient sources and dating from prehistoric times. Over the centuries, and especially under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, some of these tribes consolidated into the Lithuanian nation, mainly as a defence against the marauding Teutonic Order and Eastern Slavs. One of the last Pagan peoples in Europe, they were eventually converted to Christianity in 1387.

The territory inhabited by ethnic Lithuanians has shrunk over centuries; once Lithuanians made up a majority of population, not only in what is now Lithuania, but also in northwestern Belarus, in large areas of the territory of modern Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia, and in some parts of modern Latvia and Poland.

However, there is a current argument that the Lithuanian language was considered non-prestigious by some elements in Lithuanian society—a preference for the Polish language in certain territories of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, as well as a preference for the German language in territories of the former East Prussia (now Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia), caused the number of Lithuanian speakers to decrease. The subsequent imperial Russian occupation accelerated this process; it pursued a policy of ‘Russification’, which included a ban on public speaking and writing in Lithuanian [see the article My Father Was a Smuggler —ed.]. It was believed by some at the time that the nation, as such, along with its language, would become extinct within a few generations.

Lithuania declared independence after the World War I, which helped its national consolidation. A standard Lithuanian language was approved. However, the eastern parts of Lithuania, including the Vilnius region, were annexed by Poland, while the Klaipėda Region was taken over by Nazi Germany in 1939. In 1940, Lithuania was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union, and forced to join it as the Lithuanian SSR. The Germans and their allies attacked the USSR in June 1941 and, from 1941 to 1944, Lithuania was occupied by Germany. The Germans retreated in 1944, and Lithuania fell under the Soviet rule once again. The long-standing communities of Lithuanians in the Kaliningrad Oblast (‘Lithuania Minor’) were almost destroyed as a result.

The Lithuanians, as such, remained primarily in Lithuania, in a few villages in northeastern Poland, southern Latvia, and also in the diaspora of emigrants. Some indigenous Lithuanians still remain in Belarus and the Kaliningrad Oblast, but their number is small compared to what they used to be. Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, and was recognised by most countries in 1991. It became a member of the European Union on 1 May 2004. A low birth rate and increased emigration after joining EU is threatening the nation’s future.

Ethnic composition of Lithuania

Among the Baltic states, Lithuania has the most homogeneous population. According to the census conducted in 2001, 83.45% of the population identified themselves as ethnic Lithuanians, 6.74% as Poles, 6.31% as Russians, 1.23% as Belarusians, and 2.27% as members of other ethnic groups.

Poles are concentrated in the Vilnius region, the area controlled by Poland in the interwar period. Especially large Polish communities are located in the Vilnius district municipality (61.3% of the population) and the Šalčininkai district municipality (79.5%). This concentration allows ‘Electoral Action of Poles’, an ethnic minority-based political party, to exert political influence. This party has held 1 or 2 seats in the parliament of Lithuania for the past decade [in 2016, the party held 8 seats in a government coalition; in 2019 it held 3 opposition seats in the Seimas —ed.]. The party is more active in local politics and controls several municipality councils.

Russians, even though they are almost as numerous as Poles, are much more evenly scattered and do not have a strong political party. The most prominent community lives in the Visaginas city municipality (52%). Most of them are workers who moved from Russia to work at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. Lithuania is noted for its success in limiting Russian worker migration during the Soviet occupation (1945–1990). A number of ethnic Russians left Lithuania after the declaration of independence in 1990. [The 2021 census established that 84.6% of the population identified as Lithuanians, 6.5% as Poles, 5.0% as Russians, 1.0% as Belarusians, and 1.1% as members of other ethnic groups —ed.]

In the past, the ethnic composition of Lithuania has varied dramatically. The most prominent change was from the extermination of the Jewish population during the Holocaust. Before World War II, about 7.5% of the population were Jewish; they were concentrated in cities and towns and had a significant influence on crafts and business. They were called Litvaks and had a strong culture. The population of Vilnius, which was sometimes nicknamed ‘the Northern Jerusalem’, was about 30% Jewish. Almost all its Jews were either killed during the occupation by Nazi Germany, or later emigrated to the United States and Israel. Now, there are only about 4,000 Jews living in Lithuania.

Genetics

Since the Neolithic period, the native inhabitants of the Lithuanian territory have not been replaced by any other ethnic group—so, there is a high probability that the inhabitants of present-day Lithuania have preserved the genetic composition of their forebears, relatively undisturbed by the major demographic movements (although, without being actually isolated from them). The Lithuanian population appears to be relatively homogeneous, without apparent genetic differences among ethnic subgroups.

A 2004 analysis of MtDNA in a Lithuanian population revealed that Lithuanians are close to both Slavic (Indo-European) and Finno-Ugric-speaking populations of Northern and Eastern Europe. Y-chromosome SNP haplogroup analysis showed Lithuanians to be closest to Latvians and Estonians.

A high frequency of the CCR5-D32 allele in Lithuanian populations, at levels of about 16% has been discovered. This allele confers resistance to HIV infection. Several theories have been advanced with regard to this genetic development; it may have arisen as a response to epidemics of smallpox or plague in the area, both of which occurred in Lithuania before the mid-19th century.

Lithuanian Ashkenazi Jews also have interested geneticists, since they display a number of unique genetic characteristics; the utility of these variations has been the subject of debate. One variation, which is implicated in familial hypercholesterolemia, has been dated to the 14th century, corresponding to the establishment of Ashkenazi settlements in response to the invitation extended by Vytautas the Great in 1388.