2020.05.25 08:00

Two mother tongues and post-Soviet transition: Lithuania's ethnic minorities 30 years later

Laura Adomavičienė, LRT.lt2020.05.25 08:00

As Lithuania marked the day of minorities on May 21, what is the situation for Lithuania’s largest ethnic communities, Polish and Russian, today?

The Polish minority in Lithuania constitutes 6.6 percent of the population, according to the 2011 census, while the Russian-speaking community makes up 5.8 percent.

When Lithuania declared independence 30 years ago, in March 1990, the rising euphoria for freedom among Lithuanians contrasted somewhat with unease among the country’s Russian minority, remembers Pavel Lavrinec, the head of the Russian Department at Vilnius University.

“Those who stayed [in Lithuania] after the independence, they ended up in a strange situation – they live in the same apartment, but in a different country. It wasn’t a personal choice and it was difficult to adapt to.”

The Russian language enjoyed an official status in Soviet Lithuania, but that was to change.

“There were many fears – what will happen with the national language, Russian-language media and Russian schools,” Lavrinec told “Many Russian speakers were sceptical about their future here in Lithuania, as were some Ukrainians, Belarusians and other people from Soviet republics.”

“They didn’t have their education and culture infrastructure. But it soon became clear [...] that in order to take part in Lithuania's economic and cultural life, [or] teach in Russian-language schools, all you need to do is pass the national language exam and that’s it,” he remembered. “Soon, the worries faded away.”

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The question of identity became more pertinent and there even appeared the phenomenon of a second mother tongue, as documented in a study carried out by Lavrinec’s faculty.

“For example, a person said Russian was his nationality, but his mother tongue was Lithuanian, or the other way around,” he said. “This shows that national and linguistic identity is a very personal thing.”

“I still remember a chat I had with my son at the breakfast table. I told him: eat some bread [with your meal], like a Russian. He responded: I’m Lithuanian,” Lavrinec recalled.

Still, the Russian language remains the key marker of identity among the Russian minority, according to Lavrinec.

Meanwhile, the Polish minority has to work overtime to preserve their identity even 30 years after the independence, said the journalists Evelina Mokrzecka, a Lithuanian Pole.

Although Polish communities lived in the eastern part of Lithuania for centuries, they lost some of their identity during the Soviet occupation.

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In this period, the Russian language seeped into everyday conversations of Lithuania's Poles. “In the 1990s, we as kids used to speak Russian,” she said.

At the time there weren’t many Polish role models known to the Lithuanian society. In hospitals, you were more likely to meet a Polish-speaking cleaner than a doctor, she said.

“This can be explained by the repatriation of Poles to Poland, which took place in 1944–1947 and 1955–1959, when much of the Polish intelligentsia departed,” said Mokrzecka.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered to forcibly transfer Poles from Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine to Poland in order to establish clear ethnic borders.

“Today, after 30 years of Lithuania's independence, we notice more Polish minority representatives in the public and that’s very important.”

According to Mokrzecka, the figures that give visibility to the Polish minority include an adviser to the Lithuanian president, a vice minister for education, the director of the financial crimes agency, as well as a number of well-known professors and scientists.

While she says she never faced discrimination herself, she has noticed stereotypes attached to the Polish minority in Lithuania.

For one, Lithuania's Polish-speakers get identified with the Electoral Action of Poles political party and its rather controversial leader Voldemar Tomaševski. That doesn’t help “form a positive image” of the community, she said.

Another issue today is that students in Polish schools are not exposed to modern Polish literature, according to Mokrzecka.

They are also not taught to use their mother tongue in contemporary situations. “For example, they don’t teach in Polish schools [in Lithuania] how to write a CV in Polish, or an official letter. [...],” she said.

As a result, young Poles resort to a blend of Russian, Lithuanian and even English in their everyday language.

Missing government action

Lithuania has yet to pass a so-called National Minorities Law which would regulate the spelling of people’s names and the names of ethnic minority villages and towns in their original language. The law, which has been 10 years in the making, would also establish funding for minority communities.

According to Mokrzecka, the name-spelling issue is particularly important. In official documents, Polish-speakers have their names spelled according to Lithuanian phonetic rules and not in their original spelling.

“I’ve lived in Poland for more than 10 years with basically a different name,”she said. “I was called there Moksecka, because in Lithuanian my surname is spelled with ‘š’ – Mokšecka.”

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“I had two different names. But it is my property, I’d like to have the ability to use it,” she added.

Lavrinec from Vilnius University also thinks ethnic minorities need “respect and attention” from the Lithuanian state.

“Sometimes this costs very little. I really value the gesture by the former mayor of Vilnius, Artūras Zuokas, to put memorial plaques to Fyodor Dostoevsky, Lev Karsavin ,” he said. “It’s nice that streets are called Russian, Tatar, German.”

The needs of Lithuania's Russians and Poles are not that different from those of ethnic Lithuanians, he added.

“Fundamental things like welfare, which the current president speaks a lot about, are the same for everyone. If the economy is in order – everyone will live better regardless of their nationality,” said Lavrinec.

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