LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 21, No.1 - Spring 1975
Editors of this issue: Antanas Klimas, Thomas Remeikis, Bronius Vaskelis
Copyright © 1975 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
DISCRIMINATION OF LITHUANIANS IN THE BYELORUSSIAN SSR*
EDITORIAL NOTE: According to the population census of 1970, almost 160,000 Lithuanians lived in the Soviet Union outside the Lithuanian Republic. The major Lithuanian communities are found in Latvia (40,000), Kaliningrad Oblast of the RSFSR (former East Prussia) (24,000), Byelorussia (8,000), and Siberia (ca. 40,000). The number of Lithuanians in Byelorussia is probably vastly under-counted. Still it is clear that the number has declined precipitously from about the 50,000 at the end of the World War II as a result of a assimilative policies. None of the Lithuanian communities outside Lithuania enjoy national cultural rights (such as schools in the Lithuanian languages, publications, organizational activity, etc.). On the other hand, the Russian communities in various republics are served by Russian schools, publications, and organizations. The long term consequence of such a cultural discrimination is the assimilation of ethnic minority communities, which happen to be situated outside their nominal republics. That appears to have been the fate of Lithuanians in the Byelorussian Republic, as the following samizdat document indicates. This document, which reached the West in 1974, is obviously a summary of a lengthy samizdat publication (50 type-written pages), entitled "About the Situation of Lithuanians in the Byelorussian Republic", dated 1972. The latter publication reached the West in the Fall of 1974.
There are no Lithuanian schools in Byelorussia, even though 50,000 Lithuanians live there in the towns and villages that are located near the common border with Lithuania. The towns and villages comprise extensive Lithuanian populated regions whose centers are the towns of Apsas (Breslauja rayon), Gervėčiai (Astravas rayon), Pelesa and Ramaškoniai (Varanavas rayon). In Byelorussia, a child whose native language is Lithuanian, is taught all subjects in the Russian language from the first grade (age 7). Study is very difficult for the children who do not know Russian. As a result there is a low level of achievement and upon graduating from these Russian schools the children encounter extreme difficulty in gaining admission to schools of special and higher education, especially if these schools are located in Lithuania.
The families are also russified through the schools. In the Breslauja and Varanavas rayons one can find families where the parents converse in Lithuanian amongst themselves and in Byelorussian with their children. When asked why they do so, they answer: "so that it would be easier to learn in school." If a child knows Byelorussian, then it is easier for him to understand subjects being taught in Russian at school.
Lithuanians do not want their children to go to Russian schools, and so they send them to study in Lithuania. It is not easy, both morally and materially for parents of those rayons to separate themselves from their children by sending them away to study in Lithuania. In Lithuania there is apprehension in accepting them (evidently, Moscow does not look favorably upon it), so the parents have to do a lot of prodding, frequently returning in tears having gained nothing. The Byelorussian government takes advantage of this situation. It established two Russian schools in those areas where the Lithuanian element is the strongest in Gervėčiai ir Rodūnė. However, further away, the purely Byelorussian regions do not have these special schools. At these schools attempts are made to provide better living conditions for study: students receive full board (food and clothes). Tuition at the schools is low, so that children of poor parents can also attend.
The following is one characteristic example of russification. In the Padvitis village (Rodūnė rayon) a Russian 8-year school was in operation, but there the Lithuanian language was taught as a separate course, 2-3 times a week. In 1970, that school was closed. There no longer remained an 8-year school in the vicinity of Padvitis. In answer to the protests of the parents, the government told them that now they can give their children to the Rodūnė school.
The local Byelorussian government persecutes those, who let their children study in Lithuanian SSR. Each collective farmer receives 30 "ares" of land for his personal use. Chairman Lov-čenko, of the Breslaujas collective farm, took away a portion of this land (between 7 and 10 ares) from all of those parents who had sent their children to study in Lithuania. One citizen had 20 "ares" taken away (for two children).
Russification does not stop with the schools. The first and last names of Lithuanians are being russified. On documents, the Lithuanian name Jonas becomes a Russian Ivan, Jurgis Igor, etc. Lithuanian place names are also changed to Russian ones. For example, in the Breslauja rayon, the town name of Juodelėnai is changed to Edoloviči, and near Rodūnė, the village of Piliakalnis has recently been renamed "Gorodišče".
In the Lithuanian populated regions of Byelorussia, nowhere will you find a news stand selling Lithuanian books or periodicals. Lithuanian newspapers are absent from public reading rooms. School libraries do not accept Lithuanian books. All kinds of obstacles are encountered by Lithuanians of Byelorussia who desire to subscribe to Lithuanian periodicals. If a citizen of Lithuania desires to subscribe to a Lithuanian publication for a friend living in Byelorussia, he must first travel to Byelorussia, and there, at the post office, perform the subscribing operation. If the ordering is done in Lithuania, there is a risk that the addressee will never receive the publication. But the citizen who goes to Byelorussia to make the order can subscribe the Lithuanian publication for no more than two persons. If you order more, you arouse suspicion, they will ask: "where did you get the money?" A directive has been given to apprehend and turn over such persons to security organs. The newspaper "Gimtasis Kraštas" (Homeland) has been totally banned for the Lithuanians living in Byelorussia. It cannot be subscribed to in any way. Since that paper contains much propaganda and unfounded boasting, the government thinks that it is dangerous to allow Lithuanians in Byelorussia to read it, and fears that they may become infected with nationalism.
For the preservation of a nationalistic spirit, community cultural activities folk dances, plays, choruses are very important. However, any type of community activity is forbidden for Lithuanians of Byelorussia. Lithuanian community activities are being liquidated. For example consider the fate of a teacher, Antanas Šironas. For five years (until 1959), Šironas worked in the schools of the Gervėčiai rayon. Even now, the people of the rayon warmly remember him for his ability to work with youth, and for his sincere dedication to educational and cultural work. Šironas organized and spread community activities throughout the villages of the Gervėčiai rayon. The evening programs that he organized were varied and included plays, folk songs, dances, etc. The youth were very much attracted to Šironas' activity. The youth not only acted, sang, and danced in their own villages, but with their programs appeared at the rayon's festivals where they won prizes. The local government was not pleased with the activities of Šironas. For all his sincere work and dedication to upgrade the education and culture of the rural regions, he was subjected to hate and harassment from the government. Various methods were used to scare (anonymous letters etc.) and terrorize Šironas. Finally, he was released of his teaching duties. Even though Šironas lost his job, the security organs could not forgive him for his nationalistic activity. He was further persecuted and harassed.
Not only is it forbidden for the Lithuanians of Byelorussia to have community activities but it is also forbidden. for similar cultural activity groups to visit from Lithuania.
Even though there were many obstructions, at least up until 1972, artistic collectives of high school and college students were able to reach the Lithuanians of Byelorussia. Since 1972, these visits have been strictly curtailed. For a community cultural group to visit Byelorussia, two permits must be obtained: one from the Lithuanian party organs, the other from those of Byelorussia. As time has shown, such permits are not being issued.
The job of denationalizing Lithuanians is carried on diligently by Poles who are supportive of the Russian government. Especially re-known for this is the Pelesa rayon's "pass and military bureau" chief Sawicki. Less educated Lithuanians he records as Poles. As Poles he even lists those speaking Byelorussian, who have no knowledge of Polish. Mr. (Pan) Sawicki, just like the Polish pastors of Gervėčiai, Chodyko and Stein, travels to Balstoge, where he receives instructions of other activities of this type.
Soviet constitution and propaganda, as geared for all citizens of the Soviet Union, guarantees the right to develop one's national culture, and the right to an education in his native tongue. Here are the results of the soviet national policy during the postwar years (since 1944) in relation to the Lithuanian minority in Byelorussia.
(1) Since the days of old, Zietela has been a famous and interesting Lithuanian insular settlement. It survived the czarist and Polish occupations. During the soviet years it began to dissipate rapidly and in 1969, completely disappeared (the last of the Lithuanian speaking old timers had died).
(2) The Lithuanian insular settlement of Lazdūnai (Jurotiškis rayon) is in its last days. There still are a few Lithuanian-speaking residents, but they are doomed to an ethnic death.
(3) In the Varanavas rayon, the majority of the children in the towns of Ramaskonis, Stanišius, Stilgūnai, Kaulelikšiai and others, no longer know how to speak Lithuanian, even though their parents still speak Lithuanian amongst themselves.
Less vulnerable has been the insular settlement of Gervėčiai where the old and the young speak Lithuanian.
Why is denationalization progressing so rapidly among the Lithuanians in Byelorussia?
(1) There are no Lithuanian schools. The schools are Russian (not Byelorussian!) and through them the youth are Russified.
(2) The activity of the Catholic Church is totally paralyzed. Churches are closed, here remain one or two active ones where you will find a backward Polish priest. During the post-war years the only Lithuanian priest in Byelorussia (in Pelesa), Father Vienažindis, was arrested, the Lithuanian built church in Pelesa closed in 1950, its steeples toppled, the church being turned into a warehouse. Efforts were made to acquire a priest for Gervėčiai, but nothing came of it; pastor Chodyko was against it, and it was clearly stated by the responsible soviet bureaus that no Lithuanian will be admitted into Byelorussia to carry on the duties of a priest.
(3) After the war all of the Lithuanians holding public offices in Byelorussia were removed (from local and party organs). Some of them had been decorated for their valor and service (as former members of the soviet underground and WW II veterans of the soviet military). Removed of their duties were Lithuanian teachers and chairmen of collective farms. There remained no Lithuanian intelligentsia in Byelorussia. Now everywhere in the public offices, of the collective farms, the chief officials are not Lithuanians but often newcomers brought in for russification purposes. At this time there are no prspects for a Lithuanian intellectual to land a good job in Byelorussia. If he does, however, find one, he is barred from any Lithuanian cultural activity.
(4) All Lithuanian cultural bureaus or organizations are forbidden to operate. Any kind of Lithuanian community activity is forbidden.
(5) Since there are no cultural activities, or they are very rare, and national entertainment and leisure time activities are forbidden, the people search for happiness and solace in alcohol. Alcoholism is very widespread and there are no campaigns against it. Stores may encounter shortages of food and of other products, but you will always find alcoholic beverages. Since the government liquor is expensive, the citizens make their own "moonshine". Unrestricted drinking goes on Sundays, weekdays, and heavy drinking takes place on any occasion (names day, payday, etc.).
(6) In the Soviet Union man is devalued and enslaved. He is materially dependant, spiritually crippled. A Byelorussian Lithuanian, not knowing the Russian language, will not get work, will not be able to take care of his personal matters. All of the public life here is Russian. The Lithuanian language in Byelorussia is debased, it not only becomes unnecessary, but remains a burden, which not everyone is capable of bearing. All movements that encourage and support nationalistic spirit, are unable to reach the Lithuanian of Byelorussia. In him the flame of national consciousness is dying, because it is being quenched by a specially created soviet environment.
* First published in Akiračiai, April, 1974.