LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2012 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 58, No.3 - Fall 2012
Editor of this issue: Elizabeth Novickas
An Overview of the Emigration Processes of Lithuanians
DAIVA DAPKUTĖ is a historian at Vytautas Magnus University and the Lithuanian Institute for Emigration Studies in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her most recent book, coauthored with Dalia Kuizinienė, is Laisvas žodis laisvame pasaulyje: atviro žodžio mėnraštis Akiračiai 1968-2005.
This paper was originally presented at the Santaros-Šviesa conference in Chicago on September 10, 2011.
This article reviews the stereotypical images of emigration in the Lithuanian consciousness and compares these images at different periods in the history of Lithuanian migration. Several common questions regarding emigration are addressed, including whether the current wave is the largest in Lithuanian history, whether is it possible to stop or limit emigration, and whether emigration is nothing more than an irretrievable loss to Lithuania. The article discusses attitudes towards émigrés and the emigrant’s relationship with the homeland, and frames the discussion within today’s global interactions as a search for a Lithuanian identity.
Migratory movements of populations (both forced and voluntary) are not a manifestation of modern times only. People have been migrating within countries as well as beyond their borders since ancient times. This process is not a characteristic of a single geographic sphere or culture, but of all humankind. The history of the Lithuanian nation is no exception.
There has already been a great deal spoken and written about the migration of Lithuanians, its causes, and its extent. This issue is becoming ever more relevant against the backdrop of the flow of emigration from Lithuania, a flow that has not ebbed for several years. Actually, emigration is not a clear-cut process, so it is not easy to assess and requires greater attention and study. When discussing the stereotypical images of emigration in the Lithuanian consciousness and employing the history of Lithuanian migration to compare the different waves of emigration for this article, there is a desire to pause at several questions that cause anxiety among Lithuania’s residents and come up constantly when deliberating the problems involved in modern-day emigration. For one, is the current wave of emigration the greatest in Lithuanian history, considering all we know about Lithuanians scattered around the globe? For another, is it possible to stop or limit emigration? And finally, is emigration nothing more than an irretrievable loss to Lithuania? Is it possible Lithuanians only know how to love their homeland from afar, once they have lost it?
Globalization processes currently offer opportunities to learn foreign languages, see the world, shake off the fear of the “other,” and become involved in an intercultural dialogue. It becomes more and more difficult to define borders and boundaries in the world today. Meanwhile, the categories of departing and returning become difficult to describe. Even the concept of “home” changes rapidly, along with our lifestyles and values. Ties to the land where one was born and one’s own roots were important to the older generations and earlier waves of emigration, who formed an image of Lithuania-as-home that reflected their nostalgia. The saying “home is where you hang your hat,” would be more typical for today’s emigrants or migrants. Finding people who live in one country and work in another is becoming quite common in the European Union (especially in the border regions between France and Belgium, and Germany and Italy). It is also true for those Lithuanians who have changed jobs and residences and lived in more than one country. “We are the cosmopolitans. It’s fine for us here and over there. Our home is Lithuania and America,” says Rokas Beresniovas, one of the founders of the Global Leaders of Lithuania, a social network.1 This is especially characteristic of the younger generation. Continual migration and living in more than one country is becoming a readily acceptable manifestation that our consciousness is able to grasp. Modern communication technologies and the Internet permit living far from Lithuania while retaining contacts with those left behind and never distancing oneself from life there. Indeed, perhaps it is not even worthwhile to talk about emigration in the twenty-first century. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to simply talk about the processes of migration or employ the term applied by sociologists more and more often – transnationalism.
Nonetheless, the word “emigration” has been stirring up a great many emotions, discussions, anxieties, and even resentments in Lithuania for a number of years. This word provokes people in the country’s interior, and politicians frequently use it as a tool. The word “emigration” is constantly used in a negative manner, as in “a dying Lithuania,” “an extent of emigration that is startling Europe,” “an irretrievable loss to Lithuania,” “the danger of national extinction,” and other similar phrases that the news media emphasize nearly every day. It is not the process of emigration that prompts apprehension – that is an unavoidable matter – but the demographic problems, i.e., the low birthrate and the aging population. These have become complicated problems for the state. Some lament:
We have two choices: either we face extinction with dignity with our heads held high like the defenders of Pilėnai did, or we become concerned about how to put a stop to this leave-taking.2
The voices heard less frequently note that every phenomenon has its benefits as well as shortcomings. It is the same with emigration. They say it cannot be explicitly judged in a negative manner and try to bring out the positive features about emigration: a large portion of earned income is transferred to and invested in the country, the unemployment rate is lower, and new experiences are gained. A lack of information is probably one of the most important problems that prevents recognizing the process of emigration from Lithuania. There is an insufficient amount of reliable data about the precise extent of emigration, its directions and trends, its potential changes, and the emigration-inclined attitudes in Lithuania at the current time. A new stage of emigration, which has been continuously rising and falling and causing anxiety, began once Lithuania regained its independence. Not a single town or village can be found in Lithuania that has not had people leave. According to the 2010 statistical data, every tenth resident of Lithuania (about 11 percent) has left to work abroad for more than six months of the year, about 40 percent had a family member who has left, and about 80 percent, i.e., nearly every resident, has acquaintances who have left.3 A saying going around Lithuania is that the only people who do not emigrate today are the totally lazy (those supported by the state) or pensioners. Therefore, whenever statistical indicators and the news media blow one bubble after another about the rising tide of emigration, no one doubts that it could be otherwise. Meanwhile, no one has taken a count of how many Lithuanians have actually left to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and probably no one ever will. The 1990-2010 data from the Lithuanian Department of Statistics show that some 615,000 residents have emigrated,4 and, it is said that this number is possibly much higher. The most widely employed indicator of emigration is the number who have declared their leaving and social questionnaire surveys. Unfortunately, neither indicator is comprehensive because, for one reason or another, many people do not declare their leaving. Meanwhile, although social surveys ask people how many persons have left some specific household, there is really no specific starting point for evaluating the extent of emigration. A good example is the sudden surge of “emigration” in April of 2010, when 2009 income declarations were almost due. According to a new law, payments for the newly Obligatory Health Insurance had to be made; thus even those who had left long ago were prompted to officially declare their emigration to evade this payment.
Lithuanian communities abroad can only guess at the number of arrivals of their fellow countrymen. This generally reflects the number of their countrymen who participate in the functions of the community, so these guesses reflect a distorted view. Lithuania’s diplomatic offices do not have more accurate information about the number of emigrants in their countries, and the data of the relevant foreign country can only supplement the existing statistics fragmentally. It seemed this question might be answered by the 2011 census, despite the obvious distrust in the psychological mindset of Lithuanians, which makes them tend to conceal their data and precludes revelation of a true picture. The census results shook society up. What seemed to cause the greatest anxiety was that the nation would no longer have three million inhabitants. However, with a push on the statistics, those three million were still found.5 The forecast, though, was not much better: the numbers of emigrants would grow. The numbers gathered by questionnaires are definitely no source of joy; most respondents relate their desire to go abroad for at least a short time, or to emigrate. The Internet is overwhelmed with anonymous commentaries and urgings to emigrate from Lithuania as quickly as possible. A survey conducted by Grafton Recruitment, a company for selecting personnel, reports that as many as 70 percent of Lithuanians would leave the country for an indeterminate time if working and living conditions abroad were excellent.6
How should such a phenomenon be understood? Is Lithuania’s economic and political situation, i.e., the “push factors” (demographic, economic, political) at fault, that such huge numbers of the population are determined to leave their country for a shorter or longer time? Indeed, in the past, the usual phenomenon was for emigration to take place from impoverished, economically deprived countries to economically stronger ones. Actually, economic migration is not restricted to impoverished countries; even residents of affluent and economically strong countries leave for other countries in quest of a better life. The examples of Germany and Italy these days clearly attest to this. Economic aspects are usually accentuated when discussing Lithuania’s ever more rapid emigration, citing, for example, “the difficult economic situation” and “once Lithuania’s economy is on the upswing, the problem will fade away.” Other researchers have noticed that the reasons for today’s emigration do not always lie with money alone. It would be difficult to explain on the basis of this factor alone why Lithuania’s rate of emigration exceeds that of its neighbors, Latvia or Estonia, by several times, when these countries are not economically stronger. In addition, the same sort of emigration is noticeable in social classes that are now enjoying significantly better life conditions. At times, the “heritage of the rootless Soviet person” is used as an explanation, with the consolation that the new generation will mature and make everything all right. However, time is ticking on, and the now mature generation of independent Lithuania is not only failing to stop the flow out of the country, but is actually reviving it.
Is emigration determined by strong “pull factors”? Such factors include the policies of foreign countries (e.g., attracting experts into West European countries and, earlier, the especially attractive “green card” into the United States, tolerance towards illegal immigration and the like), economic and cultural possibilities that are nonexistent in Lithuania and, last but not least, a vision of the Western world that remains strongly rooted in the Lithuanian consciousness. Possibly, the secret of it lies yet elsewhere. Lately, researchers have been hinting more and more often at psychological reasons for emigration, which are difficult to explain and define. These may constitute the sort that could conditionally be called “matters of fashion.” (“If others can, why can’t I?”) Another may be a failure to comprehend one’s own identity.
Does all this possibly lie in the Lithuanian character? This issue comes to the fore when looking at the history of Lithuanian emigration – after all, Lithuania has consistently been one of the countries in East Europe providing the most migrants (in relation to its population) since the end of the nineteenth century, according to the calculations made by Fainhauz, in which Lithuanians ranked third by population (following Poles and Slovaks) of East European groups in Pennsylvania.7 Only certain periods, during wars or for other reasons (like the Iron Curtain during Soviet times) limited the numbers of emigrants; however, once such obstacles disappeared, the flow of emigration would ensue again.
Is it possible that migration is a normal characteristic of Lithuanians? Could it be that we are not familiar with the national character of Lithuanians? Perhaps they are not the sedentary agricultural workers we imagine them to be, or that schools implanted in our collective consciousness. Could it be that the urge to travel, to get to know new places and new countries, was never foreign to Lithuanians? After all, Lithuanians did not only travel the well-worn path to the land of dreams, the United States, or to the economically strong countries, but they also reached more exotic lands, such as China, Cuba, Chile, and the Philippines. What do we know about these people? In school we continue to tell our children stories about the Lithuanian-Americans Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas and their flight from New York to Kaunas in 1933, or about Tadeusz Kosciuszko,8 a leader of the 1794 Polish-Lithuanian Insurrection and, once in a while, we mention his participation in the United States War for Independence. Then, in 2002, Lithuania discovered Ignacy Domeyko,9 who had graduated from Vilnius University and went on to become a world-renowned scientist, mineralogist, and the long-term rector of Santiago University, as well as an honorary citizen of the Republic of Chile. Quite a few are aware of Matas Šalčius,10 Lithuania’s travel correspondent, and of American actor Charles Bronson,11 who was of Lithuanian descent. However, only one or another Lithuanian will have heard about the biologist who lived and worked in the Philippines, Pranciškus Baltrus Šivickis;12 about the missionary who had worked in faraway Brazil, Father Aleksandras Bendoraitis (1919-1998); or about the Lithuanian émigrés who had established Ijui Town in the Rio Grande do Sul State of Brazil in about 1888.13 A great many similar stories can be told. How many more people like these travelers can be found? Or, are they known at all? Why is it they do not fit into the image of the Lithuanian nation that has been developed and created by our society? Maybe Lithuania was always a nation of travelers. The current situation could attest to this. According to the data of companies engaged in tourism, tourists from foreign countries are more familiar with Lithuania and know more about it than Lithuanians do. For Lithuanians, it is just the opposite: they are very familiar with Western European countries, tourist centers, and resorts.14 Often, even people who have a difficult time making ends meet will spend their hard-earned money on vacations in Western Europe, prompted not just by a desire to see the world, but also for psychological reasons (“if others can, why can’t I?”) and by not wanting to lag behind their neighbors, friends, and relatives.
Different social, historical, and even psychosocial examinations of Lithuanian society might be able to provide answers to these questions. None exist as yet, however. Therefore, we must admit we do not know very much about that part of our nation scattered over various countries.
A brief pause to examine the history of emigration will make it clear how we look as a “nation of emigrants” in a historical context. Is the current emigration truly of a type that never existed before now?
Conceivably, the beginning of emigration by Lithuanians could be traced to between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the Grand Duchy took on imperialistic features. Nevertheless, it is unlikely anyone would name these movements as the prehistory of Lithuanian emigration; this concept is more generally applied to events in modern times. Seventeenth-century migration has not been examined more widely, either. This was usually motivated by religious conflict (for example, when Lithuania’s Protestants were forced out due to the terror of the Counter Reformation). There were additional exoduses after the division of the Republic of Lithuania and Poland and after the 1831 and 1863 insurrections, which doomed Lithuanians to emigrate to France and other countries.
Nevertheless, it was not until the intersection of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that largely economic reasons marked Lithuania as a nation of émigrés. Economic conditions (a surplus of labor and the weak development of manufacturing) encouraged the migration of the population to cities and regions with stronger industries, first to Latvia and other Russian provinces. Over 300,000 Lithuanians lived in different provinces of the Russian Empire between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.15 Part of this population returned to live in Lithuania in the early twentieth century, once the country established its independence. The migration of Lithuanians to the United States grew in the 1880s. Although economic reasons prompted most Lithuanians to leave, certain ideological and political motives also played a role. These were evasion of service in the Czar’s army, the Czarist policy of Russification, the growing Lithuanian nationalist movement, war, and other reasons. This massive emigration continued until World War I. Researchers note from 300,000 to 500,000 Lithuanians arrived in the United States between 1868 and 1914.16 Fewer ended up in Great Britain – only 4,000 Lithuanians went to England and about 8,000 to Scotland. Even fewer went to Canada – about 4,000, and only singular individuals reached South America.
Emigration negatively affected any possible growth in the population of Lithuania. Until World War I, more than 500,000 Lithuanian nationals emigrated from Lithuania, or some 25 percent of its residents.17 The number of residents decreased so much that, at the end of the nineteenth century, an outcry was raised that the nation of Lithuania would soon cease to exist – everyone would emigrate except the old people, who would die out, with no one left to tend their graves.
All the young ones will go off, and only the old folks will be left, so who will look after their heads and manage their properties? – Naturally, it’ll be foreign tribes. ... We’re being doubly tortured: by the strangers and by our own: The strangers, when they’ll be printing our language and looking at us as enemies of another faith and, although only a small nation, we ourselves are splitting into two parts, one of which is toiling at home, while the other disappears into some foreign corner.18
Meanwhile, the Lithuanians who became affluent abroad started their own businesses, established presses, published books, built churches, and set up schools and political and cultural associations. Émigrés settled in for the long term, acquired tremendous cultural and economic strength, and had the ability to affect considerably the cultural, moral, political, and economic life of Lithuania.
Another large wave of emigration hit during the period of Lithuania’s independence (1918-1940), when over 100,000 residents withdrew from the country. Despite its emigration being markedly less than during the prewar period, Lithuania was still a leader in terms of the extent of its emigration compared to other European countries.19 At that time, the temptation of its “New World” changed U.S. immigration policy. Quotas were introduced in 1921, effectively halting immigration from Lithuania, so Lithuanians headed elsewhere, especially to South America (Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay). Shipping companies, emigration bureaus, and devious agents drew a picture of this distant, unknown land as an Eldorado – a land of dreams. South American policies and the “free” passage greatly tempted Lithuanians. (Actually, an émigré paid for the trip after employment in the country of immigration, usually working for holders of large estates or owners of fazenda coffee plantations, who paid the shipping lines in advance for the travel expenses incurred by émigrés.) We now know only too well what this dream land, this Eldorado, turned out to be in reality.
World War II broke off the relations Lithuania had formed with its diaspora. As the war was coming to an end, over 60,000 political refugees fled Lithuania for the West. Political reasons, i.e., the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, caused this massive emigration. Although the number of Lithuanians who then withdrew from the country is small compared to the earlier waves of emigration, the change in Lithuania’s population was huge, after adding the numbers of casualties and exiles during the war and postwar periods. The shift in population was especially harsh because Lithuania lost a major portion of its intelligentsia.
A comparison of these historical flows of migration with the current emigration can make it seem that there is “nothing new” going on, if the volume of Lithuania’s emigration was always large. Perhaps that is why Eurostat data show that Lithuania leads the EU in the number of migrants per 1,000 of its population, surpassing Latvia and Estonia by several times and even surpassing Poland.20 Furthermore, Lithuania’s negative balance of migration has led for the past ten years in a row, whereas the other countries constituting the top five in migration keep changing. Since, as Audra Sipavičienė, manager of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Vilnius, states, “We are constantly a leader,”21 it can be boldly forecast that this characteristic of Lithuania will persist into the future.
Frequently, discussions urge that emigration must be fought and its processes must be stopped by all means. But is it possible to stop or to curtail emigration? Were there ever any attempts to fight or restrict migration? Were there any effective means to do this?
Emigration was officially prohibited from the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, when Lithuania was a part of Czarist Russia. Although only a small percentage of people emigrated legally at that time, illegal emigration was a mass occurrence. Conditions for emigrating secretly were especially favorable: a far-flung network of agents (constituting a profitable business) was well developed. People were encouraged and then organized to cross the border for carriage to the United States and other countries. Residents near the borders provided compensated assistance for border crossings. Neighboring countries had their interests, too, and the shipping lines of Germany and England brought in huge profits.22 Not only did they fail to stop emigration, but some nations actually promoted it in various ways. Studies by the historian Alfonsas Eidintas reveal that the struggle of the Czar’s administration to restrict emigration and its propaganda against emigration proved fruitless.23
The negative opinions regarding emigration voiced by most of the leaders in the national rebirth of Lithuania at the time, such as Jonas Basanavičius, Jonas Šliūpas, Vincas Kudirka, Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas and others, had no influence either. Attitudes against emigration continued to strengthen, however. The Lithuanian press urged Lithuanians to remain in their homeland and not leave for the United States. Émigrés were urged to return to Lithuania with their savings. They were told they would become denationalized in the United States and scattered among many cities; the younger generation would no longer understand their past, and the third generation would speak only English. On the one hand, priests were encouraged to talk people out of emigration during their confessions; while on the other, they provided the migrants with Catholic literature, so they would not be lonely and forlorn in a foreign locale. Lithuanian political groups, especially the Catholic stream, published literature that urged readers not to emigrate and warned them about the weary journeys, the difficulties and potential misfortunes.24 Despite all the warnings about the dangers and losses inherent in emigration issued by the national rebirth activists and other distinguished people, the reality was different: the tempting image of the West and the New World never faded from the consciousness of Lithuanians. However, there was a quite different reality awaiting village people with little education (illiterates made up 53 percent of Lithuanians who arrived in the United States in 1899-191425). All that awaited them in the foreign country was grueling labor in the mines of Pennsylvania or the slaughterhouses of Chicago, a fate that differed radically from what they had imagined or hoped for. Life was much harder than it had been in Lithuania for a number of years. Nevertheless, only the First World War stopped the flow of emigration to the United States.
The Soviet period is even more interesting and demands far more research. The Iron Curtain was probably the most successful barrier to emigration for Lithuanians. Only a very small percentage left the country one way or another, legally or illegally. The official negative outlook of the Soviet Union toward the West and emigration was indoctrinated from an early age: emigration was treason against the homeland, and émigrés were collaborators with the Nazis or some foreign secret service. Nonetheless, the myth of the West and the Free World continued to form and gain popularity in the consciousness of ordinary people, which often also contained a silent envy of Americans and of those with relatives abroad. The incongruity of this is especially noticeable during the Soviet period: a distrust of everyone everywhere, especially arrivals from the West, existed alongside a mystical and tempting fantasy of the West and the Western life style. Jokes on this topic were especially popular,26 and efforts were made to make use of even the slightest possibility to emigrate legally (marriage to a foreigner, a chance to work abroad, tourism). Perhaps research on Soviet consciousness would reveal the longing, the nostalgia for the forbidden West, the vision and the dream of it, all of which are so difficult to explain. To a large extent, this led to the rather large wave of emigration from Lithuania that arose as soon as the thaw began during 1988-1990.
A comparison of the emigration processes and policies of the 1918-1940 republic and today’s Lithuania shows that, once again, one would have to say, “There’s nothing new.” Emigration has not been regulated or controlled, not then and not now: it is simply not of concern to the government:
Even the large states treasure the people of their nation, but tiny Lithuania squanders thousands of its own, and perhaps imagines there will be a sufficient population anyway.27
We must begin saving our own people; if we throw our own citizens about in all directions, then the age of the Lithuanian nation will not be very long.28
It is time we understood that not looking after emigration matters by means of the state apparatus is a policy of pure loss.29
Until the state and the nation create significantly better employment circumstances and opportunities for earnings by powerful and focused efforts, it is will be very difficult to say if our land has truly lost by allowing thousands of émigrés go abroad on behalf of those who remain at home. And never mind patriotism: one who is poor and hungry does not fill with patriotism in any country.30
Make no mistake. These quotes do not come from politicians today. They are from politicians and intellectuals of interwar Lithuania. The processes happening today are very similar to those of interwar Lithuania: a growing wave of emigration, government indifference, and an attitude that it is a process that cannot be stopped or regulated.
The processes for return immigration during this period also bore a great resemblance to today. Kazys Pakštas was probably one of the first scholars in interwar Lithuania to ascertain, “We will not return our émigrés to Lithuania.”31 The discussion of earlier efforts to bring back our émigrés and the reasons why they do not return included: poor economic conditions, personal/family circumstances, the social policy of the country, the foreignness of the home society (“they won’t accept me”), and the like. Most thought it fun to return for vacations and talk about how Lithuania is developing and becoming more beautiful, but not to stay. Interestingly, even earlier (during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) the majority of economic émigrés went off to the United States or other countries “for just a short time,” with plans to earn some money and establish themselves in a better way back in Lithuania. Some succeeded in saving money over several years and returning; most, however, remained abroad, adjusted to the foreign country, and became immigrants. Even during the most severe global recessions, when the lives of émigrés in South America were more difficult than in Lithuania, the percentage of returnees was not very great. Based on historical experiences, it has to be admitted that most émigrés will never return. Reemigration was never very large (20 percent at best32), no matter what the economic and political conditions might have been. All that is left in this case is to agree with some commentators on the Internet:
With all due respect, dear sir, the process of people and of nations packing up and moving has been constant throughout the entire history of humankind. Your lamenting is more than funny, especially during these ‘times of a shrinking world,’ when traveling to another country in the world and making contact with it is fast and easy. This acts the same as the law of communicating vessels in physics. If you know the means to stop that law, then it is worthy of the Nobel Prize. Good luck!33
It is possible to spend considerable time discussing and deliberating whether or not emigration is merely a nonrecoverable loss to Lithuania. Historical studies have revealed that a particular viewpoint on émigrés has unfolded when it was necessary to fight to reestablish the country or to defend it from international dangers. As the independent state was forming, the country’s foreign policy made other kinds of efforts, and the expectations from émigrés were different. Émigrés performed an especially important role during the time the modern Lithuanian state appeared in 1918, as attested by the rather comprehensive works by Vincas Liulevičius, Alfonsas Eidintas, Gary Hartman,34 and other authors. The government of Lithuania understood the influence that its émigrés had, and encouraged a return of capital from the United States to Lithuania, even though such efforts quite frequently ended up in bankruptcy or were nationalized after the Soviet occupation.
The significance of political émigrés grew again after the loss of independence in 1940. What about the work done by Lithuanian communities in various countries of the world at reestablishing Lithuania’s independence after 1990? To date, neither historians nor political scientists have adequately evaluated or even attempted to describe the contributions made by émigrés to the case for liberation, and what political, cultural, moral, and material benefits these brought to Lithuania. Currently, the International Organization for Migration provides data about monetary transfers made by private persons into Lithuania. Meanwhile, researchers on migration are currently directing attention to the economic benefits from emigration and its influence in Lithuania.35
There is a very serious need for psychosocial analyses of Lithuanian society which would not only help to understand the actualities in Lithuania and the problems of its communities, but also the relationship of émigrés with their country. The odd and painful relationship of the new émigrés with Lithuania is obvious in the statements made in Lithuania and abroad. Lithuania sometimes seems like a country that does not love its own people.
Who can answer where the pessimism and the overly negative view of life in Lithuania come from? Why are Lithuanians inclined to paint a picture of Lithuania in especially gloomy colors? An impression forms that Lithuanians do not even know how to take pleasure in Lithuania’s gains and in what they have. They do not feel free and happy in their own country, and they try to find that elsewhere, in a foreign land. Comments on the Internet explain how bad it is in Lithuania and express a need to run from Lithuania as fast as possible. Along with that, the Lithuanians remaining in the country are forming a negative outlook toward émigrés. Hostility, casting blame, condemnation, and misunderstanding are not rare. The predominant portrait of the emigrant in public discourse is that of a blue-collar laborer cursing Lithuania while yearning for the cheaper services there, a criminal émigré devoid of citizenship.36 Society itself encourages separateness as more and more public statements increase the gap between fellow nationals (those remaining in Lithuania) and strangers (the émigrés).
Researchers into postcolonialism today would explain this situation by the common traumatic experiences of war, the Soviet period, and postcolonization. According to this theory, people do not know how or are unable to love their children, so they unwittingly push them out into the world. And since the children sense this rejection, they feel forced to leave. Theories of postcolonialism would probably also help to explain why people feel like strangers in Lithuania – not just those who have emigrated, but also those who have remained. The view forming in the public sphere is that, for some reason, the sons or daughters who wind up abroad and then let us know they’ve left for a long time suddenly become dear to our country. Various events held in Lithuania by the World Lithuanians provide yet another pretext for politicians and high-ranking government officials to say a word on the issue of emigration, on the new visions being developed for rallying together the people scattered throughout different countries, and on how to lower emigration and increase the numbers of those who return. These speeches are becoming eerily similar to one another. Meanwhile, paying tribute to the émigrés has quite often had a negative impact on those left behind. “Assertive young minds, young people who are active, creative, and responsible and have initiative are needed in Lithuania,” Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė declared in 2011 at the World Lithuanian Symposium on Arts and Sciences, praising Lithuanians abroad who have not lost contact with their homeland.37 Meanwhile, what about the assertive young people with initiative growing up in Lithuania? Addressing this question, a reporter for the Kauno diena daily newspaper writes:
Everyone who has crossed over the boundary separating an émigré from a local becomes one of our own – in other words, the kind of person who has not merited any special caresses from governmental entities. [...] In what way are the graduates of universities and colleges in Lithuania inferior to the Lithuanians living abroad that they do not ever receive the sort of exceptional attention from the state that the state has seized upon to show émigrés?
So asks this journalist, concluding that one of the bigger problems is not the residents’ qualifications, patriotism or morality, but the way the state views them: “You only become beloved when you pack your suitcases.”38
This is not the opinion of one journalist. There are more and more expressions of dissatisfaction with the existing situation. Of course, this outlook also attests to a problem in the society – the waiting for praise, encouragement, and awards from the government while still continuing to be afraid to change something, afraid to take the initiative, to act or to start a business. It is much easier to sit around and complain about how bad it is in Lithuania and how nothing will change. “It’s impossible to live in our country. There aren’t any opportunities here. A person is forced to fail. And there’s nothing you can do about it...”39 This is heard everywhere in Lithuania, on TV broadcasts and in the pages of newspapers, on the streets, in bars and marketplaces, during chats with shots of whiskey in hand as well as during serious discussions. Matters regarding the role of the state and what is a civil society are not discussed. It is not mentioned that a state does not change on its own; that it is changed by people who have the perspective, purpose, and income to implement a goal.
The results of research conducted by David Bartram, a scholar from the University of Leicester, appeared in the Lithuanian press late last year and caused quite a reaction.40 It revealed that there is no country in which émigrés feel as happy as the citizens born in that country do. His research turned attention to the painful identity crisis suffered by émigrés, including Lithuanians. They feel like strangers that no one is expecting in the foreign country, while nostalgia for the land of their birth continues to grow. Perhaps we only learn to love Lithuania from afar. In other words, are we able to understand and evaluate only what we have lost? After all, even those who, according to public discourse and announcements in the media, are disappointed and dissatisfied with Lithuania, who don’t want to hear anything about it, very often do not forget where they came from and maintain contact with Lithuania and the people close to them who have remained there. Once settled in some London or Chicago filled with multicolored nationalities, Lithuanians tread paths to the local Lithuanian grocery stores and Lithuanian-managed health treatment facilities and haircut salons. They gather with their own kind and even participate in commemorations of Lithuania’s national holidays (which they never did while living in Lithuania). They pull out their national symbols more often than just during basketball championships. It would seem that only while abroad one learns to enjoy and to be happy, to value and to understand. Whether we like it or not, one conclusion works its way into our minds. Maybe it truly is necessary to emigrate for a short while to begin to understand what one has and what one has given up, and to begin the return home.
Instead of conclusions
The ever more active recent discussions on emigration reveal the growing extent of emigration as well as the latest search for a Lithuanian identity. To date, some of the traits of the collective memory and historical consciousness formed in Lithuania’s schools often contradict the realities of globalization. The concepts of an archaic Lithuania wafting ethnosocial visions formulated at the end of the nineteenth century (the Lithuanian language, the moss-covered hut, Vytautas marching to the Black Sea, and the grandness of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) are implanted into the minds of young people to this very day. For this reason, Lithuanians often live in their history, remembering the grand times of the Grand Duchy with undisguised joy, but then have a tough time coming to terms with the thought that we are a nation of merely three million people. Our collective consciousness still does not contain a vision of the Lithuanians who lived in various countries of the world since olden times, who achieved a great deal and are renowned in the history of the lands where they lived. Perhaps that could explain our outlook on emigration and our relationship with émigrés, on what is “our own” and why, and what is “foreign” in the imaginations of Lithuanians. Why does one of our own so quickly become rejected as a stranger? Perhaps that is what causes our inability to understand one another.
In conclusion, I’d like to go back to where I started. Maybe this entire issue of emigration is made overly meaningful. Maybe it is simply a natural process that needs to be assessed soberly regarding all its privileges and weaknesses. After all, Lithuanians spent fifty years living in an entirely closed society, seeing nothing and comprehending nothing. That is why they are still unable to tolerate different races, religions, or sexual orientations. In this respect, emigration is good simply for the reason that people leave to see the world and widen their awareness. Their outlooks change, and they actually learn a foreign language. Therefore a desire to limit, stop, prohibit or condemn simply widens the gap from reality and causes animosity and an inability to understand one another within Lithuanian society. It could be the opposite. Openness and recognition could change a good deal – understanding, tolerance, the outlook on oneself and on others, and, finally, the outlook on Lithuania itself. “People need to run around in the world to understand how good it is in Lithuania. I’ve lived in four countries over ten years. Now I live in Lithuania again, and I’m high on it, but I don’t know how long that will last... But, after all, that’s what life is all about!”41
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