Lithuanian Preserved for 100 Years in Russia

Chernaya Padina

The online magazine Pasaulio lietuvis (World Lithuanian) recently published an interesting account about Lithuanian settlers in the Saratov area of Russia who retained their roots for over 100 years.

Prof. Loreta Vilkienė of Vilnius University writes that after the January insurrection of 1863, when the Lithuanian and Polish Commonwealth rebelled against the Russian Czarist Empire, many Lithuanians were deported to the Kazakh Steppe. They established three Lithuanian villages “in the middle of nowhere” but were allowed to farm as much land as they wanted. Chernaya Padina had 100 Lithuanian farmsteads, with 60 others in Tolovka and 25 in Litovka (named for Lithuania). They farmed from 80-200 hectares of land (200-500 acres). The homesteaders suffered famine, deportation and collectivization after the Russian Revolution. Sources tell us that by 1963 there were 40 Lithuanian families left (about 100 people), and in 1994 only 24 homesteads remained. Some returned to Lithuania, others assimilated with the local population. Nevertheless, they had retained the Lithuanian language until 2014, when five people could still speak it, but more could sing in Lithuanian or say a few phrases.

A group of scholars are currently studying the descendants of those original Lithuanian deportees, called the eastern diaspora in the Saratov region and Kazachstan, and how they retained the language. Their research on site was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and is now restricted to archival material.

Lithuanian Chapel

Lithuanians in the region were native Lithuanian speakers, but at the time of their deportation the language had not yet been standardized. Archives show that most of the deportees were from Eastern Lithuania, or Aukštaitija (Highlands), and carried their local dialect with them to Russia, together with its now archaic vocabulary.

How were they able to maintain that language for over 100 years? First of all, those three villages made up a large community. Secondly, the Lithuanians were exiled with their entire families. Thus Lithuanian was spoken within the family and outside the home, which is essential for language retention. Local authorities were not tasked with eliminating Lithuanian, even though its use was forbidden in Lithuania itself and russification was actively practiced. The Saratov Lithuanians were left to their own devices, and had a Lithuanian school from 1870 to 1938, and even a church.

Refugees from Lithuania arrived in Saratov after each of the world wars, increasing the community’s numbers and revitalizing the language. During the interwar period of independence, Lithuania supported the Saratov Lithuanians and even attempted to have them returned.

The closely knit families ensured that their histories and Lithuania’s history were passed on through the generations, and their identity and language was preserved. As late as 1995, a small museum was established in the Chernaya Padina school, with artifacts telling the story of the Lithuanians who had lived in the area.

During a research expedition in 2013, an old woman who was interviewed said that she speaks Lithuanian badly, but she still loves the language, and feels close to it especially when she sings. Scholars conclude that folklore may be at least one successful means of retaining identity. In addition, correspondence with Lithuania connected the community with the homeland, but writing skills were largely lost after it was no longer permitted after World War II due to the Soviet occupation.

PHOTOS by Vytis Čiubrinskas