Lithuanian Emigration

Historian Dr. Alfonsas Eidintas

Thoughts on the Diaspora and its Future

In the discussion of a country’s emigration and re-immigration trends (see Emigration and Re-immigration, Nov. 7, 2022), a historical perspective is both interesting and useful. We turn to an article in Pasaulio lietuvis published earlier this year by historian Dr. Alfonsas Eidintas, former Ambassador to Canada, who recently wrote a book about Lithuanian emigration from 1868 to 2020 (Ar išliks lietuviai? Lietuva ir išeivystė 1868–2020 m.).

The author reminds us of facts about an emigration that has been quite intense, especially in recent decades. From 1868 to 1914 about 300,000 Lithuanians went to USA, Brazil and England. During the first independence from 1919-1940 approximately 100,000 citizens left, and from 1990 to 2020 at least 750,000 Lithuanians left their country. In his book, Dr. Eidintas writes about the relationship between Lithuania and its diaspora and the effect of the latest wave of emigration.

He notes that his conclusion, after many years of research, is that there is no need to take or lay blame for the relatively huge numbers of Lithuanians who left the country. In the 19, 20th and 21st centuries, Lithuania was in an economically underdeveloped region where work was not guaranteed for the increasing population that had suffered from foreign occupation and cultural repression. After two world wars and three occupations in the 20th century, deportation and the holocaust added to the loss of the best minds in the country. Independence in 1990 offered Lithuanians new and appealing opportunities to enjoy personal freedom and a welcoming job market in Europe.

The diaspora contributed in many ways to Lithuania’s success, culturally and financially. Organizations in the diaspora were always quick to react to events in Lithuania, and to support the rebuilding of the country. In a way, the diaspora helped create the notion that it is a second, though smaller, Lithuania which could and would always support its émigré population. This was especially important during the Russian imperialist and Soviet occupations.

Mass emigration has indeed caused great concern in Lithuania, and without that loss the country’s current population of 2.8 million would be at least double, and there would be no talk of a nation in decline. However, economic, social and geopolitical circumstances did not allow the country to do better.

Relations with the diaspora have been an area of concern as far back as 1935, when the first World Lithuanian Congress was held in Kaunas. The “World Lithuanian” magazine (Pasaulio lietuvis) was established in 1937, and government funding was channelled to Lithuanian parishes, schools and press in the diaspora (until the occupation). The declaration of the Lithuanian Charter, with its pledge to help free Lithuania and preserve its culture, united the diaspora and allowed it to act as a single non-partisan entity, inclusive of all Lithuanians who had the best interests of Lithuania at heart.

Mass emigration following the long-awaited re-instatement of independence was an unexpected and disappointing loss to the nation, affecting it emotionally and psychologically. The fact that most emigrants sent money back to their families in Lithuania was not enough to compensate for the empty schools and towns and the image of a nation in decline. Although the demographic situation has not changed much, it may improve if birth rates increase, mortality rates decrease and re-emigration continues.

Lithuania is similar to other countries in Western Europe whose population is aging. Long-term planning and strategies may provide results, however they will take time. “Brain drain”, the loss of professionals, directly affects the country’s economic, innovative and competitive capital, writes Eidintas. According to surveys, factors preventing Lithuanians from returning are low wages and their children’s potentially difficult re-integration into Lithuanian education and lifestyle. Children of emigrants inevitably lose their native language skills, and bonds with their birth country become tenuous. Not all parents are active in preserving the culture.  

The quest to encourage re-emigration remains top of mind. Statistics show that 20-25 per cent of emigrants return. Demographically emigration is a loss, and yet Eidintas reminds us that those Lithuanians are not “gone”– they work and send money to their relatives, some of them live in Lithuania part of the time as a second home. Surveys show that emigrants continue to take an interest in Lithuanian economic, political and cultural life, and maintain close ties with the homeland through technology.

The new wave of emigration is not over – some emigrants are still in the process of settling abroad. Conditions can change: Eidintas cites the example of the effect of COVID-19 on globalization. Current émigrés and later generations may yet decide to return to their roots, bring their expertise and connections back to Lithuania. They are 1.5 million strong, and they care about Lithuania.