The People

The Lithuanian population is predominantly urban: two-thirds of people live in urban areas, with the five largest cities – Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai and Panevėžys – accounting for nearly half the population.

Lithuania is also the most ethnically homogeneous population of the three Baltic countries; indigenous Lithuanians count for almost 85% of the total population, making multiculturalism less of a hot potato than in Latvia or Estonia. Poles form the second-biggest grouping, making up around 6% of the population, approaching 250,000 people. Russians form around 5% of the population, while Jews make up just 0.1%.

The country’s smallest ethnic community, numbering just 280, are the Karaites. An early-19th-century prayer house and ethnographic museum in Trakai provide insight into the culture and beliefs of this tiny Turkic minority.

Lithuanian Roma officially number around 2800. Vilnius’ Human Rights Monitoring Institute (www.hrmi.lt) reckons some 46% are aged under 20 and many, unlike the Roma elders they live with, don’t speak Lithuanian.

Net migration has been negative for the past several years, with literally hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians emigrating to countries where, even cleaning homes and tending bars, they can earn salaries two to three times higher than those available locally. Initially, Ireland and the UK were popular destinations, but Scandinavia is also now in favour.

More than three million Lithuanians live abroad, including an estimated 800,000 in the USA. Other large communities exist in Canada, South America and Australia.

Rural vs Urban

The contrast between life in Vilnius and elsewhere is stark. Citizens of the capital enjoy a lifestyle similar to those in Western Europe, living in nice apartments, working in professional jobs and often owning a car. Many have gained a cosmopolitan view of the world and consumerism has become a way of life.

In provincial towns and rural areas poverty is still prevalent – urban dwellers have around a third more income at their disposal than their rural counterparts, and about a third of homes in farming communities are below the poverty line, compared to about 20% in built-up areas.

Life expectancy for males is relatively low compared with other European countries – around 70 years (2013 estimate). The life expectancy for women is around 80 years.

Until 1998 there were only a handful of places in Lithuania to offer a university degree. Since then, several dozen colleges and universities have sprung up. Almost 90% of Lithuanians complete secondary school, and the majority of pupils go on to some form of further education. Many students work full time alongside studying and live in university dorms or with friends rather than remaining in the parental nest.

Family ties remain strong, however, and married couples often choose to live with elderly parents who are no longer able to live alone. Despite increased career prospects, especially for women, Lithuanians tend to marry relatively young – the majority of women who marry do so between the ages of 20 and 24. A high number of marriages – almost half – end in divorce, but this figure is falling. This is partly due to the fact that many couples choose cohabitation over marriage and thus don’t figure in the official divorce statistics.

Feature: Vilnius: The ‘Jerusalem of the North’

One of Europe’s most prominent Jewish communities flourished in pre-WWII Vilnius (Vīlne in Yiddish), but Nazi (and later Soviet) brutality virtually wiped it out.

The city’s Jewish roots go back some eight centuries when 3000 Jews settled in Vilnius at the invitation of Grand Duke Gediminas (1316–41). In the 19th century Vilnius became a centre for the European Jewish language, Yiddish. Famous Jews from the city’s community include rabbi and scholar Gaon Elijahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720–97), who led opposition to the widespread Jewish mystical movement Hassidism, and landscape artist Isaak Levitan (1860–1900).

The city’s Jewish population peaked on the eve of WWI at almost 100,000 (out of 240,000 in Lithuania). However, plagued by discrimination and poverty, the Jewish community diminished in the interwar years when Vilnius was an outpost of Poland.

Despite this, Vilnius blossomed into the Jewish cultural hub of Eastern Europe, and was chosen ahead of the other Yiddish centres, Warsaw and New York, as the headquarters of the Yiddish-language scientific research institute YIVO in 1925 (the institute stood on Vivulskio gatvė). Jewish schools, libraries, literature and theatre flourished. There were 100 synagogues and prayer houses, and six daily Jewish newspapers.

By the end of WWII Lithuania’s Jewish community was all but destroyed and during the mid-1980s perestroika (restructuring) years an estimated 6000 Jews left for Israel.

Feature: Late to the Church

While today Lithuanians are staunchly Roman Catholic (a short stroll through steeple-rich Vilnius is enough to convince any doubters), it wasn’t always this way. In fact, Lithuania is considered to be the last pagan country in Europe. It wasn’t fully baptised into Roman Catholicism until 1413.

There are lots of reasons for this: foremost among them was the Lithuanians’ fierce independence, militating against attempts to convert them.

The country’s relatively recent experience (if you can call the 15th century ‘recent’) with paganism explains why so much of its religious art, national culture and traditions have pagan roots.

During the Soviet years, Catholicism was persecuted and hence became a symbol of nationalistic fervour. Churches were seized, closed and turned into ‘museums of atheism’ or used for other secular purposes (such as a radio station in the case of Christ’s Resurrection Basilica in Kaunas, open for business as usual today) by the state.

After Independence in 1991, the Catholic Church quickly began the ongoing process of reacquiring church property and reconsecrating places of worship.

These days, around 80% of Lithuanians consider themselves to be Catholics. There are small minorities of other sects and faiths, including Russian Orthodox (4%) and Protestant Christians (2%).

Sports

Though Lithuanians traditionally excel at many sports – including recent Olympic medals in events as disparate as the discus throw, the modern pentathlon and the decathlon – there’s really only one sport that gets their blood pumping: basketball.

For Lithuanians, b-ball is more than a sport: it’s a religion. During Soviet times success at basketball within the Soviet National League was one of the few acceptable ways for Lithuanians to express their national identity. Since Independence, Lithuanians have looked to basketball to help put them on the world map. The worshipped national team scooped bronze in three successive Olympic Games (1992, 1996 and 2000), only to be nosed out for bronze in both 2004 and 2008. The team also took the bronze in the FIBA World Basketball Championship in Istanbul in 2010, and came fourth in Spain in 2014.

Lithuanians have been a global basketball power since the 1930s, but the glory years came in the mid-1980s with the unparalleled success of the leading Lithuanian team at the time, Žalgiris Kaunas. Led by phenom centre Arvydas Sabonis, Žalgiris won the Soviet national championship three years running in 1985, ‘86 and ‘87 – each time defeating the dreaded Red Army superpower CSKA Moscow. Lithuanians made up the core of the Soviet team that won Olympic gold in Seoul in 1988.

Lithuanians’ success at the time did more than prove their dominance on the basketball court; it was part of the national revival that ultimately led to Independence in 1991.

In 2011 Lithuania hosted the FIBA Eurobasket 2011 championship, the most prestigious basketball tournament in Europe, for the first time since 1939. Though the home team didn’t win, the event was deemed a big success in the main host cities of Vilnius and Kaunas.

The Arts

Lithuania is Baltic queen of contemporary jazz, theatre and the avant-garde, while its arts scene is young, fresh and dynamic.

Contemporary Crafts

Lithuania may be striding expectantly into its new European destiny, but the old ways haven’t died. Traditional crafts are enjoying a huge renaissance, with many of the younger generation becoming intrigued with skills going back centuries.

One of the most visible of these is wood-carving, with many a front garden or forest trail graced by elaborately decorated totems that seem living relics of the country’s pagan past. In fact, they’re as likely to show Christian as pagan motifs, both common subject matter for traditional Lithuanian folk artists called dievdirbiai. Once blanketed in dense forests that now survive in the country’s many national parks, Lithuania has long entertained a special reverence for wood. Traditionally, trees could only be cut down when ‘asleep’, in winter, and in pagan times some groves were designated sacred, and could never be felled.

The abundance of raw material on the Baltic coast also gave rise to a long tradition of amber craftsmanship, and many noted Lithuanian jewellers still prize the medium. Black pottery, a Neolithic craft in which pine resin (and sometimes dung) gives the finished wares their characteristic dark tint, is another age-old Lithuanian skill that has been revived in recent years. Add to that weaving, papermaking, the decoration of margučiai (Easter eggs) and many other traditional crafts, and today’s Lithuania has a plethora of means to keep its past alive.

Literature

The Renaissance ushered in the first book to be published in Lithuanian – a catechism by Martynas Mažvydas, whose statue stands in Klaipėda – in 1547 and the creation of Vilnius University in 1579. But it wasn’t until a couple of centuries later that a true Lithuanian literature emerged.

The land was the focus of the earliest fiction: The Seasons (Metai), by Kristijonas Donelaitis, described serf life in the 18th century in poetic form, and a century later Antanas Baranauskas’ poem Anykščiai Pine Forest (Anykščių šilelis; 1860–61) used the deep, dark forest around Anykščiai as a symbol of Lithuania, bemoaning its destruction by foreign landlords. The poem is mostly known for its expressive language, and Baranauskas wrote the poem, at least in part, to show that the language need not be limited to kitchen talk.

Russia’s insistence on the Cyrillic alphabet for publishing from 1864 (until 1904) hindered literature’s development – and inspired poet Jonas Mačiulis (1862–1932) to push for its national revival. A statue of the Kaunas priest, whose pen name was Maironis, stands in Kaunas’ Old Town. The city’s Maironis Lithuania Literary Museum, in Maironis’ former home, tells his life story. Maironis’ romantic Voices of Spring (Pavasario balsai; 1895) is deemed the start of modern Lithuanian poetry.

Several major Polish writers grew up in Lithuania and regarded themselves as partly Lithuanian, notably Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), the inspiration of 19th-century nationalists, whose great poem Pan Tadeusz begins ‘Lithuania, my fatherland…’. The rooms in Vilnius’ Old Town, where he stayed while studying at Vilnius University, form a museum.

Winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize, Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004) was born in the central Lithuanian town of Šeteniai. While he’s best known abroad for his nonfiction book The Captive Mind (1953), concerning the effects of Stalinism on the minds of Polish intellectuals, he was passionate about his Lithuanian roots and wrote movingly of his childhood there in books such as The Issa Valley (1955), and in his memoir Native Realm (1959).

Novelists at the fore of contemporary Lithuanian literature include Antanas Škėma (1910–61), whose semiautobiographical novel The White Shroud (Balta drobule; 1954) recounts a childhood in Kaunas, then emigration to Germany and New York. It pioneered stream of consciousness in Lithuanian literature. Realist novelist and short-story writer Ričardas Gavelis (1950–2002) shocked the literary world with Vilnius Poker (1989) and Vilnius Jazz (1993), which openly criticised the defunct Soviet system and mentality. Equally controversial was the story of a priest’s love affair with a woman, The Witch and the Rain (Ragana ir lietus) by Jurga Ivanauskaitė (1961–2007). It was condemned by the Vilnius City Council on publication in 1992, which limited initial distribution of the book. Her subsequent novel Gone with Dreams (2000) highlighted new issues and subjects, such as religion, travel and perceptions of others’ religion and cultures, that couldn’t be addressed in Lithuanian literature until after 1989 and the collapse of communism throughout Eastern Europe.

Herkus Kunčius (b 1965) has gained a reputation for scandalous novels that tear at the fabric of cultural norms; his The Tumulus of Cocks (2004) introduced gay and lesbian scenes to Lithuanian literature. Marius Ivaškevičius (b 1973), on the other hand, has distinguished himself by looking at historical themes through a modern lens. The Greens (2002), detailing the partisan movement after WWII, has proven to be Ivaškevičius’ best seller to date.

Cinema & TV

Lithuania has a long cinematic history – the first short films were shot way back in 1909 – but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that independent film truly began to flourish, and now Lithuanian films capture nearly 25% of the local box office.

The grim reality of the post-Soviet experience is the focus for talented film director Šarūnas Bartas (b 1964), whose silent black-and-white movie Koridorius (The Corridor; 1994) – set in a dilapidated apartment block in a Vilnius suburb – received international recognition. Bartas opened Lithuania’s first independent film studio in 1987.

The 11 documentaries and one short film made by Audrius Stonys are acclaimed Europe-wide: 510 Seconds of Silence (2000) an angel’s flight over Vilnius’ Old Town, the lake-studded Aukštaitija National Park and Neringa – is awesome; watch it at www.stonys.lt.

Stonys codirected Baltic Way (1990) – which landed best European documentary in 1992 – with director-producer and European Film Academy member Arūnas Matelis (b 1961). Matelis won critical acclaim and a heap of awards for Before Flying Back to the Earth (2005), a documentary on children with leukaemia. Find him and his film crew at www.nominum.lt.

Algimantas Puipa became prominent with Vilko dantu karoliai (The Necklace of Wolf’s Teeth; 1998) and Elze is Gilijos (Elsie from Gilija; 1999), and hit the headlines again with both Forest of the Gods (2005) and Whisper of Sin (2007).

Flying the flag for young female directors in Lithuania is Kristina Buožytė, whose Vanishing Waves (2012) imagines a relationship between a comatose young woman and the scientist that manages to connect with her subconscious.

Lithuania has been the location for a number of big-budget TV series, due to its reputation as a low-cost film location. They include The New Adventures of Robin Hood (1995–96) and Elizabeth I (filmed 2005), starring Jeremy Irons and Helen Mirren.

The Lithuanian Film Studios (www.lfs.lt), founded in Kaunas in 1948 and now located in Vilnius, has had a hand in all major foreign productions in the country.

More information on Lithuania’s cinema and TV heritage can be gleaned at the Theatre, Music & Cinema Museum in Vilnius.

Music

Dainos – the Lithuanian name for songs – form the basis of the country’s folk music. Their lyrics deal with every aspect of life, from birth to death, and more often than not they are sung by women, alone or in a group. Instruments include the kanklė, a Baltic version of the zither, a variety of flutes, and reed instruments. Kaunas’ Folk Music & Instruments Museum has a fine collection to peer at.

Romantic folk-influenced Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875–1911) is Lithuania’s leading composer from earlier periods. Two of his major works are the symphonic poems Miske (In the Forest) and Jūra (The Sea; 1900–07), but Čiurlionis also wrote many piano pieces.

Bronius Kutavičius (b 1932) is heralded as the harbinger of minimalism in Lithuanian music, while Rytis Mažulis (b 1961) represents a new generation of composers with his neo-avant‑garde stance expressed in minimalist compositions for voice. Country-and-western icon Virgis Stakėnas is the larger-than-life force behind the country’s cult country music festival, the Visagano Country, in the eastern city of Visaginas.

Lithuania is the Baltic jazz giant. Two noteworthy musicians are sparkling pianist Gintautas Abarius and cerebral saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas. As famed is the Ganelin Trio, whose avant-garde jazz stunned the West when discovered in the 1980s. The club Kurpiai in Klaipėda and the Birštonas and the Kaunas jazz festivals are the spots to catch Lithuanian jazz.

Lithuania has yet to break into the international rock and pop scene, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any local heroes. Andrius Mamontovas has been a household name for almost two decades; Amberlife, Mango, and Auguestė dominate the boy- and girl-band genre; and Skamp is an interesting mix of hip-hop, R’n’B, and funk. The biggest bands to explode onto the scene in recent years are Inculto, an eclectic group whose creative output reflects diverse world influences, and Gravel, a Brit-pop-esque four-piece with talent and attitude.

Music Export Lithuania (www.mxl.lt) is a helpful online information source on Lithuania’s various music genres.

Visual Arts

Lithuania’s finest painter and musician is Varėna-born Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, who spent his childhood in Druskininkai, where his home is now a museum. He produced romantic masterpieces in gentle, lyrical tones, theatre backdrops and some exquisite stained glass. The best collection of these works is in the National Čiurlionis Art Museum in Kaunas. Depression dogged Čiurlionis, although when he died aged 35 it was of pneumonia.

Lithuania has a thriving contemporary art scene. Vilnius artists created the tongue-in-cheek Republic of Užupis, which hosts alternative art festivals, fashion shows and exhibitions in its ‘breakaway’ state. Some 19km north, Lithuanian sculptor Gintaras Karosas heads up a sculpture park, Europos parkas.

From Lenin to rock legend, Konstantinas Bogdanas was famed for his bronzes of communist heroes (see some in Druskininkai’s Grūtas Park) and for his bust of American musician and composer Frank Zappa.

Lithuanian photography has achieved international recognition. Vytautas Stanionis (1917–66) was the leading postwar figure, while artist Antanas Sutkus (b 1939) stunned the photographic world with his legendary shots of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and novelist Simone de Beauvoir cavorting in the sand on Curonian Spit. Vitalijus Butyrinas’s (b 1947) famous series Tales of the Sea uses abstract expressionism to make powerful images. For more on these and others, visit the Union of Lithuanian Art Photographers (www.photography.lt).

Theatre

Lithuanian theatre has become an international force, with several young experimental directors turning European heads left, right and centre.

The superstar of Lithuanian theatre directors is arguably Eimuntas Nekrošius, who has won many international awards. Another well-known name, Vilnius-based Oskaras Koršunovas (b 1969), has done Europe’s theatre-festival circuit with Old Woman, Shopping and Fucking, PS Files OK and his 2003 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. In 1998 he established his own theatre company in Vilnius, the Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre (OKT), albeit one with no fixed stage.

Other big names include Gintaras Varnas (b 1961), artistic director at the Kaunas Academic Drama Theatre, voted Lithuania’s best director of the year five times; and Rimas Tuminas (b 1952), who heads the Small Theatre of Vilnius.

A key online information source on Lithuanian theatre is www.theatre.lt.

Feature: Top Contemporary Reads

Online, visit Books from Lithuania (www.booksfromlithuania.lt), a comprehensive literary information centre reviewing the latest in Lithuanian poetry and prose, including English-language translations.

  • Lithuanian Literature (ed Vytautas Kubilius) Read this to get the big picture.
  • The Issa Valley (Czesław Miłosz) Semiautobiographical account of boyhood life in a valley north of Kaunas.
  • Tūla (Jurgis Kunčinas) Spellbinding story of two lovers caught in the Soviet system, and battling it with every step.
  • Bohin Manor (Tadeusz Konwicki) Set in the aftermath of the 1863 uprising, this novel by a leading modern Polish writer born in the Vilnius area uses the past to comment on current events and evokes tensions between locals, their Russian rulers and a Jewish outsider, as well as the foreboding and mysterious nature of the Lithuanian backwoods.
  • Raw Amber (ed Laima Sruoginis) Anthology of contemporary Lithuanian poetry.