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Lithuanian-majority areas of Belarus

Prior to 19th century, the entire castle-rich Belarusian-Lithuanian frontier was inhabited by ethnic Lithuanian majority. Historically the Lithuanian nation was dominant in a far larger territory than the modern-day Republic of Lithuania. This is still visible in placenames: a lot of them in northwestern Belarus are of Lithuanian origin (the endings are Slavicised: Trakeli, Lazdūny, Kiemeliški, Gulbiny, Kiškeliški...). The letters "išk" ("ishk", "iszk") are unique to Lithuanian-origin placenames.

Lithuanians of the assimilated into Slavic communities during the Russian Imperial and Soviet onslaughts of russification. Russian Empire banned Lithuanian language in the mid-19th century and while the people of western Lithuania found it easier to illegally import Lithuanian books from Germany this was not the case in modern-day Belarus. The percentage of Lithuanian native speakers in Vilnius governorate (which included much of modern-day Belarus) decreased from 35%-40% in mid-19th century to 17%-20% in ~1914. After a short Lithuanian rule, the region was captured by Poles in 1920 and the ongoing Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilnius led to further discrimination of the minority. The final blow was, however, the Soviet policies. Many Lithuanian majority areas were added to Soviet Belarus instead of Soviet Lithuania, all Lithuanian schools were then closed and even public speaking in Lithuanian prosecuted. In this era many Lithuanians left for Lithuania, others adopted the Russian language.

Several territories still contain Lithuanian communities. The largest of them is around Gerviaty (Gervėčiai) village (~14 villages, 9 of them Lithuanian-majority). Some 1000 Lithuanians live there today. A Lithuanian cultural center and Lithuania-funded Lithuanian school (Rimdžiūnai village) are at heart of the community. While the older generations associate themselves with Lithuania, the kids rarely speak Lithuanian natively. The choice of whether to send them to Lithuanian or Belarusian school typically depends on the future their parents expect for them. The Lithuanian school even has some Belarusian students who are being prepared by their families for an emigration to richer Lithuania. In Mykoliškės (Michailiški) village near Gerviaty (Gervėčiai) a new Astravec Nuclear Power Plant is under construction. Its workers are brought in by Russia and some Lithuanian-owned homes were demolished to make a place for new constructions.

The most impressive building in Gervėčiai area is the gothic revival Gervėčiai church (1903). Lithuanian in style and massive size (62 m tall tower) it outflanks the 600-strong village. In fact, it is the largest Catholic church in Belarus and is still adorned by Lithuanian inscriptions and surrounded by tall elaborate Lithuanian wooden crosses (Lithuanian art of crossmaking is an immaterial UNESCO World Heritage).

The massive Gervėčiai church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other Lithuanian majority areas that survived until the Soviet occupation (1939) now are almost destroyed. These are the villages around Varanavas, Pelesa, Apsas, Lazdūnai. Pelesa still hosts a Lithuanian-language school funded by the Lithuanian government.

Even those regions where Lithuanian language is no longer spoken at all still are distinctive from the rest of Belarus. Catholic religion dominates there instead of Russian Orthodoxy, some Lithuanian traditions also survive.

Lithuanian crosses near the Gervėčiai church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In addition to the centuries-old aforementioned communities, the 19th century Russian Imperial occupation led to the creation of new Lithuanian communities even in the eastern Belarus. With no limits on internal migration, some Lithuanian peasants left for eastern Belarus to establish Lithuanian villages such as Malkava (now Malkovka). Unfortunately, the Soviet deportations and russification totally uprooted these communities.

A map of Lithuanian localities in Belarus is available here

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  1. Moreover, Augustinas, whole modern “Belarus” is inhabitted by ethnic Lithuanians. Unfortunately, that tiny modern Lithuania is inhabitted mostly by ethnic zhemaites, which try to misappropriate history and glory of true lithuanians while they are still suffering under occupation of moskovites in s.c. “Belarus”.

    • True Lithuanians speak Lithuanian, so start learning maybe then you can be a part of the new GDL. Also, ethnic Lithuanian lands stretch from Vilnius to Belarus, meaning you guys a bunch of slavonized and russified Lithuanians, get back to your roots then we will talk.

      • I meant Minsk not Belarus.

        • Being Lithuanian, Belarusian or Polish in the area of Lithuania, Belarus and NE Poland is by the choice of the family’s ancestors or even the person themselves. DNA testing, both SNP and STR, has shown that the people living in the the territories of NE Poland, Southern Lithuania and Western Belarus are almost an even mixture of Lithuanian and Belarusian ancestry. Even the “Poles” living in Vilnius have mixed Lithuanian and Belarusian ancestry, they are not of Polish ancestry.

          A few generations ago people “chose” which ethnic background they would identify with according to politics and prestige. Poland was a regional power at the time and many Belarusians and Lithuanians decided to identify as Polish. Other Lithuanians, also for political reasons, decided to identify with Belarusians. Belarusians living in Vilnius tended to identify with Poles and later with Lithuanians.

          In all of these cases, a decision was made about what language to speak, what culture to follow and what religion to believe. So basically what I am saying is that most Lithuanian and Belarusians (and Polish speaker in Belarus and Lithuania) are descended from both Belarusians and Lithuanians.

          Perhaps only the Samogitians/Zemaites are pure Lithuanians although I am sure they probably have significant Finnish and Estonian DNA. The definition by most of a “true Lithuanian” is someone who obviously speaks Lithuanian. But there are many more people who don’t know or who deny they are Lithuanian.

          • Lithuanians never where zemaits this has always been a large misconceptions. Zemaits have their own Language and culture. In areas of todays eastern and Western Belarus there lived large numbers of Lithuanian speaking people.

  2. My husband ansestors from his mother side are from Belarus, and they spoke Lithuanian.
    How can I look for information about them? They where catholics, but we do not know from where exactly.

    • It may be possible. However, in order to know where to begin, more information is always needed: names/surnames, dates (birth, marriage), placenames (at least approximate areas). While some missing information might be ok, too much missing information may make a search impossible. For example, if only a name is known but nothing else – there would have been many people with the same name in Belarus.


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