Global Experience: Multiculturalism in Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius.  Photo by Author.

By August Hagemann

This past summer, I had the opportunity to be in Vilnius, Lithuania during Statehood Day celebrations.  This holiday commemorates the crowning of King Mindaugas on July 6th 1253, as the first and only king of Lithuania.  Lithuanians from around the world come to the country to celebrate Lithuanian culture and history.

However, Vilnius is interesting in that it is a city that has been part of many more histories than just Lithuania’s, and many more people than just Lithuanians call it home.  The French, Spanish, Greek, and other restaurants all benefited as much from the larger crowds as the Lithuanian restaurants did, and I heard as many different languages in the streets as I had before, if not more.  The history of Vilnius involves other cultures entering the city, as well as Lithuanians (willingly or unwillingly) going to other countries — as a result, Lithuanian culture there has a distinctly global, multicultural aspect.

Though the location of Vilnius has not changed in the city’s seven centuries of existence, the ruler of that location has never been entirely stable; before its present independence, Lithuania was ruled by the Soviet Union, and the Russian Empire before that.  Even further back, the country was in a political union with Poland, and during Polish as well as Russian rule the country experienced German and French invasions.  As each of these cultures came through the city, they left behind their own culture, which over time has been integrated into the fabric of the city.  Russians and Poles are both substantial minority communities in the city, and French and German influence are obvious in some of the food, art, and architecture of the city.  None of these influences has displaced Lithuanian culture, however.  People from all of these communities participated in Statehood Day celebrations with equal enthusiasm, and Lithuanian flags were common on nearly every street and building.  These other communities are part of Vilnius as much as any other communities, and so add their own traditions and customs to the Lithuanian mix.  Though some are Polish, some are Russian, some are German and French, all are Lithuanian.

This is the same attitude found among the Lithuanians who return to the country from wherever they live in order to celebrate the holiday.  I did not experience anyone who disavowed the country they were presently living in so as to be “more Lithuanian”.  Lithuanian flags were everywhere, but so were slogans promoting the Australian, American, and British Lithuanian communities.  Through all the changes of power and invasions, Lithuanians have unfortunately been forcibly sent out of the country all over the world, while others chose to leave in order to avoid that same kind of persecution or worse.  This is a large reason for the global spread of Lithuanians today.  However, rather than trying to forget this tragic chapter of their history, many Lithuanians today embrace the global character of their culture.

This is certainly not to say that multiculturalism is the defining characteristic of Lithuanian culture, nor that Lithuania is simply an amalgamation of the states that have vied for power in the region.  It also should not be seen as an argument that all Lithuanians are also part of some other community, or that it is easy for Lithuanians living abroad to reconcile their identity as Lithuanians with their identity as members of the country they live in.  It is to say that multiculturalism is a reality of Lithuanian culture in Vilnius.  The history of power in the city itself, as well as the cultures and experiences that Lithuanians returning to the city bring with them contributes to a Lithuanian culture with a distinct multicultural aspect.  Statehood Day, arguably the most Lithuanian of Lithuanian holidays, would not be the same without the many peoples who come to celebrate it.  Vilnius also would be different, were it not for the global character of the city’s culture.

August Hagemann is a junior majoring in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.

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