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Lithuania, The People of Lithuania

Judita Vaiciunaite, Lithuanian Art Museum, Vytautas Magnus University, National Museum of Lithuania, new citizenship laws

The population of Lithuania (2002 estimate) is 3,601,138, giving it a population density of 55 persons per sq km (143 persons per sq mi). Lithuania is highly urbanized, with 68 percent of the population living in urban areas. Unlike most other republics of the former USSR, the country is not dominated by a single urban center. Vilnius, the capital, is the largest city, followed by Kaunas, an industrial and commercial center, and Klaipeda, an important seaport.

Ethnic Lithuanians constitute about 80 percent of the country’s population. The proportion of Lithuanians increased slightly in the first years after the dissolution of the USSR, as many Lithuanians immigrated from the USSR and abroad, while some Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians left Lithuania. Russians and Poles constitute the country’s largest minority groups, each accounting for roughly 8 percent of the population. Jews were the largest minority group before World War II (1939-1945), when German Nazis killed most of Lithuania’s Jewish residents. In contrast to Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania passed new citizenship laws in 1989 allowing all people who live within its borders to apply for naturalization, regardless of ethnic origin. Most residents among the minority populations have since been granted citizenship.

The country’s official language since 1988 has been Lithuanian, a language of the Baltic branch of Indo-European languages. The Lithuanian language is closely related to Latvian. Other languages spoken in the country include Russian and Polish. More than 80 percent of Lithuanians are Roman Catholics. During most of the Soviet period, religious practice and instruction were greatly restricted in Lithuania. The lifting of Soviet restrictions in the late 1980s and the restoration of independence in 1991 stimulated a revival of religious practice.

Lithuania has an adult literacy rate of 99.8 percent, reflecting the high value placed on universal education during the Lithuanian independence period that began in 1918 and also during the Soviet period. School attendance is compulsory from ages 6 to 16. State-run educational institutions provide free education at all levels. A number of private schools have also been established since the end of Soviet rule. Vilnius University (founded in 1579), located in Vilnius, is the most prestigious of Lithuania’s institutions of higher learning. The Vytautas Magnus University (1922) is located in Kaunas.

Lithuanian culture is noted for its vibrant oral tradition, consisting of folktales, legends, proverbs, and dainos (ancient songs). The country’s national literature began with the long poem Metai (“The Seasons”), by Kristijonas Donelaitis, written in the 18th century and published posthumously in 1818. Contemporary Lithuanian writers include the playwright Kazys Saja and the poets Tomas Venclova and Judita Vaiciunaite. The Soviet regime forced Venclova to emigrate in the 1970s, and he moved to the United States.

Lithuania holds many folk festivals each year, characterized by folk music and colorful traditional costumes. Other cultural events include ballet, theater, and opera performances. The Lithuania Chamber Orchestra, the Kaunas State Choir, and the Lithuanian State Symphony perform large concerts at the modern Opera and Ballet Theater, located in Vilnius. A major jazz festival is held annually in the capital. Lithuania has several museums, including the National Museum of Lithuania (founded in 1855 as the Museum of History and Ethnography of Lithuania; renamed in 1992) and the Lithuanian Art Museum (1940), both located in Vilnius.

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