March 1, 2001 | Magazine Archive

THE ARMENIANS OF LITHUANIA: THE CHALLENGE OF LIFE IN THE NEW DIASPORA

by David Zenian

Ruslan Arutunian was one of the very few Armenians who supported the Lithuanian independence movement in 1988 and almost every night joined thousands of people demonstrating for an end to Soviet “occupation.”

Marching alongside was his wife, a Lithuanian, who at the age of two in 1949, was deported to Siberia with her parents after being rounded up in the middle of night and accused of anti-Soviet activities.

“We were not marching just for Lithuanian freedom, but for Armenia as well, because similar protests were also going on in Yerevan and former Armenian President Levon Ter Petrossian had already visited Vilnius and joined us in solidarity with our movement,” Arutunian said. After yet another long night of protests, Ruslan and his wife, Maryte, realized something was missing from the protest rallies—the Armenian flag.

Upon returning home, she found large pieces of red, blue and orange cloth, took out her mother’s old sewing machine, and put together the first Armenian flag which became a fixture at all anti-Soviet rallies in Vilnius.

The Arutunians do not consider themselves political activists, but their action seems to have energized Lithuania’s Armenians, and paved the way for a campaign to organize the small community.

“Armenians have lived and worked here since the early 1940′s but there never was a sense of community as we know it today. There was no need for that, because for all practical purposes, we lived in the same country—the Soviet Union,” Arutunian said during a visit to his home by this reporter.

“As Armenians, we had casual contacts with others from Armenia. We did socialize and celebrate the New Year together. But that was all, and even that was not too regular,” he said.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania’s small Armenian community felt isolated. Despite the fact that many had lived in Lithuania for decades, they realized how little, if any, contact they had with the local population.

“In the workplace, we rubbed shoulders with the Russians. We had almost no Lithuanian friends. Looking back at those days, I think we lived in some sort of a ghetto,” he said.

Arutunian still keeps the hastily put together Armenian flag, one of many now present in almost every home of Lithuania’s estimated 2,500 Armenians.

That figure has stayed stable over the past ten years. A few thousand Armenians came to Lithuania after Armenia’s devastating earthquake in 1988, but the majority left because they were unable to get legal residence status.

Among those from Armenia was Mikayel Saghoyan and his family.

Saghoyan, a painter, arrived in Lithuania eight years ago and while his career has flourished, he still continues to struggle with what seems to be a futile attempt to legalize his presence in the country.

“All I could manage was get a work permit, which allows me to stay here.

“I don’t want to lose my Armenian citizenship, but I cannot change my status here without doing that. Even if I want to, I will have to return to Armenia to do that, and that in itself is another problem. I feel trapped.

“I cannot return to Armenia because there is no way for me to support my family there. I want to stay here, but I don’t know how long I can do this without a permanent residence status for me and my family,” he said. Armenia, like many other countries, does not allow dual citizenship.

After eight years in Lithuania, Saghoyan continues to live life day by day, and spends most of his time trying to find a legal loophole to legalize his stay.

He owns a small art gallery and often works as an interior designer. “Hundreds of Armenian families who came here after the 1988 earthquake just gave up and left. Most went to Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union,” he said.

Like the other Baltic countries, Lithuania has very strict immigration rules and given its privileged demographic makeup where less than 20 percent of the population is not ethnic Lithuanian, the doors remain shut in face of newcomers.

Those living in the country before independence were all given Lithuanian passports, allowing the majority of Armenians living there at the time to enjoy all the rights and privileges of other citizens.

“Even the minority Russians who decided to stay had no problem getting Lithuanian passports, because the government was not afraid of endangering the demographic balance of the population,” a Western diplomat explained.

The government went a step further by encouraging all minorities to get together and set up their own governing council to act as a liaison and help deal with issues involving integration and minority rights.

Ruslan Arutunian was elected chairman of the Council of National Minorities and still serves in that capacity.

With encouragement from the Lithuanian authorities, the Armenian community has started to take shape, but living in an independent and sovereign nation has also meant new problems and difficulties, especially for the older generation.

“The vast majority of Armenians here don’t speak Lithuanian, and Russian is no longer a useful language. Lithuanians don’t appreciate people addressing them in Russian,” he explained.

While young school-age Armenians are learning and rapidly integrating into the new Lithuanian society, the elders still find themselves isolated—a situation which may have triggered the need for greater community cohesion. “Probably we would not have had a community center if we were better integrated,” he said.

One major reason for the lack of integration has been the conditions that existed under communist rule. Russian was the main language and expatriates from the other Soviet republics, including the Armenians, did not feel the need to learn Lithuanian or even mix with the rest of the population.

The Balts, as the Lithuanians, Latvians and the Estonians are often collectively called, are also aloof by nature—even towards each other—and tend not to socialize with outsiders, and especially with Russians and other Russian-speaking groups.

With funding from Armenian businessmen and president of the Armenian Cultural Association Ashod Yessayan, or Olegas Isajevas as he wants to be called in Lithuanian circles, a community center was opened last year and plans are well underway to expand the premises to include a Sunday school to teach the new generation of Armenians, especially the hundreds of children of mixed marriages.

Unlike the small Armenian communities in Estonia and Latvia, the Armenians in Lithuania have placed all their efforts in the community center rather than investing in the construction of a church.

“Given our limited resources, we thought we needed a place where people can meet after work. Church is very important, but it’s a place a few people go to on Sundays.

“A club, or community center, is a lot more functional under the present circumstances. It is already serving as a place where people come looking for not only the social benefits, but to network. There is always someone here to help out. We find work for the unemployed, help out those who need legal assistance and create a venue for all Armenians.

“It is also of great help for the Lithuanian authorities. As an officially recognized organization the authorities come to us if they have questions involving the Armenians here,” Yessayan said.

The centralization of Armenian activities around the community center in Vilnius has also helped relieve the sense of nostalgia towards the homeland—something which was not acute during the Soviet years.

Samvel Jigarkhanian, who owns a small restaurant on the outskirts of Vilnius, used to visit friends and family in Yerevan a few times a year before independence. But no more.

“I have lived here all my adult life, but I am still an Armenian and I don’t understand why I had to give up my Armenian citizenship to be able to become a Lithuanian citizen.

“I get very angry sometimes. Lithuania restored the citizenship of all those who escaped from here in the early 1940′s, and yet, here we are from Armenia, being forced to give up our citizenship just to stay here. This is not fair,” he said.

Like almost all other Armenians living here, Jigarkhanian has not been back to Armenia in almost ten years because “I have to obtain a visa through the Armenian Embassy in Warsaw and I cannot afford to even pay the cost.” he said.

“I feel sort of cut off from my roots,” he explained.

The isolation is felt not only within the community in Vilnius, where the vast majority of the estimated 2,500 Armenians live, but also in the small northeastern town of Visaginas where 20 Armenian families live.

The town, consisting of identical Soviet-era apartment buildings, a school and a few shops, was built in 1975 around a nuclear power station where almost all of the 5,000 inhabitants work.

“The only difference here is that everyone is Russian. There are almost no Lithuanians,” said Vartouhie Manougian, who came here in 1992.

A young bride and mother, Ms. Manougian single -handedly runs the local Armenian Saturday language school which is attended by every child in the small community – all 14 of them.

The premises are made available to the community by the city council.

“Given the demographic structure of the town, our children can only go to Russian schools. Many of their parents are part Armenian, and therefore, we have to do everything in our power to make sure that our children don’t forget their mother tongue,” she said.

The school has a limited supply of textbooks but with Ms. Manougian at the helm, the children have made real progress in the short few years that she has been in charge.

“It is very difficult to live in a place like this, away from the larger Armenian community in Vilnius. But we are realizing what life in the Diaspora means—and for the first time for that matter. We want to know how you managed to keep your Armenian identity alive all these years. We want to learn from your experience,” she said.

On a recent Saturday, Ms. Manougian’s students gathered to meet a visiting Armenian delegation from Vilnius. In a short “cultural program” they put together, the children proved not only their language skills, but their enthusiasm for Armenian dancing, poetry and songs.

“There is a lot of energy here, and it’s more than what we get from the nuclear power plant. It comes from these children,” she said.

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