Why They Came
Located in Europe on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, Lithuania is a small nation just northeast of Poland and west of Belarus (and Russia). From 1795 to 1918, most of Lithuania was part of the oppressive czarist Russian Empire.
Reacting to a Lithuanian revolt in 1863, the Russian Empire for decades tried to forcibly substitute Russian Orthodoxy for Lithuanian Roman Catholicism–and attempted to ban the use of the Lithuanian language in speech, institutions of education, book, and newspapers. Thanks to book smugglers operating across the border with German-ruled East Prussia, the language was preserved and a movement of national awakening grew and ultimately succeeded in declaring a modern Lithuanian state in the last days of World War I.
Serfs and Former Serfs
From the 14th Century onward (about the same time ethnic Lithuania was converted from paganism to Christianity), the feudal system had been imposed on the vast majority of the population, mainly by Polish nobles, who along with Polish clergy, imposed Christianity on the Lithuanian tribes. Polish language and culture became high culture, subordinating Lithuanian language and culture much as ethnic Lithuanians were subordinated by feudal bondage or serfdom. Serfdom was, by defination, a form of land bondage: essentially, slavery to the feudal noble in the form of unpaid labor on the lands of his estate.
Another way to think of it was that serfs were legally bonded to the land, so whoever owned the land “owned” them. Such bondage continued generation after generation, with serfs subject to whipping, even torture or murder, at the whim of nobles and their estate managers. While the Polish and Lithuanian nobility originally enforced the serf’s captivity, after Lithuania’s incorporation into the Russian Empire, the imperial system initially helped the nobles by reinforcing land bondage while benefiting from taxes and conscripts from the feudal estates for the czar’s armies.
A notable exception to feudal serfdom for Lithuanian commoners applied to Jewish Lithuanians, or Litvaks, who lived in villages or shtetls on land granted to them by the feudal lord. As opposed to ethnic Lithuanian serfs, Litvaks mainly made their living in commerce, money-lending, and the trades, and could move about to cater to the managerial, commercial, and crafts needs of the feudal estates, or on a smaller scale, peddle their wares across the countryside.
Lithuanian serfs were not freed until a decree by the Russian czar in 1861. But that declaration, much like the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S., was not accompanied by land reform. In short, freed Lithuanian serfs were not granted their own version of “40 acres and a mule,” so their only resort, if remaining in Lithuania, was to continue to work on post-feudal estates for starvation wages, and to largely remain subject to the rough “justice” of still powerful, neo-feudal lords.
One important thing did change, however: After 1861, former serfs and their descendants could now migrate, even emigrate, to improve their lot. Facing intense poverty, military conscription, illiteracy, and Russian Orthodox religious repression, plus a ban on their language following the 1863 Polish-Lithuanian uprising against the Russian Empire, as many as 25-30 percent of all Lithuanians left their homeland from the late 1860s (mainly the 1880s) to the early 1900s. Most found factory and mining work in the United States and were quite transient with the U.S,–some even traveling back to Lithuania when they had saved enough to buy their own land. Jewish Lithuanians were subject to pogroms by the Russian Empire after the murder of Czar Alexander II by a revolutionary socialist in 1881, and they, too, left Lithuania in large numbers by WWI.