This post is intended to support the Biographica Incognita article on Johnny Ramensky. In researching the social and political landscape in which Johnny found himself, a large story started to unfold which I couldn’t fit into the article and was so much bigger and separate to the man himself. Some of the details from the article may be repeated here in order to allow this post to work as support to the article or as a work in its own right.
Scotland at the beginning of the twentieth century was a rapidly changing environment; constantly reconfiguring and reidentifying itself to support the mass industrialisation that had swept across the United Kingdom. Shipbuilding in Aberdeen and Glasgow brought previously unknown wealth into the country. Demand for coal, iron and clay from the mines and pits particularly around Glasgow ensured incredibly low unemployment rates. Scotland’s revenue became entirely dependent on its natural resources, and in turn a huge amount of importance was placed on the native workforce. Unionisation allowed workers to leverage their vital labour against improved pay and working conditions. Company owners became increasingly agitated at the power being pressed against them by “the working classes” and feared (probably quite accurately) that submitting to unionist demands would set a dangerous precedent.
This highly volatile situation couldn’t go on forever. It eventually resulted in a series of labour strikes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Company owners were determined to find a resolution that would not result in more power being handed to the workforce. They eventually sent agents to countries known to pay extremely poor wages, in particular Lithuania and Poland, with the intention of recruiting a new workforce.
I’m going to focus on Lithuania here because that has been the basis of my research, however Poland has a very similar narrative.
Lithuania in the early 1900s
I will give an overview of the events preceding the recruitment of labour from Lithuania, however it should be noted that it is impossible to offer a complete picture of a regions social and political situation without describing the socio-political situation that preceded it, and from there its turtles all the way down.
From the sixteenth century until the late eighteenth century Lithuania was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was divided in 1795 and Lithuania was, for lack of a better word, “absorbed” by the Russian Empire. For years after this Lithuania struggled to maintain its own identity against the pressures of increasing Russian immigration and investment. This led to Lithuania opening its borders to Napoleon in 1812 when he was marching his army on Russia. A large number of the native Lithuanian population, seeing a chance to gain independence from Russia, joined Napoleon’s army. It is hard to say what reprisals the Lithuanian people faced when Napoleon was forced to retreat out of Russia, however Tsar Alexander I was known for his ruthless reaction to insurrection.
Side Note: It definitely didn’t help that Augustus III, King of Poland-Lithuania was relentlessly committed to failure. He repeated military tactics, economic and social policy that resulted in utter catastrophe without learning or changing and reacted with complete surprise when it all went wrong… immediately followed by doing the same thing again with increased vigor. To call him ruinous would be extremely complimentary.
Two more attempts at independence were made during the nineteenth century which resulted in Tsar Alexander taking an approach of “Russification”. This was a process of suppressing Lithuania’s national identity, banning the use of their native language, persecuting any non-Catholics, and devolving power back to St. Petersburg. This also involved the mass movement of native Lithuanians out of Lithuania, and offering Russians incentives to settle in Lithuania. What strikes me the most about this are the parallels to to a lot of the actions taken by Josef Stalin half a century later – which were a stone on the path to having Stalin decried by many historians as “the most evil man that ever lived”.
This article published in 1863 entitled “Mauravievs Troubles in Lithuania” demonstrates quite clearly the approach taken by the empire.
Far from suppressing the growing nationalist movements in Lithuania, these policies of Russification forged competing nationalist groups into a legitimate resistance.
Whilst Lithuania would eventually gain its independence, the cost in human life, infrastructure and economy was tremendous. The new nation was left without the resources necessary to support its population. Disease and famine were rife amongst the lower classes. Day-to-day life was hard. I have rewritten this paragraph a dozen times trying to accurately describe how hard and I have found myself unable to do so. According to one report, 650,000 native Lithuanians, men and women who fought for decades to preserve their culture, community and national identity, left the country they had fought so hard for, never to return. That is one in four of the native population. The driver behind this diaspora was the relentless suffering that was life for the people of Lithuania.
The immigration was aided by agents arriving from Scotland, America and South Africa. They offered wages which, whilst still meagre in the receiving country, were princely to impoverished Lithuanian labourers. I find it hard to believe that those who chose to leave were unaware of the welcome they would face from local communities, given their experiences with Russian citizens being moved into Lithuania however the journey must have seemed worth it.
By the outbreak of World War One over 7,000 Lithuanians had settled into communities around Glasgow with the purpose of replacing the striking Scottish miners.
It appears that the Scots, with their fierce national pride and distinct cultural identity refused to distinguish Lithuanians from Poles, resulting in some very confusing record keeping. I have never seen a Scotsman being recorded as English without resulting bloodshed. It does seem however that over time these migrant communities integrated well. A combination of the “foreigners” willingness to anglicise their names to make them more familiar to the Scots, with some trauma bonding in the small mining communities. Events like the pit collapse at Glenboig in 1909 where a predominantly Lithuanian community spent hours digging the bodies of four Scottish miners out of the collapsed pit.
It is hard to read the story of these migrants without seeing a foreshadowing of Windrush half a century later. The Lithuanians were never forcibly removed however the cost appears to have been the sacrifice of their culture, their history and in many cases their very names.
I feel there is an important reflection point here. Integration is important, a cohesive community offers resilience where division exposes vulnerability. However a diverse community allows innovation, support structures and growth. Either through our action or inaction the men, women and children who left Lithuania after a long fight for independence felt compelled to abandon their culture. At what point does this become an act of attrition and genocide given the scale of the population we are discussing? Centuries of migrations just like this one, have shown that a great deal can be gained by finding the perfect balance between social integration and preserving cultural identity.
In Britain we often find it easy to forget due to our previous standing as Empire and Superpower, that we are a people forged through diversity. From our earliest recorded history with the Celts, the Roman Occupation, Saxon Invasion, Normans, Anjouvins and French adding to us through conquest. Italian, Greek, Spanish, through trade and hundreds of others adding to our civilisation through our own imperial expansion. We are not an element we are a solution and we are, in my opinion better for it.
For a more personal perspective on life for these families please read my Biographica Incognita entry on Gentleman Johnny Ramensky (Coming Soon)