The Distinction and Connections between Dzūkija/Dainava and Suvalkija/Sūduva as a Problem of Ethno-Regional Classification: Contradictions and Evolution of Concepts and Images

  • Vytautas Tumėnas
Keywords: dzūkai, suvalkiečiai, Dzūkija, Dainava, Suvalkija, Sūduva, ethnographic regionalisation


The article deals with the problem of controversies and changes of concepts of the ethnographic regions of Lithuania and the importance of public discourse in this process. The author discusses the intertwining of the concepts, identities, connections, and differences of the historical and folkloric names of the lands inhabited by dzūkai and suvalkiečiai – Dzūkija/Dainava and Suvalkija/Sūduva (English: Sudovia),

381 ISSN0235–716X eISSN2424–4716 LITUANISTICA. 2023. T. 69. Nr. 4(134)

respectively – and their geographical space in the ethnographic regionalisation and ethno-regional classification. The concept of the Lithuanian ethnographic groups of dzūkai and suvalkiečiai and the lands they inhabit has been changing significantly over the last centuries. Therefore, in order to reveal the dilemmas and controversies of the concept and classification of Suvalkija and Dzūkija and their ethnonyms in the early development, not only ethnological but also historical, bibliographic, cartographic, and geographical data are relevant for a more thorough and careful clarification of the primary sources of the origin of these ethnonyms and toponyms and their concepts, the diversity and confusion of names, and the evolution and consolidation of the definitions and concepts of the sub-ethnic groups and their lands under study in research and society and their relation to the current perception. The current names and concept of the ethnographic regions of Lithuania were formed only in the last two centuries. Sub-ethnic regionalisation is closer to the early tradition of the division of Lithuania into sub-ethnically named tribal lands. The development of the concept of the ethnographic regions of Suvalkija and Dzūkija shows that their evolution was partly based on the tradition of state administrative division but mostly determined by the interaction of folklore traditions, journalistic and literary creativity, and scholarly thought.

The conception of the geographical space of Lithuanian and ethnographic regionalisation associated with the naming of local ethnographic groups that determine the cultural uniqueness of Lithuania was especially promoted by journalism, while the scholars in folk art, folklore, architecture, and customs started to classify the marking of the territories of ethnographic groups related to their names as a systemic whole.

The analysis of the iconography of old maps shows that their depiction as a wooded and sparsely populated area of the Trans-Nemunas region corresponds to the conclusions of historians about the gradual settlement and colonisation of this region and the importance of forestry industry after the Peace of Melno (1422).

The concept of Suvalkija as a synonym of Užnemunė (the Trans-Nemunas region) and historical Sūduva (Sudovia) has been changing. At present, the territorial scope of Suvalkija is not identical to either the former Sūduva or Užnemunė as it is now related only to the northern part of Užnemunė, where Suvalkija, the land of suval­ kiečiai, is defined. From the mid-nineteenth century, dzūkai were localised precisely in southern Užnemunė. They were first mentioned in 1856. Initially, Suvalkija was called the land of suvalkiečiai (who subdivide into kapsai and zanavykai) and dzūkai of Užnemunė. It is not clear enough when the dzūkai stopped being called suvalkie­ čiai (e.g., Rev. Jonas Žilinskas defined kapsai and zanavykai as suvalkiečiai nedzūkai, i.e., suvalkiečiai who are not dzūkai). On the other hand, the simultaneous distinction between dzūkai, kapsai, and zanavykai and the greater kinship of the dialects between the latter two than with dzūkai suggests that the inhabitants of the northern Užnemunė were more often called suvalkiečiai. As a scientific term based on original folk names, the subdialect of dzūkai (as a subdialect of the Aukštaitish dialect) was described by the linguists Antanas Baranauskas (1875) and Antanas Salys (1933). The area inhabited by dzūkai in the eastern part of Lithuania was similarly mentioned by Jonas Basanavičius (1928) and Antanas Smetona (1914, 1930). Later, the narrower original land of dzūkai of Užnemunė, associated with the subdialect and cultural area of dzūkai, was named Dzūkija and expanded considerably to the east. At the same time, Suvalkija came to be identified with the area of suvalkie­ čiai (kapsai and zanavykai).

Considering the complex historical and geographical circumstances of the development of the concept of these regions, along with the placenames of Užnemunė and Suvalkija, the names of Sūduvos Suvalkija (Sudovian Suvalkija), Sūduvos Dzūkija (Sudovian Dzūkija), or Užnemunės Dzūkija (Trans-Nemunas Dzūkija) could also be used for referring to the Trans-Nemunas region, for the sake of accuracy. Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that the name of historical Dainava, which was made famous by the country’s prominent writers, is by no means the only possible allusion to the names of historical lands that existed in the region of Dzūkija: for example, the names of jotvingiai (Yotvingians) and Jotva have become very popular in recent decades. Admittedly, the names of Dainava inhabited by the dzūkai and Sūduva inhabited by the suvalkiečiai, which are spreading in society, are more symbolic both in terms of geographical and historical terminology; they are very inaccurate in terms of historical geography and ethnically, and are therefore insufficiently correct. Their close connection with the societal imagery and the search for the iconicity of the historical depth of the local roots for the image of the regions testifies to the application of the paradigm of the invention of traditions and social imagination.

The Lithuanians’ concept of the ethnographic groups and their lands becomes significant in the forming of the concepts of physical geography, in which the images of the dzūkai, Dzūkija, Dainava, and Sūduva (Sudovia) are most established.
It is a common practice in museology, art history, folklore, ethnology, and history to associate the realities of cultural heritage older than the nineteenth century with the current concept of the sub-ethnic groups of Lithuania and the concept of ethnographic regionalisation. The integral association of Dzūkija and Suvalkija and of Sūduva, Dainava, and Jotva with the current traditional culture has already become part of everyday cultural life. The image of place-specific culture with deep historical roots has become characteristic of regional and sub-ethnic cultural identity.

In order to preserve and popularise the old names of the historical lands of Lithuania and continue the newer tradition of the names of ethnographic regions that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the ideal case and from the scholarly point of view, it would be more correct to refer to the ethnographic regions by their dual names, with the current ethnographic name followed by the older historical name in brackets: Suvalkija (Northern Sūduva, Northern Užnemunė), Dzūkija (Southern Sūduva, Southern Užnemunė, Dainava, Jotva). Yet such a description would be cumbersome and inconvenient to use. Therefore, for the sake of scholarly accuracy and public harmony, I think it would be appropriate to abandon the regulation of the mention of historical lands altogether at the official level (documents, laws, acts, etc.), leaving such historical symbolic interpretations to the field of public creativity, and using only the most common terms of Dzūkija and Suvalkija in official references to the ethnographic regions discussed.