There was a dangerous and scary job to do in 19th century Lithuania. The first obstacle was a dense line of soldiers banded along the border. Then came a second line spread a little more thin. Lastly, in town, were Russian Empire policemen on horseback riding around and questioning civilians.
What sort of scandalous contraband were daring smugglers risking their lives to carry across the border?
If they were caught, they could be whipped or shipped to Siberia. If they resisted too vigorously, shot on the spot. Unsurprisingly, their books were burned.
The situation was this: After the majority of Lithuania fell under Tsarist Russian control in 1795, the Russians tried to force assimilation on the Lithuanian people. In their Russification project, they demolished Catholic churches and shrines. They closed schools. Russian scholars proposed that the Lithuanian language—which is written with Latin letters—be translated into Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet. Lithuanian children were forced to read the Cyrillic alphabet in school.
Lithuanians rebelled in violent uprisings in 1831 and 1863, but the tiny population—1 million—was no match for Russian military might. As a consequence, the Russians cracked down harder than before.
In 1864, the Russian-appointed Governor-General of Lithuania, Mikhail Muravyov, issued a proclamation prohibiting the use of Lithuanian Latin primers. That was followed two years later by a total ban on all books printed in Lithuania. The press was forbidden. It was illegal to print, import, distribute, or possess any publications in the Latin alphabet.
Though they were oppressed, the Lithuanian intelligentsia was not quashed. They began printing books outside the country—which wasn’t illegal—and smuggling them in, which was dangerous.
Knygnesiai, or book carriers, would conceal their illegal wares in sacks or covered wagons, and deliver the goods at night to safe houses across Lithuania. By the late 19th century, all walks of life participated in book smuggling. Women would dress in peasant clothes and hide books in market baskets of bread, cheese, or eggs. Some dressed up as fat workmen, stuffing newspapers inside their clothing. Doctors hid books in their medical kits, farmers in their crops, organists in their instrument cases.
In 1867, Bishop Motiejus Valančius helped get a printing press set up in neighboring Prussia, and asked his priests to smuggle religious texts back to Lithuania. He made every effort to undermine the Russification project. Later, in a bid to preserve Lithuanian culture, Valančius printed up and distributed journals and almanacs. It is estimated that he was responsible for printing more than 19,000 books.
But his resistance came with a cost. At least 11 of his smugglers were caught; many were banished to Siberia.
Valancius died in 1875, but his book-carrying operations carried on after him thanks to a young friend who was a recent university graduate, a newspaperman, and an ardent nationalist.
Jurgis Bielinis assembled the largest network of book carriers, called the Garsviai knygnešiai society, who pooled their money to buy and distribute books. Bielinis came to be known as the “King of Knygnešiai,” and is said to be responsible for delivering half of Lithuania’s books during the 31 years he operated. The Russian Empire caught and imprisoned Bielinis at least five times.
Some historians estimate the number of books smuggled in to total in the millions before the ban was lifted in 1904. Lithuania declared independence in 1918, though it would take until 1991 for the Soviet Union to recognize the country.
In 1928, a statue was erected in the then-capital of Kaunas to commemorate “The Unknown Book Smuggler.” Today in Lithuania, March 16, the birthday of Jurgis Bielinis, is celebrated as Knygnešio diena—the day of the book smugglers.
In 2004, Jonas Stepšis wrote of his father’s and other Lithuanian countrymen’s heroic book-smuggling efforts in the English-language Lithuanian paper Draugas News. He cites the smuggling as a reason why Lithuania was able to regain independence.
According to Stepšis: “The struggles of the book-carriers have been praised in modern times by Father Julijonas Kasperavicius who said ‘The work of restoring Lithuania’s independence began, not in 1918, but rather at the time of the book-carriers.
With bundles of books and pamphlets on their backs, these warriors were the first to start preparing the ground for independence, the first to propagate the idea that it was imperative to throw off the yoke of Russian oppression.’ ”
Who says books can’t change the world?
(E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City)